las vértebras enormes de los Andes

Cordillera de los Andes between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile (x)

In my country we have a long tradition of running west. The slight problem with this is that there is always more west to run to, and so we stretch our maps. We have a hunger for big sky and rocky grandeur. But then I’ve never had the requisite driver’s license or carefree spirit to ever take on that quintessential road trip. For the anxious East Coast woman, adventure looks a little different — until it looks exactly the same.

I spent two years straight on islands and then I stretched my map as far as I could think to go. And so I find myself boarding a bus in Mendoza heading toward Santiago, crossing the Argentina-Chile border between a Brazilian couple and a Belgian wanderer in the first row on the top deck, and awaiting that old American adrenaline.

I first came across these mountains in one of my favorite poems, Rubén Darío’s “A Roosevelt.” He writes:

Los Estados Unidos son potentes y grandes.
Cuando ellos se estremecen hay un hondo temblor
que pasa por las vértebras enormes de los Andes.

The United States are powerful and great.
When they shake there is a deep tremor
that passes through the enormous vertebrae of the Andes.

I have long loved this image of the Andes and the Rockies joined together as the great backbone of America: sensitive and robust, stark and intricate, energetic and electrified. I can feel the neurons firing up the power lines below our wheels.

Mountains are so easily personified. I have learned this all up and down this continent. In Quechua last semester, we learned that the adjective “machu,” meaning old, applied only to living beings. One summer in the valley of Mexico, I heard the story of the lovers turned volcanoes. All my life I have been enchanted by the panlingual mother earth.

These are the thoughts swimming in my sleep-deprived mind as we begin our journey and in the glass-intensified heat I daydream them into observation. When the mountains begin they are the green-grey of oxidized copper or crushed jade, a pair of wide eyes in a pre-Columbian sculpture. Soon they become the reddish brown of fired clay or scrubbed skin, before giving way to the meaty maroon and streaky beige of cardiac tissue. And at last they are glaciers, white as bone.

The Andes are intimate and alive and soon we are at the mercy of their dangerous curves, whipping around thirty switchbacks in a row, as if the road had been modeled in store-bought plastic on a living-room floor. This is the thirty-two fouettés en tournant of bus driving, and I suddenly remember that the Spanish word for “roller-coaster” is la montaña rusa, “Russian mountain.”

Near the midrange border we understand the skeletal desolation. We are approaching Aconcagua now, the highest point in the Western and the Southern Hemispheres, and traces of its fallen make for ominous road companions. Murals say he’ll always be in our hearts, dusty portraits peer out from cross-laden shrines, and dead flowers adorn wooden crosses. Ski-lifts stop midair, their dangling rusted seats abandoned to the wind. Railroad tracks curve upwards at the hills and are ravaged for scrap metal.

But if these mountains remain unconquered they do serve as host. All along the route, industry tames water. Reservoirs bleed into arroyos and waterfalls sink into calm filters. Military outposts grow more and more remote. It is brilliant and terrifying to see such grandeur mastered enough to let the only business in what could be graciously called a town survive. It’s a pink hut with a chalkboard sign: RESTAURANT “OKEY CORRAL.” HOY: PESCADO.

As we cross into Chile the mountains fade quickly. Cacti sprawl like fingers astride the river. Tattered flags grace elevated houses. “Precaución: zona poblada,” we are told at last. And then the sky is billboarded again. The Andes are hardly visible from the average city street.

But we all know.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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