My legs and feet seem to be attempting to secede from the United Republic of Abby’s Body in protest of the unjust taxation and abuse they suffered today. What they don’t know is that I’ve already vetoed their petitions. I suspect civil war to break out when I wake up tomorrow morning.
The reason I’ve subjected my lower half to such torment is because today we climbed Cerro Manquehue, the tallest point in the Santiago valley at about a mile above sea level. It is actually an extinct volcano and has an estimated geological age of 19 million years. Another interesting fact is that it is an unruly and harsh monster to hike.
To get to the trail, we first had to walk through a super wealthy neighborhood and hop a fence (which I did with my usual catlike ninja grace). Then you walk through a huge horse paddock and pick up the trail. The first third of the trail is pretty steep; even as an experienced hiker I was winded. Then there’s a fairly even stretch with some gentler undulations in the land. And then the fun begins. Here, fun means about 45 minutes of punishing uphill climbing with such a steep grade that your hands get well acquainted with the rich dark earth. The path seems to follow an old stream bed and features delightfully surprising patches of loose gravel that slide out from under your sneakers to clatter down the mountainside.
From start to finish the hike was about two and a half hours, but we made slow progress because we had to stop often to rest. It was worth it for the reward of the view. As we ascended we were able to see the city laid out below our feet. At least, we could make out bits of it through the thick layer of smog that hangs over the city. Because Santiago is situated in a valley the mountains around it trap the smog and keep it from dissipating. As a result, the pollution concentrates and seeing the thick cloud was startling and worrisome. Santiago is well known as one of the most polluted cities in South America; although updated public transportation vehicles and better policies have made improvements it still frequently reports double or triple the concentration of airborne pollutants that is recommended by the World Health Organization.
Squinting through the thick haze, trying to make out familiar landmarks, I was struck by a very deep concern for our future as a species if we do not start making healthier decisions now. I imagined a future in which every city is like this, smothered and sicked by its own poisonous halitosis. Two of my three host siblings have asthma, many of my friends have reported increased migraines since arriving in Santiago, and I find myself more tired and worn down than usual. The World Health Organization warns that high levels of air pollution can cause a cornucopia of health issues, from clumped veins and pneumonia to increased number of fatal heart attacks and negative effects on fetus in pregnant women. Looking out over the city I didn’t need to see the actual statistics to know that what I was looking at was not healthy by any means.
Turning 180 degrees, we could see the peaks of the Andes Mountains that make up the Cordillera. They were capped in fresh white snow, and we could see tiny ski lifts snaking up the sides of some. They were wrapped in fluffy white fog, blissfully clean and cool. In comparing the two views, I thought about the two directions our future as the human race might take. On the one hand was the city choking and coughing in its own filth, on the other was the pure, clean mountains.
I believe that we are at a critical stage in our development as a species and the decisions we make, or don’t make, will have a profound impact on what the human experience will look like in 50, 100, 1,000 years from now. Will we continue to suffocate and poison ourselves and our children and our children’s children or will we dedicate ourselves to a healthy and sustainable humanity? I also believe that we are capable of choosing the latter, that we can successfully apply our enormous collective intelligence and creativity to solving these problems.
The decent from the mountain was no less treacherous as the steep angle and loose gravel made our footing shaky. I think I made 80% of the return trip by sliding along on my backside. I owe my jeans a thank-you card; they held up remarkably well given the jagged rocks and gravel. Still, my muscles twitched and complained with every step down the mountain, to the micro, and home. Tomorrow I will pay dearly for the perspectives I gleaned on top of Cerro Manquehue, but the pictures at least help make it all worth while.