“Go the trail” demands the weathered wooden sign. We laugh, amused at the awkward translation of “siga el sendero” while simultaneously finding it to be touchingly poetic and vaguely like a mantra uttered by a mystical mountain sage.
The directive “go” rather than the more banal “follow” is striking for its lack of passivity. Yes, the trail has been laid out before you, but you must purposely, actively choose to place one foot after another to move yourself forward along it. It takes proactive intention on the part of the traveler.
So, we go. Always forward. Although you wouldn’t expect it at the start, each twist and bend of the trail offers yet another striking panoramic view, somehow fresh and new from the previous one only 20 meters back. The steep walls of crater rush down to dive headfirst into the water. The rising clouds crash into the upper ridgeline, dramatically stopped short as though held back with a the commanded of the great Gandalf: YOU SHALL NOT PASS.
And so, we go. Always onward. We turn downhill, passing tired uphill hikers pleading for reassurances that the end is near. We give it to them. Promising all their travails will be worth it.
We go the trail.
But we miss our turn off, for some reason ignoring the sign that vainly tried to direct us, instead continuing a long sandy decent which delivers us to an idyllic meadowed brook. Two young boys with wiry, barky dogs are herding their sheep home for the night. They inform us of the error of our way, telling us the only way back is up. The sheep don’t want to go up either, so the boys push and cajole them onward.
We ourselves grow weary on the last uphill push into Chugchulan, where we are delighted to find the charming embrace of the Vaquero Hostel. There for the incredible price of $15 we sleep in a bed piled high with fleece sheets after passing the evening reading electronic books by the wood-burning stove. Judith sips hot chocolate which she declares to on par with the hot chocolate of the fanciest café of in Berlin. I dream of returning for more time, and Diego, the innkeeper, stokes this fantasy with promises of hikes to little-known ruins and hidden hot springs.
The next morning, the rising sun paints the edges of the plateaus and bluffs with gilded streaks of light. I watch and thank God. With our stomachs still full of black coffee and sweet plantains, we follow Digo’s hand drawn map, blue highlighter lines showing us the way past a fallen log tree bridge. Climbing up a steep pass, the sky abruptly opens up before us and we find ourselves on the top of a sharp ridge line. The valley dramatically tumbling down below us on both sides. We are giddy with the beauty of it.
What makes the views so viscerally enjoyable are their varied textured and layers. Mountains pile on top of more mountains tumbling backwards on themselves unto the horizon. And patchwork fields creep up towards their peaks, broken by landslides succumbing to the pull back towards the earth. Black and white cows appear on precipitous folds, and we frequently wonder loud how they got there and why. Down below on the wide sandy banks of the river we spot a herd of resting llamas. “Beach-llama-slugs” we declare them, until one stands up in an amazing bit of evolution to suddenly sprout legs.
The valley is the among the very-best places I have ever seen in Ecuador, and we send our thanks off in the wind to Diego for directing us along this lesser-known path.
“Que le vaya bien.” The old man collecting water in the stream wishes us well along our journey. It is a common, everyday refrain, but he says it with such heart-felt sincerity that I very much feel compelled to comply with his exhortation, yes, I will go well on my path.
The trail is still there. Although I have left it. Although footpath sand rarely gets in my shoes in my daily life. Still, I want to hold onto that same delicious sensation, that constant deliberate choosing to go, to go forward along the path, and so be delighted by each small moment that unfolds before me.
We end our 40 hours of slow rural wanderings by immediately jumping back into the technological age: uber eats from my iPhone, Indian curry delivered. We congratulate ourselves for our cleverness to think to order it on the taxi ride home from the bus terminal, and it arrives just as I step out of the shower, perfectly timed, dal on demand.