TripTrumpet Vs. Mother Nature
When I think about my flirtations with Mother Nature, one thought comes to mind: what a long, strange pummeling it's been. Surely I mean road, don't I? NO! It's truly been a beating, and I've consistently only been on one end - the receiving one - of this battle. Moreover, it's one which I lost long ago. As a direct result of these numerous trials by claw, beak, and bite, my body's been through a bit of hell, too. No thanks - uh, may I have another?
Perhaps on account of these keepsake scars (and pictures), the time is now come to resignedly accept all this misery as fair enough. Isn't it time to come clean, admit that I've only invited all this over the years? Did I have to travel so much, going to places where I ignorantly exposed myself? Did I have to be curious, putting my body far in front of my mind's better persuasions? Couldn't I have let Mother Nature - and especially her minions - well enough alone? More importantly, if I did - would Mother Nature then lay off?
Yes, I repeated did ask for these travails. These were MY choices. And it's highly doubtful that many others would similarly choose, likewise collecting their own litany of collisions (or near misses) with wild animals, bugs, and unknown parasitic monsters. To myself I can only charitably say that it should all be merely scored as part of being human... right? Sure: At least that would make such a reaping from numerous misplaced sowings sound logically, immeasurably better. Or maybe take it as proof that one can live to a riper age by sheer luck - I'm reaching, work with me!
On the PLUS side, such as it is, I do have some stories to show my misadventures. I beg call this compensation, if you will, especially as it comes only in spite of the repeated foolishness to which you will soon will bear witness. For, if the following events had happened only a mere one or two hundred years ago, I'd otherwise have been looking at the appealing conditions of permanent injury, disfigurement, or death. So, really, I'm kinda lucky! That'll have to do for any attempts at insight of an intellectual bent, allowances to dig a gaping hole even deeper. Let's just say that - for the time being - I have none of the answers. (Or none that I want to give out, anyway: Too many lawyers!)
What I do know, and am willing to share, is how the hell I got from there to here. As for where to begin, well, that's hard. So I'll propose this: the warning shot to leave well enough alone came when I almost drowned in a swimming pool at age four. On a celestial level, that'd cover WATER and, if this all is ultimately about my personal path toward death, what better start could there be than a flirtation with the end? Never underestimate foreshadowing! And there'd be other cannon balls splashing harmlessly in the water in this vein, too: FIRE saw me almost burn down a village (and myself) while EARTH - in incurring permanent eye damage via a mudball my face blithely accepted - didn't lag far behind in providing lessons. (WIND would remain under the direct authority of a funk group from the 70s, evidently.)
For these initial travesties to my well-being, then, one would logically think that "stay indoors" should've been the knowledge passed on - but it wasn't. Or maybe receiving these seminal events should've been enough to allow for a pause, an opportunity to heed warnings and let them take hold. But no such thing would occur, either - my bad, as they say. And such wisdom didn't apparently speak to the critters, anyway. So when, during those same early years, I ran screaming with the other kids from the odd scorpion or mongoose, or even when I dropped a big rock on my foot to (temporarily) lose a toenail when scared by an unknown bug - true, if petty events - that was it. I obliviously moved forward into the future, ignorant to what portended in too many signs along the way.
The handcuffs probably began to come off shortly after I earned the right to call myself six years of age. That was when the entire family moved to South Korea. There I'd slowly manage to get free of things like parental control and supervision, aided immeasurably by the growing size of our family but nevertheless inexorably opening the door to trouble. With my sibling count eventually hitting a dozen (with me included), the practical consideration of the ratio of parental eyes to children's feet (and associated directions) had gotten completely out of whack. There'd be no coincidence between the daily reality of overwhelmed parenting and what would follow over the years. As the saying goes, I believe: When the cat's away... the mice run amok. And kids, well, they just do stupid things.
The foolishness would begin slowly, as luck would have it, with trying to catch frogs in rice paddies. A number of us kids would hop into the shallow, muddy waters that formed the bogs necessary for rice to grow in. Conveniently, these were located less than a hundred yards away from our back door, just over a low wall we could as easily hop over or walk around. As for the rice, we had no interest in the noble grain whatsoever. No, it was anything that swam or hopped that we instead grabbed at. And there was no shortage of such prey.
So went many a day over the course of a few summers in this compound found outside of the capital, Seoul. In each successful outing to our neighboring rice paddy kingdom we'd splash about, putting our captured quarry into perforated jars for further consideration. Hopes were held only for extended scientific discoveries to ensue, undoubtedly greatly aided by our ignorance over where the magnifying glass was kept in the house to otherwise fry them. Maybe, just MAYbe, our captive audience would survive a day longer than the last time. A day's work done, then, we'd walk back up the hill toward home and, somewhere between rice paddy and back door, we'd eventually come to realize again the next important task at hand: removing LEECHES. Man, removing those hurt!
Insidious things, they never formed a problem while we were in hunter mode. It'd only be an issue when we tried to remove these curious things that had molded themselves to the shapes of our legs. That's where the symbiotic relationship had to end, we decided, none of us ever ready to let them live on in the pleasure of our fine - and intimately attached - company. The first time dealing with this surprise was be a shocker, of course, but it'd be the repeated offenses that were, well, just plain dumb. The pattern, apparently, was set rather early on.
Wisely us big game hunters switched to grasshoppers and crickets over time, dry-land ventures with less-damaging consequences. They lived longer, too, not being so water-needy, and conveniently could be found right in our yard and far from any leeches to be dealt with later. In this manner we were introduced to the concept of "win-win", even if we had no idea of our modest accomplishment. Thus we compounded our foolishness by forgoing the business of writing a series of get-rich-quick business books.
Meanwhile, that was it for Korea sending its array of creatures at us. And leeches were nothing doing, not really, certainly not in the grand scheme of things. A real danger would have been something like being set upon by stray dogs. That'd surely have meant rabies, if only based on the ragged looks of them. But such creatures were far more liable to be eaten than get a bite in themselves in Third World, 1970s South Korea.
The next stop, living in Michigan, would likewise prove a reprieve only because, well - it lacked any possibilities for us. In our next transplanting, to a suburbia found outside of Detroit (Grosse Pointe Park to be precise), anything remotely natural in the form of Mother Nature had been squelched long ago. Seriously, were squirrels going to be a problem? Those little guys would more likely be seen dodging danger themselves, probably found in the wheels of the behemoths being discharged from the numerous factories found in the entire metro area. With each vehicle measured in tons - and more tons - of steel, squirrels knew better than to even bother with us evil humans. We'd never even see a raccoon, surprisingly.
No, it'd be BEES instead that would get Michigan's lone opportunity at my well-being. Yes, even in the suburbs, insects did (and do) a pretty good job of surviving. Thus I'd tempt fate stupidly once again, this time the locale coming in the form of a football practice field. This particular one was used for my high school's marching band, of which I briefly was a part. The problem with this arrangement - such as it was - was that there was simply too much standing around to do - when not otherwise confusing my left foot for my right, or impaling someone with my trombone's slide. Ah, sweet memories!
Indeed, I simply had too much time to consider the hordes of low-flying bees hovering above the ground, annoying little buggers every one of them. It got to the point that I couldn't even sit down among the numerous dandelions drawing them in. So I did what came unfortunately too easily. Yes, I asked for it yet again: Stomping on the little bastards was uncalled for. But it was addictive, plus something of a challenge, if unkind. You probably had to be there, I guess. (The same would go with whatever summer had come before then, where there was too much sun, too many available ants, and too handy a magnifying glass. It had previously gone in a similar fashion.)
Eventually I must have taken out a particularly popular fellow, one of many as I tried to clear suitable acreage to rest on my can in peace. One had to assume as much, anyway, if only from the number of stings I received afterward. Even the swellings would have more swellings on top, an impressive testimony to how pliable (and eminently stretchable) skin can be. But for this I'd learn a valuable lesson, at least: To this day I leave bees (and wasps) alone. We all seem to get along just fine.
But things had begun to pick up a bit, anyone would have to agree... and then this was unquestionably helped by another move, this time to Germany. This wasn't exactly nature's wild dominion, either, no it wasn't, but such a locale instead meant that travel was, for the first time, both appealing and realistic. Arriving there at the age of sixteen helped along any misguided sense of adventure, too. Soon, by loading up a list of interesting destinations to visit, I found myself deciding that if the unchained zoo of the world wasn't coming to me, I'd be going to it... although I don't exactly believe I thought of it that way then. Things would just (repeatedly) have a way of working out like that.
So, when graduating from high school a weighty, pregnant nine months after arriving, what I had in mind was merely foreign adventure. It'd be ignorant adventure, I possibly knew, but that would have to arrive of its own accord. I bought an inter-rail pass good for a month, only entertaining visions of exotic locales. Perhaps I'd be walking about with a beret on my head and a baguette in my hand each day, who knew? Although, sad to say, the concept of "exotic" then encompassed only locales like France, Italy, and Greece at the time, they still beat Iowa or Oklahoma by a mile.
Off I went with a friend, then, ready to lose myself a bit in the process. And this would literally be true at times, too, as we passed through France and Spain to board a train to Portugal. We weren't sure why - but it was covered by the pass! Such was most likely the dominant thought that soon found us putzing about a beach across from Lisbon, even if such adventurousness hadn't moved from our feet yet to our stomachs. The seafood-based local cuisine was too much for my pathetically limited palate back then (but no longer).
So perhaps it'd be fair in the sense of prejudice that the feeling would apparently not be mutual. Walking the beach in bliss, a CRAB found this enough of an opportunity to take a chunk of my toe, right about when I stopped to stand at the water's edge for a moment to take it all this natural beauty in. Yow! Hey - give that back!, I yelled in silence, wondering where the sizable fleshbit had gone. Well, such things DO regrow, I soon could only muse while looking at the bleeding mess. And, really, I should have been glad that the bone had narrowly missed being chomped at the same time. At least the salt water would probably unwittingly help things along healing-wise, if however painfully so.
A few weeks later the trip would offer another surprise. I'd offer more of myself in the same vein of sacrifice, evidently, even if the specifics of such semantics might not've been so spelled out. In any event, my next petit tragedy would occur when I fell on a living CORAL reef in Greece's Korfu Island. I split open my thumb and, far from any medical help, I washed it out as best I could. All would not be lost, however, as I learned a nice lesson in resourcefulness when I eventually resorted to using duct tape as an ingenious butterfly bandage for the gaping wound. It worked! though I nevertheless still have the scar to this day, even as the sunburns from that weeklong island retreat are otherwise long gone.
But I still think that it was this first, real trip away from home that really did it as far as Mother Nature was concerned. Actually, I'm sure of it. For, with my travel appetite whetted, from that point forward I'd stick my neck ever more into nature. And nature, for its part, would now try to take any and all of my neck suitably available. That'd take some time...
Indeed, time did roll onward, taking me from Germany after six-ish years back to the States. More specifically it was time to finish my bachelor's degree in Florida, where I found myself landed into the swelter of late summer of Tallahassee. Humid didn't begin to cover the experience, but the new terrain - replete with alligators I'd rarely see evan as I was sure of their presence - was exciting. Instead I'd only tempt some copperhead SNAKES in their den once near town, a surprising experience that a couple of my friends and I foolishly asked for. We actually drove out to the sticks beyond town with exactly that mission in mind, something I'd later question even if none of us thought to do so then in the slightest.
Fortunately no one was bitten - especially when we dropped into a hole in the ground and found a nest of them waiting for us. Uh... leaving! More surprising was what I came to when I returned home, only then realizing that I had left a banana bread loaf baking in the oven. Evidently the fire department had come by a-calling in the interim - oops! - but at least we'd have a savory, rock-hard-if-loaf-shaped football to throw around for the next weeks of football tailgating season. The apartment's banana smell would stick around significantly longer.
After my university stint, with only a paper degree and $100 remaining to show for the effort, I made my way further down the state to Tampa. A friend had space for my meagre belongings in the back of his truck, even if he was headed just past Tampa and on to St. Petersburg. That was regardless sufficient for me to make the decision of what to do or, rather, where to go for, like, possibly the rest of my life. I'd spend a first few post-college years working there, anyway, the $100 fortunately added to even if the degree would disappear into a box to never see the light of day again.
Of greater import, the advantage to a place like Tampa - at the northern end of Florida's subtropical belt - was that now I should have much warmer weather, like practically year-round. Hell yes!, I thought. Unfortunately, I'd now get to experience a much more memorable tangle, this time with Neptune's minions. Maybe it was Poseidon - I'd never receive the proper invitation card. But such an event was probably inescapable what with the beaches everywhere, even if one thought that merely dodging seagull droppings should've been the more likely concern.
Such would not be the case. The time had come for a significant lashing out from Mama N., apparently, and at one of the area's famous strands - St. Pete Beach. One of the many deep-set beaches found on the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico, it and its companion sand strips sharing the coast were - and are - known for being warm for much of the year. This makes sense when one notes that they only slowly drop into the sea, only slowly continuing to drop further underwater. This gentle incline consequently makes for very leisurely, low-wave beaching that humans can get into the swing of rather contentedly.
I did. But during the hot season, it unfortunately also makes for a great place for STINGRAYS to hang out as well. In season they'd materialize in great numbers, each shuffling on the sands in the shallow areas. There they'd sleep, await prey, play cards - I dunno! Actually I do, and did: when otherwise not eating less fortunates in their vicinity, they were breeding like crazy. Us humans just had a way of getting in the way of this intimate me-time. My awareness of this, like for most others, was impossible to avoid. Signs on the beach, articles in the newspapers, and more help to get the message more than loudly across.
Still - it was a bit hard to always be on guard. Thus, on one (I swear!) brief, tiny, even microscopic occasion where I was helping my friend's girlfriend's little brother get onto a inflatable raft, I was a little less than careful. Seriously, it was only for noblest of reasons: At six years old or so, he sure was having a difficult time staying on. So, ever the helpful hero - YES - I took to giving him a hand with the task. I took a few minutes in trying to steady the thing as he repeatly flopped on to only flip off a few seconds later. This eventually worked, too - he finally moved on to the more appealing job of lazing on the thing.
One somewhat unbalanced shove on my part had done the trick. Then, in likely celebration - and immediately thereafter - I set my feet done to admire my handwork (undoubtedly). And... whammo! OW! That hurt, hurt, hurt!!! What the hell? (I'm sure it was heck - there was a child present.) Then the hurting cranked some more, now with saltwater dumping into the hole that a stingray had just put into the bottom of my foot. Only later would I find that its barb was left in the there - I was too busy registering pain signals from my foot to my spine to my brain to determine that the jolt I had just experienced must've come from a ray.
In any event I immediately abandoned the raft: The boy'd have to fend off the sharks on this own. (And I never would have an idea of what happened to him in the aftermath, but he DID survive - Which was more than I felt like I had a chance of doing.) Now with more pressing thoughts to cloud my brain's thinking, I scrambled to the shoreline. I was helpfully squirting enough blood into the water to chum them properly if a shark WAS in the area. I regardless made landfall (i.e. the beach) within a minute or two, next dragging my foot behind me as I made my way further inland.
Over the epic traversal which came next, a few times I looked behind me at the laughing sea. Yep, I really was leaving a nice red trail. Hansel and Gretel would have had nothing on this, even as it only found me crossing the open entirety of the beach's prodigious, interminable depth. I finally only relaxed when I reached the huts at road's edge. There I appealed to the ice cream man (or fish-n-chips girl, or skate punk, or retiree with bermuda shorts and oversized sunglasses, or pick your own Florida beach bum stereotype - I dunno!) to call for first aid.
The benefits of outsized tourism meant one thing, at least: It wasn't long before the paramedics arrived. I was only the latest example of the idiots they'd deal with on the day, all finding themselves on the wrong end of the stingray's tail. The uniformed pair efficiently sat me down, next proceeding to dump a flood of iodine onto the wound. Then they put their gloves on with a satisfying snap! to pull out most or all of the barb - ouch! They finally wrapped the bloody mess up and asked if I had a way to get home, closing up their kits and making ready to leave me behind whatever the reply.
Technically, the answer was yes - so that's what I said. Really, it was hardly that simple - I only meant that I owned a car and had the keys to it. As for driving it, who knew? I should've more properly noted that I lived over the bay in Tampa, that miles-away land located all the way across from the peninsula on which St. Petersburg sat. Hmm. Fortunately, my friends had rejoined me by now and came up with a plan: My friend and his girlfriend would each man (wo-man?) the two cars in which we had arrived. That seemed eminently logical.
Except it wasn't. In a short period of time, my self-elected driver found herself breaking down to cry. This would only increase, indeed to the point that within ten minutes she'd had enough: We flashed my buddy ahead of us and pulled over to the side of the road. She was stressed out completely, only now admitting that she was barely used to driving a stick-shift car. In fact, as far as she was concerned, she'd be happy to give up on the concept - like forever. Her boyfriend, in the meantime, had circled back: I bravely (and ignorantly) suggested that the only solution would be to continue on my own.
HA! After my friends had departed, I took stock of my new situation. I had one bleeding, pulsing foot in agony... and two pedals. Good luck to me! To this day, however, I will state that one CAN drive a manual transmission - more or less - with only one foot. It just took ignoring the screaming pain I was in to change gears, but that was precisely what I did to cross first the never-ending bridge - followed by the rest of the thirty or so miles I needed to cover the return home.
The rest ran like less than a dream, too. My prescription for this continuing disaster meant more pain. For starters, I had been told by the paramedics to repeatedly stick my foot in a bucket of water pre-heated to the nearest temperature to boiling I could stand. I'm not sure how close to that I got thermometer-wise, but on numerous occasions I'd find myself thinking that I had effectively boiled all the meat from my foot's bones. As for putting any weight on the foot to walk - HA again.
For all this fun, meanwhile, I'd only receive a few days off from work - hardly sufficient compensation for a horrid day in the sun. Maybe that's why I left Florida. Maybe not - but leave I did within a few years. I next would find myself up in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I'd effectively - yet without not knowing why - complete a master's degree. Whatever. It was only in the so doing that I'd next be able to follow the pattern of the previous degrees: time to hit the road! That would have consequences that would take me all the way to the present day.
The catalyst to all such misadventure would come in the form of the Great West Trip. Just like the Great Europe Trip that coalesced in the last few months of high school, there were to be a few of us - originally. But, as previously, the grand concept of shared comradery evaporated by the time graduation grew near: It'd only be myself that I'd have for company when I jumped into my car precisely one day after my last class completed its session. I consigned the graduation ceremony (to come a week later) to history's bin, happy to let it go on without me as another diploma would find its way into a box in its own good time.
A secondary theme to the Great West Trip was entirely practical: I was yet again looking for a new place to live. This would remain an unknown for some months, but even initially it seemed to center on Seattle and San Diego for reasons concerning sun and culture that I'd never fully be able to articulate. (Seattle would win in the end, as San Diego reminded me too much of merely reliving Tampa on another coast.)
But that was grist for a mill months into the future still. More to the present was that the time had evidently come for the birds to be at me. And their first crack at me would fittingly come at an iconic place for such a trip, one that breaks east properly from west. Indeed, it WAS momentous to cross the Mississippi River, especially as the St. Louis Arch wheeled into view to properly commemorate the occasion: How about that! After crossing the bridge, I immediately parked my car to walk over to this impressive monument of welded, stainless steel.
But the historic arch-walk wouldn't quite work out heroically, probably on account of the bagel I was eating. Whatever it was, I soon found myself break into a run to cross the parking lot and unending grassland separating me from my coveted hunk of conjoined metal. A CROW apparently had decided the my time had come to, like, die. On more than one occasion it swooped in, smacking into the top of my head to only reload for more. The first attack was the biggest surprise by far, of course: Holy crap! That hurt! By the second attack, I had already hit full stride. I only further foiled the third and fourth dive-bombs by zigzagging. One would've thought this Gallipoli, using similar techniques as if trying to avoid machine gun fire from a pillbox with a commanding view.
Needless to say, I survived - but the likelihood of earning a medal or citation for the impressive effort probably wasn't terribly high. But living to see another day was a good thing, especially since there was plenty more country to cover as only now had I officially entered the West. And here the story accelerates as I did complete my grand tour with aplomb, flourish, and a few other fancy words. Some five months I had moved to Seattle to begin yet another life, too. There I'd begin - and end - a decade's career, programming and increasingly designing video games. It was... what it was.
A lively city like Seattle, meanwhile, merited a move right into the thick of things. This I would duly do, scrounging enough bucks during an extended couch surf - thanks, sis! - to install myself in a handsome, turn-of-the-century brick apartment building (which, at the time of my leaving it - and surely no coincidence - has since become a swanky-ish hotel). It was attractively located near the Seattle Center, always a draw for a walk about its grounds if only to get a beignet - or perhaps lounge at its new (and still glorious) International Fountain.
It must have been on one of those very walks, then, that I found myself homeward bound one day. From the far end of the Center I strolled along the long Mercer Boulevard, a tree-lined respite in an otherwise more concrete-laden area. Not a bad stretch up a quarter-mile, in other words. In mid-summer, each tree was in full leaf - not a bad thing, and one that allowed their 20-foot spacing to keep me in continual shade. Such was the idea, anyway, until, once again, a bird would think differently. Not again!
This time I'd not even have a bagel - or other food - to blame, curiously. No, this RAVEN that'd take to turning itself my very own Edgar Allen Poe nightmare wouldn't care about THAT at all. Apparently the flesh on my own person would be sufficient. It'd only take a few low swoops to establish that I had a visitor. The squawking started next. Then the stalking. Then the grazing hits, more than sufficient to muss my glorious hair. What the hell was going on?, I quickly thought, slightly panicked.
The swoops were of a more attention-getting severity, past arising my full attention as I took to looking behind me for the succeeding one. And there it'd come, like clockwork. In fact, I soon noticed that the beast had taken to a rather ingenious strategy: It'd swoop each time I passed to a point halfway between two trees. Then it'd land on the next one and wait, turning its head along with its telltale heart to track my progress. Diabolical!
More importantly, what the hell had I done to deserve this? "Look! - No bagel!", I bleated silently with my eyes. No dice: the vicious, literally hair-raising pattern would continue almost the entire way. To that, and indeed to this day, I'll never know why I didn't take to running by then. But with the distilled wisdom of the written I'll only now surmise that the reason was simple: fear. It was safer to walk; only in so doing could I follow with surety the upcoming attack from my tormentor.
Perhaps it was that incident which led me out of town, into nature at its finest - and where more creatures of less civilized mien could get their dibs on me. Whichever-whatever, off I went to Mt. Rainier National Park one fateful day. For too long the towering volcano had beckoned me, looming over the city. It was dramatically visible, and in full splendrous contrast with the city's skyscrapers and Space Needle, right from Queen Anne's Kerry Park - just several blocks from my home. But all that snow and ice in its gleaming cap didn't hint at the wonderland below the frozen mountainside. It was high time to settle my curiosity; A leisurely day trip would be just the thing to see just what was there.
Perhaps appropriately enough name-wise, I'd take my longest hike of the day on the Wonderland Trail, near Box Canyon on the park's southeast side. The marmot that greeted me near the parking lot was a welcome sign of promise, as were the stellar jays flitting about in the flashes of midnight blue. Both were lounging about the area to scavenge crumbs from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches not closely watched. Random fools actually fed them as well, ignoring all reason promoted by the rangers about changing the animals' habits. But I had no time for such shenanigans, anyway, not with a long day of driving and a limited - if ample - amount of sun on the day: I had a trail to hike. Off I went into the dark invite of deep forest cover.
And what a wonderland it was. Living up to its name on multiple fronts, I first took in the deep gorge that was the canyon before following the trail into another deep drop in the woods. There I was accompanied by an owl's hoots, even if I'd never be able to pinpoint where the (spotted?) denizen of the old growth sat to spy on me. Next a woodpecker or two pecked away at the hollow silence otherwise afforded; I continued tromping through the deep green for which the region is almost as famous as its rain. Finally, at a bridge located at a trough in the trail, one that was over-engineered to cross a thundering stream making its way through boulders, I decided to stop for a leisurely lunch in solitude before turning around. Now I only had to climb my way back out, soon re-encountering the protests of the likely the very same owl.
Logically, all the while I should've also been thinking about bears and other large and dangerous animals like cougars - all were, and are, present in the park somewhere. If a battle was to ensue, I surely would be on the losing end of a wrastle with such beasts. In response to the risk, one typically tries to make a little noise here or there to ward them off. Fortunately, their willingness to flee far exceeds their reputation for confrontation and terror-infused fights-for-survival. A clap of the hands or talking to someone usually does the trick, the bears and their ilk moving away far in advance of being even noticed.
I of course did no such thing, nor did I think of the possibility of kinder animals posing much of a threat. Nearing the parking lot again, on a final hurrah of a relatively level stretch, I soon found all about such other realities: Snap, crackle, pop! I mean Crash, Bam, Boom! Whichever it was, suddenly the entire forest seem to be falling down on all sides of me - I spun around as my heart seriously considered giving out in one bold stroke. Holy shit - what the hell was happening? And where?
Suddenly three massive ELK bounded out of the woods, crossing right in front of me within several feet. Each of these titans weighing about two thousand pounds on the hoof burst through in the brush in a clatter and sent me diving backward in shock. Off they smashed into more undergrowth for another few seconds before suddenly stopping out of sight. Immediately a deathly silence returned and my heart rate was given a chance to reenter the triple digits - the doubles still had a ways to go. Simultaneously impressed and stunned, I looked about for a while finally deciding to resume my hike. Then, in a final salvo of grace, perhaps, one came back to the trail to stand before me in quizzical silence. He snapped an unsteady picture before he quietly ambled off. Huh. Wonderland indeed.
Beyond that odd afternoon's foray, Seattle would provide a number of close calls with animals of import that I'd also never fully understand. Sure, I probably asked for all of them - SOMEhow - but they'd still form an impressive record of survival. Or rather, they would when one thought of what they were each CAPABLE of doing. Sea kayaking would provide a first such opportunity. An activity which I had gotten into it within only a couple of years after calling Seattle home, it quickly came to take a good deal of my time almost year-round, though mostly on weekends. I'd even get to owning three kayaks eventually.
Over time I also began to put together trips for friends to join, too, what with Puget Sound's islands calling their siren song. They hosted an impressive variety of sea life, from sea anemones to seals, appealing attractions to take in that were evident to far many others than just me. But I wasn't prepared for what for what I heard one day on the radio, of a peculiar event which caught my attention completely: A pod of nineteen KILLER WHALES (orcas) was "trapped" in an inlet across the Sound. Well how about that!, I thought, having to date only having seen a few of the black-and-white northwest icons at a distance from the random, similarly iconic Washington State Ferry.
The news got better, too: It looked like they'd like be around for a week or two, all with the purpose of taking advantage of a salmon run going on. Now this I could understand, salmon being the main reason I finally started eating fish in earnest after holding my nose to them for my preceding lifetime. Vastly outdoing my gullet's capacity, though, each orca was feasting on about 350lbs a day. That wasn't bad pickings for needing to merely lazing about in a relatively small area, certainly not for such a large, sea-going vessel as an orca. They didn't even have to get a fishing license!
Assured they'd be around for the duration of the run, I soon headed over with a friend with great confidence of partaking in a remarkable occurrence. We strapped two of my kayaks onto my car's roof, then took the ferry over while pulling out a map to figure out wherever the hell this Dye's Inlet was. Well, that wouldn't turn out to be hard at all - we just had to follow some of the traffic. Like the bulk of it. Evidently, half the inhabitants of the Sound were headed over there as well pulling trailers, a veritable boating pandemonium that we'd merely add to insignificantly.
On account of this zoo, fortunately, the local park rangers (patrolling in boats) had established some ground rules. Of these, paramount was Rule #1: Don't approach the orcas closer than 100ft. Well, that might've been the only rule, actually. More important was the rule NOT stated: namely, that you didn't have to get out of the way should they approach YOU. Not that you might not think about it, a whale being, like, a whale and all. But with both kayaks in the water and the orcas soon spotted, it was of this loophole in the rules that I'd appeal.
Unfortunately - or fortunately - I'd be alone in this endeavor. To the first sentiment, my friend didn't want to get anywhere near the beasts. He'd miss out on any upcoming fun. But, to the second, he did have a camera. That worked, if only to record where my body could be located should things go awry. Off I went to a lonely patch of water, far from the madding, maddening crowd, ready for my personal Pearl Harbor or Midway, whichever the case would be.
Perhaps I should've been scared - but allow me to assert in all earnestness that I wasn't. Oddly, I've long had this odd habit of believing what I read, and what I read about the orcas was this: don't bother them, and they won't bother you. (That, by the way, is the case with most animals.) So, should we find ourselves indeed in close quarters, I figured I'd let them do what they would. I'd not be doing a damn thing...
... outside of positioning myself right in the way of their guess-timated track, that is. As I saw the fleet of boats accompanying the orcas in their traversals approaching in the distance, I eventually caught sight of the whales' spouting. Ah - here they come! Soon I began to see their fins, too. Then both of these quickly got bigger - lots bigger. In fact, by the time I determined that at least a handful were headed directly toward me in succession, their fins got about seven feet out of the water big. That was sufficiently... large. Big!
Then the fun began. First a few juveniles out in front hopped out of the water. Then a few of the larger ones did as well, breaching and flashing their bellies at me. This was exciting, to be honest. Meanwhile the biggest ones kept heading right my way, fins jutting straight into the hair with a jaunting tilt only at their extreme point at about seven feet above the water. Hmm... Well, I fortunately wouldn't have long to think about this one way or... the other.
One after another, then, the last three of them - the monsters - approached my craft within a handful of feet. Yes?... No? Please? Then, and each time successively within a mere feet of my kayak, each would suddenly and precipitously drop underneath. They'd then reappear on the other side, again only a few feet beyond where I was sitting. Wow! Okay, that wasn't so bad. In fact, in the ponderous retrospection available only a minute or two later, I'd deem it pretty awesome. There was a bonus, too, in that I'd have a handful of pictures to prove it, too, what with my friend zooming in with his mongo lens. I'd be forever grateful for the couple of shots of these massive creatures leaping in mid-air - seemingly kissing each other, with Mt. Rainier looming behind them - still among the best in my collection. Wow.
Two other Seattle-related encounters would be less promising, however. Of these, the first would come while mountain biking near the city, on Tiger Mountain. Now that was an odd name for such an over-sized hill - what tigers have ever been in the States? Moreover, with the more logically-named Cougar Mountain just one hump over the way, why was there a COUGAR finding its way onto my path? Now that was a surprise, just as true as if the place had been called Bunny Hill.
Which it wasn't. Like with the Elk in Mt. Rainier National Park, again I found myself with the eventually predictable result of biking about the trails alone - I had company! Such an seemingly-innocent activity had taken a serious turn, the precise moment being right about the exact time I pulled up to the crest of the logging road I was using to connect two trails. A full-grown mountain lion ambled out of the woods, gracefully slinking before extending its full carriage for me to take in with a gasp. It walked right out into the road in front of me, coming to only about fifteen feet ahead of my front tire, then stopped to turn its head to look at me directly.
Alrighty... now what to do? What to do, what to do... Frankly I had no idea - but my bike would be staying between us, that was about all I knew for sure. He (She? It?) stood its ground; I stood mine. I could only hope that this lack of being a pestering bother, as with the orcas, would lead to my not being bothered with. This time, however, I'd have to wonder in ignorance - I'd done no research beforehand. Would I live or die? Could I kill a cougar with my bare hands and heart of a lion? (I believe this is the definition of where to place a smiley face emoticon.)
Good questions. To get to the happy results called answers, though, the cat and I would first have to just stand there for a few minutes. We had some staring at each other to do in the interim. I stared. It stared back. Then it stared and I stared back. On the plus side, this gave me time to properly note that the cat looked plenty adult enough, its back running as high as my bike's top bar. I had time to leisurely ask myself questions, too, ones like: Did I stand a chance? Why won't it stop looking at me that way? Still, in lieu of its licking its lips, I judged all to be copasetic.
Moreover, as I'm (I rather hope obviously) writing this little tale ex post facto, you might already have the answer. (Otherwise do please help yourself to dunning this handy tall, conical hat while placing yourself on a seat in the corner of the room facing the wall.) The cougar finally wearied of this standoff, evidently dismissing me as unworthy when it walked off into the woods. To this I could only simultaneously rejoice inwardly, silently applauding in tacit acknowledgment of its wise judgement. But was it all over?
Indeed, crisis seemingly averted, now I was left with the nagging query of "To where now?!?" Frankly, I didn't know if backward was better than forward. Given the thickness of the woods and the uneven terrain surrounding me, either seemed equally good or bad to chance a further encounter with my newfound friend. So I did what made the most sense: I hopped on my bike, opting for SPEED in the absence of any other wise ideas. Minutes later, after an impressive full steam ahead, I found my friend that had started me off in this direction in the first place. HE had fallen off of his bike, breaking a rib for the effort - easy pickings for the discerning wildcat. Sigh - as if that could be a story!
My other biking run-in was considerably more unusual, even with the above considered. For starters, this one came while riding in an event with something like 10,000 people. So how - in bloody hell - could I possibly run into a wild animal with that kind of company? Somehow I'd once again I'd feel a bit singled out by the wild and wily ones. Was I really that special in the midst of such august, high-speed company? Apparently so. Sigh.
The moment of truth would occur when I was near a pack of about ten other riders, nearing the Oregon border on the annual Seattle-To-Portland ride outside of the town of St. Helens. Just a little ahead of these others at the moment, I had felt felt that I was hitting my stride at a good clip on this second day. This was nothing grand, of course - there were probably more than a thousand riders in front and behind me both, give or take several thousand each way.
So why would a COYOTE come barreling out of the woods at only ME? Like a flash it came out of nowhere from above, ready to nip at my heels should it be given the opportunity. Not that I'd let it, of course - I at first thought it was a dog, naturally, and immediately went into full postal worker mode: Away! But that color - that shape? Hmm. Actually, I wouldn't have THAT long to think at the time, like only a few seconds. It was only then when I unmistakably realized that it was only coming right at me and no one else. So I took to inventing warpspeed and hyperdrive at about the same time and associated speeds: instantly.
The the chase was then on, something I felt in the rush of adrenalin, but in reality it probably lasted five seconds, ten max. But who was counting? Not I, certainly, but I had more important things to consider than pulling out a stopwatch for consultation. Besides - who gets chased by a friggin' coyote, anyway? Luckily the beast gave up the ghost (that I must've looked) when I began to pull away.
With blazing speed (I'd like to say supersonic, but having already taken credit for warpspeed and hyperdrive makes that rather superfluous), I made it to the next intersection. This was sufficiently safe with the 'yote out of sight, hundreds of yards ahead of the initial contact with the limber Cujo-in-the-making. There I then waited, too, as the group of riders that had been trailing me caught up. They'd apparently had a good show. Interestingly, it seemed that each of them was eager to give slightly differing version of the coyote's hunt, but all at least agreed on identifying the beast as that very thing. Besides, a mangy dog would have been far too pedestrian.
Needless to say, by the time of that occurrence, I had warmed up to Mother Nature throwing her minions my way - duh!. I'd thwarted a number of mammalian "Take THAT!"'s and come out of them in pretty good form. Lots of parrying and thrusting, but not much blood spilt in the grand scheme of things. Being warmed up would be a good thing, too, as next I'd be headed to warmer environs myself. Specifically I'd go to South America several years in a row, spending a couple of months there each year in trying to get to know almost all of the countries from Patagonia to the Caribbean.
And, as logic might have it with that order of progression, Venezuela would be the last (and northernmost, generally speaking) of those countries before setting my sights elsewhere for a spell. Based on my experience in the big V, that'd be the correct response - you'll soon see why. But prior to getting there, I thought that just getting out of Caracas - the capital - in one piece was supposed to be the challenge. Although I'd handle that superbly, life and wallet intact, I'd only find instead that it'd be my leg, back, butt and gut that would think differently. It wouldn't take long, either.
As luck would have it, my gut would get it first. Sante Fe was my first stop after fleeing Caracas, a place where I'd find a little more than the idle fishing community I was hoping for. In one regard that would be a real positive: I'd meet a good friend there, one that is still such to this day. For the other, well... gorging on seafood might've not been the best idea. Or at least not in a town that only had a marginal sewage system outside of the sea. They weren't exactly hiding the fact, if not advertising it.
Anyway, I'm guessing it was the seafood or PARASITES which was to blame for what came next - my friend Jim was a pretty good guy, after all - and still is - so I'll magnanimously absolve him of any blame. Nevertheless, it was in sitting down to dinner with said individual on one of my last days in Santa Fe that the fun began. One moment we were talking... and in another I began to sweat profusely. Within the next minute I had already run to the bathroom at full tilt. You know what came next, but I'll just not pass up the opportunity to stage whisper "orifice". Or "violent".
Looking back, I'm not sure to this day if that dash was executed with 100% success. And its barfing angle on the festivities would rapidly become the least of my worries. Soon - as these things tend to go - it was the other end that went into business and, well, the squeamish might want to skip ahead just a little. Normally the following would be details that I might spare the delicate reading public (such as the seven of you reading this constitute), but trust me that things got extreme. I would even go so far to say that it'd be my second-worst (best?) run of the trots - and that's including the nine year interim up to the advent of this essay's writing.
Seriously, it was bad, only bested by when I got a mysterious case of full body-aches and a near-death experience. That was my joyful month of DENGUE FEVER, coming in Ecuador just after I got out of the Galapagos Islands two years before Venezuela. Over the initial twenty-four hours I lost track of day or night - confused enough to ask the concierge that very question - and also consumed more water over that period to replace fluids than ever in my life. But at least I'd have a fabled port of call to make it seem like a worthy trade-off. Or perhaps not quite so, as I was barely able to stand to catch my plane back to the States. But I would come to understand the need for a product called Preparation H. You never want to know why.
In podunk Santa Fe I was actually more scared, however. See, not many times - like ever - have I been known to shit what I could only liken to used crankcase oil. This was jet black, inky stuff, and to a point in volume that I figured that all liquids from my toes to my eyeballs had been accounted for. Good god, this was both disgusting and worrisome. How ever much we might not talk in polite company about what comes out of our rears, we do take some satisfaction in recognizing our by-products. And familiarity is comfort as much as the lack of it can be otherwise.
Fortunately, I'd meet a nurse at this most timely of times. Moreover, she - with her daughter and female companion - would even be willing to join me over the next leg of the trip I hoped to take. So it was courtesy of her company that I'd learn two things to take solace in, one of which was this: That black offering of offal merely meant that my intestines were getting an incredible scouring. Black is apparently the color of the most ancient of things lining their walls. Chew on that for a bit.
Ugh. Maybe not. Actually, I didn't really need to know that - but it was kind of cool in its way. Plus, this allowed me to realized that I had received a free colonic! And I sure did like the sound of that word. Especially since this happened right about the time (on the western side of the planet) when said procedure was all the rage for an appreciable fee. Most importantly, though, whatever was in my system before was definitely not in it any more, of that I was sure... eventually.
The other thing I learned was the magic of Coca-Cola. Not that I cared much for the soft drink gargantuan as a matter of choice, but I did learn that it does cure what ails ya. Or makes the bad feeling going away for a while. My new nurse friend suggested drinking a can of the concoction every four hours, repeating if my horrific stomach systems prevailed. This I immediately did, with religious follow-through on the repeats (a few times). In only a handful of minutes each time I was right as rain, good for about the next four hours as advertised. Now one might talk of what's found in said can as something we should all be a little scared of... nah!
This sudden recovery would in the meantime propel me into the welcoming arms of the Delta Orinoco. There I'd enjoy its stunning, flashy scarlet ibises, caiman croc(odile)s, and Warau people - a folk still living in something akin to the Stone Age, baseball caps from political parties notwithstanding. From the mouth of the Delta, I'd next make my way to Ciudad Bolivar on the same river, soon to enjoy a momentous trip up the Río Caura. This would come about only after heading a few hours away by jeep, followed by several days on a motorized tree trunk otherwise called a "boat".
This extended picnic on water up the river was something not done much by tourists - an odd thing, seeing as it was handily arranged from the one hostel in town. But whatever - we'd happily go for several days on a tannic river, especially as the tea-colored waters allowed for a surprisingly mosquito-free beauty of an experience capped by some massive falls deep in the jungle. That had sold me and the three others plenty enough. The swimming wherever we wanted bit, often at the beaches in the reaches, was a bonus. It was all that.
Naturally, a trip like this was something to be made more exciting by whatever wildlife we might see. We'd see plenty, too, although in retrospect I mostly remember monkeys and... birds. Yes, as was usually the case in the Amazon region and its further extents - like this area was - birds were the largest order of the day: Toucans, parrots, chirping things, squawking things - they were all in there somewhere. And if we weren't seeing them, we were hearing them. Or about them, or checking them out in one of the cages that the few Pemon tribespeople we'd encounter had them in. Or they'd be found where these same folks' scattered food refuse was located. What I'm saying is that there were a lot of birds, I guess that's what I'm saying.
Perhaps that abundance lulled me a bit too much. Like a hippie in a medical marijuana dispensary, I just couldn't help myself. So, when we stopped off on an island where our guide's girlfriend #28 lived (he boasted that he had one at each bend in the river where there was a hut, something we'd actually find believable over time), I found myself gleefully shooting away at the birds sticking around long enough for a good shot. How nice and convenient of them!
Nevertheless, I should have been wary of any JUNGLE BIRD that was roughly the size of my torso. What did I really know about such a fowl? Was it foul? But this one huge sucker of a winged thing had caught my eye in no time, a black monster with marks of red. So I kept creeping ever closer, even as the bird backed up steadily. That should have told me something, but it didn't then if only in my willful ignorance. In any event, it didn't seem terribly unnerved as I followed its retreat - I would declare that insistently to myself in the process of approaching - but this completely ignored the growing guess I had that there has to come a shove after enough pushes.
Thus the backing up stopped as suddenly as the bird struck forward. Ack! Next it was flying directly at me, all done in an instant that I should well have been prepared for. I wasn't, however, seeing instead my lens fill with a lot of angry, flying bird. As now should have been customary, I proceeded to make my patented yelp as I turned around to run. That wouldn't help
What I really needed was some kind of protection instead. Like a shirt, for example. Indeed, that'd be the foremost concern as I felt the two talons slice at my back. Time and again I'd feel them, too, these futile-yet-menacing grazings achieved at my fleeing back as I accelerated to a full clip. Finally I rounded a tree, a hut, or something - and gathered my breath. Only then did the attack stop as suddenly as it began, thwarted somehow by the imposition of the tree.
Around this time the others came by to take a look, of course, all impressed with the markings up and down my back. Amazingly, none of the red lines graduated to being properly spilt blood - a miracle, it seemed. Nevertheless, no one appeared to have been eager to have switched positions for such divine intervention. Meanwhile, the bird was still out there - where it'd remain, not far off by any means. And there things would stay as we made our way back to our motorized log. We each made a large arc toward it to cover the ground in between, the bird pacing alongside each of us in wary contempt if securely knowledgeable in its victory.
On the plus side, none of us would suffer any mosquito bites in the days to come. We wouldn't even suffer sand mites when we camped on the beach at the end of our journey, under the thunder of Para Falls. No, the bird attack would be the sole excitement, and the bug bites would wait... for the next leg of my Venezuelan odyssey. I had earned the reprieve for all of us, apparently. Thus it was that from the Río Caura and the ensuing return to Ciudad Bolivar that my plans would switch around to find me heading southeast to the little-trafficked corner of Venezuela, Brazil, and Guyana.
Or not exactly. Turns out that the junction of the three is actually found on top of a mountain, Roraima. One of the 2000 or so tepui formations located mostly on the Venezualan side of the international borders, these were strange and monolithic-seeming formations were very difficult access. It's been said - and possibly true - that half of the world's orchids are located on top of them. In many cases, too, they are suspected to be endemic to a single one of these mesa-shaped things. With the hardship of actually climbing to the top of any of them, plus the reluctance of the local Pemon people to let anyone do so, no one really knows.
But Roraima was open for business on some level. In 2002, I heard that some 700 people or so would find themselves atop it, a record that might still hold with the steady deterioration of the Venezuelan economy since then. Anyway, that was why I was there. I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Plus, I could sneak into Brazil for a second time illegally to sample some different (and better) fare than was available in the Big V. One way or another the stomach always its way to the fore of things.
But that wouldn't stay that way for long. With a guide and cook chosen, and a small group of three of us ready to go, we also would take a required Pemon porter (I still remember his name, Cesar, possibly because he stole some of our food and disappeared only after a day or so into the week of fun ahead). With the guide and cook both from Guyana, we'd be regaled with tales of other hikers, the lore of the tepuis - and they are dramatic, with clouds rolling through them like a dragon's breath - and Guyanese cooking that also, unsurprisingly, topped the Venezuelan grub.
Mostly, however, they talked about the PURI PURI. We'd know about them soon enough, they told us. Indeed we would. Like every time we had to squat with immediate weight reduction in mind of an interior kind. That's when the puri puri would stop by to say hello, biting away in this most exposed and inconvenient spot. They would've happily bitten any available skin on offer, but the rest of it we knew to cover at all times for both their sake and that of the razor grass (appropriately named) we'd walk through first and last days of the hike.
Fortunately there was an antidote to the puri puri: wind. They stayed well away from such breezy environs, most likely because they were so small that they'd have a hard time navigating - much like mosquitoes, similarly blown away in any respectable movement of air. Not that that information helped too much - we still were going to take our bathroom stops, plus wind can be a little hard to dial up when necessary. So it looked like the puri puri would carry the day, giving us rashes to squirm over and scratch in the least genteel of manners. And, until you've been bitten by a thousand of the little bastards, I'll reserve the right to include them in these tales of woe. Their insult to dignity merits them that much.
From Santa Elena, then, I returned to Ciudad Bolivar with hopes of flying into the jungle that is Canaima, also home to more Pemon people. There I planned to check out Angel Falls - the world's tallest waterfall, issuing itself over the edge of another of Venezuela's odd tepuis deep in the jungle - and whatever else was handily in the area. Which was a good thing, since it turned out that there was a lot there. This was so much so that I'd shortly consider my five night stay to be in one of my most amazing locales ever. I'd like to think that's impressive since I've had a pretty reasonable amount of travels, but try this on for size: I stayed on an island, on a lagoon in the midst of gorgeous jungle, with thundering falls to most sides. It was all that.
But it'd be matters of the rear end that'd scream its price tag for such fantastic fluff-n-stuff. This'd come one fine day in the middle of my stay, one in which I found myself stepping away from an outhouse on this oh-so-very-idyllic isle. I'd quickly get one of the bigger surprises of my life: Apparently a little friend had crawled into my drawers during the slightly indignant moment of relieving myself. This was indeed odd - sharing said underwear was generally not my thing - but more unfortunate was what I realized as I walked out and managed some ten steps of distance from the throne house. Za-wham! Pow!
Now, one would think that I couldn't possibly be the inspired, talented sort of gent able to jump to the high canopy of treetops - but I'd readily attest that I did it then. One would also think that I should able to bear a certain amount of pain stoically, and usually I'd assert that to be true. But I didn't, not in the least when it felt like I'd been jabbed in my rear by a spear. I howled like the confused, pained fool that I was, slapping at where the awful hurt was emanating from - my right butt cheek - in hopes that whatever it was would stop this assault it had started and stopped in one fell blow. Slap slap slap!, I spanked myself as only the parent of every naughty child would love to. What else could I do?
Well, evidently the slapping worked - marginally. It unquestionably took the edge off the thing, if only because I became sure that nothing more was coming as a follow-up. The time had come for the moment of truth: I dropped my drawers to see what was going on in there... and a SCORPION fell out. Ah ha! Then... uh, what did that mean? I inspected the dead beastie lying inert on the ground, a tanned guy measuring about the length of my finger. My greatest satisfaction lay in seeing that it wasn't moving. Neither would it be in the near future - or ever, appeasing me plenty enough. So I stood there staring at it some more, now rubbing my ass more in sympathy with myself.
Damn, I now thought - what the hell does somebody do about a scorpion sting? Moreover, what the hell was even available here in the middle of nowhere? Was this not a place only reached by the likes of the tiny Cessna I'd flown on to come in? The same floppy thing that floated oddly, idly pushed about as the winds buffeted into this lonesome place? Indeed it was, so thank goodness for locals - that's what I'd next be thinking.
For a spot in the middle of nowhere (also known as impenetrable jungle), Canaima was a settlement of about one thousand indigenous, Pemon tribe souls. Not by coincidence, then, was it a family of the same that ran/maintained the island that I was an inhabitant of. From them, then, I would soon gain some valuable knowledge... and the further indignity of dropping my drawers yet again. A grandmotherly woman came over to cluck about my wound, then smeared some kind of jungle salve onto my bum. I guess it worked - what did I know? All I'd find out was that it would all go away over the next day or two.
For such fun, meanwhile, I'd receive the joy of a small amount of paralyzation. Oddly, although it was my rear that took the hit, it was one by one that the little muscles or ligaments of my right leg's toes and foot - and then further up with the larger muscles of the calf and thigh - locked up, turning rock solid. This wasn't a promising progression, but it wasn't like I had a choice - did I? No, but fortunately that's where things stopped - and strangely reminiscent of my previous stingray "event", where the same thing had gone about as far. I'd forever be left to wonder what the effect would have been if the paralyzation had gone only a little further - if only for the sake of science, and if the salve did or did not come to my aid.
In any event, Venezuela's continuous gift of maladies would save the best for last. This generous offering would last beyond my host country's mere borders, too, although I had no idea of any such future treats when I went to Merida up in the Venezuelan Andes. From there I'd spend only a short amount of time before dropping down to the searing plains called Los Llanos to take a tour. Making a couple of friends for that hot, dusty effort, we decided to celebrate our eternal bonds of comradery with a spectacular hike up and over these wacky Andes which we found ourselves in midst of. Or something like that.
The idea was this: we'd traverse five climate zones in doing a ascent-descent in the near vicinity of Venezuela's highest peak, Pico Bolivar. We'd cover one hundred kilometers over six days, with one day serving as a planned break. The main thing was that we'd spend the majority of our time in a valley which time and culture had forgotten. We'd even pass some time in something of a ghost town, a village of one hundred now reduced to a mere three inhabitants. This mountain passage should prove a counterweight to those dusty, sweltering lowlands, we knew - even if this would soon be surpassed by the desire the kill our fellow British co-hiker most of the time. Then there'd be a denouement to forget, too - at least for me.
First I'd be the lucky one to get seemingly all of the blisters, as it turned out. They'd not be minor ones, either, but the kind that seemed to remove sections of the foot from the possibility of touch. Sensitive wouldn't cover the situation that developed, so it was indeed a great thing that Day Five was the day of rest after the building pain of Day Four. I was toast by then already, but I was hopeful that the pause would make Day Six - twenty-two kilometers more - that much better. It didn't - but it sure sounded great at the time!
Instead I found myself hopping those kilometers out on one foot, using a stick as a crutch while employing a grimace for any time that something - anything - grazed my wounded foot. That got us out - somehow. Then we only had to wait for our vehicle to show up, ostensibly taking us back to civilization. That would form a slight wrinkle - apparently the driver had rolled the thing on the mountainside on the way up to us - but he made it, about two hours late. Then we all squished into the crumpled rear of the thing. Some had to fold themselves more than others, naturally, what with the roof somewhat caved in, but we eventually made it to our camp on the edge of Los Llanos in a timely (ewnough) manner all things considered.
By this time, though, I had had enough. "Pooped" wouldn't describe my physical state entirely - wiped out was more like it. Accordingly, then, I decided to stay on at this glorified campground we found ourselves at. The others would head back to Merida. This didn't seem a bad idea, this growing compound being handily built and filled out by the Swiss outfitter who had put us together with out guide (Jacky, who had to be summoned by horse over some days of correspondence to get the trek going in the first place - no electricity existed at his farm in the sticks). I could stay as long as I liked, he told me.
I liked the sound of that, indeed, especially since I could barely stand up. On the second day of camp, therefore, I settled in after my friends - including the aforementioned not-so-friend-friend, however clueless she was to all of the ill will the rest of us felt in her direction - left. I decided that I'd focus on playing a little trumpet while letting my blisters (somewhat) heal. This seemed an ideal place for a little R&R to recharge the batteries in advance of the flight I had to catch in a few days.
But - possibly - the little flying things of the area had something else in mind. It'd sure seem so in no time whatsoever. To them, evidently, I was something probably better described as... a victim. Or dinner. Breakfast, lunch, recess snack, a coin-less vending machine - all of those, too. I guess one could assert that I was bitten a bit. And then some more. But hey, what couldn't a little scratching solve? Plus, I knew that I'd be back in Florida in several days for a couple of weeks or so. I could let any pesky bites heal on the beach, cocktail in hand no less - Couldn't I? Such was my unassailable logic. So assail away they did, mostly unhindered by me outside of a bothered "Shoo!"
As for the little bites? Au contraire: I'd soon guess they were why scientists invented things like... shots. Antiseptics and antibiotics, too. Sterilized steel. In other words, I soon had a big infection problem. And it only seemed to get worse, too: Even by the time my week-plus stay in Florida was nearly over, I still had SEVEN INFECTED BUG BITES that were winning battles if not the war. Each was growing ever so slightly in size, or would if they weren't drained. Disgusting? Oh yeah.
But by then I had to catch another plane and, just around that time of flying magic (seriously, isn't it amazing that planes fly?), I finally had six under control and on their way out. Hooray! This was great!... except for the other one. That one, on the back of my calf, only had its mind on one thing: growth. By the time it was the size of a quarter a week later in Seattle - late, I admit - I had had enough. This was admittedly about three weeks after any sane person would've opted for drugs.
Worried, I decided to make up for lost time by going to perhaps the best specialist on tropical diseases on the West Coast. I figured this to be the proper thing - and it was. Except he didn't know what the hell it was going on down there. When, after a number of tests, he finally asked me "Have you seen anything crawl out it?" - well, that put me firmly in the antibiotic camp. Give... me... the... drugs! One week later, thusly, it left me for good - spiders, eggs, aliens, and whatever else was inside. Now all I have is a measly scar to show for it, a pitiful pittance of what it gloriously could have been. Like gangrene or death.
Perhaps that experience properly prepped me for contracting POISON OAK shortly later. That one would be a creeper, too, taking a week to establish itself in full bloom. By then it was a bit mysterious, coming seemingly out of nowhere while I was happily ensconced in my home in pedestrian Seattle. But when I suspected what it was - and called my two friends who had helped clear the brush with me on yet another friend's fateful hillside in Hood River, Oregon - we all realized what had happened. We were a miserable three for three.
We'd soon learn what fun this would involve, too - the swelling of skin to its maximum flexpoint, the oozing oils and all - but there was nothing to do but to laugh. Ha, ha. Hmm - that didn't do anything to stop it from sucking big-time. Luckily, poison oak (much like poison ivy) is a known quantity, both in its identification and course of progress. My symptom fit the descriptions to a T, and - woo, woo, hooray - there was literature on the internet to help in offering remedies.
Some of them even worked, too - for a little while. But the most important detail in dealing with the poison was to merely wash EVERYTHING that had possibly touched the plant - or what had touched what had touched it. Which I did, when not otherwise suffering through a week punctuated by merciless scratching. I'd alternate that with subjecting myself to blazing hot water to soothe the itching that would otherwise continue unabated. For all this I additionally got to witness what previously seemed a physical impossibility: I'd get to "enjoy" one brief, steroid-free moment of bulky, stout legs. One would never have thought that any of my limbs could have swelled to such a size, but, well, there they were.
After this happy oaken episode, a reasonable respite from Mother Nature's whims ensued over the next handful of years. In fact, it was a oddly long for me. So I must have decided to not leave well enough alone: Australia called. Yeah, the very continent renowned for the greatest number of things that bite - and eat - humans on a more regular basis than elsewhere in the world had put itself on my to-visit list. Apparently, I could be nothing if not... foolhardy. ("Stupid" sounds so more crass, agreed?)
But, for the most part, I'd do pretty well in Oz as things would go. I managed to not get bitten by a shark, stung by a marine stinger, nor eaten by a crocodile. No dingo got my baby, either. This wasn't a bad run for a place where everyone knows better than to walk along rivers - or swim the least bit out to sea at the wrong time of year. No, it'd once again be the bird and bugs that would do me in, those relentless, sadist nemeses of mine, even if at least the birds had formed the best part of my trip, too. Those moments chiefly came during my first two Oz-ian months, cycling the continent's SE Coast and the island of Tasmania in the company of bellbirds, whipbirds, and kookaburras. If one was to say that there could be a more pleasant soundtrack for rolling through a couple thousand kilometers of eucalyptus-scented countryside, I wouldn't believe it.
No, it'd be their junkyard cousin that'd try to do me in first - the chattering MAGPIE. These were territorial buggers, I'd learn, and on a couple of occasions I'd find out just how much so. Until their first blitzkrieg, though, I thought they had just been Victoria's welcome addition to the aural splendor I was receiving. I'd see them flit in the trees, flashes of back and white, each giving me something new to look at as I emerged from New South Wales coastal forests and entered into Victoria's open, flat Gippsland.
"Hi, little birdie!" I would say. Okay, I'd think that only: I hadn't quite come to the incoherent babbling stage of my cycle tour yet. (That was a month away.) Whatever - they were a pleasure to watch... until w-hack! Man (almost) down! Criminy, what the hell had smacked me so hard in the head? I just about lost control of my bike as I swerved to re-catch my balance, not the easiest thing to do under full, baggage-d gear.
I'd only have a little time to figure what the heck had happened in the meantime. Determining I must have hit a low-lying branch that I had somehow missed - not uncommon in my mountain biking experience - I proceeded to get whacked again. Ow! And these were felt both abruptly and severely with a helmet on, too. But now I at least looked up, spotting the bird in motion. It was circling for another go. Oh no, it wouldn't, I decided: I'd be gone, pedaling for my life. I thus escaped my first magpie encounter. Then, when it next happened a week later, I didn't even consider slowing down to think - I immediately took to flight again. (I'd later learn that some cyclists used fake spikes or pupil-jiggling eyeballs tacked onto the back their helmets much like scarecrows in a field. The jury was out on their efficacy.)
Still, this kind of incident didn't make a lot of sense, not really: Didn't magpies would put their nests in trees? What was the danger from a cyclist? Exactly none - outside of revenge, of course. But PLOVERS made for a completely different story altogether. They'd lay their eggs on the most open of grassy fields, hoping to feign a leg injury if the need came to draw off predators from an easy snack in nesting season. Amazingly, however, this often would work. They should seriously contact a professional actor's union for their exemplary efforts.
Meanwhile, humans aren't the kind of predator that wants to eat plover meat. At least no one I know. And this often bodes well for animals that are cute to look at and don't eat sheep and such. Instead we tend to walk blithely on in complete ignorance of the noble plover, causing no small amount of consternation for and squawking from the confused parent. Unable to figure out why the usual trick wouldn't work on us bipeds, that'd fortunately still be usually good enough. For the most part it wouldn't matter as the two-footed mammal in clothes ambled on to the next place to grab a coffee or hamburger - I mean meat pie!
So it would be, anyway... unless the human got too close to the egg. Then things would necessarily amp up, getting a bit drastic, even - as it did for me. That's how it went down when I found myself passing an unsuspected plover egg on the ground for the umpteenth time, making my way to a dive boat in Port Douglas. As had happened numerous times before, a nearby plover caught my eye with its motion in the way most animals do. Not surprisingly, either, it soon started its by-now commonplace (to me) scene of wounded distress. And to that I did my usual thing - which consisted of ignoring the bleating of the poor parent. This wasn't exactly being callous: I knew the poor thing didn't have anything to worry about.
And that would be as true in this case as in all the others previously. No, it didn't have anything to worry about at all. I did, especially when I must've neared the (still-invisible) egg too much. I'd quickly find that Pearl Harbor had nothing on what was to come next. It started suddenly when I noticed that the plover had "healed" itself, taking to flight. That was odd, I knew, and it got me to look up, too... which was a good thing. Because when it next swooped, now barreling directly toward my chest, that got me to look think "down" instead
Call it reflexes, call it survival instinct, but I hit the deck as the plover slammed through the air space I so recently inhabited. Wow! Standing up, a bit shaken, I then decided to continue my walk - and the plover came in for another run. Wham! This time I bruised myself in the too-quick drop for cover. Up I went. And down I went again. When next up I went, I finally took to flight. This was a habit I really needed to get in touch with sooner by now when dealing with wild animals.
Indeed, hadn't I just done the same thing only a week prior - in Cooktown? Back then, instead of from an obviously distressed bird, I had to run... from the unknown. Only later - when my heart attack had stopped its progress - was I able to determine what was after me: little... green... ants. Okay, they weren't that small. No, the green ants I would experience in Cooktown weren't exactly the little fellows one smushes with the tip of a finger when they get into your cookie jar. The GREEN ANTS of Queensland were big.
Also, as is the wont of an insect that groups in things called colonies, they hung out in big numbers. In the peculiar case of the green ant, they'd ball massive tropical leaves together, forming them into a white, gooey mess that no one in their right mind would want to come near. I certainly didn't. But I was curious. For example, when I saw them in action, in a few spots near the hostel, I respectively kept my distance. I photographed them - but only when using the zoom feature more than one would consider necessarily prudent. They'd find me, anyway, of course - but not there, and not where I could see where I was setting my foot.
But my first encounter with the green ant's defense system would prove sufficient to know that their bite had sufficient sting to it. (That defines "understatement", by the way.) That introductory event came on a day when I volunteered to help an aboriginal crew assisting a forest ranger remove lantana, a non-native bush running rampant in some brush outside of town. When, over the course of the day, I yelped from a sudden bite, the nearest co-workers by me laughed. "You found the green ant!" they said, or something to that effect. Yes, I guessed I had. And with such a bite I hoped that he and his friends - the green ants, that is - would get lost.
But one ant does not proper misery make. That would have to wait until a few days later, when I climbed Mt. Cook. The biggest hill in the near vicinity of Cooktown, I had been taking my time before getting around to walking up it. There had been plenty enough to do with my other walkabouts around the area, each time taking in the lush surroundings - and avoiding any place where a crocodile might be lurking. Only with my impending departure from Cooktown did the hill call my name - and in a very, very proper Australian English I might add. So I set to the task one day.
On the plus side, I knew this wouldn't be a hefty undertaking: It'd only necessitate a couple of hours maximum to ascend (if I remember correctly). I thus plodded through the back side of town with that in mind, dutifully avoiding the wet areas (always thinking of crocodiles) before encountering the trail proper. Right away, I knew that no one had been on the trail for at least for a few days: Spiderwebs had a way of giving that factoid away rather abruptly, like every time I walked through them. I'd learn this the hard way too many times for one hike, even if their impressive spiders - ones called golden orbs, measuring eight or ten centimeters across, harmless - didn't make running into their webs any more pleasant.
Meanwhile I made my way up the hill until, at some point, I didn't - where'd the trail go?, I asked myself. Indeed - where? For the most part the trail had seemed sufficiently distinct, but now it felt like I was only linking together little patches of trail broken with boulders. I'd lost any obvious markings. Next, when I realized that I was starting to descend into a field of ever-larger boulders - on a climb up a mountain, no less - I knew that I was lost. Now what?
Screaming, that's what. Not that I'd ever be able to determine how it happened, though. All I knew was that I suddenly found myself being bitten on what seemed to be every square inch of my body. My face, my neck, my legs, my arms, under my clothes. I swatted like a crazed madman, seemingly only able to put out one - or ten - fires to find another - or twenty - new ones. Aerobic dance, jazzercise, and ashtanga yoga had nothing on these moves. Seriously, I probably burned about one thousand calories in the ensuing minute or two of frantic motion. And topping this I was still lost. So I did what made the most sense - I screamed and ran back the way I had come, slapping myself liberally as the each green ant made itself known, and... Hey!, I found the trail!
Yes, from the other direction it seemed so... obvious. Turn... here. Which I did, right about when the green ants stopped their nonsense. What a shitty twilight zone I had just been in: That road less taken I'd be happy to leave to its own devices. Its secret method for simultaneously raining misery - from all directions - would stay safe. I resumed the climb without a care in the world again, even as continued removing another spider web or seven with my forehead. I'd have some itches to contend with for days as my more lasting memory.
Well, that's the end of my tales of how Mother Nature and her minions have my number - for now. In the meantime I'll have to wonder if I should continue to tempt her further, brandishing my few scars while relating my stories as caution to others about similar brushes with living disasters-in-the-making. I don't really know what to make of all this woe, frankly. So... in the meantime... what to do? Tell you what - I think I'll just go hiking up that trail I saw back there, going somewhere... over there. Surely someone else did it before and survived, no? What could go wrong?
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