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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.