(photo from Ian)
This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
In part one of Night Hike: Your intrepid hero (me) waded through the jungle in a heavy storm with his trusty umbrella and four comrades: Gemma, The Base Leader, Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio, two pre-med guys, Connie in her inadequate low-top sneakers, and Root, the guide and village renaissance man. When we last left our heroes, the guys were idling by a river. The women were way behind and Root had charged into the dark to look for them.
As Root ran by us and was swallowed up in the soggy murk, I looked at Doc Mexico and Doc Ohio. Normally, I would have felt self-conscious and un-manly holding my REI .38 Nerd Special umbrella in the thick of the jungle. But right now we were out in the open by the river, and these two guys were wearing little red riding hoodies that were useless against the skull-thumping rain. At a moment like this I looked like the genius and my umbrella was beautiful, sexy, a close-hugging lover shielding me from the rain.
Doc Mexico played it off but I caught Doc Ohio staring up at my umbrella.
I’m down here, buddy, I wanted to say.
Even so, we were all miserable and the rain did all the talking.
Connie finally limped into sight with Root at her side. He was holding her like he was escorting her down the wedding aisle. Connie had twisted her ankle. It wasn’t serious, but it would slow her way down and make things even more difficult for her.
Gemma and Root huddled, then Gemma broke it to announce that because we were now deep into the hike it would probably just be best if we continued. But she left it up to Connie.
Turn back! I screamed silently for Connie. This was all moving beyond discomfort for me. Fear was cutting me down into little boy-sized chunks. Pre-hike information bubbled to the surface of my memory: It was likely, we were told, that we would encounter snakes.
Jungle snakes. Twisty, squeezy snakes. Poisonous snakes.
I saw myself on my back in the mud, rain stinging my eyes, Gemma telling me to hang on, Root sloshing for help. I felt the two angry needle holes in my leg, venom shooting through me like a heat-seeking missile. There was no help to get. The village was miles away from any hospital.
I’m going to die in the jungle.
(photo from Ian)
Back in reality, Connie vowed to press on. I snapped out of it. Good one, brain, I thought.
Thanks, buddy! Don’t worry, there’s more to come!
With Connie giving in to bravery we faced our first river crossing. Root led the way, sloshing to the middle of the river and pointing out a jagged path of rocks that poked their heads out of the water. Jumping from rock to rock would have been completely unnecessary if we had all just worn fishing boots like Root did, making this the first and probably the last time I would curse the fact that I didn’t own a pair of cheap baby blue rubber boots.
But our hopping and stumbling antics were going to be the number one source of Root’s entertainment for the evening—so it was all for a good reason.
Root flashed big teeth and laughed every time someone slipped or fell into the water. A slight spill would get a chuckle, an ankle-deep fall a guffaw, an ass-over-teacups half-drowning was a belly laugh winner. If you just lost your balance and managed to right yourself, Root practically booed you.
Doc Mexico was the first to fall in. The water was only deep enough to soak his boots and thus make the rest of the hike miserable for him, but Root have him an appreciative chuckle.
Root of course did all he could to offer his hand and assist us in crossing, but it was a little unnerving when you knew that if you fell into the water this would amuse him to no end.
I made it past the first river crossing without incident and was savoring my small victory when we were confronted with the river again, and another crossing.
Soon after that there was another one. And another. I was pretty sure we were just going back and forth over the same river. What was going on here?
Each river crossing was increasingly more difficult, the water higher, the path across less sure. And the drenching rain was making the river an angrier beast.
Through the myriad of crossings, everyone succumbed and stumbled into the water—Root chuckling, guffawing, cackling—except for me. So far I had cheated Root out of his laugh.
At the sixth river crossing Connie was too hobbled to make a real effort at avoiding getting wet. She just sploosh-splooshed across, the water soaking her up to her knees. Thankfully, Root never laughed at Connie.
The terrain away from the river banked steeply upward. Connie had to toddle like a baby trying to balance on the ledge of a skyscraper. Each of us guys would take a turn helping her. I put out my hand to her when it was my turn, but her snail pace was red-lining my frustration.
Doc Ohio stopped suddenly. I looked to where he was focusing his flashlight beam: there was a leech hanging off his shoe. It seemed to bend forward and back like an index finger beckoning me.
My mouth went dry and my old leechmares returned: it was like I could suddenly feel them nuzzling my foot inside my shoe. It felt like there were dozens of them, all entwined together like the tentacles of some giant octospider squatting in the deepest, blackest part of the river.
I checked my boots again—nothing—and my brain muttered to me, Really? Nothing there? I could have sworn there was something sucking the life out of you. Well, better check back in three seconds, because there will be a monster in your boot then for sure.
Remember me? (photo used with permission)
I had to do something. I couldn’t sit with my leech thoughts and I couldn’t help Connie any more and I couldn’t see the end of this cursed hike.
I charged up the mountain, not waiting for anyone. This mountain was steep and treacherous and would have been a trial in dry conditions. Within a few steps I was fighting my way up an escalator headed down.
I got halfway up. Far enough that going back would be a problem. Because by that point my boots were caked with mud so thick it was like I was wearing cow pies. Gravity was going to finger flick me off the mountain.
I slipped and skidded backward. The incline was so steep that I could see no way to stop. I clutched at scrub grass and baby saplings—it was like trying to hold onto cooked spaghetti. My umbrella bounced down the mountain with me, and now I felt useless and ashamed holding it again, like it was some blow-up doll handcuffed to me. It looked like me and the blow-up doll were going to get pitched into the river.
I was finally able to dig in and stop—almost all the way back down at the bottom. The rest of the group smiled weakly at me. They had no idea what happened to me—they were still slowly inching their own way up.
Gemma smiled at me. “This is fun, isn’t it?” she said, without a trace of irony.
I stared at her, mouth open. My hair was painted to my head, my sweatshirt hung off my neck like a comatose beaver, my thin cotton trousers stuck to my legs like wet newspaper. Mud spattered me like a Jackson Pollock painting—one that he pissed on and threw into his closet.
It was finally time. Time to give Gemma and everyone a piece of my mind.
That’s right, buddy, my brain said. Let them have it! A man can only take so much! Hold on a minute, I’m working on a really good string of expletives here, I’ll have them for you in a sec…
I kept my mouth shut.
Doc Mexico shouted out something. He stood next to a tree with bark so thick it appeared to be made of cast iron. His flashlight beam lit up something on the tree.
Someone had finally found a creature on the creature-finding hike.
It was a fat green caterpillar, inching up the tree. Everyone huddled around it, spotlighting it with their flashlights as if it was the lead actor on a Broadway stage. Like many of the bugs in Thailand the caterpillar was a splashy version of its species— it was a plutonium green color and thick as a finger. It had fine rigid hairs that were like baby pine needles and its head bobbed from side to side—as if acknowledging the lights, the star walking the carpet—walking upward, up the tree.
I had no desire to join in the caterpillar adulation. I threw myself at the mountain again. After only a few feet, I stopped. I knew I couldn’t do this alone.
Just above me on the ridge, my flashlight beam caught a rat running by. There was a long list of animals we could potentially encounter on this hike: barking deer, gliding squirrel, giant frog, snake—but “rat” was not on the list. The rat’s coat was like a dirty sponge that couldn’t hold any more water and there was something surreal about the way he scampered from right to left above me: he looked like he was dashing through the rain to catch a bus.
I gave in.
This was fun.
Above me, Root suddenly appeared, his hand out. He had gone ahead and scouted out a way up. He was smiling. He was always smiling. I took his hand.
Root helped me up.
The rain finally stopped right as we reached a shelter that was built for the farmers. A half hour earlier we would have crawled into it like the dying. Now, with the moon grinning down and the stars forming parade columns, we had punched through world-killing fatigue all the way through to exhilaration. Using the shelter at this point would have felt as inappropriate as falling into bed at the finish line of a marathon.
Gemma and Doc Ohio at the shelter. (photo from Doc Mexico)
On the road back Gemma called to me. She had something cupped in her hands. I went to her and she smiled as she opened her hands. A giant frog bounded into my arms. He was the biggest frog I’ve ever seen—almost as big as my hand—and I had him for a fat moment, he was content to sit in the palm of my hand and I could feel the life in him, his warmth and his heartbeat and I felt a flicker of something like ease with me, like trust—before he wriggled away and hopped down the road. He was an escaped Frog Prince for sure.
After a time we were on the bumpy two-lane road that led from civilization into Huay Pakoot. The road that took me into the village for the first time almost a month ago.
Connie limped on the side of the road like a war veteran, Root steadying her. Doc Ohio and Doc Mexico trudged along oblivious to the mosquito bites that would lay them low with Dengue fever in a couple of days.
Night Hike casualty: A volunteer tries Reiki on Doc Mexico, stricken with Dengue fever.
The jungle was still, slow to creep back after the bludgeoning of the storm. Little houses leaned out here and there as if testing the air, the porch lights biting gently into the dark and reminding me of my old neighborhood growing up.
There was a game I would play when I was on a street like this, walking alone in the dark in my hometown. The game was about fear and danger and the thrill of being a little boy. When car headlights appeared down the road, I would run off the road and hide… because who or what driving the car—they were looking for me.
They were trying to get me.
I’d hide and hope the car didn’t slow down. I’d hope it went past without spotting me.
Here on a pothole-bombed road in Thailand forty-six years later, car headlights twinkled in the distance. I had trudged ahead of my Night Hike friends, so I was alone on the road.
The headlights became eyeballs, then saucers, then searchlights…
(photo from Doc Mexico)