“Now, when something like this happens to you when you’re older, you’ll know what to do,” offered Harry, trying to put a positive spin on the morning’s events.
“You mean stand along the side of the road until a man with a big truck comes along?” replied 8-year-old Jack.
“Uh, well, yes, Jack, I guess…”
Lief had traveled these roads only two days before, and he’d made it through no problem. But this is the rainy season in Panama, and, oh, what a difference two days can make. Today, the river that Lief had crossed easily earlier in the week came crashing over the hood of our rented SUV… and then… nothing.
Stalled… stopped… stuck… in the middle of the river.
We climbed out one by one and waded to shore, where we made a plan. Lief and Michael would go for help. The rest of us would wait with the car.
Ten minutes later, along came a cattle rancher, driving a big cattle-hauling truck. The Panamanian stopped and got out of his truck on the other side of the river, waved and smiled and shook his head at us, made some adjustments to his front tires, climbed back in, and hit the gas. Then he roared across the river, past our stalled SUV, and popped out on the bank on our side.
But he didn’t continue on his way. Instead, he climbed back down from his truck, this time with a rope. Harry and Mel followed him down to the river’s edge. The three men, on their knees in the mud, tied one end of the rope around the back of the friendly rancher’s truck, the other around the front bumper of our rental.
Jack and I retreated well out of the way and watched as the cattleman pulled our vehicle from the river, up the bank, and onto dry land.
“Do you have something to give him?” Harry asked. “Some little gift?”
I didn’t. I offered him money, though I feared the gesture would offend him… and it did. So I kissed him on both cheeks and waved as he pulled away, his good deed done for the day.
Twenty minutes later, Lief and Michael returned.
“Look… we pulled the car out,” I offered.
“We ran into the rancher down the road,” Lief smiled in return. “He told us he’d helped a bunch of crazy gringos get their car out of the middle of the river.”
Now what? The car still wouldn’t start.
Lief and Michael would head off again, this time to the main road, to try to find someone who could tow the SUV back to town. The rest of us would carry on according to the day’s original plan. We’d continue to Los Islotes, on foot.
“The turn off should be about five minutes down the road,” Lief instructed. “Look for a house with some excavation work nearby, then take the fork to the left. That’s the new road into the property.”
As Jack, Harry, Mel, and I started off, it started to rain. Then it started to pour. Fifteen minutes later, we were soaked… and wondering how we’d managed to miss the house with the excavation work.
Should we continue on… or double back?
Onward was the consensus. Forty-five minutes later, a little white house at a fork in the road. We went to the left.
The rain stopped. We celebrated by taking a short break and enjoying the sun filtering down now through the trees.
Then, onward. Through puddles that came nearly over the tops of Jack’s yellow galoshes. Through mud that sucked our shoes off our feet. Up hills and down, sliding and slipping. Harry took the easy way down one particularly steep incline. He fell and slid to the bottom on his backside.
Back on his feet, he picked Jackson up, slung him over his shoulders, and carried him like a roped calf to the top of the next summit. Mel and I brought up the rear. At the top of each hill, we’d look down to the next valley and around the next bend and ask each other, “What do you think? Should we continue?”
“Onward” was the unanimous reply each time, though, eventually, it came more reluctantly. But from each new hilltop, we could make out more of the ocean views—the frothy, pounding surf… the three little islands just offshore… the deep green mountains in the distance all around. The views urged us on. And, besides, we’d come this far. We couldn’t turn back now without touching our toes in the Pacific.
Finally, the end of the muddy road. Still, though, we weren’t at the beach. We were at the edge of the cliff overlooking the beach. We’d have to shimmy down the trail if we wanted to walk the water’s edge.
But we couldn’t find the trail. This time of year, the landscape changes quickly. What had been cut by machete not so long ago was now overgrown nearly beyond recognition.
Still, onward. Harry had given up on his footwear. “I never thought I’d be hiking through the jungle barefoot today,” he said as he took off down the hill.
“If Harry’s taking his shoes off, can I take my boots off?” asked Jackson. “They’re giving me blisters.”
So, now, half our crew shoe-less, we struck out on the final leg of our journey. We crawled down the side of the slippery cliff and landed… finally… on the wide beach. I ran down to the water and waded in to my waist, shoes, clothes, and all. The strong waves washed away the mud and the sweat, and, in an instant, the day’s adventures were all worthwhile… a small price to pay for such a sweet reward.
Except… we had to do it again.
We enjoyed 10 minutes frolicking in the sea, then, refreshed and rejuvenated, we started the hike back… up the side of the cliff… up the first muddy hill…
Harry sprinted ahead. Mel, Jack, and I couldn’t keep up.
Then, at the top of the first summit, Harry turned:
“I see them,” he shouted back. “They’re just around the bend waiting for us… with a truck!”
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy… Daddy’s back!” shouted Jackson, still barefoot.