The Ultimate Game

Laying back on a broken-down concrete stoop, I tilted my wide-brim cap over my eyes to shade them from the blinding light of the early morning sun. Waiting on the side of the road with me were Katie Riley and Lili Gradilla, two fellow Peace Corps Volunteers joining me on the hike from Concord Waterfalls to Grand Etang Lake. The hired bus full of Institute Hikers was to pick us up on their way to the first of the Concord falls.

“Morning, morning,” a woman pleasantly greeted us as she walks down the hill.

“Morning,” we respond.

This was my third time going to the Concord Waterfalls. Each time I’ve gone, one thing has remained constant: the locals of Concord are always sure to greet you with a “Good morning,” or “Enjoy the falls,” already knowing that’s where we foreigners were headed.

A few moments later a bus pulls up; it’s the Institute Hikers. The door slides open and rising from my somewhat uncomfortable but satisfactory resting spot, I pile into the van behind the others. The bus takes off and hustles quickly up a narrow, paved road into the mountains. The nutmeg, papya, cocoa, and other roadside trees flew past in a blur. The farther up into the mountains we went, the fewer houses we saw. Out of the few homes we did see, some were missing walls, roofs, and doors; they were covered in ivy with foliage growing inside as if left over from a fateful apocalypse. Within minutes, we came upon the welcome center to the first waterfall. Bustling right past it, we came to a stop at a clearing of pavement overlooking the first fall. One by one we unloaded from the bus, looking on in awe at the towering green mountains that surrounded us. We then gathered around in a circle to introduce ourselves, set the agenda, and assign numbers. There were fewer of us this time around, only about a dozen or so, probably due to the long hike ahead of us.

We break the circle to begin the hike. Taking up my usual position toward the back of the line, I followed the brightly colored shirts of the hikers ahead of me. The trail began like most trails here start, a simple dirt path destined to penetrate deep into the depths of the forest. A few streams and fallen logs interrupt the path along the way, but we climb over and around them. A ravine runs along the right side of us while a mass of bamboo shoots explode from the hillside to our left. The deeper into the forest we go, the trail transitions from the simple dirt path to the boulder-riddled ravine. We hiked onward, tucked in between two forested hillsides. Looking on, the hikers ahead of me appeared the size of ants as they climbed over and around the massive boulders. Then jumping from one boulder to the next, I climbed to the top of a certain boulder where I knew the second waterfall initially comes into view. A scene of untouched beauty and raw power, the water stampedes over the crest and plummets down the rock chute into a subtle spring below. More boulders form a semi-circle around the spring, serving as a natural-made pier from which one could jump into its cool and refreshingly chilly waters. Mosquitoes, hovering in the glimmering haze of sunlight that poked through the trees, were determined to pester any hiker they could. On the far-left boulder, a pile of stones delicately balances on top of each other, evidently a cairn left behind by some clever hikers wishing to leave their mark.

We didn’t stay long at the second fall, knowing we still had a long way to go that morning. So after back-tracking the boulder-ridden ravine a couple hundred feet, one of the lead hikers suddenly slid down a hill and leaped across the stream. He disappeared into the wilderness on the other side, seeking the yellow-ribbons that mark the trail we were to follow. After finding it, one by one we slid down the mud and danced across the rocks, reaching the other side. Now for the hard part: it was all uphill from here.

I started the steep climb up with long, high strides. Grabbing anything I could from bamboo shoots and branches to shrubs and vines, I pulled myself up to ease the stress the incline put on my legs. This continued until the path hooked to the right, flattening into a narrow strip that ran along the side of an even steeper hill. The trees had somewhat cleared away, as now only waist-high foliage of various shades of green surrounded us. A rope lay strewn carelessly on the ground, barely visible in the vegetation but tethered to a tree at the top of the hill. Taking it up, the rope felt rough and worn in my hands as I started the vertical climb up the hillside. I began high-stepping systematically through the bush in much the same way you would trek through three feet of snow. With every step upward, gasps of excitement could be heard from the hikers above me, indicating the stunning view to come. Pausing for a moment, I looked over my shoulder to sneak a peek at the ridge-line of mountains protruding over the canopy of trees. Glancing down, the hillside was so steep that all I could see was the tops of the heads of the hikers below me. A single slip of the foot could send me tumbling down to the bottom, all but guaranteeing a few broken bones along the way. At this moment, however, I realized I wasn’t as nervous about heights as I used to be; I suppose jumping off a couple bridges and waterfalls will ease that concern for you. But knowing the view was only going to get better at the top, I turned back around to continue my ascent.

Upon reaching the top, the view was as humble as it was scenic. The sun cast its light on the mountains while shadows from the clouds lingered in varied spots. It was a view straight from a postcard. Unfortunately, I only had a brief moment to take it in as we still had a-ways to go. So turning around, I followed the others into the overgrown and narrow path of the bush ahead. Fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet with each step, indicating the ground for once was actually dry (outside of a few strategically-placed patches of soft mud, of course). The narrow path weaved through the woods before dropping sharply into another ravine. I began side-stepping down to the ravine when:

“Ahh!”

Turning abruptly, I saw two hikers tactfully hopping from tree to tree down into the ravine. Apparently, one of the hikers had slipped and fallen halfway down the hill. The previously easy-going atmosphere suddenly became tense, as the rest of us were apprehensively waiting to hear if she was all right. The tension was relieved when she soon reappeared from the ravine with the aid of the two other hikers. Despite the hard fall, she came up with a strained but relieved smile on her face.

Moving on, I stepped-down the path to the boulder-ridden stream below. Standing on a rock in the center of the stream, I surveyed my surroundings. The water of the stream flowed peacefully and undisturbed through the rocks, pooling at the bottom. The soft, trickling sound of the stream completed the natural soundtrack of rustling trees, creaking bamboo, and chirping birds of the forest. Dancing across the rocks to the other side, the path once again shot upward. Hiking the trail up, spindly trees now stretched skyward, each seemingly attempting to out-reach one another to the sun. Rocks and fallen logs were strewn carelessly across the trail, each being overtaken by a crawling coat of moss. The incline eased itself into a slightly forested clearing, where everyone had paused to gather around what was probably one of the largest trees I have ever seen. Now, I have never been to the Redwood Forest in California, but I hope I am lucky enough to hike through there someday. That being said, I’d like to think this tree would rival those Redwoods due to its daunting height, width, and overall size. At the base of the tree, its roots were so large and con-caved in such a way, one could practically build a small home inside of it. I could only imagine how much this tree has lived through in all its years.

After appreciating the dominating presence of the tree, we re-grouped to continue on. The path progressed at a slight incline while the foliage became more sparse around the trail, giving us elbow room as we hiked along. A short while later, the group stopped altogether again. This time, we found ourselves in front of two large boulders pressed firmly into the hillside. Underneath the two boulders was yet another boulder. But this one was buried by damp, brown fallen leaves and had a black hole pitched discreetly underneath it. It was said this hole was one of the many caves used by Julien Fedon during the rebellion.

Frankie, a well-built man with dreadlocks pulled back by a rubber-band into a Rasta-style pony-tail, hopped down the edge and crawled cautiously into the mouth of the cave. A passing breeze rustled the leaves of the trees above while a few isolated songbirds sang their chorus. Outside of that, however, all was silent as we waited eagerly to see if he would find anything inside.

“Shhh!” he turns, his index finger pressed to his lips. “I hear something.”

A smirk cracked across my face, convinced he was putting on a show. Then suddenly, as if sent out by Frankie himself, a bat hurdled wildly out of the cave and narrowly passed over our heads. Everyone ducked out of its way, caught in a moment of fright before laughter broke out among the group. No one had seen that coming.

“I told you I heard something!” Frankie laughed.

Having altogether recovered from the momentary heart attack, it was time to move forward. The path maintained its somewhat flat terrain, to which my already aching legs were very much grateful. But the foliage pressed back into the trail, as branches and vines were trying to grab hold of us like fan-girls at a country concert. Consequently, the hikers dispersed into a spacious single-file line. Lili, who was at this point directly in front of me, picked up a fallen branch to use as a walking stick. Trekking through the bush, I watched intently as she planted the branch in a ditch to hold her steady as she stepped over it when…

*Snap

What once was a head-height branch snapped like a baseball bat right in her hand, leaving nothing but its top in her grasp. Waving her arms frantically, she then quickly recovered her balance. After realizing that we were the only two that witnessed what had just happened, laughter broke out between the two of us. Clapping my hands together in amusement, I couldn’t help but giggle at the theatrical performance of her maintaining her balance. So goes life hiking through the woods, with so many close calls, sometimes you just have to laugh.

As the hike went on, the line of hikers thinned out even more and I soon found myself entirely alone. Noticing this, I took a moment to look around, seeing a path of boulders in front of me and a tangled mess of branches, vines, and trees on all sides around me. The sunlight was forcing its way through the canopy above, adorning the forest floor with swaying splotches of sunshine. It was quaint little scene, yet something felt unusual. Here I was, deep in the mountainous bush that makes up inland Grenada. Yet, out of all the wildlife in the forest, there was not a single sound to be heard. Let me repeat: Not. A. Single. Sound.

This was probably the first time in my eleven months here that I have found myself engulfed in complete and utter silence. It was like everything was frozen in time. Everything captured in that moment was so serene, so peaceful, that I was wishing I could linger there forever. The silence itself was so captivating, I did not dare to move or hardly even breathe. In that moment, I realized how much I’ve missed the quiet. After all, living in the heart of Grenada’s, “City That Never Sleeps,” my home isn’t exactly forgiving when it comes to finding peace and quiet. Although over time, I have become accustomed to the incessant noise outside my apartment windows at all ungodly hours of the night that I hardly even notice them anymore. Yet, in this moment of solitude in the depths of the Grand Etang National Forest, I had found bliss. It was baffling still, that even the rustling of the trees and the songs of the birds had fallen mum. All that was left in this moment was me, the trees, and a humbling reminder of the power of silence.

*Crack

A few branches snapped somewhere in the distance and a murmur of voices announced that hikers were breaking through the bush behind me. I, likewise, was snapped out of my frozen trance. Disappointed the moment of tranquility didn’t last longer, I decided it was time to move forward. Climbing on all fours over the boulders, I reached back to the path and proceeded upward. By now, the foliage seemed to back off, deciding once again to respect my personal space. With each step, sunlight filled the trail as it was becoming less and less shaded. The canopy cleared away the closer I came to the summit. I picked up my pace, dragging along the heavy weight my legs now seemed to carry. But I was eager to see the views that awaited me at the top. Upon finally reaching the clearing at the peak, all I could say was…

“Oh, my.”                                                                                                                                                                                                         In front of me sprawled a network of ridge-line mountains, coated in vibrant shades of green. Thick, gray, cotton-ball clouds hovered just above them, nearly grazing their peaks. Much like before, the sun cast its light on the mountains, highlighting the green as the clouds left their dark shadows in various, intermittent spots. I sighed deeply, awestruck by the sheer beauty before me. Suddenly, my legs didn’t quite feel so heavy anymore. The burning cuts and scrapes on my arms left by the whipping branches and vines began to fade. The growling of my empty stomach, too, seemed to have subsided with the dazzling view before me.

“Hey, look over here!” Someone called.

I followed the voice, turning the corner where in front of me, clearly visible in the distance was the capital city of St. George’s. Beyond it, the arm-like coastline of Grand Anse Beach stretched out into the Caribbean Sea. To my left, peeking through the branches, Grand Etang Lake could be seen resting subtly at the center of its crater. Just like that, multiple staples of Grenada’s jaw-dropping landscape was before me in one panoramic view. Beyond the island’s shores, a blue haze stretched far into the horizon; thus, solidifying the reality that I am on an island and surrounded entirely by water.

Turning back, I followed the others hiking the path in the other direction. The footfalls of past hikers marked an indelible, dirt-ridden spine that ran along the top of the ridge. Small trees bordered the path like a gauntlet of paparazzi on the red carpet. I could almost envision myself from a bird’s-eye view, a small speck running along the spine of a mountain ridge on this island. When I finally reached the end, I had arrived to the top of Mt. Qua-Qua. Some of the hikers were already there, sitting around three wooden poles that stood from the ground in a tee-pee like manner. At the cross-hairs of the poles, two high-heeled shoes were hooked on the top. How they got there I haven’t a clue, but we had a good laugh about it nonetheless.

Next to the wooden tee-pee-like structure was a boulder so large, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the very same boulder Sisyphus was condemned by Zeus to roll up a hill for eternity. Only this boulder, atop Mt. Qua-Qua on the island of Grenada, evidently came to a rest at the summit. Sisyphus had paid his price.

Frankie was already standing on top of the boulder, having taken off his hiking shoes to allow himself to grip the boulder’s smooth surface while he climbed. Conflicted, I wanted to get on top of the boulder to see what view it would provide, but I still wanted to keep my boots on. The mud and rivers from all the previous rain-soaked hikes have taken a toll on my boots, as the laces have toughened and lost their elasticity; putting them on and taking them off is now barely possible without a shoe-horn (which I don’t have). Consequently, I made the decision to get up there, boots and all. A soft impression marked the boulder, roughly at the height of my chest; it was going to take all I could to hop up there on my own.

“Careful Scott, we don’t want you to have a Grenadian funeral,” one of the local hikers teased as I sized up the jump.

Gathering all my weight, I jumped for the impression. My shin bashed on the rock-face, as my feet barely reached the edge of the impression. Just then, all my weight began taking me backward. Quickly collecting what grip I could, I jumped straight into the air, buying myself time to ensure I landed safely flat on the ground.

Back on solid ground, my shin was now throbbing. But I re-gathered myself anyway to prepare for take number two.

Like a box-jump in a high school gym, I squatted down to once again gather all I could before jumping for the impression. However, it again proved too high, too smooth, and at too much of an incline and my weight took me backward off the boulder. This time, however, as I landed on the ground my momentum continued backward. Flailing my arms, I maintained my balance by grabbing hold of some branches to prevent me from falling into the bush. After finally collecting myself, I stepped back out into the sunlight to find a concerned look on everyone’s faces.

“You know I was kidding about the whole Grenadian funeral thing, right?” The same hiker said, as a nervous laughter broke out.

I laughed along with them, then turned around to find nothing but thick foliage and steep darkness where my weight would have carried me down. It would have been a long and violent tumble down the mountain through the bush.

Having learned my lesson, I dropped my backpack to ease the unnecessary weight on my back and had one of the hikers help push me up. I grabbed hold of Frankie’s outstretched forearm as he pulled me the rest of the way. Just goes to show that sometimes, you just have to swallow your pride and accept help when you need it.

It was all worth it, too. As now, in front of me was the entire eastern half of Grenada, including the town of Grenville sitting on the coastline in the distance. Atop this boulder, I was practically at eye-level with the clouds, almost having to duck just to see Grenville. The wind pounded relentlessly, as I held my hat back so it wouldn’t blow away. Looking off to the right, red and orange rooftops snaked through the lush, green mountains. These humble homes traced the road of the #6 bus route from St. George’s to Grenville through the Grand Etang National Forest. Along that route was Grand Etang Lake, the very same lake that was originally on my left from the last viewpoint. I couldn’t see St. George’s from this boulder, but I could envision it just past the trees to my right. I knew Grenada was a small island. I just didn’t realize how small it really was. You could just about see half of the island right from where I was standing.

Having taken in what I could, I sat down on the boulder and slid my way down, dropping the last six feet or so to solid ground. Picking up my backpack, I pulled out a PB&J and a roll of crackers I had packed that morning and began the trek down to the lake with the others. Back-tracking down the path that pointed toward St. George’s, we hiked down the spine of the mountain ridge before again being swallowed by the foliage of Grand Etang National Forest.

An hour or so later, we eventually did reach Grand Etang Lake. At the end of it all, all my energy was entirely spent. It was honestly the longest hike I had been on with this group, well over eight miles and almost exclusively uphill. My legs felt like Jell-o. Small, red cuts and scrapes from the bush marked my arms from my wrists to my elbows. My shin was bruised and bleeding, having already swelled into a knot. After finding a pipe to rinse off my mud-ridden pants and boots, I slipped into sandals and a fresh set of clothes. Then hopping into a car with some other hikers, I was on my way toward St. George’s, where I could then catch a bus back home to Gouyave. Snaking through the #6 route road through Grand Etang National Forest, we started swapping stories and sharing thoughts on the hike, laughing about all that had happened.

But soon my mind drifted off. I started thinking about those views at the top. Then I thought about that moment of silence along the way. It was a simple moment, gone before you could almost notice it was there. It was so fleeting, in fact, that I had almost forgotten it had happened. But the silence was deafening. In that moment, there was nothing but the glimmering forest floor and a surrounding earthly scene of natural, untouched forest beauty; all this frozen in a moment of time that was apologetically and unequivocally peaceful.

I wish I could go back to that moment. To me, that moment was the highlight of the entire day’s hike. Yes, the stunning panoramic views atop Mt. Qua-Qua were breathtaking. But there’s something to be said about those moments of complete tranquility in the forest that calms the soul. It’s reflective in nature, soothing of stress, and brings peace to the mind. These moments of peace are so powerful, they compel you to stop dead in your tracks and embrace them. You can’t help but acknowledge the power they hold. Yet, they are fleeting, an oxymoron of complete stillness while perpetually moving. It’s as though these moments are meant to be chased. They are all out there somewhere, begging to be captured.

It’s the ultimate game of hide-and-seek.

Only in this game, when we win, we capture the ultimate prize:

Peace.

Peace for the mind. Peace for the soul. Peace in our lives.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Game

  1. Yes–at the end of the day we are seeking peace! I agree!
    Scott–today, I had a day of listening to my 8th graders read their nostalgic-toned compositions describing one of their favorite places. They had to use descriptive detailing and also had to communicate to the reader their love for the place. Reading this blog of yours just now made me smile because it nailed the assignment that I gave to the students! It is quite evident you love your “place” right now! How lucky you are to have a grateful heart!
    Hike on, brave soul, hike on!
    Love–Mrs. Connors

    Like

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