So this entry was supposed to be about 2/3rds of the way through our trip, but I think it has turned out to be the last one. Not for any tragic reasons! But we came back to the US for a month so I could teach summer school, and while we were there Zach got a job offer that was too good to pass up. So now I’m in Pittsburgh, and he’s in Ohio, and we haven’t seen a deadly snake or heard a howler monkey or almost stepped on a poison dart frog for at least a month now.
I did want to post one last entry, however, to explain how we did not get killed by a shovel-wielding mass murderer.
At the end of May we hugged Jan and Frank goodbye and set off towards the Poas Volcano and the Caribbean coast. The plan was to stop overnight in a town just outside of San Jose, so we would have the entire next day to really savor the brain-melting traffic of the nation’s capital. We had hoped to spend that night camping, but the only national park along our path was Tapanti, ‘the coldest, wettest park in Costa Rica.’ So the new plan became to take the road through the park to one of the many hotels on the other side.
Maps in Central America suck. We have three different maps, one electronic and two paper, all of which contradict each other and none of which is consistently right. Navigation is the second hardest part of driving down here. (Second only to the actual act of driving, and trying to avoid both the booby-traps (who needs sewer covers on a highway? Not Honduras!) and your fellow drivers, who clearly believe they were going to a better place and appear to be in one hell of a hurry to shuffle off this particular mortal coil.)
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! They all agree – awesome!
map? Check! They all agree! Awesome!
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 too dark to see past our headlights. Our poor, valiant truck was pointed down a steep incline, and when we got out to investigate what lay around the bend I almost fell – the road was pure rain-slick red clay.
We inched carefully around a ninety-degree turn in the road, and saw a long dark shadow in the path 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.
The good news, at that point, was that there was no decision left to be made. Backwards up a mile of clay hills in the dark wasn’t happening. Forward through the ditch was completely impossible. We couldn’t sleep in the truck, because it was at a 30-degree angle, (and also because I was a little worried it would slide right off the mountain in the middle of the night), so we pulled the tent and sleeping bags out of the truck, hiked down the road until we found a grassy flat spot, and fell asleep to the sound of the incessant rain and the distant howler monkeys.
The next morning we awoke to find that the rain had stopped, the truck was right where we’d left it, and we seemed to be on a movie set for some prehistoric adventure movie. Weird, twisty trees poked out of the mist, flocks of silent birds wheeled overhead, and we were the only humans in sight.
The ditch looked even worse by the light of day, but we figured that maybe we could fill it in to get past that one part. We were just a mile from the end of the road (according to our traitorous maps) so we set off downhill to see if we were indeed almost through the worst of it.
We were not.
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.
Backwards involved going uphill on wet clay too slippery to walk on, without a turnaround for about half a mile. Forwards featured a five-foot deep ditch. After walking back and forth a few more times and debating which horn of our dilemma was less likely to get us killed, we wedged the sand-tracks under the tires and put the truck in reverse.
I have few regrets in my life, but now added to that short list is my failure to 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 Zach crept slowly upwards. Because I am from the city and have no clue how to get a stuck truck unstuck. Instead, the truck gave a groan, the wheels caught the sand-tracks, and she went SHOOTING up that bumpy hill like a goosed racehorse. 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.
This was going to be easy! I slid-ran down to grab the sand-tracks and we set them up under the wheels again. Nothing happened. We scootched them a little further under the treads. They spun fruitlessly.
As we stared at the truck in exasperation, a floppy, mangy little dog came over the hill. A minute behind him came the first human we’d seen since yesterday afternoon.
I feel like my memory of what this guy actually looked like isn’t too reliable at this point. There were definitely fewer than the average number of teeth, an odd assortment of shirts and coats, and pants that were decidedly dirt-colored. Enormous work boots flapped untied around his sockless feet. I think there was an unsettling gleam in his eyes even at the start, but imagination may be adding that detail.
The part I do remember very clearly was that his dog, who had come up for scratches and seemed happy to see us, would not go anywhere near him.
In Spanish, he told us that he’d seen our truck go by last night and he’d wondered where the heck we thought we were going. He seemed delighted by our stupidity, and equally determined not to leave until we did. Over the next few hours, as we painstakingly squealed up the hill inch by inch, he alternated between actually being helpful, making terrible suggestions that would have broken our truck (and loudly declaring that we had to listen to him because he was older than us) and explaining repeatedly that if it started raining again we’d be stuck there until the dry season. He 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 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 still wouldn’t come near the guy.
Finally, as we paused to catch our breath, 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 twenty-three people.”
“Well, good thing he’s gone now.”
“No, they never caught him. He just disappeared.”
(long, thoughtful pause)
“But he’s still alive. I know who he is. I’m the only one who knows.”
“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?”
“NO! We’re both really strong. And really good fighters. Besides, I’d cut his head off with our big… shovel…” and here I trail off as I look over and remember that our stout, six foot long shovel is currently in his gnarly hands.
He laughs. We laugh. The subject changes, and I reclaim the shovel as soon as he sets it down and do not let it go for the next two hours.
We finally figured out that we had to clean the mud out of the sand-tracks every time we used them, and as the sun climbed higher the mud dried up a little bit we started to gain yards instead of inches with every attempt. Finally, in the early afternoon, we backed into the turnaround and pulled forward onto a gravel road, covered in red clay, hollering with triumph, and acutely relieved to not have been murdered with a shovel.