28 January, 2015

The Bridge That Inspired a Thousand Personal Statements

Continued from yesterday's post...

The waterfall
that I tried to climb
The second day of hiking was possibly one of the worst days of my life. For some reason, I thought being a healthy, energetic 19-year-old who skied, ran on an elliptical and played an embarrassing game of racquetball once in awhile counted as sufficient training for hiking 12-15 miles a day. Oops. Wrong. I was wearing brand-new, unbroken-in boots too, Cheryl Strayed-style. I actually cried for the better part of four hours that day, which thankfully no one noticed because my tears blended seamlessly with the torrential rain.

(It was neither the first nor the last time that I thought, Well, should have seen this coming, and, Is it a good or a bad thing that I keep convincing myself character-building experiences are going to be really fun?)

On the third or fourth, or maybe fifth day, we came to a bridge. You could call it the Bridge of Life and Death, or maybe the Bridge of Really Momentous Choices. Or the Bridge That Inspired a Thousand Personal Statements.

Or the Bridge Whose Symbolism Devoured Reality.

That first one has some validity. In my memory, the bridge is made of wooden planks, little more than a foot wide, hammered end to end and slick with rain. The sides are rope. Fifty or a hundred feet down is a roaring river, swollen from the constant downpour (it's not called rainy season for nothing). I don't remember the bridge swaying, so it must not have been windy - and I consider my memory of what wasn't terrifying about this bridge fairly reliable. There must have been some veracity to my perception of danger, because our guide opted to carry each of our backpacks across for us, making several round trips, so that we would only have to contend with only our own body weight. The guides also warned us that there would be no way to rescue us if we fell. They really knew how to inspire confidence.

Oddly enough it was retrospectively worse when we heard they planned to use an alternative route on future trips. Huh - so it probably really wasn't as safe as it should have been.
Goats, in the woods

Spoiler: We all survived. I haven't quite figured out that trick of building suspense when readers already know how it ends.

I remember looking behind us, my eyes tracing the muddy slope we had just stumbled down, unable to see any evidence of a trail existing there (we often weren't on trails, at least not well-maintained ones, and used machetes to hack through the brush). It was as clear to me then as it ever has been that there was no going back; the only way forward was, well, forward. 

See the symbolism? It was just like life!

(So, also like life, I milked it for all it was worth: at least a dozen personal statements.)

I'm not afraid of heights - or maybe it's more accurate to say that I usually enjoy the kind of fear that comes from heights - but I do remember being a little bit scared, in that moment, and thinking, "Okay, this would be a really stupid way to die. In the scheme of things. Don't get shaky and fuck it up." And then I walked across it. And kept on walking, another 60 or so miles, stopping along the way to kill a chicken and swim in a stunningly clear brook and learn to surf without knocking myself out with my surfboard.

I flew home without underwear or socks, because everything except the jeans and shirt I'd arrived in was still damp, and I ended up tossing them or leaving them for the next group of hikers to straggle into San José. (The boots survived another few years until, after a particularly muddy day rowing on the Isis, I tried to put them through the washing machine in Oxford.) The red wine on the plane to Miami tasted ridiculously good and I practically kissed the ground when we landed - I was, admittedly, pretty glad to still be alive.

Back in Virginia, my friend picked me up and took me to IHOP - it wouldn't be my first, or fifteenth, choice now, but I was reveling in the overdeveloped Americanness of everything. I was even peculiarly delighted to the see the Mixing Bowl. For the next few days - this is another strange twist in this story - I hung out at the house of his Mandarin-speaking parents, who were kind and welcoming and clearly worried their son might have brought home a white girlfriend. I watched American cartoons with his three-year-old sister. She taught me to use chopsticks. His mom taught me to always steam (or grill, but never boil!) corn on the cob. Life lessons are everywhere.

Then I drove my car - another much-loved Mustang, still playing that same CD - to Virginia Beach to spend the summer with my grandmother. About a month later, I had another "formative moment" - this time in the form of a bot fly larva in my calf. If you're squeamish, stop here. That's all you need to know, trust me.

I heard about these while I was hiking. In fact, I hiked with long pants for the first couple days, because I was so determined to avoid anything this tragically disgusting happening to me. Eventually, in the battle of Tropical Rainy Season vs. Amy's Fear of Bugs, the rain won, and I switched to shorts. And somewhere along the way, I picked up one of these mostly harmless but really, really icky little creatures. I had several mosquito bites when I got back to the States...one didn't go away. It got bigger and seemed to open (I'll let you Google the bot fly life cycle if you really want the goriest details), oozing bloody liquid. I pretended I thought it was an allergic reaction that got infected from scratching, and I coated it with a thick layer of Neosporin and a heavy bandage. (You can be the judge of whether this was subconscious or not - but I had been taught to remove the larvae using Vaseline and duct tape to cut off oxygen. At the time, I swore I was just treating an infected bite.)

Several hours and a trip to the Bar of Norfolk (where, at the time, dancing on the bar got customers free drinks) later, I noticed my leg was itching even more than it had been. In the bathroom, I peeked under the Band-Aid and...you can use your imagination. The worst part was that when I opened the area to the air, it tried to crawl back in. Okay, I know it wasn't a life-or-death infection, but it felt like it, at the time. Survival instinct, fueled by adrenaline, kicked in, and I yanked it out and dropped it on the rug. Then I disinfected my wound and went to wake up my boyfriend before my adrenaline levels crashed and sheer panic/horror/revulsion set it. We examined it, flushed it down the toilet and then put Google to work telling us whether there might be anymore and whether it required medical treatment (no and no). We were both premed by then - asking Dr. Google was a completely normal and expected reaction to a subcutaneous parasite acquired in a tropical country.


It's the funny thing about writing this blog: I keep learning new things about my father. Writing this, I thought, is it possible I haven't written about that damn bridge already? So I searched for "bridge" and found instead a post about our trip to Russia in 2003another about the swing set my father built for us, and this one, where I discovered he had wanted to put a labyrinth in our backyard.

I like that idea. Maybe this summer.

(Then we can obsess over how labyrinths symbolize life too!)

Clouds before sunset

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