We are breaking camp. After eating the last of our rice and dried fish we start packing. I stuff my muddy mildew-ridden clothes into my backpack and begin untying my hammock. Behind me I can hear Anh Thanh singing a traditional Vietnamese song as he gathers the cooking utensils. His voice rises and dips in the brisk morning air like a swallow skimming across a jungle clearing. In front of me the Katu guides are pushing the rainwater off of the tarp stretched over our camp. The smack smack smacking of palms on plastic punctuates Anh Thanh’s singing. When they finish they pull the tarp down. A subdued, canopy-filtered light floods the camp: it is as if someone had flicked on a dim overhead bulb. I wad my hammock into a fist-sized ball and cram it into an already cram-jammed backpack. Finished packing, I slump to the ground and stare up at the canopy. It’s a breathtaking sight. For a moment I let myself become lost in my thoughts. There is an immense relief when one finishes a survey: the miles have been walked, the mountains have been climbed, the information has been collected. The leeches, in our case, are now slumbering in chemical concoctions, waiting to be shipped to another country where latex-gloved laboratory technicians will unzip their guts and determine their last meals. But there is also, for me, a lingering reluctance to leave. There is so much work left to do: distant ridges left unexplored, trails unmapped, leeches waiting in the leaf-litter, some carrying blood from rare Annamite animals. I think back to everything I wish we had done differently: We should have spent more time surveying to the north where the forest is best. We should have worked longer days—we’ll never get back those lost hours. We should have done this, we should have done that. But then I push those thoughts aside. It’s too late for regrets. Besides, we still have a job to do. We need to get home in one piece.
“Di!” says Anh Thanh. “Go!” The melodious singsong voice is gone. His command, barked in the gravelly tone of an army officer ordering his troops, stirs our group to life. We shoulder our packs and set off up the trail. For the next several hours it’s slow going. That’s not to say, however, that the journey is without excitement. The river we need to cross has flooded. At the beginning of our expedition it was a fast-flowing creek. Now it’s a torrent. I’m reminded of python engorged with the body of its latest victim: in the last week this stream seems to have swallowed up all the rainwater in the Annamites. We lock arms and wade through the current. It takes all my strength to remain upright. Halfway across the chain breaks and two people are swept downstream. They disappear in the current. The rest of the group makes it to the other side then we all scramble down the bank looking for our missing team members. We find them one hundred yards away. They are trudging out of the water, disoriented, shaken, laughing. Seeing that they are unhurt we laugh too. Then we pick up the trail again. The Katu porters are ribbing their river-tossed comrades, one of whom, to their infinite amusement, doesn’t know how to swim. Distracted, they step directly over a three foot long emerald pit viper sunning itself on the path. They step over death. It is, I think to myself, as if one had obliviously brushed shoulders with the grim reaper on a crowded sidewalk. I snap a hurried picture and continue walking. I keep this secret to myself, marveling, once more, at the electrifying beauty of this deadly species. Two hours later, just as the last shreds of sunlight are slipping away over the mountain tops, we reach the Katu village. It is good to be back with friends. As we walk up to the village center I can feel a new energy flowing through our group. Mr. Tren, the headman, greets me with a bear hug, slaps me on the back, and ushers me into the nearest hut. Within minutes we are chatting, laughing, sipping rice wine, snacking on grub worms. The jungle is right outside the hut but seems a distant memory.