Mountains Aren’t Necessarily Mountains

February 7, 2020

You can tell a mountain is a mountain, because it’s big, and high, and probably involves exposed rock. But when you spend time on a mountain, unless you’re really up high on a barren or icy area, you’re on ground. There’s probably grass plus some small plants, and many mountains, like those around my home, have lots of trees on them. In short, they tend to be just like regular countryside, only steeper. They’re less mountainy, the more mountain-sided I am as an observer.

My ambiguity about mountains stems partly from living right under one: familiarity breeds maybe not contempt, but a certain boredom. About sixty yards back of my house, there’s a cliff that rises and recedes in stages for several hundred feet. To the right, or north, there’s a jagged area of exposed rock where a bunch of the stuff came down a long time ago. I often wonder if there’s more of it waiting for a good quake in order to come down on the house, but no-one here remembers it falling in their lifetime.

Near Amatlan.jpg

Mountains near my home. The ridge at the rear is to the north, and rises almost a thousand feet above our village.

But my favourite view from here isn’t of the bluffs curving round to the north and across the east, with the little valley that clefts them. Nor is it the more dramatic bluffs a few hundred yards to the east, which screen the rising Sun from the village, and ascend as much as 700 ft from the village streets, which are already at 4500 ft above sea level. Rather, it’s the view to the south, where the hills and mountains are five or six miles away, or further.

Far hills at evening copy.jpg

The view from my home down to the hills around Yautepec, a short time before sunset.

There, they recede in a blue haze of uncertain detail, which means they can imply almost anything: wildness, inaccessible heights, or concealed caves with giants, heroes or dragons. I don’t mean that I believe in such things, having seen no dragons nor giants, and encountered few real heroes in this part of Mexico. But the effect of seeing them calls on such ideas from deep within.

It’s this ilusion of mountains that began to fascinate me after a year or so. They are, I decided, much more interesting as ideas than as concrete realities, which means they’re much more appealing from a mile or two away. And seen from a dozen times that distance, they conjure up all kinds of fantasies and mythic whisperings.

Popo Jan 28:20.jpg

On a day when it has no snow, but is giving off a faint halo of steam from the summit, the cone of Popocateteptl rises over a low point in the hills east of my village.

My point is that we’re programmed for mountains to inspire us. Up close, as I said, they’re just a lot of raised ground, often hard to ascend comfortably. The best they can offer (which can be very good indeed) is a vie down across lowlands towards other mountains.

This morning, wanting to go somewhere I’d not been recently, I headed to the town of Yautepec, a few miles south of here. It nestles in those hazy blue southern hills I mentioned above, with three or four lines of mountainous slopes marching off in the distance beyond it.

Looking for a long-lost restaurant, I began climbing a street running up a hillside, and kept going as a view to the east opened up. Between my village’s mountains and the hills of Yautepec, there’s a flat area that runs for a considerable distance eastwards, and sometimes you can see the volcano in that direction. And today, the top 5,000 ft. of the active Popocatepetl and its extinct neighbour, Ixtaccihautl, were both snow-covered, while the air was as clear as it can get in the 21st Century. Coming to the summit of the hillside street, I had an unobstructed view of both these mountains over someone’s roof, and spent twenty minutes absorbing the beauty of the vista, while lamenting that I didn’t have anything with me to take a photo.

View from venaditos.jpg

This range of hills, south of my village and closer to the town of Tepoztlan, have their own air of mystery.  There are trails up there, but you need a guide to find them.

The full range they form is around twenty miles long, and I don’t think I’d ever seen the pair as clearly as this before. I’ve been to their foot, at Amecameca, which is still, I believe, a starting point for people climbing Ixtaccihuatl. Popocatepetl, of course, is off limits to climbers, since even if some people don’t fear scorching hot ash descending on them, the rescue teams don’t want to risk getting killed themselves, recovering asphyxiated bodies.

Eventually, I came back down the street, and took the bus back home. Coming up from the plain, I admired the smaller mountains directly ahead of me. They looked suitably steep, green and dramatic, and very attractive, more so than up close – a perspective I know well, since I live amid them. Eventually the bus, which was old, lumbered and shuddered up the road into this scenery, and the drama faded away. Once again, I was in simple rising ground, slopes punctuated by trees and rocky outcroppings … but not ‘mountains.’

Illusion gone.

I’m glad Popocatepetl is off-limits, and I can never go on it. That means it will retain its mystique. It will stay a mountain.

Rock of Ages

January 15, 2020

Eroding coral copy.jpg

Today’s topic.

I’ve been reading alarmed reports recently about repeated eruptions from Popocatepetl, with some people interpreting them as signs of an imminent seismic apocalypse. But in reality, Don Goyo, Mexico’s most famous volcano, lets off steam and a bunch of ash the same way that Toronto gets snow in winter: regularly and frequently, if slightly unpredictably.

It’s really neat to see a plume of smoke and ash rising from the cone, at least from the safe distance of 25 miles or so that lies between my village and the summit. The volcano is most beautiful after rain, however, which tends to fall at those heights as snow, and coats its enormous bulk in white.

Once, in unimaginably ancient times, this village was covered by seawater. There were coral reefs where there are now rocky hillsides, and seaweed where there are now jutting promontories and small peaks.

I guessed this to be the case when I first came here, since there were so many strata visible in the rockfaces. Volcanic activity here has come and gone over millions of years, changing the topography. At intervals, more sedimentary rocks have been laid down between the periods of volcanism.

Some seven or eight years ago, I was walking on a hillside trail when I spotted a large, patterned rock, just as I was close to finishing the house I was building. It was a chunk of fossilised coral, knocked out of a rockface by some unnoticed tremor, that with the rains of many years had eventually arrived where I was standing looking at it. It was a perfect ornament to go beside my outside stairs.

Years ago, when my kids were small, I would take them to a stream in Erin Mills, the part of Mississauga in Ontario where we lived, to find fossils of seashells. They had washed out from soft, sedimentary rock upstream, and they made neat talking-points on a bookshelf. I think, though, I was more interested in them than my kids, who just saw greyish-green stones with streaks on them, while I saw very ancient history. Anyway, for me finding the coral was an extension of that old pastime.

Now, getting the coral home wasn’t the same as fetching back a clamshell fossil that fit in my hand. This thing weighed 30 lb, and I had to lug it half a mile home. But, I felt, in doing this I was earning the ownership of it. And I’ve never seen a specimen as large or fine here since.

A couple of years passed, and I came back to Toronto to earn more money for my retirement. One time, I asked Ofelia, the woman who rented my house what had happened to my fossil, but she had no idea. I guessed it had been discarded as just another lump of rock.

More time passed, and I returned here. Ofelia had died, and someone else had taken it. He didn’t know about any fossil, either. But then one day, soon after I’d come back, there was a discussion about the security of the corral where our dogs spend their daytime hours.

“Well, just use the big rock to hold the gate shut,” said my friend Lucero.

“Which rock?” I asked, not thinking clearly, so she showed me.

It had been used for this purpose for some months, and much of the coral pattern had been worn away. What had been living creatures millions of years ago, and had taken many more to impress itself as a fossil in limestone, was largely erased for ever.

There was, obviously, a lesson in the philosophical concept of impermanence here. There was also an opportunity for me to extract some emotional leverage for the damage done to something irreplaceable. But I knew there must be more pieces of such petrified coral in existence, and this specimen was not unique. So, I opted for half-baked Buddhism, while privately lamenting the ancient pattern’s erasure. And since it was too late to prevent the harm, and it was – after all – a rock, I let the topic go.

But I do look at the rock from time to time, and gaze at the coral pattern still etched along the un-abraded edges. It’s a simple reminder of how easily the earth can display its immense age when it isn’t covered by concrete or asphalt.

From Mirador - 4  copy.jpg

Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl seen from a hillside above the village. Once, the ocean covered this place.

In such a mood, I took the photo at the top on our patio one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. I stepped back, admiring my worn find. I was soon joined by Punky, one of the three surviving dogs here. Examining the object of my attention, he commenced his own palaeontological enquiries, sniffing it from all possible angles. Did he, perhaps, detect some faint hint of saltwater impressed into the rock aeons ago? Or even grasp, from a lingering aroma of compressed lime and clay, how it had lain within the rock of the hillsides of so long?

I’ve no idea. For he then did what any sensible dog would do faced with the presence of immense history, and lifted his hind leg, anointing the damaged fossil with a pungent scent of his own.

I’m very fond of Punky, but I fear he just doesn’t have that much scientific curiosity.

Happy Punky-1 copy.jpg

Punky rolling around on the patio.

Rock on

When I walk out of my living room and look up, right above me is La Ventana – the Window. It formed heaven knows how many years in the past, when a seismic event shook loose part of a pinnacle of rock, which fell between the pinnacle and the main body of the cliff to form what looks like an oblong aperture. Occasionally, I wonder if it or a portion of the main cliff-face could fall in another temblor, flattening this house.

La Ventana from below copy.jpg

La Ventana, from my house in Amatlan. The oblong aperture is foreshortened because of the angle.

Yesterday, walking with some friends on a trail out of a village a few kilometres away, we noticed a big rock by the side of the path that we couldn’t recall from a hike in October. In the cornfield behind it was a bigger chunk of limestone, while as we looked back up the hill, we could see a cleared track with broken trees. It looked like a chunk of stone had recently broken off from the main hillside, rolled down the hill, and broken into a main piece and several smaller boulders.

Sure enough, two people we met on the trail confirmed that it had come down at the start of November – they even knew it had been at 5.30 in the afternoon, when they’d heard a loud noise. The next day, a fence needed repairing, though the corn in the field had already been safely harvested.

Rollway copy.jpg

The rollway of the errant boulder, which crushed or knocked aside a few trees on its way down.

The four of us in our group spent some time admiring the different pieces of rock, which must have weighed tens of tons altogether, and the swath of destruction they had caused. By the end of next rainy reason, the scar will be almost invisible, and fresh saplings will root themselves, but right now, it still looks like the Incredible Hulk’s play-slide.

Whenever I mention the hazards of living in Mexico, people send leave me admonitory warnings to watch out for myself. I appreciate the sentiments, but I will forever feel less safe in a big city, where people still drive and text at the same time – I’ve nearly been struck four times by them, and only survived through my own quick reactions, not the drivers’. In a place where sudden death from floods, an earthquake, or a falling rock, is a day-to-day occurrence, your perceptions shift, and you feel more alert and alive. It might sound masochistic, but I appreciate the natural threat level in this country: too much safety, or apparent safety, dulls the wits. Being this close to visible natural processes, which are far less discernible in and around built-up areas, adds a zest to living, and shifts your sense of who you are, and how you relate to the world around.

Every time I go into town, for example, I look to see if Popocatepetl is visible from the few hundred yards of vantage point where its cone is clear of obstructions. It’s charming to see it after rain, which falls on its slope as snow; interesting to watch when it’s emitting a lot of steam; and awesome, in that word’s original sense, when I can see an actual eruption of dust rising miles into the air. I sometimes joke that Popo is my favourite Mexican.

And now I have a favourite Mexican rock to admire as well.

Small boulder copy.jpg

This is the biggest chunk that broke off my favourite Mexican Rock. It’s about five feet high and wide. You can just see the main boulder to the right at the back, sitting in the cornfield it ploughed through.

The Giant Next Door

June 8, 2019

The summer rains have started, but erratically. Today I woke to clear blue skies, and two hours later, Popocatepetl was still visible from the high point that the combi into town passes.  A sighting, for me, feels like a good-luck charm on the day.

I understand why people feel threatened by volcanoes. They occasionally explode, or more usually erupt in half-a-dozen less nasty ways, and they also make threatening noises at times. They sit atop fault lines that produce earthquakes, and of course there’s the idea of buried Pompeii and Herculaneum to caution us that sometimes the things can get very nasty.

I don’t care. I like being (relatively) close to a volcano, even though from my village it’s invisible. Perhaps if I didn’t have the mountainous shield that I do, plus a 20-mile space-cushion, it would make me more nervous.

Its legend, of a warrior who wanted to marry the princess Ixtaccihuatl, is well-known. Popocatepetl was cheated out of his bride, and now he watches over her eternally, for she is the volcanic mountain to the north of his, though she has been silent for many centuries. He has been emitting smoke (his name means “Smoking Mountain”), and quite often more than that, since 1991. Sometimes, the ash is so bad, flights into and out of Mexico City have to divert, and we find a brownish-grey grit to sweep up on our patio.

The mountains around here run to between 6,000 and 10,000 feet in altitude. Popocatepetl is 5,450 metres in height, or 17,880 ft, so that it dominates the surrounding scenery. It is Mexico’s second-highest peak after Pico de Orizaba.

I always look for it when the skies are relatively clear. The ideal sighting comes after a rainstorm, because despite the fact we’re in the Tropics, at that altitude the rain falls as snow and the great cone is entirely white.

Don Goyo Feb 17:12 - 2 copy.jpg

The volcano after rain that fell as snow, from the village of Huilotepec, 25 miles from the summit.

It easily disappoints. I took two friends to see it up close some years ago, and all I could show them was a huge cloud-bank. This afternoon, I went to Cuautla, a town to the south of the volcano, and while it had been clear at 10.00 am, by 1.30 it was completely concealed. Sometimes, it can still be seen from downtown Mexico City, as it usually was until fifty years ago, but this is increasingly rare. Malcolm Lowry’s famous novel of a man’s disintegration, Under the Volcano, is set in Quauhnahuac, the city called Cuernavaca today. I once glimpsed the cone from there a few years ago, but otherwise, it’s been invisible at that distance. I’ve never seen it red and glowing at night, as some photos show it to be during major eruptions, though I have seen a massive grey cloud ascending from it in the daytime. Naturally, I had no camera on me at the time, so here I’ve poached an image of a rather smaller ash-cloud.


The volcano erupting in July 2013, seen from the west.

In 1901, the British mountaineers Oscar Eckenstein and Aleister Crowley ascended it, later inviting a sarcastic Mexican journalist to join them, then glissading with the alarmed man all the way back down to the bottom. The British sense of humour was always very dry, and the periodista was suitably subdued after the experience.

Centuries earlier, an Aztec emperor sent warriors to investigate the summit, and they came back down with lung damage from the high altitude. In 1520, Hernan Cortes mined sulphur from up near the cone to make gunpowder when he fought the Aztec empire, so presumably he chose men for this who’d had experience with great heights.

Today, though, the mountain is off limits because it’s simply not safe to ascend. It’s a sight to see, not to touch, and only webcams offer close-quarters access to its activities.

To say a lot about Popocatepetl is to miss the point. It’s so overwhelmingly itself, so dominant and majestic in the landscape, that it produces more silence than commentary in anyone who sees it.  It has produced highly fertile soil for agriculture, as many volcanoes do, but it can just as easily turn on that sort of enterprise.

My own affection for it stems in part from the fact that there’s no currently conceivable technology that could contain it. Monitoring has improved, but nothing can block a few hundred thousand tons of magma on the move. There are Ruta de Evacuacion signs all around it in the nearby communities, but that’s the only option if it does go full-on. You leave, or you die. It won’t stop to argue.

It’s a god, for sure. A proud one, a noble one, and a beautiful one.