As our humble, able red truck crackled along the crunchy mud roads, our children hung from the windows breathing in the thick, foggy air. It smelled of mint and eucalyptus, pine and grass, wet soil and spring blooms. The silence ached in our ears like the space in time after the last note of a favorite song.
We looked to the sky, waiting for the brilliant volcano to appear, just as a groom idles his eyes before the bride arrives. But there was nothing, not a stir, not a blink, not the slightest hint of cooperation. You see, Cotopaxi the bride is known for this. Rather moody and unpredictable, even unstable if I might. Only appearing when it suits her, as if she chooses which viewers she likes and those which she does not. For us, she chose to taunt us seemingly for her own entertainment. She lifted the foggy edges of her skirt to reveal only the hem of her gown.
We sped up a little, falsely thinking that we might catch her before she turned and ran away. It seemed as if we had rolled along a few measly feet when she slammed her petticoats down, covering the land in fine rolling clouds like the final dust in a wild west show. In a manner of moments, all of our surroundings blinked out behind a thick grey curtain of fog. I rolled my eyes to myself as I tucked my camera away, knowing full well I wouldn’t be granted so much as a clear view of the valleys, let alone the peak of this great volcano.
But, Miss Cotopaxi didn’t quite know who she was messing with. We would not be deterred by a little fog and bad visibility. There were no other cars on the road anyway, and we didn’t expect to see many if any ahead. The road to the summit was formidable: muddy and rutted, steep and uneven. It was also Monday afternoon, void of tourists, and the crown of the mountain had not been spotted at all that day. Even as lone rangers, we would prevail, we would trudge ahead until there was something to be revealed.
As we inclined, one sweep of the skirt lifted to the side, as if the bride were preparing to ascend one tiny step. A sliver of red appeared on the mountain, like the tease of a garter belt in mid dance. My husband whispered to me, as if she might hear us, “That is the refuge.” And I thought to myself “For whom? The groom! Or for us from her wrath?” But, this story was just in my head at that time, and surely he would have thought I was crazy from the altitude. Instead, I just nodded my head as I slipped of my seat and into the crisp air. I slung my camera around my neck, and the door slammed a little rougher than I meant for it to. We all startled at the intrusion of the silence, eyes darting to the sky. Nobody dared speak of avalanche.
I found myself tiptoeing as I crept past the car, looking for the perfect angle of the red splash on the black and white mountain. Nearly as soon as I raised my camera, she changed her mind again. Before a few clicks could escape, Cotopaxi tossed her skirt around and blocked our view. I refused to grumble in frustration, and instead smirked at the antics.
The kids bounced and giggled in the back as we continued upward bound. The dogs pressed their noses to the windows and wagged their tails for freedom. My husband was chattering at our car now, coaxing her not to putter out in the thin, cold air. We crept into the parking lot, the final place for cars to rest. To climb any higher up the volcano, would mean to do so by foot.
We tumbled from the car into a surreal atmosphere. The dense air hugged every corner of the lot and tucked itself into the ridges of the rocks. There was nothing to see beyond this small platform, and the heavy air swirled around our breath. It seemed completely feasible to just simply walk off the edge into oblivion. The children with their fuzzy heads bopped around my knees as I scrambled for matching mittens, one under the seat and one nearly beneath the wheel.
Our daughter, age 4, squealed as she sprinted to be the first to touch the snow. Our son, not yet 3, stood motionless. He was startled by the cold and his eyes darted around with dizziness as if he had just stepped off the merry-go-round. After a bit, he found his center and darted off towards the snow. The siblings took turns to see who could come closest to pelting my lens with tiny snow balls.
We played there at the mountain top for awhile, explaining to our children that they stood at the top of one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. We peered toward the sky, catching glimpses of the silhouette of Cotopaxi. My husband and I paused for a kiss, at our highest elevation yet…right around 15,000 feet.
We piled back in the car and backtracked through our descent, talking about camping in the park. Nearly half way down, the sky suddenly gave way to streaming yellow ribbons of sun dancing over the valley. The thick grey, walls eroded, revealing vast open meadows, sparkling lakes, and distant peak with dark shadows. We could see with sudden clarity, the great Valley of the Volcanoes. The jagged edges darted into the horizon, revealing a crown that surrounded us. But, a quick peak back at Cotopaxi didn’t surprise us. She would not be attending the show.
We meandered our way through the sloppy, windy roads; stopping to spot a deer and wild horses, dozens of birds and blooms. We careened with pleasure, pointing and staring and listening; careful not to miss any one of the magnificent things. Finally, we spotted a friendly sign pointing us in the right direction of a designated camping area. A cozy site nestled between two small, green mountains in what should be the shadow of the main volcano. We snuggled in beneath the blank slate, with every hope that Cotopaxi was a morning type of bride.
The first slivers of light trickled in through steamy windows of the truck. I squirmed out of my sleeping bag, hoping for a few moments of solitude with my camera. Carlos had already woken me, alerting me to a couple of interesting birds hopping around the campsite. I managed to slide out past the kids and into the wintry air. I crept slowly across the open meadow, getting several shots of the pair as they pecked at the ground and gazed back at me from their rocky perches. Finally, they flew off and I turned to head back for breakfast.
Just as soon as I turned my heels, the magnificent sight nearly slapped me cold in face. There I stood alone, in the vast openness; at the mercy of the mountain. Tiny as an ant looking up to the heavens. It was then that Cotopaxi chose to lift her veil completely. The face of the secret bride looked down at me so fiercely I could not utter a single word. I was stunned by the full magnificent gown of Mother Nature herself. And now it made sense to me, what a special moment it needed to be, for nature to reveal this spectacular union of sky and earth.
Once I caught my breath, my voice broke the silence of the valley as I screeched out to everyone: my husband, my children, our dogs…the rabbits, the birds, the deer… “Cotopaxi is here!!!” And we packed up the car just as quick as we could, to move into the clearing where we could stare at this fickle bride for as long as she would grant us.
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