I grew up in the haunted northern valleys of Argentina’s Andes mountains. Snuggled up against Chile’s Atacama and Bolivia’s Altiplano, for those who can make the trek and brave the 20,000 foot peaks and passes is an escarpment, a quebrada, sliced as if by a celestial claw and through which boils a savage river – when it flows. For it is also a desert landscape, saguaro cacti stories tall when we are told they only grow in Arizona and only up to the elevation of 4000 feet. Yet nevertheless there they were, decorating the mighty mountains of Argentina, clinging defiantly to the arid ground above the treeline. Haunted, because this valley became the last ancient stronghold of the Inca, at the very southern tip of their empire, before the Spaniards came. And the Spaniards always came. There is a monument to the last stand of the Indians in Humahuaca (working with the Argentine independists), Pedro Socompa towering in 70 tons of bronze over the little town.
When I was a boy I would roam the ancient highland kingdom. It was a quiet place (before land-lines up there, to say nothing of cell phones or internet or satellite TV). The mountains still held the scars of the empire’s passing; ancient forts and rock art and potsherds and arrowheads and sometimes (if you were really lucky; I was never that lucky) gold. I was there during the dark days of dictatorship; but we were missionaries and in the far north, far away from the politics of Buenos Aires and a-political and therefore safely ignored by Virela and Galtieri and the other thugs who ran that country for a season. I was (blissfully) ignorant to the goings on; as all five year olds should be. What it did mean was that I had the mountains to myself; along with the llama and sheep herders and Quechua families descendants of the Incas making the occasional pilgrimage to visit the remains of their loved ones on the hilltop cemeteries. I would trek the hills for hours, looking for the telltale signs of timeworn empire.
Wonder. That’s what it meant for me, lost in my highland sanctuary. Climbing high upon the rock-mountain face of the escarpment only to find impressed into the huge slab a series of tiny footprints; hiking deep into a crevice in the mountains until arriving at an ancient waterfall to find rock fossils full of trilobites and other ancient marine life. Running through the ruins of the abandoned Hotel Huacalera, escaping from the ghosts that haunted that establishment after the patrons had moved on and the erstwhile owners had boarded up the entrance – but not well enough! Wonder is about exploration, about reveling in a past full of ghouls and goblins, stories out of the mists of time. And it is about the future, the hope of discovery and the bottomless well of knowledge; that most sacred of thirsts which only becomes more intense the more it is quenched. Wonder is not static, for it quickly molds. It is not rigid, for it would quickly break. Wonder must have movement, and change. Wonder is a road that rolls along a path taken alone, nobody can accompany you on your wonder (that has been a hard lesson for me); a solitary journey that might depart from anywhere, and upon which one must keep a sense of faith and freedom and discovery for what is over the next hill, and the next and the next and the one after that.
Nowadays the wonder has moved on from that lost valley (at least for me), as have I (at least for now). Wonder requires a flowing, of time and politics and history; the valley has become a weekend destination, bed-and-breakfasts and wine tastings and visitors from Buenos Aires and Salta. Hotel Huacalera is now a five star establishment; do little-boy ghosts still hide in the once-broken-down rooms, jumping out to disquiet the guests, though we are not yet dead? Are we part of their wonder now, though ours has moved on?
Our world has become somehow wonder-less, hasn’t it? For wonder demands a yearning and a healthy sense of self, tempered with the reality that you are only one of billions and are probably not as amazing as you think you are. Arrogance, hubris – they are the death of wonder. It requires curiosity; which is the antithesis of self-righteousness. And it requires effort, which is something in short supply these days. Wonder is actually actively discouraged; it is rare now for a movie to serve as a vessel for wonder – neither do our books inspire it – and our politics, well I will say nothing at all about this. Certainly our cluttered world which has at once become too small and too big and too known has robbed us all of our ever-rolling road.
As for me, I mourn the loss of wonder even as I search for its rediscovery. I sometimes capture a flash of it. In a graphic novel; or a new story about a Pacific Viking; or a hasty glance at a lost place. At a spark of discovery in life which has become safe and tedious. And I miss the wonder; C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, which I am reading to my little boy now – watching his eyes fill with excitement. J.R.R. Tolkien who gave us the ancient mysteries of middle earth; things we are told to put aside, to be serious, to ‘grow up’. Because the wonder is what makes life worth living.