I had to be near the top. Since nine in the morning I’d been walking uphill. My view had changed from a parched wasteland to semi-green mountains rippling into the distance. There was a steady breeze and it smelled of cows and farming. The air was cooler, but just about anywhere would have been cooler than the flats of Honduras.
I stuck my foot against the tire of my cart and looked across the street. An open-air two story structure was perched on the side of the mountain. On the first floor were plastic chairs and stumps in a circle, and against the wall was the gray double seat of a minivan. I tapped on my Fitbit to check the time.
That meant two hours of daylight and six miles to find a place to camp. Sundown was at 5:30 and beyond that I couldn’t be walking the streets of Honduras at night.
I knew I should have kept moving to find myself a hidden corner of land, but I’d walked twenty-one uphill miles and needed a seat.
So I cut across the road and parked my cart outside the open-air building. A tuk-tuk puttered up the hill behind me, its exhaust coughing black plumes.
There wasn’t any house around, but attached to the structure was a maze of cattle fencing and in a closed rectangle of fence a calf was kept. The calf couldn’t turn around, it stared up the road with its head rested on the wood. There were no other cattle.
I went into the shade of the structure and laid in a lounge chair strung with colored rubber wire. Savannah jumped onto the minivan seat.
A view of the Honduran mountains rolled out in front of us. I put my hands behind me head and closed my eyes, conscious of the tightness in back of my thighs. My calves were tight too, the muscles up the back of them felt like they’d been slowly cranked and twisted. I leaned forward and grabbed my toes to stretch out.
Some time passed and the longer I stayed the more I could feel my reluctance to leave.
It wasn’t the perfect spot to sleep, it was too exposed, the road was behind me and there were no walls to hide behind, but I hadn’t come across anything better and the next town wasn’t for another nine miles.
Ideally I would have found a hotel for the night, however, my last day in Honduras was on a road devoid of towns. I had no choice but to camp.
I poured water from my dromedary bag to my Nalgene. I took some photos of the mountains I sat above. Then while stuffing my camera back into my cart, a red pickup stopped a little ways up the hill, then reversed to me.
Great, I thought, I’m about to get the boot.
A gray-haired middle-age man leaned over his chubby pre-teen son to call out to me from the passenger side window. “Where you from?” he asked in Spanish.
“New Jersey,” I called back.
The man disappeared for a moment then hurried around his truck and over to me. He glanced back to his son still sitting in the truck. “Come on.”
The son, big-eyed and grinning, hopped out eagerly.
“We saw you walking this morning from Choluteca.”
Savannah walked to the man with her tail waging close to the ground, excited but unknowing. When the man patted her on the head she sprung onto her back legs and put her front paws on his belly. “No, no.” The man gently pushed her back to the ground.
“She an American too?” the man asked.
“Yup, bought her in Texas.”
Savannah went round to the boy who crouched to met her.
“It’s good you have a dog, very good, they can sense things, they know when a person is good or bad.” The man pointed to his eyes then to my eyes.
“How much further you walking today?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Well, in San Marcos there’s a hotel. I live there, in San Marcos, it’s a beautiful little town, expensive, but very cute, very cute little town. It’s only twelve kilometers from the border and eight kilometers from here.”
I’d looked at the map enough times to know San Marcos was nearer to twenty kilometers than eight – too far to reach before nightfall.
I pointed to the building behind me. “So this isn’t yours?”
“No, but I know the owner, he lives just around the corner in a house on the hill, you’ll see it, it’s a beautiful house, a red house on top of the hill. He’s a friend of mine, owns the ranch here.”
“Think it’d be alright if I slept here for the night?”
He waved my question off. “Of course, but sleep up there, it’ll be safer.”
I turned back to the structure and noticed a ladder to the second story I didn’t see before. ”Your friend won’t mind?”
“Perfect.” I smiled with the knowledge that I found my place to sleep and I was finished walking for the day.
We continued the conversation a little further, I told him about my journey, how far I’d come, how far I was going.
“Well, pleasure to meet you,” the man said and jutted out his farm-hardened hand.
“And you. Thanks.”
They got back in their truck and I went to sit back down.
I turned around. The son, still grinning with dimples in his fat cheeks, was holding out a Little Caesar’s box. “You like pizza?”
I laughed, not at his question, but at my incredible good fortune. Pizza! On the edges of Honduras where the closest town was twelve miles away.
I jogged over to the truck.
The kid shook the box. “Take it all.”
I took the box, which was light, there were only a few pieces, but I was suddenly warm like I’d been laying in a pizza oven. “Thanks again.”
They waved, then drove off.
I sat in my lounge chair, with my view of Honduras, and did my best to savor every bite of the three slices of pepperoni I had.
As the sun fell I unpacked what I needed from my cart then climbed the wooden ladder of two by fours and deposited my things one by one on the second story. I sealed my cart, hid it behind the van seat, then slung Savannah over my shoulder and brought her to the second story too.
On the second story there were two rooms. One was large and empty, the other was smaller and had a pile of tarps and extra wood in it. There was a wall around the rooms that tall enough for me to sit against and not be seen. The cutting mountain wind came over the walls forcefully so I put my down jacket on.
I laid out my tarp and arranged my things on its edges so the tarp wouldn’t fly away.
Night came quick. At my altitude the temperature dropped fast. I pulled my sleeping bag over me and leaned over my Nook.
By eight-thirty I was nodding to sleep. Fantasies of crossing into Nicaragua the following day passed through my mind.
In my half-sleep I listened to a motorbike roaring down the hill, then sat up when the noise stopped outside the structure I was in.
For a minute there was no sound but the idling bike, then a man yelled something in my direction.
Immediately I stood up, pale and shirtless, and went over to where I could look down. I thought it might be the man from earlier who’d given me pizza.
A silhouette of a man on a his motorbike was cast across the street. “Donna?”
“Donna?” I said back.
The silhouette said something else, but I couldn’t make it out, it was rough and annoyed.
I stood there as he drove off, down the mountain, then I realized how stupid I’d been. Why did I get up? Why did I greet the man? I should have stayed hidden. Let the man yell, unless he climbs the ladder he has no idea anyone is there.
I laid back down with the knowledge that I was marginally less safe now.
I was tired though and didn’t want to worry. I’d already picked my spot and had to take my chances with it. For a bit I teetered on the cusp of sleep.
But when headlights lit the structure and tires crunched gravel I threw my sleeping bag off and stood up.
I heard someone coming up the ladder, then an instant later a man sprung into the room so rapidly it was as though he snapped into existence just then. His flashlight shone in my eyes and while my eyes adjusted I could only see the outline of a man with a machete. Then the flashlight lowered some and he stepped forward into the orange glow of the headlights. I saw him briefly like a painting hung on a wall. He was an old man, sixty, seventy, his eyes were sharp and his presence was that of a twenty year old. His skin was as rich and dark as stained oak. Deep wrinkles creased his face and through them I could see all the years he’d worked in the field as clearly as I’d lived all those years myself.
For moment the old man was still. He held his machete at his side like a gunslinger before a duel.
Then he loosened. His whole shape changed when his shoulders dropped a fraction of an inch.
He laughed heartily then yelled down to the truck. “It’s a gringo!”
Another man laughed from below.
“Is this place yours?” I said, anxious to correct any misunderstanding between us.
“A man earlier said I could sleep here, a friend of yours, he had a son with him, maybe twelve, and was driving a red truck.”
“There’s no problem, you can sleep here.”
Savannah was beside the man with her tail wagging – some protector.
“No problem, relax.”
He shone his flashlight on my things then walked past me and used the light from his flashlight like it was a stick and he was dissecting a frog. He went into the smaller room, waved the flashlight around, then returned.
He spoke as he walked. “I was worried because last night some bad men stole a cow, so when my friend called and said someone was here I came as fast as I could. I wanted to catch them.”
“They stole your cow?”
The man’s eyes were flashing around, not concerned with me but unconvinced he hadn’t missed something. He walked by speaking as fast as any person I’ve ever heard. I caught a few words but not enough to make out everything. Kill, I heard. And he turned and mimed a gun to his head.
“Do you think they’ll come back?” I asked.
“No, no. You’re fine, you’re fine. Relax, sleep.” He pointed to my bed with his machete then disappeared down the ladder.
I walked over to the ladder and looked down to see him talking with a younger man. A moment later he climbed into the cattle fencing and was weaving through it flicking his flashlight every which way. After he worked his way through the cattle fencing he went back to the first story of the structure.
“You have a bicycle.” His head appeared beside the ladder looking up at me.
I thought of correcting him, telling him it wasn’t a bike, but he was moving too fast and my Spanish wasn’t good enough to explain what I was doing in an instant. “Yes,” I replied simply.
Then he disappeared again and I laid back down.
For thirty minutes there were flickers of light from his flashlight.
Then he was climbing the ladder so I sat up.
“Staying the night?” I asked.
“I have to.” He went into the little room and unfurled the innocuous pile of tarps and they were suddenly transformed into a bed with a blanket and pillow.
I laughed. “You have a bed.”
“I want some cookies? I mean, you want some cookies?” I fumbled over my Spanish. “I have Oreos.”
“Cookies?” He hurried over to me and held out a hand. I scrounged through my things until finding a pack of Oreos and handing them over.
He opened the pack and shoved a cookie in his mouth. He finished the pack in a minute while staring wide-eyed at the wall and standing beside my bed. When he finished he slipped his machete beneath his makeshift bed then laid down. “Relax, relax,” he said in the dark. “Go to sleep.”
And oddly enough, I did. It was easy to sleep when I had a personal bodyguard.