Monday, November 24, 2008

Cajon de Maipo Part II

Continued from Part I

...I wanted to be prepared for anything...

As I made my way up the mountain, slipping and sliding in my stupid tennis shoes (what was I thinking!), I thought of the stories that my parents had told me: our neighbor falling and hitting his head and having to be led out of the forest by his son, their friend going off on a morning run without telling them where she was headed (fool!), people found wandering in the forest after being lost for weeks. I reasoned that the front desk knew I was going up there, though, now that I think about it, they wouldn’t have missed my absence, just the absence of the key they had given me to open the gate into the private habitat.

My opportunities for gorgeous shots were plenty—the silver lining to this dangerous hiking trip.

With map in hand, I wound around the hills and through groves that contained millions of cicadas. I’ve been on so many hikes, I’ve lost count, but I have never, in all my life, heard and seen this many cicadas. They were so plentiful, they roared like a cataract. I walked through the bushes and would disturb the branches, making thousands of them fly up and around my face. When they’d pass by my ears, it would be like a motorcycle driving by my head. I was totally grossed out. I ended up covering my ears while I walked.

I made it to the top, called Mirador, far past where I had expected to walk. Again, the views were amazing:

It was not until I began the hike down that I realized that my tennis shoes were going to be the death of me. I fell twice on my butt, both times catching my body with my hands. I felt my wrists take the impact of my body, and I was thankful that I had been doing push ups (though the girl kind) every day and yoga. I would have injured my wrists had my arms been weaker. Scratched by every kind of thorny bush that seemed to all exist on that cursed mountain, hot and sunburned, dusty and now slightly bruised, I was very ready to get down the mountain, at any price.

I was almost back to the bridge when I heard the dogs barking. I saw two of them around the corner and felt relief. I figured someone was walking their dogs up the hill. But then, something about the way the dogs were barking at me made me stop. There was no human with them. These dogs were not the lovable kind. I stared long and hard at them as I slowly pulled my pack around and pulled out my pepper spray.

Then one ran right at me, its teeth bared, growling, low to the ground, hunting me. I stared because I could not fully understand what was happening. Were these coyotes? Were these wolves? Some kind of unidentified fox? They didn't seem to be dogs; they were so wild.

I had heard that if you ever see a mountain lion you’re supposed to make yourself look as big as possible so I pulled my backpack above my head and roared. The dog backed away a little but saw that I had not hurt it and began its attack again. I screamed, I cried for help, I growled. It was then that I really felt I was in trouble. They were blocking the trail down the mountain, and I had no energy to go back up. I didn’t want to back away for fear I would trigger their attack drive further. I knew I couldn’t outrun them. I had to go through.

I don’t know why I didn’t use the pepper spray right away. I guess I felt it was a last resort. It would be admitting just how much trouble I was really in. When the second dog joined the first and tried to circle around me, I knew it was time to use the pepper spray. My hand was shaking terribly. It was me or them. I sprayed, first a little spritz because I had never used the pepper spray before. They only backed off a little so I sprayed more and prayed that the wind wouldn’t blow it back in my face. Little by little, they gave way, and I inched forward, them still barking with a ferocity I had never seen in a dog before. I never turned my back to them, and I had my eye on them for a long time as I walked down the mountain. I was ready for a surprise attack through the trees, for them to silently hunt me. But the pepper spray had begun to burn their noses and eyes, and suddenly I was more like a skunk or porcupine, not worth the effort of the hunt.

I felt strangely numb after that. Shaky. On edge. Around the bend, I came across two cowboys coming up the mountain on their horses. Why hadn’t they heard my cries for help? I tried to warn them in my bad Spanish.

“There are two dogs up there. They were barking at me. They attacked me.”

The guy said, “Those are perros vagos. They are friends to man. They bark but they don’t do anything.”

I couldn’t believe that was all he said. I said nothing, but I thought, “Friend to man when man has gigantic horses with him, when a man isn’t a vulnerable woman alone on a hike.”

The reaction was the same at the registration desk. No reaction at all. I felt like they thought I was lying. Or wondered why I was complaining if I was standing there completely unharmed. I wouldn’t have even bothered but I was worried they would give that same bullshit line to some other woman alone. Would she have pepper spray too?

Given the reactions of the employees there, I felt like maybe I had dreamed the whole thing, except for my upper lip which burned from where I had touched my face after using the pepper spray. Traces must’ve been left on my hand.

I walked back to the hostel, weak, tired and embarrassed. After a quick shower and time spent reading quietly on the patio, I went to the pool. As I swam in the pool, surrounded by the few families and couples there, I felt more lonely than I ever have. My traumatic hike, which was supposed to be a triumphant solo experience, had only served to remind me that I was alone and 30 and not capable of doing everything on my own. Or maybe, it proved that I was capable of doing everything on my own, including defending my life, but it made me acutely aware that I didn’t want to do it alone.

I didn’t want to do this life alone.

I wanted more than anything at that moment to find “the one” and just be done with this whole single business. Traveling alone was never in my dreams. It has been a product of my determination not to be limited by being a single woman and circumstances that have led me to singlehood.

I was in such a state by that night that I found myself staring at the ceiling of my hostel bedroom, thumbing through my music on my iPod and wishing A would call. Wishing anyone would call.

But, as I listened to some of the fun and lighthearted music I had downloaded just before I left for Chile, I was reminded again of my New Year's resolution to have more fun. It was then that I laughed. It was the first time I had laughed since I had arrived, and the sound surprised me. This was such a ridiculous trip! I was not having fun here! This trip was a bust!

This simple idea helped me fall asleep that night. I decided that the following day, I would go on a horseback ride if I felt like it (and if there were going to be people), and if not, I would go home and forget all about this trip.

Luckily, I met some Jehovah’s witnesses who were staying in the cabins in the back of the hostel on Saturday morning. They spoke English and were from America, and I felt so happy that I decided I would sign up for the horseback riding after all. I thought it was appropriate that I was given the horse named Milagro (or Miracle). I felt that it was a good sign.

We took the same trail I had hiked the day before. I wanted to see those dogs again, only so I could prove that I hadn’t made them up. But soon, I forgot about the dogs and focused on making sure my horse didn’t walk off the mountain. Considering my experience the day before, I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

By the time we returned to the hostel, I was feeling much better. Human interaction is so important, isn’t it? This is me with one of the horse guides, Leo.

I decided to stay Saturday night as I had originally planned and spent the rest of Saturday at the pool and in the back of the hostel reading.

If I had been stressed before I’d left, the reading and the pool would have been the perfect weekend. But it was too tranquil for me…and when it wasn’t tranquil, it was traumatic. I was either fearing I would die from mauling or my horse tripping off the cliff or that I would die from sheer boredom.

Several lessons have presented themselves to me which I will recap here:
1. Don’t hike alone (yes, mom and dad, you did tell me so).
2. Don’t go to camping-like resorts alone (it’s really, really boring).
3. Sign up ahead of time for group tours and activities (see number 2 when in doubt).
4. Just because I am physically capable of doing something, doesn’t mean I should do it. (see number 1 when in doubt).
5. Figure out how to get along with men so someone else can protect me for awhile.
6. Take self-defense classes in the event that I am unsuccessful with number 5.

On Sunday morning, I finished the book I had been reading out on the patio. I then quickly grabbed a colectivo and was back at home by the afternoon. It felt so good to be able to talk with my roommates. I called my brother to wish him a happy birthday. I hung out and watched a movie in the evening.

But even with all interaction, the residual feelings of the weekend were with me as I crawled into bed. A loneliness clung to me. It felt like something in me had cracked open when I had pushed the pepper spray button, like the last of my youthful illusions of immortality had died. A realization that my life, our lives, are so vulnerable, terribly at the mercy of the caprices of nature.

That incident on the mountain had made me lonely for all the things that haven’t happened to me yet—all the children I have not had, the relationships yet to be woven, the experiences of a lifetime yet to be lived. I longed to live life sped up on fast forward so that I could be reassured that my most profound wishes will come true—that I will be married, have a family, that I will live long and be fulfilled, that I will die of old age in my bed.

But, that doesn’t always happen, does it?

Que te vaya bien (and go buy pepper spray ladies!),
C in C


TAD said...

That was an AWESOME story - before I head off to buy pepper spray, I thought it interesting that in your post - home is actually your Chilean home not the CA home. I did a double take and thought you were coming back to Cali after the dog incident. ;)

La Gringuita said...

Oh Cathy! Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I so appreciated your honesty about your loneliness and feelings of loss and disappointment, but I loved how you were able to laugh at yourself from that point, and learn a few things from the experience! Go you!

This story reminds me of an anecdote my friend told me this week. A guy she has been interested in for 5 years just got a girlfriend, and she felt like she had just been dumped. She didn't, or couldn't, cry about it, until she got locked in her bedroom due to the doorknob falling off, and she realized she just wanted somebody to be her partner through all this ridiculousness. But the acknowledgement of the ridiculousnessness caused her much laughter, and a resolve to buy a new cool doorknob, and the willingness to just keep on keepin' on.

Keep on going, Miss Cathy; you are strong as steel but ultimately deserving of a fantastic partner to live life with, and go on hikes with.