Contra Natura

Brooklyn, NY

Trudging through the crowded streets of SoHo, on one of the hopefully last Sundays of this summer that refuses to go away, trying to break down my new oxblood casual boots and shopping for some fall sundries, I end up in REI looking for socks and realize one thing: it’s been a whole summer since I went hiking, more than a handful of Sundays since I put on my woodsman costume and ventured into the honduran wild, many moons since I drenched my clothes in sweat, drank almost three liters of water and felt the blissful exhaustion of yet another escape into the silent, indifferent and yet awe-inspiring depths of nature. Furthermore, I realize I never wrote about my last hikes, and even though silence is much more eloquent when trying to discuss these things more than once, a mixture of sweet nostalgia and poignant regret compel me to explore those adventures.

About a month, or perhaps two, before my actual last hike in Honduras – last as in before spending some time here in NYC with the possibility of moving permanently – we went with the mountaineering federation to the Isla del Tigre: a small island just off the pacific coast of Honduras, part of the Choluteca department and more specifically, within the municipality of Amapala. It began very early at a gas station where Yamil and I met up with three of the mountaineers and their rented mini-bus, followed by a three hour drive from Tegucigalpa to the coast, and then a short but quite beautiful water taxi ride – amidst locals in a very beat up boat – to the island. From the small but surprisingly well maintained pier, we walked with our ridiculous gear under the evermore furious sun of the south of Honduras halfway around the island until we found the little dirt road that, after traversing a couple of miles of ever more scarce houses and crops, becomes a kind of trail spiraling around the mountain itself – which is said to be a dormant volcano. Unlike our hikes in the central areas of the country, dense and green rainforests, this terrain was dry, with withered vegetation, loose gravel, hard rock and a humid and not very refreshing sea breeze; but also unlike the rainforests, which in their density oftentimes offer no other views than that of the perennial green below and blue above, the slowly ascending road offered ever more majestic views of the sea, of the mainland, of the far away mountains that define Honduras, and, close to the summit, even the unfamiliar neighboring terrains in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The ascent took us about three hours, it was extremely hot and tiresome, and I sweat more than I ever did in my life, eventually doffing my long sleeved “lightweight” hiking shirt and just keeping my sleeveless undershirt, plus copious amounts of sunscreen. The top, however, offered the most perfect views we had seen thus far, plus some modern ruins of military operations from the eighties, and even the encounter with a modern hermit: the man whose responsibility is to live alone, with his dogs and donkey, for two weeks out of each month, at the very top of the mountain keeping an eye on a telecom antenna. He welcomed us affably after some initial suspicion when he mistook or preposterous hiking poles for weapons and our garish attire for uniforms. After lunch, photos, socializing, exploring and much needed airing of the feet, we descended. And how I cursed that descent: loose rock which made footing hard on the way up made for slipping and falling hazard on the way down, the pronounced slope which made for strenuous hiking up became an almost slalom in its almost irresistible pull down, the slowly ascending sun of the morning became the worryingly rapid sinking disk of time too precious to lose. The walk to the pier with aching feet and then the drive to get dinner have both a sense of triumph but also a foreshadowing of defeat: this encounter with nature, albeit still beautiful, had the small shadow of the cruelty of unwelcome strain. And yet, the exhilaration of adventure – and the camaraderie of friends whom are safe and ecstatic, dispels the shadow in the end.

A couple of months later, with a couple smaller adventures in between, including an afternoon learning to rappel and rock climb in the El Picacho park in Tegucigalpa, I join the mountaineers yet again for a wilder adventure. This time we left on a Friday afternoon from Tegucigalpa north to Comayagua, to the house of one of the mountaineers’ family in a small town – where we made dinner, explored a bit and theorized with no actual evidence that maybe some shady money had taken residence in the very small town because it was on the way from the El Salvador border and it was incredibly well maintained, better than the big cities, and went to sleep early to wake up at four. A breakfast of instant milk and whole grain cereal, and a loperamide pill to force my body to skip its daily bowel ritual, we hopped on the back of a truck on our two and a half hour drive deep into the country, towards the Montaña de Comayagua national park, a little known park that spans vast expanses of the deepest mountainous area in the center of Honduras. After a bumpy and slightly chilly, we arrived at around 8 am to meet with our guides, two kind older men who, not dressed like hiking clowns but instead clad in jeans and rubber boots like the true farmers of our land, and only carrying machetes and one small water bottle, eagerly took us on the trails towards the first waterfall while telling us all about the park. The first couple of hours were pleasant: on easy terrain, surrounded by the familiar rainforest of a national park, at once wild and tame because of the trails, though made slightly wilder by the guides who told us about the “palo brujo”, a tree that will cast a curse on you if you hit it or even touch it by giving you a swollen face and untimely death lest you go back, ask for forgiveness and permission to take a piece of its root to make into a tea, and by the time we reached the waterfall and were told that this is where the trail ended and we’d have to bushwhack our way to the actual summit, a sense of dread that had slowly been brewing hit me: I was just four days away from my trip to NYC, exposed to witch trees, ticks, snakes or boars, the risk of injury, the risk of being attacked by people or involved in a car accident on our way back to the city, and from then on, what in different circumstances would’ve been an exercise in abandoning myself to my skill to stay unscathed in the midst of mother nature and instead letting her enfold me, became a deep distrust of every step, an eagerness for it to be over, an apprehension that dampened every second thereafter. But I pushed on, trying to bring my wandering, anxious, mind back to the present, taking precautionary measures like dousing myself and my gear in insect repellent and not unzipping my gaiter pants no matter how hot it got, trying to be there for the demanding ascent on a forest thicker than I’d ever seen – because I was in it as opposed to isolated by a man-made trail – on a mountain steeper than I’d ever trod on. The hours dissolved in this mixture of wildest greenery and darkest anxiety, with the heights of adventure and the lows of fear making every meter up ominous. All 2,600 meters to the summit. And when we got there, exhausted, and yet humbled by the true hike we’d just embarked upon, we sighed with relief when we finally stopped seeing upward slopes: all around us, there was only the way down, we had made it to the summit. This time there were no beautiful vistas from a barren landscape, only short peeks of the majesty of the seemingly infinite mountain above and the impenetrable green below. The way down, also, was more than I’d ever known: long, treacherous, extremely steep, with rotten trees that broke as soon as one, desperately, sough their support, with thorns that lay low and made for both a snare and a painful warning of a misstep, with passages where the only sensible strategy, given the angle of the terrain, was to slide in the mud and duck for the overhanging thorns, a couple of hours going down – this was about seven or eight hours into the whole hike – a fury stemming from my anxiety made me go from carefully planting my feet on each step to throwing myself against it all: cutting anything on my way with the norwegian knife that T gave me which I hadn’t used thus far, trying to catch up with the vanguard party which always left me behind, desperate to feel level ground again, ground that wasn’t full of foliage, full of brush, full of a mother nature that no longer was more welcoming than indifferent: this was the true nature of the world, nurturing in the higher sense, but cruel and alien in the immediate. In the end, it took us ten hours to go up and back down to the car. And only the last hour, with sore feet, emptying water reserves and one member of the party – surprisingly not me, I was actually in good health and even somewhat good spirits – feeling dehydrated and more sore than he could bear. There was the exhilaration of conquer, there were even beautiful views of sunset from more open and more level farmland grounds below, there was open camaraderie on the drive back to the little town to pick up our sleeping supplies and then, at night, to the city, but there was also a defeat that had reared its head but not occurred before: the anger against nature, against our bravado of thinking we’d be able to truly conquer her, against our having to gear up to approach her in any serious manner, against my having to be overly cautious because of a trip where I had to seem urban and unsullied and unharmed, against, perhaps, having to attack a summit instead of just meander upwards with no regard for sunsets or sunrises, for days to come and days gone, for ticks in our gear, for mosquito bites, for sunburns, for blisters, for the onslaught of “why am I here”, the “why do I do this to myself”, the “why do I risk not seeing my family, the woman I love, my life, for some green, blue, eternals”. And in the end, with this nostalgia for that anger, I wonder if I prefer it to the anger of the city, for the against against nature of the crowd and its buildings, and yet, this is exactly what I was trying to preserve myself for, that which I pined for, up there in the mountain, defeated, but also, perhaps, at least for a little bit, victorious over my self who wanted to conquer, who wanted to trade a tomorrow for a today.