I was eleven when I first saw Tungurahua.
It was Thanksgiving 1976. We were driving in our white Chevy van from Quito to Cuenca to see the Incan ruins of Ingapirca. We had spread a picnic. I remember the lemonade, the tuna fish sandwiches. I remember the fallow field rippling with wild flowers. I remember the clear horizontal expanse of blue sky. Then, out of nowhere: the volcano. Huge. Massive. White. Closer than my hand.
I was born to volcanoes. The youngest daughter of medical missionaries, I was born in Quito, the oldest city in the new world, and grew up on the edge of the Amazon in a military town named for Shell Oil. In Quito I would catch tadpoles on the slopes of Pichincha. In Shell I would stay up way past my bedtime watching Sangay erupt, mesmerized by the blue and green gases hovering on the jungle horizon, the red lava running down the volcano’s perfect cone. And in Baños, just above the cloud forest, I spent hours riveted to huge murky paintings of the Virgen de Agua Santa rescuing devotees from the chaos unleashed by Isabel Tungurahua.
I was born to volcanoes. I knew them all by name—Imbabura, Cotacachi, Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi, Pichincha, Chimborazo, Sangay, El Altar.
So the odd thing was that in all those years I had never really seen Tungurahua, or perhaps, more to the point, Tungurahua had never seen me.
In Ecuador, Isabel Tungurahua’s seductive powers are legendary. She is known to have at least two husbands, one lover and a son of questionable paternity. She smokes and trembles from her many passions and every eighty years or so she erupts with a hiss of white vapor, a spray of ash, and pours forth, without censor, the hot red lava that pulses through her stone veins.
With seduction, timing is everything.
While I had lived most of my life in Ecuador, I had visited the jungles of Peru and had traveled with my family across most of the continental United States. In the summer of 1973, we drove our white Chevy van from Miami to Minneapolis to Panama. For six weeks straight we camped and ate powdered astronaut food from aluminum bags. In all, by the time I was eleven, I had visited ten countries and thirty states.
I had sweltered in Miami and frozen in Minneapolis. I had admired horses in Kentucky and Orange County. I had climbed the Statue of Liberty and the pyramids of Teotihuacán. I had visited Disney World and Disney Land. I had floated on inner tubes down the Apayacu, water skied in Mobile, ice skated on Lake Harriet, and ferried down the Panama Canal. I had smelled the chocolate air in Hershey and sulfur at Old Faithful. I had snapped Polaroids of Mount Rushmore and Chichen Itza. I had seen slices of the human brain in Chicago and the Aztec Calendar in Mexico. I had read bronze plaques at Gettysburg, visited a slave plantation in Atlanta and seen the crack in the Liberty Bell.
By 1976, the landscape of the Americas had written itself across my imagination.
I was eleven. I was reeling. I saw Tungurahua for the first time that Andean Thanksgiving and in profound silence, she somehow spoke the world.
I spent the rest of that vacation curled up in the back seat of the van on a huge pile of pillows, riding through the Andean fog, writing in a small red notebook in illegible print.