Over the Mountain the Through the Jungle, to Somewhere or Other
Our protagonist suspected he was the only person in all of Costa Rica wearing long pants.
How had a person who detested sun and beaches and lounging by a pool come to be in a beach-side resort in Costa Rica? He couldn’t have explained it if he’d tried. For our purposes, suffice it to say it’s a different story, and a sad one, and demonstrably inferior to this one in that it doesn’t have pictures.
Our protagonist was on the aforementioned beach, feeling miserable for reasons more related to the aforementioned sad story than the sun, sand, and annoying joviality of the other vacationers. He made a spontaneous decision to walk inland and hike through the jungle to a mountaintop visible in the distance. He asked one of the hotel’s employees and was assured there would be a trail, so he went back to his hotel room to get prepared.
Lesson #1. Wear sunscreen in Costa Rica. If you are very fair skinned, wear lots. If you are bald and fair skinned, wear lots and always wear a hat. And you probably also shouldn’t go to Costa Rica.
Lesson #2. When setting out for a trek through the jungle, take lots of water. It’s important to stay hydrated. And it will prevent your mother from worrying.
Lesson #3. Don’t mention that the jungle has jaguars in it. It will cause your mother to worry.
[Editor’s Note: The lessons in this story are not in order of importance. Or maybe they are. The narrator has recently experienced a sad story that’s remarkably similar to that of the protagonist, and we would be wise to treat his judgement with a healthy degree of skepticism.]
After his phone call with his parents where such life lessons abounded, our protagonist put on pants to avoid augmenting his new collection of bug bites around his ankles. He lacquered himself in another layer of sunscreen and bug repellant, a concoction so thick and so loaded with carcinogens that he expected to eventually be completely encased like a mosquito in amber, then consumed by every known kind of cancer until he was left an empty shell inside a blob of solidified goo. And that seemed fitting for his emotional state. He left the hotel and walked over to the nearby shop to ask for directions. The person at the counter was, to date, the only person in all of Costa Rica to give our protagonist bad service. The day before, the man behind the counter had short-changed our protagonist, inflating the price of an already ridiculously expensive Snickers bar by offering change in Colones, the local currency, on a purchase made in dollars, producing a significant deficit in the cashier’s favor. Our protagonist frequently has to tell people that he’s not as dumb as he looks, a disarming statement because he does look pretty dumb, and one does not expect to hear an acknowledgement of that fact from a dumb-looking person. Today, when our protagonist asked the person behind the counter to confirm the directions he’d been given to the trailhead, the cashier was surly and then admitted he’d never been in that direction. The confession seemed to pain him. Our protagonist decided this was appropriate shame. After all, the hotel was in an isolated spot with only two habitated locations nearby, one in either direction. The cashier had only gone one way. Ever. This was not the right person to be asking directions. Our protagonist decided to indulge the man’s judgment that our protagonist is just as dumb as he looks. The cashier’s world seemed quite limited, and if our protagonist could bring some small comfort into it, that was a kindness with no cost.
So our protagonist found a road. And he found a much more knowledgeable and helpful gardener who pointed him down that road. And a security guard who confirmed the gardener's directions. A decent chance remained that our protagonist would get lost. He felt deeply at peace with this. Our protagonist, you see, was lost in deeper ways, and the prospect of getting lost far from the hated sandy beach didn’t bother him much.
Lesson #4. Sometimes you just have to find a road and walk down it. Not because it will necessarily lead you anywhere. Not because it’s necessarily better than staying still. Not because there’s some hippie-dippy inherent value to the journey. Just because you feel compelled.
Lesson #5. There is a kind of lost that cannot be exceeded. The superlative of lost. Lost-est. That’s freeing.
Lesson #6. Freedom is not an inherent good. Some libertarians may tell you it is. Libertarians are pseudo-intellectual, selfish, moral cripples who think that because they can take care of themselves, they shouldn’t have to take care of anyone else. They don’t understand how oppressive freedom can be. Punt a libertarian through an airlock and ask him how much he likes freedom.
Our protagonist, having recently been punted through an emotional airlock, choose to listen to the same song on his earbuds on repeat. Early in his marriage, his habit of listening to a single song until he memorized the lyrics had driven his wife up the wall. Now that she was his ex-wife (soon-to-be-ex? The narrator is unsure), her tastes suddenly carried less weight. He sang along. Sometimes he even danced along as he walked. No single human soul could see or hear him. A bus, a motorcycle, and a couple cars passed by, and our protagonist found he didn’t even need to stop singing or lower his voice.
Lesson #7. Singing loudly, even obnoxiously loudly, can be a comfort. To the singer.
Lesson #8. Learn to be a selfish singer. This can take a long time to learn.
So he sang as he walked.
“I got my ticket for the long way ‘round
Two bottle ‘a whiskey for the way
And I sure would like some sweet company
And I’m leaving tomorrow, wha-do-ya say?”
Eventually, the paved road turned into a dirt road. The jungle crept a bit closer.
Lesson #9. Sometimes the paths we choose get harder. That doesn’t mean you’re going in the right direction or the wrong direction. It’s just the way roads work.
After a time, our protagonist discovered some horses along the side of the road. He sang to them. They didn’t seem to mind. One made our protagonist think of some reference to a pale rider on a pale horse, but the jungle was so lush and vibrant that allusions to death seemed inappropriate. Our protagonist also found a misplaced key in the road. He tried to imbue that with some meaning … and failed.
Lesson #10. Lots of things are arbitrary and meaningless. Some people have trouble admitting that. Maybe everything is arbitrary and meaningless. Different people have trouble admitting that.
He discovered a bar in the jungle called “Monky’s.” Our protagonist found the misspelling charming. Inside, he spoke with the bartender about the path and was given more specific directions up the mountain. Our protagonist pledged to return for a drink on his way back. He would break that promise.
Lesson #11. Foreshadowing can be the sign of a good writer. If it’s done well. When it isn’t, you might just be reading something by a hack.
The dirt road turned into a path through the jungle. In some ways, it became more beautiful. It also felt vaguely spooky. As he went, the path got harder to find.
Our protagonist dealt with this by singing more loudly. To ward off jaguars.
“I’ve got my ticket for the long way ‘round
The one with the prettiest of views
It’s got mountains, it’s got rivers, it’s got sights to give you shivers
But it sure would be prettier with you.”
About halfway up the mountain, the path veered towards the cliffs and leveled out. Our protagonist stopped to take more pictures.
Then, to his surprise, the path began to descend. He held onto hope that it would begin to rise again, or that another path back up the mountain would split off that one. Our protagonist was a big fan of hope. He liked to quote a line from a Stephen King short story that had been turned into a sleeper-hit of a film. “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.”
But that film ended with the main character walking down a picturesque beach, enjoying his newfound freedom from a torturous prison. This trail led, it turned out, to a picturesque beach which our protagonist had come to think of as his own kind of torturous prison of overly abundant freedom. It made him second-guess his views on the value of hope.
The beach was essentially the same as the previous beach, but it was almost empty of tourists. There were a handful of large hearts drawn on the beach with initials. Our protagonist felt a surge of pride at his own maturity when he made a conscious effort to avoid walking through them. Pieces of dried up coral littered the beach. Our protagonist did not pick up a single piece and put it in his pockets because our unreliable narrator is uncertain if that would have been legal.
Then our protagonist headed back to the trail. It felt steeper on the return.
He’d consumed all the water in one bottle, but because his mother had reminded him, he’d packed a second bottle, so he stopped to transfer the water to the bottle with ice.
Lesson #12. Take lots of water when walking through the jungle. Besides the importance of staying hydrated, it doubles as a reminder that life’s burdens lighten with time.
Lesson #13. If at all possible, make friends with the kind of people who will surprise you one day with the gift of a really nice backpack. Those people are not easy to find, but they are the best kind of people.
Lesson #14. When times are really tough, it’s important to keep things in perspective and be grateful for good things like friends who will surprise you with the gift of a really nice backpack.
Our protagonist made his way back up the highest point where the trail leveled off and circumnavigated the mountain. He tried to justify the directions he’d been given as a translation error, but he was fairly certain he’d asked about a path leading to the top of the mountain, and no one had explained that the path only went halfway up and then led to a beach on the other side. Perhaps, despite his guides’ compliments on his Spanish, they had all presumed he wouldn’t understand anything too specific. *See: Looks kinda’ dumb.
Then our protagonist decided that, in the same way paved roads become dirt roads, and dirt roads become trails, sometimes trails just have to be abandoned in favor of walking directly through the jungle. And do you know why he thought this? Because fuck it. That’s why.
Lesson #15. Sometimes “Fuck it!” is a sufficient motivation.
So our protagonist hiked and scrambled and climbed up the side of the mountain. When he got to the peak, he still couldn’t see much over the canopy. That’s just how jungles do. So he climbed a tree. Because, he discovered, that’s how our protagonist do.
And then he took some selfies. And sang some more. Loudly. In the direction of the hotel.
“When I’m gone
When I’m gone
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone
You’re gonna miss me by my hair
You’re gonna miss me everywhere, oh
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.”
He laughed at the line about his hair because our protagonist is bald. He also sports a beard that he, and he alone, is convinced will someday look cool if he can just weather the uncomfortable in-between stage.
Lesson #16. Time does not heal all wounds. Some beards will never be cool.
Somewhat rested and heartened by his bellowing, our protagonist headed back down the side of the mountain toward the trail. It was very steep, and he imagined the real possibility that he’d slip just a little, roll, keep rolling, and bounce over the trail and down the cliff to the rocks a few hundred feet below. At the risk of over-sharing [Editor’s note: Too late!], the narrator feels compelled to divulge that the protagonist was genuinely relieved to discover he hadn’t the slightest inclination to even be risky in the direction of that cliff. He took his sweet time. After all, where did he need to go? He was only returning to the original beach-side hotel. He stopped to make sure he could stand still at each new lower placement before proceeding. Eventually he was standing on the trail looking over the cliff and glad for his patience.
As he made his way back down the trail, he thought about a book he’d read frequently when he was younger. It’s a good book, though perhaps over-hyped, and has the odd distinction of being more misunderstood by its biggest fans than by casual readers. Regardless, the book tells one story about some wise men who get a warning in a dream. According to the book, depending on the translation, “they returned home by another road.” The book vaguely attributes the dream warning to God Himself. God occasionally gives crappy advice to characters in the book, and some of His advice to the book’s fans is so shockingly bad our protagonist could trace much of his current situation right back to God’s questionable judgement, but when it came to this particular piece of advice, our protagonist felt God had got it right.
Lesson #17. When possible, return home by another road.
This meant our protagonist wouldn’t be going back to Monky’s Bar in the jungle, which was unfortunate, but it allowed him to see more. Among other things, he discovered a tree full of iguanas.
Lesson #18. Iguanas can serve as sufficient justification for a different path in life. Apparently.
And then our protagonist came home. There’s no big moral to the story, but the denouement is pleasant; he’d left feeling bereft, but he returned with a story to tell. Not a great story, admittedly, but happier than the sad story. Because if he had a story, even this story, he hadn’t lost every part of himself. And that was something.
Lesson #19. Sometimes a story just has to get a tiny bit happier.