Enthusiasm is a powerful drug: God knows how many times I’ve used it to slog up the last hundred feet of a mountain, or claw my way through a wall of impenetrable jungle. Now my enthusiasm for going into the one place where we knew a Saola existed trumped everything else in my life. I was obsessed with the idea of getting into that patch of forest. I was obsessed by the idea of being so close to Saola. I still felt sick, but as I had done so often before, I pushed any health considerations aside. The work had to get done. Besides, I told myself, using an internal dialogue that could have been lifted straight from a Hemingway novel, this was tough work, and if you can’t tough it out you shouldn’t be here. I began preparing for the survey. Again, I spread my field gear out in my hotel room, which made it look rather like the forgotten warehouse of a secondhand Army supply store. Again, I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t look any better than I had a few days before, and I certainly looked worse than any item in my field kit. But I was going to go into the field. I had to go into the field. An opportunity like this, on the heels of a recent Saola photograph, might not come again.
The WWF car lumbered through the Vietnamese countryside: a mechanical beast that seemed oddly out of place in the midst of the hulking slate-gray water buffalos that dotted the landscape. Typical scenes of country life flashed through the window: wooden shacks propped up alongside the road selling cigarettes and soda, mangy dogs lounging in the midday sun, endless rice fields stretching into the distance, peopled by conical-hat-wearing women, their figures quaking and quivering in the undulating heat waves. We drove on. Gradually the rice fields were replaced by shrubby vegetation and then secondary-growth Cecropia trees and then forest. It was hard to believe that this tropical forest—one of the most unexplored jungles on the planet—existed in such close proximity to a sea of rice paddies. We ground to a halt. A group of WWF forest guards sat at the edge of the road. I snatched my field pack from the back seat and we set off.
It felt good to be back in the jungle. Even after such a short time back in civilization, I had missed the forest. The humid air, sweet-smelling and sticky from rotting vegetation, the leaf-dappled sunlight that spilled through the canopy overhead, the fact that everywhere you turned there was life. We hiked for several hours. To my surprise, Anh Thanh met us along the way. He would be our Forest Protection Department guide. It was nice to see him again. After our previous work together I’d begun to think of him more as a friend or uncle than simply another work colleague. Eventually we made it to the camp. I found an empty space under the tarp and collapsed. I was exhausted—more so than I should have been after a half-day hike. The terrain, for that matter, hadn’t even been that difficult: it was nothing like the up-and-down gorges that I had scrambled across in other parts of the region. I felt weak. Lungs burning, arms shaking, it was as if I had just completed a grueling field expedition, rather than just starting one. I found myself wondering if I would be able to finish the survey strong. I didn’t question whether I would be able to finish the survey at all.