Sunday, November 27, 2011

In search of snow

This year was the first time I had experienced a real winter since 2007.  I gave winter a miss during my years in Ecuador, which has what is colloquially referred to as a winter, describing the part of the year you might call the rainy season.  I suppose people from different parts of the world have different concepts of what winter looks like.  For me, coming from Ohio, I could never think of it as being anything less than icily cold, cloudy, and often snowy.  But admittedly, after a few years in the eternally springlike climate of the Sierra in Ecuador, my personal tolerance level for cold weather had shifted.  A night in the 50s started to feel downright cold to me, and I had taken to the Ecuadorian custom of wearing a jacket when I left the house on many mornings that in Ohio, around April, would feel practically balmy.

So, once we came to Chile, and the days began getting shorter, I started to wonder just how cold the winter in Santiago would be.  Come July and August, winter had fully set in, and one morning in particular, we awoke to the above scene from our living room window.  Every Chilean I spoke to said that this was highly abnormal, and the TV news that day was full of people marveling over the novelty of snow on the ground.  The snow never made it to our neighborhood, but in the parts of town lying near the mountains, the snow accumulated, much as it had on the hills you can see from our apartment.

Soon after, we opted to take a walk in a neighborhood closer to the mountains, and while no snow remained on the ground beneath our feet that day, the Cordillera de los Andes loomed nearby, replete with a nice dose of white powder laid down by successive snowfalls.

Santiago is one of few cities its size to lie so close to a mountain range that receives such a quantity of snow, and we were fully charmed by them each time we saw them this winter.  Whenever some rain would come down in the city, we would remark that more snow had fallen on the mountains, and made a point to get a look at them to see just how far the snow had reached down the mountainsides.

Having bought a bike for commuting to the various places around town that I need to go for work, I started to wonder if there was a decent place to go riding, to get into the snow in the foothills beyond the city.  Fortunately I wasn't the only one thinking like that, and so I had the opportunity to go with my friends Ruth and Stuart into a conservation area known as El Santuario de la Naturaleza, or Nature Sanctuary, as we might say in English.

In order to get there, we rode through several of Santiago's comunas.  The metropolitan area of Chile's capital is divided politically into many such areas, each with its own mayor, and distinct look and feel.  Starting in Santiago Centro, and then riding along a contiguous corridor of green space and parks through neighboring Providencia, we soon made our way into Las Condes and rode among the many new skyscrapers of Santiago's modern economic heart.  Being Saturday, its wide sidewalks were nearly vacant, and we were able to cruise peacefully along streets that during the week are nearly unnavigable by bike for the number of people on foot and in cars or buses.

We then moved into Vitacura, an upscale residential area I hadn't spent more than a few minutes in until that day, and I was struck by the resemblance it bore to countless upper-class neighborhoods you might find in central California, with its mix of modern apartment buildings, two story homes with grassy lawns, and smattering of high-end stores and restaurants, local or international.

After nearly a full hour of gradual climb towards the mountains, we had reached Lo Barnechea, the most rural and perhaps most expensive neighborhood yet.  The picture above reveals a glimpse of it.  Its rolling hills dotted with bushes, the river valley below, and the occasional rustic estate transported me instantly to the Upper Canyon Rd. neighborhood of Santa Fe, where million dollar homes were not a rarity.  I don't know how much homes in Lo Barnechea will set you back exactly, but considering that the only students I've had who live there are both vice presidents in their respective companies, I have a general idea.

The nice thing about places like Canyon Road and Lo Barnechea is that while the real estate might be priced out of the reach of a lowly teacher like myself, there was nothing stopping us from enjoying it in passing from atop our modest means of personal transportation.  We wound along some dirt roads that took us ever higher into the hills, passing hobby ranches and wooden farmhouses wafting aromatic smoke from tin chimneys.

It was here too that we finally made it to our first sighting of nearby snow for the day, visible at the top of the hillside to the right.  The brisk air full of the pleasant smell of nearby fireplaces made the climb a lot easier, and I realized how necessary it is to get out of the city from time to time, into fresh air and natural surroundings.

I couldn't tell you now what roads we took to get there, but eventually we left the increasingly sparse scattering of rural mansions below us and reached the entrance to the nature preserve.  We had to sign in at a wooden gate with a river to one side and a stone guard station to the other.  Above us, the dirt road was muddier and the hills steeper than those we had already passed, and the snow lying atop them was lying thicker, too.

The climb never got too grueling, but a persistent pain above my knees started intensifying as we made the climb and eventually I grudgingly had to hop off my bike.  It took awhile for me to admit defeat, having ridden up hills far steeper with no problem in the past.  Was it the flu I was getting over?  The copious wine I had drunk the night before?  The lack of physical preparation in the weeks prior?  All those things and more, most likely.  Once I was down, it felt like my legs were going to buckle underneath me, and a few squats didn't seem to help.  But after a few minutes the pain subsided, and fortunately I was able to walk my bike without it coming back.

The same place I finally decided to dismount, a snowdrift.  I was like a kid at Christmas.  Albeit a 34-year-old one, with a pair of aching knees.  Not so bad that I couldn't bend down and scoop up a handful of it for the picture.

We had made it to the snow.  If I was going to have to walk my bike from here, at least I had made it this far on two wheels, into the snow.  Five years prior, I had ridden my bike through the pink-brown mix of snow and caliche in Santa Fe, when it had dumped a foot on the city in the course of a few hours.  I was forced to walk my bike then too, not for my own physical limitations, but for the simple fact that the snow was too deep to ride through.

That was the last snow I had been in, until now.  When things come around full circle like that, how can you help but reflect on who you are now compared to who you were then, and all the things that have happened in between?  That's what I did, as I shook my legs out and pushed my bike up the hill.

From our perspective, moving as we were along the snow-speckled foothills of the Andes, we were afforded ever more spectacular views of the Andes proper.  We were separated from them by a valley, and however high we went along our path, the mountains on the other side would always be higher still, and snowier, and further out of reach.  That is the how the mountains dare us, revealing with their sheer presence the next and greater challenge.  That day, we were happy enough to enjoy looking at them from where we were as we shared a lunch of sandwiches, tangerines and chocolate chip cookies.

That was not to say that we were done for the day.  That first snow drift gave way to more, until the road itself began to be overtaken by ice and slush.  We found this shack, ostensibly abandoned, and decided to take a break.  In the distance, the Andes unfolded above us in their snow-swept glory.  And from an overlook nearby, we were afforded a panoramic view of the city below.

It was truly impressive.  Partly because it revealed just how far we had come to be where we were.  In the foreground, the open hills and occasional homes of Lo Barnechea.  Beyond, the greater and greater density of both the city itself, and the thick layer of smog that obscured our view from the vantage point in the clean air we were enjoying at the moment.  None of the photos I took show much more than this murky, yellowish-gray cloud that appears thicker the further towards the horizon you look.

The naked eye could see lots of landmarks of the city in the distance, which we spent several minutes discovering.  We could also see how the smog spilled out past the limits of the city itself, laying like a blanket on the entire flat basin beneath the mountains, locked in by them.  Which reveals yet another reason why it's important to get out of the city on a regular basis.  Especially in the winter.

From there we continued our climb on foot, along a road now fully buried in snow.  Judging from the muddy tracks, we obviously were not the first to be up it since the most recent snowfall.  Later, we met a pair of Australians, each atop their own personal four-wheelers, taking a break and having a chat in the middle of the road.

Several minutes after we passed them by, the deep silence afforded by the insulating power of a thick layer of snow was broken by the high-pitched roar of their engines in the distance as they motored their way back down the mountain.  There are lots of ways to get up a mountain road, and from my personal bias, I have to say that the ones that you can do quietly are best.

At some point on any day trip, the decision must be made as to where to stop and turn back.  The road we had chosen kept going up, the snow kept getting deeper, and the wind kept blowing harder.  We played for awhile at saying that we would go just one more bend in the road.  I for one was waiting for some kind of other milestone, like the initial snowdrift, to mark the stopping point.  I didn't know what that might be, admittedly, and in the end, there wasn't one that day.  We finally found a place to stop, to sit for a few minutes, to eat and drink.  When we got up, it was back down and not up the road that we went.

Along the way we found this black dog, and he followed us on our walk back to the bikes.  Once we got on our bikes and began the high-speed, rattling downhill, he kept on following us, joyously matching our speed.  He would run ahead, get to a bend, slow down and look back, and then run aside, fall behind, and then back up front again.

Never did he run the risk of getting too close to our bikes and causing an unexpected turn and subsequent crash, and I felt comfortable letting go of the brakes and pushing at the limits of the downhill.  Only once did I find myself in the gravel of the shoulder as I underestimated the angle of a curve, forced to come to stop and reorient myself before starting up again.

Looking back, thinking of the various rides I've taken in the Andes of Chile and Ecuador, this one might have been my favorite downhill ride.  The visibility, the grade of the hill, the severity of the curves and the conditions of the road all added up to a nicely technical ride that could still be taken safely at high velocity.  Other roads might let you cruise with your hands off the brakes all the way, resulting in a fun downhill, but lacking in any great challenge.  Others are so steep and curvy that you're riding the brakes the whole time, or the dirt and gravel is so thick and loose that one wrong move can leave your wheels out from under you.  This one was a nice balance of all of the above, and thankfully my legs let me do it without any resurgence of my earlier cramping in the knees.

Once the thrill of the downhill tapered off into a gentler finish close to the guard station, our black dog stayed behind, and we all regrouped and recounted our respective experiences of the ride.  Then we continued the trip, down from the Santuario, down from Lo Barnechea, Vitacura, Las Condes.  The foregone conclusion of food and beer at a restaurant in Providencia, and then our goodbyes as we went our separate ways home for the day.  All in all, a fine day on a bike.