Story and Photos by Bartley D’Alfonso
If you were to ask me who one of my real-life heroes is, without hesitation I would name naturalist and preservationist John Muir (1838 – 1914), founder of the Sierra Club in 1892.
Yep, I’m one of those nature loving tree-huggers (although I do not wear Birkenstock sandals or sip latte-cappuccino flavored coffee). I had spent my entire youth following Muir’s sage advice: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” Thus I had hiked, backpacked and camped in almost every forest, park and wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada’s, Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountains, and southwestern deserts.
So, a few weeks ago I was invited to hike along with a group of lean and physically fit college-age students. They were on a full day expedition to rappel down several waterfall-cascades in the remote Selva Vergel jungle-like forest. Located between Cuenca and Guayaquil, this is a private and restricted wilderness reserve of 370 acres. Only one travel agency and tour operator (Inspiracion Viajes in Cuenca) is authorized to enter the property.
Organized and led by certified guide Erika Alvear Muevecela, everyone underwent a brief training demonstration on how to safely use climbing gear (harness, carbineers, pitons and nylon rope). Then, we all practically skated downhill on the steep, wet, slippery and muddy “trail” for nearly two hours, until we finally reached the first of twelve flowing cascades. There the young students each seemed to gracefully float downwards, gingerly using their feet and the rope to safely rappel down to the rocky bottom. I was invited to join everyone and also rappel, but this sixty-five year old chicken feigned he was too busy taking photos. After several hours of rappelling down three cascades, it was time to end the day and hike back out.
I had hoped that there would be road close by after we had completed the downhill run, where we would soon meet up with our drivers in their vehicles. Well, you should have seen the “I-saw-a-ghost” look on my face when we started hiking uphill, back on the same path. It didn’t take long for my sedentary, under-exercised body to rebel. But with the sympathetic aid from the others, who pushed and pulled me upwards, allowing for many stops so I could catch my breath, we finally made it back up to the top where our drivers and vehicles were patiently waiting.
It was embarrassing for me to be the cause of us all being two hours late, arriving in the dark. Especially since I had worked for three summer seasons as a Trail Laborer, building and maintaining hiking trails along the rugged and mountainous backbone of the Pacific Crest Trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, in Washington state. But that was about four decades ago, and that day’s hike in the Selva Vergel jungle was a much needed “wake-up call” for me to get off my lazy butt and resume exercising. Yet, in between the gulps of gasping for air, and even with the pain in my hips and legs, I could still feel the inner joy of being surrounded by wilderness. John Muir was right when he eloquently exalted that “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer, and give strength to body and soul.”
Oh, by the way: I don’t know exactly when or where I lost my youth. But should anyone find and return it, I will gratefully pay a handsome reward.