For years, I have tried to describe the light: the dry, dry gold; the purple peaks of our horizon; the long-armed valleys sliding off the peaks. Craters tinseled after frost, glaciers before the recent years of drought. Late-afternoon glow over brown dirt walls, valley floors blasting green with sugar, and the black volcanic rock of the single mountain without snow. Light like liquid gold against the brown, radiant gold drizzled across the ridges.
And then I try to name a lack of light, the mist that isn’t gray and isn’t white and isn’t rain. Light through fog, light instead of fog, fog instead of light. The sparkle of dew along a leaf, even when it seems there isn’t any light at all. Light, and not-light, that you can get lost in. Light that misleads you, leads you on. The flicker of a flashlight through tent walls.
I used to tell people I’d climbed mountains as a kid, and I know they imagined snow, the yawning crevasse, avalanche danger. They imagined our departure, all red wool and axes, grinning heroes of the bristled freeze, squinting at a lens timed off the glacier. They imagined all those Everest climbers as seen on TV. They didn’t even come close.
During that year in Miguel Vera, we took a short trip every month or so: a few days backpacking, or a mineral spring, or the predawn market where the backstrap weavers sold their blankets. My father wanted us to love hiking as he did; my mother wanted us to see the world. She grumbled about research momentum—her goal was to interview every head of household in town before her grant ran out; she needed to finish her book. But my brother and I needed to make the most of our year in the Andes, and our father (without a job, without much Spanish) needed something to do. It wouldn’t have looked right if she’d gone there without us, lady academic on her own in a gossipy town, and my father gladly said goodbye to high school algebra. But I think now he hadn’t fully considered what he might put in its place.
Our first peak was more hike than climb—a warm-up, endurance practice, nothing fancy. A training run, my father said, our backyard mountain, 3,800 meters, give or take. Shaped like an iguana, my mother said, but not from any distance I could see. Further north, it might have carried year-round snow.
“There might be orchids,” my father said, though that hardly seemed likely, so high up, so cold.
“We’ll see frailejón,” my mother said. “A rare and famous plant that grows nowhere else in the world.”
“Lucky us,” I said, my inner botanist still dormant.
We set out with our packs, feeling the wind at our backs and the smiles of our neighbors, who had never seen a whole family do any such thing. We accepted a ride in a pickup bed for the first few miles—a boost, my father called it, a leg up—and then we started up a dirt track people used to bring crops down from the higher fields. It was steep, no switchbacks, but it wasn’t bad. “Our milk probably came this way,” my mother said, “when Zoila had the cow.”
The first hour was fairly straightforward. So was the second. Plots were dirt-walled or fenced with agave planted close together. The eroded track was a tunnel, worn below field level, dusty and bare. After a while, the slope was just open, not fields at all. It belonged to someone—grazing rights, at least—but it felt like wilderness as we moved into high grassland. Thinner air, thickened by mist. We didn’t get far the first day, what with all the preparation and departure and hitchhiking. We found an almost level patch of ground and pitched our tent. I’m sure my father had hoped to make more time.
On one of our later trips, we camped in such high wind, the tent pole was left permanently bent. Another time, my father hiked down the hillside in search of water while we waited at camp, tooting our emergency whistles louder and louder as it got darker and darker. I kept looking to my mother—what if he didn’t come back? She just kept blowing that whistle. It was full dark before he returned, out of breath and tired but with a gleam in his eye, like he’d secretly enjoyed the danger.
This night began mild, with soft rain at dusk and an astonishing rainbow, vertical and wide. We found a puddly lake holding just enough water that looked just about safe, then boiled it like crazy to be sure. Dehydrated chicken soup, lumpy but comforting, thickened with oatmeal to give us ballast until daybreak. A can of mackerel, a box of crackers, peanuts, hot Jell-O. There would be more oatmeal in the morning, more hot Jell-O, and my parents complaining about their bitter instant coffee. My mother was a charter member of the good sport club—she put a brave face on a hurricane—but she was never reconciled to backpacking coffee: nearly undrinkable, never enough.
We crawled into our sleeping bags, out of the drizzle. The worst of the rain held off until after we’d eaten. Our breath, visible even inside the tent, was ripe with artificial cherries. I remember the stiff foam-rubber pads, nothing you could really call a mattress, and the prodding soreness of my hipbones, bruised where the waist belt pressed, a belt I tightened over and over, one of my trail rituals, almost unthinking.
My mother clicked off the flashlight, we said our good nights, and then we heard voices. A lantern played over the tent. My father stuck his head out, probably went out with his hands up. My mother went after. My brother and I sat rigid, listening hard. Bobbing lights, grumbled voices, nothing quite rising to a shout. Words I almost understood, the tone demanding. On our side, my mother did most of the talking. Finally, footsteps moving away.
My parents crawled back inside, never a graceful maneuver but worse with two tightly wound children, ready to pounce with our questions.
“There were two of them,” my mother said shortly. Her tone suggested she didn’t intend to say much beyond that.
My father was more expansive. “They thought we were stealing their cattle,” he said.
“Why would they think that?” my brother wanted to know.
“Why else would someone be out here after dark?” my mother said.
“Is there even a house up here?”
“There must be.”
The men had relented, said we could stay the night. They expected us out in the morning. And they would be counting their animals.
“I almost offered them a drink,” my father said, unscrewing the lid to his flask. “But it never seems wise to offer a drink to a man with a gun.”
“They had a gun?” I heard myself squeak. I imagined an old-fashioned shotgun, closer to a musket: something out of a movie. I had never seen a firearm up close. “Did they point it at you?”
“Hush,” my mother said. She glared at my father. He shook himself, shaking off fear like water off a dog. He took that long drink, passed the flask to my mother. “They’d never seen a tent out here,” she said. “Of course they had to check.” Our tent blended well with the páramo grass and a low-impact hiker aesthetic. It blended well, that is, with a low-profile cattle-rustler aesthetic.
When my brother tells this story, it’s a story about that rifle, and the supposed livestock guardians become the real rustlers, afraid our incursion might restrict their opportunity for theft, either because we took the cattle first, or because we cluttered up the landscape, got into trouble and called for help, the way tourists do. He makes the gun a worthy danger—more real, even with the cops-’n-robbers trappings, than our straying into a landscape so foreign that friends back home thought us lost even before we set out. And who’s to say he got it wrong? Our parents didn’t elaborate. Once they’d relayed the outlines, taken another drink each from the flask and shared around a few more squares of chocolate, they wanted to put it behind them and get us to sleep.
Smart people, cautious people, might have turned back come morning. Not us. The tense whispers from my parents’ side of the tent, muffled before I could wallow out of my mummy bag and catch the words, came to nothing more than a thin smile from my mother and a little extra gung ho! in my father’s “Rise and shine!”
Granted, we were all rattled. We ate our oatmeal and drank our cocoa, and in their distraction, each of our parents handed out hard candy and caramels for the hike. My brother and I stuffed our pockets and kept out mouths shut. We broke camp, we started walking. We were into the páramo for real.
Páramo was the upland, the highland; it was also the name of the typical highland drizzle, heavier than mist but lighter than rain. And in our family, it was a verb—paramoar—but now I think we made that up. The air was heavy, filming our cheeks, wet on our skin and through it, fogging my father’s glasses, speech condensing into steam. I kept looking over my shoulder. My mother did, too.
“Don’t worry,” my father said. “He doesn’t run cattle up here. We must be off his land by now.” But how did he know? And why were we even up there? So far, we’d just about gotten ourselves shot, and we hadn’t seen much we couldn’t see out our back window. Not out the window, maybe—we lived in town, after all, where it was practically urban, and farther down the mountain, warmer, more hospitable, as our hospitable neighbors never tired of reminding us. But we’d seen mountain ridges and mountain shoulders and highland grass and mist and even a cow in the distance, all from the comfort of home.
The trip got longer and longer. There was always a higher point beyond the ridge. This was when we learned the term false summit, yet more proof the Earth is round, or maybe it’s just perspective—you can’t see what’s right up close because it’s up too close. Then there’s the question of hope: the desperate hope you’ll get to stop walking before you drop on the trail, a hope that makes every bend in the trail look like a destination.
Maybe the mountain was an actual iguana. We trundled over enough odd and unexpected ridges, false-summiting again and again, that we might have traversed a stegosaurus, blade by blade, spiky plate by spiky plate. Up, down, back again; lava and grass, not bone. “Try the rest step,” my father said, demonstrating a rhythm he claimed could sustain us for days. “Step-pause, step-pause.” But tired kids hurry, then drag, then gallop; steady as she goes is not their rhythm. The candy in our pockets was gone.
Then we came to the frailejón. Pale green, furred leaves, dark trunks towering like wooly mammoths in the fog. Those trees felt like company—ghostly, dim, exciting. The younger ones were shrubs, just off the ground in the hummock grass, each stacked trunk rising as the previous season shriveled and dropped off, dried frill below the crown, the stubs of leaf stems. We stroked the velvety ears, dazzle-diamonded with tiny drops. “Espeletia,” my father said. “A genus of the sunflower family. Also known as rosette or compound trees.” He pulled a pocket guide out of his pack.
“What makes plants family?” my brother asked.
“Great question!” My father thumbed through his book. “It’s a category in taxonomy—that’s classification. It’s bigger than species or genus. They all have something in common.”
“Do they ever disavow their poor relations?” my mother asked. “Can they marry in? Do they divorce?” I couldn’t tell if she was joking.
“I think it depends on the taxonomist,” my father said. “Not my field.”
I had my own categories. Sunflowers were summer, stalks taller than the neighbors’ garage, heavy seeds pulling toward earth, squirrels scaling the trunks or waiting below. In my mind, I overlaid sunflowers along that ridge as far as the eye could see, ripe and drooping, the way sunflowers in some essential way seem sleepy, unable to hold up their heads. We were walking in a mist not quite burnt off by sun we couldn’t see, the frailejón hand in hand with the imaginary sunflowers I was sowing as we walked.
“Espeletia,” my mother repeated, “sounds like spit.” She spat to say it, but she’d talked up the plants as much as my father had, before we left home. My father let that go. I promised myself I would forget the name immediately, would remember only frailejón, but of course it remained imprinted, unlike so many other words I needed, and lost. So I have two names for a plant that grows nowhere else in the world, a plant I have not seen since, outside of a textbook.
In college, I taped a page from a botany book over my desk, rosette trees in their natural settings, along with their Latin names. Plant Biogeography (mostly over my head), the class was an honors workaround that got me out of intro science. We spent most of the semester on island plants coerced by isolation into oddity. Rosette trees were a lure, something the professor promised we’d discuss.
We never did, but even if we had, I would have been too shy to raise my hand and say I had seen them in the wild. And if I had mentioned it, I would have had to explain about getting lost, and what we were doing there in the first place, and the man with the gun, how it all fit together. Every shorthand version of that year I ever tried to offer failed completely—it was the whole story, full background, or don’t even bother. I’d be drawn into wordy illustrations, dirty laundry in public, or else I was defending my parents, insisting they had our best interests at heart. People saw hardship, faraway squalor. They felt sorry for me, when that wasn’t what I meant at all.
I’d already felt plenty sorry for myself. What were we doing that day? We were walking and walking and walking. Step-pause, step-pause. I don’t even remember the summit. I suppose there was one, perhaps with a pile of rocks and a half-buried notebook for our names and the date. But it seems to me, now, that after all that false-summiting, we simply walked up and over. Summit cairn or no summit cairn, at some point we declared victory and started to hike back down into the fog. We were supposed to retrace our steps—explore the ridgetop, appreciate the flora, and then go back the way we came—but maybe we were still a little rattled, because we took a wrong turn and walked down the wrong side of the ridge.
Easy to do: it all looked the same. It was staggeringly beautiful—I could see this—wrinkled land in green and gold, grass clumped and sloping, those dark trunks looming out of the mist. But the mist was part of the problem, and the rubbed ridges of lava that clambered and accumulated but didn’t trouble themselves much to look different, one from another. We walked down the mountain and into the most absolute, white, cottony fog I have ever seen, fog you could sculpt in your hands, and we lost our way.
We didn’t yet know we were lost. We came to a road. “Did we cross this on the way up?” my mother asked.
“When we got that ride, we skipped over it,” my father said. “You didn’t see it.”
It should have been hard to miss—narrow, not much of a shoulder, but gravel had been spread, the sides built up. It was a real road.
My brother sat down on his pack and refused to take another step. “A truck might come by,” my mother said, sounding doubtful. She pulled out a bar of chocolate. I suppose she was tired, too.
My father sat down on his own pack. He was buzzing, thrumming, ready for action, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t offer us Fun Fog Facts to pass the time. When the bus came, we’d been waiting most of an hour.
We all jumped up. We hadn’t dared to hope we’d get a real bus. It should have looked small, wheeled confirmation of human insignificance, but here was rescue, red and white and two stories high, or that’s how it looked in the distance. The driver leaned on the horn and then it was a ship, sounding its foghorn at sea.
Then the fog closed in again, a blanket of wet felt, and we were afraid the driver wouldn’t see us. Or maybe we were starting to hallucinate, hypothermia setting in. My brother and I were waving our arms, whooping and hollering and jumping around. Our parents were afraid we might get hit.
The driver slowed, opened the door, mumbled a name that must have been a destination. My mother nodded and we climbed on. We did not ask where it was going. We settled back against the seats. Nothing on the bus was new. There were bumps and ridges in the vinyl and bundles and packages everywhere; no place to put your feet, but there were seats for all of us. The scent of damp wool mingled with diesel and mint candy and a thin floral perfume. Crocheted fringes framed the windshield; triangular pennants celebrated soccer teams and saints.
We rode through the frailejón for some forty-five minutes, then gradually wound down into the montaña. Montaña—“mountain,” but it also means “jungle.” My friends in Miguel Vera lived surrounded by mountains, but when they used the word, they meant forest, the middle of nowhere, the boondocks where recent high school graduates might be sent to teach grade school, grateful for the work but lonely, far from home. Sometimes they said monte, meaning the same thing.
We passed more rock faces and outcroppings, like the mountainside we’d just been on, but smoother. Lakes, too, deep-looking and green. So far, so good. The fog dissipated, regrouped, finally lifted. It rained briefly, then the sun came out. We saw horses grazing, but otherwise no sign of people. Perhaps the lookouts of the night before had been protecting horses, not cattle. One woman got off, an hour into the ride. I couldn’t see what direction she went, or why she went there.
We began to pass houses, perched between road and cliff. What cultivated ground there was, was steep. Lower down, banana trees with their purple flowers and fans of green fruit, some ragged sugar cane. Trees filled with bromeliads. Not many flowers: mostly green. Houses made of boards, no longer adobe, often on stilts. Tropical houses, not like people built in the highlands. My brother and I looked at each other, then looked away, afraid to ask.
When did it creep in that we were headed the wrong way? Maybe it was those banana trees. My mother made her way to the front of the bus. I heard her say something to the driver, heard him laugh, not unkindly. A ripple passed over the bus, a visible sound wave. People who’d forgotten about us began to look at us again.
“Chicarado,” my mother said shortly, taking her seat. “It’s right on the Colombian border.”
“We’re practically to Colombia?” I swallowed. I wanted to be brave. It had been clear the night before—stiff upper lip was the order of the day. But the thought that we were being carried in the wrong direction was scarier than the man with the gun. I was only aware of the gun once the danger had passed. The bus, meanwhile, kept going, farther and farther down the mountain. I felt myself holding my breath.
“Should we get off?” my father asked, but we looked out the window and knew the answer. Get off and do what? I squirmed in my seat.
“How will we get home?” I asked, my voice rising more than I wanted it to, but I asked under my breath, facing the window. An I don’t know yet from my mother would have been worse than no answer at all.
“Pilar’s son taught out here for a while,” my mother said, always with the silver lining. “I’ve wanted to see the place.”
“You can take notes,” I said sourly, then was instantly sorry when the whole family turned to look at me.
“Excuse me?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” I mumbled, to the window again. I heard my mother take a breath. My brother scooted a little closer to me on the seat, shoring me up. I steeled myself for a lecture about serendipity and resilience, but after a long moment, all my mother said was, “I guess we’ll see.” My father passed around a water bottle without further comment.
Hours later, the bus stopped in front of a two-story house with a long balcony above and a shop below. The windows had shutters, not glass. No streetlights, but there was a school a little further down, a flagpole. The mosquitos were as big as rats. Miguel Vera was small, but this was the back of beyond. The bus barely had space to turn around, and hardly lingered long enough to do so. The driver drank a soda with the shopkeeper, smoked a cigarette. I asked if we couldn’t just get back on for the return, but no: he had just started his vacation, he planned to stay a while at this newly discovered tourist resort.
“What?” I was too panicked to catch the twinkle in his eye.
“Calm down,” my mother said, taking my hand, “he’s teasing. Really.” The warmhearted driver was horrified when he saw how upset I was. He bought us a round of sodas and explained he would be spending the night with a cousin a mile back up the road. We could catch a ride out with him the next day.
I thought we might be pitching our tent on the side of that muddy street—another block and we’d be out of town—but someone told us where to knock and ask for rooms. My mother must have tired of being our spokesperson all the time, our go-between, but she couldn’t stop now. The not-quite pensión had several empty beds—ready, but unoccupied. Why would anyone spend the night there, besides people like us, too stupid to find their way home? Maybe I misunderstood, maybe it was the emptying nest of a couple with a large family, not a commercial concern. Maybe people from the still more distant hinterlands spent the night before catching a bus out.
“How varied this country is,” my mother gloated, “ridge to ridge, river to river.”
My father shook his head, impressed. “It’s all altitude,” he said. “Fifty meters up or down, you’re in a different climate.” I felt stymied. I was working so hard to learn one certain place in detail, every street in Miguel Vera, and now there were other places practically next door, completely different.
We ate in a dark, wood-stoved kitchen. One side of the road had electricity, but not the side we were on. Dinner was locro with spinach, then a second course of rice and mushy noodles, ripe plantain, yucca, fried egg. Sweet arroz de cebada for dessert. After dinner, we sat in a bare plank room on creaky beds by the light of candles stuck to a shelf in the middle of the wall, just over eye level. We had to brace the door with a stick so it wouldn’t swing open, keep the window closed against mosquitos. The sponge mattresses were no better than sleeping on boards, and the thin, flat sheets wouldn’t stay tucked. The toilet was a hundred feet up a slope made slippery by rain. It wasn’t quite an outhouse—there was a porcelain fixture, same as we had inside—but you had to flush by pouring a bucket of water down the thing from a barrel kept behind a gunnysack curtain. It was hot, even at night—hotter than what we were used to.
It wasn’t all bad. My parents knew how to seize the moment. One of the other guests at dinner taught us a new card game, and we played around the candle. The coffee was delicious, the papaya rich and flavorful. There was a swimming hole, and we swam there early in the morning. The hanging bridge across the creek spanned the international border, and we enjoyed loping across the line, tapping a foot on Colombian soil without showing our passports, adding another country to our list. The bus left just after breakfast.
“‘By misdirection find direction out,’” my father said as we climbed the red and white steps. “Didn’t Hamlet say that?”
“That wasn’t Hamlet,” I said. “That was Polonius. And it’s indirections.” How could he forget? Hamlet was the school play in fifth grade, before the big trip to Stratford. They’d all helped me learn my lines. My costume had been packed away in the attic barely a month before we rented out our house and left for our temporary home on the equator.
“Sometimes misdirection is your best direction,” my mother said, but there was an edge to her voice. “Navigational magic,” she added, like it was another quote, or some kind of formula, but none of us recognized it.
“Well, anyway,” my father said, clapping his hands together, leaving any crumb of past confusion behind, “at least now we know where we’re going.”
On the bus, a man whose boots were wrapped in twine fussed with a basket of papayas, telling us all to be careful. A couple of schoolteachers on shore leave passed a thermos back and forth and offered cassettes to the driver—a few pop ballads I recognized, mostly old-style cumbias. Across the aisle, a lady with wild gray hair and a battered straw hat filled the seat beside her and part of the aisle with two sacks of chickens. A beak poked out from time to time through the loose burlap weave. The birds didn’t make any noise.
We had to go the long way around to get home, back through the banana farms and past the frailejón and the lakes and all the way into the provincial capital. Gradually, there were more signs of settlement, houses with geranium pots mounted on the wall or hanging from porch rafters. Finally the dirt gave way to cobblestones. The last few miles were steep, nearly straight down, and then a sharp turn into the terminal.
The city was filled with money changers riffling bills on every corner, selling pesos to the crowds who crossed the border to buy inexpensive manufactures duty-free. My mother remembered when people used to wrap their children with entire bolts of cloth, with nested suits of clothes to hide from customs. Smugglers would distribute their wares throughout the bus: a hat, a jug of ketchup, a tin of cookies for each passenger. When gasoline on this side was at its cheapest, people drove full-tanked semis across the bridge, just to siphon out the fuel for sale.
We didn’t explore, didn’t shop, didn’t even try to change money. The city had a cemetery famous for its monumental topiary, and our father was intrigued, but my brother and I were antsy, nowhere near ready for our next excursion. We stayed close to the terminal, bought lunch down the street, hurried back to catch our bus to Miguel Vera.
No one in town was worried. They never even knew we were lost. We were our own little pod that year. Nothing we did was private, but I doubt my parents told anyone when to expect us.
Compound fracture of memory, curious vegetation, not quite lush, but lustrous: we had seen the montaña, filled in the borders of our map, the peripheral vision of our customary view. My brother and I made false summit jokes for months. We hinted that we’d almost been shot as cattle rustlers, until our mother told us we had to stop. According to her, it was the kind of story that could blow up in your face. I pressed her for why, and she said we might tell the wrong person, or the story would spread and twist until someone thought we were laughing at them and someone else started asking more questions—what were we really doing in town?—and if people didn’t trust her, she couldn’t do her work. So we waited until we got home, and then we told everyone, no penalty for exaggeration, because how could they check? “We were camped on a hill just made for rustlers,” we’d say, and our friends would laugh, thinking of the wild west and cowboy hats and swinging saloon doors, not a couple of kids and their parents eating oatmeal in a tent.
We left out the there-and-back bus ride. We left it out as embarrassing—no need to show ourselves up—and we left it out as unexciting; a four-hour ride on the wrong bus was no competition for armed men at your tent flap in the middle of the night. The thwarted cattle theft marked an easy path to the hilarity of mistaken identity and a true story that wasn’t too true. But the moment my heart stopped, the crush of terror when I knew my parents couldn’t save me? That came when my mother returned to her seat and told us where the bus was headed, when I began to glimpse how far each of us is at the mercy of chance and confusion and someone else’s outsized hopes.
And, yes, the ride was worth it. After all, it was a training run. I was learning to tease out the beauty of that cotton fog from the unspeakable fear—to say it aloud might make it come true—that we really would be unable to find our way home. I began to breathe again. I studied the view; when I knew the words to a song on the driver’s tape deck, I sang along. Our crazy foursome remained united—survival, derring-do, and a couple of adults, haplessly trying to placate and support one another, who didn’t fully think through what it all meant to their kids. I carry the frailejón with me, lone rosette shrunk down to a boutonnière, soft leaves like a scrap of flannel in my pocket. Proof that I was there.
Amalia Gladhart’s short fiction appears in journals including Cordella Magazine, Saranac Review, Stonecrop, Nowhere, and Portland Review’s 2019 anthology, Unchartable: On Environmental Unknowns. Best Laid Plans, a comic novella set at Flagship U, can be found online at The Fantasist (TheFantasistMag.com/best-laid-plans). She is the recipient of a translation fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has translated novels and short fiction by Alicia Yánez Cossío, Gilda Holst, and Angélica Gorodischer, most recently Gorodischer’s Jaguars’ Tomb. She is a professor of Spanish at the University of Oregon.