An Easy Hike
I AM GOING TO DIE. The thought sears my brain as I dangle from the hole in the mountain trail I’ve just fallen through. Nothing but a vast expanse of air separates me from certain death. My heart quickens as time slows. Terror twists my body and my grip loosens on the root I’m grasping as my hands grow moist. My life doesn’t flash before my eyes. Nothing does. Everything is a blur. The blurred faces of the other hikers. The blurred smirk of the head guide I call Tarzan. The blurred leaves of trees overhead.
Even as the hands of Tarzan and another guide pull me to safety, I can feel the weight of gravity still pulling me down, down, down. I slip a little and their fingers bite harder into my flesh. Finally my feet hit solid, and hopefully unbreakable, earth. My body sways and the forest slowly sharpens from a green glob into distinct trees. I glance briefly into the hole through which I’d fallen. My eyes follow the sharp incline culminating in large, jagged boulders several hundred feet below.
My fellow hikers, a young couple from Ireland, gaze upon at me with concern and perhaps pity. They are the picture of fitness; lithe, muscled limbs supported by sturdy hiking boots and bandanas encircling sweat-free foreheads. Meanwhile, my chubby little self is completely underdressed in shorts, a tee-shirt and hiking sandals.
My stomach gurgles, either from nerves or the beginnings of Montezuma’s revenge, and I try not to vomit as I realize there is no turning back. We are at least twenty miles from Copán, Honduras and the truck that brought us here has departed. I have no choice. I have to go on.
As if reading my thoughts, Tarzan grins and wobbles his head of luxurious black curls. “Vámonos,” he says. Let’s go.
The other guide, a fresh-faced boy named Ricardo, takes my arm. “Vámonos, Rebekah.”
I shake him off, but gently. “Tarde,” I say. Later.
He pokes me in the back. There is no time to wallow, or rest, or even breathe. The hike must go on. I take one shaky step and then another and another. Just keep walking, I tell myself, it can’t get any worse.
As we continue along the trail snaking through the dense pine forest, I keep to the inside of the path as much as possible, slipping and sliding over the rocky terrain. The expensive hiking sandals I bought especially for this trip are no match for the rough trail. No match for this easy hike. I would trade my soul for a pair of hiking boots right about now. The Irish couple look confident and sturdy in theirs as they stride ahead of me on the path.
As I carefully select each step, I remember how excited I’d been to come on this trip. How excited I’d been to start visiting all of the major Mayan ruins, a goal at the very top of my bucket list. Now this dream has turned into a nightmare as I find myself alone in a foreign country, miles away from the safety of the village on a hike I’d booked because I thought it’d be easy. My aloneness is emphasized by the near-death experience I just had. If I had plunged into the depths, who would have looked for my body? My host family? The director of Ixbalanque Spanish School where I am taking Spanish lessons during my week-long stay in Honduras? Not likely. I’d be just another stupid gringa who disappeared during a Latin American holiday.
Suddenly the Irish couple stop short. I nearly crash into the blonde Irish woman’s back as I put on the brakes. The sound of rushing water fills my ears. I peer around her and gasp. The trail has petered out into a wide creek the color of hot chocolate. Its rollicking rapids cascade over a river bed punctuated by jagged rocks. Without a word, Tarzan takes my backpack and places it on his head, nodding toward the creek bank. He wades out into the current in his bare feet and holds a calm hand out to the Irish couple. They slowly but confidently follow Tarzan.
Ricardo, the sweet-faced boy, waits for me at the creek bank with an extended hand to pull me along behind him. This time I don’t refuse his help. As we step into the gushing gale, my sandals fill with water and the soles become slimy. I slip on a large rock and tighten my grasp on Ricardo’s hand to keep from going under. I am no stranger to crossing creeks, but the combination of the near-death experience and slippery sandals are making this a nearly impossible task. By the time I reach the big flat rock near the shore, I am soaked and panting. Tarzan looks me up and down, laughs, and tosses me my backpack.
“Gracias,” I mumble, swallowing the words I really want to say. My Spanish may be rusty, but I still possess a full arsenal of curse words. Still, swearing at the man responsible for my survival doesn’t seem like a great idea.
Tarzan hops from rock to rock with a grace and confidence I can’t help but admire, finally settling on one near the shore. His wet tee-shirt and shorts cling to his squat, stocky frame as he takes a swig of water from a canteen and runs his hand through his unruly curls. Break time.
Ricardo offers me a hand. I push it away. I can still climb a measly little rock if want to, thank you very much. I climb off in the opposite direction, craving solitude. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong with them. Even though I hike all the time back home in Pennsylvania, this is on an entirely different level. As I settle myself on a huge boulder high above the creek, I think about the poster in the tourist office advertising the Las Cascasdas El Rubi excursion as an easy forty-five minute hike through lush forest. I want to know who would consider this easy, besides Tarzan? But I have to admit the Irish couple still seem fine. Ricardo seems fine. Maybe it is just me. I glance down at my white legs stretched before me. They are punctuated with red welts and scratches. I am a mess and we are only halfway there.
I breathe against the panic welling inside me as my eyes drink in verdant greenery and my ears soak up the sound of water pounding rock. Usually these two things in combination are enough to calm me. But not today. Looking around, though, I can’t help but notice the similarity between this gorge and my favorite place on the planet, Shohola Falls. This western part of Honduras boasts mountainous pine forests not unlike my childhood home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. The flora is different, but not so different as to be jarring to my senses. If I tried hard, I could pretend I am home, that my car is only a fifteen minute hike away. That if I got hurt, I would been rushed to a competent hospital. But the truth is that I am about a zillion miles from anything resembling civilization. The nearest hospital? It could be five hours away in Tegucigalpa for all I knew. I hadn’t bothered to find out.
I sigh and survey the canopy of green leaves overhead, hoping to spot a flash of red, yellow or blue that would signify a wild scarlet macaw. I had seen them at the Mayan ruins days before and marveled at their beauty. But I see no wildlife at all. Suddenly Tarzan breaks the silence with a shout. I gaze at the group. Tarzan shouts again and waves, beckoningly me down. I wave back half-heartedly and slide off my safe, warm boulder. My reprieve is over.
As I make my way toward the others, a gray gloom settles over the forest. I glance skyward and don’t even try to stifle my groan. The sun has disappeared behind a dark mass of clouds – signaling the start of the afternoon rains. What madness possessed me to plan a trip during the rainy season? I reasoned that the end of the rainy season couldn’t be that bad. Well, that was just another thing I could add to the list of things I’d gotten wrong.
Tarzan catches me gazing at the sky. He smiles, holds out his hands and shrugs as if to say, “See. It’s not raining…yet.”
I grimace, barely resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him. He thinks I am a ridiculous out-of-shape American and at this moment, in this place, I am. I am a ridiculous, out-of-shape American being led to what? My death? My redemption? Will I be sacrificed on the altar of stupidity or will the gods of his ancestors forgive this arrogant interloper? Just then a fat raindrop hits my nose. Nope. No redemption for me.
“Vámonos,” Tarzan says with a sudden sense of urgency.
We stride along the footpath through the forest for another twenty minutes until we reach the waterfall, or at least the gorge leading to the waterfall.
Tarzan climbs the giant boulder blocking access to the gorge and after stripping off his maroon tee-shirt says, “Nadamos ahora. We swim now, okay?”
“Excuse me?” I ask, in English.
“We need to swim to see the waterfall,” he explains, in Spanish.
“Excuse me?” I ask again, in English.
He laughs, gestures to the boulder and then points upstream and makes exaggerated swimming movements with his arms. “Okay?”
“Hell no it’s not okay!” I say, flopping down on the nearest rock. I cross my arms over my chest. No way am I going to climb over a gigantic boulder and then swim upstream against a wicked strong current just to see a stupid waterfall. No way. No how. Not gonna do it. Call me a lazy American. Call me a coward. Call me anything you like, I’m not going and that’s final.
Tarzan chortles and scales the rock, Ricardo is quick to follow. The Irish guy also strips and heads toward the boulder. But the blonde Irish woman hangs back.
“I’m sorry you’re having a difficult time,” she says in a musical lilt that could almost lull me into liking her. “But you’ve come this far, eh? What’s a little farther?”
I squint up at her as she looms over me. Her blonde hair glows like a bright yellow halo against the backdrop of greenery and gray sky. “Yeah,” I growl, tasting the frown as my lips curve downward. “Well…I don’t feel so great. So I’m going to rest for a minute.”
“Please yourself then,” she says and turns to peel off shorts and tank top to expose chalky white legs and arms and a flat stomach the color of mashed potatoes. Her bikini seems oddly out of place in the wilderness. I secretly hope the current sweeps the top right off of her as she swims. Heck. That might be worth seeing.
I grin suddenly and glance downstream to the waterfall. A determination sweeps over my body. What’s wrong with me? I put myself here. Despite picking what I thought was an easy hike, I wanted adventure. I wanted to see waterfalls and wilderness, to prove my strength and independence. Here was my chance. I hadn’t died. I hadn’t even seriously injured myself. I could do this. Besides, as the Irish girl pointed out, I’ve come this far. I turn my face to the sky to let the gentle rain wash away my fear. An inner core of strength steels my resolve, flings me forward. I strip to my plain black suit, take off my sandals and place them under a rock, hoping they’ll dry out a little.
Sharp rocks cut my feet as I make my way to the creek’s edge, but I bite my lip to keep from crying out. The current is slower here, broken by the boulder. I wade over to it. Throw myself against its cool, porous surface. I use handholds and my knees to propel myself upward. Once on top, I pause and scan the gorge. Four heads bob in the rushing water, push toward the white, foamy froth at the base of the falls. El Rubí means the ruby, a precious thing. But it feels more like a thorn in my side than a jewel in my crown. Still, I will see it. I will conquer it. It will not conquer me. I slide determinedly down the other side of the boulder into the current. It picks up after a few feet, pushes against me. I’m swimming nowhere, fast. The rest of the group have already reached the falls. Tarzan and Ricardo are horsing around at its base, shoving each other into the water. I swim, swim, swim, but by the time I arrive, everyone is swimming back to the boulder. It’s raining harder now. Icy drops pelt my head and stream down my face into the roiling water.
The Irish girl swims up to me. “We’re heading out. They say our hike back is going to be dangerous in the rain.”
Of course it is.
I glance at the falls. They are beautiful, but they aren’t worth dying for, aren’t worth the pain and the struggle to see them. Are they? I fight the bitterness swelling inside me. Surely the falls and this unspoiled forest have a right to exist. They didn’t lie to me, didn’t betray me, didn’t promise me an easy time. I sigh and force myself to stop internally cursing the Honduran wilderness and turn to let the current push me back to the boulder.
Everyone is serious now, even Tarzan. He mutters something to Ricardo, something about the road being washed out. I don’t understand all of what he says, but I get the drift. We are all in trouble now.
We hurry to dress, but it takes time because our clothes are waterlogged. I put my sandals on, finding it ironic that they have dried only to be instantly re-soaked.
“Hurry,” Tarzans beckons in English. The strain in his voice makes it crack. His grin is gone. His dark eyes are clouded with concentration. “Hurry,” he says again.
Ricardo takes my arm, pats it with his calloused hand. His warm brown eyes are worried. I am touched by his seemingly authentic concern for my safety and grasp his arm. He pulls me along. I leech strength from his strong physique, but balk a little at the experience. I feel strangely exposed as the layers of the lies I’ve told myself are peeled away. I am not strong. I am not brave. I am a quivering woman clinging to the arm of a man. It’s a humbling experience.
We come to a bridge, or what Ricardo calls a bridge, over a deep ravine. In reality it is two wires hung one on top of the other, about five feet apart. I thought it couldn’t get worse, but the only thing missing from this scenario are the snapping crocodiles and a smart-mouthed Indiana Jones. Tarzan steps onto the wire, walking hand over hand, one foot in front of the other across the ravine. The rain falls in sheets as the wires sway in the wind, Tarzan’s toes clutch the wire with each step. I peer into the ravine and stifle a hysterical giggle.
It’s my turn. I am shaking so hard that I can barely grab the wires, but I have to do it. I have no choice. There is no other way. My mind rewinds to another hike on another day, many years ago, when I had refused to walk across a fallen log with my friends. The idea of being out in the middle of the log with nothing to hold onto had sent waves of vertigo crashing over my body. The same sensation rises in my throat now. I choke it down. Swallow it. I have a wire to hang onto. It’ll be okay. I take one tentative step and the wire trembles, rocks in the wind. My heart pounds. Cold sweat mingles with cold drops, filling my eyes, pouring into my mouth. One step. Another. Another. Another. Just walk. Just breathe. Step. Step. Step. Suddenly my feet touch solid ground and Ricardo’s hands grasp my waist. He hugs me with one arm and my spirit sings: I didn’t die! I didn’t die! Elation energizes me, gives me confidence.
“We are close to the road now,” Tarzan tells us in Spanish. “Cerca, muy cerca.”
My heart dances. The road! We are almost out. It is almost over. I clip clop over the trail with renewed vigor, a horse who has spotted the barn. There is a break in the wilderness up ahead. I can see it. I can see the road!
My elation vanishes as soon as I take in the sight before me. The steep gravel road is flooded and looks like one long, never-ending waterfall. But we have to keep going. The truck can’t make it up. Ricardo eyes me with concern again. I groan, but nod at him. A road is a road, even if it isn’t paved. Maybe it will be easier.
I am wrong. The road is not easier. The rushing water makes the gravel slick and I slip with every step. Ricardo clutches at me, tries to keep me upright, but he is having trouble too. Tarzan takes my other arm. I want to protest, but am powerless against the onslaught of water. Even the Irish hikers are in trouble. They cling to each other as we slosh our way down the washed-out mountain road.
We continue like this for at least an hour. I feel like I have always been on this hike, and that I will always be on this hike. The sameness lulls me into an almost meditative state.
Slip. Slide. Lurch. Slip. Slide. Lurch.
Hot tears mix with the rain that continues to fall as if the sky too is weeping. I am grateful that nobody notices. It’s a silent act. I don’t even feel scared or sad or tired anymore. Like the rain, like the gushing water, like the creek, I have no control over these tears, these natural reactions. Nothing is within my control anymore. Not my body, not my feelings, not my fate. I am all animal, reduced to my core. My limp body being guided by those stronger than myself.
Time stretches out as long as the road before us and just when I think I can’t take another step, Tarzan whoops and waves his free hand in the air. The truck is just ahead, parked in what looks very much like the Copán river. Even as I worry about its ability to get us home, the truck is a welcome sight.
Ricardo heaves me into the bed of the pickup truck and climbs up after me. We huddle together on the floor under a blue tarp as the truck starts the slow, bumpy journey back to Copán. I hug my drenched backpack to my stomach. I am frozen to the bone, but grateful to no longer be walking, to no longer be hiking through the wilderness. In my relief the hard metal bed feels soft as a thick cotton blanket under my backside.
Smiling, Ricardo lays a warm hand on my arm. “See? You did fine,” he says in Spanish. “And now you have a great story to tell all your friends, no?”
I smile weakly at him, too tired to suggest that he may need to amend his definition of fine. “Sure,” I say, also in Spanish.
He pats my arm and withdraws his hand.
A few days later, Luis Jr., the oldest son of my host family, takes me to dinner to thank me for helping him translate paragraphs from his Mayan calendar project into English. During our meal, I tell him in broken Spanish about my trip to the waterfall.
“They to need to change their ad,” I complain. “It is NOT an easy hike.”
Luis’ deep brown eyes widen. “No,” he responds. “No. You misunderstand. It is not an easy hike. It is the easy hike to the waterfall.”
“You took the easy hike to El Rubi. There is a much harder way to get there.”
He shakes his head grimly. “No. I’m not. I’ve been on it. You have to scale the side of the mountain. The way you went, it is much easier.”
I curse in English. Luis raises his eyebrows, indicating his comprehension. Then he shakes his head and starts to laugh. I watch his dark locks bounce and try to decide whether to laugh or cry. After a moment, I choose to join him in laughter. After all, I am the fool who was duped by semantics. Some writer I am! I laugh harder, clutching at my aching, Montezuma’s revenge ridden gut. After a few minutes our laughter peters out and we go back to sipping our respective beers in companionable silence.
I peer out into the Honduran night toward the mountain that almost took my life. And even though part of me feels like the biggest fool on the planet, a wise inner voice reminds me that most people never venture out of their comfort zones, let alone travel to Latin America by themselves. And seriously? I hiked an impossibly hard hike without dying, without having a nervous breakdown, and without any serious injuries. And while I may not have been Xena, Warrior Princess out there, I did battle on and I did make it through. And maybe at the end of the day that’s all that matters.