End

An argument had broken out. On one side: me. On the other side: everyone else. In my current state I should have been easy pickings. But I was firm on this point: I would not be carried out of the forest. I was going to walk, or at least hobble, out. The two Katu guides beside me dropped the makeshift sling they had prepared: a pole, fashioned from a felled tree, with a hammock attached. They shook their heads, thinking, I am sure, that the knock on the head I had taken the night before had finally done the foreigner in. Perhaps they were right. I wasn’t thinking clearly. But there was reasoning in my defiance. It was an issue of pride. I felt like the fieldwork, the jungle, had finally beaten me. As I lay by the fire, I decided that I would leave on my own terms. In hindsight, this line-in-the-sand business strikes me as illogical, even a trifle stagey. But after weeks of jungle living, there existed a sense of competition between myself, on one hand, and the forest, on the other, which had taken on a dark persona of its own. I couldn’t let it win. I struggled to my feet. One of the guides gripped my right elbow to steady my uncertain steps. We set off.

The following three hours were some of the longest of my life. The rain didn’t stop. The quiet mountain stream we had hiked in on was now a frothing torrent, making passage difficult and dangerous. However, going along the river was still the quickest way out. It would take many hours more to hack our way through the jungle. We followed the river. The water was cold. Even in the shallow areas it was waist-deep, and at times the current lapped over our shoulders. The constant cold was causing my legs to go numb, and I moved with stiff and jerky motions, like a poorly-directed marionette. Besides the cold, I was drunk with pain and fatigue. All of my effort was focused on staying conscious. Every few minutes I felt myself drifting into tunnels of blackness. When that happened I would try to jolt myself to attention. If that failed, the guide at my side would shake me awake. All the time marching marching marching, slogging through the rain and the mud.

I thought we would never make it to the road. But we did. There was the asphalt, shining slick like the surface of a river frozen in time. I felt like collapsing. Instead, we trudged down the road and took shelter in a Katu hut, which was really no more than a collection planks held loosely together in the shape of a house. It kept out the rain, but the cold bit through the slats, chilling me to the core. I curled up on the floor by the fire. For the first time that day I thought about more than just survival. I reflected on the situation, and was consumed by disappointment. I hadn’t been strong enough to finish the survey. I hadn’t been strong enough to complete the work. I might have blown my best chance at finding Saola, the species that had drawn me to these jungles. I had failed. But I would be back. Not anytime soon, since I had to leave in a week to go back to the US. But this wasn’t the end: it was only the beginning of the journey.

The ambulance pulled up with sirens blaring. The Forest Guards loaded me in the back and we set off. I watched the forest disappear into the distance.

I watched the forest disappear.
I watched the forest disappear.
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