Note: I recently read Bill Bryson’s celebrated book, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. (It’s much better than the film by the way.) In it, the author discovers the power and majesty of nature and his own physical and mental limitations. During a much shorter hike in Guatemala, I had similar revelations. While they weren’t as profound, they were painfully earned and certainly memorable!
It was the summer of 1995. I was staying at a hostel in San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlán in Guatamala. I had been trekking alone for two weeks; I was hoping to find some traveling companions in town. At a café on the main square, I met a group from the Netherlands that was heading in the same direction. I asked them if they wanted to go for a hike.
“No, I think we’re just gonna relax by the lake,” they said. “Why don’t we get together for Happy Hour?”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. I finished my coffee and set out for the woods.
I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of Tevas. I had a bottle of flat orange Fanta and a few Quetzals, the local currency in my pocket. I didn’t have a map, a compass or a smartphone. I didn’t carry a daypack because, well, I didn’t have anything to carry. And, besides, I’d only be gone a few hours. Or so I thought.
I picked up a skinny trail on the edge of the lake. It wound its way up toward an imposing volcano high above town. The woods were thick and the climb was steep.
After about an hour and a half, I saw what appeared to be a harpy eagle, the largest raptor in the Americas. I was excited. I had never seen one before. Without binoculars though, I wasn’t able to verify the sighting. My birder buddies back in the states would have had their doubts. So, I left the path to get a closer look.
In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. I should have remembered a pivotal scene from one of my favorite films, An American Werewolf in London. In it, the two protagonists are warned repeatedly to “stay on the road” and “keep clear of the moors.” They don’t. One gets eaten and the other starts howling at the moon.
I followed the bird deep into the jungle. Every time I got close, it would fly off to a more distant tree.
Finally, I came to a small clearing on the edge of a deep ravine. I couldn’t go any further. I stood up on my tiptoes and craned my neck to catch a final, definitive glimpse of the elusive bird. Then, all of a sudden, my foot exploded. It felt like my big toe had been dipped in acid. I shrieked like an eagle, and the eagle flew off for good.
Looking down to see if my toe was still attached, I saw a big bright, furry velvet ant smiling up at me. There was blood, my blood, gleaming from its gaster.
According to the entomologist, Dr. Justin O. Schmidt, the velvet ant sting is a solid “3” on his infamous pain index. He describes it as “explosive and long lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling all over your entire foot.” Yep, that’s pretty much how it felt.
Within minutes, my toe grew to the size (and color) of a Red Delicious apple. It throbbed like a second heart. Not having a companion to point out the obvious, that it wouldn’t have happened if I had been wearing proper shoes, I thought to myself, “It’s a good thing I’m in sandals. My big big toe wouldn’t fit in hiking boots.”
Limping back toward the path, I became disoriented. I got twisted around. Everything in the jungle looked the same. And, there was no harpy eagle to guide me back. So, I plodded along – in a general direction…
After about an hour, I stumbled upon what I thought was the original path. (It wasn’t!)
Then, as if on the biblical Job’s cue, it started to rain. Buckets of rain! Within seconds, the skinny trail turned into a broad, muddy raging river. Following my questionable intuition (and the current), I headed off in a direction I hoped would take me back to town.
It didn’t. Instead, it took me to a small Mayan village where a family, seeing my deformed toe and lack of provisions, offered me shelter from the storm. I told them I was trying to get back to San Pedro, but apparently they didn’t speak Spanish. They spoke Tz’utujil, a Mayan language I couldn’t understand, pronounce or spell.
So, we sat on the floor of the family’s tiny thatched hut in silence. They served me handmade corn tortillas, Poc Chuc (a slow cooked pork), black beans, “dog snout” salsa, and horchata, a blend of rice milk, ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. The food was delicious and the scene was surreal.
When the rain finally stopped, I tried to give the good Samaritans all my soggy Quetzals. But, they declined. They figured I needed the money more than they did. Using gestures, I thanked them for their hospitality and headed back down the muddy trail.
After about a mile or two, I stopped to reconnoiter, only to realize I didn’t know what the word meant. So, I continued on.
Around midafternoon, I came to a footbridge over a small creek, where I met a farmer who spoke broken Spanish. When I asked him for directions to San Pedro, he gave me a look that said, “How the &%$# did you end up here you boneheaded gringo!?” He told me I was walking in the wrong direction and that San Pedro was many hours away. “Vaya con Dios y suerte!” he said as he left me on the bridge. “Go with God and luck” didn’t sound all that encouraging. And, I wasn’t keen on the idea of backtracking (nor missing Happy Hour). So, I came up with an alternate plan – kinda like Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia.
I was teaching middle school social studies at the time. Because of this, I knew very well that all streams and rivers ran downhill. And, unlike manmade trails that followed the contour of the surrounding hills, they usually took a more direct, quicker path. I also knew that rivers were tributaries and that tributaries usually emptied into larger bodies of water, like, say, lakes for example. San Pedro was on a lake, hence “La Laguna.” I figured if I followed the stream down the mountain, I’d be sipping a margarita with my new Dutch friends in no time at all. Or so I thought.
The rocks were slick and the current was strong. As I slipped, tripped and stumbled my way down, the little stream that could (possibly take me home) swelled to the size of a whitewater river with Class VI rapids.
At some point along the way, dying of thirst, I decided to drink from those rapids. Two days later in a public restroom in Chichicastenango, I came to regret that decision – again and again!
The first waterfall I encountered was small enough to slide down. The second and third were much bigger. I had to hack my way around them. The fourth was an absolute beast! It bellowed like wolves from the underworld and it coughed up a vast, blinding mist. It was the mother, father, grandparents and extended family of all falls. Without a barrel or luck, two things I definitely didn’t have at the time, there was no way I was going over. Once again, I’d have to plow my way around – way around.
After only a few steps into my detour, I slipped and fell. Like Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone (without the benefit of having Kathleen Turner to land on), I shot down a muddy flume at breakneck speed. Just before sailing off into the abyss, I latched on to an exposed root and clod of firm clay. On a thin ledge over a bottomless, rocky gorge, I came to a precarious stop.
There, paralyzed by fear and exhaustion, I weighed my flimsy options. I figured I had three. One was to shelter in place, scream for “¡Ayuda!” or help every few minutes, and hope that someone would eventually come to my rescue. It was unlikely but possible. Another was to clamor back up the steep ravine in the dark and take the long trail back to town. I figured my odds were about as good as those of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes in 1972. The third was to jump. If I hit enough trees on the way down, I’d potentially survive the fall. I’d seen it done in a Rambo film.
For a good while, the third option was my first choice. It was dark now and I could clearly see the flickering lights of town just below me. All I had to do was jump.
Instead, and very much out of character, I reasoned that the second option was a better bet. So, like Napoleon leaving Moscow, I slowly and painfully clawed my way back.
I staggered into town well after sunrise. At the same café from the day before, I saw my would-be Dutch friends enjoying a late breakfast. “Folwell,” they exclaimed, “you look like you had a rougher night than we did!”
“Probably so,” I said.
“We missed you at Happy Hour. How was your walk in the woods above Lake Atitlán?”
“Memorable,” I said. “So much so, I may have to write it down…”
Twenty-one years later – just enough time to recover from the ordeal – I finally did.
Folwell Dunbar is an educator, artist and hiker. Today, he walks with his wife and dog and stays clear of the moors. He can be reached at email@example.com