Writer in Panamá, by James David Audlin, published by Editores Paso Ancho (“Broad Pass” in Spanish) – in the western highlands of Panamá near Costa Rica, under the watchful eye of Volcán Barú, the country’s tallest mountain – is in what is called a microclimate, an ecological niche. It often feels to me like the Adirondack Mountains where I was born, but minus the winter. In fact, the clean scent of pine and spruce in the air reminds me of “home”, of the northern New York community where I spent much of my childhood. Here, as in that village not far from the Canadian border, the temperatures are uniformly springlike; it is rarely hot in the afternoon, and can get cool enough for a sweater or even a jacket in the evening. At night it can even get down to the low 40s Fahrenheit. Evergreen trees easily outnumber deciduous; the difference is that here every now and then one is surprised to see a particularly hardy palm or banana tree or a cactus scratching its head and wondering what it’s doing trying to survive at this altitude – these latter stick out like a blonde among all these black-haired Panamanians and Ngäbe Buglé: such plants, like blondes, are foreign to the Tierras Altas, found more frequently down in the tropical cities on the two oceans.
Travelling up to Paso Ancho is not merely a physical trip through space, up a highway into higher altitudes; it is also a voyage through time. One begins in the kalpa of the twenty-first century, the populous seacoast with evanescent, visceral entertainments, rife with crime, cheating, pollution, heat, and disappointment.
After leaving Conceptión, the trip takes about an hour, past steep hills and valleys of pastureland and forest mixed at haphazard, stunning vistas dotted with – impressive in this glorious landscape – the poor, ramshackle homes of local people.
The journey back in time continued. Eventually we reached Volcán, a community much smaller than the oceanside cities, but about as big as they get around here. We took a left turn in the center of town and a few minutes later had arrived at Paso Ancho. After turning off the highway we bumped along dirt roads between small homes and family farms, with pockets of trees here and there.
Indeed, since my arrival I have had the strong sense that to continue out of the village and up into the mountains would be to continue move back in time, to an era before humanity. At some point, I imagined, the road must come to an end and the journey back in time would be continued by climbing up the mountain slopes, perhaps on a narrow path that would eventually disappear, leading me into an age older than trees, and then until even the mosses and lichens have given way, and there is only rock and light and air and water, the four elements of Creation. And then the physical summit would be reached and among the rocks and sky I would witness the very first moment of the world. And then, yet higher, the ascent would be continued spiritually, with no more than my eyes and my soul, and I would fly to the moment when the universe first exploded into existence.
Dawn, is, like her sister sunset, a wonder to behold here in the highlands, and never the same again, always unique, always of the moment. “Kiss the joy as it flies”, in the words of William Blake. Better than art, this beauty of nature is too vast to take in. I have to swivel my head around and literally open my mind very wide to be able to absorb even some of it. The vast colors of the sky are reflected in the earth beneath as the light opens the vividly hued faces of wildflowers and the breeze sends birds with plumage like the flowers forth into the sky. I’ve many times visited botanical gardens in the northern latitudes, and those large interior greenhouse-like structures that house tropical species of flowers. But it feels so artificial, so maintained, to be in those places. Here, I am simply amazed all the time to see these astonishingly lovely blooms appearing everywhere, just wildflowers, but in such a profusion of color and shape.
Through the daylight hours the landscape changes constantly. It is never static. As the light shifts across the sky, as the shadows move about, as clouds come and go, as the wind picks up or drops away or swings to a new quarter, as rains sing on the leaves or move on to farther hills, it is always in flux. This land is so often like the women who live in it: Nature gives you a smoky, saucy look from under the trees and behind the hills, as does the beautiful woman from under her paragua: she is voluptuous, curvaceous, lush, fertile, often exploited, often trying to exploit you, generous and honest, never to be trusted, sometimes exhausted from work or subdued from maltreatment, old yet young, though still and always seductive.
If I watch just the protective grandfather presence, Abuelo Barú himself, his outer appearance is constantly moving, even if the inner unseen nature remains the same. Even this close to the Equator, only eight degrees north, the highest slopes blowing with cold subfreezing winds; once in a while there is a dusting of snow up there when conditions are right. Far above the earth, his crown is the first to strike fire from the sun and it is the last glowing ember to give back the light of day when down below we are blanketed in deep night.
Look up from time to time; sometimes you see him he standing above us bareheaded, sometimes with his bald cranium swathed in a vast turban of clouds. Sometimes his slopes are clothed in robes of rain even while the skies are clear here – setting up the fascinating bajareque effect, in which mountain winds blow the rain down here, to drench us out of a blue sky, and cause double and triple rainbows to form.
I began the trail to the summit – the only spot on Earth where one can see the Atlantic (in the form of the Caribbean Sea) and Pacific Oceans. But I could have been in another world on the other side of the galaxy.
There before me was the pass through this the spine of the Western Hemisphere – the one for which Paso Ancho, Broad Pass, is named – of a stupendous size that shrank vast forests down to mere petticoats on its gigantic flanks. A great light glowed in this valley as if a nebula were hovering therein. My always-chattering mind dismissed it as an effect of the sunlight on amorphous clouds in the valley, but another part of me said no, that could not possibly be, since the farther side was crystal-clear even through this strange luminescence.
Then I turned my eyes past the vast alpine field on the other side of where I stood, and looked down the mountain, and saw another incredible vision.
Beneath me – I had never before seen one beneath me! – a great rainbow was bent into the sky across miles of earth, and it shimmered with astonishingly vivid colors. It was a result of the bajareque, the rain at the peaks of the mountains being pushed down the valleys by the prevailing winds, sometimes so heavy that it looks like sleet in a New England winter. It was not just the cold bajareque on the breeze that accounted for the spasmodic shivers coursing the length of my spine.
I wanted very much to take that trail and ascend to the height of Barú, to listen to the wisdom of the great grandfather spirit behind the physical hulk on which I stood. But it was to be another day as my ride was waiting.
Two or three days later I ascended the same road on foot, so I could better appreciate things. I walked past the poor local people’s homes and up into the Region of the Rich Gringos, with their commanding (literally) views of the landscape. Then, finally, past the last wealthy estate and into the beginning of the high peaks area.
The silence was perfect. A single word would have disturbed it. I didn’t even dare think. Breathing and walking were all that was required, all that was allowed.
At one point I knew I had gone far enough. Another day I would rise higher, but not today.
Dawn and sunset both are stupendous visions of glory. The darkness is deep and vivid here with only a few electric lights in the night from the gringo houses. The first sign of dawn is the horizon splitting on a serrated line, black mountains below and black sky above, in the moment of first light. Then gradually an intense azure comes from behind the mountains to the east, with still an iridescent violet is deepening the celestial reaches over the mountains. One can sense the earth turning like a flower toward the sun.
Then, for but moments on the mornings that are cloudless, there is a strange beautiful effect that I have never seen anywhere else. Narrow streaks of blue and pink, rays of light stretch across the sky from the still-unseen sun, still hidden behind the ponderous majesty of Barú, while here on the earth below all is still dark, still dark. The streaks are sharply defined, and they stand out in strong contrast to the more distant azure. When in a short time the sun leaps over the mountains, rivers of liquid light, of a rich eloquent yellow, rush across the fields and forests.
Other mornings, especially in the rainy season, the fog is hovering about five feet above the ground such that the trunks of the trees disappear and their tops hover like large lenses above the ground, seeming to spread wide as if to float on this fog. If I walk up the road a bit toward the mountains I can look down at rivers of fog in the lower, bigger valleys, fed by wispy smaller tributaries of mist coming in from the higher, narrower valleys, and flowing down to lakes and oceans of fog in the deepest valleys.
Grandfather Volcán Barú stands eternal in glorious ever-shifting splendor, unmoved as clouds swirl around his peaks or suddenly fly away downwind, as the light of sun and moon cast him in different colors, as high vertical fields of alpine plants shrink and grow with the seasons. The mountain remains the same and yet it does not. As the sun moves through the sky, as the shadows shift, as the clouds come and go, as the winds take to new quarters, Grandfather’s face is always changing. Yet I can sense in and behind this flux, invisible, the spirit of the Mountain always the ineffable same. So it is with all shapeshifters.
When I am out of doors my eyes are drawn constantly to the inevitable rocky visage. It radiates its comforting Bodhisattva presence over all of his children alike, the Ngäbe Buglé, the Panamanians, and even the unheeding gringos. Indeed, the dirt-and-stone calles of Paso Ancho are so arranged that he is visible from nearly everywhere in the village. Since every community I have visited has the same kind of design I suspect that this was indeed done to see him better – though I recognize that it may (also) have been for more practical reasons. On hot afternoons in the dry season, this layout fosters the flow of cooling breezes from the mountain heights, especially those bearing the bajareque, the phenomenon when rain on the peaks is blown down here by the wind. The street pattern also certainly facilitates runoff during the rainy season’s heavy downpours. Whether this layout of the village is intended or not, it amounts ultimately to the same thing, for Barú is a major factor in pretty much all the weather here.
More than a mountain, it is a living being, with lava flowing through its arteries, with veins of metal and precious stones, flesh of earth and bones of stone. It is a friend, a guide, a protector, and a teacher – indeed, it has all the qualities of “those who have gone before”, the ancestors whose spirit-presence continues to watch over us. It has a thereness that surpasses that of anything else. Yes, you and I are here, but how much are we really here, and for how long? I am, as Crowfoot said, just a breath of wind, a spark from a firefly’s wing. But the presence of this mountain is far more than just being there, it is a presence that, as the Qur’an beautifully puts it, supports the very structure of creation.
The traditional tribal peoples with whom I am familiar, and also the peoples of East Asia, say a climber “befriends” a mountain. Europeans say a climber “conquers” a mountain, implying they are enemies. It carries a connotation of a wild horse being broken by the trainer, of a tribal people being subdued and put on reservations. It is emblematic of the European-American way, which is continually seeking to control what last vestiges of untamed nature haven’t been turned into parks and potted plants.
Since my arrival I have been hoping sometime soon to befriend Barú. I know it will not be easy, especially since my legs aren’t what they used to be – in fact, they never were what they used to be). Since my first day here in the Tierras Altas I have looked up at this monolith and wondered – Will climbing it take the magic and mystery out of it as, some say, it did the Moon after astronauts had scuffed their heavy shoes thereupon?
Or are there different mountains, as I believe there are different Moons, and I can climb one, but the other will remain forever above me in the sky? Or may I perhaps, like Moses and Han-shan and St. John of the Cross and Black Elk and Peter Matthiessen, find a way to climb the spiritual mountain at the same time?
A month or two after arriving here I started walking, without forethought, let alone proper preparation, up the trail that leads to the summit of Barú. It was the rainy season. When I started up there was still a deep crystalline blue sky just beginning to show the light of dawn from behind the mountains; though that’s typical in this season I knew that later there would likely be rain. Locals had told me to watch out, as sometimes there can be heavy downpours and even flooding. A few years ago – they talk about this with large, haunted eyes – it was so bad that some of the Ngäbe Buglé people lost their homes, and one little girl was drowned. (I wrote a heavily fictionalized story about this event.)
And so anon I walked through a misting rain, gazing around me at vivid rainbows criss-crossing the gorges above and even below me, like bridges in the sky. A curious raptor (a vulture or hawk or eagle; I couldn’t be sure) hovered over me, its wings motionless on an updraft, for a good look. The only sound other than my footsteps was the hushing of tiny raindrops in the stands of bamboo or pine through which I ascended. Geckos on the rocks scurried away from the approaching human so fast that they left their shadows behind. There was plumage of birds and flowers and rainbows, reflected in the dresses of a couple Ngäbe Buglé women walking past me down the path. I encountered the Bull of Unusually Charming Disposition, who wanted more than anything to lick my face and hands. He informed me that his humans had neglected to scratch his ears for some time – so, having been carefully trained for decades by condescending cats, I was happy to oblige. I moved through moisture, only slowly realizing this wasn’t fog or mist but a cloud, that I was passing through the cloud layer. Even in the village down below me, the clouds are often just a few yards over my head. And higher up yet I could see clouds tearing themselves apart on the peaks all around me, like wool being carded. Up here were just a few homes, homes of shepherds. I imagined them herding clouds about rather than sheep. Much as I wanted to continue, I turned when I realized Night would be coming in not too long, arriving like a mother to send all her children in the darkening world to the glowing windows of home. Another day, I promised myself.
I’ve climbed many mountains in my lifetime. But now I am getting older, and I don’t know if I will ever have the opportunity to climb to the top of the Center of the World before I cannot. The trails are unmarked, and even people familiar with the mountain can become easily confused, as has happened to friends of mine. Yet I may decide some day just to start the trail and see how far I get.
Or I may not. I may choose not to sully its perfect peak with my footprints, as Armstrong and Aldrin did the Moon. Or I may choose not to spoil the pure image of this mountain by seeing, as I have been told, the garbage left by uncaring gringo climbers, the broadcast towers, and the big cross erected to remind everyone that Roman Catholic Spanish Conquistadores conquered, not befriended, this mountain and this land.