A Journal on the Power of Adventure (October 2016)
We haven’t even been on the road for a full day yet. It’s a crowded metrobus ride to Panama City, and many of the passengers are painfully aware of the herd of expat children from the states. I’m packed into a seat with my traveling backpack on my lap, forcing me to either read my book with my nose pressed into it, or spend time with the people I’ve been traveling with. I turn to my friend Camille, who’s smelling her own salmon colored sport shirt, wrinkling her nose as she takes a deep breath into the cloth. “I’ve been wearing my hiking outfit for way too long. It was meant to be the only set of clothes I wear when I’m hiking. That way, I don’t get any of my other clothes really gross. And now I feel [my clothes are] sticky.” I smile and assure her it’s all good, as I offer the collar of my blue button down for her to take a whiff. She smells it, makes a “yuck” face, and laughs. “Good, we can be stinky jungle gringos together.” For some reason, I really like that.
It started with a 65 pound pack. Stuffed with clothes, camera equipment, and the lucky obsidian and pumice stone my friend gave me for protection. “You need to stay grounded, and I won’t always be there to help.” Walking over the mountains of the Panamanian rainforest, looking at the clouds floating under us, I could see what he meant more clearly.
Photo by A. Carter Clark
It’s hard not to be jealous of the clouds; lounging their way through the valley while we hikers pant and suck air as we slowly ascend the steep, humid path. The sun is beating down, our clothes are already drenched in our own sweat, and we have 4 more miles to go. The jungle road is long and very far from consistent, but every time I look up I find some new beautiful thing. A tree, a flower, a glimpse of the mellow green valley through the branches and vines that make walls on either side of the road.
Suicide Hill. That’s the name they gave it. There was no exit strategy besides this. One-way in, one-way out. Even with the assistance of some pickup trucks, we knew this intimidatingly steep and slippery slope would be our only road of return to civilization. The rocks are loose, the mud is slick from yesterdays rain, and stopping midway is a quick way to loose your footing. As we hike, pressing our knees down with our hands for more support, we suddenly hear something break the silence.
At first, I thought it was my heartbeat. A rhythm with so much force and joy, I was sure the only thing that could make that sound was my own body as it pushed further and further up the mountain.But with a roar and the growl of tires spinning over loose rock, a huge white truck came hurdling up the path behind me. The sound was the radio, blasting through the jungle like an EDM festival on wheels. The bwomp-bwomp of the electric drum machine in the song startled the birds in nearby trees, but for some reason, I could clearly imagine a sloth, perfectly hidden somewhere nearby, bouncing along to the rhythm. We will often come across a lone horseman, or hunters commuting with their herds of loyal hunting dogs, but a truck of this caliber was a real luxury out here. As he crosses the steering wheel, the driver, a heavily bearded man with a ponytail and a trucker cap named Tyler, greets me with a hardy high five and an inaudible “see you up there,” and continues to make the pickup truck gallop up the mountainside. I can’t help but chuckle to myself as I wipe the sweat from my face. Free ride or no, that was pretty cool.
You have to learn to care for yourself in the jungle. If you have routines that allow you to enjoy life on a “regular” day, then those routines (or the likely adapted version of them) need to be kept up if you want to enjoy the most of your experience in the wild. Bathe often. Twice a day if you can. Your friends as well as your mental state will thank you.
On the road in a strange place, it’s easy to get caught up in any one of the miniature disasters you tend to face on an almost daily basis. A missing shoe, a torn up shirt, low funds, not bringing a rain jacket to the rainforest, and definitely being the smelly gringo on a metrobus, tend to put a damper on things. But it’s critical to remember why you’re going through so much bullshit. Why ARE you here?
I came to Panama a little over a month ago to seize an opportunity. Although I was offered an internship, working for an incredible company, building my professional network, studying abroad, I didn’t go for any of those practical reasons. For the first time in more than a year, I went because there was something deep inside me, pushing at my back. It feels like there are two hands, pushing at your lower back, forcing you to lean forward, like a runner lining up for a race. I saw a chance to discover more about myself, see the world, and make some friends in the process. Yet, more than anything, I needed to just get out.
it’s a familiar story for so many young people. Sitting at my desk at home, wondering what I was doing with my summer, while I slowly chewed away at the stacks of books on my shelf, neatly labeled “Read This Shit”, and watch the pile of extinguished roaches slowly overcrowd my ashtray. There come points in everyone’s life where they feel stuck. It happens at work, in a bad state of mind, or in an unhappy relationship with someone they’ve grown too accustomed to. Being able to peel the band-aid off and letting yourself breath a little more freely can be as simple as taking a trip to that place you always saw yourself doing great things, ebbed of you just found it for the first time.
In the modern world, the most successful people tend to regiment their lives. They wake up each day and follow a routine, having faith that that routine will help carry them further and guide them towards a more successful life. While habits are absolutely critical, they also get boring. So we put our ability to maintain them to the test.
“The worst thing a man can do in life is be comfortable. Do something difficult, even daring, and your mind and your body will thank you." It was told to me by a nameless voice in a podcast that I never bothered to source, but took extra care in downloading off youtube. It was playing in my left ear as we hiked onward into the valley.
As I crossed the somewhat dusty clay threshold that marked the peak of mountain road, I could feel the soles of my feet connecting with the forest. I tried not to think about the pain. My legs, already injured from some recklessness in the gym, were calling to me in strained, silent voices. The sounds of the trees, the birds and the breeze-blown grass all seemed to align perfectly with my steady stride through the underbrush. With a few patient deep breaths, my legs suddenly pick up the slack. As if rejuvenated by the very fact that they aren't confined by three layers and a small desk, they decided (not me) that this was going to be a very fun walk after all, pulling me on like an excited child who can see the carnival off in the distance. "So much to do, so much to see!"
Suddenly, the smell of my sweat fades, as do any signs of discomfort among my companions. Nobody is speaking, but somehow, just by looking around, we are all sharing our tempered excitement. We are here.