So we’re back in the US for the summer. I meant to mention this a while ago, but we scheduled a break in our trip so I could come back and teach Bio for the summer, and it turns out Zach has a job again too. So I’m in Pittsburgh, and he’s in Ohio, and we haven’t seen a single deadly snake or an ocean for at least a month now.
I did mean to post some pictures from our last week in Costa Rica, however, and explain how we did not get killed by a shovel-wielding mass murderer. So! In the spirit of better late than never…
We said a fond goodbye to Frank and Jan at the end of May, and set off towards the Poas Volcano and the Caribbean coast. Our plan was to stop overnight in a town just outside of San Jose, so we would have all of the next day to navigate the brain-melting traffic of the nation’s capital. We’d hoped to spend the night camping in a national park, but the only one along our path, Tapanti, was described as ‘the coldest, wettest park in Costa Rica.’ So the new plan was to take the road through the park to one of the many hotels on the other side.
We’ve had some less-than-ideal experiences with maps on this trip. We have OpenStreetMap on our GPS, which is kind of like a Wikipedia for maps; users upload map data, and constantly correct and refine the information. For populated areas, particularly touristy areas, it is absolutely amazing. It showed some tracks in the US more precisely than Google, and often listed helpful stores or hotels. However, for places that no one has uploaded yet, the map can show nothing at all, even if you’re clearly standing in the middle of a good-sized town. We also have a big paper map for each country, and in Mexico we even had copies of all the pertinent pages from one of those fancy atlases.
Mexico, however, was the first red flag. Most days, I navigated, and Zach drove. Theoretically I had the easier job, considering the booby-trapped state of Mexican roads and the drivers who clearly believed they were going to a better place as soon as they could escape this particular mortal coil. But as the miles passed, it became increasingly obvious that not only did our three maps not match each other, they also seemed to arbitrarily take turns being wrong. Sometimes the GPS would be spot-on and the two paper maps would be useless. Other times, the GPS showed us plowing across the unmarked countryside, following a road that only one paper map would acknowledged the existence of.
So when we planned our shortcut through the Tapanti Park, we checked several maps. Look, I even learned how to make a screen capture just so I could show you a picture of Google’s map!
We wanted to take the road through the park, but first – was it on the GPS? Check! Was it on the paper map? Check! Awesome!
Surely you can see where this is going…
By the time we finally stopped in the middle of our ‘road,’ unwilling to go any further, we were two miles into the park, it had begun to rain, and it was almost dark. Our poor, valiant truck was pointed down a steep incline, and when we got out to investigate what lay around the bend I almost busted my butt trying to stand on the slick red clay. We’d already driven (slid) down a series of hills that did not look at all promising for escape back the way we’d come, but the one we’d finally parked on was the longest and steepest yet.
We inched carefully around a ninety-degree turn in the road, which (naturally) had a lovely drop-off on the outside edge, and saw a dark shadow in the road ahead. As we got closer, it resolved itself into a ditch. A ditch far deeper than our tires, sloped alarmingly towards the drop-off, and leaving nowhere near enough room for us to pass on either side.
The good news, at that point, was that there was no decision left to be made. Unable to go either backwards or forwards, we pulled the tent out of the truck, set it up in the one grassy flat spot available, and fell asleep to the sound of the incessant rain and the distant howler monkeys.
The next morning we awoke to the good news that not only had the rain stopped but our truck had not disappeared in a mudslide overnight. We also discovered that we were apparently marooned in the set of the Lost World. Weird, twisty trees loomed out of the mist, flocks of silent birds wheeled overhead, and there wasn’t another person in sight.
The ditch looked just as impassable by the light of day, but we figured that if need be would could fill it in to get past that one part. We were just a mile from the end of the road, so we set out on a scouting mission to see if we were indeed almost through the worst of it. It started off well, a grassy path winding along next to a sheep field, but only a few hundred feet in it went downhill quickly (HA!)
Well. Clearly forward wasn’t an option. How about backward? We walked back to the truck. I swear it looked reproachful as we clambered up the slippery hill towards it.
After walking back and forth a few times and trying fruitlessly to think of other options, we shoved the sand-tracks under the tires and Zach climbed into the cab.
I have few regrets in my life, but now added to that short list is the tragic fact that I did not turn the camera on video for what came next. I’d put it away, thinking that I would be needed to walk along next to the truck, pointing out potholes and giving steering advice as she slowly crept upwards. Instead, the truck gave a groan, the wheels caught the sand-tracks, and that truck went SHOOTING up that hill like a racehorse out of the gate. It skidded left, then right, then perilously close to the cliff edge, and made it almost to the top before the tires started to spin and she came to a stop.
After we’d finished our celebratory whooping and hollering and went back to staring at the truck, wondering how we were going to get it the rest of the way up the hill, a little dog with enormous floppy ears and a mangy coat showed up. He seemed friendly, so we assumed he had an owner, and sure enough a few moments later a man came over the hill.
I feel like my memory of what this guy actually looked like isn’t too reliable at this point, but there were definitely far fewer than the normal number of teeth, and enormous work boots flapped untied around his sockless feet. I think there was an unsettling gleam in his eyes even at the start, but I may be adding that part in hindsight. Over the next few hours, he hung out with us, trying his darndest to be helpful, and explaining repeatedly that if it started raining again we’d be stuck there until the dry season. He also said that the year before, another car had tried to go even further than we had, and they had to get a tow truck to pull them out, and (if I understood his Spanish correctly) THAT got stuck and a second tow truck came to rescue them both.
His dog moved with the shade of the truck every time we gained a few feet, but wouldn’t come near the guy when he called.
Finally, apropos of nothing, he turned to me and said, “You know there was a serial killer here in Costa Rica in the eighties.”
“No, I never heard anything about that.”
“Yes, he was a very bad guy. He killed fifty people.”
“Well, good thing he’s gone now.”
“No, they never caught him. He just disappeared.” (long pause) “But he’s still alive. I know who he is. I’m the only one who knows.”
(another long pause, wherein I pretend to be REALLY focused on whatever the heck I was doing.)
“Usually, he would find travelers lost in the woods. A couple, like you, they would get lost, and then they would never be seen again. Does that scare you?”
“Nope! We’re both really strong. And really good fighters. Besides, I’d just cut his head off with our big… shovel…” and here I trail off with the realization that the stout, six foot long shovel in question is currently in his possession.
He laughs. We laugh. The subject changes, and I reclaim the shovel as soon as he sets it down.
Over the next few hours, we slowly gain about a quarter of a mile. We were unbelievably lucky that the sun shone all morning, as the rapidly-drying mud was probably the only thing that got us out of there. Our helper hung out all afternoon, getting increasingly annoyed when we wouldn’t take his suggestions. At one point, he took our tow chain and tried to wrap it through the wheels, explaining irately that he was older than us and therefore knew better and we had to listen to him.
But finally, the sun and the sand-tracks combined to give us our last boost to freedom and we were back on the road, creeping slowly up hills covered, miraculously, with gravel, and laughing with relief at our good fortune.