Running the Rio Colorado

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Five feet into a fifteen foot vertical climb, I looked down past my quivering feet and contemplated why exactly I was trying to climb over the top of this nearly vertical ridge.  Clouding my thoughts, the late winter sun had long since vanished over the desert canyon wall leaving me wondering just exactly how long I had before darkness set in.  Amidst this stressful calculus, I remembered how just two hours before, I had been sitting on a cafe patio, enjoying a coke with two newly befriended Argentines.  Starting to lose my drive, the challenge laid out for me by the director I had passed on the trail rang out in my head, “You’re definitely not making it out of here before dark, there’s no question about that.”

In need of fresh air, one recent Saturday morning I jumped on a bus headed for Cafayate, Argentina, journeying four hours through a beautiful desert canyon to a mountain oasis of 10,000 people.  From the moment I woke up, things went my way.  Fighting through a pre-dawn fog on my long walk to the bus station, a car pulled alongside me, and a man in his 60s offered a ride to the terminal.  Abandoning the number one rule parents lay out for their children, I hopped in the car.  Carlos was on his way to church from his pasta factory, and decided to give me a ride.

ONE of my most prolific traits is that I put up a barrier that prevents most people from entering my world.  While its pretty strong when I’m in a comfortable setting, its thickness doubles when I travel.  As a result, I have a hard time letting down my guard enough to meet locals and enjoy a culture.  After having dinner with a fellow traveler, who had befriended folklore musicians and tango dancers, I knew this had to change.  That Saturday, apparently, was the day to open up, and also the day to make me learn Spanish.

Stepping off the bus into the deserted streets of Cafayate, I started trudging towards the town plaza in search of a place to stay.  Alejandro and Claudio spotted my indecision, and sent me in the right direction.  I heeded their advice, dropped my stuff at a hippy hostel, and I was back having a drink with them in 30 minutes.  Tranquilo was the word of the day, describing perfectly the pace of life of this small town of unpaved roads, unlocked bikes, and unassuming residents.  Tranquilo also described Claudio’s approach to life, who I came to understand, didn’t do anything quickly.  Learning I was from the U.S., Claudio, with long dark hair and few teeth, reminisced about an old girlfriend, Cassandra, who now lives in Oregon.  Alejandro, who looked like a linemen, told me he thinks the local army officers that patrol the streets look like smurfs in their blue uniforms.  After finishing Alejandro’s sandwich and Claudio’s coke, I excused myself to figure out how to hike to the Colorado River.

Thirty minutes later, I had changed into running clothes and was walking down the gravel roads in search of a canyon.  Lonely Planet had made the canyon sound, tranquilo, only mentioning a swimming hole, so I limited my supplies to running shoes, a phone, and a jug of water, figuring it’d be like a long run.

After an hour of walking, I reached the entrance to the canyon at about 4:20.  Instead of a remote outpost, the canyon climbed up from a small indigenous settlement guarded by one of its residents.  Asking where I was headed, the man looked at his watch, and shook his head.  He was not amused when I suggested I could run up the canyon.  Dispensing with subsequent conversation, he ordered me on: Go!

Well aware of the receding sun, I scampered over the riverbed’s boulders as fast as I could, trying to hold on to my jug of water as I crossed the stream again and again.  By 5:00, I still had not glimpsed the destination waterfall, and I was starting to worry about the sun.  Two men came down the trail towards me, and I fortuitously stopped to ask them how long it was to the waterfall.

The director, I call him that because he said he was in town to work on a movie, and I thought he looked like the director, spoke fluent English and described the hike to me. I had to hike up and over a ridge and then descend to a viewing point of a small waterfall.  From there I had to hike behind me around the ridge to the higher cascade.  I didn’t understand it either, but I decided to go ahead anyway.  Also fearing the setting sun, the director cut three patches of glow-in-the-dark tape from a long roll he carried.  He told me to mark my path with the tape so I wouldn’t get lost. And that’s when he put down the challenge to which I course had to respond.

After departing the film stars, I came upon a ridge with a vague trail leading up over it.  Taking it for the one described, I started climbing the vertical face.   This was the cliff, where five feet into it, I reached a point where I needed both hands and could no longer carry my water bottle.  At that point, I set down Dan’s rule number four of outdoor adventures.  If I had to climb a wall up which I could not carry a water bottle, I probably shouldn’t climb the wall at all.  I retraced my steps, found another way around the ridge, and continued up the canyon.

At 5:20, the setting sun, rising wind, and depleted water finally clued me into the situation.  I decided that at 5:30, waterfall or no, I had to turn around.  Abandoning the rule I had set earlier on the hike, I had to throw my water bottle ahead of me at one point, so I could get scramble down a rock face.  At 5:28, I reached a small ridge in the middle of canyon.  Resigned to climbing it for my last view, I got to the top and a waterfall stared me down!  Elated I ran up to a viewing point, waited for two or three seconds, and turned around to begin what I believed would be my hike down.

Instead, I had found the path to the other waterfall which is set under a ridge and only accessible from the upstream direction.  The director’s directions couldn’t have been better.  But now it was 5:45, the hike to this point had taken me over 2 hours and the sun would set soon after 7.  Taking pictures as fast as I could, I hiked back up the ridge and down the canyon, agape at the surrounding views.  The director called it National Geographic in real life.

As I reached the mountain settlement, a herd of goats shrieked to me in greeting.   Despite the director’s promise, I made it out of the park with just a few minutes of daylight to spare and began the long walk back to my hostel, covered in scratches from unforgiving cacti, darkness settling in around me.

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