A Week At The OVT: Day 6

There are a couple of things I’d like to make in my last full-day post about the Observatorio del Volcan Tungurahua. First, that as a geologist you never know what you’re going to end up doing today, which makes it one of the world’s great jobs. Second, that despite my devotion to geology and associated scientific skepticism, I kind of believe in fate, serendipity, happenstance. I certainly don’t think I should; but recently the universe has been sending me more coincidence than I ordered, and I’d like to celebrate that.

On to the first point, of geology being constantly surprising. Liz has suggested that we go to collect water samples today from hot springs around Banos. Cool, great, sounds fine. Except that this is actually a bizarre and intrepid fieldtrip. We march into three hot springs (Agua Santa, La Virgen, and Santa Ana), and demand to go through as we’re the IG. In Banos, this means VIP status. Finding the spring to sample at Agua Santa is pretty peculiar: we climb up a ladder, get views of the bathers; hack our way through a forested ditch; and finally reach an iron trapdoor, rusted half-shut. I volunteer to gain a bottle of precious ‘holy water’ (heated spring water) for analysis back in Quito, and find myself head-first inside a sauna, fishing for sulphurous water. Geology is truly amazing.

It’s the bathhouse from Spirited Away! Minus the magic, mostly.

And, on my return, the above picture is my view. The steam from the baths, the bridge over the gorge, even the ladder to get to the source … it’s like a real-life version of the bathhouse from one of my favourite movies, Spirited Away.

On to my second point. Three days ago, I wrote briefly about a particular drive from Banos to Bilbao. Something about that road stuck with me: the greenery of the vegetation, perhaps, or the sudden dazzling panoramas that appeared behind them; something, I don’t know what. Do you sometimes see a location that stands out in particular? I really do – the top of Primrose Hill, a tree in Canada, a view in Tenerife. I saw a new location that day, a footbridge with no feet. This is where the universe delivered its latest slice of serendipity: there was terrible traffic on the main road today, and we again took the road from Banos to Bilbao. And I got a photo of the bridge.

The footbridge in question. I don’t think it goes anywhere.

Perhaps it’s not that stunning. The photo illustrates only a tiny portion of what I saw out of the window. Something about it, though, stunned me; and when I got home I wrote for an hour straight about what I’d seen. Below is the unedited version in raw detail and mistakes. Here’s hoping there’s a little portion of that view within it.

“Oh, God, I’m not religious but occasionally I get this shiver up my back – have you felt it too? – that makes me think of devotion and piousness, of religious wonder. I think others must get it often, all the time, that’s the only reason people go to church. Anyway. My religious moment – or moments – this afternoon.

Picture this. Slopes of Tungurahua; riding down a lonely road with two friends in the car and one of them at the steering wheel. I’m not in control, no. But we start and suddenly we’re off, driving down the road from Banos to Bilbao (in Ecuador, not in Spain, although I think how strange it is that they have the same names) and what do you see? What can I see? Everything, everything. Everything that I have felt before, every road that I have been on, nothing compares. I seem to remember every minute in my past that I had to tear myself by the hair out from another life, another foggy dream, my head in the clouds and my feet off the summit; and then each of those minutes vanish, and I’m here, only, this brilliant moment is all that matters, and this moment follows that moment follows this moment and – do you see? – I am here, complete, in the present, with nothing else beside me but myself and the landscape that must be the end of the world, so steep are the cliffs and perfectly white the clouds that roar below.

For this is what my journey is like. Listen. After Bilbao we continue. The road is similar to before: dusty, apologetic, a weathered pilgrim to a distant, long-forgotten shrine. The road bows its head, dipping down towards the north. The sun in the west. Pouring its nectar over the hills – and what hills, their vertiginous grace crowned by crops of golden maize and shaggy velvet trees of naranjillas, pocket handkerchiefs of crops tended by dwarves and fairy people, nut brown and wearing peculiar hats, so small you couldn’t see them with binoculars, cleaning their crops so green (but how do they grow so green? Quite contrary. They can’t grow here, it’s impossible, for the crops are above the clouds and we know that the clouds alone bear water) and crops so nourished, grown with pure spring mineral water so different from the gasping orange thread that trickles down the parched gorges, gorges that release dust in a gusty burp but still gorges so wide that rapid rivers must have thundered down here, willingly, stormed angrily past in a huff to reach their destination at the bottom of the ravine, not caring which passers-by they took with them and you know they did, great smooth boulders and rugged pebbles, passengers alike, in the wash of the lahar that came down the valley in a flood of drought; a flood of self-drought that exhausted the valley until afterwards, when it released the last of its vitality in a turbaned whirling dervish of dust. And the dust rises in curlicues and spirals at first, then it grows complex, a network of fractals and matrices that splinter the dying sun into a thousand golden darts, that pierce the veils of the distant hills that you see as you drive forwards: and then everything is saturated in the same hue, layers upon layers, golden millefeuille, and you drive on into the forever shifting sands, the desert in the jungle, and hope this afternoon never leaves you.

It does, in drifts, quietly; like autumnal leaves you don’t notice the lack of until the first brumal snowdrifts arrive on an empty grey pavement. You can still cling to the leaf folded carefully in your journal, the second-rate photos concealed in your camera – signposts to memory, meaningless to all but you. You’ll only mourn this evening, later, too late. For now, your attention is distracted by a new and pretty toy. A good road, newly shod in tarmac and well-pressed, turned out in its best formal; a tyre print marks the only blemish on its skin. You know that a good road like this will lead you to a higher status, outlook and oh! How it does, for past the debris avalanches (the cracked and baked grey stone, you could have sworn that it was a lava flow that passed all the way over the valley) there comes a view, in fact not a view but a hall of mirrors, each reflecting one and the other and what an incredible sight, the green pocket handkerchiefs have appeared again and are waving at you, no bigger than before but now somehow at the top of the hills under which you ride, and on the other side stamped into the blue sky and fringed by white is the regal head-and-shoulders of Tungurahua; only, the elongate neck hidden by a ruff of white like royalty in old portraits. But no matter, the pink-top is beautiful, an ash-laden plume, and the rivens and rapids of the gorges scarred into the land. You wish that you didn’t have to wait years to see a sight this beautiful again.


And don’t forget the details that you saw today as you passed by. The road bridge to Bilbao: the oldest one, rusted girders snapped and the underneath filled with pyroclastic flow; and the younger one, half-finished in concrete and in iron wires, a pathetic attempt to replace the original. The new road that circumvented the need for either bridge attempt. That gorge there: the complete electricity cable, the eroded and excavated lava flow. Brilliant orange nastursiums, growing wild and coated with dust. That light through the valley. The wind that blew through, northeast to southwest, and with it brought the scudding and rearing clouds. Why were they all white, except for that small grey one? That footbridge. Oh, that footbridge: you’d read something similar in Into The Wild, where Christopher McCandless was trapped for winter for want of a footbridge being washed downstream. Was this one washed out? You don’t know, only that you are intensely curious about what happened to it. A suspended system, like a Golden Gate in miniature; and, true to the name, the threads of the suspension bridge are gilded in gold-leaf by the sun passing through and tipping its hat in greeting. A beautiful bridge, could not be more friendly: on your side the grass is greener, it shines brilliantly in the afternoon light. On the other side the bridge ends in dank and tepid jungle. The scariest part is that there are no planks, not one: though the outer wires remain to support them, they do not exist. There is no way to cross.” 

Now there’s no such thing as fate, of course. My nights at Tungurahua have been tranquil and smooth. On our last night, at half-past ten, we received a call from one of the vigias. Had we seen the eruption?, he asked. He was true to his word, for as we looked out with the night-vision goggles we could see the incandescent bombs being hurled from the summit. We flew to the car, and rode up to the viewpoint at Huayarupta. We stood looking out, and watched the end of the fireworks display with the goggles. There they were, the sparks flying darkly, and the stars keeping watch.

Well done if you got to the end! Here’s my first GIF as a reward. It’s filmed from the new, good road mentioned in my fourth paragraph.

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