Corcovado National Park, Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

1/6/14 – 1/7/14

At 4:30 am I was up with the rooster, but before the birds and sun. I blindly packed my things in the dark, not wanting to wake my hostel mates with a bright light. By 5am I was making my way down the dirt road, bogged down by my 45 pounds of luggage, a newfound dog-friend trotting briskly by my side. A Taxi seemed expensive and I honestly had no idea how to call one anyway. I got to the airport at 6am, a half hour early for my flight, unsure of what airport logistics would look like here. I was the first one there. The pilot was in the back still having breakfast, clearly on Tico time, not at all worried that all of his passengers had yet to show up.

As soon as the pilot saw me, he scolded me for carrying too much weight. At first I thought he was concerned about the plane (though me+my luggage probably equals the weight of an average person); but eventually I realized he was questioning my back-packing skills. I mean…he was right. I was quite the site to see with one 70 gallon bag on my back and another smaller bookbag on my front. The pilot, a little shaky with his English, then proceeded to act out me sinking into the mud and unable to get out. I didn’t need much more convincing than that. He shoved a couple of plastic trash bags in my hand and showed me to a room where I could store my stuff. The room was small with a single made bed in the center, the door opening out into the main area of his “terminal.” I dumped my smaller bookbag and half the contents of my backpack into a corner on the opposite side of the door. I was relieved to get rid of so much stuff.

Soon two German couples arrived – one younger, one older. All of whom looked like they were carrying nothing. Of course. WTF. I still must have had the heaviest pack. I carried:

–       2-person tent

–       fleece sleeping bag liner

–       (1) change of clothes

–       (1) swim suit

–       roll of duct tape

–       knife

–       bandaids

–       jar of peanut butter + plastic spoon

–       Jetboil stove

–       Easy Mac

–       (2) 1-liter water bottles

–       Steripen water purifier

–       headlamp

–       camera

–       notebook+pen

None of this seemed terribly superfluous. What did they bring? From the looks of it, a small water bottle and a camera. Maybe a change of clothes. Hard to tell. Wasn’t I warned this was a strenuous hike through the jungle? And that there would be limited provisions at the main camp, La Sirena? Cause no one else seems prepared for that.

The pilot handed me my park entrance/overnight permit as the six of us piled into the plane. From the air, the whole Peninsula looked like an unending sea of trees, undulating through hills and mountains to the ocean. It was gorgeous, but I was distracted. Did I really just leave my laptop and half of my belongings in a unlocked room with a stranger? Because fat chance those are still going to be there when you get back in two days. Way to think that one through. And what do you know about this pilot? Did you see a license anywhere? And what happened to finding a group of people to hike with? Are you really going to try this alone? Which German couple speaks the most English and looks like they know what they’re doing? Maybe you could creepily stalk them on the hike out. You know, don’t cramp their vacation, but stay within shouting distance in case you get attacked by a howler monkey. Would your vocal cords be able to compete with a howler monkey’s? Maybe I should practice later.

Thus was my thought process as we bounced into a landing on the grass runway. At least that part was over.

The lodge was almost like a one-story beach house on the Outer Banks. A tall stair case, filled with muddy shoes on either side, lead to a wrap-around porch with rocking chairs and benches looking out onto a grass field. A small museum was housed in a larger room to the left, the ranger’s office to the right. I walked around a little to try and get my bearings. Boardwalks led to a dining hall, dorm rooms, bathrooms, and an elevated camping area. It was rustic – the showers would inevitably be cold – but this was not Bear Grylls survival time. Solar panels connected to a battery storage reserve even charged cell phones and laptops for two hours every night. I must have looked lost and confused though. The ranger came up to me, yelled at me for tracking mud in, and then asked to see my permit. To my surprise, the ranger informed me that the pilot had booked me a dorm bed. No way, I told the guy, I lugged this tent through all of Costa Rica, I was sure as hell going to use it. And I wasn’t going to put it under some sissy roof with a platform. I was going to camp for real. Because I could. So I did. I staked my bright orange and maroon tent right on the front lawn.

Overall, the ranger was less than helpful. As the sole ranger assigned to the station, I felt a little bad for him. That’s a lot of responsibility. Especially when you’re probably more interested in the biology than dealing with annoying people. But at the same time, I can’t be the first idiotic tourist to come through. Coming in, I thought the whole place would be packed, but if the pilot could find me a bed and anyone could camp out on the lawn, what was all the fuss about? I wasn’t really given a run down of the rules. I was scolded later for using my stove for a purpose other than boiling water – a rule I had not been told and which made almost no sense to me. I was told not to swim anywhere but at this one watering hole. But I wasn’t really sure what that one watering hole was called or where it was located. There were no maps, save one of the surrounding area that looked hand drawn and was tacked to the wall. For the hike out, there was a tide chart so you knew when to cross the rivers, but it didn’t say how many miles it was to the crossing points. This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve: not having all the information I need to make the proper decisions. I am smart. I have hiked before. I can read. But how was I going to get out of here if I couldn’t even find the trail head? And while online reviews of this hike made it sound commonplace to go in without a guide, I didn’t see a single group without one. Who could I latch on to now? Could I just get up really early and trail a couple of guides?

My savior came from the latin word for luck: Felix. I had decided to stop worrying and relax with my jar of peanut butter on the porch. I still had all day to wander around La Sirena, and could maybe even meet people at dinner. I was still convinced I could do this on my own if I needed. If I couldn’t find the trail, I could find the beach, and it would be a straight shot south from there. Seated next to me on the porch, absorbed in his Samsung Galaxy, with his feet propped up against the railing, was Felix. He had apparently been watching me the whole time, observing me looking scrambled and confused and in need of help. And I guess he decided to adopt me. This happens more often than you think. Maybe it’s my face. I belong on one of those Sarah McLachlan help a wounded puppy commercials. I don’t remember what he struck up a conversation with me on, but mid-way through he revealed he was a guide, and by the end had convinced me that his clients, a very nice, young Swedish couple, wouldn’t mind me tagging along.

I had rejected getting a guide so vehemently that it was tough to adjust. Yes, they seemed really expensive. Way beyond my budget. But my real problem with guides is that I always feel like I should be taking notes. That somehow if I could just remember every detail or fact they spew out, the experience would mean more. I’m intimated by how much they know. Which is great for keeping your ego in check, but also harmful in de-valuing your own instincts and first impressions. Guides tell you what to think, instead of you forming your own opinion. At museums, I like to wander around by myself first, before appending my tour with a formal guide. On the trail, I start to just follow the person in front of me rather than pay attention to my surroundings. Felix and I would get into debates on this. “You see more with a guide, it’s safer” he kept stressing. I didn’t debate the safety aspect. But, while Felix was amazing at finding animals and pointing them out to you, I didn’t want to see more, I wanted to feel more. I wanted to experience living at the edge of an untouched national park – get back to worrying about the basics of water and food and shelter and forget about the rest of the world. Close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the forest, not dash from one activity to the next. Maybe I’m weird. I’ve been described as pokey before. I am sure most tourists are interested in seeing the most stuff with the least discomfort. Obviously you shouldn’t be me and try and do it alone, I didn’t even want to do it alone, but if you’re an experienced hiker and have a group and seek out all of the information I couldn’t seem to find, I’m still not completely convinced you need a guide. If you have never backpacked or are at all uncomfortable with the outdoors or are by yourself, hire a guide – they will become your best friend.

At dinner, I met up with the guy who had to told me to try the airport to get a pass into the park. He was guiding the trip I had originally wanted to do: enter through Los Patos, spend a day wandering around La Sirena, hike out to La Leona/Carate. I was jealous. When he talked about his hometown, Matapalo, on the tip of the Osa Peninsula, his eyes lit up with a genuine affection. Guides like this guy, Rudolfo, and Felix had to be tourism majors, memorizing hundreds of species’ Latin, English, and Spanish names, become certified guides through the government, and work relentless hours (Felix apparently worked Christmas and New Years this year) – all to give tourists like me a glimpse of the backyard they grew up in.

I stuck with Felix and the Swedes for a majority of the hikes at La Sirena and the outgoing hike to La Leona/Carate. The Swedes walked super fast – we finished hiking out all 12 miles before noon – I’m usually happy if I do 10 in one day. But we saw a ton. I climbed rocks and made the guides nervous and cooled off in a river and became mesmerized by the ocean and enthralled with the hermit crabs. The last few miles along the beach were some of my favorite. The whole world opened up. Macaws flew over our heads, always in life-long pairs of two. Rogue palm trees peaked out of the forest, stretching toward the ocean. I was not at all surprised to learn Jurassic Park was filmed in Costa Rica. I kept waiting for a T-Rex to come bounding out from the jungle. Of course, my camera had died by this point. But I don’t think a picture could have captured it anyway.

When we emerged from the hike, Felix and the Swedes got their own ride back to Puerto Jimenez while I waited for the 4pm Collectivo. I tipped Felix $20 and a six pack of Pilsen. It seemed appropriate, though I can only guess his normal daily rate is in the hundreds. Apparently a couple of years ago Felix got a really bad review from an American travel writer. I don’t know the details, but I’m glad the experience didn’t stop him from showing me so much kindness. Though it took forever to wait for the Collectivo, on top of sitting for the two hour ride back to Puerto Jimenez on said Collectivo, I was so glad I did. If I had just ridden in taxis and planes and private tourist buses, I think I would have met the Tico’s involved with tourism and would not have seen how the rest of the country lives.

The Collectivo had everyone. It was like a hayride with leather seats and a roof, stopping every few minutes to let people climb in or hop off. Though Costa Rica’s infrastructure has improved substantially over recent decades, the Collectivo bumped along down dirt and gravel, occasionally even wading through small rivers. I can’t imagine how it crosses them during the rainy season. I had a discussion with a native Costa Rican, clutching an expensive-looking DSLR, on the progress of his documentary on Osa gold panners. Corcovado National Park shut down most of the gold mines in the area, changing the landscape from almost industrialized back to untouched forest. But this left a lot of the miners without jobs. Most barely eek out a living panning gold, but every few years someone gets lucky and inspires the rest to keep going. Like nature’s lottery. Today, the documentary film maker informed me, most of the guys decided to fish on the beach. To me, that sounded so much better than trying to pan for gold on this oppressively hot afternoon. A handful of what looked like farm laborers climbed aboard silently, their black rubber boots caked in dust. A man that sat across from me dawned what I can only guess are hand-out thrift store clothes. Don’t get me wrong, he looked put together, not tattered – but I doubt he volunteered with a Louisiana Baptist Church’s 2007 Habitat for Humanity project, or that he had heard of Virginia Tech, the school emblazoned on his cap. One middle aged man seemed so excited to be there. Like a dog, his long brown hair whipped in the wind as he excitedly gazed out the front, eagerly pointing out any wildlife to his less-enthused friend. Some tourists climbed aboard, discussing the abysmal weather back in the States, a place that suddenly felt so far away. An energy “consultant” (I hate that title, it’s the opposite of descriptive to me, which makes it just sound pretentious, sorry to all consultants out there, my hatred is from a lack of knowledge so send me an email about what you do and maybe I’ll change my mind) from DC sat next to me. Two girls thumbed through pictures from the day on their camera. It was a beautiful afternoon. The Collectivo dropped us off right in the heart of Puerto Jimenez, just as the sun was beginning to set. It had been a long two days. I was ready for some pizza and a nap.

Final Day: feeling accomplished with a new destination

We took our time packing up our campsite on the final morning of work. I was called an overachiever for taking down my tent before breakfast and for a while we just stood around Jaime’s computer, laughing at some of the ridiculous pictures and movies we took in between doing actual work. There were still two large reaches left, but instead of splitting into two groups we kept the wolf pack intact and surveyed together. The first reach was large but relatively easy. The second reach was surrounded by logging and roads with huge rock slides at every turn, clearly changing the channel from its natural course and greatly decreasing sediment size. The rest of us tried to hold back our excitement for freedom as Jaime made the difficult decision to leave the site.

We ended where we had started, going full circle around the peninsula: on the Skokomish river. We sat silently in the truck, music blaring, windows rolled down, finally experiencing the beginning of summer heat. We all picked up our cars at Olympia, headed to the campground we have established as our safe haven, and finally showered. Chris soon headed out to meet his wife in Seattle for their honeymoon, cracking my back in at least twelve different places as he hugged me goodbye. Our wolf pack was down to three. I owed Paul dinner as I had forgotten my wallet on our last excursion, so the three of us went in search of seafood and a good view. After running away from the fancy places where women in heels and men in jackets climbed the stairs, we finally found a laid back outdoor seating, right on the water’s edge. Our waiter, to say the least, was entertaining. He introduced himself to us by haphazardly relating some drunk story where he ended up sleeping in his car. When we asked for more time to decide on our order, he said he would be back in three minutes – but wait. “You’re not going to time me right? Cause I’m not married to you, I’m not going to lie to you – it might be a little longer.” And that was just the beginning. Every five minutes some new gag or story approached our table – he wanted to try Jaime’s oysters or made fun of us being on separate tickets or wondered why my desert wasn’t gone faster. At first it was strange and we contemplated if we were on candid camera, but eventually it made for a highly entertaining evening.

When we returned, Jaime pitched her tent and went to bed, Paul passed out in the bed of his truck, and I headed to the laundry room next to the outdoor pool for Internet. I sank into the dilapidated but comfy couch, opened up my laptop and went immediately to my e-mail. Amongst Obama campaign letters and REI advertisements, a small note from a Curt Maxey made me literally cry with joy in the silent and dark room:

“Hi Rachael,

I’ve put paperwork in place to try to employ you for the upcoming fall term with the DOE SULI program, so I hope it will work out that I will be your new mentor, unless you get a better offer.”

I won’t readily admit it, but this past year very few things seemed to go right. I cannot begin to relate how thankful I am for this opportunity and how happy I am to finally study alternative energy, especially at such a prestigious institution. Not that I normally screw things up, but there is no way I can let anything go wrong with this one. Wish me luck.

Emerging from the field

Olympia, WA


Paul, Chris, and I were all kind of at a loss as to what to do during our break. I had enthusiastically broken out the Washington State map booklet thing Jamie has been hauling around and perused through the recreation and family attractions sections. Most of these attractions sounded…umm…terrible, rudimentary? – I can’t quite place the word. I feel like there’s only so many ways you can attract people to replica log cabins in the middle of nowhere, though one did add that it had 32 fiberglass elk while another boasted that their building was abnormally well-constructed. I couldn’t stop laughing.

Sensing our loss, Jamie went ahead and booked us a campground just outside of Olympia – with showers. Ok, so we had been car-camping – not nearly as legit as backpacking – but still no toilets, no shower, and only one change of clothes in eight days made this probably disgusting shower look and feel just marvelous. I mean it had hot water. I washed my hair twice, mostly because I never wanted this shower to end.

“Wow, this cheese looks real” and other adventures


St. Louis, MO into Kansas

Miles: yah, I’ll get back to you on that (a bunch?)

At 8:45 I was awoken by a gaggle of gigglers in the next room. I wanted to shoot them. I hadn’t even seen them come in, but I noticed a ton of beer around their area and heard the voices of two girls and a guy (even though alcohol is forbidden from the rooms which are also divided by gender – also, since when was I stickler for the rules? – oh yah when you became really annoying). I hobbled to the kitchen to toast my bagel (despite a lack of butter) and get away from them. Apparently Rory had also been awakened by them too and joined me, eating yet another meal of Ramen. We turned on the 90s boom box and rocked out together, singing terribly to the stylings of John Mayer and Taylor Swift. In between such amazing songs (do you like my sarcasm?) a weather report cackled in the threat of tornados today. The previous night my roommate Shannon had texted me with the same concern, and though I certainly took note, I wasn’t very worried. I packed up my stuff, slipped my key into the magic slit in the door (this is literally what the slit in the door called itself), and headed back to the arch.

This time I was there during normal business hours and I bought a ticket for both the tram (ride to the top of the arch) and a tour of the Mississippi on the Huckleberry Ferry (I literally almost just wrote Buckleberry Ferry – what is wrong with me?).  I rode with two older guys in the star trek/x-men esque bright white, round capsule that propelled us (at the raging speed of 4mph) to the top of the arch. In the capsule we discussed the inevitable topic that comes up when people ask me what my major is: climate change. The guy to the right of me didn’t ‘believe’ in it, and I, thanks to my communicating climate change class, happily skipped over that part and started discussing pollution in general and how it would be nice to fix that – which he agreed with.

I got to the top and the two guys pointed out the baseball stadium (while bragging slightly of course) and other various significant features on the landscape. To look out the tiny windows you kind of need to plant your feet solidly on the ground, and lean into this angled, carpeted window ledge. I layed there for a good twenty minutes, at first just admiring the Mississippi and the skyline both east and west, and then contemplating what would happen if this thing catastrophically fell over onto it’s side. I decided that the window would have the best view of the fall, but the capsules would probably be the safest, I left undecided as to which I would choose, but fairly certain that I would never have to. Out of the capsule, I toured the westward expansion museum. A blonde-haired park ranger woman stood at the entrance, next to a prominently featured Thomas Jefferson statue. I stared at it a moment and decided it looked exactly like the one at William and Mary. I asked her about it, she did a little research, and came back to me later with a flyer detailing the history of the statue. I apologized for making her do work, but she seemed pleased by the research/ having something other to do than patrol small children. Turns out I was right: W&M Jefferson and museum Jefferson have the same bronzer.

The museum was interesting with brightly colored pictures, a huge amount of quotes from Lewis and Clark, and several sketchy, though still strangely human-like animatronics. The fact that I was making this same journey west into terra incognita from the same starting point, that the museum had featured Lewis and Clark’s quotes so prominently, and that in general Thomas Jefferson is pretty baller, persuaded me to buy a copy of the Journals of Lewis and Clark in the gift shop. I stamped both it and my national parks passport with the date and place. I was getting antsy now to leave, but I still had my ferry ride.  I walked out to the docks, concerned by the flood of student groups I never seemed to shake, but soon found that some mechanism on the boat wasn’t functioning and the trip was canceled. Slightly disappointed and slightly excited to return to the road, I got my money back and headed out.

The first hour or so was filled with a few grey clouds, but nothing worrying. I kept the radio on and my eye out, but nothing looked too threatening. Almost suddenly though, I drove into a patch of black clouds and the world seemed to turn gray in the middle of the afternoon. The rain at first wasn’t too bad, but it suddenly started to hail, and nickel-sized bullets began pelting my wind shield. Several tractor-trailers pulled over to the side of the road and so I did as well, though you have to hand it to FedEx as all of them continued trucking on. The radio stations I flitted between were saying nothing so I trusted trucks more than other cars because I knew they had that whole radio communication thing to talk to each other and they had probably driven through things like this before. My mind flashed to both those tornado videos they always show in school and that movie, Twister. With this combined expertise, I located rope and a bungee cord to tie myself to something (though hopefully not in a barn with sharp objects) and admired my selection of ditches on the side of the road. I was prepared, but after just a few minutes, blue sunny skies appeared once again, so the trucks and I pulled out.

I thought I was in the clear, when the radio suddenly turned to a constant broadcast with the local weatherman. They were naming Tornado warnings for all of these counties I had never heard of. I cautiously unfurled my map across the steering wheel and began looking for any names I recognized. When they mentioned Columbia Public Schools were on lock down, and I saw that I was 20 miles outside of it, I decided to find the nearest exit. The golden arches of McDonalds served as my beacon of hope as I knew they had delicious food and reliable wifi. As I sat on a plastic bench, watching the skies “turn blacker than hell” as the lady next to me claimed on the phone with her family, I suddenly reconsidered my choice, pondering the architectural stability of a fast food restaurant.  The McDonalds tv only had two channels, one of which was luckily the weather channel, and two concerned women sat beside me engrossed in the dozens of red squares now popping up on the screen. The woman on the far end was very hard of hearing and kept repeating she was from Oklahoma. The woman next to me had grown up in Joplin, MO – a town that had just made national headlines for being demolished by tornadoes. She was visibly quite concerned. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us total scattered throughout the McDonalds, most people were in groups of two, but there was one large 5-person family. A woman who had previously seemed fairly normal, started shouting about running to the toilet (because it had no windows) in a heavy accent I couldn’t quite place. Everyone kind of stared at her as she wondered why no one was following her crusade, but she did eventually amass a small group of very concerned women who pestered the McDonalds manager for information. The manager’s golden boy did a little bit of crowd control, but his humor did little to wane the fears of the women.

Soon the manager was off the phone with an announcement that two tornadoes had touched down – one about a mile and a half west, the other two miles east. Because the tornado was not within a mile, he could not require anyone to seek safety but he would allow those who wanted to into the back bunker of McDonalds. Everyone gathered around all panicky as we marched behind the counter, past the deep fryers and employees rolling their eyes, and into the refrigerator. We all squeezed in, but I was able to claim a back corner next to the door to the freezer, setting my bookbag on the vanilla soft serve. The five person family stood next to me near the salad dressing, parents hugging their children for mutual warmth. One of the nearby adults joked “hey, this cheese looks real.” After a few moments of silence in the cramped conditions, the golden boy asked if anyone wanted to play a game and I shouted that I have a deck of cards, but our efforts of cheer were only met with silence and grunts. I thought about opening my laptop and playing some dance music to make it a party with the apple dippers, but once again felt the mood was inappropriate. With no one to talk to, I pulled out my Houdini book and began to read a passage on escaping from a locked chamber. As people begin to shiver, the golden boy passes out aprons. When one lady put hers on, she proclaimed this was the only time she would ever wear a McDonalds uniform, which I felt was slightly offensive to the people providing us shelter, but received much more laughter than any previous attempts at jokes. Just as we settled in, the manager came into the refrigerator and said it was safe to come out. We marched out with a few more tasteless jokes about stealing something, though I tried to say thank you to everyone, and emerged into the store, noting the rain had stopped and the sky had turned a normal hue. I waited a few minutes to get my bearings and then headed back onto the highway. The Tornado warnings had all expired in the area and the weather channel had its eyes turned on the next round heading toward St. Louis as I drove the opposite direction, west. On the highway, unless you were looking for evidence, you didn’t really find it. The roads were completely clear of debris and everywhere around looked just as it did after a normal rainstorm. I did run into one accident where it looked like no one was harmed but the car had done a nosedive into a ditch. One the opposite side of the road, a tractor-trailer lay on its side. Several road signs were snapped in half and lay peacefully on the grass.

When the tornadoes had fully subsided, I found that I was in Kansas.

The rest of the drive was remarkably uneventful. I had pondered whether to pay for a hotel room in the aftermath of the storms, but decided I neither wanted to pay for it nor deal with the whole not-being-21 thing. I found Clinton Lakes State Park and paid a total of 11 dollars for camping and parking the night. A few days beforehand the lock to my trunk became finniky (it has been for a while) and will now mostly refuse to unlock. I kind of know how to fix it, but don’t really have the proper tools or motivation to do it, so in the last remaining hour of light I reorganized my car, making everything easy to find and clearing the front seat off. Though a few showers peppered my tent, overall it was one of the most relaxing nights on the road yet.