A Vague Roadmap to Life, Casa Grande and the Mountains of Puerto Rico

A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.
Sivananda, 1887 – 1963

La Cordillera Central Mountains, Puerto Rico

 Casa Grande was our destination as we raced the setting sun, hugging hairpin turns as we rode the back of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central Mountains toward Barrio Caonillas.   The narrow road cut through dense jungle vegetation and every few miles we whooshed through a bamboo forest, where  thousands of emerald green reeds–each almost a foot across–rose two stories high.  The giant bamboo stalks bent across the swath of concrete we were following,  forming  a verdant canopy. It was an odd sensation to see groves of these gigantic plants tower above me, being accustomed to the smaller species, several of which grace my countertops at home.  I felt a little bit like a ladybug on someone’s lawn, contemplating enormous blades of grass from below.

On our cartoonish map, the route my husband Tom and I traversed appeared as a series of spidery white lines, labeled in tiny print as rural roads 145, 146 and 140, which descended across an appropriately-colored green background. We faced forks in the road that the tourism cartographer had not deemed worthy of recording and more than once we made detours through family enclaves.  Residents looked at us with both curiosity and broad smiles that suggested they didn’t see too many strangers cruise through their neighborhood and the ones that did were likely lost.  With each of these diversions I became less concerned about going too far afield, as the byways inevitably seemed to reconnect to the squiggly stretch of road the map said we should be on.

The section of the map covering the extent of our journey named no towns; the only location that had warranted being spelled out was Fabrica del Mueble or “Fine furniture factory.”  With no frame of reference to gauge our progress, Tom and I were both acutely conscious of the lengthening shadows, and our conversation waned with the light.  We realized our assumptions about the duration of getting from Point A to Point B were meaningless.  On another map of a different topography, an eighth of an inch would blow by in the blink of an eye. The diagram of our course across this lush land that time had forgotten covered a miniscule increment the size of a fingernail, yet represented more than an hour.

Our eyes and our energy were intently focused on the road in front of us, as though we could will our destination to appear before us.  For all we knew, the mountain retreat we were headed to would be around the next bend, or over the next mountain peak.

We made a particularly steep descent and came face-to-face with a verdant wall of mountainside, at the foot of which the road dead-ended and made a hard left. Even with the mounting sense we could find ourselves driving this terrain in the dark, I couldn’t resist asking Tom to pull over so I could take a photograph.  The enormous expanse of green that loomed ahead was backlit by the setting sun, and a small white house at its base served to underscore its immensity.  Tom heaved the heavy sigh of one who recognized a losing battle, and pulled off on the shoulder.

Getting out of the car, I saw that an even more minor road trickled off to the right, along which several small houses were perched, with a cluster of men communing over the open hood of a car. I walked toward the escarpment to take a few shots and heard Tom call out “Buenos tardes, donde Casa Grande?”  The response came in English and was music to our ears—if we took the tiny lane in front of their homes, and went over a small bridge, we would  arrive at our destination.

Soon enough, I was relieved and grateful to see dusk descend from the deck of Casa Grande, a former coffee plantation now a holistic retreat.  With arrival of twilight, the wind picked up and a symphony swelled, courtesy of the resident creatures of the night.  A call and response of chirps and croaks ensued and as the harmonic hum rose and fell, the lights of the handful of houses hanging on the hillside across the valley began to twinkle in the darkness.

The next morning, from the same perch, I enjoyed my coffee and seeing day break over the peaks, their cloak of mist rising and then disappearing with the sun.  In a matter of minutes the dove-gray sky turned periwinkle and fluffy clouds began to tumble across the tree line atop the mountains.

Tom and I went for a short but laborious hike up the mountainside, accompanied by a black dog with a friendly smile, who we learned had just turned up the day before.  Life’s cycle played out before us, from the fallen leaves carpeting the jungle floor to the tender tendrils of leafy vines curled around massive tree trunks.

The night before, I had spent some time talking to the lodge’s owner Steve, who told me about the path that had led him here some 15 years ago from life as a Long Island lawyer. He shared with me some of the myriad changes that had taken place since, ranging from getting divorced to becoming a yoga instructor to bringing his business successfully through economic downturns and a major hurricane.  In each instance, he was never completely sure what the outcome would be, but he also said he felt consistently certain he hadn’t made a mistake to put down roots here. Today, he told me, he can look back and see that every new development along the way was part of his destiny.  Life is a process, he said.

These were welcome words to a gal whose roadmap is sometimes a little vague.  Having made a monumental change in direction of my own at about the same age that Steve had, like him, I was now being regularly presented with a whole new set of situations, choices, challenges and opportunities. I too had no doubt that the new course I had embarked upon was the right course, but I do have periodic episodes of anxiety about what lies around the bend in the road.  Now three years into this leg of my journey,  I am beginning to see a pattern of those uncertainties being met by safe havens in places high and low, where those further along the path share hospitality and hope.

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For more images of Puerto Rico, see my Travel Photos.

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