Being from upstate New York and living in Vermont for ten years, I have always been affiliated with mountains. I love hiking as much as I love chocolate, bacon and gin. Perhaps even more so when you get to the top and there’s a sweeping vista for you to sigh happily at. There was a time in my early twenties when I was obsessively hiking once a week, a new mountain each time. I would have competitions with myself to see how fast I could hike up and then I would literally jog down. The faster I ran down the mountain the better I felt. It was a stress release and my lungs were so happy and content with me back then.
I went to Boquete, Panama for a little visit with the intention of doing some serious hiking followed by bathing in the hot springs outside of town (well not literally bathing, perhaps lounging is the better verb). I hadn’t been hiking since last summer in the Adirondacks. For all the yoga I’ve been practicing, it’s not exactly cardio work and I will be the first to admit that, although I may be able to do a headstand or balance on one foot for a few minutes, this does not mean I excel with cardio endurance. I was craving a hike though, a hard one with a damn fine view at the top. I had read about Volcán Barú outside of Boquete, a whopping 11,398 feet. About a ten hour hike, you can climb it starting at midnight, watch the sunrise and hike down in time for brunch. Easy, right?
I eagerly signed up to take the hike with three other people that I would meet later that night and was warned that it was difficult, slightly unforgiving, but the view at the top afforded a vista of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the only mountain in the world where this is possible, in fact. And to top it all off, a sunrise to boot.
At 11:30 PM, I walked the few blocks over to another hostel to meet my fellow hikers and take a shuttle to the trailhead. The four of us set off at midnight to an almost full moon. I had a headlamp on but it was almost unnecessary as the moon lit the way. Huffing and puffing immediately, I realized I needed to pace myself if I was going to be hiking for the next ten hours. The lungs I once had when I was hiking weekly eight or nine years ago have perhaps been marred by concentrating heavily on yoga rather than cardio work. Sure you work on breathing in yoga but you aren’t doing sun salutation while simultaneously jogging up a volcano. It’s different work on your lungs.
|Stopping for a food break two hours in|
Because there was no cloud cover at that point I was optimistic about seeing both coasts and the sunrise. It felt slightly unsettling and very surreal to begin a hike at midnight. It felt strange getting to know three strangers under the cover of darkness and coming to know the sound of their voices better than their physical appearance. The only other time I’ve ever hiked in the middle of the night was in Alaska during the summer. My friend, Chris, and I hiked more for the novelty of taking photos of his watch with daylight in the background. Also surreal but in a completely different way. There was also the threat of bears in Alaska, no such threat on Barú.
Two hours into the hike and my hips and lower back were starting to scream. I began to wonder what I had so enthusiastically signed up for. Not having hiked any mountains since last summer, I wondered if I was a little overzealous in choosing an arduous hike up a volcano where you could quite possibly get dizzy and light headed from altitude sickness (especially considering the hikes I’ve done in New York and Vermont cap off at about 5,000 feet). On Barú you start the hike at about 5,900 feet so you’re hiking around 6,000 feet in the middle of the night. Occasionally, there were some declines or the path flattened out entirely but mostly you’re hiking up with every switchback offering another steep incline. Every corner I rounded, the volcano seemed to say, “Oh, you didn’t get enough uphill on that bit, well here’s some more, sucker.” I regretted not bringing a fancy chocolate bar with me, something to treat myself with as a celebration for getting to the top of this beast. The higher we got, the more I thought not only would chocolate be wonderful but also several bottles of red wine to heat the insides.
|Stunning view from the top|
There wasn’t much of a respite in the climb. The path was rocky, threatening to twist your ankle if you didn’t watch carefully. It’s strange but I almost felt like I was drifting forward in a dream. Your body is wondering what the hell you’re doing at three in the morning summiting a volcano instead of sleeping and it’s sheer will power that drives you forward, not energy. There were points where I just closed my eyes and continued plodding one slow foot in front of the other, opening my eyes every so often to make sure I wasn’t veering off into the woods. It’s interesting the place your body goes when you’re that physically exhausted, the place your mind goes. You start to wonder if you’re even really there. You start to think about how comfortable your bunk bed is back in the dorm room at the hostel down in town, amidst eleven other strangers snoring and farting in their sleep. You start to question your sanity with beginning a hike at midnight when normally you’re in bed by 10 PM.
I started to think about physical endurance, what we put our bodies through by choice, hiking up a volcano for a view, timing your headstand to see if you can be upside down for five full minutes, a laboring woman giving birth. And what about when our heart is broken over the death of something, a person, a relationship, a shitty situation. What mountains do we climb emotionally to move past it? And then I thought about forgiveness. Forgiving others for how they may have wronged you, betrayed you, stole the better of you and you spent so long retrieving those lost parts that it took every ounce of energy to gather your stones and build a better you again. Was it all as hard as this hike on a metaphysical plane? Well, yes, I thought to myself.
The higher we climbed the colder and windier it got and the less likely it looked that the morning would be clear. We reached the top around 5:30 AM and I was about ready to curl into a ball and dream of a warm bed in a room where there was no frigid wind blowing. We situated ourselves against a building where luckily we were out of the wind for the most part. Someone had very intelligently thought to bring a sleeping bag and we spread it out on our laps while huddling together for warmth to wait out the sunrise. The prospects of seeing any kind of view were as bleak as the prospects of consuming red wine at the top of this bloody volcano as the fog up there was such that you couldn’t see beyond about 100 feet. Dammit, I thought, where the hell is my chocolate bar and my glass of body warming red wine? I mean, who doesn’t want these two items at 6AM, right?
|Every attempt to keep warm|
We huddled together for about a half hour, all four of us drifting in and out of sleep as exhaustion seeped through our resting bones. Unfortunately, it looked like there wasn’t going to be a view of any kind. Collectively, we agreed to head back down knowing it would take four to five hours to descend. My knees immediately started to ache. Although, ache is a word that doesn’t do justice. Every step down felt like a sledgehammer banging one knee cap and then the other over and over again. I thought back to my earlier ponderings on relationships and getting over things. You reach the peak and it’s all downhill from there but even in the descending from something, in the letting go and moving on, it’s still painful, even when you finally pass the hump and you know the end is in sight. And what can you resurrect? What can you manifest from that pain? How can you take whatever blinding awful shit you had to go through to get to where you are in this moment and turn it into something positive? We go through pain on a daily basis and come out the other side a different person. This volcano hike was just a microcosm of all the ways humans suffer and then surpass the suffering and are renewed in some way. Nature, in it’s primordial way, has been my savior too many times to count. But usually, it doesn’t embody itself within the absolute physical discomfort of my knees.
|I was having an inward mental breakdown at this point|
I kept having to stop and sit down, with each rest making it more difficult to traverse forward. The
others were ahead of me most of the hike down and probably better for that. I mentioned earlier the places you go mentally on a hike like this. At this point in the morning after hiking for upwards of ten arduous hours, I began muttering out loud to myself, wincing every time I used my knees which, obviously, was every tiny movement my legs made. I wondered if there was a Panamanian shepherd tending to his flock near the path overhearing me talking to myself cursing the volcano and whimpering about when the hell this stupid hike was going to end. I can laugh about it now but at the time, I was holding back tears, my knees were in excruciating pain and I was saying things out loud like, “This stupid fucking volcano, why the hell did I hike up here? You don’t even have a stupid view at the top! I’m done with this shit, when the hell is this fucking hike going to end?” Perhaps not the sanest of my moments in life but some very authentic moments nonetheless. Also, considering I had known my fellow hiking partners for all of ten hours, I wasn’t about to fall apart in front of them. And it’s probably better that I wasn’t with close friends because had I allowed myself to really lash out, perhaps those friends would no longer want to be defined as such. If you know me well and have seen how bitterly angry I get when I’m really hungry, imagine that times one hundred. Probably best that I kept my mouth shut when I was in the company of my new three hiking amigos.
By the time we reached the bottom, I was in such agonizing pain that I was ready to turn around and give Barú both my middle fingers. I was having a hard time appreciating all the beautiful scenery I took in during the daylight. My appreciation blighted by my physical pain. Christ, I thought, I’m only 30. Is this normal??
A taxi took us back to our respective hostels and I beelined it to the dorm room with tunnel vision for my lower bunk bed. I stuck earplugs in my ears and put a t-shirt over my eyes (two little tricks of the hostel living trade). Screw the shower, screw breakfast. I wanted deep, deep, unconscious sleep. There could have been a cock fight going on in the dorm room and I would have slept through it. How perfect it would be to get that kind of sleep every night. However, if I have to climb a 11,398 foot volcano with no darn view at the top on account of fog, screw it.
I woke up late in the afternoon and stumbled out of bed, staggering towards the door to get some water in the kitchen. For the next three or four days I would walk like a newborn foal attempting to stand for the first time. Stairs would take me ten times as long to climb and lowering myself to a seated position would take the better part of an hour. Is this perhaps what a ninety year old, arthritic woman feels like? I would think this to myself many times. Other hostel dwellers would laugh at my feeble attempts to move my legs in general and the owner of the hostel would do an impression of me likening my moves to that of the tin man in Wizard of Oz. “I told you not to go on that hike! Everyone who goes on it loses a day because they need to sleep and there’s rarely a view at the top!” I would agree with him and have very mixed feelings on what to say to newcomers at the hostel who arrived in Boquete just to hike Barú. I would keep my mouth shut for the most part and let my general weak physical appearance do the talking. Let them watch me grip the banister as I attempted to walk down the stairs cringing with every minute movement of my body, an entire hours worth of time going by before I reached the bottom.
Was it worth it? I’m not sure. If weather was predictable and you were guaranteed a view at the top, then yes, it would have been worth it. Was it worth it because I got a great story out of it? Maybe. Was it worth it for all the life pondering metaphors sprinkling this page that I came up with while hiking? Perhaps. Will I do it again on the clearest and sunniest of days? Never. Never. Ever. Again.
|I stopped in my painful revelry long enough to spot this bird and capture it via photo|