Beyond the Páramo I set my tent on the edge of a cliff bordered by pine trees and tall grass. The grass hid me from the road and the trees gave me some protection from the wind. Through the bug net of my tent I could see the massive Andean gorge splitting two mountains. Following the curve of the mountains a narrow road descended.
I curled in my sleeping bag with my wool shirt still on. Savannah laid in the corner and watched me read until I fell asleep.
Sometime later the high altitude winds whistling against my tent woke me. The wind cut through the thin walls around me and through my down sleeping bag too. For the first time during my walk my sleeping bag wasn’t enough to keep me warm. The sleeping bag was rated for thirty degrees, but I was at ten thousand feet and with the wind it was probably fifteen degrees.
I fought to ignore the cold, catching twenty minutes of sleep at a time. Around midnight I realized I could pull my down jacket into my sleeping bag and over my legs. That helped and I slept until morning.
At five-thirty in the darkness I packed my things.
“Alright,” I said stiffly to Savannah. The air was bitterly cold, I could see my breath and feel it piercing the tops of my ears.
Savannah’s tailed wagged and she leapt over some rocks to get ahead of the cart.
We made our way down. For a bit I could barely bend my fingers, but after an hour the air warmed with the rising sun.
There was no cell service. I searched the mountain tops for a cell tower but there was none. I walked in silence. There were few houses, only ranches.
At a musty brick store I bought two empanadas and an energy drink for breakfast – the lack of sleep demanded caffeine. I sat on a bench beside the doorway, glad for the warming air.
A mother wrapped in colorful wools appeared from behind a wall holding the hand of her tiny daughter.
“Your dog is very beautiful,” she said.
“Thanks.” I patted Savannah on the side.
“Do you have any puppies?”
“I don’t, I’m sorry, she’s had surgery.”
The woman smiled then turned and disappeared behind the wall.
“Alright,” I said, standing.
Savannah jumped up at my word then we were back on the road.
It was all downhill. I had to pull against to the cart to keep it from rolling away. My calves and thighs rejoiced, but my knees and lower back were being hammered by each rough step.
We walked and walked. I took off my down jacket, then an hour later I changed my wool shirt for my long sleeve shirt. Then the sun was free of the clouds and I changed to my short sleeve shirt.
The mountains rose sharply off the road. Corn fields made grids on the landscape. Cows mooed and their noise carried hundreds of yards. We walked and walked.
By two in the afternoon we’d covered twenty-three miles. For thirty minutes we rested, but I wasn’t tired yet so we pressed on.
That night we set camp beside a corn field being turned over. The air was far muggier than it had been in the mountains. I could feel it on my skin as I lay in my tent.
A truck pulled onto the land then stopped. A man in blue jeans and white shirt stepped out and stared in my direction, far down a grass-covered drive.
Reluctantly I left my tent and walked to him. I was barefoot, shirtless and walked tightly from the thirty miles I’d already covered that day. If he was going to kick me off his land so be it, I was trespassing and too tired to care if I had to walk further, I’d find somewhere on the side of the road if it came to that.
“Hello,” I said once I was near enough.
We shook hands and the man nodded. His wife peered at me through the windshield of the truck.
“I’m sorry. I’m traveling. I was just looking for a safe place to sleep.”
The man leaned to look past me to my tent.
“Just for tonight?”
“Just for tonight. At five tomorrow morning-” I whistled. “I’m gone.”
We shook hands again.
Normally I would have stayed around for pleasantries and to put my host at ease, but I was exhausted. I could think of nothing but sleep.
In the morning the road was flatter but still descending. Jungle took over. Huge palm leaves the height of men shrouded the shores of the pavement. I was sweating and Savannah was panting.
My left knee throbbed. Some years before, when I was eleven or twelve, I partially tore my MCL. I could feel it.
At the first shack I came across I stopped for breakfast. There wasn’t anything else around, I was hungry, and I feared it’d be another five hours before I found anywhere else to eat.
A husband and wife were moving around their bamboo-walled kitchen when I leaned on the doorway.
“Do you have breakfast?”
The man grinned as though thinking of something hysterical he had to keep to himself.
“What do you have?”
His wife came over to stand beside him. They looked like brother and sister, both with slightly hooked noses and straight eyebrows that made them seem exceedingly vulnerable and human.
“Gallina criolla,” answered the wife.
“How is it?”
“Yes, but how is it prepared? I’ve never heard of it before.”
“Oh.” They both brightened, apparently delighting in being able to show me something new. “It’s a traditional breakfast here. A soup with chicken, yuca and spices. It’s very good.”
I dropped into a plastic seat and Savannah sat on the floor beneath me. The thirty miles from the day before throbbed in my bones. Still sitting, I straightened my legs and reached down to my toes. Then I rubbed my palm on the side of my thigh against my MCL. The massaging helped relieve some of the pain, but I knew once I was on my feet it would start up again.
Trucks pulled to the curb and their drivers filled in the other tables. A young driver jostled my cart curiously. I smiled at him and he pulled his hand back.
I was poured milk for coffee. I scooped three spoonfuls of instant coffee into the milk then drained the mug greedily. When the soup came out I tore through that too, giving the bones of the chicken to Savannah.
“Where are you from?” the husband asked, standing beside my chair.
I looked up from a spoonful. “America.”
The husband grinned, as though an adult momentarily allowed to be a child again. “And you came all the way here? There’s nothing here.” He laughed at the absurdity of it.
“I was on the Pan-American to Perú but this way is shorter.”
“It’s also more dangerous.”
The man shrugged, discarding his last sentence.
Savannah crawled out from under the chair and swung a paw at the man’s foot.
“What’s her name?”
“She’s very pretty.”
Savannah sat in front of the man and he rubbed his hands briskly against her cheeks. “Why did you come here?”
“Is it to know the world?”
“I’d like to…” the man started in English.
“You speak English?” I said excitedly.
“No. A little. The same as your Spanish.”
“A man needs to learn something,” he said in Spanish.
I agreed, but could think of nothing profound enough to return in my second language so I was quiet for a moment then awkwardly shifted subjects back into my wheelhouse. “How much do I owe?” I said feebly.
I paid then departed.
The caffeine wobbled my concentration with excess energy. My focus went in and out.
Savannah trotted as I limped. We covered some miles and gradually the pain in my knee faded. The jungle grew denser. At some point much further along we came to a bridge taken out by the earthquake a few months before. The cars and motorcycles took a dusty path down into the shallow part of the river then back to the Pan-American.
I stood at the edge of the road and looked into the river were slabs of concrete guided new paths of water.
A police officer in an orange vest who’d been controlling traffic looked to me. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Walking,” I said. “Always walking.”
I bent over to rub my MCL, then Savannah and I pressed on.