Avenue of the (Hidden) Volcanoes
When_a_given stretch of highway is titled “Avenue of the _________”, we know great riding is in store (like our days on the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California months ago). Thus, excitement was my immediate response when I heard from our host in Tumbaco that our route would lead us to the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a portion of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador that lies between two mountain chains and their respective volcanoes. And I wasn’t disappointed. Leaving Tumbaco the next day, we familiarized ourselves with the cloud-shrouded Cotapaxi, the second largest volcano on the avenue at 19,347 feet, as we climbed up 6000 feet over its shoulder at 12,000 feet. At the top of our ascent, we were treated to spectacular views of the volcanoes lining the highway ahead. Before long, however, clouds rolled in and blanketed the peaks.
Our time on the avenue after those brief glimpses was one of hidden volcanoes and inclement weather. Rain, hail, and lightning fell from the sky. Clouds enveloped us in fog on high mountain climbs and descents. In spite of these daily trials, our time was also filled with incredible encouragement. Honks, cheers, and waves became common, and increased in regularity with each additional rain drop. Even our favorite “two hands off the wheel thumbs up” was deployed by one very enthusiastic truck driver. A family gave us space to sleep sheltered from the rain. Kids showed us shelter near their favorite soccer field. A restaurant housed and fed us. After each rainy night, we started the next day energized and dry. The conversations, food, and laughter we shared with the people along the avenue contrast with the challenges we faced while riding it.
One night outside of Ambato especially stands out. A family of eight brothers gave us an unfinished home to lay our sleeping mats and sleepy heads down for the night. Handshakes and greetings abounded while we were shown our sleeping quarters. It wasn’t long before we were seated around their dining table enjoying coffee, bread, and conversation and joined by their sisters and daughters of similar age (it’s funny how that works). I sat next to Mariella, one brother’s one-year old daughter. With a growing vocabulary, her parents solidified us as her new friends. At first, we were her “nue-ego”. With a little practice, though, it wasn’t long before we became her “nuevos amigos”.
When I look back on the road from Alaska, people are what I remember most (and maybe the food, too). Mountains, lakes, coastlines, deserts, roads, towns, and cities blend together to form a vague painting of the americas in my mind. Only when I reflect on our new friends does that painting gain clarity and color.