I feel like a spider whose web was just obliterated by the stick of an uneasy hiker. One second I’m gracefully scuttling across a grid of rocks, and the next I’m flailing on what feels like the edge of the earth, as if someone reached down from the sky and karate-chopped the rest of this bluff out from under me. Technically I am standing right-side-up. I am vertical, balanced upright (for now) on a single toe with the sky above my head and rocks below. That lone big toe rests on a ledge no more than an inch thick while my other leg dangles down the sheer, black, jagged face of this bluff. My hands grip the thin sill of rock above my head so tightly I fear the little bones of my fingers might snap.
For a moment I am stable here: behind me the Pacific roars, somewhere above and beyond all this rock is my island, and back the way I came lies the beach where I began this perilous expedition. I look over my left shoulder and focus on the end of the beach, its crescent curve peeking from beyond the bluff, a winking glint of white sand in the sunlight, taunting me to come back, daring me not to.
Here I am clinging to the rugged bluff of a wild jungle island in the Pacific; the closest thing to civilization is a two-road fishing village with a population of about 200 people, a 20-minute boat ride away on the Panamanian mainland. I’m wearing yoga pants and barefoot running shoes, both full of holes from these unforgiving volcanic rocks, seriously regretting that I’d never given a second look to those colorful knobs bolted to the wall at my gym thousands of miles away in Chicago. I know I’ve heard of a belay, but the first thing that comes to mind is a fancy toilet that shoots water at you.
(I’m obviously not a rock climber.)
“Will I need like, hiking pants?” I had asked my coworker that morning when we unfolded the map and chose this seemingly innocent curve of coast as the uncharted bit of island terrain we would get to know today. He shrugged.
Neither of us are in hiking pants; he’s somewhere beyond me, around this bend that smells like salt water and damp earth. I haven’t heard a scream or the sound of his body splashing into the ocean yet. So I take a deep breath and place a bet on a tiny outcropping that I hope will not crumble in my hand (it doesn’t). Five teetering grasps later the island rises up to meet me and I confidently place my entire foot on the smooth face of a tide-washed boulder. When I turn around, I am rewarded with a stunning new panorama of the most beautiful place I’ve ever known. A chaotic assemblage of rock begins under my feet and ends straight ahead at Mermaid’s Point, a cubic cairn rising defiantly from the sea, large enough to be visible even at high tide, but too small to be an islet that might support a sea-battered tree, it is topped only with a lime green tuft of mossy hair. Beyond the point stretches the aqua blue of the Pacific, topped by the indigo blue shadows of neighboring islands, topped by the cerulean blue veil of sky.
The fierce curve of island I thought I wouldn’t surpass continues to bend inward, digging a deep gorge into the land perhaps 15 feet wide and 60 feet deep lined with rock and filled with the sea at high tide. It is now low tide and where the ocean has receded it left a perfect square of white sand just about as wide and tall as I am. I make my way down to this secret swathe of beach that seems to have been made just for me, and I let my body appreciate every square millimeter of solid ground beneath it. My heart freed from its racing pulse, my muscles relaxed out of their tense grip, and a satisfied smile engulfing my face – I am undeniably alive.
Navigating wilderness is not a sport, it’s a passion.
Despite all the should have’s racing through my mind when I was mid-dangle, fearing my ultimate demise in a human tangle of guts on the rocks below, I’ve not since taken up the sport of “rock climbing.” (I did, however, look up belay and in so doing I deleted my cognitive reference to a bidet – and discovered that it wouldn’t have been useful to me anyway.) For related reasons, I have not taken up surfing. If I tried standing on a surf board, I’d probably end up with a concussion as I am the world’s most unbalanced girl (but of course, I still want to try), and although I log 10-15 miles a day on my road bike in the city, my experiences mountain biking on Isla Palenque have been, well, a bit traumatic.
Adventurous I am, but a sportswoman I unfortunately, am not. So rather than offend the rock climbing aficionados and professionals who are nothing short of vertical artists, I’ve decided to dub my experiences navigating the volcanic bluffs and rocky outcroppings on Isla Palenque “rock hiking.”
Rock hiking takes little more than an able body, a brave mind, and a deep passion for exploration. Most importantly, rock hiking doesn’t come saddled with the intimidation of learning a new “sport” with all its fancy equipment, written rules, and hardcore practitioners. A “real” rock climber most likely could have made his way around this bluff without hesitation, but I’ll dare to venture that a “real” rock climber wouldn’t have had one of the most powerful hours of his life learning how to do it.
Growing up, I always thought it was one way or the other – you’re either good at sports, or you’re good at creative “indoor” kind of stuff. So art I did and camping I did not. Travel changed that for me, placing me atop mountains, within caves and on islands that inspire me to trek. For those of you with a passion to know the natural world but without a sport that gets you out in it, I invite you to join me as an outdoors(wo)man who doesn’t have to be a sports(wo)man. Go outside – let the outdoors confront you so that you are in a direct physical relationship with it in a way that forces you to know it deeply and appreciate it like never before. Send the daredevils off ahead of you and take your time. Make up words but shed labels. It’s going to be fun, trust me.