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West

from history.com

Today I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis in a crowd of traffic. Between the dirty sides of tractor trailers and over the troubled stares of the daily commuters rose a giant arch. St. Louis. The gateway to the West. What a place this must have been once, with the steam ships plying the waters of the big muddy and crowds of people arriving daily with obtuse dreams of a verdant west waiting for them. The bustle of industry and optimism. The last stop for supplies and information. Now reduced to a serpent’s twist of highways looping around and over each other, each choked with the carapaces of us… the motorists. Smoke spewing out of tailpipes, tension in the air.

But that arch reminds us that this is the place where the west opens up before us. As it did once and still does. I’ve been in this same place several times. If you’re coming from the northeast, you pass through St. Louis on your way west, no matter your final destination. As I did 16 years ago as a young man going west for the first time. Then, I didn’t see a historical locus of this repeated journey, but rather as a fascinating sculpture visible from the highway. But what I lacked in appreciation I made up for in anticipation and excitement. I was away from home, really away from home, and headed into the unknown. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I remember filling the gas tank every time it drooped below half full.

Now I don’t even have a gas gauge that works, and the excitement and terror is gone. This is familiar ground, this heading into the unknown. I have become comfortable in not knowing, while confident that whatever will come will come and things will work out just fine. And most of the journey that brought me to this confidence started on a June day in 1995, driving by that arch in St. Louis for the first time.

Early this morning in Cleveland, I looked across several lines of traffic just in time to see a feathered body, brown and white, get bounced high into the air. A red-tailed hawk had made a fatal misjudgement at the approach of a high-fronted garbage truck. The body flailed and spun high into the air, and didn’t even touch the pavement before the hood of another car bounced it up again. As the bird touched pavement the first of many tires crushed it down. And it disappeared. Forever.

It was shocking and fast and violent and heartbreaking. A beautiful beating heart snuffed out so quickly and without notice. I had noticed other hawks dead along the highway in Ohio… I suppose the winter brings an influx of first-year birds south and they have to deal with cars and roads for the first time. Maybe they even get outcompeted for the spaces away from the roads. They learn quickly or they die. But it made me pay attention for the day to the carnage of the highway. The blood stains and crumpled bodies pushed to the shoulder and rotting. Deer. Porcupines. Coyotes. Raccoons. Hawks. Owls. Dead among the discarded beer cans and shopping bags and coffee cups. Edward Abbey famously defended his (alleged) habit of flinging beer cans out the truck window by saying that it wasn’t the beer cans along the highways that are ugly, but rather that the highway itself is ugly. Maybe he was right.

 

 

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4 am. The world still dark and sleeping, but when I stumbled out of the half-finished quarters Victor was already on top of the Landcruiser getting ready for a day on the road. The engine purred, warming forced air to release the frosted windows from winter’s touch. And somehow, magically, we managed to get everything packed up, including the groggy tourists.

Two hours to Uyuni’s quiet morning streets, another half hour approaching the salt flat… and a misty light was growing on the eastern horizon. You could sense the beginning of something beautiful. And then up ahead, vehicles with hazard lights flashing. The Bolivian army.

It seemed a routine check. Raoul’s ‘cruiser was ahead of us, but our army man seemed satisfied with our papers pretty quickly and waved us on. And we almost made it. We were partway past Raoul when some shouts and another camouflaged man waving at us to stop again. And meanwhile the steady sun was gathering its colors for a morning appearance.

And suddenly we seemed to be the focus of a small, disorganized military operation. Two more truckloads of soldiers pulled in from further down the road. Seated in the back seat, watching the commotion ahead of us, I could see a drawn pistol silhouetted briefly in the hand of a soldier. Suddenly this seemed very serious. And it seemed like we were going to be pulled over at this spot, just short of the famous salt flat, for a bit of time.

The word was that there were stolen cars being driven toChileon this road, and they wanted to be sure that these vehicles weren’t hot property. Unfortunately for us, the registration papers weren’t in the vehicles. According to Ema and Victor, they had never, in years of tours, been required to have registration papers for the vehicles. This argument did little for the soldiers. Apparently the requirement was new. It all seemed a little strange – I just couldn’t wrap my head around why they would think that the rigs were stolen if they were chock full of tourists and their equipment. Stolen tourists, too?

But soldiers aren’t trained to think for themselves.

We waited while one drove off to find cell service to call the agency in Tupiza. He came back and apparently whatever he found wasn’t good enough, for soon enough we found ourselves a part of a small train of vehicles and camouflage headed back to Uyuni. We even had our own, quietly threatening soldier ride in the passenger seat with us to make sure there was no trouble.

Victor sneaks a look at our camouflaged (and masked!) companion

I don’t believe that Uyuni is a good place to spend much time. It is one of those towns that seems to have just sprung buildings up in the sole need of occupying a space for tourists to arrive and depart for their towns. It reminds me of a railroad town out west.

I can say with surety that a curb just outside the gate of a military compound in Uyuni is a very poor place to spend hours of your time. And this is where we spent the next three or four hours. Waiting. Tupiza Tours was faxing the registration papers to the military, and until they received said papers and matched them to the vehicles, our trucks were locked inside the gates of the compound while we waited outside.

Unfortunately, since we didn’t know when the Landcruisers would be released, we couldn’t even wander far from the gates to spend our time more productively. Léa borrowed my cell phone to get in touch with Tupiza Tours to express our disapproval of our morning being ruined by them not having the papers in their vehicles. Spirits were pretty low. And it only got worse when a small contingent of camouflaged army men came outside the gate to practice their military band skills. Luckily, their efforts seemed to tire them out and there were long breaks between songs.

Eventually – and I don’t exaggerate when I say I think it was four hours later… they released our vehicles back to our possession. Apparently the caveat for the new law about carrying your registration papers was that if you didn’t have proof of ownership, the military was allowed to confiscate the vehicle for their own use. So it would seem that the situation was less about tourists and vehicles being stolen and driven toChile, and more about soldados hoping to get themselves some stylish rides. An hour or so later we passed the spot where we had been stopped. Not a soldier in sight.

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There is something about snowfall that makes everything quiet. Imagine millions of little sound-absorbing particles on the wind, blanketing the ground, filling cracks. It is as if, during a snowfall, someone has sound-proofed the world. When I woke on the third morning of our Salar de Uyuni tour, I noted two things – that it was warmer than I thought it would be at over 15,000 feet, and that the morning was unnaturally quiet. And so I wandered out of the room and down the hallway to the doorway that led outside to see how much snow there was. There was over a foot on the ground, and more still falling hard.

Now I should mention that every time I see a snowfall like this, it always makes me happy. There is something magical about a storm that is burying you in whiteness and giving you the gift of such beauty. However, my normal elation in this case was tempered with a slight concern about the future and fate of our tour. Our discussion with Victor the night before about trying to see some of the sights in the morning seemed a touch absurd. Were we going to need to be rescued? No chains in these Landcruisers, I was pretty sure, but a fair share of bald tires. Hmm.

Over breakfast the rumors started flying… we were going to spend another day holed up in the tourist quarters and see if tomorrow was a better day. But what if tomorrow was a worse day? The drivers held a congress while the passengers all discussed what they wanted and didn’t want. In the end it didn’t really matter. The word came back from the drivers that we were leaving – quickly – and heading toward Uyuni and the Salt Flat. We were getting out while the getting was good.

In retrospect, this was a wise decision considering the conditions. Victor had mentioned earlier in the trip that in 2004, fifteen meters of snow had fallen on the high country around Laguna Colorada. People in several small villages had to be evacuated by helicopter while their livestock were left to flounder and die. Snow like this was unusual (haven’t seen snow like this since 2006, Victor said over tea), but who was to say it wouldn’t keep snowing until we were 15 meters under?

photo by Anne Kalker

Still, there were grumblings from the tourists. We’d already missed most of the sightseeing in the park and high country, and now we were going to go to Uyuni and see the salt flat from there? One of the reasons for doing the tour Tupiza-to-Uyuni was that on the last day, you arrived out on the salt flats at sunrise. And in the process you enjoyed a touch of solitude while the caravans of tourists from Uyuni were still on their way out there. All of this seemed very much in jeopardy.

But, for me at least, it didn’t take long before it was clear that what mattered was just finding the way out.

We helped Victor gas up the Landcruiser, did our best to secure the gear and our packs tightly in a tarp on top, and set out into the whiteness. Not thirty meters from the front door, one of the ‘cruisers was already spinning its wheels. It was going to be a long day. Before long we were in a thirty vehicle chain on the flat, white expanse around Laguna Colorada. The vehicles in front were in charge of finding the buried road, while those in back simply tried to follow the tracks of the truck in front of them without getting stuck.

Victor, a 7-year or more veteran of this route, eventually turned and asked if one of us would drive while he went up ahead to help find the road. And so this is how I found myself in the driver’s seat of a Landcruiser in whiteout conditions, doing my part to stay in the tracks and keep from burying the ‘cruiser or ramming the Landcruiser in front of me.

photo by Denis Marechal

It was slow going, but eventually we reached the park entrance, where Victor assumed control of the vehicle again. The weather changed, too. Instead of heavy snowfall, a strong wind took over, so now there was a shifting sheet of white snow about three feet high, being blown sideways across the landscape and gathering in the lee of wind breaks like the road.

We passed Laguna Capina again, and before long we found ourselves on the safe, low ground, where the sun was even beginning to show its face a little.

And we found one last beautiful place before the sun said its farewell. I forget the name…Valley of the Rocks? This was a Utah-like setting where orange and tan sandstone blocks stood silent and eroding in an open landscape surrounded by mountains. With the sun setting and touching everything lightly, there was a glow to the landscape that was truly magical.

And so, with darkness well-established, we pulled into a village two hours from Uyuni. After some searching, we found an alojamiento with open rooms, though we had to wait a few minutes while the pillows were stitched, a door was finished, and some carpet was laid.

And after some discussion, Victor agreed that we would get up and out of there at 4 am in order to see the sunrise on the famous Salar de Uyuni.

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On a late morning in Sucre, after trying to sleep through the party that was Hostal Amigo, I shed the unfriendly, uninformative staff and went to the tourist office to ask about a train. There was a vague mention of a pleasant (if vertigo-inducing) train ride from Sucre to Potosi… and I found a blog online from only 3 weeks before describing the experience. But, once the information office opened, the man there said no, there was no train.

So I gathered my things, checked out of the hungover hostel, and climbed the hill to the bus station.

While sitting beside the bus, waiting for the departure, a couple of familiar faces appeared with their backpacks for the same train. They had been staying at Hostal Amigo, too… I got a nod from the man before they proceeded to smoke and wait for the bus. I would later learn that these French people were always smoking.

This bus ride made me declare that I would never take an overnight train again. It was a slow, creeping climb into the Andes mountains, and I was fascinated to see the world open up outside the bus window.

I had gotten a brief mountain experience in Cochabamba, and had been surrounded by mountains in both Cochabamba and Sucre, but this was the first time I felt like I was really going into the heart of them. Wide, flat, gravelly river beds filled the spaces between, and the size of the washes told a story of a rainy and raging world here during the summer wet season.

And I wondered, for not the first or last time, what this country would look like in the summer season, green and flowering.

In the afternoon, I disembarked into a frighteningly modern bus station in Potosi, and took a taxi into the claustrophobic and frigid confines of the city of silver, Potosi.

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