Which is why you sign up for the overnight volcano hike even though that big, strong 30 year-old guy said it was the hardest thing he had ever done, “and I’ve done some hard things,” he said. You decide to do it anyway.
So you hike the five hours on the steep, steep, sliding slippery ashen path, way, way up over 13,000 feet where the altitude kicks your butt. It’s hard. Hard. F*^@ing hard. Your lungs almost pop like two overfilled balloons and you wonder what that would feel like? Would they carry you out on a stretcher? Even worse, what if you dropped out and had to hike back down and hitch a ride to town all alone? You decide as long as you can take one more step you will not drop out. Lucky for you, you aren’t the only one gasping for breath, and a French guy just paid to have his pack carried up on the pony. You round a corner to find a young guy on the path ahead stopped, blanched white and clammy, doubled over, heaving. His group is huddled around trying to help. He has a migraine they say, and a girl from your group digs through her pack and hands pain meds to him. He looks pasty, like he could use a big hit of oxygen, but he doesn’t want to turn back. You wonder how many die here and though you haven’t heard of any, surely some must.
Later down the path, you take a break at a little shed in the jungle just off the path. The guy with the migraine has made it this far too and puffs on cigarettes, maybe nicotine will help his head. “Two more hours”, the guide says and you swear to yourself “S**t?! Two more hours!” Until the girl with the pain reliever says, “Only two more hours? That’s great!” You stop with the negative thoughts because she’s a better person. So you keep going, one step at a time, into a jungle of massive canopy trees and past a bird whose relentless call is so compelling it must be seeking it’s mother. You shuffle though a forest of bamboo, past waterfalls of grass careening down slopes and tread along plunging abysses filled with mist. Up, up, always up.
But now you’ve made it to a precipice high above the clouds, to base camp on a dirt and ash ledge carved out of volcano Acatenango. Made it! Your legs are screaming and your lungs heaving but your heart is bursting with glee. Puffy white clouds make a floor far below and more clouds, balls of cotton, float around Volcano De Fuego, who is smoking like a mad man and spewing lava. Tomorrow morning, way before dawn, everyone will get up and hike two more hours in the dark to catch the sunrise at the summit. But now is for resting, setting up tents, building a fire and watching the sunset swank in, turning the clouds of De Fuego yellow, orange and pink while they flash with bolts of lightening! What a show! Turns out, the lightening is from rock, ice and ash bits colliding in the smoke plume and it’s called a Dirty Thunderstorm, the likes of which you have only seen in movies with dinosaurs. You feel wonder, and amazement, and very lucky to be alive.
Dinner is served from white plastic bags; cheese sandwiches with wonder bread, green apples, cups of ramen noodles and the special camping treat of Guatemala, melted-plastic Hot Chocolate. Every culture has their camping treats. At home it’s S’mores, in India it’s unpeeled bananas roasted under glowing coals, removed and sliced open with chocolate dribbled over, then scooped out steaming with a spoon, but tonight it’s a liter plastic bottle filled with water and chucks of chocolate amazingly heated directly on the fire so that the water boils to melt the chocolate and the bottle too, a little bit. So you toast to the glory of life with everyone while sipping plastic hot chocolate, sitting around a camp fire on the ledge of the volcano and watching Mr. De Fuego blast out white and black puffs while the stars pop onto a thick, rich, dark-blue canvas in the background. Wow.
Most in your group are French, but you have become chummy with the Canadian Nate, and a couple from London, Izzy and Oscar. You are the only American. All eleven of your group huddle close to the fire in the cold night, silent, thoughtful, absorbing. After awhile your guide, Juan, sings a soft Spanish tune, which grows louder with the crowds appreciation and ends up in lusty vigor with the crowd joining in. When he is done you say, “Uno mas,” one more, but he says, “No mas.”
Wanting to catch a few winks before the two hour climb to the peak tomorrow, you bundle into the tent and nestle into the sleeping bag between Nate and Izzy. You are glad to be squished in-between for the warmth. Complete strangers hours before, you and your tent-mates are now friends. Nate is traveling after teaching English in Korea and the two of you talk of all the ways you’ve been scammed in your travels, Shifty tuk-tuk drivers, lying men, crafty moms using babies and little kids to beg. Then you move on to scams you’ve only heard about. You tell him about your friend Robert who was sexually harassed by a bunch of women on the streets of Hanoi and when he got done fending them off, his wallet was gone. He tells you about the cute girls in China who ask to practice their English over a cup of tea, only to leave their victims stuck with enormous tea bills. He was hoping a cute girl would try and scam him when he was in China but she never did. Then you both talk about the guy with the migraine on the trail, how white and clammy he looked and how you hope he’s ok. Eventually the two of you quiet down and you wonder how it will feel getting up at 3:30 am and if the flashlight on your phone will be enough and if you will need two hands for the climb because if you do, you will be holding your phone for the flashlight and will it’s screen get scratched because you don’t have a protector on it? Then you think about the amazing sunset, the volcanic lightening, how you feel like Indiana Jones and that ramen noodles never tasted so good. You drift off to sleep.
Sometime in the night you wake to a small explosion and an urgent voice saying “Regarde! Regarde! Regarde!” Tents unzip, heads poke out and there is friend De Fuego putting on a magnificent fire and magma show, shooting lava straight up high through billowing smoke. Then lava flows down it’s sides, red and glowing through a black outer crust and looks for all the world like flowing volcanic crackle cookies. The lava slows and embers glow up at you from far below. At this distance the lava resembles glowing lights of the neighboring town and seems to have settled really close to it too. Wow! You focus for a mental photo; the expansive stars showcasing a puffing volcano with flowing lava, the hovering clouds throwing lightening and a bright half-moon showering luminous blessings onto all of it. You breath deep. Amazing life.
3:30 a.m. comes. Up and at um but uh-oh, something’s not right. Your stomach is growling and heavy. You roll over in your sleeping bag and what you ate last night cramps hard. But no, you’ve come this far and by god you are going to see that summit. The hike starts in sluggish ankle deep ash-dirt making each step a tremendous chore and a fine cloud of ash-smoke billow, which you’re pretty sure kills a whole lifetime of not smoking. Your stomach is fighting the whole way and your first bowel blow out comes half way up the hill, hidden, crouched in the dark. It’s bad but maybe that’s all there is and, feeling a bit better, you get back on the path and return to the labor upward. Dawn trickles in and the sun pops up over the mountain like a shaken soda, spewing sunlight everywhere. Trees don’t grow at this altitude and the altitude is having it’s way with you too, along with the stomach fits and the hard-ass wading through an ash-dirt sea. Your pack feels heavy. Why did you bring it? No one else did, they just brought little water bottles. What were you thinking? Obviously you’re an idiot. You fall a little behind everyone taking five steps then leaning heavily on your hiking stick to rest. Five more steps, pant, pant, pant. Guide Juan sees you and comes down. No words are exchanged but you give him your pack, he turns his back to you and then you take the hand he offers. He trudges up the hill and you follow, holding his hand, stepping in his steps. With no pack you are able to take 10 steps at a time instead of five, sometimes 15 and you feel encouraged by his help. The two of you crest the summit and are welcomed by a blasting gale of frigid wind. You send up a silent thank you, you’ve made it, and you hug Juan with joy. His look says, “Yes. You did good.” But then your eyes open wide, last night’s dinner is coming, right now! “Yo necesito baño!” You yell and Juan looks startled, this bald summit has no cover for anything like that. You run to Izzy. “Can you help me?” The two of you go as far away from the group as possible, then Izzy holds up your cloak for cover and you squat behind the flapping non-shelter for a big blow out. But then it’s done and your attention turns to the wonder around you. You walk the length of the summit, smoking volcano on your left, black volcanic pit on your right. Just fantastic.
Too soon Juan calls everyone back to begin the smoke-dusty ash slide to the bottom of the mountain. Some places the dust is so thick you skate down smoothly with no problems except for shoes and lungs full of ash, but mostly it’s treacherously hard, slippery and steep. Nate falls roughly, re-injuring a shoulder just healed after months of rehab. “S**t!” It takes two hours less to descend than ascend the hill, and it would have been best with a sled. Down the slopes, past the water-fall grass and bamboo, into the jungle of big trees, past the calling bird and finally, finally, all are at the bottom, resting under the volcano’s shadow in a cool, green field. Low and behold, who is there also but Migraine Boy, stretched out, face down, sleeping so soundly he looks dead. “Is he dead?” No, there is slight breathing. “Where is his group?” They aren’t around and your crew loads onto the shuttle home with Migraine Boy laying in the field, face down, all alone.
Later that night back in Antigua, you, Nate, Oscar and Izzy meet for dinner at an Israeli-Hippie place, Zoolo. You sit on floor cushions and eat healthy salads and falafel with indie music playing in the background, or sometimes classic rock and occasionally pop-Christian which you think is odd for an Israeli-Hippie joint. You all share stories and dreams and little bits of yourselves that bring laughs, and everyone talks about Migraine Boy, musing over his fate. As if the universe hears you, suddenly there he is! Migraine Boy walks by your table looking completely fit! “We saw you on the hill,” we say, “you look good now!” He chuckles just a bit, and says simply, “I’m glad that’s over.”
One part of life is knowing your limits. Another is pushing them. That’s when you feel the most enlightened, the most amazed, the most alive.