When I started working for my current counterpart I expressed interest in working in one of the more isolated communities of the Parish where I live. The Parish consists of over thirty small pueblos with locations ranging from the warm jungle of the subtropics, to the frigid barren tundra of the Paramo. Naturally I chose to work in the Paramo because who doesn’t enjoy some good frostbite? Amiright? Unfortunately, many of these communities can only be reached by 4×4, motorcycle or horseback. Due to this transportation challenge, the villages are often overlooked when providing health care, education and basic amenities such as water. Determined to bring awareness to this injustice and motivated by my love of protecting the environment, I entered into negotiations with my boss and secured myself a bio-fueled, wicked fast, super modern pony named Callus. Three weeks of training rides, a very expensive saddle, a helmet the locals call my “gringo casco” and a calloused backside later, I was ready to take on a tricky journey to a community at 14,000 feet up a local mountain trail. What could go wrong?
I started the ride optimistic and feeling a lot like I was in an old gaucho movie. It was just me, my badass pony and the dirt road, traveling through the ancient, energetic Andes. It was nothing short of magical and as the sun shone on my bare arms, I felt overwhelmed by how incredible my life was in that moment. After about an hour we began our ascent into the Paramo region and the weather began to take a turn for the worse. I had asked the locals back in town how to get to the short-cut trail directly up the mountain, but due to the ominous clouds I decided to proceed onto the main trail and go the long way round as I was more familiar with the route. Avoiding the detour lengthened my journey by over an hour but I was determined to ask the community leaders for more specific direction upon arrival and take the short-cut home when I was more sure of myself.
After three hours I arrived in the community of Yurak Uksha weary and unconvinced that horse riding was a great form of transit. I was feeling less like a gaucho and more like someone who had just been hit between the legs with a baseball bat. However, the kids where so excited to see the pony that my spirits were instantly lifted. After a successful two hours of teaching and feeling validated that the journey was worth it, I confidently asked for directions and was shown the entrance to the detour. It was about 2:30pm and the clouds had blanketed the mountain. I couldn’t see more than two feet ahead of me but after weighing my options I realized that if I took the three -hour route that I had used to arrive I ran the risk of returning after sundown. Hesitant but sure of my decision, I took off into the mist.
Almost immediately I realized I had made a mistake. The trail was steep, winding and slippery. Every few paces a giant rock appeared and poor Callus spooked in fear. I tried to pretend that I was in The Lord of the Rings and that this was just an epic landscape scene, but as the clock ticked on and I began to lose feeling in my toes, my inner Gollum came out and I began to panic. Fear kicked in and against my better judgement I decided to cut my losses and turn around. I reasoned that if I just kept going up the mountain I would eventually hit a village where someone could help me out.
Just as I was about to go full Schmiegel and listen to my fear-driven rational, a small old indigenous woman appeared out of nowhere. She looked very surprised to see a white woman in a neon yellow rain poncho and bright red helmet on a blonde horse emerge from the fog. Through the noise of the wind and rain I could barely understand a word she said. From what I could decipher she told me I was only 30 minutes away from home, I might be an evil spirit, and I just had to continue down the road I was originally on. Feeling a bit more positive I turned around yet again and ventured on.
After several minutes of riding, Callus and I reached a pine forest with low-hanging branches. Due to the lack of sun it was almost completely dark under the canopy and my charming, exhausted little pony took great pleasure in whacking me against every branch possible. The obscured visuals disabled my reflexes and each impact threatened to send me tumbling. I clenched my aching thighs and started to sing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” By “19 bottles of beer on the wall” we were out of the woods but apparently had lost the trail. I couldn’t see more than a few inches ahead of me and went into full survival mode. To my horror the clouds temporarily shifted and I discovered that we were on the side of a steep cliff with a 70 percent grade. To make matters worse, I could see we were rapidly approaching a sheer drop into nothingness. Callus was struggling to hold his footing and was slowly sliding downwards. I took comfort in knowing that I was wearing neon so at least they would find the frozen body of the idiotic gringa fast.
I decided that my only option was to trust the animal that carried me. I didn’t know where we were. I had led us onto a cliff. I was on the verge of a physical and mental breakdown. I was probably going to die wearing a helmet and the locals would say, “see, she should have worn a sombrero.” Although exhausted, my little pony had to know where we were geographically and if given the freedom would instinctually avoid cliffs even if visibility was dire. I let go of the reigns and said, “Callus take the wheel.” He immediately turned around raced away from the cliff to relative safety. When we reentered the forest he once again took pleasure in running me into every tree possible and even took it upon himself to jump over a stream. I held on for dear life and never in my life has the phrase, “the only way through this is through it” rung so true. The pain in my rear, numbness of my extremities and fixation on singing bad camp songs were so real. After an hour of backtracking I found myself in the community where I had been teaching earlier that afternoon.
I glanced at my watch and realized that is was 6:30pm and the sun was setting. Without cell service I had no option but to take the main trail back to the nearest possible road where we would risk those dangers associated with cars but at least be back on the grid if something went wrong. For the final hour I walked next to my GPS pony and reflected on “feelin myself.” I had felt my fearful self, my Gollum self, my prideful self and finally my humble self. I still couldn’t feel my physical self, due to cold and exhaustion, but that would soon come. When we arrived at my house I mustered enough energy to cry. Through the sobs I hugged Callus, fed him, put him in his pasture and passed out while dressing the cuts on my hands. PS: I learned that mild frostbite is apparently a very real thing.
I could not walk for the proceeding four days, had a large bandage on my hand, and had to own up to all the locals that I had been lost in the mountains for six hours. I learned a lot of things about survival like how wearing bright colors makes you not only garish but also easier to find. I also learned that when in the mindset of “I am going to die” I like to fantasize that I am in a fictional fantasy land and apparently can’t think of anything better to sing than “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” Finally, I learned that humans are very stupid and animals are very smart.
Next time you wander into the woods and find yourself lost do not panic. Look for an old indigenous lady and let Callus take the wheel. Also for the record, helmets are super cool and if my horse hadn’t saved my life my helmet definitely would have.