Posted by: Hours Per Mile | June 29, 2010

Chapter 3 — San Pedro de Atacama Desert

January 3, 2007

San Pedro de Atacama was our first taste of the South America I had expected…the dust, the adobe buildings, the gang of goats traipsing down the main street paved with dirt. We rented mountain bikes and pedaled through the desert all day yesterday. Through valleys dotted green with hardy shrubs, red and muted orange mountains on either side, unfettered blue overhead. Inca ruins sat steadfast on one of the hills, their rock foundations still standing testimony to masonry genius and a working civilization.

Naturally, the Spanish came, conquered and converted, but the Incas did the same thing to the people before them, though long forgotten. My main thought as I picked through old kitchens and common rooms and studied their slipshod, yet permanent rockwork, was, again, how it was all in the name of Christianity that these people were destroyed. Usually, there is a cross atop these hills, or more often a statue of Mary, which symbolizes to me winning, conquering, but there was nothing here, just a door leading nowhere. There it stood, majestic in all its simplicity, mysterious in its suggestion. At the pinnacle of the mountain, beyond was unknown. Life’s ultimate question…where does the door lead?

But I was glad there was no Mary—I don’t like her. She isn’t my spirituality. She is not the answer, though her stealthy moves to supplant the true Savior have made quite an impact upon the world. I don’t understand. It is like fawning all over the parents of the baseball legend, but they are not the ones who throw a 100 mph fast ball. I also must think that throughout the Bible’s Old Testament there is a steady procession of tribes conquering tribes who conquered other tribes, etc…and mostly the Jews, with God behind them, were the ones who defeated all these other nations, making them slaves and destroying their idols—just like the Spanish Catholics did to South America and we did to the Native Americans. God has his plan and some nations fall, some prosper, some folks never even had a chance, but who am I to question why?

We kept riding. Took our shoes off and waded across a brown desert river, walked past some munching sheep and found ourselves winding through Devil’s Canyon. With each turn came another, and another, and little caves, and little crannies which led deeper and deeper into the depths of those dry, brittle mountains—the ones you see from the bus and wonder what’s inside them. WE were inside them that time! We finally were there, not just spectators.

The sun did not hold back. Our shoulders and cheeks started to tighten, to feel a little grilled. The ride back to town seemed a little longer than before but maybe just because we were hungry.  After a short lunch of bland pasta at our campground, we started off on a 15 km bike trek to Valley of the Moon. The wind blew in the wrong direction, drawing every fluid out of our eyes, nose and lips. My lips are still chapped. It blew so strong that every downhill seemed flat and flat seemed uphill. Moonlike it was, too. Moon rocks, moon craters, moon dunes. Emma and I walked up deep sand to the crest of a dream dune, perfect ripples, perfect lines, and tight roped along its ridge like any nomad would do. “Hey Emma, turn around!” and I snapped a picture worth saving for ages. Off to her left was a gorge filled with jagged mountains rising up like desert stalagmites, to her right a vast plain of desert, the one we needed to bike through to get home. Returning with the wind behind us, the sun’s magic hour gilding our world around us, we cruised past the feeling of sore fannies, stinging eyes and sunburned faces—gleeful.

Dusk crept in. The day of adventure refused to quit! Exhausted yet willing and eager for more, we rented sandboards and stuck them between the backpack straps and our backs, making pedaling mighty hard for it was the most unaerodynamic situation. Nevertheless, we wobbled out of town in search of a place called Valley of Death. More dreadful wind in our faces, more aching legs, and all just a little unsure as to the soundness of this escapade, but we continued following a crude map and advice to turn at a sign for ‘salt.’ Passing no one, the prospect of sleeping alone in a real desert and sandboarding by the light of the moon fueled our already adventure drenched spirits. Finally, and none too soon, the winding, sandy path between those same style crusty mountains opened up into a dream world. We pitched the tent in the middle of a basin surrounded by rounded peaks resembling knuckles. Cloud cover broke, letting pass through that silver-tinged aura of night, and we trudged up the thick dunes only to sometimes glide, sometimes roll head over heels, as we filled our pants with sand, feet stuck into the sandboard.  I failed miserably but Emma and Gordo impressed probably even themselves.

This is what I wrote that night: “Reaching a milestone in life, it’s what I am doing with each breath I breathe right now. I’ve always wanted to sleep in a desert, always wondered how eerie it is, its sounds, the weather. I write by candlelight, no, I mean, full moon light. There is not a sound in my ears, the mountains cast angular shadows across smooth sand dunes, and it is cold. Not too cold but enough. This is the most awe-inspiring spot I’ve ever slept. It is a bowl of mountains and we are sleeping at the bottom like four little grain bits swimming in the leftover pink milk of Lucky Charms. Is there such a thing as being too quiet? Too still? This is it. My sleeping friends are under its spell, Valley of Death, and they make not a stir. The moon, stars, where are my words for this? Tonight we have lain on our backs in the driest desert in the world, watching the constellations, pointing out Orion’s sword and planets twinkling, having given up on fighting the sand and digging cold toes down deep. The moon. The moon.”

We fell asleep brightly bathed, still, peaceful, silenced…until Emma woke me up at 4:30 am to see if I heard what she thought were footsteps outside our tent. Funny what noises can be elicited out of perfect silence. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil….This morning at 6 a.m., the moon having traveled his distance but still burning strong, we packed up and rolled back into the town, deserted save for the street dogs. What we saw and experienced yesterday was like nothing before. New notches have been carved on our memory belts, hopefully not to be forgotten. I will tell my kids some day I’ve walked on the moon and ridden a bike through the narrow corridors of what seemed to be a giant drip castle. None of it feels real for it is only what you read about. And to think it happened!

Yet, I must check myself, and it seems dishonorable to ask such a question in the midst of such experiencing, but to what gain do all these experiences leave me with as a human? My memory bank will certainly never let me be bored, and I have already admitted that, yes, I am running away from something, even though my flight steadily leads me ever Northward, homeward bound.
There has to be something more. Knowingly or not, each new sight seen, voice heard, mountain revered brings me a step closer to maturity. But who wants to be a stuffy, mature person?? Not I! But, I believe the maturity I am growing into can be defined more by my attitude towards my life rather than the way I live my life. I may not be the most responsible bill-payer, career-seeker, safety oriented person, but I know for a fact that happiness is not limited to the wallet-wielding class of people in this world (through my new-found worldly knowledge I confidently include other nationalities besides just Americans in this assumption), and I know that this is my only crack at living, so I better make the most of it, not just make the most money! Alas! Curiosity propels me into the depths of mountains, villages, metropolises and jungles…my heart yearning to speak with people of all sorts, to taste their food, to smell their air, to see the splendor of creation—I maturely state here, on this page, that my honest hope is to return home more mature in the best sense of the word!

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