Authors: Pam Withers
“Remember, Family Dynamics,” Dad says in a low voice after the speech, “it's our first international, so the goal is just to finish. But I'm betting we're good enough that we won't finish last.”
Twenty minutes later, we're on our bikes, the starting gun goes off and under the gray morning sky, 125 cyclistsâtwenty-five teams of fiveâhit the potholed highway that rises steadily toward the heavens.
Maria's team, which includes her dad and three uncles, is pumping alongside ours, just behind the middle of the pack. “So what's your specialty?” I ask her after we introduce ourselves. “Biking, trekking, canoeingÂ â¦?”
“Caving,” she answers confidently. “But I'm getting better at the rest. What about you?”
“Biking and navigation,” I say. “My mother's awesome at canoeing, my dad isâ”
“An ace at everything,” David finishes for me. “I'm David, Andreo's brother, and those are our parents.”
David is competent but not special at anything
except at being Mother and Dad's favorite
, I want to say.
“Your parents?” Maria's eyebrows rise as she looks from David to me. The skin color difference, of course.
“I'm adopted,” I explain, “like my friend Raul here. We were born in Cochabamba.”
“Really?” she says. “My dad is Australian; he married my mom here.”
“That explains your perfect English,” David says, trying out a deep voice that sounds ridiculously fake.
“Did you say you're a caver?” Raul asks breathlessly as he noses his bike up between Maria and me. “I'm totally into caving too.”
“Cool,” she says.
As Mother and Dad chat with Maria's dad and her Hispanic uncles, the ever-spreading-out pack of cyclists rises into a humid fog on a narrow, winding highway. Trucks and buses blast their horns at us and spatter gravel in our faces. Rarely stopping, we press on, occasionally sucking liquid from our hydration pack tubes or shoving an energy bar into our mouths. Our legs burn and our hips grow stiff, but months of training have put us in decent shape, and the thrill of being part of Day One almost counteracts the squeeze that the elevation exerts on our lungs.
Checkpoint No. 1 turns out to be a rickety table manned by a row of serious-faced men in baseball caps and bright red-and-blue ponchos. We dismount long enough to walk around and rub our sore muscles. Dad dictates a fifteen-minute break; Raul, David and I are happy that Maria's group does the same.
“Wonder where the front cyclists are,” Dad mumbles around a sandwich.
“Wonder how many teams will finish,” Mother
comments as we watch someone walk his bike up to the checkpoint, then break out a tire repair kit.
“Pacing is the key,” David affirms.
“For sure, especially with teenagers.” Maria's dad, who introduces himself as Ethan McLeod, addresses Dad.
“Are we going to bike all night long, Dad?” David asks.
I check my map. “It's a hundred and sixty kilometersâa hundred milesâfrom Cochabamba to a village called Villa Tunari, but we got dropped partway up this stretch. Once we reach the highest point, Checkpoint No. 2, it'll beÂ â¦”
“â¦Â Â a terrible road and lots of downhill on the way to Villa Tunari, which is in the rain forest, not far from the jungle,” Maria informs us with a smile.
“What's the difference between rain forest and jungle?” David asks.
“Rain forest is at a slightly higher elevation than jungleâit's cool, and the jungle is hot, so there are different kinds of animals and plants and stuff,” she replies. “Villa Tunari is where Checkpoint No. 3 isâand the first required break.”
“Sketchy to bike this highway in the dark,” I observe as a truck packed with ears of corn rattles past, barely bothering to veer around some cyclists, who raise their fists in response. “And it's getting cold.”
“We'll break for three hours' sleep on the side of the highway at some point,” Dad rules. “Maybe around Checkpoint No. 2.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Maria's dad comments. “Want to ride together, draft each other if that works?”
“Sure,” Dad says.
“The info sheet says we get to stay in dormitories at Villa Tunari,” Mother says wistfully. “I'm hoping for hot showers, a nice restaurant meal and a sleep-in.”
“We could use all of those for sure,
,” Raul mumbles.
Personally, I'm hoping for an Internet cafÃ©.
“Okay, break's up. Ready, Maria?” Raul stands and fetches her bike for her like he's some kind of newly hired servant.
“Come on, team,” David says, frowning at Raul's back. “Only six and a half days to goÂ â¦”
Every muscle in my body is sore after the almost-twenty-four-hour ride. And it's not as if sleeping in a cold ditch on the mountain, with vehicles hurtling by, was very restful. But it's noticeably warmer here in Villa Tunari, with a steady rainfall. A short designated rest in an actual bed so early in the game feels amazing.
I wake before the others and sneak out of our dormitory to find the Internet cafÃ©.
Dear Andreo: Since my last e-mail, I've been able to determine that her parents have passed away, and no one has any idea who her boyfriendâin other words, your fatherâwas. She has had no contact with family members since she left at seventeen, and they have made it clear they want nothing more to do with her or my investigation, since she “shamed” them. Let me know where you are now and where
you'll go next. I admire your family's energy and dedication to adventure racing.
Sincerely, Detective Colque
I type a brief reply outlining our race route and telling him about the long ride to Villa Tunari. Maybe I can make some more inquiries on our next break, in Torotoro, I suggest.
By the time I return to the dormitory, everyone has left to go see some nearby wildlife rescue centerâeveryone except Mother.
“Oh, Andreo, there you are. We wondered where you'd gone. Would you like to have breakfast together?”
“Sure. I was just wandering around the village.”
We stroll down the uneven paved streets between concrete shacks with red-tiled roofs and a few hotels and cafÃ©s, avoiding a stray pack of scruffy dogs. Men and boys in jeans are loading boxes into a rusty pickup truck. Nearby, a baby sleeps beside a pile of tomatoes and cucumbers that her mother, shawl pulled tightly around her, is selling from a low stool on the sidewalk.
“It's exciting, racing here as a family,” Mother says as a waitress pours her coffee moments later.
“Yup,” I reply. “What was it like being in Cochabamba again?”
Her hand tightens on her coffee cup at the word “again.”
“It's a bit of a crowded, dirty city. But a nice temperature. Did you like it?”
“Has it changed much?”
Her eyes meet mine with difficulty. I try to insert the person across the table from me into the photo of the happy couple clutching the new baby wearing the cap that they've hidden away from me ever sinceâthe cap tucked this very moment into my backpack. She has gone quiet as she pokes at her egg on toast.
“Did you ever meet her?” I ask in a husky voice, lifting my coffee to my lips, only to scald them.
“No,” she finally replies in a tight whisper, shaking her head vigorously. She takes a long sip from her cup. “You were a beautiful baby,” she finally says, eyes lifting to mine once again. “Even if you did cry a lot. And we have been so privileged to have you.”
Silence stretches between us. Again, questions shoot up from somewhere in my chest but get blocked in my throat. Mother's eyes are tearing up, something so rare that I find myself staring.
“More coffee?” Mother asks the waitress. Then she seems to concentrate on pulling herself together. “Maria's a nice girl, isn't she?”
I shrug noncommittally.
“Her dad says she's taking modeling courses. She even won a beauty queen contest last month. That's a big thing in South America, I understand.”
Beauty queen. Like my birth mother?
, that was a made-up story.
“Andreo? You seem to be daydreaming. It was quite a
ride to here, wasn't it? Dry, then forest, then jungle. Sticky, then foggy, then cool, now warm.” She smiles. “But we made it. And that was a good idea David had, us taking turns with the bungee cord.”
“Maybe,” I allow reluctantly. At the time, I'd been furious when David had whipped out the bungee cord we always carry and suggested we take turns connecting up: the stronger and more alert guiding those who were temporarily sagging. Tired as I was at the time, I felt humiliated to be half-towed by Dad at one point. Looking back, I know now it was key to getting us here without further rest stops.
“David's doing very well, considering he was so focused on studies this fall. He did us proud, getting into that school.”
Trust her to start in praising her precious David, when he's clearly the weak link in our team here.
“You know, he has become very interested in navigation,” she continues. “You could help him with that.”
That's David, always eager to muscle in on my territory
. “Maybe,” I reply vaguely, then stand up. “Mother, meet you at the shuttle buses in a few minutes. Gotta do something quick.” Ignoring her look of surprise, I sprint to the Internet cafÃ©.
Andreo: You're going to Torotoro? Good for you! I hope you manage the challenging trek from Villa Tunari to the lake okay. Again,
I'm working hard on things and will update you soon. E-mail me when you can.
I don't bother replying. I'm suddenly on another mission. I type “Vanessa Gutierrez” and “beauty queen” into a search engine. Up come a black-and-white photo of a teenage girl and the date of the pageant: a year before my birthday.
VANESSA GUTIERREZ OF TOROTORO
, says the caption.
“Torotoro?” I almost shout in excitement. Detective Colque had said
a small village near Cochabamba
. He was right! I press
and exit hurriedly from the screen as David stomps into the room.
“Shuttle buses are here already, you idiot. You going to wreck this race for us? What's with the sudden Internet fixation? You have a girl at home or something?”
I say nothing, pay at the front desk and head toward the door, two paces behind him. I pause just long enough to reach for the page from the printer, but David's too fast for me. It tears in half as he grabs it from my hand.
, we do have a girl. Wait'll I tell Mom and Dad.”
My teeth practically crack as I grit them to stop myself from answering.
The morning's start point, as it turns out, is on the far side of a wide, raging river, at which the buses leave us. In the drizzle, word spreads that we get to cross it by cable
car. In the lineup, I notice that Raul is looking grumpy.
“Your brother is a swine,” he hisses in my ear.
“He's hanging all over Maria.”
“Boys, keep the line moving, please,” says Mother from directly behind us. I'm guessing she has overheard.
David manages to squeeze into a cable car beside Maria, who is all but ignoring him. Raul glowers but misses a chance to push his way aboard. I turn and notice Maria's dad and uncles keeping a hawk's eye on the beauty-queen caver.
On the far side of the river, we line up near a statue of a young man pointing down the trail.
,” I read. “
“He was only eighteen, but remains famous throughout this region.” One of the race volunteers addresses the racers running in place to warm up. “He died saving a party of hikers who wandered off-trail, so we consider him a hero. Legend has it that his ghost continues to drift about these slopes, helping lost hikers.”
The racers stop fidgeting and look at the speaker.
“But don't count on it!” the volunteer finishes with a chuckle, and we laugh nervously in response.
I pose beside the statue for a photo, stretching my arm in the same direction as the deceased guide. When I pat his concrete arm, it feels eerily warm, and his alert-looking eyes seem to follow me, even as I move away to line up with my team.
I lift my compass from its loop of cord attached to my wrist and check the map, which is made of a tough, waterproof paper. Then I mentally prepare, breathing in the moist rain forest smells and staring at bright pink flowers I've never seen before.
The start is staggered, each team signaled to begin according to when it arrived in Torotoro. When it's our turn, we plunge down the trail, the route firm in my mind. On either side of the trail, the undergrowth is densely woven, fragrant and full of strange, evil-looking, spiky plants.
Well ahead of Maria's team, we press on in silence. The rain brings nightfall sooner than we count on. David is complaining of a blister on his right foot. I'm feeling sore all over and am tired enough to wish I could drop down and sleep right in the middle of the muddy trail.