A Tolkienesque Adventure

This Wednesday, I planned on walking from the school to Puerto Ayora on el camino viejo, or the “old path” that people used to walk before the asphalt road was created and cars became common. I had been told a few weeks before that the National Park recently cleared the trail and that it would be a great place to take kids to see quite a few species of finch and plenty of other birds. Last week I’d found the end of the trail on the upper edge of Puerto Ayora, and I thought I knew where to start from Tomás de Berlanga downhill.

I left the school at 10:45AM after covering 3rd graders for two hours between exams (we read eight or nine stories and then they played on their own) with my backpack full of food, snorkeling gear, and papier-mâché materials for my planned afternoon of lunch, the beach, and Bird Club. The path, which was about two meters wide of mostly cleared earth, weeds, and lots of lava rock, had the occasional green and white wooden poles the Park uses to demarcate National Park territory, and was always bordered on the left side by a barbed wire fence. Sometimes I passed farmland on the left, other times forest similar to that on the dense right side. Passion fruit often littered the path, and a couple times I passed orange trees, so I ended up never even considering the snacks in my backpack.

Within the first forty-five minutes of walking, I had already found a Dark-billed Cuckoo, Warbler Finches, Vegetarian Finches, Large Ground Finches, and Large Tree Finches! The cuckoo and the first three finch species I had not seen before, and the latter I hadn’t been sure of until now. The cuckoo in particular was quite special, since none of my students, nor anyone else I’d spoken to apart from guides, even knew the species existed. My guidebooks say it is “more often heard than seen,” “secretive,” and “very shy”; indeed I only saw it for a second as it flew away from the trail, its prominent white tail-bars easing its identification.

An activity that I often enjoy when walking on paths cluttered with lots of roots and rocks is trying to never touch the ground, and traipsing only on fallen logs, projecting roots, and sturdy rocks (often not so sturdy after all, which adds to the fun). Since the trail requires one’s constant attention to prevent tripping anyway, why not make it more entertaining? With the additional element of speed (around or under that of a jog, in this case), the game becomes a sort of forest parkour, or in this case “lava-loping,” as I call it. For hours I progressed along the trail in this manner, stopping occasionally to take videos or pick up fallen fruit. For hours I wondered why the path never seemed to consistently maintain a downward slope, as it should when going from the school to the shore.

What the trail looks like in some areas

Agricultural areas that border the Park have a required border of cleared land, about two meters wide, that the rangers cut down or spray with herbicide every now and then to maintain an open path between farm fences and National Park territory. I knew this at the time of my trek, and believed the trail through the Park might be the same sort of thing, which is why I hadn’t been surprised at the sight of chickens scurrying along the path every couple kilometers, or signs that the land on my left might be farmland (I never saw cattle, crops, or humans the whole way, however).

By 1PM I had climbed a tree to attempt to get some bearings, but the surrounding landscape, as it had been the whole trip, didn’t even show a horizon, only trees blocking my view. From noon till 2PM I debated between turning around or continuing onwards—between risking the trip back only to find out later that I’d been on the right trail, and risking the waste of whatever further time I continued before being forced to turn around and get a taxi down to the Puerto by 4PM from the school. Slight changes in surrounding greenery, such as the appearance of a couple cacti and increase in other dry undergrowth, sustained my hope that I was in fact headed downhill towards the lowlands.

But at 2PM I was at the point where continuing on the wrong trail would mean I’d never make it to the Bird Club meeting in time, and if I turned back at double my speed on the way over I could get there by 4PM. I took out my Twix Bar and hastily scarfed it, washing it down with some water. This would be my only break until I reached Parque San Francisco, the Bird Club meeting point.

This past spring semester, my friends and I watched the three Lord of The Rings films within a couple days of each other, and I experienced the extended editions of the movies for the first time (making the total viewing time between ten and twelve hours). In June, I read the trilogy—which I hadn’t read for myself, but had been read to by my mother as a kid—after borrowing The Return of the King (Book III) from one of my advanced English students.

So it should be no surprise to hear that, while “lava-loping,” I had thought myself not unlike Legolas stepping on top of snow without breaking its surface, or crossing a river by walking along a taut rope. The long, snaking roots of large trees that served as some of the fence-posts along the left side of the trail, as well as the omnipresent lava on the ground, made it quite fun to go forever without touching earth.

All this happened on the calm, three-hour trip till 2:00PM. Once I realized I had to be at the school by 3:45PM at the latest, and thus had to go back the way I came double-time, my return journey was more similar, in my mind, to the long hunt of the Uruk-hai by the three companions (Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli) across plains, over mountain ranges, and through forests with barely a pause for sleep in several days. Carrying my backpack (still heavily full) and alternating between speed-walk and brisk jog, I felt more like Gimli for the ninety minutes I spent headed back to the school than Legolas, though some of the downhill and the less rugged uphill portions allowed for what I hope were bursts of Aragorn to shine through my weary frame.

Just as the three companions were rushing to save the two hobbits from Saruman, I had to reach the meeting point for the Bird Club before whatever halflings had arrived started to wander back home disappointed. Instead of running over the incredibly beautiful mountain ranges of New Zealand like Peter Jackson’s great crew, I was sprinting over jagged lava that, but for the deep green moss that often grew over it and the presence of chirping birds, could easily be the terrain of Mordor. The tiny but persistently annoying webs of Shelob’s distant and harmless relatives often wrapped themselves around my face, and my Black Rider equivalent was an appalling species of plant: a hellish herb with a red stem and spade-shaped leaves, covered with fine hairs as potent as spiny caterpillars that cause stinging irritation at the slightest touch. This forsworn flora made my jogging more interesting, but not more enjoyable, as my ankles were soon red and incredibly itchy—luckily within six or seven minutes of each contact the inflammation vanishes, and I was more careful to slow down when I saw the wraith weed. Should the trees that grow along the borders of the path be sentient and have some form of language, I am confident my return trip will be talked about for the next hundred years: I deem it impossible that at any point during the history of this certain patch of Santa Cruz anything larger than a dog has ever run through the forest, not only because it would have been unachievable before the trail was created (which was within the past 5 decades) but because nobody would ever need, or want, to run along this type of terrain in such an isolated area.

I arrived back at the start of my trail before 3:30PM, so I walked to the main road and waited for a taxi, which took ten minutes, and then the driver was sipping milk and chewing noisily on something, so his driving was far below the average Santa Cruz taxi speed (which is generally high, like any taxi driver anywhere in the world). At 4:00PM—give or take a number of seconds, by my watch—I got to the Parque San Francisco and two boys were waiting there. Another girl arrived shortly thereafter, and we made our balloons.

Speaking with a scientist who works at the Charles Darwin Foundation later that night, I learned that I had likely gone in a wide circle around farmland in the area not far from the school, possibly decreasing in altitude a little but never deviating from the border between agricultural land and Park territory, since I was always next to that barbed wire fence and there were no forks in the path. My trek, lasting around 4 hours and 45 minutes, had yielded the sighting of four new (for me) bird species and the verification of a fifth; the discovery of some quite vicious vegetation; unnecessary familiarity with the borders of probably a dozen farms in the region; and the confirmation that I did not, in fact, know where the camino viejo started near the school. Whatever the coordinates of the point I reached at 2PM, when I decided to turn around I had gone there and back again with much less to show for it than others have in their Tolkienesque adventures.

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