I was sitting in the vets office waiting for the doc to look at Deeter when I first read about the 4,000+meter pass near Merida. At a rough translation, that’s 12,000 feet — higher than I may have ever been. Certainly higher than I have ever pedaled. I have a real love for big mountains, and I would rather be above treeline and touching the clouds than in a forest canopy. But I also knew that climbing a pass to 12,000 feet would challenge me both physically and mentally.
The climb over Paso de Aquila and reaching Merida was the one thing that I knew I wanted to do on this trip before we left home. This was my personal challenge and came to be the thing that kept me awake some nights. The night before we began the final ascent, I felt just like the night before the SATs, the night before the big track meet, the night before I was to be on stage at Kane Hall. Pure performance anxiety.
Mountain passes have always had some kind of magic for me. I remember the very first one I pedaled over in Romania in 1996. I remember the one that wasn’t on the map in Turkey in 2004. I remember Steven’s Pass close to home. They all serve as symbols for some kind of achievement or goal that I’m not sure I am worthy of.
We headed out of Timotes early in the morning and were happily surprised to find traffic light and the road beautifully paved. The day before we pedaled with too many big trucks and stinking 70′s model “taxis” racing past for comfort. But once the real climb began, only vehicles who respected the road seemed to be traveling. We got some thumbs up from eager passengers and toots from careful drivers — always a welcome sign. Villagers and farmers smiled once their minds registered the two loaded bicycles passing them by. Kilometer after kilometer we slowly climbed passed cabbage patches, leeks and onions, garlic, artichokes, cauliflower and greens. Impossibly steep and rocky patches or earth were tilled and irrigated along our way.
Our maps didn’t show how far to the top and road signs varied in their distance to Pico de Aguila, so we simply went as far as we felt that first day before we found a rare and perfect place to camp beside the river and near the onion field. It looked like the top was “just up there” as we watched the clouds roll in mid-afternoon and obscure the view. All my anticipation seemed so unnecessary as we settled in for the night, thinking that in a couple short kilometers our downhill would begin.
It was a perfect camp sight and a perfect night in our hamsters nest of a tent snuggling under a shared sleeping bag. In the morning, we cooked a hearty breakfast of leeks and garlic and eggs, made toast and coffee over the camp stove and lingered for the sun to take the chill off the morning air. The elderly lady who gave us permission to camp on her property had the face of a sweet apple doll and wished us well as we continued on our way.
So we hopped on our bikes and whooped it up as we came to a sign at the top that read 4,007 meters. The ribbon of road disappeared through small farms and villages in the valley below. The official top was supposed to have a National Park office and restaurant, so that must be just around the corner. Or maybe it’s around that next corner … or the next?
The road continued to climb and farmland quickly disappeared into dry and rugged scab land. Hearty heathers and lupins long past blooming covered the landscape. A few lonely cattlemen looked on with wonder as we slowly pedaled past. One friendly fellow called out to ask say we were only an hour away from Aguila. An hour? Wasn’t it just around the next bend?
We stopped for hot chocolate and the chance to warm up once again in the sun at a restaurant on the lonely road. Was this the restaurant stop listed in the guide book? We went on … and on.
There are no signs on these roads indicating how far or where you are. When we would point and ask, the answer always way that Aguila is “just up there”. Somewhere past the hot chocolate stop, I stopped looking at my cyclometer, stopped looking at my watch, stopped thinking how far. The landscape now looked like the top of the world and could go on forever. By now, my legs felt more like a wet sponge being rung out to dry. We would stop long enough to breath, and eat a few nuts and feel the surge to go on once again. I recalled the climb to Alto do Letras in Colombia nearly 2 months ago and was pleased it wasn’t a wild and frantic stretch for breath, but a slow and methodical labor for breath. Two months training had prepared me well, a life time of performance anxiety was turned into a simple need to keep moving forward. Poco a poco, I would tell myself — Little by little.
We passed a road crew slicing a thin line in the road to lay internet cable, they cheered us on and said we would see the top soon. Indeed, around the next bend the statue of a Condor — Paseo de Condor was visible against the still blue sky. Switchbacks continued to inch upwards one pedal-stroke at a time. I’m caught on camera by a family visiting from Caracus, the father in a bright blue suit smiling as he pointed his video camera at me. I am barely able to manage a smile and a wave is impossible. They seem to understand.
Drenched in sweat and too cold to stop, Willie pushed on to capture the moment I rounded the top — a milestone. A life highlight. A victory for the moderate amongst us who can achieve great heights one small life stroke at a time. The final pedal stroke at 13,894foot — nearly the height of Mt Rainier. The downhill … savored for 60 kilometers and 60 years to come.