The Cajas are an amazing range of the Andes Mountains and I’ve certainly enjoyed hiking and exploring deep in their rugged realm. These mountains can be very challenging and, as I’ve written before, folks do “go missing” in this unforgiving terrain to literally never be heard from again. Yes, they were by themselves when they set out and they finished up the same way, alone.
The Cajas are hiked almost daily by tourists and locals who seek a wild experience in the Andes. However, you can enjoy a tamer hike there also. Guides are not difficult to come by and recommended if you plan to get much off the beaten path and if you lack local experience. One reason for the range’s popularity is that it’s pretty easy to get to a trailhead. Highway 582 runs smack dab through the middle of the range and buses roll that route on the hour. But I more enjoy an alternate backdrop for hiking and photography, one that virtually assures me of no human contact whatsoever.
The place where I created my photographs “Showdown” and “Dominos of the Mists” are extremely remote and yet outside of Cajas National Park. Access requires private vehicles and suspension lifted 4×4’s are always a good idea if not the rule. So you can better understand my initial reference to remoteness, know this…no buses roll in these areas. In Ecuador, if you cannot get there by bus, it probably wasn’t meant to be. Unless … you’re a photographer, an experienced adventurer and a practiced solo hiker seeking all but the ordinary. If you are, you’ll still need a really dependable and capable truck, great hiking and photo gear, a decent command of the Spanish language and a “Never Say No” attitude to up your chances of successfully making your art and returning to your home that night.
I travel alone as much as I can for a number of reasons. I’m a member of a local hiking group but I don’t often join them on their forays because I prefer to pursue my photography while hiking. I’m not a guy who just throws his camera up and makes a pic of whatever strikes me in the moment, occasionally turning my camera on a 45 degree angle to try and add interest. I take a lot of time with pre-visualization in order to determine what my perspective will be. I often visit an area several times before making any frames. I might make some notes about what it is I want to show and how I might choose to show it. And, in the wilds, I’m usually composing landscapes from a tripod-secured camera.
If I tried this while in a group, everyone would be an hour ahead of me after my first composition wrapped up. Or, they would be standing around, put off at having their hike interrupted and rightfully so. Not everyone pursues photography in the same manner. Also, most folks I know aren’t interested in the actions of creativity involved in making compositions. Their interest lies in the end result, the eye candy so to speak. Well, those type photographs aren’t something you just happen to find on your memory card. They take careful planning. It is far easier to make them when you are alone in lieu of when you are in a group. I do not consider the type of photography I perform to be a social endeavor to be enjoyed in groups. Even if I did, few could access the remote places I do as they simply require too demanding a level of physical exertion or too much equipment (trucks, tripods, cameras, lens, electronics, rain gear, etc.). I know many photographers who cannot or will not leave the road to make a frame.
So, I’m not the High Plains Drifter (well, sort of) and not anti-social. I very much enjoyed the two months I spent in the field with my mentorees in a recent city sponsored workshop I presented. I just prefer to create, to make something, more than yak it up! In addition, if I was a horse, you could say that I “Don’t Take A ‘Bit’ Well.” I research multiple sources through reading and conversations to find out the things I need to know. I always avoid faux-storied guidance and opinions from armchair adventurers /photographers. I never see those folks where I go. I’m lucky to see a campesino every six hikes!
I’ve spent much time hiking and performing photography in the Desert Southwest of the United States. Edie and I have both ranged miles and miles into BLM managed public and Indian lands such as the Bisti Wilderness Area. We love the aloneness that these areas afford. Many times, BLM law limits access except by foot or horseback. So, Ecuador isn’t the first place we’ve spent time in remote places. It’s just a continuance of previous and similar pursuits.
So, the last impression or sensation that I will share with you is the one of being the first to see or experience something. Of course, in this case, you’re probably not the first to experience a particular thing, you’re just alone when it happens. But when alone, and the vista offers untold miles with no signs of the hand of man anywhere, it probably feels about the same as it did to the first pioneer to walk up on that spot. Whether that pioneer is exploring a pond in the backyard of their new house in a gated community or has just laid eyes on a vast and yet to be named mountain range while sixty mile per hour winds try to sweep him or her off their feet, the effect is similar.
My view wasn’t far from the Continental Divide as I topped out a little finger ridge in the paramo adjacent to a dizzying drop off. It was sunny but chilly as the early morning breezes fought for wind status. My rain pants made a soft swooshing noise as they brushed the purple and golden grasses to one side, allowing my passage. Spread out in front of me, a blanket of soft pillowy clouds was rising slowly from the valleys below on air currents warmed by early rays. Huge chunks of basalt, some as big as three pickup trucks, littered the steep landscape. I was alone on the front range of the Andes in south central Ecuador, looking toward the Pacific coast some forty miles distant.
Surely no one has ever stood here before and viewed the majesty that lies before me. That was my consuming thought as the early idea of this story rose in my mind, just like the clouds were rising in the valleys. I slowly lowered my camera from my face as the corners of my mouth first formed an enigmatic smile before erupting into a huge grin of satisfaction. It was just me and the elements, all alone, and that is a very fine feeling indeed.