I get to Baños in the evening; by then, clouds have already wrapped themselves between the mountains, around the church steeple, and over the river. Mist winds down the streets as a party bus, lights flashing, drives slowly along. Smoke from the line of grills set up outside the cathedral wafts up to my second-floor hotel room, which shares a balcony with the adjacent rooms. As the sun sets, the church is illuminated by blue lights which glow eerily through the mist. The ride from Quito to Baños takes four hours.
The clouds haven't lifted when I wake up the next morning. I pull the curtains open and see that the window has fogged and raindrops fleck the panes; I still cannot see the mountains. I boil water for coffee in the tiny kitchen on the roofdeck and wait as the other guests wake up and come upstairs to make breakfast, wait as the rain slows from a pour to a drizzle, wait until I can finally see these towering, fabled hills.
All of the trails are safe, the man at the hostel tells me quickly while he does a dozen other things: passes towels to waiting tourists, checks girls with huge backpacks out of their rooms, sips a cup of black coffee from a white mug. He wants me to get out of the way. Just take care, he tells me, and then looks away. I leave the hostel and walk down the one-lane streets until I come to the bridge, which crosses a deep gorge that divides the town from the eastern hills. The sky is brightening, the clouds are melting, and below me, hundreds of feet down, brown water in the river churns.
The road grows more and more broken the higher I go; first it’s one wide, tiled lane, but then those bricks crumble and it becomes a rocky, bumpy path that pickups jerk and bump down. In the back of each truck people stand, clinging to makeshift bars, and watch me. Dogs run to the side when they hear the cars, but don’t look at me as we pass each other. I can hear them barking in the hills, above and below me, unseen. A copper-colored horse stands in the grass, gazing at me through long lashes, her blonde mane blowing in the breeze. Always there are dogs, sitting on the side of the road, or trotting along as if they’re on a mission, their noses raised and sniffing the wind.
Higher and higher I go. Fewer cars are passing me now, and the breeze smells of eucalyptus, of juniper, of cut grass, of cow manure. Occasionally a sweet smell like jasmine cuts across my path, or the scent of lilies, which now, as they always have, take me back to my cousin Liza’s apartment in Rome so many years ago. She kept lilies in wine bottles there. The sky lightens and darkens, clouds passing over me, always fading and returning both. How green it is here, how lush the thick grass seems, and how dark the thick leaves of the trees. Now I pass pine; now I pass grazing cows. I hear a rustle in the bush beside me; chickens are clucking, scratching, glaring at me. Water pours out of a pipe that protrudes from the hillside.
I pass a family eating their breakfast. Their house is a wooden lean-to with a clear tarp for a roof, and it’s built on the hill, right next to the road. I wonder how many times the rain has taken it down; you can see evidence of mudslides everywhere on these inclines. The family doesn’t notice me; they sit on plastic chairs drinking soup while the mother fries plantains on a tiny grill. There must be six of them sitting there, half-sheltered by the flimsy tarp roof.
I walk and walk, and it gets harder and harder to breathe. Still, it’s so beautiful here, with the expanse of green peaks and the volcano in the distance, that I don’t want to stop. I go up and up, past steep stands of tree tomatoes, the fruit hanging like suspended red eggs from the branches. I pass an abandoned pickup, a donkey tied to a tree, an abandoned wooden hut painted over with grafitti, and always these mountains, so green and cut with waterfalls, with herd paths, with the track marks of old rockslides. How clean the wind is here, and how constant.
I pass a woman who carries costals in both hands. Buenas dias, I tell her, and she grunts and nods. I look back after a few steps; she has stopped and is staring at me, and when she catches me looking she glances away. The road cuts back and forth across the hill, and when I look down again, I see that she is still watching with narrowed eyes. I hurry on.
On the way back down towards the village, I pass a parked red truck, the bass audible from the speakers. Hola, I tell the man who sits in the driver’s seat. Come here, he says, not unkindly. There’s a child sitting next to him, fiddling with the rearview, and so I step closer. Where are you from? the man asks me. I tell him. A beautiful country, he tells me. Beautiful, like you. I mutter a thank-you. And where is your husband? He asks. I tell him I don’t have one. He pulls out his cell phone and starts scrolling through his contacts. I have many nice friends, he tells me. Would you like to meet them? I shake my head and lean in, towards the little boy. And how old are you? I ask him. He holds up three fingers, then four. Four! I say. You look older. The man looks me up and down, and tells me again how beautiful I am. I wonder whether he is drunk. Good bye, I tell them both, and hurry along, leaving the red truck with its thumping bass behind.
Towards the bottom of the mountain, I hear someone running behind me. I turn around; it’s a young boy in a blue t-shirt and jeans. He runs past without saying anything, and I watch him as he makes his quick way down the steep, rocky road. Just as he’s about to turn the bend, he raises his arms up beside him and jumps, and for one moment I imagine that this mountain wind will lift him, and he'll fly.