The Great Peruvian Escape


The fire line was visible from the hot springs. It was slowly making its way down a ridge across the river from us, and when I asked Amy if we should be worried, she told me it was really unlikely to jump the river.

So we went about our business.

We got out of the hot springs, muscle aches much diminished. We’d already hiked something like 34 ish miles in 3 days, and we lacked only a few miles more… maybe 6 ish.

I was glad to be nearing the end of the adventure.

I’d experienced a gorgeous glacier as intimately as I could ever want to, and my knee was pretty jacked up. It was filled with fluid, which isn’t particularly surprising, because I’d experienced that exact injury in the same knee just a few years before. Additionally, I’d done altitude sickness, jungle, sheer cliff faces with loose gravel, and I’d done it with exactly ZERO training hikes under my belt.

But definitely I felt ready for it to be over. I wouldn’t say I was “done,” because I felt pretty decent, but I was ready to see Machu Picchu and get ready for the long flight home.

Amy was sitting at a picnic table journaling or knitting, so I went and sat with her, as the plan was to play cards as soon as Steve and Lori finished hot-springing.

That’s when I noticed the ash.

It wasn’t raining down on us like sleet, but it was floating down, which didn’t seem ordinary to me even though everyone, hikers and Perufians alike, seemed to think it was.

I pointed the ash out to Amy, who seemed unimpressed by the whole thing, but I really felt at that moment that I was the only sane person around

Ash.

Come on. Shouldn’t we have started packing up the moment the first ash particle floated down into our hair?

Darkness eased toward our camp, and just before dinner time, Steve, Lori, Amy and I decided to take a look around the campsite at the other tents. We were feeling pretty superior about our guide team and camp setup and were wondering how many other folks were camping there that night. We basically wanted to see their campsites so we could feel awesome about our own. Also, We’d been on the trail with some of the same hikers for the past three days and were interested to see what other groups had planned.

We went down by the river, and, there it loomed in the dusk: fire.

On our side of the river.

On a ridge that was hidden from the view of our campsite.

The ash falling on me wasn’t from the visible fire that everyone was thinking about: it was from the hidden fire – the one that was just around the corner from us.

Steve got serious pretty quickly. We talked about the prospect of having to gather all of our gear and stand with it in the river, because, you see, there was fire on both sides of us now: on the other side of the river, leading up the river and riding parallel to the road out, and on our same side of the river, following it in the opposite direction and blocking our escape that way.

Amy left us to go find our guide and talk to him. She still seemed unconcerned, which is probably a perfectly-fine way to be, but I wasn’t raised like that. Most of the lessons I learned from my father involved safety. Don’t expect other people to take care of you. Don’t expect other people to be smart about things. You take care of yourself. Safety first. If shit goes down, go farther than you need to go before you look back.

So I was pretty much get-the-hell-outta-here-NOW in my head.

Amy later accused me of being panicked, but I honestly don’t think I was. I definitely thought we should get out of there, but my panic reached almost exactly the same level it reaches prior to running a half marathon. My digestive system went into overdrive, but I was otherwise thinking things that I think I should have been thinking.

We went back to the campsite, purchased water, and packed things up just in case.

I think some of the hard core response is attributable to all of the gaming. Steve and I both play video games and I’m sure our brains have been impacted – maybe not in all positive ways, but certainly not in a bad way if we’re in a worst-case scenario. We were united in our plan to get away from the fire and both had our game faces on.

I don’t think Amy has played a video game in her entire life.

I don’t think she’s read a disaster book, watched 24, or come up with a survival plan for the zombie apocalypse.

That’s one of the things that put us in conflict.

Also, Amy admitted that she hated feeling like a tourist. She observed our behavior as touristy and panicked.

I assumed the news reports would call all of us tourists when they reported on our fiery deaths, so I didn’t really care what the Peruvians thought of me, as long as we got the hell outta there.

So, argument ensued.

The cooks had finished making dinner, so should we eat before we left?

The Peruvian park ranger hadn’t called for an evacuation yet, so should we wait to find out what he thought?

Lori had to play diplomat, because, even though she was with Steve and me in our plan to evacuate regardless of what others chose to do, you know, there’s a reason she’s an Executive Director, and I think it has something to do with her way of talking people through things.

There was a language barrier, and right about the time our guide called for a car to come get us in ten minutes, and we agreed to eat dinner (a nice compromise), the park ranger called for the evacuation.

In light of that development, I thought we’d get going. I thought we’d give up on dinner.

Nope.

We sat there and ate. Inside our dining tent. In the surreality that only exists in those moments when your life would make a decent hour of reality television.

Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned up, and the dance band on the Titanic played until the end, we ate in the midst of impending doom.

I shoveled the food in my face, which, in retrospect, may have contributed to later troubles.

Others ate at their normal paces.

The electricity went out. Then it came back on.

We tried to help pack stuff up, but whenever I picked up a tarp to fold it, one of the Peruvian guys came and took it from me.

Our car came, and we got in, only to discover that the fire had traveled up-river quite a bit, so we drove parallel to it for something like 7 ish minutes.

We stopped and picked up a dude with some little kids and drove them out to the closest town, which was about 10 minutes from the hot springs.

So, if you do the math, you figure that the fire was something like 3 minutes away.

That wasn’t really good enough for me. I wanted more like an hour or two between me and the fire, especially if I was expected to sleep that night.

So there was more arguing about what to do. Amy and the Peruvians were for staying in that town. Steve and I were for getting out of Dodge. Lori was on our side, but a little less screw-what-you-think than Steve and I were.

Tension ran high.

And the decision was made that we would do the next day’s hiking overnight.

And we’d have to carry all of our stuff with us.

Lori would want me to tell you that I’d brought several books with me, because they gave us a big duffel bag to put our crap in and to be carried by a mule, creating more space than I’d accounted for or could fill with clothes and food. So I brought books.

Sue me. I like books. And reading in a tent by headlamp is oh-so-romantic.

However, when I’m about to flee from wildfire on foot, overnight in the Peruvian wilderness, the books don’t hold the same place in my heart they have when there is no fire.

So Lori’s favorite part of the whole trip was when I had to be like, “Hey, I definitely can’t carry all of my stuff.”

In my defense: I was more than willing to leave the books there and pay the library back for the loss. I mean, come on, fiery death – or books? Fiery death? Books? You leave the books without a second thought.

Back to the main story, though. Everything got worked out so that we each carried our day pack with whatever we thought we’d need for the next 2.5 days, and we went.

Headlamps.

Fluid-filled knee.

Tempers barely-checked.

And I had to take a dump in the darkness just about once an hour, because that’s my body’s reaction to long-distance races and, evidently, wildfire.

Additionally, I was tired of wearing tennis shoes and wanted to wear my running sandals, so I made the bold decision to do that night with my toes exposed… because I’m B.A.

We walked along train tracks most of the time, and there were some scary, Stand by Me moments with river-crossings, but it was an adventure. There was jungle on both sides of the tracks, and there were nighttime spiders that had glowy eyes.

And I wouldn’t take it back if I could.

Who else in the world can really say they hiked 40 miles in 3 days, up to 15,000 ft, down into the jungle, on the edges of cliffs, and fled from a wildfire at night, belongings on her back, on wounded knee? Well, Steve, Lori, and Amy can all say that or all of it minus the knee thing. And David, our guide. But who else? That’s right – nobody you know.

I feel like a badass every time I think about it.

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One thought on “The Great Peruvian Escape

  1. Poignant. My favorite:”Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned up, and the dance band on the Titanic played until the end, we ate in the midst of impending doom.”

    This makes me feel happy about our adventure.

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