Precious, Fragile Galápagos Islands

We were lost at sea.  And I’m not speaking figuratively or dramatically either.  I’m not exaggerating incidents or concocting a tale for story-telling purposes.

We were honestly and truthfully lost at sea.

Listen, I’m jumping ahead because I need you to understand this.  I need you to know that if you ask about our trip to the Galápagos Islands, it is possible I may hesitate in answering.  I may stumble on my words and not know what to say.  Andy too, the same reaction.  That’s because when you ask about our trip, flashbacks of being lost at sea — the circling-circling, the floating and floating in an endless blue ocean, hour upon hour — those visions.  That’s what I see when you ask about our trip.

I needed to explain that upfront.  Because my answer — the one I hope will come out — should be that our journey was incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and special in ways I may not never be able to word.  The truth is it was, well, a memorable trip . . .

* * *

“We should have learned Spanish,” Andy said as we approached our airline’s ticket counter.  The woman behind it looked up.  “Do you speak English?” he asked the lady.

“Eh, little,” she said wagging her head from right and left.

“Is it possible to get on the 6:00 a.m. flight instead of this one?” Andy inquired, pointing to our printout which listed our afternoon flight.  “Our flights were changed last minute and now we have an almost thirteen hour layover here.”  Here was Peru, the third of five airports we would fly into over the span of two days.  We had been through sunrises and sunsets on planes . . .
IMG_3546.jpgIMG_3561.jpgso that our main desire heading to the Galápagos Islands was simply to have an actual bed to sleep in.

“Eh. No.  Your flight is at 1:30 p.m.”  She smiled.  As if that helped.

“Si, but are there seats on the 6:00 a.m. plane?”

“6:00 a.m.? You want 6:00 a.m.?” the woman asked.

“Si!” we exclaimed together, waiting with bated breath.

“Ohhh,” she exhaled. “The flight — full.  No seats.”

That was my first taste of the Galápagos Islands, though we were not even there yet.  Flights fill quickly and for good reason too: Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and located slightly below the equator, the Galápagos is an archipelago consisting of Ecuadorian islands that are some of the most original, diverse, and unique in the world.

Unable to get an earlier flight, Andy and I returned — dejected — to our airport bench, the one we left imprints on due to the fact that we stayed on or returned to it during that nearly thirteen hour layover.  The minutes dragged and the hours stretched endlessly, the way time does when there is anticipation for the future.  So we talked on that bench, played cards on the bench, slept on that bench, watched soccer (okay — football, my English friends), read on it, and slept more.
Airport.jpgFinally — finally — it was time to check-in.  But of course, our life isn’t that simple . . .

Waiting in line, a short man of about five feet approached Andy.  He appeared Peruvian, wearing a large-brimmed hat and brightly colored clothing that fell in layers.  Without a word, he handed Andy his cell phone.

Andrew took it — don’t ask me why.  “Uh,” Andy said to the man before looking at me.  I looked at Andy.  The Peruvian man, determined, waved his hands towards Andy then smiled and stepped closer.  They were about a foot apart.  It seemed an intimate exchange.

“Eh,” Andy examined the phone before trying to hand it back, but the Peruvian man refused to take it.  “Sir,” Andy said in his British accent.  “I’m not sure what you want me to do?”

The Peruvian man smiled wider, teeth showing, and nodded.

“Uh, L — What does he want me to do?”  (I, by the way, was no help due to the fact that I was suppressing laughter from finding his dilemma highly entertaining.)  “Sir, I don’t understand?  I don’t know what you want me to do?” and here, Andrew’s voice became more stern as he held out the phone once more.  Another man in front of us turned so that now three people were watching Andrew — the Peruvian man, me, and the man ahead of us in line.  The Peruvian glanced from Andy’s hand to his face, hand to face, and made a motion for Andy to accept the phone what-seemed-to-be eternally.  Both stranger-men then smiled, mission seeming done.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO!” Andy shouted.  “Does he want me to turn it on for him?” Andrew asked the man in front of us, who only smiled.  Andy looked to the Peruvian man again: “Sir, do you want me to turn your phone on for you?!”  The Peruvian man nodded; however, it was clear no man understood one another.  I was finding it harder to contain myself — Did Andrew really just ask him if he wanted help turning on his own phone?!  Sure enough, I watched in horror as Andy began to poke buttons until the phone lit up.

“Right. Here you go,” satisfied with his technological help, Andrew tried again to return it but his friend refused.  “I. DON’T. KNOW. WHAT. YOU. WANT. FROM. ME!”  Andy appeared frantic, terrified even, so I realized I needed to get involved. We watched as the Peruvian man pointed to the screen and tapped it multiple times with his fingernail.

“Andrew,” I exclaimed, “he is telling you the time!”

“Ohhh,” Andy exhaled, bending to the short man’s level.  “3:16?”  The man nodded again, though we realized his nods did not indicate a breakthrough in conversation.  “Right,” Andy confirmed by pointing to the departure board which also bared the time.  “3:16 a.m.” and here, he thrust, forcefully, the phone back at its owner.

The Peruvian man took it but a look of longing remained in his eyes.  Clearly something more needed to be done.  I glanced at Andy’s hands where the phone once was and noticed his watch.  “The time, Andrew — I think he wants you to set your watch.”

“Ohhh,” turning the dial quickly, Andy was eager to show his friend he comprehended but it was too late.  The Peruvian man had given up and returned to stand next to his wife, his back to us.

“That went well,” I said.  “Essentially he understood us as successfully as we understood him.”

Our line moved up a little as I heard Andrew again mutter in a voice filled with regret, “We should have learned Spanish.”

This became our most-used phrase because, of course, it was true.  However, we did pick up a few sentences,  such as “Buenos dias!” which we both said to the flight attendants . . . ignoring the fact that it was the afternoon; ‘afternoon’ was beyond our limited vocabulary.  Everyone was polite though so we boarded and buckled up then set off, flying over Peru and its incredible mountains.
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“Pst,” I said to Andy, peering through the crevice between my seat and the one next to me because he was diagonally behind.  “Do you have our passports?”

“What?” he leaned forward.  Clearly I had to speak louder.

“Our passports?” I tried again in a stronger hushed voice.  “Do you have our passports?”  This, I should mention, is a question I regularly ask myself when we fly, though for whatever reason I wait to ask this the moment we have taken off.

“L,” panic washed over his face.  “What do you mean ‘our passports?’ I gave them to you!”

I could feel his panic spread.  “What do you mean ‘You gave them to me?’!”

“’I gave them to you’ means ‘I gave them to you’!” As Andy’s voice rose, so did his body out of the seat, disregarding the need to keep seat belts fastened.  People were starting to turn and stare.

“Okay.  Calm down.  I don’t remember you giving them to me but let me check my bag.”  I slid my bag from the under the seat in front and unzipped its compartments. Compartment One: No passports.  Not a big deal, I said to myself.  I wouldn’t have put it in that part anyway.  Compartment Two: No passports.  That’s fine.  They shouldn’t have been in that one either.  I continued riffling through to Compartment Three.  WOW!  I didn’t even know I had this compartment!  I smiled and turned to tell Andy until I saw his eyes — fixated, not patient or understanding.  Focus! I reprimanded myself, I don’t think he’d appreciated the news and so into Compartment Three I looked only to find there were still no passports.  Don’t worry, don’t worry — I didn’t know that compartment existed until now, I reminded myself, fighting back the urge to be concerned.  Onward to Compartment Four! I thought. This is surely where it is supposed to be.  Except they weren’t.  They weren’t there or anywhere in my pack.  I replaced it under the seat.

“Andrew, I do not have them – I did not have them.”

“Yes you do!  I gave them to you!”

“I’m convinced we left them on the counter when we got our boarding passes!  I don’t remember picking them up.  I certainly don’t remember you giving them to me!”  I pulled my pack out a second time and rummaged through it without luck.  Under the seat it went again . . . only to be pulled back out . . . and put back what-felt-like a million times more as we continued to debate on the plane.

“Bloody hell!  Are you kidding me?!  I GAVE them to YOU!”  By this time, we were both yelling and a flight attendant seemed to be making her way towards us.

“Shhh,” I told him.  “Let’s walk through the steps – The man gave us boarding passes.  We walked onto the plane.  I did not have anything – no passports, no boarding passes — and I know that because I did not even know where we were sitting when we walked down the aisle.  I had to ask you.  Once we sat down, then you handed me the boarding passes.”

“Let me see the boarding passes,” Andy said.  I wasn’t sure what that proved but I showed him anyway.

“Right.  That means you have the passports,” he replied with new clarification . . . which didn’t actually clarify anything for me.

“Andrew!  If I HAD them I would, we would have had our boarding passes IN our passports – as we have done for EVERY FLIGHT THUS FAR!”  All concerns on the flight attendant reprimanding us were gone due to the fact that he needed to understand the urgency of the situation — Someone somewhere had our passports and it wasn’t me.  Imagines of Spanish officers detaining us flashed into my mind. Would we be allowed into the country? Would we be allowed back into our own country? What would happen?!

I was about to ask the man behind me if I could sit on his lap in an effort to be closer to Andrew when instead I asked, “Do you want to look through my pack?”

“Yes!” I heard him say so I once more, I grabbed it and ransacked it again.  “LOOK!” I hollered, “Compartment Four,” I announced, tugging down the zippers. “No pass – ”  I stopped.  There – in the front of the pouch, hunkered down inside were our passports.

“For fuck’s sake!!!” Andrew exhaled before falling into his seat where he refused to talk to me for the rest of the flight . . .

Unfortunately, our traveling horrors were far from over.

“If you are headed to Quito, you missed your flight so go to Gate Seven; if you are headed to Buenos Aires, check in at Gate Thirteen.  If you are headed to . . . ” the flight attendants listed gates as our plane landed.

“What are we going to do?” I asked Andy, hoping the fact that our Quito flight left without us would be reason enough for him to talk to me again.

“We’re going to have to go to the Information Desk,” I heard him mummer as we grabbed our bags and left the plane.

“Excuse me, sir,” Andy asked an airport attendant at the gate.  “We were supposed to board the flight to Quito but we missed — ” and here he was cut off.

“Quito?” they asked.  We nodded our heads.  “The plane is about to leave.  Go to Gate Thirteen.  Right now!” and he pointed.

“Right!  Gate Thirteen – How long do we have?”  Andy called over his shoulder as he jogged away.

“Eh . . . TEN . . . TEN MINUTES!” the man yelled, cupping his hand around his mouth.

“TEN MINUTES?!” I shrieked and off we ran, rushing down the gate and through the airport, darting between and around people while the sound of my flip-flops — loud and angry — slapped the floor.

“You’re quiet,” Andy puffed next to me, sarcastic, as we raced on to cover what-felt-like every square foot of the airport.  Airport staff, restaurant workers, store personnel — all magically aware of where we needed to go — pointed directions as we raced past.

“Ma’am!  MA’AM!” I heard someone shout from behind me as I turned to see her point to the floor where my belongings lay scattered for several feet.  My pack was unzipped.

“Go, just go!” I yelled to Andy.  “GOOOO!” I yelled again, feeling as if I was in a Jurassic Park movie, our time running out before something horrible was about to happen.  “MAKE IT ON YOUR OWN!!!  GOOOOOO!!!” and off I turned to collect my belongings — neck pillow, book, pins, God knows what else — and jammed them back in as I scrambled to catch up to my now-vanished fiance.

Moments later, out of breath and sweating something fierce, I joined Andy at our gate.  “I smell something awful,” I huffed as a hello, knowing full-well it is never a good sign if you can smell yourself.

“Here,” the airline representative reached for our newly printed boarding passed before handing them over.  “Go,” he directed and we ran down the gate and onto the plane, hearing the flight attendants lock the door behind us.  Eyes stared as we passed, our walk of shame for holding the flight, until we found our seats.

Two hours later an announcement blared on the speakers: “Su atención, por favor!” Attention, I thought.  Right, I know that word.  And please, ow!  You’re doing great!  You can totally do this!  Despite the fact that I have never taken a Spanish class, I remained confident . . . until a racket of Spanish — sentence after sentence, paragraph following paragraph — strung through the air.

And we waited.

“Surely, they’ll translate in English,” Andy said as we looked around.  No one seemed bothered.  Well maybe the old crusty couple in the back, but I wasn’t positive they even heard the indoctrination; it seemed they were fiddling with their hearing aids attempting to get on the level we were at least in.  We waited again.  Some people began to twist around in their seats.

“Something is happening,” I whispered to Andrew, wanting to blend in.

“Yea, and we have no idea what,” he said.  So we did what everyone else was doing — looked around, alert, as if we too were searching for someone.  All I found noteworthy though was this massive sinkhole in the middle of the ocean.
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“SU ATENCIÓN!!!” the announcement roared again, sounding more urgent.  Then Spanish words — every Spanish word — was blasted through the speakers.  I felt panic rising.  This was important!  What if something bad was happening?  What if we needed to grab our oxygen masks?  What if the plane was about to crash?!  What if they discovered something deadly on the plane?!  What were they telling us?!?!

I looked to Andy for guidance.  His facial expressions mirrored my concern.  “Surely if it is important, they will translate,” Andy said again until we discovered — for the second time — we were past the point of no return.  There would be no translation, now or after.  “We should have learned Spanish,” we said at the same time.

In the end, don’t ask me what they said on the plane.  There were multiple announcements — constant — and they sounded repetitive except for the fact that some words had stronger accents than others, that type of accents that sounds scary, that demands an intensity from deep within the speaker’s throat.  All I can say is we may have missed the most life-essential information but — by chance — we made it to Galápagos in one piece.

Or what we thought was the Galápagos Islands.

When the plane landed, this is what we saw out the window: barren, dry, rocky earth.

“Did we get on the wrong plane?” Andy murmured.  “Are we on the right planet?” he asked as we peering through the window and onto the Mars-like land.
IMG_3591.jpgIMG_3594People started to stand and pull their belongings from the overhead bins so we stood too before following them down the aisle, through the gateway and into the airport where we saw a man holding a sign with Andy’s last name.  Inhaling, we waved as we walked over.  And thank God for us, he spoke English.

“Weeelcome to the Galápagos Islands, my friends!  Let’s get your bags and board a ferry to  Isla Saaanta Cruz.”  Just like that, we were off.
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Off to where we thought was our resort but was instead our first land tour.  “Today, you are goooing to see the giiiant tortoises!” our guide, Dario, informed us.  Dario, we learned, is “a true Galápagonian” and the type with a soft-spoken voice, one that allows you to immediately trust him.  Every other word was stretched, extended with his exhale and arms stretched by his sides, so that the most simple words — tortoise, nature, birds, pond — somehow seemed romantic and intimate.

Our truck, one of the thousands of same-model white Toyota pick-ups, zoomed down the newly paved roads until El Chato Ranch appeared.

“This is a priiivate, natural tortoise ecolooogical reserve.”  All Dario said made Andy and I inhale as if secrets to the island were spoken solely to us.  We would nod quickly, eyes wide, and lean closer.  He could have demanded anything from us and we would have been too captivated — and sleep deprived — to refuse.

Dario lead the way to a little shack for us to slide on tall boots “to protect from fiiire ants,” he said.  Then we were off in the reserve with Dario, our private guide.
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The giant tortoises were massive and beyond-belief size, which is remarkable given the fact that when they hatch, they are no larger than a fifty-cent coin.  From there, they grow 2,000 times the size they were born.  Overall, females can weigh 250 pounds and males can get up to 500.  On this reserve though, there are only males.
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Their size and weight depend on their age.  Just like the rings in a tree, the rings on a tortoises’ shells identify age.  The more visible the rings, the younger the tortoise; the more dull and weathered, the older the tortoise.  This one, pictured above, was believed to be fifty years old while the one below was thought to be over one hundred.
20180624_163340 copy.jpgAlso, notice the different stances — The younger one was more scared and tucked himself into his shell.  Most neither seemed to care that people were there, which is probably due to the rules enforced by Galápagonians: Everyone must maintain a distance of two meters from all animals.  It may be the older ones realize this — The wise fellow pictured above stretched and raised himself before us, which apparently meant he was begging birds to clean him.  As Dario said, “The birds and tortoises have a gooood relationship — The biiirds come and peck innnsects and parasites from the tortoises!  And the tortoises feeeed the birds!  Thiiis is nature!”

Dario’s passion illustrated more than what we saw — He was part of a group of dedicated people, people that serve as guardians over the Galápagos Islands.  As Dario walked, his gaze was down, careful not to harm any creature, reminding us that all on the islands was fragile and precious, that it needed to be taken care of and looked after. 

“Nature — undisturbed and wild — naaature is beauuutiful!” he called in front of us.

WOW! I thought, naaature!  Not that I had missed nature before but it was incredible, overwhelming even listening to Dario and seeing the giant tortoises.
IMG_3619The animals were happy and healthy, bending to munch vegetation before moving their powerful legs pushed their bodies up to rise again.IMG_3623IMG_3639
The reserve was incredible — It did not have to replicate the tortoises’ natural habitat, as a zoo tries.  Instead this area was its habitat, which Dario was eager to show us.  His love for his homeland and the wildlife was evident.  “Looook here,” he whispered practically tip-toeing to a water hole.  “Tortoises in waaater!” and his eyes went wide, arms stretched again to his sides as if this was a miracle.  “Tortoises in water . . . in their home . . . in their naaatural habitat!  Amazing!” and we all sighed.

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Fact: Tortoises can hold their breath underwater anywhere form forty-five minutes to an hour.

I appreciate what he wanted tourists to see — Tourists are raised looking at zoos, the so-called ‘animal protection’ sites that often do the opposite.  Yet, the animals in this reserve could roam freely, eat freely, live freely.

This is important too because these tortoises (like many other animals there) are endemic, meaning they are only found on the Galápagos Islands.   What is more astounding is that they are still there — still after they were pushed close to extinction.

This mostly began in the sixteenth century when whalers, fisherman, and fur traders began to invade the waters around the islands.  In droves they came throughout the years, and the animals greeted them — They had never seen humans before so they were curious, friendly, and unafraid.  That’s when the people attacked, taking advantage of the animals’ trusting nature.  The people pulled the animals from the water and slaughtered them to near extinction.  They weren’t the only threat though: Later pirates, preying on ships and searching for a place to hide, brought rats to the lands; then the Galápagonian people, needing food, brought over goats, cows, and chickens.  These animals — and more — were introduced and they disrupted the harmony of all endemic.  (For example, rats, goats, cows, and chickens destroy tortoise eggs and newborn tortoises.)
IMG_3622IMG_3621Because of this and more, the giant tortoise is listed as an endangered species today and this is why efforts are underway to increase the tortoise population.  For instance, a whopping ninety percent of the land is for the giant tortoises.  (To put that into perspective, only three percent is used as farmland for cows.)  This dedication to space is also important because tortoises are territorial.  As we soon saw, one tortoise intruded upon another only to be slow-chased from that portion of land.  While this does happen, at least the more land provides increased areas for the tortoises to spread out.IMG_3633IMG_3637
Overall I did not realize how much the giant tortoises would affect me, but seeing them the first day we arrived allowed me to appreciate the islands from the start.  The land — the animals, the flora, all contained on the earth itself — It is original and unique.  All of it is precious.

Delving into the history of the islands, the Galápagos is one-point-seven million years old and was formed by one of the most active volcanic hot spots in the world.  Because of these tectonic plates, the islands are constantly shifted, moved, and reformed — even as we speak.  In all, twenty-one volcanoes can be found on the Galápagos; thirteen are still active today.  In fact, one even erupted while we were there.
Volcano2Volcano6This is Volcan La Cumbre, located on Isla Fernandina.  It is a shield volcano and the youngest there.  These pictures, shared with me from a resident, show the powerful La Cumbre spewing flaming lava which dripped down the land.  Lightning could also be seen with bolts a vibrant purple, indicating the hottest type.
VolcanoWhile scary to know we were only forty miles from this fierce lava-spewing volcano, it was fascinating at the same time: We were almost witnessing creation.  We were in the middle of the Galápagos forming and reforming itself again, as it has done for millions of years and as it will continue to do.  Moving an estimated five to seven centimeters every year, the act of shedding old and creating new is the reason why undiscovered islands are in the process of forming right now.Volcano4Volcano12Volcano8 (1).jpgYet, this volcanic activity means the Galápagos is also a threat to itself.  Scientists calculate that in two million years, the islands will disappear entirely.  While that may seem an impossibly-long amount of time, realize the change is already happening.  The the flora, animals, land — all are slowly disappearing so that today approximately ten million animals have already vanished over the past five hundred years.

I say all of this to illustrate how spellbinding the islands are.  The fact that they are still here — after all it has been through, after it is so delicate — it incredible.  To be able to not only see the tortoises, but to travel through a lava tunnel a few feet from where tortoises were munching vegetation — it left me speechless.
20180624_164245This is one of other lava tunnels on the reserve.  The opening of the tunnel we went into was about five feet high.  Inside, it stretched to about six feet, but there was a large amount of soil (washed in by rains) that started to build up.  In fact, Dario said about two to three meters of soil is inside the tunnel.
20180624_164422 20180624_164448Meanwhile, little plants grow in the rich dirt, greedily gobbling up the small amounts of florescent lights that illuminated the inside.

The tunnel was about fifty meters long — a short explore — so once we were out, we headed back to the hut to exchange our shoes and then we were off to our resort, the Red Mangrove Eco-Luxury Hotel, which was beautiful.
IMG_3819IMG_3825IMG_3654.jpgTo make it even better, when we arrived, we were greeted with the most delicious mango drink.20180624_174158Passing through the entryway, we walked into the resort’s restaurant, which leans over the ocean.  There, we found sea lions bathing in the sun.IMG_4028 (1).jpgIMG_4029IMG_3695.jpgIMG_3696Along with them, iguanas surrounded us, lounging on wooden planks to warm, while bright crabs scurried on the rocks below.
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Exhausted after our travels, we returned to our room to shower and change before dinner where we feasted on the most delicious dishes of slow-cooked pork and fresh fish with shrimp.  For dessert, we chose fruit drizzled with honey under vanilla ice cream.  It was simple and sweet — the perfect way to describe how it felt to breathe in the ocean air and be in Galápagos together.
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* * *

Day Two greeted us early with Andy’s alarm clock going off.  It was time — the day we had been anticipating, the reason we were here: We were going diving!

Dressing quickly, we shot down to our resort’s restaurant where various yogurts, granola, fruits, breads, and more were splayed out for breakfast.IMG_3721.jpgOnce again we saw the deck scattered with lazy iguanas.
IMG_3797IMG_3813.jpgIMG_3764IMG_3765Below, the crabs continued to scramble on the rocks . . .

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I love this because there is a yellow-orange crab, a blue-grey one, and a bright and dark red too.

IMG_3807Meanwhile, pelicans landed on tiny posts above the dock . . .IMG_3740
while a family of large puffer fish swam in the sea.
IMG_3801IMG_3802 (2)IMG_3799We also found more sea lions sleeping on the dock . . .IMG_3811IMG_3810IMG_3809

Shortly after eating, we headed a block down to Scuba Iguana to take on our first two of six dives.  Earlier, we were fitted for our wet suits and equipment so that we could immediately head out with our group of eight divers.
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The Galápagos is a marine reserve, meaning it is a protected marine area.  This is important because the world’s marine reserves are tiny: In 2007, reportedly less than one percent of the world’s oceans were protected; in 2015, only four percent.  The Galápagos alone has the second largest marine reserve in the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef taking first place.

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Santa Cruz is the island in the middle with the image of a red bird on it and a giant tortoise to the south-west side.  Floreana is directly below.

Because the sea is protected, there are rules and regulations to minimize impact to the environment, such as only small groups of scuba divers and snorkelers can visit one area in two to four hour shifts.  With this in mind, most diving companies travel to two dive spots a day.  In our case, our first dive was outside Isla Floreana, the farthest we would travel from Santa Cruz (where we stayed).

This two-hour boat ride would bring us to an area where sea lions roamed.  “You don’t have to search for animals in the Galápagos,” everyone said to us.  “They find you.”  Our dive instructors spoke of how the animals were curious and friendly, lightly nibbling on divers’ fins and swimming so close they could be felt slipping past. To say Andy and I were excited and overwhelmed was an understatement — It felt more like an out-of-body experience, an opportunity I couldn’t imagine having.

Unfortunately what was also overwhelming was my seasickness.  The waters were rough as soon as we got into our boat and sped across the sea.
20180625_090336Up and down we splashed and jerked, making my increased dosage of Dramamine unable to compete.  This means those pleasant diver introductions — as in “Hi, my name is Andy, and I’m from England but recently immigrated to America” — I was not able to partake.  I didn’t have a chance to even pretend to be super cool and hip because five minutes in, I was throwing up off the side of the boat.

“Move here,” the instructors encouraged, gathering my helpless body and taking me to the end of the boat, which — for all curious, let me save you now — is supposedly the best place to sit if you’re seasick. True, it was better than anywhere else but due to the choppy conditions and boat’s speed, I was doomed.  I threw up again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and — here, let me shorten this: I threw up the entire two hours there.  Honestly and truly.  And (I’m going to spoil this climactic ending for you) the entire two hours back.  Well, I guess I didn’t technically ‘throw up’ the entire two hours back because at one point, I had finally emptied my stomach so I non-stop dry heaved the last hour back.  Listen, I’ve been sick before — carsick, airsick, seasick, you name it — but this was beyond any realm of reality.  As Andy — baffled — tells people, “I honestly have no idea how to describe it.  I’ve never seen anyone quite so sick.”

This also means I made zero friends on the trip.  Those trendy tattooed Danish best friends I wanted to talk to — nope, not a chance.  The Spanish family and friends of four — never.  Oh but there was that couple from Colorado — forget it.  Meanwhile, I heard my socialite fiance flourish without me.  As I retched beside the motor, he was the center of attention.  Bits of his conversation would make its way to my ears, such as “Does she need help?” the concerned and sweet Colorado female asked Andy.  “No.  Trust me,” he answered.  “She would much rather me stay over here.”  He was right too.  As I tried to listen — to be somewhat involved — I was grateful that there was not someone next to me, rubbing my back as I continued to vomit.  Let’s be honest, I had embarrassed myself enough already from afar; I didn’t need a close-up audience too.  “Well, at least she’s feeding the birds.  Circle of life and everything,” the Colorado female’s husband piped in as I spewed more ‘food’ into the ocean.  Actually, I believe that bout was when I threw up on the sleeve of someone’s wetsuit before flinging myself closer to the ocean to chunder again.  It was a disaster.  I was a disaster.

The good news: After growing up with this type of sickness, I’ve learned to be an ultra-quiet vomitter so beyond knowing I was sick, no one could actually hear me.  What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t entirely ruin the ambiance of the boat ride.  Plus every time I chucked it over the edge, I passed out in a coma-like state so it’s not as if my actions were desiring attention.  Don’t believe me?  Here’s a glimpse of me in all of my glory.
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This is around when — in a stage of unconsciousness — Andy later said people on the boat became highly concerned over me.  True, I was shaking so severely it appeared I was having convulsions and then I went from my normal color to an absolute white to a deep blue.  People tried to help but sadly I was past a point of politeness — They asked if I wanted something to eat, which I uttered a definite no.  The captain gave me a cup of water, which I immediately handed to a nearby man (who, bless his heart, had my water slosh all over him in his attempted to keep it steady).  Even Andy came briefly to sit next to me, but in my gratitude all I could manage was leaning into him before puking again.  I did try to utter the most sincere appreciation though when a Spanish woman offered me her jacket and buff (to wear on my head) to keep me warm; however, my “thank you” came out sounding like the dying noise of “Uhhhhhh-uhhhhhh.” This is essentially how the two hour trip to Isla Floreana went.

Emotionally (and let’s face it — physically), all felt ruined as I was struggling to survive.  Here’s how much this dive was overthrown by my sickness: I didn’t even care when someone saw a dolphin leap out of the water in the distance.  And I was still beyond caring when — right as we arrived to our dive and our boat’s engine was cut off — the captain continued my agony by turning the boat’s engine back on to zoom-zoom out to catch the dolphin.
20180625_110637As we raced, we found an incredible pod of about twenty dolphins, and they surged out of the water, many jumping trick-style mere feet from the boat.
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I tried to look, I did, but every time I peered into their sweet little eyes, I threw up again — this time in the small space between boat and dolphin — and to be honest, that’s not how I envisioned meeting a wild dolphin for the first time.  But everyone else was elated, as they should have been of course, so we zoom-zoom-zoomed in circles for at least half an hour, chasing this pod while I tried to remain conscious.
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Slowly the dolphins began to disappear so slowly we turned back to Floreana, where the boat’s motor was cut off once more.20180625_103100

“Normally it feels better to go into the water,” people chimed, though their voices had doubt because, let’s face it, I was in fact the sickest person anyone had ever witnessed.  But I’ve been in this situation before when people — who have never even remotely been in the same situation — feel their advice will help.  Regardless, I agreed because it was clear being on the boat was fatal so I tried to stand . . . and failed . . . and tried again . . . and failed, causing me to take my final action: begged Andy to help me.  “Canuhhhhh youuuuhhhhh pleashhhhhhhh ggghhhelpppp mmme?” I tried and he looked at me as if I appeared the way I felt.  Somehow he came around and perfectly translated my sentence to be “Please find a way to get my body into the wet suit and please get me in my diving equipment after please checking over it because I’m trusting you with my life right now.”  Listen, I know in our scuba diving certification courses one aspect most important is checking over your own gear, but I had given in to the idea that if I died underwater in a scuba diving mishap that was entirely better than what I had been through . . . or would go through on the way home.  Let fate have its way.

And bless my fiance’s heart — He did just that.  He helped find my fins, boots, and mask.  He miraculously got me into my wet suit.  He helped me put on my fins, boots, and mask.  He checked my equipment and assisted in getting me into it too.  I’m saying the only way to put this is in an understatement: The man is a saint.

Finally I was ready.  “We are going to flip backward off the boat,” one of our instructors said.  “On a count to three — One . . . two . . . ”  Wait! I thought.  I’m not ready!  My mask is slipping down my face.  I’m not positive I’m even in the right stance — “and THREE!” the instructor shouted.  Screw it, I thought.  I’m already a world of problems.  What more can happen? and over I flung myself over because I simply wanted off that Godforsaken boat.

I wish I could say my diving mishaps end there, but it is only beginning . . .

In the water, all of us floated until we received the command to go under from our instructor.  I was beginning to find a bit of positivity — Maybe I would be alright — when I felt my flipper come off my foot.  Sinking, sinking, sinking quickly with the weight of a super heavy air tank and weights, I scanned to find my flipper when out of the blue our instructor appeared and shoved the flipper back onto my foot.  Together, we continued down but because I had dropped so quickly and so fast my left ear felt swollen and the pain was incredible.  I motioned to the instructor that I had to go back up so up we went, pausing every so often to see if I was okay.  “Nope,” I’d motion in scuba-language.  “Up more” so we continued up still when — yep, this has to happen to me — I lost my flipper a second time.  Let me interject and say I did try damned flippers on beforehand and they fit really snugly; the instructor even checked and noticed, as I did, that they fit snugly.  So I’m sinking again and the instructor is finding my flipper again and jamming it back onto my foot again and we are swimming up again because my ear hurts again.  Meanwhile, the rest of my dive group is apparently sitting on the ocean floor waiting and staring at me . . .
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To make this long story short, I lost my flipper a total of four times so it took me a crazy-long amount of time to even get below the water comfortably.  But — the positive — I did have my own diving instructor, who by now thought I was a liability so he held my hand the entire dive.  Literally held my hand.

At first I was embarrassed by this.  Here I was with people that have logged over fifty dives, beyond 100, and I am clearly the newbie having my hand held because I was struggling to even go under the water’s surface.  Again, at first that embarrassed me.  But by now I was so worn out having thrown up for two hours straight and having sank due to flipper-loss multiple times that I really didn’t care if my hand was held or even if a “This woman is going to kill herself diving and I’m not responsible” sign was attached to me.  Little mattered at this point . . . which is sad because while I was floundering, my dive group had moved on — aware that they could not wait for me forever — to performing safety skills, such as how to clear their masks and how to recover their respirators.  Skills critical with new dive companies.  However, did I have to prove these life-essential diving skills?  Nope!  Because remember, I was having my hand held.  There wasn’t much I could fuck up at this point with my personal instructor making sure I survived.

Meanwhile, all was apparently wonderful below!  Here’s what they saw, courtesy Andy and his underwater camera.  Schools of fish — many different types — apparently swimming together and sea lions slowly approaching.
NOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERAIn these pictures, the sea lions appear to almost be flirting with Andy, showing off underwater.NOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERA
Of course I use the word “apparently” because I didn’t witness any of this.  Don’t believe me?  These pictures are in chronological order and yep, there’s me . . . trying to get deeper but still at the top of the damn water with — take note — my hand held.
NOVATEK CAMERABelow, Andy got so tired of waiting for me that he continued taking pictures — pictures not only of the amazing animals but also of himself because, as he says, “You weren’t around to do that for me.”
NOVATEK CAMERAMeanwhile, sea lions still whirled by doing as we were told: They lightly nibbled on fins and even brushed against divers to be touched.
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My instructor then dropped me off — literally — by letting go of my hand and making a movement with his arms that said, “STOP!  Do not DARE move from this point!” as he went off to, well, instruct.  (I suppose he couldn’t be my personal guide the entire time.)NOVATEK CAMERA

My instructor did return to hold my hand again because of course he would — I was a lawsuit waiting to happen.  It was here I realized I not only had my own personal instructor but I had my own guide.  While the others were swimming who knows where behind us, I was now the leader with him!  I should have been concerned where Andy was, but honestly one, I clearly had enough problems of my own and two, he had survived this far without me so I continued on as commander!  I pointed out every animal that passed — Massive school of fish, there!NOVATEK CAMERAGreat big fish following me, there!NOVATEK CAMERAIt was wonderful, I felt large and in charge . . . until there went Andy, going up to the surface with our other instructor and I see him with the instructor’s back-up regulator in his mouth.  In essence, we are opposites when it comes to diving: I can barely get myself down but when I am finally near the bottom, I am calm, barely moving, under control.  Andy, on the other hand, is a rock star at dropping but once he is at the bottom, his arms flail at his sides.  He tells me it is because he feels he isn’t in control but this energy uses a large amount of oxygen.

In the end, as Andy went up one of two things happened:
1. My photographer disappeared so there are zero pictures of me — for the first time this day — looking in control and like an actual scuba diver.
2. The moment I became confident, comfortable and dare I say happy, our group had to return to the top because when one person is up without air, the rest follow.
I know, I shouldn’t harbor ill feelings towards Andrew.  After all, he was my caretaker and rescued me more times than I can count.  (This, dear friends, is one of many examples to come . . . )

And here, I’ll say again I wish the story of our first Galápagos dive ended there but that’s apparently not our style.  The moment I stepped on the boat was the moment I ran back to my little corner and began to vomit once more.  And more.  And more.  And . . . you get the picture.  Meanwhile, the other divers were surfacing and sitting down to prepare for the boat to take off for our second dive location. Instead of gathering my supplies, I began to drunkenly shed them, moaning at each attempt to get off my wetsuit.

“Aren’t you going on the second dive?” the instructors asked me.  Andy asked me.  The other divers asked me.  But I was through — I was exhausted, shaking violently, struggling to stay awake, and still vomiting.  Even if the ocean provided a type of reprieve from seasickness, trust me — at this state, it was not going to be enough.

“Hey, I won’t go either,” Andy told me, trying to hold my hand as I continued dry heaving.  But that was absurd — We were here, he was able to dive, he needed to go.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Take pictures while you’re under!” I tried to call to him as I moved to the other end of the boat to curl up on a cushioned seat to sleep.  Before he had leapt into the water, I was already gone.
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In truth, I have no idea how long they dove.  With the captain and first mate talking quietly in Spanish and the boat in an area of still water, I was lulled into a deep sleep, waking only for a matter of seconds when I felt blankets placed on top of me and tucked into my sides.

At some point the divers resurfaced and I was ushered back to my vomit-station-of-quarantine while lunch was served.

“Does she want food?” they asked.

“Definitely no,” Andy told them, which I was thankful for as the start of the engine and movement refueled my body’s desire to vomit.

“Do you want lunch?” they asked him.

“No, thank you,” I heard him say from the other side of the boat at the same time food was brought out.  Then I heard pounding footsteps.  Then I felt someone next to me.  And then I heard Andy, explosive-vomitting over the side of the boat, retching and throwing up with such force and noise, I looked into the water to see if he had spewed his insides.  Two times he heaved so fiercely and loudly that he, too, collapsed next to me, exhausted. 

Leaving Floreana, leaving bits of ourselves to feed the sea creatures, and leaving our dignity behind, that — my readers — is how our fellow divers ate their lunch and how we will be remembered.  The sound of Andy snoring loudly after losing his internals to the sea and the sound of me, still throwing up for another hour until my body dry heaved the last sixty minutes back to Santa Cruz, where — only until we were within sight of the island — did we both sit up to maybe, kind of, sort of,  somewhat smile.NOVATEK CAMERA

Returning to our resort, I fought back the urge to throw up again as our room spun violently.  Surrounded in a blur of colors, I collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep once more.

In the conclusion, I had such high hopes for this day — Diving was, after all, the reason we went to Galapagos: To dive with sea lions.  To see sharks.  To see a schools of hammerheads.  That was our goal so when I woke, I was filled with sadness.

“I cannot do the dive tomorrow,” I told Andy, unable to stand straight and falling as the room spun.  “Even if I feel better in the morning, I honestly worry how it will affect my health.  I don’t want to risk other things we have planned.  I think I need to cancel tomorrow’s dive and aim to dive again Thursday.”  Tomorrow’s dive was at Isla North Seymour and Mosquera, spots known to have sharks, schools of large fish, eagle rays,  eels, turtles, and more.

Agreeing it was best, Andy ended up cancelling his dive too due to the fact that it was with a different dive company so he would have to repeat trying on equipment and doing safety procedures in the water.  “I’d rather explore Santa Cruz with you,” he rationalized.

Walking to the restaurant, we ordered dinner until I swayed so much that I fell onto the table, until the smell of our food had me nauseous again and here I ran to our room to fall asleep again in bed.  It was 7:00 p.m. and I had left Andrew to eat dinner alone at an ocean-edge candlelight table for two.

* * *

The next morning, we slept in.  For the most part, I had recuperated — ‘recuperated’ meaning I could actually walk to the restaurant and remain seated with Andrew for breakfast, ‘recuperated’ meaning I could eat two pieces of toast and drink a cup of tea.  I even managed to appear somewhat normal in this picture near two sleeping sea lions that were lounging on beach chairs.20180626_132507 copy
While I do regret not being able to dive, this day proved to be one of the most relaxed and wonderful because we had unscheduled time.  All of our days had some type of tour involved — whether a dive or land tour — so here, we were able to do whatever spur-of-the-moment idea we wanted.  Eager to see the Galápagos community, we strolled hand-in-hand towards the city.

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Here’s the city from afar.  This was taken from the deck of our restaurant’s resort.

IMG_3890Walking in the town made us see a different type of Galápagos — one that was populated, vibrant, colorful, inviting, and warm.IMG_3834IMG_3844

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Happy at our decision to roam the island, we settled down for lunch, then later dinner and drinks, before going to sleep.

 

* * *

Day Four and we were ready for our highland and beach tour.  Walking out of our room, area birds seemed to invited us to enter for breakfast, flying next to us.

Previously birds like this canary seemed shy, landing near us for only a couple seconds before taking flight again.
IMG_3731IMG_3734Now though, this one bounced from chairs to napkins, before coming to rest on my cup.IMG_3728IMG_3743IMG_3746Again I thought This is the Galápagos where vibrant canaries land next to you.  The thought made me both giggle and whisper to them as we slowly ate.

20180626_132216Stepping over iguanas, we made our way to the front of our resort until Fredericko, our private guide, arrived.  Here we were ushered into a truck and taken to the highlands.

While the drive up was beautiful, what I really loved was the climb.  I found myself appreciating the unique qualities of all trails while being happy and grateful for the chance to wander down this Galápagonian one.
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The view at the top of Cerro Mesa was impressive, made even more special because there were practically no signs of development for as far as you could see.

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The view looking straight. If you look closely where the land ends, it turns to sea . . .
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Looking left
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Looking right

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Soon, a fine mist began to roll over the highlands covering the peaks from view.  Fredericko talked about sailor folklore, how they believed the islands were enchanted because land would appear one moment and the next be gone.IMG_4040IMG_4041IMG_4047
At the top, we also learned about different species of tortoises.  The tortoises here travel all the way from the top peaks of these highlands down to the sea to mate.  It is a journey that takes about six to eight months and after they mate, they travel again back to the highlands.  Because they have to travel through a large amount of vegetation, they appear different that the tortoises we saw earlier — These have thick long claws unlike the more toenail-appearance of the ones on the El Chato reserve.
IMG_4063IMG_4068IMG_4067This fellow had wandered from the highlands to find a cozy spot here to sleep.

Following the trail once more, we passed under trees covered in moss . . .
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At our sides were bushes with the smallest little flowers, their yellow-insides consisting of even smaller flowers . . .IMG_4057.jpgIMG_4059and beside them, bananas and papayas — ready to be picked — hung from trees.  Interestingly enough, all fruits and vegetables — sugar cane, coffee, banana, pineapple, more — were imported.  Those  fruits and veggies native to the islands (except for the waba) are poisonous to humans so those living here were forced to introduce edible ones.
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Onward still, we soon arrived at the famous Galápagos sinkhole.
IMG_4076At the base of the sinkhole, there is a trail which cuts through this dream-like campsite.IMG_4077IMG_4081.jpgHere we learned more about the efforts to control Galápagos’s environment.  For instance, people on the islands try not to introduce animals to the lands.  In the highlands, a farmer introduced goats years ago but the goats continued to reproduce until it got out of control, which caused a major problem for the land, native animals, and vegetation.  Fredericko told stories of how he and his family would travel to the highlands to hunt the goats for food.  However, even with this, the goats were still harming the area.  The Galápagonian people then determined there had to be a cull for the goats.  Today, a rogue goat may still be spotted but there are not nearly as many as before.

Once our highland tour was complete, we headed to a nearby secluded beach, Garrapatero.
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This dying cactus provides a look at how the inside of one appears.

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Heading towards the ocean, we walked on sand so soft and fine it felt as if it wasn’t there.
IMG_4164IMG_4095Driftwood clumped in various colors and shapes, appearing more as art . . .IMG_4097and ahead lay the most beautiful beach I have yet to see.IMG_4099IMG_411420180627_105733
To the right lack lava rocks appeared to grow from the sand as ocean water splashed around them . . .IMG_4109IMG_4100IMG_4113On our left, a nearby Galápagos island peeked out from the sea, blue against blue . . .IMG_4134IMG_4137
Behind us, burgundy seaweed relaxed on the shore . . .
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while the sand blushed in pinks and teals, yellows, browns . . .IMG_4119
until, closer to the ocean, the waves mixed and blurred the colors.
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Following vines of bright fushia flowers, we arrived at one of two lagoons . . .IMG_4148IMG_4150IMG_4156We were told this lagoon sometimes has flamingos in the water but all we saw was a mockingjay perched on a post . . .
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Heading back to the ocean, we ambled beside a trail of bird prints until we reached another lagoon to the left.IMG_4155IMG_4161IMG_4157
On the way, we found this bird perched motionless on lava rock, watching and waiting for its time to snatch bitty fish from the pool of water cut off from the ocean.IMG_4147IMG_4144
At the lagoon, the sand was so white I struggled to get pictures and chose to make the area appear darker so that the clear turquoise and teal water could better be seen.
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Beside me, Andy stepped over small lava rocks until he reached several larger ones, which he climbed for a slightly higher view of the area . . .
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We spent a good while on that beach, calm and happy.  Not wanting to lose the feeling of the warm wind slipping through my hair, I rolled the window down as we rolled over the land back to our resort.

* * *

Day Five and our last two dives were here before we knew it.  Returning to Scuba Iguana, we headed this time to Seymour Punta and Gordon, which I was extremely grateful for because it meant a dramatically shorter boat ride of about forty-five minutes.  However, this dive was not without reservations — It was more advanced, mainly Gordon which was known for extremely strong currents.  The divers in our group here had over fifty dives, others had surpassed 100, and still more had given up logging because they had been on so many that they had lost count.  At the time, Andy and I had a whopping record of six and seven.

Fear not! I told myself because the instructors (different from before) knew our level and said we would take it slow (probably afterhearing rumors of my life on the seas from the previous dive).  Our dive group too was fine with this — a woman from Texas, a man from Japan that had immigrated to Peru as a child, a man from Norway, and a woman from Australia that had immigrated to Virginia.  All of this made me happy but what made me more excited was the fact that I never chundered off the side of the boat so I actually made friends!  A sheer miracle!  Added bonuses: When we arrived to the site, both Andy and I were able to get into the water and — for the most part — go down without any problems.  Andy had been given a larger air tank too so that we could all stay under longer on, what would be, his and my deepest dive (19 meters/62 feet).

NOVATEK CAMERADown, down we went and I held Andy’s hand.  This isn’t an action we have to do out of necessity but instead one we chose to do so that it is easier and faster to point out animals to one another.

Swimming, swimming, swimming we passed large schools of fish until we reached the bottom.
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We are doing it! I thought.  We are diving!  We are divers! and right as I started to get confidence, feel comfortable — content — underwater, an instructor comes in front of us and directs us to let go of one another’s hands.  Confused, we did as directed but that didn’t seem to be enough.  Possibly he thought we were holding hands due to fear or lack of diving talent, so he promptly took my hand and motioned for the other instructor to take Andy’s because Andy was apparently guilty by association.

Confidence shattered, this is how the rest of our dive went.

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Me with the instructor

I still don’t understand why I had to have my hand held — not that I’m complaining because, again, I got my own personal dive expert.  But we were doing well before — We were keeping up with our group, we were looking where directed, we were responding immediately to questions, we weren’t focusing much on photography — we looked and felt like actual divers.

Regardless, onward we roamed underwater — hand-in-hand with our instructors — and that’s when we find this extraordinary site: a school of five white-tipped sharks.
NOVATEK CAMERANOVATEK CAMERAThe sharks were about four feet long and were sleeping in a cave together, resting on top of one another.  When they saw us, they became nervous and scared, swimming in circles within the cave.
NOVATEK CAMERAI’ll never be able to express the amount of absolute joy I felt looking at those sharks.  I got into diving to be able to see wonders like this, to be able to see sharks — calm, shy creatures and not the man-eating machines Hollywood has made them out to be.  And here they were, right before my eyes!

I could have stayed looking at the sharks until my air tank ran low but our instructors urged the group on and so we passed numerous large starfish and more schools of fish that were bright yellow and blue, others stripped like zebras . . .

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This picture alone has at least eight starfish!

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Deeper still we dove with the goal of seeing larger sharks.  It was around this time the instructor let go of my hand and went to point out some type of coral opening and closing on the rocks.  “Stay here,” he directed with his hands, “and do not move!” so I waited, patient, as he showed each diver the coral.
NOVATEK CAMERASoon the instructor returned, swimming back towards me and ready to take my hand.  That’s when I watched as his eyes suddenly went wide, as he pointed directly below me.  Nervous, I glanced down and found a large five-foot shark a few feet under my fins.
NOVATEK CAMERAThe white-tipped reef shark was easily as big as me and it immediately garnered attention from the other divers who wanted a look, such as this idiot who ignored the two meter rule and continued to get a closer shot with a GoPro.
NOVATEK CAMERAThe instructor began to rapidly tap his tank with a piece of metal in his hand.  “Click!  Click!  Click!” the sound echoed, loud, through the ocean until the diver realized the warning to swim away.  Eager to move on and leave the shark alone, we continued to what is called the “Cleaning Station” where the fish cleanse each other by eating parasites off each other’s scales.
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With the dive nearing an end, we swam a bit more, seeing schools of cornetfish, parrot fish, trigger fish, and more.
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Before we realized it, it was time to go to the top so Andy and I made our way to the top with an instructor.  We had run out of air before the others so at the surface we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited for the boat, which was not in sight.  Our instructor continued to whistle and whistle again, loud and shrill, to get the captain’s attention but still no sign of the boat as we floated, bobbing in the water.  I’ll say here, I’m not scared of the ocean or animals inside . . . until if I am bobbing at the surface of water.  The image of Jaws — the first movie cover — with the massive great white racing straight up under an unsuspecting swimming woman appears in my head each time.  Truth be told that movie cover alone terrified me so much that I could never watch the movie or even look at the movie cover a second time.  So here, at the surface of the water like that swimming woman, I began to panic.  Inside my head I knew there were no great whites in the Galápagos.  Inside my head I knew I had just witnessed sharks, calm and far from aggressive, but still I was overcome with dread and fear.  I heard our instructor whistle again and again, and I thought This is how it feels to be lost at sea — the fear, the worry, the — and finally our boat was in sight!NOVATEK CAMERAQuickly climbing aboard, we waited while the other divers surfaced and got inside.

In the end, we did not go on the second dive this day.  I regret not going on this one too, but at the time I wanted to end diving on a high note: I hadn’t been sick, I hadn’t dry heaved, I had actually enjoyed myself.  I didn’t want to risk it.  Not only that, but the last dive was advanced so much so the instructors earlier informed us that we may not qualify for it due to lack of experience.  True, they said they did feel confident we could go but Andy and I agreed it was for the best to end ahead.  So at our instructor’s suggestion, the captain dropped us off at a dock where we got a taxi back.

“To the Red Mangrove,” we told a man herding taxi driver.  He pointed to a taxi and we got inside.

“Mangle rojo?” Our taxi driver had rolled down his window and was questioning other drivers, a look of confusion on his face.  Mangle rojo – What is that? I asked myself. Okay, ‘rojo’ means ‘red’ so what’s ‘mangle’? I silently worked to figure out the Spanish.  Mangle. Mangle.  Mangrove!  That’s when it dawned on me our driver was trying to confirm where we were headed. “Mangle rojo?” he asked again but no one looked at him.

“Si! I said in my head.  Si, Mangle rojo!” 

“Mangle rojo?!” he shouted until someone turned and confirmed.

“Si, mangle rojo” I heard a voice echo my thoughts and off we zoomed from the sea.

That was my one shot at speaking Spanish — at not only understanding but communicating in regular conversation — and that shot slipped from my grasp, opportunity missed.

When we returned to the dive shop later that day to log our dive, we learned the one we did not go on was the most incredible of all — Hammerheads, a school of about fifteen adult hammerheads, swam above and below our dive group.  Hammerheads — the ones I had traveled all this way to see — now gone.  While I know it was for the best, damn do I regret missing that dive the most . . .

* * *

Our last full day had arrived and it was set to be a relaxing one with a yacht trip to the neighboring island of Bartolome . . . though I do use the term ‘relaxing’ loosely because, let’s face it, it was still me on a boat.  Yet, this yacht was larger than our earlier speedboats and it also moved at a slower pace so I focused on convincing myself that I was fine, that I could handle this.
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And I did, at first.  7:00 a.m. and the trip started off fun — I was taking pictures of beautiful sailboats as we moseyed out to sea.
IMG_4333IMG_4334About half an hour in,
we passed foggy islands as the sky began to darken . . .
IMG_4337IMG_4340but the journey was pleasant overall.  I sat tucked into the back corner of the yacht near the motor again to prevent seasickness and I was doing alright . . . until the smell of smoke drifted in the air an hour into the ride.

“I think something’s overheating,” Andy whispered in my ear as a feeling of dread began to consume me.  Let’s be honest: If you read my blogs you know by now strange things happen to me.  It’s as if I am so clumsy that my simple being affects things outside of myself so that weird, random shit just happens.  If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.  It’s been that way my whole life.  I’m not saying I’ve had a bad life either — I’m simply saying I am well attuned to this feeling of dread.  And I say all of this to illustrate that when Andy informed me something had overheated, it came as no surprise when — a few minutes later — our guides appeared to apologize that one of two of our yacht’s engines had overheated and that they were calling for another boat to transfer us.

“Don’t worry,” they said, smiling as we heard the boat’s motor being turned off.  “We will board a new boat that will come to take us to Bartolome while this yacht will be repaired so we can take it back.” Smiling still, they climbed the ladder to rise to where the captain sat, wishfully steering the boat.

“Oh God,” I moaned to Andy.  “This is not going to be that easy.  You know it won’t be that easy” and here I settled in for a long ride.

“L,” Andy looked at me as I leaned into him.  “It is going to be easy because it is going to be just as they said — They have called for another boat, that boat will be here to pick us up, and we will go to the island for our tour.  There is nothing wrong — Everything has been solved.  There is no need to panic.”

“I’m not panicked,” I retorted.  “I just want to know how long we will be stuck on this boat.  Let’s take bets.”

“L.  I’m not betting.  It will take a small amount of time because they have just informed us that a boat will come.  That’s it.  There’s no need to bet.  We won’t be stuck on a boat forever.”

Bless him.  He still has his optimism despite knowing me for years. 

“I’ll bet five hours,” I told him.  Listen, it’s not that I’m negative and Andy is positive (though, true — we are).  It is just that it broke my heart knowing he was living in a world of false hope — Seeing him trust and believe in something that wasn’t going to happen upset me.  I needed to be the reality of the situation.

“It won’t be five hours,” he told me.  “It damn well won’t be five hours.  It will be thirty minutes max.”  And with that, our conversation was over as I settled down for nap to bypass the slow progression of seasickness.
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The minutes passed . . . Andy’s half an hour mark passed . . . then an hour . . . after hour . . . after still more hours passed until suddenly, the boat’s motor turned back on.  I woke to find everyone looking at each other, confused and waiting.  Slowly, the yacht moved forward, turning as it went, into a circle.

“What are we doing?” Andy asked, more to himself than to anyone.  I was wondering the same.  With one engine out, we were only able to go in circles.

And circles are what we did — in the middle of the ocean — to apparently pass time.  Circling, circling, circling, contained on this small yacht — this is when I began to lose my mind.  I looked around, hoping to see someone as desperate as I felt, someone who demanded information on our missing rescue boat, someone who was questioning why we were circling . . . but all I saw were calm people: A man joked loudly, “Tell people at home I love them” while others laughed; there was a camera and tripod set up as a French crew interviewed a scientist about sperm whales living deep below Galápagos’s waters.  And there was Andy, who was excitedly shouting and pointing as he saw a large ray jump from the ocean’s surface.  I felt the only sane one.  Who the hell cared about the ray?!  Or the television show on whales?!  Or the jokes that were about to be truths.  Why hadn’t anyone come yet? Why were we told hours ago a speedboat was on its way and there was still none?

“What time is it?” I asked Andy.

He checked his phone.  “11:45.”

“You mean to tell me we have been on this boat for almost five hours?!” I announced. “Clearly something isn’t right!  Clearly they are not telling us all there is to know!  Where the hell is this rescue boat?!  Why are we going in circles!?  What the bloody hell are we doing!?”  I’ve noticed when I get really pissed off the English word of ‘bloody’ is adopted; don’t ask me why.

“Calm down,” he told me. “There is a boat coming.  They told us that already – They called for a boat.”

“That was HOURS ago!” I shrieked. “Why not call for the police?!  Clearly we are stranded at sea and need help!  Clearly there is no rescue boat coming!”

“L, the police?!  Calm down.  This is not an emergency.”  His voice was passive, calm, though he seemed on the edge of being aggravated with me.

“Are you kidding?!  It’s been FIVE HOURS!” I exploded.  “At what time does this qualify as ‘an emergency’?  At what point does more have to happen in order for it to become ‘an emergency’?  What needs to go wrong for this to warrant calling for help?”  I was furious, finding it ridiculous that everyone allowed this to continue.  In my mind, I began writing a live shot on our story (seven years in the news business will do this to you), told from a reporter I imagined to be standing on a shore somewhere, analyzing debris from our wrecked yacht: “As you can see, the remnants of that Galápagonian yacht have now washed ashore.  There’s still no word on how long the passengers drifted at sea before their deaths or even where their bodies are at this hour.  And this all begs the question –- What went wrong that day?  Why were warning signs ignored?”

Andy’s voice broke my thoughts: “A ray!” he shouted again next to me, followed by, “at least I think it was a ray.  Maybe I’m delirious now.” 

The truth was I was delirious too, imagining scenes of desperation, visions of not returning alive.  In no specific order, I was seeing life vests around our heads as we forced into the ocean, one at a time, our yacht slowly going down in flames after the other engine overheated from the constant circling.  I was seeing police helicopters hovering over us, dropping a net above our heads, and my fingers twisting into it as the chopper pulled me up . . .

Suddenly there was movement on deck and the two guides appeared before us again.  “It appears we cannot find our rescue boat,” they announced with saddened expressions that seemed rehearsed.  “We know that it left the port, but we have lost all communication with it.  And with the port.”  They paused as if that answered everything.  “When we realized we could not communicate with the other boat, we did send out a request for help for another boat to come.  That was before our communication went out.  So we are still waiting for one of two boats,” they finalized then turned and went back up the ladder.

“That doesn’t answer anything!” I yelled as everyone sat quietly in their seats.  “Lost communication?!  Does anyone have record of where we are right now?  Lost the first boat?  And a second?  Even if they were headed here, how will they know where we are without communication abilities?!”  I was beyond myself as one of the crew members jumped aboard a small pool-sized inflated boat and revved the motor.  It juttered awake.  I watched as the little inflatable was turned towards the bow of our yacht where it then continued to nuzzle the yacht  in a semi-straight path.  “This — this — is how we are expected to get back to an island?!”  The thought was both insane and a reality as our boat plodded ever-so-slowly forward until, several minutes in, the yacht’s motor cut off again.

“We’re out of gasoline,” I heard someone above say.

“This is fucking insane,” I announced, more in disbelief that this was actually happening.

And this is why I started my post saying we were lost at sea.  This is why I said I was not speaking figuratively or dramatically either.  I wasn’t exaggerating incidents or concocting a tale for story-telling purposes.  We were honestly and truthfully lost at sea.

By this time, Andy was now fully aware that we were not making it to the island tour and that things were not going as planned so he went inside the covered area and sprawled his arms along a table . . . to go to sleep.  I then was left to my own devices and began to notice strange details, such as one may do when death approaches. For instance, I became fixated on a deep cut on the Croatian woman’s leg – The laceration was a little above her ankle, beside her shinbone, and was about an inch in length. I saw it earlier when she first boarded our yacht because I remembered thinking how unsanitary it was that her cut was brimming with blood. Now I had a different fear: If we were to end up in the ocean, one drop from her wound would call forth the world’s population of sharks to devour us.

That lead my mind to more. And here’s how serious our situation became: I began examining people, determining who had the best chance at surviving this tragedy if we were picked off by sharks.  There was the Croatian woman’s daughter — She had a good shot because she was old enough to be a strong swimmer and her legs were short so the sharks wouldn’t be able to eat her dangling limbs as easily. Then there was a teenage boy, tall and plump – He didn’t appear to know how to swim so he surely would be the first to go.  And me – Where did I stand? My luck, I thought as spray from the ocean misted my face, is that I’ll be one of the last left floating . . .

Soon, a massive fishing boat appeared in the distance and I heard our little inflatable zoom ahead for it.  Reaching its side, a person came to talk to our inflatable captain as the blow-up boat sloshed beside the ginormous one.  Moments later, our little inflatable returned with large fuel canisters, which were emptied into our yacht so we could continue on our slow path to who-knew-where with the assistance of our inflatable.  With no hope for rescue, I watched as the fishing boat disappeared from sight, leaving us with a view of endless ocean.

Needless to say, we were on that yacht for six and a half hours.  A boat — some mystery boat — came to rescue us at 1:30 p.m. and take us back to the welcomed Santa Cruz.  I was almost in tears of joy by the time we pulled up to the dock.  

With Isla Bartolome gone, Andy and I later flopped onto our resort’s bed.  “What would you like to do with our free day?” he whispered to me.  We were both exhausted and beaten down and honestly, could have gone to sleep at 3:30 that afternoon . . . but it was our last full day.

“Let’s explore the island one last time,” I told him so out the door we went again.
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These lizards are called Push Up Lizards because they do, what looks like, push-ups to attract female mates.

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This beautiful larger bird is Galápagos’s mocking jay due to the fact that it mimics sounds.

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The evening slowly approached as we made our way to the pier, hoping to see what Fredericko had mentioned earlier: sharks.  Sure enough, numerous baby black-tipped sharks swam to the surface, brought there by fishing boats that pulled into the dock.IMG_4231.jpgIMG_4222IMG_4225IMG_4246IMG_4234IMG_4239IMG_4249IMG_4251IMG_4258IMG_4261IMG_4265IMG_4272IMG_4216IMG_4274

Making our way back to our resort, we settled in for dinner under a blood-red moon and drank glasses of wine, courtesy the company we booked through as an apology for our yacht experience.
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(NOTE: We were also fully reimbursed for our missed island tour due to the yacht problems.)

* * *

Our day of departure had arrived but before we left, we had a final tour.  Here, we were headed to the Charles Darwin Station to see the tortoise breeding center.

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Note the massive cactus!

Dario was paired with us again on another tortoise private tour.  Earlier he spoke of the differences in the El Chato Ranch Natural Reserve compared to the breeding center, and the differences were so apparent it was shocking.

 

The tortoises at the earlier wild reserve could roam in and out of the area, though they mostly chose to stay due to the environment.  However, here the animals were contained in small quarters either by metal or stone fencing.
IMG_4359IMG_4360Because these were young, there were numerous tortoises placed in its enclosure; however, even the fully grown tortoises were kept close together too, which surprised me.  Dario had stressed earlier how territorial the animals were so when I questioned if he imagined them to be happy in these conditions, he shrugged his shoulders without a smile.  “They don’t have a choice so they have to live this way, correct?” I asked and he frowned and nodded.
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Not only that, but looking at the tortoises’ enclosures the vegetation was significantly less.  What was mostly visible was concrete structures and heavy rocks.
IMG_4366IMG_4364True, the tortoises naturally live on a volcanic island, but you’d have to be foolish to believe the vegetation (or lack there of) is identical to what is in their natural habitat.  Without vegetation growing naturally, the tortoises at the breeding center are unable to eat whenever they please.  This broke my heart because when we roamed the earlier reserve, I can attest that practically ever tortoise was bent beating or had vegetation hanging from its mouth.  At the breeding center though, there were none eating and many of the tortoises had grown to learn humans bring food so when we approached they slowly made their way towards us, hoping to be fed.
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Lastly, the tortoises here had no visible water.  I questioned Dario about this, remembering one of the most happy scenes from the earlier reserve with tortoises in the pond.  Here though I learned the tortoises are only given water once a month.  He was not happy about the lack of water either but did point out that the animals can survive with little.  I stood, horrified at the animals that congregated in concrete dry basins, waiting for water. The thought of not purposely filling their ‘water holes’ because they could survive with less was absurd.
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Walking around the breeding center I found myself getting angry at Dario.  “Why can’t you do something?” I asked him.  “You know how happy the other giant tortoises were in their natural environment — Why can’t you make them change the environment here?” 

But Dario would correct me: “These people,” he would say, fanning his arms around the enclosures, “are not me.  They are not youWeee know the tortoises is happy in the other environment — the natural environment.  But people do this to the animals.”

And I understand what he is telling me.  He means people — those who contain, study, and control animals; those playing God; those that go under the guise of ‘helping’ — those people are not him or me, the ones that see things differently.

So I tried to put myself into the other position.  I tried to ask myself — over and over again — if these scientists, these people are actually helping?  On one hand, is it better to have an animal live in these conditions to preserve its species?  Is that an act to benefit the animal or is it one for the selfish human?  But on the other hand, is it better to let animals live naturally and happily even though it will face extinction soon?  Should people watch and stand idly by, knowing they could help?  But what is ‘help’?  Is there even an answer?

Overall, I don’t have much to say about the breeding center because I don’t know how I feel about it yet.  I know what knowledge I was supposed to take away, such as on Charles Darwin.  For instance, he was only twenty-two when he boarded his ship, not paid, to head out on a five year voyage.  And I know I was supposed to learn about the different tortoises, which can be seen by analyzing their shells.  Some have shells — thin and fragile — that appear to have melted around their bodies, while others have the stereotypical thicker, more circular shells.  Also, other species have different neck lengths — some thin and long; others with barely visible stout necks.  Lastly, their tails are different too — They can be long and almost leg-sized while others may be impossible to see.
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I understand that identification is important because each species exists on a different Galápagonian island and each are at risk.  Of the original fifteen species, for example, humans have already killed four so that only eleven remain.  One of those species died relatively recently too — In 2012 many mourned the death of Lonesome George, who was the last of his kind.  (His preserved corpse is at the breeding center too, by the way.)  And one of those eight has only fifty giant tortoises left in the world so it may follow Lonesome George’s footsteps soon too.
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So I suppose I know the breeding center’s aim is to help.  They do bred tortoises so that about 200 giants are born each year, such as these newly hatched.
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This is incredible given the giant tortoise only lays around eight eggs a year, though in rare cases the maximum number recorded is twenty-two.

Also noteworthy is the center provides a safe place for the tortoises to grow.  Here, they are as teenagers.  (Andrew thinks he remembers Dario saying they do release the mature mating tortoises back into the wild with a goal of capturing different ones to mate; if this is true, none of the tortoises live forever in their confined home.)
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Oh, and the breeding center helps other animals too — They breed these land iguanas, which are endemic to Galápagos.
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So I do understand what the goal is: to help animals that, at the price of humanity, are about to be extinct.  I just don’t know yet if this breeding center — or any breeding center — is the way to help . . .

With that thought continuing to trail me still, Andy and I were loaded back into a truck with our suitcases to head towards the dock where a boat took us from Santa Fe back towards Guayaquil.
IMG_4402It was here we saw glimpses of the birds we were hoping to see on missed tours, such as the blue-footed booby.
IMG_4403.jpgIMG_4404.jpgIMG_4405 (1)It was as if the Galápagos was reaching out to us in its final moments, showing us there was more wonder and beauty left to explore . . . but without time, we had to go.  We had to board a plane and head home, watching the islands disappear as we went further into the sky . . .

* * *

When we returned home, I felt different.  I felt unsure of myself, unsure of what I had seen, unsure if I had even been to the Galápagos Islands.  It sounds odd to say it aloud, but I remember sitting at our dining room table one night and suddenly crying because I felt as if I had missed it all, as if I was there but did not pay attention, as if I did not truly see, as if my mind were elsewhere.

“I’m trying to convince myself that I did experience the Galápagos,” I told Andy.  “I know I saw giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, blue-footed boobies, more — I know I saw it because I have pictures, but I don’t feel in my heart I actually saw it.  I don’t remember it” and here I would cry again.

Maybe I don’t remember because I missed a large portion, I rationalized.  I missed most of the sea lions after making it underwater late following issues.  And I did have to cancel on over half of our dives, four in total missed, so I did not see marvels like the school of hammerheads.  And our yacht did breakdown, keeping us from a exploring a different island.  So yeah, I did miss much of what the Galápagos had to offer . . .

To cope with this realization, I tried to convince myself that the allure of the Galápagos was wrongly placed.  It was simply a travel destination of numerous, merely one location in the world.

“That’s not true,” Andy said and I could see the sparkle of amazement still captured in his eyes.

“Convince me then,” I told him that night, again and again.  And so he did.

“It is a place made legend due to its original, unique biodiversity.  True you can see giant tortoises elsewhere, such as Africa, but those on the Galápagos are distinct ones endemic to that area.  And yes, you can swim with sea lions elsewhere but will they be as friendly?  Or will the risk of great white sharks — which are not present in the Galápagos — will those sharks make it too dangerous to dive?  And maybe there are frigate birds elsewhere but you may have to travel far to see them.  And L,” he said, “animals like the marine iguanas, the blue-footed boobies, more — L, those are endemic to the islands too; they are found there and only there. The Galápagos truly is extraordinary.”

And he is right.

The islands are rare to the fact that people do not have to travel the world to find these special animals — animals that are on the verge of extinction.  Instead, people can go to one location — one spot so small it is a blip on a world map.  And so while this is more a miracle, more a dream, it is also scary and sad.

The fact is the Galápagos is so precious and fragile that it sits in risk each day.  And the largest threat is people.

Tourism has exploded, forcing the government to take measures to protect and conserve the islands, spanning from additional baggage screenings to purchasing Transit Cards and National Park Fees to spraying planes’ overhead bins with insecticide.  That’s just heading there – There’s more upon arrival. But is it enough to ultimately save this rare archipelago? 

No, of course it is not. 

Before we left for the islands, people asked if we were required to get vaccinations.  The answer is no but it did seem odd then – We were entering into a different type of world so it would seem expected to protect ourselves from it. However, we learned vaccines are not required because it is the people — the visitors — that bring bugs, seeds, and diseases to the Galápagos; it is the people that bring these threats so that if anything, the islands should be ‘vaccinated’ against tourists.

It here I will end this already long post: Only when we returned, when I wrote this did I realized Andy and I contributed to the downfall of the islands in a sense.  True, we helped the people and their businesses which boosted the economy, but did we help the actual islands?  The wildlife?  No.  If anything the act of writing this post encourages others to travel there, which further harms the area, and this is why I almost want to end saying simply, “Do not visit the Galápagos Islands.”

I tell Andy of how I am struggling to write this, of how it has taken me almost two months to write because I don’t actually want to share our adventures here.  That’s because, in truth, I feel guilty and ashamed of going.  This part of me wants to scare you from the area in an effort to cut down on tourism, in an effort to save the Galápagos from being wiped out forever.  If I scare you enough, maybe you will realize it is your change – you staying away – that will allow the islands to grow stronger.

But Andy is talking to me now, telling me I am speaking as if the islands disappearing under people’s feet.  He says conservation efforts will continue to improve because people will strive to protect the land and what is on it.  In fact if anything, he tells me, as the animals are threatened and endangered, the necessity to keep them alive increases.  So I should have faith . . .

I do feel appreciative that I had an opportunity to go and more importantly, that I was affected.  I am grateful that I have a voice to spread the word about the importance to protect not only this land or any threatened, but all land.  This part of me hopes, like Andy does, that efforts will keep improving so that others can go to the Galápagos Islands.  With more people visiting, more people can be touched so more people can speak out and more change can happen.

So I guess I’ll leave you with this super hippie, super cliché bit because, simply put, I can think of no other way to say this: Be good and do good. Spread goodness.

Hike Twenty-five: Overall Run/Beecher Ridge

I yearned for a hike.  My heart was desperate for the mountains, and my body ached in ways it only does when not on trails.  Feeling idle is equivalent to feeling hopelessness — My mood plummets downhill as my body is at a standstill, and I feel the slow grip of multiple sclerosis as it builds to wreak havoc again.

See, Andy and I started 2018 off strong — We had averaged eleven hikes in four months from January to April, which may not sound like that much until you realize there were only seventeen weekends within those four months.  Looking at it that way, it was impressive.  However from May to June, five weekends, I only found one trail.  Things happen in life, I get it, but I feel as if I’m constantly fighting myself — fighting the urge to pack my bags and move to the mountains, drop all responsibility, and simply disappear into the forest.

This is what I mean when I said earlier “My mood plummets downhill” — crazy thoughts begin to enter my head, which is why I was lucky to find a trail and two friends to walk on it with me.

It was a Sunday in June when Nikki, Usua, and I grabbed our packs for a day hike at Overall Run/Beecher Ridge in Shenandoah National Park.  We did a slight variation of this hike but, because it was similar, I wanted to post its main information here:

  • Eight-point-five mile circuit
  • 1,965-foot elevation gain
  • Level Four of Five difficulty

The forest was a lush green and could not have been more gorgeous — Sunlight streamed through the leaves while we followed the sounds of water rushing next to us and birds singing above.
34877812_10156338661274898_4123594742225174528_n copy36087170_10156367752349898_2117216940450643968_o copy.jpgLarge ferns flourished, their massive leaves stretching over others, forming layer upon layer of feathery greens.
IMG_3376Above them, mountain laurel became our guide as we traveled deeper into the woods.
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Soon, a waterfall appeared on our left.  While smaller than our final target, this one was still large and impressive.IMG_3408Leaving it, we followed several switchbacks before our trail turned more rocky before dipping down.
IMG_3452It was here we were greeted with both waterfall and mountain view.
Waterfall and mountainsThe massive waterfall on the left is one of the largest continuous falls in Virginia,
IMG_3428IMG_3429Beside it, a summit that rivaled all others.  National park rangers told us earlier this was one of the few overlooks in the entire park with no views of development as far as the eye can see.
IMG_3432IMG_345335026501_10156338662109898_8931857655694098432_n copy 2IMG_3448 (1)What was also striking were the flowers, which stretched along the rocky vista — Blooms of all shapes and sizes appeared to swell as if showing off when I stepped by.
IMG_3419IMG_3420IMG_3426 (1)IMG_3425 (1)IMG_3472 (1)IMG_3468 (1)IMG_3467 (1)IMG_3469.jpgIMG_3465IMG_3446IMG_3444At the mountain’s overlook, we were only able to nibble at our lunches as the sound of thunder soon gave way rain, which later turned into a torrential downpour.  It was time to go.
34934483_10156338663089898_413353828730011648_n copyHeading back, I remember thinking It will be strange if we don’t see a black bear.  The area seemed a perfect place for them — full of protection, vegetation, water.  I looked around, sensing they were close but hidden.  Beecher Ridge is known for having one of the highest concentrations of black bears in Shenandoah.  In fact, the chance of encountering one is so high, our directions even threw in “This is one hike where you are most likely to catch a glimpse of a black bear in the wild.”

I couldn’t get the thought of the animals out of my mind so I paused, almost willing their camouflage to disappear so they could be seen and it was then — honestly and truly — a black bear appeared on my right.IMG_3481Concealed in thick foliage and limbs, it’s rump faced us, waving lazily back and forth as it foraged for food.

“Bear . . . ” I whispered to Nikki and Usua, causing them to immediately stop and turn.  “Shhh,” I motioned my finger to my mouth as I pointed into the forest.  Tiptoeing back towards me, the three of us bent and stretched on our toes to see it.  The bear paused, sensing us, and raised its head — our eyes meeting — before turning back and sniffing more.IMG_3494IMG_3489The bear was, what I’m guessing, a teenager — One unconcerned with humans (which was good) so we soon moved on too as the rain continued, harder on our shoulders.

Our path quickly turned to stream then thick mud as we followed it the last few miles to the parking lot. IMG_3499IMG_3403.jpg
In the past, I had been the one to dance around mud and streams with new boots on, but this day I walked through the brown sludge and water, allowing the mud to rise over my boots.  I was hiking again, after a hiatus from the forest, and I wanted to see that mud, smell that dirt, feel that rain on my body until it filled me.  I wanted to breathe in as much of those woods as my lungs could take and hold it inside of me with the hopes that it would last until next time.

I had missed the mountains and its forests, oh how I missed them, so much so that when I finished walking and replaced my boots for sandals on the drive home, my brand new boots looked like this and I couldn’t have been happier.
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Hike Twenty-four: West Virginia’s Middle Fork/Big Beechy

“Andy,” I said one day with an air of sadness in my voice.  “Know what?  I think I just realized all our crazy hiking stories and accidental adventures in the wilderness — we don’t have them anymore.  We know what we are doing, we aren’t novice.  That’s sort of depressing, isn’t it?”

“L,” he exhaled deeply.  His voice sounded as if he was rolling his eyes so I looked up at him.  “That’s not a bad thing.”

“But — ”

“Be honest with yourself — It’s you after all.  I’m positive we will have more stories.”

He continued going about his work but I couldn’t get it out of my head that he was wrong — We were doomed to normalcy.  No danger?  No sense of hopelessness?  No powering through in an effort to survive?  No stories?

Where’s the fun in that?

“I suppose you’re right,” I told him.  Maybe our stories would simply be different.  Maybe they would be told through pictures of happy, calm trails.  Change didn’t have to be bad.  “Well, speaking of hiking, where are we going next?”

And that little conversation is one I would be reminded of later . . .

* * * * *

My Brit woke early — a sheer miracle — so we could drive to West Virginia for a two-day hike in Cranberry Wilderness, a name that immediately had my heart on a string.  There, we were headed into Monongahela National Forest, which promised a rugged landscape with steep mountains and a dense forest filled with old-grown red spruce.  Essentially, a dream.  However, the trails there are not to be overlooked — The one we chose, for instance, was reputably known for being so sharply angled and rocky that it was better to climb instead of descend.  It was also an unblazed trail that carried a warning: “Depending on the time of year you decide to hike, a map, compass, and GPS are highly recommended as many of the trails can be harder to navigate.”  We were aware of the dangers from the start and every so often, my heart would begin to beat more intensely.

“Are you sure this wasn’t a bad idea?” I asked Andy about every thirty minutes.  “Those that threw warning words at us — they are experienced hikers.  If they are speaking of getting lost, we surely will be doomed.”

“Nonsense.  We are more experienced,” he told me.  There wasn’t even a crease of concern on his brow before he retorted, “Plus weren’t you just talking about how our crazy hiking stories were done?  Your words — not mine.”

I huffed.  At that time I had my bare feet on the carpet and was sitting on our puffy sofa, safely tucked inside our home.  Now I was questioning why innocent selfies, boring trail-story hikes — why those weren’t viewed as acceptable earlier.

“I’m serious,” I told him.  “This is the first time I feel like we are going too far.”  This was rare for me — I’m the type of person that sees no bounds, the type that aims to hike the Appalachian Trail before even owning backpacking boots and a pack — so this must have proved my apprehension.

“L,” he looked me in the eyes.  “We’re going to be fine.  Okay?  We can do this.  We’re going to be fine.”

I knew he believed that so I tried to believe it too, focusing instead on the introductory bit in our directions that said “Your reward is one of the most beautiful areas on the East Coast, with moss-covered mountains, streams with pools, and exceptional solitude.”  The trail to get there: Middle Fork/Big Beechy.

  • About twenty-one miles (The distance is incorrect on HikingUpward)
  • 2,170-foot elevation gain
  • Level Three of Five difficulty

From the moment we arrived in Cranberry Wildnerness, we could tell it was a different place, a unique forest, one lost in time.  Carrying the nickname The Ice Age Forest, it was a relic of that time period.  Not only that, but the area was known to be “a bit of Canada gone astray” because the animals and plants that live there are normally found hundreds of miles north; however, due to the high elevation, cold weather, and earth’s structure, they exist happily here.IMG_2965IMG_2966It was late spring so most of the trees were still dormant, the ground shielded by a brittle brown.  Weaving out of the deadness though, spots of red spruce stretched above as if protectors of the forest.
IMG_2967IMG_2968The road curved, taking us around both sides of the mountain, when suddenly a massive bird flew in front of the windshield — It’s speckled dark wings, strong and wide, allowing it to fly inches above our car before turning in mid-air to continue up ninety-degrees.  It came to rest, nervous and shaken, on a high limb above the road.
IMG_2946Moments later, we spotted a large groundhog wagging its bum in the air as it scratched  dirt beside the edge of the road.  And our drive continued like this — hints of the otherworldly, and maybe that word came to me because we zipped by a gnome house tucked next to a line of bright yellow forsythias a couple yards from the pavement.IMG_2961IMG_2963
Snap-crunch!

“Ooopsss,” I said slouching my shoulders, embarrassed.  I had galloped back to the vehicle after taking pictures, not wanting to keep Andrew waiting longer, and had not looked on my seat before sitting down.  I quickly pulled the now destroyed object from under my bum and hid it beside my leg so Andy couldn’t see.

“Wot was that?”

I didn’t answer.

“Lemon.  Wot was that?”  (Sidenote: This is the nickname Andy calls me, which ironically my family has called me since I was little.  In the UK, if a person is a ‘lemon’ though, it means they are not bright and this is why people have stood up for me before when he has called me that in England; however, he calls me this because my initials — LM — which sound like ‘lemon.’  Back to story!)  “Wot did you do . . . ”  He knew what I did.  He simply didn’t want to believe it.

“I . . . I, um . . . I’m sorry.”  I had found a way to slouch so severely that I was curling up into myself.

“Lemon.  Please tell me that wasn’t my glasses . . . ”  He knew the answer.  I knew the answer.  I love his expensive Ray Bans and steal them whenever we are in the car.  This time I had just, well, forgotten I left them in my seat before sitting back down.  “Let me see . . . ”  He braced himself.

“Well.  Um . . . what part of them do you want to see first?” I asked.

“Wot do you mean ‘wot part’?!”

I was now bracing myself.  “I mean.  There are a couple different pieces now.  What part would you like to see first?”

He huffed and puffed and rolled his eyes.  “Any.”

“Um.  Okay.  Here you go.  This is what I think was once a lens . . . ” and here I handed over well, what was once a lens.

“Lemon!  How could you?!  I can’t take you anywhere!”  More huffing and puffing and eye rolling.

“This is the second part,” I told him before adding: “There’s good news though!”

“I doubt that . . . ”

“The good news is this is the last part . . . ” and here I handed over what had been his glasses, now a twisted and very flat pair of glasses.  They looked comical — as if they had splattered thin on some sidewalk after a super tall fall.  I laughed.  Then regretted it.

“Lemon!  Is this funny to you?!”  Sure, he was unhappy that I had just squashed his costly glasses but he was in no way angry at me.  I suppose after knowing me long enough, he expects this type of behavior.

Still, I did feel bad — bad for my lack of looking before I sat on the glasses and bad for my lapse in judgement laughing in the sad situation.  I looked at the glasses again before handing them over.  They looked dead — some fragile, thin animal.  Dead.  I began to cry.  “I’m sorry!” I sobbed.  “I’m so so sorry!  I don’t know why I didn’t look!  I don’t know why these things always happen!  I don’t know why I’m so clumsy!  I’m so sorry!  I promise to buy you another pair no matter how much they cost!” and I wept and wept and wept.

“Come ‘ere,” he said pulling me to him and taking the dead whatever-it-was-now from my hands.  “I know you didn’t mean to.  I was just giving you a hard time.  And look!  The arms — fiberglass arms — They are still perfect!  It’s just the joints that need fixin’!  If you had to sit on them, this was the best way to sit on them!”  That made us both look at the glasses again.  A lens detached from a pancaked pair of glasses.  I gave him a look that showed I didn’t believe him.  He gave me a look through his sad pair of glasses that he awkwardly tried to fit on his face without success.

I giggled.  “I’m sorry,” I told him again before he kissed me.

“So okay.You ready to go now?”  Then he put the car in drive before turning back to me.  “You’re a lot to ‘andle, you know that, right?  A bloody lot to ‘andle” and off we drove.

So that was essentially the start of our trip.  The farther we got into the mountains, the further we left behind that unfortunate-glasses situation.

Soon we approached the most clear mountain river I have yet to see.  It glimmered the lightest emerald color under the sun’s rays.

“Know what would be perfect right now?” Andy asked me and I awaited a romantic moment.

“What?” I asked back.

“To be able to really see the water.  With polar lenses, I mean” and he darted a smirk at me before laughing.

“I guess I deserved that,” I said, letting him have his laugh, knowing full well I did deserve it.IMG_2953IMG_2951IMG_2950
A couple of miles later, we arrived at a slender pebbled road and turned onto it, our packs jostling in the back of my vehicle as we dipped into holes filled with water concealing how deep they were.  It had been raining for days here, a heavy rain that — even though it had stopped — made us feel soaked due to amount of the moisture left in the air.  Gnats buzzed around our bodies in swarms, flying into our eyes and up our noses, in our mouths when we talked to one another; they forced us to cover as much of our faces as we dared with buffs.
Camera15The rain also made the ground brim with water.  Puddles stretched for yards and inside we found floating frog spawn and darting tadpoles.
IMG_2982IMG_2972IMG_2971IMG_2974IMG_2976I bent to catch the inky tadpoles, a tradition that takes me back to my papa’s farm when my sister and I would crouch by the pond’s edge, our arms outstretched with hands in the water waiting to feel tickling tails against our palms as the tadpoles wiggled across.

Releasing the tadpoles and rising, we followed the tangles of tiny purple flowers along the Big Beechy Trail . . .
IMG_2987until we arrived at an “earthen berm,” which we gathered was this raised portion of ground topped with moss-covered rocks.
IMG_2984The berm seemed a gateway into the forest and ahead, our trail became a swollen stream due to the recent rains.  Footprints from past hikers formed soft, thick mud for miles.
IMG_2993“You’re kidding me, right?” I looked to Andrew then down at my brand new backpacking boots.
IMG_2992Don’t get me wrong — I’m the type of girl that jumps into puddles and mud, and welcomes getting dirty on hikes.  . . . I just didn’t want my new boots to be smothered in mud so early.  For God’s sake, the car was still visible.

“It’s a baptism by fire,” Andrew said to me, smirking, then took off in the sludge.

Sccchhhuuuhckkk schuuuhck sccchhhuhckkk  schuhck  The mud gooped around our boots, swallowing them and making us fight for each step as our feet were glued to the ground.

“Arghhh!” I heard Andrew groan ahead of me as he violently struggled to free himself from the mud.
IMG_2995.JPGIMG_2996He had taken a different route than me — Knowing there was no way to escape the brown goodness, he trekked into the heart of grime while I jumped right and left over the unforgiving trail.

“I’m coming to save you!” I hollered from behind, zigzagging faster towards him.
Camera5.jpg“Don’t move!” I joked, witnessing him nearly collapse in the thick sludge in an effort to free himself.  Right as I approached, he and the mud groaned loud —  “AAARGGG!!!” and sccchhhuuuhhhccckkk — as his foot emerged from the mud-pit.

“Bloody ‘ell.”  He was panting from his efforts and I was panting from watching him and we were both looking down at his ferocious battle-print cemented in mud.
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Onward we continued, twisting and jerking, struggling against the mud as large puddles appeared by our sides again.  These puddles held white glops — jellyfish-like beings — that lingered just under the water’s surface.IMG_3001IMG_3002IMG_3005Beside them plants, that appeared more like seaweed, dried.  Their light teal color slowly disappearing under the sunlight.IMG_3007IMG_3006The forest was beautiful, supernatural — one that made me feel as if I was both underwater and above ground at the same time.  But it was also a place that felt forbidden.  Even before we approached the wooden kiosk, we could feel it — an eeriness in the air; something wasn’t right.  It was then we saw this: A sign from the U. S. Forest Service and West Virginia State Police.  “NEED YOUR HELP” it read, the title in all capital letters.  The sign had been thickly lamented with four staples stuck through the wood, ensuring it did not loosen or pull away.  On it, hikers were asked to be aware of their surroundings in an effort to find a missing June 2011 hiker.
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According to the local paper, the sign was in reference to the disappearance of 56-year-old Michael Camellitti.  The experienced hiker and caver from Standardsville, Virginia was supposed to be a four-day backpacking trip but was never seen again.

As Andy and I walked, we felt on edge, searching the forest for any sign of Camellitti.  We did find two abandoned campsites, weathered and very primitive — One with a beaten tarp fallen on the ground and another with camping items strewn recklessly about the ground.  We reported both, but they were so close to the trail we are thinking officials were already aware of the sites.

Trying to shake the feeling of uneasiness from us, we walked on beside a river and into a massive grouping of red spruce.
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Don’t fret: No branches were harmed.  Both limbs and baby pine cones had been on the ground.

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The forest floor was lined with bright green moss that seemed to glow and illuminate our trail.
IMG_3009IMG_3010Deeper into the spruce we went as the massive limbs soon blocked out the sun.IMG_3015IMG_3000“AHHHH!” I screamed, jumping back onto Andy.

“WOT!  WOT!”  His gaze darted all around us so fast that his body twisted in circles while I rapidly clawed at myself — my hair, my face, shoulders and arms, my chest, my body.

The next part of our conversation went on like this for several minutes:

“GETITOFFOFME!!!”  “WOT WOT!!!”  “ISAIDGETITOFFOFME!!!”  “WOOOT!!!WOOOT!!!”

Fortunately, Andy soon determined the ‘it’ in my sentence was a spider and I had walked through a super thick spider’s web.  I said ‘fortunately’ there because I was in no mindset to explain what happened for fear of the beast crawling on me so thankfully, he figured it out.

“Its not on you,” Andy said, running his fingers through my hair, over my neck and arms, my back.

“I HEARD it,” I said still shouting.

“Nooo.  You heard the web break.  You didn’t hear a spider.  Spiders don’t — ”  I gave him a look that killed his words midsentence.  “Do you want me to lead now?” he asked passing me and heading in front, knowing my answer.

“Yes.  Please,” I sniffled behind him, watching as he walked off trail and into the woods.  “What are you doing?!”

“A SPIDER-STICK!” he exclaimed, raising a massive stick before him and waving it around as if it were a lightsaber.  “VVVooooWWW  vvvvvvOOOWWW!” and the saber-stick again cut into the air between us.  “A spider-stick!” he said one last time.  “Those bloody spiders aren’t ge’in us now!”

I nodded, appeased, and off we went again.
IMG_3023.JPGCamera6Our trail would change from mud to leaves to sand, and it was in the sand we found numerous animal prints.  There were some that were were as large as my feet, which we think were bear prints due to their size and shape.  (Bears have two sets of prints — Their front and hind feet are shaped differently.)
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There are several prints in this shot but the ones I believe are from a bear are closer to my feet.

The presence of large animals could be felt all around.  I looked to my right and left — The forest was dense; it could easily conceal a bear stalking us.  I stopped taking pictures of the prints and raced behind my fiance.

“Andrew?” I asked, following him down the trail.  There was no answer so I tried again.  “ANDREW!”

“Wot?”  His voice was calm; he didn’t turn or pause and instead kept walking.

“Do you think we will see any bears?”

“WOT?” he repeated, not slowing.

“DO YOU THINK we will SEE any BEARS!?” By this point I was shouting — shouting in the middle of a silent forest, save the occasional bird chirping, and I felt bad it had to come to this.  Again.  Andy claims he is deaf in one ear and normally we can avoid problems together at home but in the forest when we are walking single-file, not looking at one another, I feel as if we are the loud obnoxious hikers.  Of course we aren’t and are more times than not too busy trying to breathe after a strenuous hike — never-the-less talk — but I’m always conscious of the volume of our voices.

“WOT?!” he yelled before turning to me.  “YOU KNO’ I CON’T ‘EAR WELL!”

“BUT I CAN SO WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME?!”

“WELL — I DON’ BLOODY KNO’!  WOT WERE YOU SAYIN’?!”

Our faces were about two feet apart and why we have to continue our conversation shouting is beyond me, it’s beyond him, but we do every time.  “Nevermind,” I told him, wanting to return to the solitude, the tranquility of the woods.

“WOT!” he scuffed back.

“I SAID ‘NEVERMIND!'” I hollered with all the power in my body, causing him to turn back to the trail, grumbling something about “con’t bloody ‘ear” and “no’t me fault” and “olways talk in me bad ear.”

I felt bad. “It wasn’t a big deal — what I was saying,” I projected as a form of apology.

“WOT!” He turned — fiercely — back towards me.  “WHY DO YOU OLWAYS WAIT FOR ME TO TURN BLOODY ‘ROUND?!”

“I’M SORRY!  I was just SAYING it was-N’T IMPORTANT!”

“WELL I’M NOT TRYIN’ TO FALL OUT WITH YOU EITHER, YOU KNO’!  I JUS’ WANTED TO KNOW WOT YOU SAID!”

Fine, I thought and went to tell him — what I hoped was — one last time. “BEARS, ANDY, BEARS!  I ASKED IF YOU THOUGHT WE WOULD SEE ANY BEARS BUT HELL — I’M BEYOND POSITIVE THERE’S NO WILDLIFE REMOTELY AROUND US NOW!”

“BLOODY ‘ELL!  HOW AM I S’PPOSED TO ‘NOW IF WE’LL SEE ANY BAARES!  I DON’T FUCKING KNO’!” and off he turned again to carry on.

“Hey, Andy,” I called again.

“WOT!”  It was longer a question — Aggravation bounded out of every syllable.

I snapped a picture — this picture, in fact — of him with his spider-stick, which I’m positive he may have been debating on beating me with at the time.
IMG_3088.JPG“I’m sorry,” I told him, unable to stop laughing.  “You’re just so cute and British when you’re angry.”

“Bloody Bri’ish accent.  I’ll give you a bloody Bri’ish accent” was all I heard him say between my laughter and his footsteps as he continued to walk away.

And this, my friends, is how our conversations go.  In the woods, very seldom do we actually look and sound like we know what we are doing.  What more often than not happens is we muddle through and somehow make it to where we intended to go.  It’s a miracle really.  But at least we have each other.  True, slightly deranged and peculiar — at least we have each other.  And his British accent, which has saved us many times from getting into an actual argument.  Well, maybe saved me — I can’t speak for him.

Never-the-less, I followed him until the forest opened again and we could see the mountains climb up around us.
IMG_3082It was here we spotted what I think is a Common Ribbon Snake in the leaves . . .
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Onward still, we headed downhill towards Middle Fork River, passing many old birch trees.
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Without blazes, we found ourselves guessed where our trail was most of the time.  That’s because it’s composition changed so drastically within one step.  For instance, we would walk on top of pine needles one minute; the next, a rock-path for miles.IMG_3094IMG_3097“Is this right?” he asked, debating where our trail had disappeared.  The unnerving aspect about unblazed trails is they can seem to end suddenly — and if they end, it makes you question whether you were even on a trail before . . . and if not, how far had you traveled on the non-trail to determine where to pick the real-trail back up.

I didn’t have an answer for him.  “Stay here,” I called before using my internal compass for navigation (which, let’s be honest, is a laugh in and of itself).  “I won’t lose sight of you, but I’m going a few yards ahead to see if I can find anything” and sure enough, our trail appeared again.  “It seems this stream is our trail,” I told him after I’d walked back.  Surveying the area together, we’d make a mental picture of unusual trees or rocks or low-lying plants that might help us identify where we had once stood in case the path proved to be a false one.
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Luckily, our trail picked up beside the steam-turned river with quick-moving rapids, leading to a rocky shelf with miniature waterfalls.
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Our trail soon came to a stop again — This time blatantly taking us over the river, and that river was now wide, strong, and deep.

“Are you serious?” Andy asked as we both stared in confusion, knowing there was little way to get across.

“Let’s try here.  The trail took us here so let’s see if we can get across,” I told him, trying to seem calm.

But the river deepened the further it got from the bank.  Surely it would be at least to our knees.

“Let’s try here,” he said, darting off to our right.  I followed him as he climbed boulders that continued to grow larger and larger until he was on top of one at least a story tall.  “I don’t see anything below me or to the right of me either,” he yelled and down he climbed again.

“Let’s try to the left,” and off I snaked through the woods in search of a trail, but the trail inclined sharply, taking us away from the river.  Even if we could find a way to tumble to the water, there still didn’t appear a way to cross — again the water was too deep and strong with rapids loud, hammering against the rocks.

“We’re going to have to go here.  It’s at least the flattest area to cross,” I told him, convinced that was the right decision.  “But I’ve crossed first before — It’s your turn.”  He knew what I was referring too — Saint Mary’s Wilderness, also an unblazed trail, where we were seeking a large waterfall; however, the river rose so high it made it unable to cross — not from lack of trying though.  I had set off into the water, barefeet, with determination to get to the other side only to feel the cut of the rocks and freezing sting of the river, which numbed my feet in moments and made it practically impossible to walk back.  In the end, my amount of pain put us both off from braving the water to see the falls.

“Right,” Andy said, knowing it was his turn to go first, and so he began unlacing his boots, taking off his socks.  “Right,” he repeated standing at the edge of the river.

“You can do it!” I encouraged from behind.  “Don’t stop like I did last time — Just go.  Don’t stop.”

“Right.  Mind over matter,” he said more to himself than to me and took off in the water . . . only to get about two feet from his starting point before screaming.  “ARRRRRGHHHHH!!!!!  It’s bloody FREEZING!!!”  He took another step.

“KEEP GOING!” I could feel the pain — knew how it felt — and knew it would only be worse to stop.  Which is what he was doing.

“AAAAARRRRRRGGGGHHHHH!!!  I can’t!  I can’t!  It’s too bloody cold!”

“Andy — You HAVE to keep walking!  You cannot stay in one place.”  I began rapidly unlacing my boots, pulling off my socks.  If he became as stuck as I was last time, he would literally need someone to pull him from what-felt-like knife-cutting rocks in arctic waters.  “Andy!  I’m coming in!” I screamed again, not entirely sure how I would help but willing to try.

“NOOOOOO!!!!”  This yell was the loudest of all as he ambled his way back to the rock I was standing on.

“The water’s fucking baltic!  It’s BALTIC!” and he flopped onto a large river rock, nurturing his feet, sliding his socks and boots back on.  “There’s no fucking way.  No way,” he said, more to his toes.

I inched my way back to the water’s edge, assuring myself I was stronger in spirit than my Brit, and placed my toes in the water.  “Oh WOW!  It IS cold!” I pulled them back.  “That was freezing!  Jesus — I’m so glad I didn’t try that.”  He cut his eyes at me.  “Okay.  So what do we do?  We have to get across?”

“I don’t know, L.  All I can say is I cannot do it without boots.  The cold — it makes the rocks feel as if they are slicing my feet.  I can’t do it.  It hurts too much.”  I remembered that pain and wasn’t about to experience it a second time.

“Right.  Then we need to find another way.  Stay there — I’ll scout around” and to the right I headed again, climbing and dropping down boulders, over one so massive I was positive there was no way I’d be able return over from the other side.  “ANDY!” I yelled with all my might.  “THIS MIGHT BE A WAY!  COME LOOK!” and a several minutes later, he appeared at my side.

“THAT?!  L!  NO WAY!  Look at the rapids!”  He was right — I don’t know what I was thinking.  The rapids were strongest at that portion of the river, raging over huge river rocks and splashing down in waterfall-form.

“You’re right,” I told him dispirited.  “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“Wait.  Maybe — ” and here he paced from one side of our boulder to the other — pacing pacing, crazed.  “Maybe we can jump from here to there and make it” and here he backed up, determination in his face before running full speed towards the edge.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?!?!” My shrieking, voice stopped him mid-run.

“WOT!!!”

“THINK ABOUT, ANDY!  YOU ARE GOING TO JUMP FROM HERE — ” and I pointed to the boulder we were on “TO THERE — !!!” and I pointed to where I assumed he was aiming, which was about four feet down, several feet wide, and over the fast-moving rapids.  “You’re NOT doing that!”  I try never to tell Andrew what to do — He is his own person, able to make his own decisions — but hell, he clearly was not capable of this at that moment and the last thing I was going to put up with was his splattered body is some ‘baltic’ rapid river.

“You’re right.  I don’t know what I was thinking either” so there we stood, staring at the waters which appeared to grow more angry.

“Let’s get down from this boulder and go back to where we were.  Let’s both look at the left side again.”  Here, I turned and headed down, back to our starting point but Andy remained, looking forlorn at the rocks.

Bless his heart, I thought as I battled up and down boulders.  I’ll have to find a way for both of us and it was here I got to the biggest boulder of all — the one I was positive I would not be able to return over again.  I looked back at Andrew.  He still appeared hopeless and unmoved on his initial I’m-going-to-fling-myself-off rock.  Hell, I thought, You’re just going to have to go for it and save you both so I did what any rational person would do — what I had just lectured Andy on doing — I jumped.  Using all the force in my body, I leapt in the air, over a section of water, and grasped the boulder.  I felt powerful, like a superhero — like Spiderman — and clung to the rock.

At first, I’m semi-proud to say it worked.  I was, in fact, able to grab onto the top of the boulder.  The embarrassing aspect was that I couldn’t lift myself up.  Combined with my forty-pound pack (that I stupidly refused to take off) and my own body weight, I clung, dangling over the side of the enormous spherical rock.  If I let go, I was going into the river and not only was that a horrible solution because I’d be wet and freezing, but there was no way to determine how deep the water below me was or the conditions — were There sharp rocks?  Was it an endless abyss?  No idea, so I clung and came up with my next plan of action.

Of course the only logical solution was to throw both my legs around the boulder in an attempt to hug-hump my way up because well, that’s reasonable.  And it was here — as I was attempting to hug the boulder/violating it in every way possible via multiple dry humps that the weight in my pack began to pull me back.  Down and back I slowly, ever so slowly glided further from the rock.  It was like one of those action-packed movies where the helpless female is dangling over some frightening edge and little by little her fingers — one at a time — fall from what she is holding onto.  That was me.

One finger slipped.

And another.

And another.

ANNNNNDYYYYY!!!!”  I screamed, blood-curdling.  It was life or death.  And I was losing.  “AAAAANNNNDY!!!!  HELP ME!!!  HELP!!!  I’M GOING DOWN!  I CAN’T MAKE IT!!!  HELP ME!

Out of nowhere, true action-hero style, Andrew arrived behind me.  “WOT are you DOING?!” he yelled on the boulder I had previously jumped from.

“HELP ME!!!  HELP!!!  I CAN’T HOLD ON MUCH LONGER!!!”

“How did you get yourself th’re in the first place?!” he shouted back.

“STOPTALKINGTOME!!!” I screamed.  Another finger slipped and another.  “HELPME!!!  HURRY!!!  I CAN’T HOLD ON MUCH LONGER!”

Finally he realized the sense of urgency.  “I’M COMING!” he shouted back.  “L!  HOLD ON!  I’M COMING!!!”

“I CAN’T!  I CAN’T!”  I was at a point of crying now, saying my goodbyes.

“YOU CAN!!!  HOLD ON!  I’M COMING FOR YOU!”

Another finger-grasp, gone.  Three fingers on my left hand, two on my right — that’s all that remained holding, holding me onto the boulder and keeping me from falling back-first into the river.

“I can’t do it any — ” and suddenly — just like that — Andy swooped in as my right hand was coming off the boulder and he yanked me to the top of it with such force I almost fell over the other side.

“Bloody ‘ell, L!  Wot were you doing?!  Wot were you thinking?!”  He was panting, red faced.  I still have no idea how he was able to race or monkey-climb or fly over the boulders so quickly.

“Thank you,” I gasped.  “You saved me.  You really do love me.  Thank you, thank you . . . ”

I wish I could say the river story ends here, but the truth is it is only starting.  Essentially we returned to where we had started . . . only to walk back to the left, determine there was (again) no way to get across . . . all the way back to the right, determine there was (again) no way to get across . . . and back to the middle.  Oh and somewhere in between the walking back and forth, a thin sapling whipped me across the face a few centimeters below my eyes.

“You’re BLEEDING!  L!  L, wot ‘appen’d to you now?!” Andy asked, appearing positively exhausted with my antics.  I was worn down too; it’s hard being me.

“It was a fierce battle with a young tree,” I told him, feeling my face puff where the sting still burned.  “And I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You really are a hazard to yourself,” I heard him say as I turned back — once again — to the middle of the river.

“We need to cross, Andrew.  This is absurd.  This should have been over in a couple minutes and we have spanned this moment to be hours.  The sun is down, it’s getting dark — ”

“I agree.  And we have no place to camp,” he finished for me.  “Let’s go.  Let’s stop dickin’ ’bout and go.”  Bending to take off his socks and boots again, I stopped him.  We had tried that before, I explained, I was moving on in life.  I was crossing — with my socks and boots on — but I was crossing.

“Right.  I agree,” he said.  “This is the flattest portion of river.  Let’s do this.”  Standing next to one another at the water’s edge, Andrew took my hand.  “On a count of three?”

“Yes.”

“One.

“One,” I repeated.  “We need to be fast about this Andrew — as if it were a race.  Don’t stop.”

“Two,” he said, nodding his head in agreement.

“Two,” I said back to him.

“THREE!” we yelled before running — in a terrifying arms-and-legs-flapping sprint — across the river.

And it was colder than I thought.

And deeper.  A lot deeper.  My boots immediately filled with water but I kept running and running.  It was getting harder to move — I was being held back, held down, pulled down by something —

“LET GO!!!!” I heard Andrew holler by my side.

“WHAT?!” I couldn’t make out his words.  I was running — running in one place true, but running all the same.

“LET ME GO!!!  I’m STUCK!!!  LET GO!!!!  SAVE YOURSELF!!!!” I released his hand and darted across.

“WE MADE IT!!!!” I shouted, elated, filled with hope once again.  I honestly may have been jumping in the air I was so excited.  “WE MADE — ” I looked beside me and Andrew was no where to be seen.  My eyes immediately went to the water.  Where was he?!  Had he drowned?!  What had he said?!

That’s when I saw Andrew sinking more and more into the river — past ankle deep, past knee deep, the water rising to his thighs.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!” I screamed at him.  “GET OUT!  COME ON!!!”

“L!  I’m STUCK!  I CAN’T MOVE!!!”

And I remember exactly what I though.  Fuck it, I said to myself.  Fuck it because now I have to go back into the water to rescue him and right as I had my boots into the water a second time, he reappeared — thrashing and twisting — his whole body galloped out of the water and towards me on the bank.  Finally he made it.

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Notice the water came to the bottom of his knife sheath, which is less than a foot from his waist.

“What were you doing?!” I reprimanded him.  I didn’t understand how one could get stuck in a flat river.

“You were pulling me!”  He could barely breathe, “and I couldn’t move.  I was stuck on some damn branch.  And you kept pulling me.”

 

“We said not to stop,” I said because that was about all I could think to say.  “We said not to stop.”  From there we sat in silence for a few minutes, gathering our breath and composing ourselves.

“Ahhh, look at how wet I am,” I told Andrew as I unlaced my boot and pulled out my foot.  My socks were drenched so I rang them out — feet and all — until water pooled beneath my heel.
Camera12The temperature was dropping and I began to shiver.  “What do we do now?” I asked.

“There’s nothing to do except keep walking until we find a campsite.”  So we that’s what we did.  We walked and walked, mile past mile in drenched boots sloshing with water, boots so wet they created friction in the worst way possible.  It was around here my once loved new boots turned into a thing of loathing: They rubbed and rubbed at the back of my heel — forming massive blisters, popping them, and continuing to rub additional layers of skin off.

I began silently writing our trail story in my head — this trail story you are reading now — because misery can help in one way: She’s pretty damn creative when at her best.  And I got pretty far mentally writing when we found this welcomed campsite.

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This picture was actually taken in the morning.  By the time we got here, it was too dark to see the tent from where I shot the picture.

Removing the tent — a new tent — from our packs, we set up in the dark.  Not without difficulty, of course.  Because only we would buy a new tent, test it once at home before taking it with us to a camp in a situation where we would have to set up in the dark.

Once that was complete, we started a fire then divided and conquered — Andy took out the food we would eat for dinner then went to hang the bear bag while I set out to get out tent ready for sleep — sleeping pads and bags out then pillows blown up and down.

I went to stoke the fire.  “You ready to eat?” I asked Andy.  I didn’t want to start cooking without him (sometimes it can take a few minutes to hang the bear bag) but I was impatient due to the dropping temperatures.  What had started as a seventy-five degree-day (twenty-four degrees C) was turning into a fifty degrees (ten degrees C), with temperatures dropping still.

He didn’t answer so I did what any loving, supportive person would do: I took a picture of him working.
IMG_3131“Awkward git,” I heard him say before chucking the rope over a high limb (not pictured because it was too dark) again, only to have it miss or get stuck or — I don’t know.  It was too dark to see and I was freezing so shivering, I went back to the fire to warm.

“Andy?” I called.  “I’m not going to lie but I’m so cold I won’t be hungry soon.  Can we at least eat then do that?”

No answer again so I hobbled back to him, pins and needles in my frozen feet which, I was sure, had blue toes by now.  At least I was lucky though — I had on a pair of sandals (my pleasure item camping) while my boots and socks were drying next to the fire; Andy was still in his drenched socks and boots.  If my feet were cold, his would have iced over.

“This sodding thing,” he said mumbled to himself.

“Ya want help?” I asked, knowing he didn’t.  “Explain to me what you’re trying to do?”

“Stupid fucking tree’s s’what’s wrong.  All I want to do is sit down and eat and now I have to fuck about with this stupid bag while me feet are wet and cold.”  I hesitated unsure whether to stay or go.  That didn’t really answer my question.

“Hey.  Show me what to do and I’ll try?”

“‘ave at it!” he roared — more in anger towards the tree and rope than me — and handed me the rope.

“Where do you want it?”

“Over the branch!” he shouted as if it were clear which branch he was trying to get it around on a tree.  So I threw and threw and threw, to no avail.  The limb was too high up so it would not go over.  I scanned the area for other locations and recognized the problem — There were no other limbs within throwing distance to us.  The others were entirely too far up trees in comparison.

“‘ere.  Let me try again” and he took the rope from my hand, launching it into the air before it tumbled back on him. “BLEEDIN’ ‘ELL!  THIS BLOODY ROPE WON’T GU O’ER THIS BRANCH!!!”

I moved away — no one angry wants an audience — and went back, again, to stoke the fire while a melody of “stupid fucking tree,” “bastard thing” and “bloody freezin’ me balls off” mixed with “sodding bag” and “too knackered and soaked thru to me bones to be dealing with this shit” echoed throughout the silent forest.

Suddenly all was quiet.  I held my breath.  Maybe he got it!  I felt hopeful!  I felt happy!  I was hungry again!  We could sleep soon!  I felt — then heard a branch snap.  The sound ricocheted in the night, destroying any possibility of success.  I ran to him.  Up until now I thought a cussing British man was adorable; however, a cussing, angry British man in a pitch-black night is terrifying.

“Ohhhh ho-ho!  You’ve fucked it now!” I heard him yell to God knows who as his headlamp light zoomed so quickly about that I felt dizzy.  I decided to go back to the fire; I clearly was not wanted there.  A moment later, a huffing Andrew emerged next to me.

“D’you get it?” I asked, gentle.  Maybe I had misunderstood the situation.

“Fuck it,” he announced.  “Tried to ge’it up higher — won’t go.  Don’t gi’a shit.  Let the bloody bears ‘ave it.”

And with that act of defiance, he went — finally — to take off his boots and socks and place them on the rocks around the fire.  Turning his boots over, one at a time, water rushed out onto the hot stones when — I kid you not — a newt fell onto the rock.

“Wooot  the — ”

“Is that a newt?!” I asked, just as perplexed as him.

“How’d ‘e . . . ?”

“HE FELL FROM THE INSIDE OF YOUR BOOT!  You’ve been CARRYING him the whole time after the river?!”

And here we stared at the little creature before rushing to pick it up off the rocks.

Needless to say, we snatched the newt off the rocks but were unable to return him back to the river due to how dark it was.
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We did, however, place it as close to the side of our campsite where the land slopped down towards the river in hopes the little guy could make it back.

Exhausted from the day’s surprises, we devoured our dinner then went to cuddle as close as possible in our tent to save from freezing to death.
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We awoke the next day shivering.  Temperatures had dropped further in the night to be around forty degrees (four degrees C).  We both lay unmoving in our bags, feigning death.

“Today’s goin’ to be shit.”  Andy broke the silence first, echoing my thoughts.  Though I felt safe at that campsite, I had barely slept.  Thoughts of putting on our cold, still wet boots filled my head.  True, we had left both pairs by the fire in hopes the residual heat would dry them further, but I knew in my heart even an overnight baking wasn’t enough.  I yearned to stay in the fresh, warm pair of socks I fell asleep in — the socks that would sadly meet my boots and be soaked through within seconds.  Not only that but soaking feet would translate into more rubbing and cutting at my heels, and I didn’t know how much more I could handle.  And our boots would surely have ice crystals in them; there was no way they would ever warm.  I shivered — both from the thoughts of pain and cold.

“Today is going to be shit,” I repeated.  And we both didn’t move.  For awhile.

Many moments passed until Andy spoke again.

“Know what?  I have an idea — Why don’t we use our dry sacks?  Slide our feet into them — over our socks — and then put our feet into the boots?  They’re dry sacks — They shouldn’t have water seep through so our feet will stay dry.”

Sheer brilliance.  Truly.  Add this as Reason 5,986 on why I love this man.

So that’s what we did — emptied our food and emergency supplies hap-hazardously in our packs and shoved our feet inside.
IMG_3178And our boots were baltic, as Andy would say — so cold there were times when I was convinced I couldn’t move my feet due from a lack of being able to feel them.  Seriously.  We both became 100% convinced we would have frostbitten toes by the time this was over but there was nothing we could do, except bundle up in as many layers and possible to hike out of the forest.
Camera13According to our directions, we had about ten miles left so we decided to pack up our site without eating breakfast.  The faster we could move, the more chance we had for our feet to warm so stepping slowly and cautiously, we made it back to the trail.
IMG_3123There, we passed a glimpse of a waterfall before the mountain opened to us with moss-covered trees.
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Closer to the river still, we saw a second small fall before arriving at the river’s banks.
IMG_3169IMG_3170“It says to cross the river,” I read to Andrew beyond glumly as we arrived at the water.  As I had told him a mere minute earlier, my feet were warming a centimeter’s amount of warmth.  The last action — both he and I wanted to do — was forge the river again.
“At least it doesn’t look as deep,” he said.  “Let’s see” and off we walked, timidly across until the water began to rise close to the top of our boots.  And we were only a couple feet from the bank.

This was my reaction, which you can barely gather was less than amused.
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But it was true — We needed to cross the river.  Again.  There was a very steady stream of cuss words from both of us then pacing and pointing at the river, followed by more cuss words — all of which don’t need to be recorded, but you can imagine.  I should add here, I thought I cussed impressively . . . that is until I met Andy.  Fact: When you date an Englishman, you learn a whole range of uncharted cuss words.

 

“Nothin’ we can do ’bout it.  Might as well cross,” Andy said, bending to take of his boots.

“Hey wait.”  An idea came to me.  “We have the dry sacks.  Why don’t we just take off our socks and the sacks then cross in our boots.  We know we won’t be able to handle the cold water barefoot and the dry sacks work — no water is getting through into my socks.”

“Bloody brill!  Sterling idea!” and so that’s what we did.
IMG_3173We crossed with little to no problems — The water came above our ankles and filled our boots a second time, but we continued until we arrived at the other bank.  Drying our feet, we put back on our socks and dry sacks before lacing our boots again.
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“Right.  What’s next?” I asked Andrew.

“Are you SERIOUS?!” he yelled and dropped the paper in headed frustration by his side.

“Whhhhat . . . ” I didn’t necessarily want an answer.

“We need to cross the river again!”

“What do you mean cross the river again?!” I took the directions from him.

“We only needed to cross to camp here!  We aren’t camping so we didn’t need to bloody cross!”

You can imagine more cuss words, additional pacing and pointing, followed by more cuss words.

Looking across the bank from where we had come, we could barely see our thin trail steeply climb up the mountain.

“Fuck it.  Let’s go,” Andrew’s voice was perturbed as he went to unlace his boots again.  Cut to the end of the trail: What we did not know at the time was that we would end up crossing the river — either not mentioned in our directions or unneededly — six times.  Six!  At no point did our boots dry or warm.

Safely across to the bank we started on, we looked up at our trail, which was described as “rocky, narrow and has a steep drop off.”  Slowly and painstakingly, over two miles later, we made it to the top out of breath.
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There, the forest floor was scattered with wildflowers flowers.

Then, massive sections of dense stinging nettles could be seen beside and over the trail.  Thankfully, their stinging leaves had not yet formed so we walked through with ease.
IMG_3163Once more moss blanketed the area, at times making the trail you see here, completely covered.IMG_3192IMG_3205Further and further still, the sun’s rays beamed down on us as our trail twisted ahead.
IMG_3193I tried in vain to capture the sheer beauty of the area but found the pictures taken did not compare to what we saw firsthand.  There were so many moments where Andy and I stopped one another simply to look around us.  I know I said it earlier, but this forest was truly different — more wild, more overgrown and maybe that’s why it seemed private and remarkable.

Saying that, our trail — which was barely the width of one boot — would disappear completely at times, leaving us to separate and scout for where it picked up.  There were times when numerous fallen old trees blocked our path.  I read later that the damage was due to a flood that had destroyed the area, downing hundreds of aged trees.  The flood damage was evident walking though as huge sections of our trail seemed ripped from the ground, leaving us fighting off trail up the mountain for yards before finding the trail again.
IMG_3197.JPGTo say that the trail was not maintained and that the forest appeared abandoned was an understatement, but again that added to the simplicity, the beauty of these woods.  We were witnessed one of few places on earth that was considered overgrown and untamed, and I would take hunting for destroyed trails and plotting off course any day over manicured paths beside numerous hikers.

Up and up we ventured, reaching the final pinnacle of our incline here — a climb so vertical our hands more often than not touched ground.IMG_3208

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Exhausted we continued on, aware now that our direction’s mileage was wrong.  According to it, we should have been about three miles from the parking lot but we later learned we had about ten left.

It was here — with wet boots and still-frozen feet after our multiple river crossings and with beaten down sentiment after our steep incline-hike that I walked . . . into a tree.

There’s no way to describe the sound my head made as it smacked in a deep thud on the tree so hard that Andrew caught me as I fell backward.

“My word!  Are you okay?!  L?!”

I felt confused, dazed.  At first I couldn’t feel the pain.  Then red — a vibrant, thick-colored red — rushed to my head.  That’s when I began to cry.  I had had enough of our tiny and disappearing trail, enough of nature which not only hit me in the middle of my forehead but had slapped me in the face earlier.

“Ohhh nooo,” Andrew moaned, pulling me in for a hug as I sobbed and snotted on his shirt.  “Lemon!  You ‘ave to look where you ar’ wa’king!  You can’t just wa’k int’trees like that!”

This made me cry harder.  I knew — obviously I knew — not to walk into trees.

“Leeemon.  Bless you.  I don’t know how you’ve survived this far.  Let me look,” and here he delicately peeled my hand from my forehead.  “Owww, Lemon.  It’s red.  It’s right red.”  He hugged me again then pulled back to look at me — a dripping mess of disgust.  “Lemon.  I love you.  Know that?  You’re hard work but I fucking love you.”

I sniffed and wiped my eyes.  I know in some warped way he found me attractive enough to proclaim his love but I was not in the mood.  I had just banged my head on a damn tree.  “I’m not saying, ‘I don’t love you’ but I don’t hate you either,” I sobbed and again he took me in for a hug.

Well, that took several minutes for me to compose myself and mentally prepare to hike again.  Which I’ll note I didn’t want to continue hiking again but Andrew took it upon himself to point out that we couldn’t live in the forest simply because I couldn’t look where I was walking.  To show my amusement at his comment, I asked him to take this picture of me so that I could share with you precisely how hopeless I felt.
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I’ll admit here: While I believed, only a second ago, a picture is worth a thousand words, I then put my camera away.  The sad part was that I was done with the woods and I simply wanted to go home so off we marched into a section of forest (which looking back) I wish I had photographed.  It was the most dense woods we had yet been in with spruce so tall and wide, they seemed supernatural.  Bushy plants filled the space under tree trunks, hiding our trail from sight, making it honestly a miracle we made it back.  Every couple yards we had to split ourselves — one moving ahead, but maintaining sight from the other, to scout for the vanished trail only to pick it back up before it disappeared again.  It was hard work, and we aren’t the only ones who found the area nearly impassable — Someone had placed river rocks, piled on top of one another, every mile or so at critical junctions.  While we were weary at first and still continued to separate-and-scout, in the end the rocks proved trustworthy.

So on.  And on.  And on we went, miles into the wilderness.

“I need a break,” Andrew said to me in a way that told his sense of hopelessness.  “It’s a shame really that our directions didn’t have this mileage or else we could have actually enjoyed this part — It’s the most beautiful.”

I nodded and sat next to him on a rock.  We needed something — a few moments, water, a snack, something to brighten our spirits.
Camera1That’s when I saw this little guy under me.
IMG_3221I’m not saying he gave me the energy to proudly rise and fiercely tackle the rest of the hike.  He was just a snail, after all, scooting along the brush.

“Look at this,” I told Andrew.  “Imagine how far he has to go — how far he has come.  Where is he headed?  Is it miles?  Days away?  His journey is endless and look at how slow he has to move.  I wouldn’t even qualify that as moving it is so slow.  Bless his heart.  We, at least, have an ending in sight.  It’s somewhere but at least it is in sight.”

And here we stared at this tiny snail while he strenuously carried his home and strained over limbs, going who knew where.
IMG_3215“L?” Andy said to me.

“Yeah?” I asked back.

“Let’s go home” and with that, he rose to pull me up and off the forest floor where we walked again, a little lighter this time, covering more miles but headed towards the parking area.

Finally there, we leaned into one another feeling a different type of freedom — one that comes from safety, security of what is known.Camera2We unlaced our boots for the last time that day then laughed — the first for miles.  Debris, packed into our boots, coated our socks due to the large opening at the top of the dry sack.
IMG_3235But our feet were dry.

“You’re brilliant, know that?” I told him.  “Really.  You are” and I gave him a kiss because he is brilliant — brilliant for so many things but in that moment for recommending the dry sacks, for being my emotional savior, brilliant for picking me up off the forest floor when I was convinced I wanted to stay there forever to avoid hiking back.

I’m slowly learning each trail has a different story — Sometimes it’s filled with comedy; another, fear or sadness, even worry; but still more, action.  There is always action.  Never have I had a trail story I’ve wanted.  They just happen so that I’m left looking back and wondering how on earth I was stuck in that situation.  But sometimes that situation — no matter how the trail story is described — that situation is worth it in the end.  It’s memorable, it’s powerful.  For me, it’s love.  If you’re lucky enough to have the hiking partner I do, my trail story will always have love.