Plateaued

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San Pedro de Atacama, Chile – October 2016

It is necessary to acclimate to elevation. The heart beats faster. Breathlessness and dizziness can occur. Headache, nausea, and other unpleasant symptoms. I feel only a delightful giddiness. Whatever the cause of this bliss – lack of oxygen, the lingering effects of Easter Island, or both – I never want to get used to it.

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Travel agencies, restaurants, small hotels, and souvenir shops line the streets of San Pedro. Every color Polaroid-toned. This town would not exist if it weren’t for tourism. At this time of year, there are more locals than tourists. Hair the color of ink. Faces of angle and shadow. Skin tinted by the breath of the sun. Skin like smoke.

Plumper stray dogs I have never seen. They laze in doorways or waddle down the street. The wind comes in violent surges. It billows through the streets, rattling the sun-bleached doors, kicking up dust clouds, and then it vanishes into the distance.

A burro gallops by, pursued by two stray dogs. Their trot is listless. Teeth bared in mischievous smiles. The burro’s constipated bray provokes laughter from bystanders.

It doesn’t take long to wander out of town. Somewhere around here is an oasis, but I’m not so intent on finding it. Walls disappear. The shadows recede. I strip off my jacket and let the sun warm my arms. Frantic footsteps behind. The burro rounds the corner. Its bray is now hoarse. The dogs are nowhere to be seen. I shake my head. “Oh, chill out.” Poor animal. Going through life perpetually indignant.

I loop back to the guesthouse. It is managed by Natalie and Carlos, a young couple from Columbia. They are from a green place. The desert is too dry. There is not enough color. And this strange wind that blows, muting even the blue sky above. It is not normal. They want so much to move on, but they are anchored by financial circumstance.

“How many countries have you seen?” Natalie asks.

“Sixty-three now.” I shake my head in disbelief.

A unified, “Wow.” Dreamy faraway gazes of longing.

Natalie twirls her long, black hair around her finger and sighs. “If the wind is gone tonight, we will have a fire. We hope you will join us, Julie.”

But the wind rages, and I am thankful for the excuse to burrow deep into the soft bed. Smoke-tinged arms against the pure white duvet. The short walk was enough to awaken latent Native American DNA. I have not been this dark in many years.

The wind’s vast voice cannot hide the silent breath that calms the flickering flame, drawing it heavenward in one long, languid stream. I close my eyes and drift away. Ascend.

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Today, I go higher. 4000 meters and above. The Lagunas Altiplanicas glimmer. Hard sunlight on deep blue like shards of ice. The wind stabs deep into the bones. I grit my teeth and stand with my legs far apart in an effort to remain upright. The frigid gusts conjure phantoms from the Earth. They pirouette across the plain, into dissolution.

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Fossette and I are the solo females in the group. Her nickname is French for “dimple”, of which she has two in her perfectly round face. She is twenty-four and is traveling the world before starting her new job in a few weeks. She was in Easter Island just a couple of days ago, at the same time I was, but our paths didn’t cross there.

She shows me the photos she took of Valley of the Moon. The Atacama is her first desert.

“I went there yesterday, too.” I shrug. “It was okay.”

Her eyes widen.

“I know that sounds bad. It’s just that I’ve seen so many deserts.”

“Like where?”

“The American Southwest. New Mexico, Utah, Nevada. I’ve lived in Arizona and the California desert. Last year I visited Namibia. I’m not sure any desert can rock my world after that one.” I pause. Search my mind. “And Israel. I went to Israel and Palestine a few years ago.”

Her eyes take on that dreamy so-many-places-to-see glow. She has so many traits that I recognize. The youthful exuberance of someone who has all the time in the world to explore the infinite road that has unfurled before her. The unwavering confidence, the jubilant defiance. The oblivion to danger and ugly realities. All of the things that infused me before I was brutally knocked off course.

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The wistfulness that this provokes is tinged with gratitude rather than envy. Satisfaction and profound relief have taken the place of famine. I have managed to blaze around the planet anyway. Personal circumnavigation. After a long, lonely road, I have finally found myself again. My bank account is empty, but I feel like the wealthiest person alive. Alive. The well of love inside overflows, transporting my spirit in its gentle stream.

My sun is far past its zenith, but for Fossette, it rises. “Where do you want to go next?”

Out of all the places I really longed to see, only one remains. At this moment, it doesn’t matter if I ever get there. “You know what? For now, I’m good.” I turn away and stare out the window at the monochrome plateau. Finally, I’m good.

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This place is called Piedras Rojas. Red Rocks. Candy-colored landscape. Shades of soft pink and aqua blue. Flamingos immerse their heads in the pastel water, impervious to the atmospheric conditions. Sunlight glints off their pink feathers. Metallic shimmer. The sky is so close now. Blue infinity contrasts against all the colors of love. I can lift my hand and sink my fingers into heaven. Yes, I can still feel wonder. It is not all over.

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The wind, though. Every step is an effort. One must scream to be heard.

Fossette spreads her arms wide. “How could anyone not want to see…” She spins around. “This!”

I smile. Curiosity is a gift and a curse. She will find out soon enough.

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Another roadside stop. The minivan empties. A sign proclaims that we’re at the Tropic of Capricorn. A laugh of surprise escapes me. “Hey, I was at this place in Namibia, just a year ago! I didn’t know we’re at the same latitude!” But my voice is captured by the wind, and when I turn to the others, they have already occupied themselves with posing for photos. Group shots, everyone jumping together, and then sitting back to back in the middle of the road. I sweep my eyes across the vast desolation. Almost a mirror image of that other, distant place.

When they are done, I take a single photo of the empty road. How far I’ve come. I turn around and walk forward, following the path of the descending sun.

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66 thoughts on “Plateaued

  1. How far! And how very eloquent, Julie 🙂 You weave a spell and I’m captive in it. Very rarely do I read prose with close attention, but yours is compelling. I’m glad the road has been kind to you in later years. Seldom do I find that equanimity, but just occasionally… 🙂 🙂

  2. Never a truer word written, that San Pedro de Atacama survives on the patronage of the tourist.

    I didn’t love it, but given what it is, I didn’t loathe it either.

    Swathes of emptiness and incredible stargazing.

    Thanks for transporting me back to one of my favourite continents

    • I missed out on the stargazing. Full moon and the sky was too blurred as a result of the wind kicking up dust. I did witness the full moon rising behind a volcano from the lovely patio at the guesthouse. Incredible.

  3. Great photos to accompany your narrative.Your reference to “Personal circumnavigation” sounds like the quest for the Holy Grail. The journey to find illumination.

    Thanks for taking us along.

  4. “The wind’s vast voice cannot hide the silent breath that calms the flickering flame, drawing it heavenward in one long, languid stream. I close my eyes and drift away. Ascend.”

    Your prose, the flamingo landscape … sigh. There is so much space and intimacy in this piece. Thank you for taking us on your many journeys.

  5. All of the things that infused me before I was brutally knocked off course.
    That bit of a sentence threw me. I’ve been a fan of your writing for years, of course; yet I don’t recall your mentioning being “brutally knocked off course”. Are you writing like Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, now, tossing out clues for us to imagine the answers to? Keep up the great work, Julie. You have a noble spirit and, as Jebediah Springfield said, “A noble spirit enbiggens embiggens the smallest man” –

  6. Wonderful, mystical, spellbinding prose…, great images. I have had a brilliant virtual visit to a place I’ll never see in the physical world….

  7. It must feel nice being able to see so many countries and places.
    I loved how you described curiosity: it can be a curse. However, healthy curiosity is definitely a driving force for so many people.
    When we could travel, we sometimes stopped at such places which were fairly remote and the only visitors there were tourists. I remember sometimes looking at these unseen scenes, landscapes and rows of unusually designed houses, it was so serene, so breathtakingly picturesque. I always thought, however, it was so good we did not have to stay there. Many places can take away with their not-that-familiar features, but living there can be really tough.
    It must feel like you have all the freedom which is only possible when going from one end of the planet to another. At some point, I would love that, but on another hand: it’is great to be routed somewhere. I know I like that because I have lived in so many different places, at first in Europe, and later in North America.

    • Hi Inese – It can be a fine line between healthy and excessive curiosity. I feel fortunate to have experienced so many different countries, both through travel and being an expat. But it’s true that I am getting tired and changing residence doesn’t hold the same appeal as when I was younger. There are many places that I’ve loved to visit, but would never want to live there. I can see, right away, if a place has what I need to feel comfortable. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  8. Lovely writing! I recognized my 20 y.o. self in “Dimples”, so restless, naive, and hopeful. I’ve learned a lot since then. And how great it must’ve been for you to say finally you’re good, for now you’ve seen what you wanted. I’ve had that feeling too, though there are still a couple of big dreams I need to chase.
    Your blog posts are so inspiring, creatively. Keep up the good work 😊

  9. What a wonderful post. Your writing is exquisite and the photos sublime. The timing is perfect, too, as I am in the midst of planning a trip to Peru and Chile for October 2017. I look forward to reading more about your travels.

  10. This feels like a wonderful place – even through your emotions that are tired of the desert. I’ve lived in this desert 12 years and can’t imagine being at home in any other kind of place. The openness shown in your photos is so peaceful, and the wind sounds like it could be the sky reaching around to hold you. I hope you get to the last place on your bucket list though!

    • The sky reaching around to hold me. Such a gorgeous way to put it. I could never tire of the desert, but it has become more comfortable than awe-inspiring. I lived in the Coachella Valley for 3 years and never got bored with exploring it.

  11. It’s always a pleasure reading your little missives – poetic reflections of place, philosophical reflections of spirit. It’s nice to know that finally, you’re finding peace.

  12. I’m glad you’re good – and that you can still get a sense of wonder. There is a lot of horror and wonderful things, both, in this wide world. I was across the border from here in Bolivia about four years ago and felt like my eyes couldn’t take in enough. I was a little younger at that time than Fossette is now, though. 🙂

    • I really like altiplano ambiance, so stark and warm at the same time. I know it’s unhealthy, but I loved the color of my sun-smoked skin. Wow, you began your travels early. The wide eyes of youth eventually soften with experience. May there always be wonder. ✨

  13. You reminded me that we are truly bound to the earth with its infinite variations, colours, sounds, tastes and smells. We may look upwards to the sky and find our thoughts wandering over the expanse of the heavens, but we know, in our heart that our place is on the ground. But I do love that we can take a few hours to travel across the world and look down from great heights. “I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” Amelia Earhart. Great post and a most excellent conversation. Hugs.

  14. Another beautiful piece of writing and collection of photos from an intriguing place. It’s a salve for me amid my yearlong (and counting) bump off course. While I love that last shot of the long road, it’s too melancholy for me at the moment, so I will focus my dwindling energies on that magnificent photo of the startling, skinny blue lake centered between glowing scrub grass and mountains/sky. Very peaceful.

    • Sorry to hear you’ve had to take a detour for a while. Real life sometimes gets out of hand. When the time comes for you to hit the road again, you will be good and refreshed. I’m sticking close to home base for a while, too. Just a couple of mini trips this year, and also exploring the enchanting Bohemian and Anjou countrysides. I’m still more than “good” so it’s just fine with me. Maybe what you need is some spring sunshine and blossoms. 🌷🌸💗

  15. What fairs as a Capricorn dancer, a writer passing along the tropics, sounds in spaces, heat and thin lucid air, moments not forgotten, held close and free.

  16. Hello there Julie!

    I’m meant to be in bed, or if not in bed I’m meant to be packing up (we’re off on leave, thanks God for that) but then I found your new post!

    I love how your writing changes slightly from post to post. Usually it’s introspective, with long (relatively speaking, obviously) sentences. Today’s almost cinematic, with those short and sharp sentences that draw up the scenery so well! I was humming to myself the theme of “Duck you sucker” as I felt that it fitted pretty well with the scene… How stereotypical, I know, but that last shot just conjures, asks, begs for Clint Eastwood or Rod Steiger riding the burro into the haze.

    Thanks!

    Fabrizio

    • Haha. Sounds like a perfect tune, along with Happy Trails. I like to experiment with different writing styles. Some places speak to me in different voices than others. Congrats on the free time. I hope you are going someplace fabulous.

  17. Oh Julie, Cile and Easter Island is one of my big travel dream..I wish to go there as soon as i can to discover these far away lands…your photos strike my eyes and your words make me dream about new travels.Our planet is just extraordinary, we are so lucky! Cris

  18. first i glanced at the beautiful imagery
    which brought back fond memories
    of living in the American Southwest.
    then your skillful words
    brought me to a world
    which was unknown to me
    but i’m happy to have
    been privileged with
    this holiday 🙂

  19. Wonderful, poignant and elegant blogging as always! I still remember driving through the American Southwest desert with friends when I was barely into my twenties. Great days, great adventures and a lot of hot beautiful desert. Wasn’t always sober, so that added to it all!

  20. What a beautiful post… your writing is so evocative, I felt I was in a dream, somehow… Maybe as a result of the elevation effect, which I know well as my dad has lived many years in Mendoza, Argentina, boundaries with Chile (separated by the Andes from Chiles)… The weather and geography is very similar.
    Natalie, the photographs, longings and nostalgia… The ending is so beautiful… I could even picture you looking at … and maybe beyond that neverending monochrome plateau!…
    Love & best wishes, dear Julie 😉 😀

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