© Copyright 2022 by Ekaterina Golovina
Photo by Martin Wyall on Unsplash
There’re eight of us left. Someone would say we’re stuck Up here. That’s not right. We have it chosen this way.
We live in a community called El Salto. Its name may be translated as “waterfall”, referring to a cascade in the gorge that has been dry for years. Our village is surrounded by mountains and woods. The only paved road runs across it. No one has even been bothered to give the route a name. Maps refer to it simply as “The direction to the lagoon”.
There’re few cars that drive up this road. More often I see men in cowboy hats trotting proudly along it, who send their horses into gallop showing up in front of rare passersby. They are local farmers, probably, heading to have a check at their goats in the gorges.
It’s springtime now. In gardens flowers blossom and imbue the air with their aromas. During the day, trees jingle with bird songs, at night changing for cicada chirrup. This is how I always imagined “South” when I was a kid, a fairy tale piece of land where my family couldn´t afford to travel. And now I live in such a place.
My house is in the center of the village. Very convenient: two minutes away from the mini super how we call a grocery store here, five minutes to the house of my friends, ten minutes to the gorge. El Salto is a tiny place.
My paradise lasts till Friday evening. Then everything changes: from Below the Horde climbs up – tumultuous, caddish and drunk. For two days I wish to be anywhere but here.
Rare news reaches Up here. The rumors say the world is collapsing under a death wave, that thousands of people perish because of the unknown virus and there is no treatment. Up here we hardly believe most of it. The news sound too fantastic to be true. As if they were telling the plot of a Hollywood movie, one of those about zombie and the end of the world.
One morning my neighbor doña Rosa met me outside to share a new hearsay:
The road from Below is restricted. We can´t go down anymore.
I had doubts it was true. There are always lots of rumors circulating around the little community.
Later it was confirmed. El Salto was isolated. At first, I got scared. To live fully cut off from the world Below?! I felt abandoned. Startled, I could hardly guess yet the beautiful changes it would bring into the lives of everyone Up here.
We are walking a forest trail, surrounded by tall pines, the aroma of fir needles pouring richly into our lungs. It´s so easy to breath here. Because mountain air is clean and fresh. And also because we know: we’re still free Up here.
Soon a huge orange overhang comes into our view to the right of the trail. We call this place Las Animas, “the souls”. Water was running down this prodigious wall for millenniums leaving it all covered by fantastic tufas. At the beginning of the 21st century it serves us as a theater where we give an unmatched performance of our strength and endurance.
We are at the entrance to many kilometers long gorge that leads to the world Below. We don’t venture further than this sector though, “The Souls” being enough for us.
I’m trying to take in the immense warty wall. A bird of prey is slowly circling the blue stripe of the sky high above. Suddenly a scream pierces the air of the gorge, making the bird shoot up and vanish in the blue. I turn to my partner.
Didn’t make it. Again, - my friend sighs.
No drama. We know, at the end it all sums up. Maybe, twenty, maybe, hundred tries more, and one day he’ll be up without falling even once. For such hard-earned moments we all stay here.
These guys on the rock, they are ones of our own. It’s been long time we don’t see new faces in the sectors, no one from Below comes up anymore. To get to El Salto one needs to go through a strict check, few pass. No complaints from our part. We love to have The Souls just for us.
As you have already understood, we are climbers, all eight of us. But my case stands out.
I’m from the North. I have arrived Up here four months ago. Who could guess then where it all would lead? All the directions were open, and I was studying maps choosing where to go next. It´s been ten years I have been wandering around the world, touching its extremities from North to South, from East to West. At the end of the last year I was digging Internet for information about my next stop in the South.
From time to time the news popped up: an epidemic on the other edge of the world, people die. I hardly paid attention to that. Between us and them – oceans.
I was feeling excited looking at the dark silhouettes of the mountains through the window of the landing plane.
The purpose of visit, - the immigration officer interrogated, his face expressing the ultimate boredom. Full of anticipation, I couldn’t hold it.
The officer looked at me pensively, decided I was not worth further discussion and stamped my passport - “180 days”. I was going to use only 60 of them… I believed then.
Today marked the 120s day since my arrival to El Salto.
Years ago, in a circle of friends we were playing the game called “Tickets”, popular in my country. Each participant writes down a tricky question, papers being collected and mixed afterwards. Then the game starts: randomly one pulls a ticket from a stack and had to respond the question whatever it asks about.
The first one got me buried in thoughts.
What kind of person would you like to see yourself? Describe in two words.
I took a minute of reflection.
Traveler, - my friends would expect that one: I just can´t stay still.
And the second one?
This one is easy too.
In sport area of my life the situation was desperate, my “traveler alter ego” being a sad reason for it. Among continuous trips I never had time to dig my toes into training routine. I hadn’t been advancing at all for the last couple of years. I knew precisely how to repair that, though: I had to settle down in a demanding climbing spot for a while and work on myself. Instead, I just followed the flow unable to organize my life and start to build of myself what I wanted to be.
Who could imagine that a virus, menacing the humankind, would help me to get to the point and fulfil my dream?
I´m feeling horrified: it´s Friday evening. My house is right at the Direction to the Lagoon – the favorite route of the Horde. Before they arrive, I padlock the gate and shut the windows, helplessly trying to reduce the noise from outside and attract less attention to my home. But no matter what I do, they will be here soon…
Then something strange and wonderful happens. The clock has already chimed nine but it´s still quiet outside. The windows are not jarring from low basses. I don´t hear nor deafening roar of 4x4 motors, neither screams of bibacious crowds wandering the Route. The only noises, breaking the silence of the night, are the chirrup of insects and murmur of leaves touched by a dying breeze in my garden. The Horde hasn´t come.
At the cashier doña Kika checks out the purchases. Her mouth and nose are tapped by a green mask, but I can tell she´s smiling.
You look good in it, - I mock her a bit.
She pulls the mask down and winks at me. We all feel safe here, more without the Horde now, but wearing a mask is the order from Below. They come to check if she complies, several times per day.
Only three people are allowed to enter the mini super at the same time – another rule from Below. This morning we´re only two though. Nonsense for Saturday.
Can´t recall anything similar in my own time, - sighs doña Kika. She turned 74 a week ago.
The next morning, I join a neighborly discussion across the street. With new Order we were surprised to find we have more free time for socializing now. The latest news from Below is in the spotlight.
- By the way, we can’t stand like this, - points out Roberto, he lives two houses down the road from me. – It must be at least 1.5 meter, and we shouldn´t be more than three.
We all nod and smile, but no one moves.
The news is not fun at all, though. The amount of infected Below doubles every day, hospitals run out of beds. Under press ion of high fines people are forced to stay at home. No one can leave their micro district; any travel was officially banned.
Most of it sounds like a fantastic novel to us.
Today, though, we have started to feel we´re also a part of this diseased world.
No visitors are allowed from outside of El Salto, - states don Alejandro. He is the one that rents camper vans to those from Below. This news causes tension in our neighborly circle.
The Horde is a source of income for everyone in the village. That´s the only case when locals speak well of it. The Horde doesn´t count money when they are Up here. It pays El Salto´s bills.
I attempt to take the heat off.
When we were walking to Las Animas yesterday, we saw a mother bear with two cubs.
Few villagers still remember those wooly dwellers that used to frequent local pine forests. But the truth is – it´s been long time since one saw them close to the village.
Looks like now bears are back to their lands. People and nature, we both need this break.
The world below was put under quarantine. The borders get closed, nationals being “evacuated” from abroad. I heard people were fined for hugging or jogging in a park. “Stay at home!” – new motto of the modern world.
My country shut the border completely. These news made my day: no more need to look for excuses to stay here.
“We´re worried about you”, - such messages reach me from Below sometimes. From Up I wish they would better take care of themselves.
We feel as if El Salto is the last stronghold of a free man.
Up here the life turned to what it was “before the Horde”: quiet, hasteless and connected to nature. We fill each day with climbing and walks in the forest, writing and reading, taking interest in people who share this land with us.
And I have changed my mind. I don´t feel abandoned anymore, I feel privileged. In this stunningly beautiful place, I do what I love the most. “El Salto” may be also translated as “a leap”, and for me it has turned to be a dive towards my dreams. It’s not the virus that has detained me Up here. I have it chosen this way long time ago before the virus was born.
Stay at home? Well… I do, this is my home.