By Jeremiah Reardon
I slipped in black mud on Taitachugo, a mountain in El Cajas National Park. Retreating from a climb to 3600 meter (11,800 feet) altitude with friends, I had lost my footing on a trail trod by alpacas, llamas and horses as confirmed by their scat.
Instantly I recalled a spill taken by my friend Pam. She had slipped on ice at Trinity College in Washington, D.C., the winter of 1967-68. When I visited her at the Catholic women’s campus dormitory, she sat on a donut-shaped cushion to alleviate the pain of a broken coccyx, her tail bone. I admired how she endured her discomfort with winning wit and a ready smile.
Once my wet shoes had lost traction, I slid down on my back and before slamming into an exposed tree root. From where my head landed I saw fresh wood chips. I’m gonna be feeling this for a while, I thought as I got up and regained my footing while shaking mud from my hands. Damn!
That morning I had joined Eddie and Bradley outside our driver Lino’s apartment building on a cloudy day in Cuenca. On our way to the Cajas in his white four-door Chevy, we stopped for gas and snacks. In the rear seat with a coffee, I watched Lino pass a Cajas trail map to Eddie. “Last time at Llaviucu a couple of hikers told me they’d been to a big lake, Laguna Taitachugo. See if you can make it out, Eddie.”
A year earlier, I led Eddie and Bradley on a hike past Laguna Toreadora and a few smaller ones, on an eastward route from the Park ranger’s station, ending at the Cuenca-Guayaquil highway. For this day’s adventure, Lino suggested we begin at Laguna Llaviucu and climb 2,300 feet to Laguna Taitachugo, topping off at 3,800 meters.
Lino and Eddie hail from Guayaquil and knew each other from high school. They later crossed paths in New York City and, again, here in Cuenca several years ago. After college, Eddie and his wife Isabel moved to New York. While Isabel worked as a teacher’s assistant on Long Island, Eddie served in the Army, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The morning of the hike he had on a tan backpack with a built-in water bottle accessed by a long mouth tube.
As a young man, Lino studied at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. Here, he works as an electrical contractor. A fine guitarist and singer, he wore an ivy green fedora which suited his sunny disposition. Also a singer, his wife Lourdes from the Bronx performed in a trio with two other women, entertaining at city nightclubs.
Bradley’s related to my wife Belinda. His first cousin was her first husband. They all lived in New Orleans where Bradley taught high school and coached sports. Retired from the school system, he’s lived in Cuenca for several years. Over a long-sleeved jersey, he had on a black t-shirt emblazoned with the fanged-face logo of the British heavy metal band Motorhead.
We turned off the Cuenca-Guayaquil highway at the concrete “15 KM” marker onto the road accessing dairy farms. After three slow kilometers on smooth river-stones we registered with the park gate attendant, an employee of the city utility company. Joining a lot with a handful of other cars, we trod downhill into a verdant valley surrounded by mountains overlooking placid Llaviucu. The trail led past the brick and concrete ruins of an abandoned German brewery. Andean gulls soared overhead while snowy egrets stalked the marshes across the way; close-by, ducks paddled in pairs.
“Hey, check it out!” Bradley shouted. A couple of dozen alpacas grazed on grass at the far end of the lake. To the left of the trail, more ambled across a hillside. Bradley stealthily approached the latter group with his iPhone for a closeup. In contrast to the wary llama, the mostly white creatures hardly noticed our presence as they grazed contently. Young ones stayed close to their mothers.
Walking in the direction of Taitachugo, head-high grasses and bushes crowded the trail. We next encountered a herd of horses behind barbed-wire fencing. They lifted their heads from the grass, checking us out. A grassy clearing with coals from a campfire overlooked Rio Taitachugo, the thundering stream which emerged from a hollow of trees and boulders on its course to Llaviucu.
Light rain began to fall from clouds which had lowered into the valley from mountain tops. The path turned into an uphill climb. Bradley’d had enough. “I’ll wait for you guys by the river. That’s it for me, today,” he declared. In silence, we watched him disappear.
Again, Eddie looked at the map. If anyone can make out the route, he’s the guy, I thought.
Ascending the trail, we scaled rock faces and crossed streams. With Bradley’s surprise decision on my mind, to raise our spirits I sang aloud,
The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain.
The bear went over the mountain, to see what it could see.
Just something to keep Eddie and Lino focused on having a good time. I treasured this moment with them as I took in the breath and scale of the valley terrain from on high.
We’d reached 3,600 meters according to the map when Eddie declared, “We took a wrong turn back there. We should be closer to Las Penas Mountains.” Those massive vertical peaks loomed on the opposite side of the river behind wisps of clouds. Sunlight shone briefly on the valley floor as I scanned the area.
“But, Eddie, we keep seeing those red-paint route blazes, so far,” I said. Each major Cajas route has a distinctive color for both the trail and in the printed guide.
Lino, with exasperation in his voice, chimed in, “They told me it was two hours from Llaviucu to the lake. But they said nothing about climbing a mountain!”
Lino and I resignedly agreed with Eddie to call it a day. Everywhere we turned the forest appeared jungle-like with vines hanging from branches and wet grass underfoot. Ahead were mountain peaks shrouded in fog. The big lake would sit in the higher altitude valley behind them. Because rain fell more steadily and with Bradley waiting, we turned back.
Lino and Eddie hustled ahead of me. To keep them in sight, I slipped down the hillside and across that angle-shaped root. Stars flashed as I realized how I’d hurt myself. I shook it off best I could, taking deep breaths. I found a foothold on the trail’s side by grabbing a low-lying branch. Lino called out, “Everything all right, Jeremiah?”
“Just had a spill, Lino. Be right there,” I replied to his voice. The trail turned to the right behind brush which hid them from me. When I caught up, they asked if I was okay. “Yeah, my back’s sore but no biggie.” With the hike called to a halt, I only had to make it to the car to relax and assess the damage.
As soft rain fell the trail leveled off, a sign for a break. Under tree branches, I emptied from my backpack bread, cheese, apples and bananas. Eddie leaned over with an aluminum-foil-wrapped submarine sandwich, “Here, Jeremiah, take half.”
“Thanks, Eddie. Hmm, that’s some chicken sandwich,” I said while chewing on a mouthful. Lino offered a banana. “No thanks, man, I brought a couple myself,” I replied. He tossed it to Eddie.
Noises down the trail got our attention. Pounding of feet on wet grass and the arrival of a young couple surprised us. With a nod and a smile, a man and woman in running shoes and shorts disappeared as quickly as they’d appeared. “Well,” Lino said, “they’re in good shape.” We bust out laughing.
Resuming our hike, we passed again the horses. They’d nudged closer to the fence, almost as though they’d expected us. With healthy hides of brown, tan and white, they munched on the high grass, some of which dangled from their heads. I whistled to get a rise out of ‘em.
We finally spotted Bradley. He lay stretched out in the grass under tree branches. Rain continued at our end of the valley. “Hey, guys, great to see you!” he shouted as we approached.
We told him about our meal break and how the couple ran past. “You should’ve seen the woman when she ran past!” he exclaimed, “she almost screamed as though she’d just seen a dead body.” We all laughed at the thought of her shock when encountering Bradley’s dark form by the trail. “Eddie, do you have that sandwich?” Bradley asked. “I’m hungry.”
“No, Bradley, I already shared it with Jeremiah, when we took our break.” I had to keep from laughing when Bradley’s mouth fell, “But that was my sandwich! You told me you’d have one for me.”
I chimed in, “It was mouth-watering, Bradley. Didn’t need water to wash it down.”
Resigned to having missed out on lunch, Bradley shook his head as he gathered his things into his backpack. With an easy hike back to the car, we’d find a restaurant that served trout dinners and make it up to him.
Ollas del Cajas had a fireplace at which he and Lino tried to start a fire. The damp kindling and grass resisted their combined efforts. Thank goodness the cook promptly served a teapot of hot canelazo-rum and fruit drink spiced with cinnamon. Sipping my glass of sweet Andean nectar, the sore tailbone didn’t bother me much.
A week later we gathered with wives and friends for pizza and drinks. Bradley told me why he stopped climbing the mountain, “I’d hiked with friends in Los Angeles a few months before, and my knees hurt. When I climbed, I felt all right; but coming down was painful. So, I didn’t want to risk it on that steep trail.”
Anticipating drier weather ahead Lino declared, “Let’s go, again, guys. Only this time we’ll camp overnight and find that damn lake.” We all agreed knowing what fun we had on just a day hike. I’d have a sore tailbone for a few months which slowly healed just like Pam’s. But for me it was worth it to spend a day with my buddies in the wilds of Taitachugo.
Photos by Jeremiah Reardon