CHILEAN MOUNTAIN HIKE
BY JEFF FRENCH SEGALL (MARCH 18, 2020)
Desolation. That’s the word that might come to a visitor’s mind as he climbs around the rocky, dusty hills surrounding the port of Tocopilla, Chile. I am free for the day, for the stevedores are busily off-lading cargo from my ship and, as the helmsman, I have nothing to do, so I pack a light lunch for myself, fill a canteen with water, toss them into my backpack, and leave to spend a day consorting with stone, hill, wind and pelicans.
As I climb, I look back frequently. The slope is still gradual, but I’m beginning to sense a gradual steepening. I hear the wind blowing constantly. Its sound becomes my world. It is broken often by the squeal of gulls, the occasional distant sound of a ship’s horn signaling its approach to the port, and then I hear crackling. I look up and see high-power electric lines suspended from hundred-foot-high towers stretching from deep inland to the ocean village. Sparks leap from junction to junction and crackle as they do so. Then, at one point, following the curve of the hill, the mountainside occludes my vision of the sea. All at once the sounds of horns and gulls diminish and as I climb, the hills completely block them. All I hear now is wind and crackle of electric spark. As I examine the rock, I notice some are grey, others of a bluish tint, and still others, somewhat green. I pick up a few smaller ones to keep as mementos and continue my climb. I am starting to perspire and stop to remove my sweater which I tie around my waist. I wipe the sweat away from above my eyes and stop for water and lunch. It is now early in the afternoon, and, my curiosity sated, I start my return to the harbor.
As I near it, I see the captain, first mate and a stranger on the dock standing and talking beside the ship. They are completing a transaction. The captain introduces me to the man, Adolfo. He asks me how I enjoyed the climb, and hearing my positive reply, offers to take me for a car ride to visit a mineral quarry. We drive alongside the mountain range for a while and then take a turn inland where the road begins to rise. At length we arrive at the open-air mine. Scattered all about the place are stones, some huge, others pebble-sized, and still others about the size and shape of the stones I had pocketed. But these are pure blue or pure green. He tells me the blue ones contain copper compounds and the green ones, nickel. He invites me to take as many as my pockets and backpack can hold. I do so eagerly. We soon return to the ship, and later that day, we leave Tocopilla.
The following month, I leave the ship to return home and resume my university studies. I have left my haul on board, knowing that the ship will eventually return to New York at which time I will retrieve my bounty.
A few months later, the owner of the ship, a family friend of ours, informs me that the ship has slammed at full speed into hidden sharp rocks just beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico and has sunk. It took a day to go under and in that time, the crew removed what they considered valuable which was eventually returned to me. But not the rocks.
They have returned to nature, not on some mountain top, but at the bottom of the sea. My only memento is this memory of what happened those days so long ago.