Friday, February 1, 2008

The Hike

It was his first hike. The rest of us had been hiking for years. I had been doing so since I was 15 and had discovered this way of escaping my family every Sunday. When you are 15, finding healthy ways to get away from your family is not easy.

No, I'm wrong, it was not his first hike, but his second. He had come the preceding week, alone. It had been an easy hike, for beginners. And he was so enamored by the experience that he decided to return the next week with his family. And his gun.

He showed off this gun, proudly. It was a new semi-automatic. I could tell from the faces of some of the other hikers that they were not pleased. We were a peaceful group; we had always assumed that there were bandits in the hills, but our philosophy was that if we didn't bother them, they probably would not bother us. And until that day, that was true.

But there was more to displease us than the gun. He had brought his wife, fully made-up, in a skirt, and sandals with heels. His children were dressed slightly more appropriately. As a family, they seemed ill-equipped for a 10 mile hike.

For a while, I walked with one of his sons. We were hiking towards a waterfall that I knew well, but from a direction I did not know at all. And so when we got lost, we decided to walk out to the beach and ask for directions. When we re-entered the forest, we ran into his father. He was bleeding profusely from a shoulder. Upon seeing his son, the father became hysterical and started screaming his name.

I will never forget that scream. To this day, if I make myself think of it as I am doing now by writing this story, it raises the hairs on the back of my neck. Incoherently, the father told a story about being accosted by bandits, about shooting and being shot, about his wife escaping and hiding, about the group being splintered and scattered and traumatized.

I won't bother you with the details of how we made it out of the forest alive. Suffice it to say that several of the men had to take turns carrying the wife on their backs because she had twisted her ankle running in her fancy heels. Apparently the bandits had found the gun display to be too irresistible. When he refused their request to hand it over, they shot him. The group then scattered in all directions. It took us hours to find each other, to calm down, to re-group, and to take turns toting their bags, and the wife. The return hike was silent, faces grim, sweating, unhappy, traumatized.

Because I was no longer 15, my family had no say in whether or not I was allowed to continue hiking with this group. But I knew intuitively that if I did not keep my weekly date with the rain forest, I would never hike again. We had already planned to spend the next weekend in the forest. We wanted to see the giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs. We had already picked a remote spot on the north coast of the island, one of the non-touristy beaches that you could only get to by boat, or by hiking through the forest.

That Saturday morning, we met in our usual spot. Only three of us showed up, one a brand new member whom I had previously invited and who was coming on his very first hike, motivated by the possibility of becoming my lover. The rest of the group never appeared. They had scattered, were splintered, still traumatized.

That is how trauma affects many individuals. People instinctively avoid, they dread facing the source of trauma, they become emotionally blunted. Some have nightmares, from which they wake up screaming. Some become hypervigilant, and start seeing attackers everywhere. Some lose all memory of the trauma. Others find that they cannot forget it.

Research now shows that it matters little what the nature of the trauma involves. Rape victims, soldiers returning from Iraq, and plane crash survivors share a common spectrum of reactions, the hallmark of which is a desire to avoid any reminders of the traumatic experience, a tendency to re-experience the trauma despite all efforts to avoid it, and an effort to cope by blunting oneself emotionally. More than likely this is what happened to the rest of the group. I assume this based on the fact that they never hiked again. And this is how the experience may have affected me had I not consciously decided that I would not become afraid of my beloved rain forest, that I would not avoid it, that I would accept as I had always accepted that there were bandits in the hills and that if I didn't bother them, they probably would not bother me.

And so I went back into the forest, and spent a platonic weekend with two men, one of whom eventually became my lover. And that weekend, Praise Jah, the bandits did not bother us, and we in turn neither tempted nor bothered them.

And, for the first time in my life, I was privileged to witness the amazing sight of giant leatherback turtles wading to shore, digging holes in the sand, laying their eggs, covering them up protectively, and journeying wearily back into the water. We did not bother them.
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