Country Road, Take Me Home...
I drove up the mountains, away from Choluteca, towards San Marcos de Colon it began to rain. By the time I had reached 4000 feet the rain was steady and the fog was thick. The rain was not pounding but steady, I immediately knew that this rain would not be passing too soon and that this was the kind of rain that causes the rivers in the mountainous region of San Marcos de Colon to overflow their banks with no warning. I immediately began contemplating my options. I needed to leave for Tegucigalpa at 5 AM Saturday morning for a flight to the US. Would the rivers keep me locked in to our remote paradise we call home? I got home around 5:30, it was still raining. I got Sol and Levi out of the truck, then Ally called and told me she would be home soon but that the fog and rain had really gotten bad. When she got home I told her of my plan to leave that night, around 8 PM to do the unthinkable.
The unthinkable or rather not recommended thing to do in a third world country is to drive at night. Whether it’s a land slide, car wreck, or thieves looking to take advantage of someone it’s just not a good idea. Now I was considering doing it and adding to the risk were the flooded roads, rain, and fog. I have never been one to back down from a good adventure.
We ate supper and listened to the rain patter on the tin roof of our dining room. Then, just like someone opened a door, the roar began. Ally and I both knew what was happening. The flood waters up river had begun to come down our valley. This is quite normal after heavy rains. On other occasions during daylight hours we have even witnessed the flood waters come down river, pushing away the clear deep black waters, replacing them with water that would appear to be a large café con leche concoction. I said to Ally, “you hear that don’t you?” She said yes. After we finished eating I went out on to our porch and looked out at the river the goes under our driveway, some thirty feet from the house. At this point it was still well under the bridge but appeared to be rising fast. Further down the dirt road towards the paved highway there is one more bridge, even lower but much wider. When the river gets high enough to get over that bridge it usually stays over it for a while.
Last year when Hurricane Stan was moving through Honduras before causing so much destruction in Guatemala, we were stranded out of our home for a week. The river had risen in the day and we were not able to get home.
I made up my mind, I had to go, my cheap ticket from Expedia.com connecting me on Taca to Delta in San Pedro Sula would not allow for any changes in schedules. I quickly finished packing and at 7:00 PM I got a big slobbery kiss from Sol, that followed by big puckered lips from Levi, and then he wanted another, after a hug and kiss from Ally I was off. I loaded the truck as the water slowly crept over one side of our bridge. If I hurry I can still drive through the 3 or 4 inches of water that have come over.
By the time I was loaded there was no way. The water was roaring over the bridge and approaching my truck. I went ahead and locked in the hubs knowing that my only way out was over the mountain behind my house on a sort of emergency escape route we made last year.
I started the truck, shifted into four wheel drive. Pulled down the driveway, cutting through the edge of the swollen waters, and then headed out through the pasture behind our house and up the hill. Before long I was on the road. I stopped only briefly to shift out of four wheel drive and continued on the short four kilometer trip to the highway. Surprisingly about 3 kilometers down the road I noticed that it had not rained at all, the road was dry. I slowed as I approached the low, 8 foot wide bridge without rails. From here it was a short 300 meter hop to the Pan American Highway and I would be on my way to the capital for the night. As I crept over the crest of the road that drops down to the bridge my headlights quickly crawled down the black sky towards the river. What I saw before me was what I had hoped to avoid. The river, in less than two hours, had changed from a small spring fed crystal clear stream perhaps a foot deep in the deepest pool to a roaring kayaking nightmare. There would be no crossing, not then or for many hours. A hundred yards away on the other side of the river sat the truck of Abraham Guillen, a neighbor of ours who had gotten trapped on the opposite side. To add to the problem of the flood a large tree had been deposited on top of the bridge. Even if the waters subsided in the night I would have to fight to get a tree out of the way in the morning before I could drive the three hours to the capital. And all chains and chain saws are in the storage shed at Las Palmas Refuge.
I backed up, turned around, and headed back towards my house. There was still one more option. And old trail used mostly by ox carts and roaming donkeys and cows. This road has always been our last resort, but usually to get home, not to leave home. This unmaintained trail has two streams that cross it and numerous mud pits.
Once when trying to get home to my wife and kids last year I traveled this road in Ally’s land cruiser. I was set on not spending the night in a hotel. The Land Cruiser, a beast of a truck with an inline six cylinder diesel engine could go most anywhere. But it did not have off-road tires and did not have a winch like our other vehicles we use in the mountains. I figured that I would go as far as I could and if I got stuck I would use my cell to call for our guard to send me a horse and I would leave the truck for the night. That night I became a believer in Toyota. The truck switching back and forth from a crawl to roaring through mud pits amazed me. The largest of which would instill enough fear in me to not use that road any more.
Everything goes dark. You can’t stop it or do anything about it. Right before you pass out it seems like there is a large vacuum sucking the light out of your eyes and the light or rather your vision lingers as long as it can until the doors of consciousness are slammed shut and everything goes black. That’s what happened in the Land Cruiser that night in one large mud pit about half way to my house. I saw the pit after I had already slid down a muddy rutted hill, there would be no turning around so I stepped down on the peddle to hit the mud with momentum hoping that would carry me to the other side of this 25 foot wide pit. But not halfway to the other side the pit got deep and out of no where the lights were gone. What happened? Had my knee hit the switch as I was thrown about, kept in place by the seat belt? Had the water caused something to short out, had the halogen bulbs cracked when coming in contact with the cool water spray? All those things flashed through my mind in a split second as I had to make a decision of what to do. Do I keep the truck floored? Do I stop and assess the damage of my poor decision to continue on? I kept the truck going, did not slow down a bit, I might have even closed my eyes. But just as quickly as the lights went away they came back. They had not shorted out, they had not been switched off, they had been under the mud and water. The middle of the mud pit was so deep that my headlights had disappeared under the mud but as I began to come out the other side they rose from the water, still working, shining the way out of the mud.
That was all in my mind as I now had to make the decision to go or not. Not going meant most likely forfeiting my plane ticket to the US, $917 down the drain. I had nothing to loose, if I get stuck i’ll call for a horse. This time the difference is that I am in a well driven and abused rental truck that Chad has asked me to return to the rental agency at the airport. And unlike last time where I came down a muddy hill to cross the mud pit, this time I would have to cross the mud pit and then have enough momentum to climb the muddy hill.
The only thing going for me was that for whatever reason there was a pocket around this area where it had not rained too much. The road might not be too bad.
The trail turns off the main road only about 50 feet from my driveway. It was go time. I shifted into four wheel drive again and turned off the maintained dirt road. I would judge the mud on the road before getting to the areas that can get bad to see whether or not I should continue.
It could be said of my growing up that I lived an identity crisis. This is a completely different story that I will write about on a different occasion but one of my identities that I went through was the “Red Neck.” I had a big Ford Bronco that I put to the test on every old logging road, rutted farm road or muddy construction site that I could find. Why was spending a lot of money on gas to try and tear up my truck so fun at the time I don’t know. But I did learn that driving in mud, and I mean a lot of mud, can be compared to driving in snow and ice. You get better with practice. 15 years ago I had no idea that I was in training to be able to negotiate the rutted & muddly mountain roads in Honduras that we use on a weekly basis to show God’s love in remote villages around Choluteca.
Last night that experience was invaluable. I could feel the tires of my truck grabbing the sides of the ruts and climbing up out of them. That meant that the dirt was not too muddy, at least not yet. The first creek crossing that I came to was not swollen at all, no problem and I continued on. As I drove I noticed my intense grip on the wheel and that the palms of my hands were sweating. My adrenaline was pumping. It’s that feeling that you get when you are about to get into a wreck but then you don’t or when you’re speeding and you see a cop but he does not see you. Only instead of a quick burst of adrenalines my body was working over time helping me stay alert to everything around me. There were a lot of tracks from other trucks for about the first kilometer then the trailed narrowed, the tall banana grass leaned in and tree branches hung low. Soon I came up on the second stream crossing, it was rolling good. Coming up over the ancient culvert, turning and running down the road for about 2 meters, then leaving the road again disappearing into the tall grass and the night. I approached slowly, knowing that under the water the road could have washed completely out. The pass over the culvert is only about 7 feet wide. Just wide enough for a vehicle to cross. The water as it came over the culvert to my left rolled smoothly like a soft wave. There was a lot of water but it did not appear to be too swift. As I entered the water I kept in mind that I mind need to throw it into reverse at any moment to get out. That water had not washed out the road and fortunately I made it through without any problems.
On up the road I came to the stretch of large mud pits. We have not had much rain this year so I was betting on the pits just being large puddles. I was surprised to find them quite large. I approached the first with caution and then gunned the engine, although there was a lot of standing water, there was not too much mud. This reassured me that I’d be able to make it through the larger one ahead.
As I began to get near the dreaded mud hole the grass along the road and in between the tracks became thicker and taller. Probably due to the fact that there was so much standing water. The tracks of the road were actually long mud puddles, small channels of water. I move through them taking my time, then the tracks opened up into a small lake, the grass was gone, and there was water, a puddle about 15 feet wide and 25 feet across, from the fence on the left to the fence on the right, no way around. I gripped the wheel tightly and plunged in. The water was not nearly as deep or muddy as before but the hole in the middle was still there and the truck jolted like hitting a large pot hole as I crossed over it. I kept on the gas as I neared the other side, I was now focusing on the muddy upward slope ahead of me. The mud was fresh and not sloppy and the faithful Toyota climbed up the road with ease. I knew then that I was home free. Ten minutes later I pulled onto the maintained dirt road that leads to community San Francisco and from there a short five minute drive back to the Pan American Highway and I was on my way to Tegucigalpa and the United States.
It was a lonely slow drive. Battling thick fog in the mountains and hard rain along the coastal plains. The antenna of the rental truck was missing so that left me to the mercy of the strongest signal around, unfortunately for me it seemed to always be Rancheras. That’s the kind of music most Americans would stereotypically think of when they think of music from Mexico. It’s basically that Latin American version of Country Music. And although there are a few good songs, it’s much like Country Music in that the majority of the songs in my opinion have just about everything except good music and good lyrics. But it would keep me awake. There was not much traffic. When I pulled into a gas station in San Lorenzo I actually drove past it to check out the characters loitering around outside. My theory was that if anyone pulled out behind me to follow and assault this stupid gringo traveling at night then I would notice whether they were traveling or following me. The stop was uneventful; I bought a coke and Bimbo’s version of powdered donuts. Unfortunately in Honduras when the donuts finally get to the store the powder has usually turned to goo from the sweat of the donut itself. I drank my coke and let the donut rest in peace. I passed places like Jicaro Galan, San Antonio de Flores, Pespire all small towns, wide spots in the road. In everyone there were men hanging around in the light rain talking. The rain made the yellow light glare. It felt like I was in the movie the Mexican. Finally, almost four hours after leaving my house I arrived in Tegucigalpa. I made it there safely. God is good, all the time, God is good.