Authors: Pam Withers
“Andreo is right, team,” Dad pronounces. “Just remember, we are a team and these things happen, especially with visibility so compromised.” He sighs. “It'll set us back, but we're tough; we can handle it. And I take some responsibility for not keeping a closer eye on things.”
“We'll make up some time risking the gully,” I venture.
There's silence except for the pounding rain.
“My foot blisters are killing me,” David finally dares to say. “Let's go for the gully. I'm sorry I went wrong, Andreo.”
I swallow, and I want to say it's okay, that it was just a small errorâwe would, in fact, be right on track except for the math mistakeâbut the sight of Mother stroking David's elbow reassuringly seems to choke off my answer.
“Shall we take a vote?” Dad asks. Our headlamps reveal four for the shortcut, only Raul against.
“Okay, I'll lead,” Dad says, and we're off, our heads bowed, our shoulders slumped, David limping.
“Why did you vote no?” I whisper to Raul.
“So Team Cochabamba can catch up with us,” he replies with a smirk.
“They may yet, if this doesn't go well.”
It doesn't go well. For one thing, the map is not as reliable as what we're used to. The gully is way steeper than indicated, and getting there cleans out my dwindling supply of energy. When we get to what must have been an insignificant stream earlier, we're faced with a torrent that makes my heart ram against my ribs.
“Form a chain,” Dad commands. “Make sure you have a good foothold before you take the next step, and don't let go of anyone's hand.”
He goes first. He's halfway across when he stumbles and just manages to right himself on a midstream boulder. The misstep is all it takes for Mother to go in. Without Dad's and David's lock-hold on her slim wrists, she'd have been swept all the way to who-knows-where by morning.
“I'm fine,” she says bravely, though she's thoroughly soaked.
I watch David wince as his blistered foot searches for secure footing. Raul all but dances across after him, tugging me along. The water isn't icy like at home, but it's plenty cold. I'm utterly drained after the crossing.
Dad fishes dry clothes out of Mother's waterproof pack, despite her protests, then busies himself handing us all power bars while she changes.
As we slog on, I'm relieved Dad has taken over navigation duty. My mind is as numb as my body, and putting one foot in front of another is all I can manage. Still, I take satisfaction in noting that contouring out of
the gully takes us to the lower trail and finally puts us back on course. How far now till the canoeing lake? With no more delays, I figure maybe we'll get there by mid-morning. I check my watch. It's 3:30 a.m.
Four, five and six o'clock pass in a blur before the first streaks of light appear on the skyline. Dad permits us a brief rest at some point, but without relief from the rain, it offers little respite. We haven't seen fellow racers now for hours. We're alone in Bolivian backcountry and on the brink of collapse. We resemble a pack of exhausted miners, headlamps bobbing in a downward march. I feel a steadying hand against my back, supporting me, pushing me forward.
“Thanks, Raul,” I mumble sleepily.
I'm definitely sleepwalking, with only that hand to guide me, when I hear Mother shout, “Up there! Look!”
I blink and look up. Five bright stars are moving above us in the night, or maybe it's the lights of a
. Wait, no. They're headlamps. Adventure racers trudging southward, but they're a hundred feet immediately above us, like they're walking on air.
“Our shortcut worked. We'll soon be back on the main trail,” says Dad with relief. “All we have to do is scramble up this last ridge.”
I'm about to protest that I can't do it when I feel Raul pushing me gently, firmly again from behind. “Okay, okay,” I say.
A hand reaches for mine as I near the top, where night is turning to dawn.
“About time,” Raul says as he pulls me up.
I roll onto the muddy trail, breathing hard. I blink at Raul, then peer back over the ridge. I'm the last person up. There's no one below.
“You were in front of me this whole time?” I ask Raul.
“Then who was behind me, helping me along?”
“The ghost,” David mocks me. “The guide who helpsâ”
“Those who get lost,” I spit out at him.
I'm staring at a lineup of men in handcuffs, standing in various poses of defiance and feigned disinterest. I've been told all but one of them is a fake. Police Chief Ferreira taps me on the shoulder.
“Which one?” he asks.
“I don't know!” I answer for the third time, distressed at being pulled from the adventure race for this ridiculous exercise, and aware that my family and Raul are steaming with impatience outside the police station.
I look from one man to another again, from the one with bad teeth who glares at me in a sinister way, to one vaguely resembling the statue of the heroic mountain guide, to a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck.
I point to the last man. “The doctor,” I finally rule, “is my birth father.”
“Excellent choice,” says a deep voice behind me, and I turn to see the tall fat man in the black fedora nodding, chuckling and slapping his knee in delight.
Opening my eyes to a brilliant blue sky, I know I've been dreaming again. I'm lying full-length in the bottom of a cold aluminum canoe, still damp from the night's descent and eventual exit from Carrasco National Park. The unexpected cold makes me shiver. I have little memory of the final trek by daylight to this long brown lake surrounded by fields of wheat, broad beans and sweet potatoes. Vaguely, I recall Mother inspecting the canoes lined up on shore and muttering about how she was going to find us one without dents. As if a tiny dent or two was going to slow us down to the point we'd lose a place in this race. When I raise myself on my elbows, the boat rocks slightly.
“Easy, son,” comes Dad's voice from the bow.
Mother, working the stern like she owns this lakeâand like she hasn't been racing for almost thirty hours with only three hours' sleepâsmiles brightly. “Good morning, Andreo.”
“How long have I been asleep?” I ask, catching sight now of David and Raul in the canoe behind us, frantically trying to keep up so they can ride Mother and Dad's wake.
“Long enough to get the rest you needed,” Mother says. “Want to give Dad a break now?”
“I don't need a break,” Dad protests, but since no one is suggesting that Mother doesâshe's clearly happy in her favorite command postâDad and I wriggle about till
we've completed the swap. I've stroked less than five minutes when he starts snoring.
“You actually put David and Raul in the same canoe?” I tease Mother.
“They're way too busy trying to match our pace to argue,” she replies lightly. “Three, two, one, swap sides.”
Our paddles do the switch without losing a single stroke. We've been doing this together for as long as I can remember, and little is more peaceful, efficient and satisfying in life than paddling a canoe through water with my powerful mother.
“Land ahoy!” comes a shout from Raul.
We squint ahead and, sure enough, the mid-lake islet we've been waiting for is in sight.
“Checkpoint No. 5,” David says in a tired but pleased voice. “We get a quick rest here, right? I so need a nap.”
“Me too,” says Raul, making me feel guilty that I've had one.
“Sure, one hour,” Mother says in a low voice with a finger to her lips, pointing to Dad.
Springing out of the bow, I tie the canoe to shore, then beeline for the food table as Mother manages to step gingerly over Dad without waking him. Near the checkpoint, a row of snoozing bodies fills a tarp on the ground. I glance around and see other racers napping in their tied-up canoes. One team has pulled their canoe to shore and overturned it as a shelter for whoever is sleeping beneath it, his mud-caked shoes sticking out at an angle.
“Maria!” I hear David's and Raul's surprised voices greet our friend in unison.
,” I joke to Mother, who pretends she hasn't heard as she gets our team passport stamped.
Mother ends up chatting with some female competitors in the food line as David, Raul, Maria and I pile our plates with tostadas, corn cobs, potatoes, apples and a tasty local corn drink we're told is called
. We plunk down on the ground for a picnic under the watchful eyes of Maria's dad and uncles. David and Raul vie for who can sit closest to Maria.
“Thought you guys were way ahead of us!” she exclaims. “How'd you get behind us?”
Raul explains how we got lost on the mountain, making sure she knows David was responsible.
“Hardly lost any time!” David counters, offering Maria his apple, which she refuses politely. “And look how we all but hydroplaned down the lake to catch you here. So let's paddle the rest of the way together, sound good?”
,” she laughs lightly, “as if we could keep up with you.”
“So, what's after the lake?” Raul asks her, even though he knows already.
“A short biking bit through some beautiful valleys, then some trekking through a gnarly set of canyons before we get to Torotoro. Torotoro, by the way, is Quechuan Indian for âland of mud,' because in ancient times, it was
supposedly a big lagoon. Anyway, that's where the caving part of this race is. I can hardly wait!”
“Where did you learn caving, Maria?” Raul asks, leaning in toward her. “In Cochabamba?”
“No way. We only moved to Cochabamba last year. I grew up in Torotoro. It has dozens of cavesâmore being discovered every day. Locals keep lots of them secret from visitors.”
“Secret caves! Awesome,” says Raul. “Maybe we could explore them on our day off.”
She giggles, shoots a wary glance toward her uncles and then looks at Raul with sparkling eyes. “Why not?”
“Why not? Because it's our only rest day!” David snaps. “We're supposed to lay off activities to recover and get ready for the next leg!”
“David,” comes Mother's shout. “Let me check your foot blisters.”
“They're fine.” David's cheeks turn bright red at the public announcement.
“Now, David,” she insists, and he reluctantly rises and wanders off.
“Maria,” I ask as soon as David is out of earshot, “I want to show you a photo and ask you a question. But I can't let my mother or David see me take it out of my pack.”
“Okay,” she says in a measured tone. “Raul, keep watch and warn us if anyone comes our way?”
“Ace spy, at your service.”
We turn our backs and I pull out the photo.
VANESSA GUTIERREZ OF TOROTORO
,'Â ” she reads. “Where'd you get this? I've heard of her.”
“You have?” I'm unable to hide my excitement at the news.
“It's not like my little village has had many beauty queens.”
I pull out my birth certificate and point to my birth mother's name. Her eyes grow large. “Hey, Vanessa Gutierrez is your birth mother?”
We peer at Raul, who's trying to blow a tune on some blades of grass between glances at Mother dressing David's foot.
“Know anything about her? Like where she might be now?”
Maria shakes her head. “No, but my grandmother lives in Torotoro, and she'd remember her.”
My fingers clutch the photo tighter. “Can I talk to your grandma, Maria? On our day off tomorrow? To find out what I can?”
“Sure,” she says amiably. She pulls paper and pencil from her backpack to scribble a name and address for me.
“Warning. Mother and brother on prowl,” comes Raul's voice.