The great divide

Photo by Bobby Watson

MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica — Deep in Costa Rica’s Monteverde reserve runs the backbone of the Americas — the continental divide.

At an elevation of 4,700 feet, a weathered and waterlogged sign explains the significance of the ridge that is simply known as “La ventana.” This ridge is just a small link of the winding chain that makes up the continental divide, a geographic line that stretches from Canada to Argentina.

The line theoretically indicates which ocean a drop of water will empty into, depending on which side of the line the water lands. A simple thought really: water that lands on the eastern side should eventually empty into the Atlantic Ocean; water that lands on the western side should empty into the Pacific Ocean.

As a man from Colorado I have had the privilege of standing atop the divide in the Rocky Mountains as recently as last week. One week and several thousand miles later I stood atop the same divide in the lush cloud forests in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The two experiences had little in common.

A Costa Rican cloud forest receives slightly less rain per year than a rainforest does. The trees look as if Tarzan could come swinging through at any moment. The forest is thick. I was struck by the fact that even if I wanted to I would be physically unable to walk more than a few feet off the path before I would be swallowed up in the undergrowth. Life is abundant in this part of the world, rich with countless plants, animals and insects. I no longer cared what terms scientists used for this place. It became clear that I was trekking through the heart of a true jungle.

We hiked for about a mile before reaching the ridge on which the divide ran. When we reached our destination I stood for a moment, literally soaking in as many details as I could. As my face was soaked from mists of the Atlantic trade winds blowing up the side of the mountain, I began to realize that although I was thousands of miles from home, and the terrain bore no resemblance to the Rockies, this ridge reminded me of being on top of Loveland Pass in Colorado.

A week ago in Colorado there was more snow on the top of the divide (20 some inches) than there is topsoil in the cloud forest (roughly 15 centimeters). There are no plants at that elevation in the Rocky Mountains since it is above the timberline, but in Costa Rica I was walking amid several dozen species of orchids alone.

Rarely is visibility a problem in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t see the sun while in the cloud forest. I needed eye protection in both places, for the blinding glare off of the snow in Colorado and the rain that was blowing uphill in Monteverde.

These differences all ran through my head as I closed my eyes and attempted to experience my surroundings through smell. I quickly began to choke as if I had stuck my face in front of a hose set to mist mode on a muggy summer day. I was no longer breathing, but rather drinking in the air around me.

Despite the differences, I was reminded of the same thrill of adventure on top of that ridge in Costa Rica that I experienced in the Rockies last week. The continental divide provides people a unique opportunity to spread their arms and bridge the gap of entire nations from coast to coast. Despite the poor visibility, I felt that I could look upon anyone in Costa Rica from atop the ridge. In both cases I was not at the highest elevation in the country, and in Colorado I wasn’t even at the highest point within the state, but that didn’t change the feeling. Costa Rica and Colorado are miles apart, but adventure is to be found in both places.

— David Dishman

2 thoughts on “The great divide

  1. Anne Wilson says:

    Phenomenal descriptions! Having also been on the continental divide in Colorado, as I read your article I felt as though I too was in the Cloud Forest in Costa Rico. Thank you for the colorful analogies that “allowed me to share the experience”.

  2. Patricia Cameron says:

    I appreciated the depth of your experience and how you expressed your feelings. I t gave me a warm fuzzy feeling and new appreciation of a young man I can call my grandson. gma

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