In the Andes, With Disney at Your Heels


GO eye-to-eye with a llama and those big, brown eyes will stare through you with a bucket full of superiority. Near the base of Ecuador's Cotopaxi volcano, a closely packed herd has just trundled down a dusty Andean road, heads high, ears pointed, all the creatures as silent as Ralph Nader walking past a new car dealer. It's slightly eerie.Above the herd in the distance is the Disney-like splendor of white-capped Cotopaxi, one of the world's highest active volcanoes at 19,324 feet. Evoking Disney does not please me. The cone-shaped chocolate mountain is so perfectly peaked and topped with a luscious marshmallow topping, and it is enormously alone - no other peaks anywhere near it - that it has a familiar, stylized look. I can't believe I thought of Disney first. Standing on a paramo, a high-altitude plateau, and looking up at the volcano, I quickly remind myself that I have succumbed to years of cultural conditioning. Subjugated as we are in Western culture to images designed for quick identity, this could be the nameless peak that Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse climbed in a dozen cartoons in which Pluto or Goofy is buried under eight tons of snow, then pop out and catch up to Mickey who is blitheringly sure the mystery box is at the summit. As if I'm in a Disney movie, I figuratively rub my eyes, and wow! there is the real Cotopaxi. To get here, photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman and I were driven from Quito in a van south along the Pan American Highway, the peak always ahead of us. For two hours the volcano shifts and hides behind passing clouds as we wind our way toward it through mountain spurs and volcanic ridges. On the way, the trees alongside the road are an odd mixture of eucalyptus and evergreens. We turn right at the rusted sign at the park entrance and climb steadily up a dirt road. Our driver says no when we ask to stop and photograph an Indian woman with a herd of sheep. "Stones," he says and makes a throwing motion. Two days ago as we photographed in Quito, an Indian woman threw string beans at us. The trip to Cotopaxi is a long, semicircular route. You start on one side of the volcano and eventually end up sort of behind it, stopping at a broad, shallow lake known as Lake Limpiopungo, where camping and picnicking is allowed on a treeless plain. By now the shifting cloud cover and mist has parted; there stands awesome Cotopaxi. We are a few miles from the Jose Ribas hut, which acts as a base camp to begin a climb through the snowfields to the summit. We meet Mickey and Donald and start the climb. Stupid Pluto lags behind, but we climb steadily but slowly in the high altitude. Mickey says the mystery box at the summit rim contains a map drawn in blood to the Amazonas del Sur gold mine. "Gosh," he says, "it has more gold than Fort Knox." Frankly, I don't believe him, but we push on. The climb is not technically difficult but Donald is a real klutz and Mickey won't stop talking. By afternoon we are close to the summit. The view out across the plateaus and green valleys is vast and quiet. Pluto is lost again. Finally we reach the summit rim, an exhilarating triumph to stand on top of the snowy world and look down into a volcano. Mickey scurries around like a mouse and finds the ancient box. He opens it with great excitement, but finds no map, just a quote from somebody named G. K. Chesterton about "Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere." Mickey, Donald, and Pluto disappear. In reality I am back at Lake Limpiopungo, still looking up at snowbound Cotopaxi and drawing my final line by seeing the mountain as a thing of purity itself, which is the point of being here, which is the antidote for stylization and familiarity. Melanie takes my photo with Cotopaxi over my shoulder. With apologies to Disney, Mickey, Donald, and friends, we leave.

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