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A day above the clouds

Arlene and the incredible Blue Rhino. (Photo submitted)

We were an hour late and it was already dark. My companion and I burst through the entrance of the pizza restaurant and hurried over to the table where our friend, Clare, waited for us. In our excitement, words came spilling out about our day in the mountains of Ecuador:

"Carlos drove forever and the gas gauge didn't work! We were afraid we'd run out of gas!"

"The roads looked like goat paths, rocky and bumpy with huge dropoffs! There were hundreds of S-curves ... "

"My seat in the back wasn't secure. There was nothing to hold onto and I had to use my feet to brace myself with every turn!"

"On the way down, we could smell the brakes start to burn ... We thought, this is it!"

"We were gone almost 10 hours ... ooh, the fumes from the traffic and the dust from the road!"

Clare leaned forward, her eyes wide with concern. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said when she could get a word in.

We stopped abruptly. Huh? It'd been a great day! Our "complaint list" contained all the things that added up to make the day's activity a grand, once-in-a-lifetime (albeit hair-raising) experience.

That morning, we had innocently asked our new acquaintance, Carlos, 53, a retired U.S. Army sergeant major now living in Ecuador, about the famously steep mountain road along the cliffs in Columbia. He replied with a sly smile, "I have a road for you."

Off we went in his turquoise 1978 Nissan Patrol "jeep" that his kids lovingly refer to as the "Blue Rhino." As we ascended farther up the mountain, our driver and his vehicle grew more and more impressive. Think of Duluth's Skyline Drive times 1,000. Without the use of power steering, we navigated hairpin turns to pass coffee farms and climb far above the treeline. Wild parakeets flew overhead while curious cows turned to watch us drive by.

After a few hours on the road, Carlos cheerily exclaimed, "I suppose you are wondering, 'Where is this crazy guy taking you?'" Actually, we didn't truly know this fellow well enough to be SURE he had our best interests in mind ... I secretly crossed my fingers. It didn't seem like we would be arriving anywhere soon.

We passed through a tiny town called "Buenos Aires." Although that means "Good Air" in Spanish, the atmosphere seemed mighty thin. We estimated the altitude to be above 12,000 feet. A few more sharp turns and suddenly we faced a breathtaking panorama, looking down at the clouds across a multitude of mountain peaks.

U-n-f-o-r-g-e-t-t-a-b-l-e. Carlos, we think you might be our newest best friend.

Was it uncomfortable at times? Sure. Did we have any idea what we'd gotten ourselves into? No. Would we do it again? Absolutely.

Maybe you've had a few of those days, too, times when things don't go as expected, life suddenly becomes extraordinary and all you can do is hold on and brace yourself for the ride as best you can.

Be grateful for those days. Have as many as you can. Great things don't come from staying in comfort zones. Getting beyond your "artificial boundaries" often leads to a new and more glorious view.

And luckily, it usually doesn't require 10 hours on treacherous mountain roads in Ecuador.

Arlene J. Anderson is a Twin Ports native turned writer, teacher and global explorer. She previously lived in Norway and China and this fall lives in Ecuador. For additional stories and photos she invites you to The Teachable Traveler website at