A DAY WITH PAUL AND JOANNE
"I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life; as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small and in the vast you vastly yield yourself." 'The Book Of Hours' Ranier Maria Rilke
Charley recommends doing it ....... Ripped.
Says the trail is easy to follow, to start early, might even be able to make the rainforest on the other side of the Camel-humps in a few more hours.
He declares without any hesitation, "I would do it Totally Ripped!"
I'm beginning to believe Charley is one crazy Space-Caballero.
So ..... In this chapter your intrepid explorer, fresh from another revealing visit to the always-unusual Shaman, Don Emilio, makes a triumphant return to Villcabamba. And it's here, once again that synchronistic events merge in the waters of the Tao to provide high adventure and one Damned-Fine experience.
I leave Puyo around noon feeling tired, wired, happy and anxious to be on the road, and head south-west, into the Cordilleras toward Riobamba. From there, another bus onto Cuenca.
Occasionally paved, sometimes hard-packed dirt and stone, the roads are rough, the rides long and cold, winding up and down through the Andean range. The treats are the vistas. Wide expanses, striking green valleys, brown stark hills, cloud-canopied peaks. After ten hours I arrive in Cuenca and spend two nights there.
From Cuenca, another eight hour stretch to Loja, another desperate night in a city. Then finally ride into Villcabamba the following morning.
Relieved to be here finally. The land, the atmosphere, the people feel like a comfortable old sweater that has been worn for many years, all in tatters, yet provides warmth beyond mere protection for the body.
Ten minutes later, Charley and Sarah round the corner at the square on a motorbike. I wave them down.
Charley has been waiting for me to return, along with Paul and Joanne, whom he expected three to four days earlier. He rides off on his bike to prepare the cabins. While I'm purchasing food and supplies Paul and Joanne casually saunter up, packs in hand, fresh off another bus. We are unexpectedly re-united and a tremor of delight and anticipation rushes down my spine.
Goods and supplies acquired, we hop an old trail-weary truck and set off for the Cabanas, out of town, by the side of Rio Yambala. After settling in our new home, we trek off to cut cactus.
Paul and Joanne are confirmed Deadheads with whom I've shared adventures here before. They and Charley taught me the art of making Sacred Cactus Juice, San Pedro, Saint Peter.
Once entrenched in the familiar bungalows surrounded by fields of corn, legumes, banana and papaya we set off Cactus-hunting. We find a large old one up the side of a steep hill. We have to scramble up through brush, slippery limestone and loose pebble, machete in hand just to get to the branches. Delicately balancing on the incline Paul and I liberate five lengths, each about a foot and a half.
We spend the next day relaxing. Descanso. Walking the paths, meeting old friends encountered on the last visit, we stop by farms and sample the delicacies produced through the abundance provided in the valley. Then we prepare the San Pedro.
Stripping the plastic-like outer shell, we carefully cut away the almost fluorescent green meat just below, which goes into the pot, minus the spines and the strychnine just beneath.
Don't want to add that unsavory spice to the brew.
Then, boiling and straining and boiling some more till finally we are left with two cups of thick green liquid, enough for six sessions. This is strong brew.
Up early next morning eager to begin the trek. The trail behind Charley's house climbs steeply up a hard clay-packed hillside, then moves along high ground back toward virgin mountains heading south-east.
The plan is to follow the river, dip down to a hidden waterfall, then onward to a secluded river spot, spend the day there swimming, then head downriver, westward in the afternoon. Sometimes the best fantasies take a random ..........
Climbing, climbing, the hot morning sun beats down, unrelenting, its yellowish, cloudless heat making each step an exercise like climbing steps of pyramids in Palenque.
Reaching a vista-filled plateau near the crest, looking out on two valleys, both nestling clear sparkling rivers in their eons worn crevasses, we rest. With a prayer and a grin we drink our first cup of San Pedro.
Feeling the Medicine course through my body, bitter sour taste on my tongue, streams of nervous energy in my arms and legs, a slight quivering in my gut, I move on, wanting to reach the waterfall before the full effects take me. Across ridges, the trail winds, its sides fenced by those sharp spines of long straight and rounded cactus.
The descent is through winding cow paths into treacherous brush. A slight angle, transforming soon to a dusty path whose steepness forces me to climb on hands and knees. Arms and legs hug the ground, or close-by branches, vines and trees.
Forty-five minutes after my first swallow, a door opens revealing an incredible, delicious realm. I've stepped through the portal into an alternate galaxy, someways similar to the familiar Terra, yet much more. Everything has become fully fleshed out, like a fattened cow. Unity is not just a concept, it is an Experience.
I'm in a tree-surrounded, hidden Paradise. Directly before me, loud and exuberant, La Cascada, a two-hundred-foot silver-bright waterfall set in the side of the cliff, totally obscured from above by trees in a rain-forest world. Exploding starbursts of molten silver lava, raining in thunder as the flow splashes into a pool, then runs into the larger river below.
I strip quickly and dash into the pool to stand screaming under the blast of falling ice, a thousand drums hammering my skull! It strikes my skin like meteors pelting the Moon, relentlessly, bringing chills, excitement and relief from the hot climbing.
Moss-covered cliffs, dripping mirrored slivers of mercury. As you look up, deafened by the symphony of creation, there is a spray in the air, sometimes light, sometimes like a thick cloud, striking skin and eyes in a dazzling chaos of mind-grabbing splendor.
Radioactive spiders weave glowing webs of mirrored nets in and around the falls, riding the currents of mist in the ether, leaving trails of sparkling fireworks to float slowly through the clouds and capture tiny silver droplets on their ambitious cords.
Hanging out by the cascade for awhile, drinking the moist aromas of moss, misty air, eternity and sunshine, I gulp down another portion of the potent brew. Occasionally slipping back into the water for an icy electric chill, dazzled by the sparkling sun streaming in spaces through the leafy shroud overhead, and blissed out in the exuberant embrace of existence.
Time to move on. We want to find a spot on the river, in open space, to relax, bask and hang out for a few hours. It was not to be.
Up, up the steep embankment to the ridge, across plateaus of plowed fields we trek.
Descending again, once past the Camel-humps, deciding to follow the river, not head into the rain-forest farther on. A good decision. Otherwise we might never have returned.
Down vine and brush-covered slopes, encountering hips, thighs, ribs, horns. Bones. Dry, old, gray, decaying bones along the trail, scattered throughout the brush. Even the brush itself has a stillness, a final quality of its own that meets the bones in a whispering ash-filled place along a desolate highway.
I enter a world that belongs to Georgia O'Keefe as I pick up a long, faded white cow skull, heavy in my hands while gazing deep into open pits that once looked out. Now only swallowing that look in immortal thirst. Beginning to feel lost, took a wrong turn in one of those perpetual cul-de-sacs with no recognizable signs out on the fringe, in this Dead Cow Graveyard in the middle of nowhere.
Descending further, the brush gets thicker, the trail twists and turns, now on big stones, falling off into steep ravines and cliffs.
This is old Inca territory. Some of these paths, and the grading on the mountains, were built ages past, by earlier tribes. The old steps shine in places, reflecting light from quartz crystals packed firmly into the soil. I step around a narrow corner, onto a large boulder. It gives way suddenly.
Without any warning I'm in space! No firmament, no support, only gravity pulling my body - and the realization hits me that I am falling down a cliff, the boulder crashing down ahead of me toward the river and all I see below my feet for miles is thin air.
I reach out, frantically grabbing for Earth, calling on some unfelt sure power within and willing my body toward the mountain. I spread my arms to hug the available dirt, pressing my cheek against the cliff face; its rough edges cut into my face but I don't care.
Paul and Joanne are startled as I carefully search for footholds and begin a desperate and slow climb back to the trail. Minutes pass as I regain Terra Firma. Shaken and a little winded, moving on.
The rushing water gets louder as we approach. It's a welcome sound and signals a respite from the path, the rocks and the brambles. Finally, at the river.
I disrobe quickly for a dunk in the waters, an alcove of rocks forming a round pool of rapids like the swirling arms of a galactic spinning wheel. The water breaks through in dazzling bubbles and balls, shocking the body with a sudden chill and abandon, like being caught between a roller-coaster ride and a tidal wave.
Paul dives in with a shout, "Let's go play in The Incredible Bubble Machine!"
We play in the water, jumping back and forth in the "Bubble Machine" laying out on the rocks, sunning like lizards. Yet this is not the place Paul wants to be. Further downstream, he believes, is another garden spot. The trail is on the other side - he thinks it's just a short distance.
Donning only T-shirts and boots we cross the rapids and start down the trail. The brush gets thicker, bush turns to needles and spines, pricking my body like some enormous sea urchin, drawing blood on my arms and legs. The path leads into a hidden peninsula within a sharp turn in the river.
Like Leprechauns appearing from nowhere, in the midst of the peninsula, we are suddenly confronted by four wild black horses who have made this their home. Beautiful stallions, together blocking our path, making it impossible to get by. The horses are hesitant, protective of their land, and skittish. As we approach, the animals give a snort and kick their heels in warning.
Joanne slowly steps forward, calling to them and opens a hand palm up. One comes forward, slowly, and receives a pat on his nose. Next Paul and I make friends with the beasts, patting their hides and calming them. We move around the path, finding that the trail ends a short distance beyond, returning to hang out with the horses, deciding what to do next.
It's back to the river at this point, bidding adieu to the animals. We need to cross over, and the other side is slate rock. A treacherous loose cliff covered in slippery stone and boulder with abundant signs of avalanche. It's an unsafe gamble under any conditions. The only safe choice now is downstream, in the river, till we find a trail.
Daypack on, shoes tied around my neck, pants rolled up, knee-deep in water, then thigh-deep, not even in the middle yet and moving downstream. Climbing over rocks, through rapids, over fallen logs, under spider-web-shrouded branches. It's slow going, one slip can mean total submersion, lost boots and broken limbs.
A half-hour centipede-sludging through currents like quicksand. Later, around a bend, there it is. Spirits are with us, a trail! It's on the side we need to be, and we quickly climb out, hauling on boots, hiking through flat land along the river, glad to be out. Into what?
I'm beginning to imagine that this journey is a panoramic ride from one movie set to the next, finding myself each time encountering a bizarrely new scene with no easy connection to the past, like landing on an uncharted planet with no roadmap. The Medicine has indeed created an adventure full of perils and discovery where each encounter is filled with some subtle lesson to be learned about the fantastic worlds of experience created out of fantasy and becoming 'Real'.
The land turns stark. Burned out. Fire everywhere. Black ash and destroyed trees, bark eaten by flames, now frozen as bare husks. Nothing but barrenness and fossils remain, and the scent is like standing in a hot dry and putrid California desert without a breeze.
I have this strong feeling like a churning in my gut that this must be what war is like.
A desperate hoarseness chokes my throat and I want to get away from this place badly.
The trail turns uphill, another climb, slow and steep along these ever-present cow paths. Halting progress as we ascend another mountain toward its summit. Emerging onto a mountainside farm planted with fields of corn, beans and other greens. A small wooden shack in the distance.
I look up and spot a figure in the distance - an old man is beckoning us, Venga, Venga! "Come, Come!"
The old Indian's a short, small, compact and weathered farmer. All weathered, not just his face, wearing an incredibly energetic smile full of teeth and joy. His body has the creased and lined appearance of the runes of time. He continues to beckon enthusiastically as I walk toward him.
The old man, deep in the midst of mountains, not many visitors this far above and beyond local civilization, is Ancient. I don't mean like eighty or ninety. Or One Hundred and Ninety. I mean like those long-standing redwoods and pines and boulders that have been hanging around since the planet was born!
I look deep into his eyes, not believing what I am witnessing, knowing with a kind of knowingness that just is, without the need to rationalize, analyze, interpret or try to understand. His peaceful glance through those unending wells reveals that he has been here for at least a thousand years.
On this land, walking with these feet, smelling the same air with this nose, in this body. A thousand years!
He has a younger wife, years-worn as well, at least ninety, yet not with that overwhelming sensation, an abiding presence that tingles the skin with some indescribable radiance that emanates from him and speaks of antiquity. She seems a child by comparison. He's probably had many more.
Villcabamba is known as the Valley Of Longevity. I remember the day I was last here, leaving the Pueblo, catching a truck ride into town. The driver informed me that he was ninety years old. He invited me to meet his father who was one hundred and twenty seven.
This native, way back in the hills is far older. He gives us directions for a path leading west, in a mixture of Spanish, an old indigenous tongue and a lot of waving gestures.
And then Joanne connects with him in a different way. I notice immediate recognition in her eyes, and his! They know each other! Sitting and facing one another, they just remain like two carved totems out in the middle of that field of corn for fifteen or twenty minutes, still and silent. No words passing between them, just a slow sparkling dance of energy and occasional smiles.
And with that encounter, she has an immediate recognition of the land as well. All of it. The direction we must go, the trails, how far. She remarks how surprised she is that all of this place is so familiar to her, she has lived here before. Lifetimes before. He wants us to stay, yet the day is late, we must move on.
The path moves along the summit. We descend and start making our way through cow paths again. The mountainsides are steep. Thick brush hides deep ravines in the earth. It's a difficult walk. Crossing two crevasses we are suddenly stopped by an explosive movement.
Swooping over a ridge, rounding the side of a comet, heading into clear void less than fifteen feet above me, a giant Hawk! Riding currents of air like surfing a smooth wave, he circles. And circles. Nothing to do but sit and watch as the Hawk stays close, startling as its enormous wings embrace the sky, capturing breath and vision in folds obscuring all else.
Time is running out, we want one more visit to the water. Tired, thirsty, descending once again to an open pool and bathing for the last time in that bracing flow. Always, back to the water, back to the Source. Preparing to leave, another encounter!
At the river bank, surrounded by trees and brush, on the trail, blocking passage, a big-horned bull staring down with menacing eyes. It does not want us to pass. Trapped!
When we began our journey, early in the day, we were accompanied by a four-legged waif. A skinny flea-bitten black mutt that lives at the Cabanas. Surprisingly, he stayed with us all that day. Up and down mountains, through the rivers, and now, after quietly sticking to our heels all day, he lets us know what his mission is.
A deep angry growl emerges from his throat as he moves aggressively forward, barking like a drill sergeant in the Marines. Ninja-Dog faces off Hunk-Bull, continuing to move menacingly in the direction of our adversary. Hunk-Bull snorts, does not want to give up room, yet Ninja-Dog persists.
He herds the bull off into the brush and we quickly regain the trail, moving along with hurried pace. Minutes later, thinking the danger is past, we slow to a casual walk.
I'm the last in line on this narrow path, Ninja-Dog, now become a mutt again, has run ahead. I hear a noise behind me, like some derailed locomotive plowing through fields of brush, and think this can't be happening, doesn't make any sense, and all my senses are flashing rapid fire like 'sense' is not in the dictionary today.
It's the angry bull, grunting and coming down the rails like a bowling ball shot from a cannon. I pick up a boulder to meet the challenge, urge my companions onward, glance back and realize the bull is gaining quickly.
Ten yards between us and closing. Up ahead, suddenly, a fence! Salvation. I make a last mad dash, scaling the top rungs, scraping skin, tearing clothes and over. Safe.
The angry animal rams horns against the barrier, brays loudly and stands panting on the other side as we quickly head off toward home.
Once over that fence I find myself again in familiar territory. We are close to our destination. Another half-hour walk amidst flowers and humming birds and at last we arrive at the Cabanas. Finally!
Tired, sore, bruised, battered, bleeding, happy, exhausted. The sun is beginning to set, a beautiful rainbow-clouded light setting over the mountain tops.
Hot showers, food and drink, and reflections. A ten-hour journey, the escapade had seemed endless. With all the physical activity, the natural beauty and unnatural happenings, I felt at times as if the San Pedro was not even present. It was, yet so much more had been holding my attention.
Paul and Joanne, ever blissful. The scouting duo, always convinced the trail was nearby, not aware of the obstacles, yet moving with an unerring sense of direction and anticipation toward adventure.
And Charley, telling us later that he had never fully done the trail. Admitting that he had not even crossed the Camel-humps in ten years!
Laughing hysterically as we recount the day's trials, he declares, "I'd still do it RIPPED!"
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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