Alone in the Cloud Forest

    There is some irony to the inner workings of the human psyche and how it sometimes betrays us.  That that which we believe should bring us happiness and fulfillment can sometimes instead leave us with a feeling of emptiness instead.  I went to la Reserve de la Biosfera el Cielo seeking beauty and inspiration, but when I left three days later, I felt only loneliness, isolation, and resentment.

    When I woke up on my first day in Gomez Farias, it felt so wonderful and refreshing.  The morning light cascaded across the rustic little room from the huge wood and glass sliding doors and the sound of early birdsong filled the air.  I could see the verdant mountain range behind the banana trees in the nearby distance, washed in the fresh first light of day.  And the clean, soft sheets and thick, fluffy comforter were a most rewarding luxury as I lay there and contemplated my day: get up, enjoy a complementary breakfast across the lush tropical courtyard, buy the rest of my rations, prepare my hiking pack, and finally, begin my hike into el Cielo.  After my morning shower and a meal of mexican style scrambled eggs served with refried beans and fresh tortillas, a glass of orange juice and coffee, I headed up the thin mountain street to buy my supplies.  Off in the distance, on either side of the road, higher parallel mountain ranges flanked the lower one on which the main street of Gomez Farias ran.  It was a spectacular place to begin a day and I had soon purchased fresh loaves of bread from the local panaderia a block up the road, gotten a map of the trails from the local visitor information center, and finished with a few bottles of water.  Upon my return to the my room, I began constructing my hiking pack for the first time (which turned out to be quite an ordeal, since I had only done it once a few months ago and had forgotten how! Not as easy as it looks…).  Once all was packed, I rolled my bike and a small bag (of unnecessary clothing) up to the reception desk to leave behind at the hotel, and moments later was walking down the main street with my almost all of my equipment now on my back.

    It took some time to adjust to my new burden, but as I walked along I soon began to understand how to adjust the pack to better balance the weight.  Up ahead, three schoolgirls were on their way home from class in pastel pink dresses and it was a carefree feeling to listen to their laughter as they walked along.  Soon the road went from pavement to large, obtruding cobblestones jutting out from a dirt bed, and the small houses and tiendas started to disappear as the lush vegetation spilled nearer over the path ahead.  Eventually, all of the girls had turned off towards their respective homes and I could see that I was drawing nearer to the mountain ridge base.  As I approached a split in the path, I was unsure of which way to go, but a moment later three provincial, dark-skinned gentlemen with large machetes came ambling down the right path.  I asked them which was the way to Alta Cima (the first town on the way to the town of San Jose, way up in the mountains) and the first, and somewhat elder and wilier looking, told me to the left.  Behind him I could see one of the younger gentlemen shaking his head and discreetly holding his finger off to his side and pointing to the right.  At this point I wasn’t quite sure which way to go – the younger man made a gesture next to his head so as to suggest that the older one was a bit loco, and although I wasn’t sure if they were just playing games with me, the other younger man also seemed to agree, and so I decided to take their word on the matter.

    I thanked them for their invaluable help and was so utterly glad that I could begin my hike with such strong feelings of conviction…  Nonetheless, I carried on, and within a hundred paces the path had begun to take a steep upward climb and the ground was a compound of rocky debris and jagged slate.  Soon the forest around me began to feel more natural and I could feel myself ascending up into the range.  Although I had only seen one other tourist since I’d entered Mexico (which was the night before, on the street coming to the hotel, when I was completely exhausted), the entire time leading up to my excursion in el Cielo, I had completely expected to run into other travelers from around the world during my hike, and hopefully even some who spoke english (as I had hardly spoken to anyone the entire time since I entered the country, except to make transactions and some small talk).  Although my spanish is coming along well, it seems that people in Tamaulipas have been a bit brisk and unwilling to converse for long, so any new company along the way would most certainly be welcome.  But over the next few hours I passed no one on the path, and only stopped a several times to break from the trying uphill climb.  At one point I thought heard something, and when I stopped, I thought that it was the loud buzzing of a nest of bees, but as I carried on I later realized that it was just the ambient drone of thousands of insects in the forest.

    Somewhat of a feeling of solitude began to settle over me, but as I stopped to look at a mooing sound coming from the brush to the side of the path, I also heard a crunching noise coming towards me down the path.  I looked behind and saw a man coming up the way, and as he approached we began to talk to one another and hiked up the trail together.  His name was Fidel Garay, and he was a mexican tour guide for bird-watchers.  He lived in the town of Alta Cima and did the hike every day, and was also able to tell me that we weren’t far now (which was a relief, because there were no places to camp along the trail, since the brush came right up to the rocky ground, and I was beginning to feel the weight of my pack bearing down on me).  We plodded along up the hill, and within the next twenty minutes had arrived in Alta Cima.  The trail lowered gently out of the canopy of trees and opened out into a wide open grassy field surrounded on the two sides by mountaintops, and with the valley stretching out ahead.  We went a short while further and began to pass through the tiny, ramshackle village, which consisted of several houses and about two small tiendas, selling mostly small snacks and refreshments.  After we had walked for a few minutes further, Fidel handed me his card and told me that this was his house, and we said goodbye to one another.

    I walked a short distance further and soon spotted ahead a sign for Hotel Alpino.  Now, don’t get mislead by the name, this was actually just a large field with a few trees, some outhouses (and shower huts), and a two small, long shacks in two separate corners of the field, split into four rooms each.  I walked up to a nearer small building where two men were sitting and hanging out, as everyone seems to do here.  I asked how much the cost to camp was and he told me fifteen pesos (about a dollar fifty, can’t complain – plus a shower and toilet, yay!).  Moments later I was making my way out into the field and searching for a good spot to set up shop.  Once I had found one, nestled between two thickets with yellow flowers, I pitched my tent and was soon contemplating what I would have for my next meal.  I decided upon pb&j sandwiches and off to the side I noticed an area with several thin wooden pillars, a wooden canopy over the top, and a few chairs and tables underneath.  I headed over to sit and fix my meal, and no sooner had I set down my loaves and jars than I was spotted.  Within ten seconds they descended upon me!  I was surrounded by a whole herd of goats!  They clustered up against the table and my legs and began jutting their heads forward as if it was a Golden Corral buffet.  One even reared and made as if to jump forward with his front hooves onto the table.

    But I wasn’t having any!  I had hiked too darned far and was too darn hungry to put up with this BS (or GS)!  And anyway, everyone knows you don’t mess with Paul’s food.  So I began shouting at them in spanish to hit the road, and for a moment the stepped back, slightly dazed and alarmed.  But they lingered about and began inching forward again.  So I decided that this called for some more serious intimidation tactics.  I ran for the herd, flailing my arms as I did, as if I were a wild animal on the hunt!  They began to flee all willy nilly, this time in sheer terror – as in Mexico, you never know when you might become somebody’s next meal.  But the tactic worked, and soon I was able to sit and enjoy my sandwiches… or so I thought.  As I was spreading my peanut butter, I began to feel little pinches on my legs, and when I looked down, the mosquitos had found me.  And not just a few, but tens of incessant, insidious looking little buggers who lighted on any limb that was not moving.  I sat there and bounced my legs up and down on my toes for the next fifteen minutes while swatting at my arms with a peanut butter covered knife, and finally I had finished my meal and was just about ready to seek shelter.  It was still relatively early in the evening, and the sunlight spread out over the lengthening shadows of the mountains.  Although I had planned to sit at the table and read for the next few hours, I quickly changed my itinerary, and fled back to the tent which I hoped would be completely impermeable to the swarm.  Once safely inside, I pulled out my book and spent the next few hours lazily lying on my inflated mattress, with my knees bent (since I don’t fit lying straight out), reading in my tiny little house.  Although I was somewhat comfortable in the tent, I did feel somewhat like a prisoner and rued the wretched winged beasts for what they’d done to me!

    But as time went by, the sun slipped hazily behind the nearby green mountaintops and the light began to fade.  I turned on my little LED light (which I have to say, is AMAZING!  I use it constantly, and still haven’t had to change the batteries) and continued reading for the next couple of hours but finally began to feel drowsy and knew that in order to get in an adequate nights sleep before the early crooning of the local cock, I would have to call it a night.  Then, the second I had pressed the button to turn off the light and was plunged into darkness, the air around me glittered with tiny little flashes.  In every direction were thousands of fireflies, and thousands more hovering up in a nearby tree.  I had never seen anything like it, and as the glistening dots swirled around to the soft, enveloping murmur of endless crickets, I began to hear tiny raindrops on the tent roof.  I had not put on the tent’s rainfly, as it had looked clear earlier, but as the droplets came down they were so gentle and sporadic that I thought perhaps it would just pass.  I lay there staring hypnotized by the magical lights, the gentle chirping, and the delicate patter above for some time.  But after a while, the drops began to fall more frequently and I thought it best to think wisely before a torrent of rain should arrive.  I hopped out of the tent, began to spread the canopy and staked it down.  Once I finished, unzipped the door and climbed back in, I decided that this time it I should really get to bed and within moments was dozing away.

    When I awoke the next morning, it was quite glorious to wake up outside and not hear the roaring of engines going by, but instead to hear the cockadoodledoo of roosters, whinnying of hourses, bleating of goats, whistling of many a bird-song, and the chirping of morning crickets.  I lay there for a while snuggled in my sleeping bag and quite comfortable (since I hadn’t had to apply sunscreen the day before, which I’ve found is the factor that really makes me feel sticky when I get into bed).  When I finally unzipped the rain-fly to looked outside, I was greeted by moist, grayish clouds lolling out across the mountainsides and completely enveloping the peaks.  It was a majestic sight to behold and as I climbed out of the tent I saw that the entire valley was smothered in the ethereal mist.  I decided that today was a good day for a shower and grabbed my little shammy while slipping on my flip flops.  Once I had reached the little shower stall, standing out in the field, I stepped in and turned on the water, knowing full well what I was about to get myself into.  The water was icy cold, but I knew that this was a reality that I needed to start getting used to, and have been no stranger to in times past.  YOUCH!  But that first step under is always a shocker!  Fortunately, I was quickly acclimating to the frigid water (which basically just means I was going completely numb) and was no sooner zest-fully clean.

    I headed back to the tent, fixed myself a quick breakfast of bananas and bread, dismantled my tent and stuffed my pack (which always sounds like a quick task, but this all takes about an hour an a half).  Ready to set off, I began to make my way back to the track and the way to San Jose.  The campground had been at the edge of the town, and almost immediately as I set off into the woods, the path began to climb steeply upward again.  It wound around ridges along the side of one mountain and then on to the next.  I felt the altitude increasing quickly and was soon completely enshrouded in a thick, moist fog.  I knew that I was now in the clouds and could now only hear the muted murmur of the forest around me, and feel the humid air on my skin.  The foliage of the canopy trees were just hazy outlines as I hiked ever higher.  After a few hours I entered a clearing, which I recognized from my map as the Valle de Ovni, a small campground way up high.  I passed along in utter silence, the place was earily deserted, and other than two locals on donkeys, I had not seen anyone for almost the entire day.  Once I was walking farther along the path, I looked at the map and saw that San Jose should not be far now, and after passing another deserted campground about ten minutes later, I soon began to descend into a shallow valley.  Up ahead were more haphazard small houses and as I entered into the muffled silence of the village, a woman walked out from one of the houses towards me.  She told me that there was a fifteen peso charge for hikers, to maintain the trails (or whatever they really use it for), and I readily payed it.  She also tried to sell me some overpriced and none too unique crafts, but I thanked her and slowly went on.  I walked ahead at a snails pace, somewhat disoriented and wondering if this is what I had come for.  The village was tiny and sparsely nestled around the bases of the surrounding mountain ridge.  Other than the mysteriously echoing sound of some unseen children playing in some distant grove or yard, there was almost no noise.  There was a small cluster of mountain “cabanas” off to one side, but not hikers or visitors to be seen.  Somehow I just felt utterly alone.

    I wandered around the deserted village area and it felt reminiscent of some science fiction movie where everyone had just disappeared from the town.  I had developed quite a hunger by this time, as I had barely eaten any breakfast and had been hiking for several hours, so I thought it best to break for lunch.  I found a cluster of rocks protruding from a nearby field and headed toward them to have a seat and prepare my PB&J tortilla wraps.  As I did, I thought to myself, do I really want to camp out here, alone, or worse yet, as an outcast when the villagers see me out in the field in the evening.  I’m not sure if it was something within me or something about that place or the stillness and halo of grey clouds that clung to the mountaintops all around, but I decided that the answer was no.  There was nothing here for me and suddenly I yearned to be back in a modern town, a city, a place where I knew someone or at least where there was the potential to meet and begin conversation with someone.  The seed had been planted – my mind no longer looked towards ascending into el Cielo, but instead towards the civilization and beaches of Tampico.

    I finished my lunch, shouldered my hiking pack, and began heading back along the path from which I had come.  It was somewhat unfulfilling to jut plod back along, never having quite found that intangible satisfaction which I had come here seeking.  I felt restless and impatient to be out of here, but I knew that I still had many miles to go.  By this point, the afternoon sun had begun to burn off some of the grey clouds that had obscured the distant vista before.  And although the views from off the sides of the trail down the mountainsides were breathtakingly gorgeous, somehow the endless mountaintops the spilled out infinitely across the horizon only reminded me of just how far away I really was from the world.  But I continued on, hoping to make good enough time to reach Gomez Farias by nightfall, if not Alta Cima for another night of camping.  Fortunately, although the downhill climb was almost as strenuous as the uphill (but in different ways), it was much faster.  By late afternoon I had already rounded one peak and could see the descent into Alta Cima far below.  Not long later, I had arrived in the town, and although I had planned to stop and take a break there to recover from the heavy burden that I bore on my back, for some reason my feet would not stop.  So I trudged on forward, by this point having hiked for about eight hours straight with almost no break but that which I had taken for lunch.  My shoulders felt crushed, calves burning, feet compacted, and toes blistered, but yet I wanted to be back.

    At this point I was practically bounding down the craggy path, through the underbrush and below the thick canopy of overhanging trees.  Again, several hours passed, and I yearned now not only to be back around others, but also to be rid of my pack, off my feet, in a shower, and lying in bed.  At long last, the path emerged from the forest and up ahead I could see the cobblestone street – I was almost there!  But of course, I had forgotten just how far along that street I had come before I’d reached the beginning of the trail, and on top of that, now I was far more haggard than when I had left and it was again an uphill climb back to the hilltop of Gomez Farias.  I went along, cursing the forsaken cobblestones against my poor, abused feet and kept thinking to myself “just over this next hill… just around this next bend.”  Yet eventually, I was back on the paved road and all I could think of was checking back in to Casa de Piedras, shrugging my shoulders backwards and letting my pack collapse on the ground, and myself falling headfirst onto the large, welcoming bed.

    And eventually, I had my wish.  The lady who greeted me at the front desk quickly saw that I was in a rough state, grabbed a key, and led me to a room.  She opened the door and let me inside and left – I could take care of the rest later.  I didn’t even close the door.  Within a split second my pack was down, I was pulling off my wet, salty clothes and was in for a cold shower, which now only seemed prudent before lying on the clean bed… especially if later I wasn’t able to stand up.  The cold water felt like heaven on my skin as I let it spill down over me.  But I didn’t want to stay long, so I finished up and toweled off and then fell sideways onto the fluffy comforter of the bed.  I lay there for about a half an hour and once I was there I could no longer bear the thought of getting up or going anywhere, although I had grown quite ravenous.  I remembered that I still had my rations of PB&J tortillas and moments later was rummaging through my bag for them.  Fortunately, the room had also come stocked with two bottles of water, and as I lay there like a paraplegic, I luxuriated in the simple pleasures of life that I was able to enjoy in those wonderful moments.  Again I could hear the soft sound of the birds in the courtyard outside and a gentle breeze caressed the cream-colored linen curtains as golden outlines of silhouetted leaves danced upon it.  This was the perfect way to end the strange ordeal that I had put myself through since leaving San Jose, and tomorrow was another day and the distant glimmer of Tampico and the hope of new adventures and new friends seemed imminent as I drifted off into my cool, cotton snuggled dreams.


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