When we packed our tent the next morning the sky was just beginning to brighten. It was the start of our first full day in Puerto Rico. The day was cloudy, and wet, but warm. Around our campsite the night rain had made a mat of leaves. There was no time for breakfast. As we hiked out of the forest, pots and pans clanging, our clothes clung to our skin, leaves stuck to our shoes. Humidity gave the impression of sweating profusely.
It had been my idea to camp. I figured between showers at campsites, the occasional dip in the ocean, and one or two hotel stays thrown in, we’d have our hygiene taken care of; and a single trip to the grocery store had already yielded more food than we could eat before it’d all go bad. The $40 emergency Target tent was the shakiest leg of this plan, but even it only had to hold up for a week.
A week. Queenie, a journalist at a newspaper, had about a week’s vacation a year, had never done this sort of thing before, and had to put in for the vacation days about 9 months in advance. But she was excited for the adventure, she said. I guaranteed she’d have a good time. Not to worry, I told her, I’m in charge of the planning. I really wanted her to have a good time.
But even for me, and I’m used to doing this sort of thing, this trip got off to a rocky start.
My flight was delayed, two hours only, but just long enough to miss the DRNA office hours in San Juan where, with the help of my broken Spanish, we might have gotten a camping permit for the first night. And then, at the baggage carousel, while I watched the luggage go round and round, I realized I had left my tent– a fancy, 2-person ultra-light style REI thing that I had borrowed from my boyfriend– leaning against my bathroom door at home, in Massachusetts.
“We have to buy a tent,” I said, when I spotted Queenie.
“Sorry,” I said. “I think we can get it when we go get the fuel for the stove.”
So, then began the errands. It was rush hour. There was crushing gridlock traffic, cars darting every which way, cars that looked like they’d just as easily drive right over you–through you.
After sitting through the third green light, not moving, watching patiently as each tiny space that was created instantly filled with some car turning, some car backing up, some car running a light cause who cares, some car jumping the curb to get out from behind you, etc, I turned to Queenie. “Dude,” I said. “Go.”
She shook her head.
“This is not how people drive in Oregon.”
It poured as I ran from one store to the next. It was nearly 8 when we finally left San Juan. I put us on the route to Rio Abajo State Forest, chosen for proximity to Arecibo, our next morning’s destination.
After seven or eight miles climbing this overgrown, winding forest road, we came to a dead-end. Our high-beams were the only source of light. We struggled to use it to survey the scene. A mossy sign marked the state forest, mentioned something about el area de acampar; a chain-linked fence rose out of the dirt and leaves; a gate: locked. We debated what to do. It was almost 10, this road was almost abandoned. We would have to hop the fence, leave the car outside, and we would certainly be alone. The sound of Coqui frogs filled the air, and some species of super-loud crickets.
Way too sketchy, we decided. We would try another state forest. With much labor, we turned the car around, drove seven miles back down the same road we came up.
From an online search, it seemed that at our next destination, at the Bosque Estatal de Guajataca, we would need to hike to our camping area. I looked online for a map of trails. Turns out in general Puerto Rican forests and parks don’t do that sort of thing. I found instead one hiker’s homemade map that he’d drawn up of the area. Afraid of losing reception, I decided to keep that page open on my phone.
This state forest looked more promising almost right away. There were signs announcing its existence ahead, mile markers along the well-paved road, which was wide enough for opposing traffic to pass comfortably by. We found the ranger station lit with a single street lamp, unguarded but for a large, angry dog. There was parking space enough for 10 or 12 cars, though we were the only. We were relieved at the prospect of not having to sleep in the car; still, we estimated we probably had until just after daybreak the next morning to get the hell out of there before we would have to answer questions about camping permits.
Quickly, we packed our bags, I brought our dinner and cooking utensils, our tent, a rain tarp. Queenie brought all of her clothes for the whole trip (“Why is your bag so heavy?” I’d ask later). I turned on my phone to check the map. The website refreshed. No internet connection, the blank page said.
I have an obsessive habit now of taking screenshots of important websites and emails, in case of reception loss. Even if there’s no suspicion of reception loss, even if I have every reason to believe a page to stay open. This particular paranoia, I trace back to this exact moment.
“My page refreshed,” I muttered. “Why did my page refresh?”
I tried desperately to get it back. I hit the back button: another refresh. I tried another tab: another refresh.
“I had it open, what, why would this happen? What is the use of this function?”
I didn’t remember exactly when I had lost signal, but it must have been at least 45 minutes out. I tried to picture the map in my head. There was a watch tower. A trail that went past it. The campsite wasn’t too far in. There were only two or three trails in the park, and they looped back on themselves no more than half a mile in. You couldn’t get lost in this. It can’t take more than 30 minutes to walk the whole thing.
Our headlights illuminated a rocky dirt path that was decently well-tended. But the rocks were wet with perennial rain and slippery with moss. The going was slow, the network felt complicated in the dark, I started to lose confidence.
“I think we’ve gone too far,” I said. “It definitely wasn’t this far.”
I started looking for clearings besides the trail, where we might be able to just pitch our tent. That’s when we walked by the tower.
It was a wooden structure about 20 feet tall. Two or three flights of steps led up to the top platform, which was wide enough for a place to sleep and a place to cook. A tilted roof sheltered the whole thing from weather. Looking out I could see the dark outlines of hills in the distance. I noticed the stars for the first time that night, how slightly shifted they were from where they’d been back home, and that little difference was enough to make them nearly unrecognizable. OK, we can sleep here, I thought, like two homeless people. I was a little sad.
Then my phone buzzed in my pocket, an email alert. That little height was all it took and I had reception.