This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
“The South Pole was bitter cold and I endured snow blindness, frostbite, and scurvy. That was all positively dreamy compared to the torments of Night Hike.”
–Sir Ernest Shackleton, famous British explorer
“Night Hike? You must be barmy and shite-blighted to even utter those grotty words. Bollocks and meat pies to you and all your kin.”
–Sir Edmund Hillary, famous and more-British explorer
“Night Hike is the bane of all explorers everywhere. It will never be conquered. Now if you’ll excuse me, senor, I would like to get back to killing Incas.”
–Francisco Pizarro, famous Spanish explorer, Inca-killer
I have seen the true face of horror and it’s not, as I once believed, a bulging Marlon Brando rubbing his bald head and muttering “The horror, the horror” in some god-forsaken jungle grotto in Apocalypse Now. Neither is the true face of horror a bleached-white (and even more bulging) Marlon Brando wearing a muumuu and somehow getting out-acted by Val Kilmer on a god-forsaken jungle island in The Island of Dr. Moreau—though that’s getting closer.
The true face of horror is the Brando-less and Kilmer-bare jungle of Night Hike.
Night Hike is a weekly hike for the volunteers of Huay Pakoot, scheduled every Wednesday at eight p.m. after all other daily activities are finished. The reason for a “Night Hike” is that a lot of the denizens of the jungle in Thailand are nocturnal, and so it’s an opportunity to literally bump into some creature you would never normally see during the day: barking deer, gliding squirrels, different types of frogs (many of them giant), civets (a type of small native wild cat), tarantulas (Thai people will fry these up and eat them—I’ll give you a moment to take that in, it took me a moment), river otters, and snakes by the bushel.
I didn’t particularly want to run into a bushel of snakes, but one of the volunteer leaders once saw a male frog trying to mate with another male—and that I did want to see, if only to witness the look of ribbiting embarrassment on the face of a giant buggered frog.
Night Hike had been canceled three times before. Twice because of rain and the third time because our guide had just forgot about it and flaked. I only had one more shot at Night Hike before I left the village.
Don’t worry, the Base Leader Gemma assured me. Next time for sure, rain or shine.
Wednesday, June 26th, 2013 started out un-innocently enough when the clouds jumped in and bound and gagged the sun, signaling that today they meant business. Ostensibly rainy season had begun on June 1st, but all that had meant so far was pissing rain contests and most of the time we volunteers had won them—the rain didn’t ever ruin an elephant hike.
I looked up at the sky, dread creeping in, and as the sky darkened so did Gemma’s personality, as she hobbled around on her peg leg and cackled like Captain Bligh about how this time we were going on the hike and nothing was going to stop us. After the Night Hike she insisted that we round the horn of Africa.
By dusk the wind was roughing us up and the thunder was full-throated and barking. I had brought with me to Thailand a rain “poncho”—a heavy blue plastic-vinyl abomination that made me look like a smurf wearing a hoodie—and it worked fine repelling rain, but it also had zero ventilation. The only time I had worn it I had stewed in my own juices, so it was out.
I went with my “normal” hiking garb instead: long pants, sweatshirt over a T-shirt, a bottle of water, a flashlight, and my secret weapon, which might just save the day for me later…
The hike would be led by Root, the village renaissance man. This guy has done everything: he is a farmer, sometime-mahout, Muay Thai martial arts teacher, hunter, soccer player, builder, and tattoo artist. He drinks like a sailor, smokes like a tire fire, and he can take a beating like a crash test dummy—all the pounding from Muay Thai practice has deadened the nerve endings in his skin. He also has time to raise a family, party with the volunteers, and I’m pretty sure he writes a column for Salon.
Besides Gemma and me, the Night Hike party consisted of two guys who were pre-med students, one from Ohio, the other from Mexico, and Connie, who like me was leery of the impending storm. She stalled about whether she would go or not until the very last minute. Gemma worked on Connie, figuring her for the weak link… but I wasn’t so sure. If Connie had backed out, I might have jumped on the scaredy-cat bandwagon.
On our first step away from the safety of Base Hut a lightning strike lit up the jungle and I looked around at everyone like, “Helloooo? Did anyone notice that old classic harbinger of doom, ‘the lightning strike just as we are setting out’?”
Maybe if I had boomed out as we were leaving, “Well, at least we’ll all make it back alive and absolutely not die in a hideous fashion!”—and then the lightning struck—maybe then they would have gasped and stopped in their tracks and called the whole thing off, like I wanted them to.
But I didn’t say that as we left. I said, “Wait up, I have to take a whiz first.”
Dusk in Thailand often fans itself out like peacock feathers, a regal and rich blue, but tonight it was plucked and smothered by the heavy black of the coming storm. Halfway down the road to Root’s house it began drizzling. I risked tipping my hand early and pulled out the secret weapon from my pack.
It was an umbrella. Sleek and blue and loaded, about six deadly inches of compact canvas and steel from REI. I flicked the button and it parachuted open into its glorious protective canopy.
Everyone stopped. Gemma opened her mouth to say something but I guess thought better of it.
As we approached Root’s house it looked dark and deserted. I was hoping he was out composing a symphony and we could all go home. But after a few minutes he emerged wearing what else but a poncho—it was much thinner than my asbestos suit version—and some old rubber fisherman’s boots. I compared his boots to mine—sturdy and expensive hiking boots—and it looked for sure that I had the edge, and then I remembered that you never ever think you have an “edge” on someone who lives in the village, particularly Root, who also brought along a pad of paper to work on his Broadway play while we were on the hike.
This was Connie’s last chance to back out. When I say the last chance for her I mean her and me, since I was the undercover chicken here—if she bowed out I was going to bow much lower and out-er.
By this time the rain had picked up and it was sledgehammering down on us. I peered out from underneath my carpet-bombed umbrella and it was clear that the storm was moving in for an extended stay. This was not dampening Gemma’s enthusiasm and “Doc Mexico” also seemed raring to go. “Doc Ohio” seemed to have some reticence but not enough to say anything.
There was no turning back once Connie stepped out, ready to go. She was wearing a pair of low top sneakers, stylish but I wondered if they would cut it. Root—who spoke only a little broken English—cackled at all of us and I noted that this was yet another harbinger of doom—the cackling guide.
Once again, no one else picked up on this. The fools.
For the first part of the hike we skirted the village, shining our flashlights in the trees and the bushes. Besides walking, shining flashlights in the trees was the main activity of Night Hike—in order to catch the reflected “eye shine” of any animals that might be sitting in the trees, laughing down at the idiots tramping around in the rain.
Ten minutes in and the dirt roads of the village were already drowning. The rain had moved in for good, kicked grandma out and stolen her bed. As we moved out of the village, I looked over my shoulder at the lights now winking out in the distance, and wondered if this would be my last forlorn glimpse of hope and of a dry pair of pants. We clomped off the road and into a clearing dotted with red and orange tents.
A few bald heads poked out of the tent flaps. Apparently we had stumbled upon an encampment of Buddhist monks, all huddling in their little four-man tents, trying to stay dry. Gemma exchanged some words of greeting with them, and as we were edging by the camp I tripped on a tent pole. My heart stopped as I saw the tent shake and shudder and I heard a chorus of monks gasping “Ohhhhhh” as their canvas roof started to cave in on them.
Great, I thought. What kind of kharma is kicking over a tent on four old monks going to get me? My next life I would probably be reincarnated as a coal miner of the Northeast, and some clumsy Pennsylvanian monk would come wandering by and trip over some load-bearing timber, and as the cave roof came down on me I’d think, Well yeah, this kind of sucks—but at least I’m not dying because some idiot American kicked over my tent—that would be really embarrassing.
Thankfully, the tent buckled but didn’t cave in on the monks. I spluttered my apologies and did a lot of bowing, and after the monks all cursed me and my family for the next ten generations, we moved on.
Last stop before the jungle swallowed us up we had to scale a gate made of thin tree trunks, and at this point we should’ve all gotten a whiff of doom approaching—with or without Root’s cackle. The ground around the gate was a swamp and it was increasingly difficult to keep our footing and just stay upright—and this was on level ground with most of us wearing hiking boots that had some teeth.
Connie was wearing sneakers. In this weather it was like wearing roller skates.
Clambering over the shoulder-high gate was slippery and the guys managed to get over with bruised legs and knees. Somehow Connie skated over the blockade. It was slow and treacherous and her sneakers were no help at all.
As we plunged into the jungle Root cackled again. I asked Gemma what was with the cackling and she said, “I don’t think he’s ever seen anybody use an umbrella in the jungle before.”
Oh yeah—that. Well, I knew it was silly, but so far it was actually pretty effective. At first I had folded up the umbrella, with the thought that the “jungle canopy” would protect me, but after ten umbrella-less minutes with the rain pummeling me and my soaked through-and-through sweatshirt begging for mercy, I once again relied on my umbrella friend to get me through this nightmare.
I considered doubling down on my ridiculousness and pulling out a pipe and puffing on it with my free hand, but I thought better of it. Only because I needed that hand to twirl my mustache.
The rain was relentless as Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio and I skidded down to the edge of the river—our first river crossing. Normally this muddy little stripe of water would be nothing but a dreaming-big creek, but the storm had swollen its size to a river and it looked eager to pull us in.
Across the river Root lit up a cigarette and he looked down and from side to side, his head flashlight beam scouting out a route for us lesser beings to ford across the river. At this point because of her worthless sneakers, Connie had to pick her way carefully. She was trailing us significantly and Gemma had slowed to her pace to help her.
Both of them had fallen behind. They were nowhere in sight.
The river chattered and the jungle’s breath was mossy and heavy. So far we had picked up nothing in our flashlight beams. No animals, anyway. We did pick up several different species of rain, though. Fat rain, thin rain, medium rain… rivulets and sheets and rivers of rain. Deepening, depressing, demoralizing rain. Wet rain.
Minutes ticked away, all of us men staring ahead grimly and not speaking, and still there was no sign of the women.
The skies felt like they had been slashed open and gutted. The downpour was furious, and I felt ashamed that I had not stayed back with the women.
As if reading my thoughts, Root snuffed the cigarette, sloshed through the water, and disappeared into the dark.