The trip has only just begun, but I’ve already been overwhelmed with so much emotion both in preparation for it and in the journey to our final location that I am afraid I won’t be able to catch up to how fresh it is by the time I am back home and sit down to write at my desk. Doing that would surely offer a wider reflection that includes all parts not only behind the scenes but also ahead of them. Using the terms of the many photographers who have tried to capture the beauty of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, it would give me a better panoramic view of my experience. I’d even be able to upload larger picture files. Instead, though, I’m going to work with what I have and write what I know now.
At some point in the early summer, Andrea and I were talking on the phone. The house was asleep. I had my laptop open while we talked, and I was looking up words like Santiago, Calama, Chile, San Pedro de Atacama, the Atacama Desert, and listening to her tell me again about how she wants to travel there to see all of its wonders and to help write her finish her novel. The primary backdrop to her novel is this astronomical and geological mystery that she knew so well intellectually but wanted to see for herself. I squeaked out that maybe I can come, too. I had some story interest in this region as well, and this was a chance to see my friend’s dream actualized. This became our little writer’s retreat. Andrea, who calls me her practical Capricorn and who has always wanted us to travel somewhere together, might have fallen out of her chair in shock when I said I may come. Getting the family approval was the first struggle, but I was going to try to make it happen. Going with her could only have been written in the stars because there were so many odds against my going to this completely random and faraway place in another continent.
It’s usually the Geminis in my life, like Andrea, who inspire (or badger) or motivate (or ask relentlessly) me to say yes to something outlandish. Wherever that guidance has taken me is usually something difficult for me at the time, but ends up being something I never regret because it stamps something else to my character and forges something in my relationships. This capricorn who dreams while sitting steadfast in a chair gets catapulted into the adventure she seeks because of these passionate Geminis. So, I worked all day, took the kids to lessons and ice cream, sent them off to soccer practice, got in an Uber with a stranger named Andrew, sat in a flight from Atlanta to Santiago for over 9 hours, in an airport for 4 hours after that, in another plane to Calama for 2 hours, and then an 1 hour and thirty minute drive to the hotel to what has seemed to me now as this: to sit on the edge of something beautiful.
In the plane, I got to see the path of The Andes and the lines of the desert that Andrea called sand rivers. They looked to me like an open palm, flat to be read. Like anything we see in nature, the awe we have to living art is akin to the awe we reflect in ourselves.
Boarding our flight to Calama, I noticed the plane was filled mostly with men, and the airport was the same way after we got back. It turns out that they are here for the Chuquicamata copper mine, the largest open-pit copper mine in the world. That rugged industry and local information felt incongruous to the music in the restrooms; at one point Elton John was singing “Your Song” to the backdrop of the airport, and Pretty Woman’s theme song played at the previous airport, the comical side of globalization.
The car ride to the hotel was wondrous. The land here is incomprehensibly fantastical. Mostly, this area is unpopulated. In the car, I learned there are about 16 million people in Chile, 8 of them in Santiago, and about 1500 of them in this small area we’re in now.
Roads are clear, the land is an expanse of myriad things. In my mind I see a time of tribes or a time of dinosaurs. Where there seems to be very little human life on the setting around us here, there are surprising images everywhere. I wrote on my phone on the way here that my brain doesn’t understand how snowcapped mountains are the backdrop of a dry desert. I understand roughly that it’s all a result of science from years ago, glaciers, rain, The Pacific Ocean, the Andes of the East, the Humbolt current of the west. But like I told Andrea after seeing the most magnificent, pure night sky last night, this place for me is like tasting different palette-inspiring dishes that leave you wondering about their ingredients, about the Chef’s magic.
I saw Saturn’s rings, or moons, last night. I saw the haze of the milky way galaxy. I learned about star cemeteries and black holes. After climbing 60 stone stairs to the observatory, I reclined on a lawn chair, like the ones you’d lean on and view the ocean waves, and instead looked up at drops of blinking stars. Our ancestors saw the sky without cities, overpopulation, and pollution, and I felt that I went back in time to join them for thirty minutes when our star guide, Pablo, told us his narrative of the stars. He used words that messed with any concrete resolution I’ve had of time, of humans, of organic matter, and of history.
After eating a delicious meal—while desperately trying to stay steadfast to a diet that may prevent the heavy altitude sickness that prevails among newcomers to this part—and star gazing, we called it an early night to get ready for a day of quiet acclamation.
I’m sitting on the patio of our room with my feet burning in the sun and my hands gently cracking from the crisp, cool air. I see a person or two walking quietly among the grounds of the hotel, which looks more like a sanctuary. Every time I look up from this computer, which is stringing together dusty connection, and see it, I can’t believe it. And I know for certain, just like the pictures I saw of this country before I got here, that pictures cannot do this place justice. And by “it” I mean both the grand gasp this region gives you on the inside and the ancient beauty it displays on the outside. It’s a place of incongruity yet a place of symmetry. I hope I can search these early ideas more as I move on through the days here.