Remember the Bowline

From the Mexican Rainforest Between Tepic and San Blas

My pal Juan and I, we’re going to guide the boss’s friends on a night hike.

What could go wrong?

Well, a hurricane is swirling over the Pacific. Surrounding storms have drenched this rainforest “resort” with its tin roofs, walls made out of chopped up RVs, and no-AC cabins.

The corrugated roofs over the bar and reception rattle and ping under endless raindrops. Trails become mud. Guests vanish into their cabins. Dogs nap under tables.

But the boss’s pals can’t be discouraged. They know the guy who owns this place, so everything, even severe weather, must be under control.

Hiking up a rocky, muddy trail in the night, we step-stone across a stream that flows away then plunges down into a big double-decker waterfall.

We’re taking them to an indigenous sweat lodge ceremony. A hut with wool walls over a bamboo frame with a pit full of stones from a fire pit in the middle. There will be chanting and drums while the guides dump buckets of water on the rocks to fill the hut with steam.

We sat in the mud, in the lodge, in the dark, amid the steam from the rocks, and the smell of burning sage, sandalwood, and cinnamon bundles.

It was quite lulling, but…

While we were away…the heavens fed that same stream we crossed to get here, and it deepened, strengthened and swelled till it was waste high, both because the water rose, and because the rocky ground beneath it was rapidly eroding.

The stepping stones we used to get here rolled away under a flood of chocolate milk-colored water, never to be seen again.

Steamed, chilled out, and sleepy, we worked our way back to that stream to discover our path back was gone.

Juan waded in, and the rolling rocks underfoot, the bark and branches that filled the water battering his legs, and the sheer ceaseless rushing power of the water told him that there was no chance of crossing. The middle-aged women, the boss’s pals, would be bowled over, swept downhill, and sent careening over the edge of the rockfalls. Our flashlights shined cones of light through the dashing rain. The river kept getting deeper. We had no cell service, Walky-Talky, radio, or plan of any kind.

Juan and I conversed. The crew in our charge huddles in the rain with crossed-arms, all goose fleshed. Good sports, but for how long? They want answers, and here we are, implicitly on the hook for them.

Bro, I tell Juan. It is really powerful, but I am 90% sure I can cross to get us all a rope.


Yeah. I mean, if you have other ideas I’m all ears, but it looks like our best bet.

Ok. You know if you fall you won’t get back up, it’s just a ride down to the falls?

I know, but I think I can make it. I felt it out. Played around in some rivers, forded one or two in my day. I want to do it. I pop off my sneakers and chuck them to the far side of the water.

Ah, but what cockiness. In the early steps, so far so good, but the ground becomes soft mud, and soon I’m up to my hips in water. Smooth stones get swept downstream under foot. Any one of them could bend an ankle in half if you’re not careful. Now in the middle, the current rages stronger. Bark bits and branches floating in the water batter my legs. An underwater thorn vine rakes across my shin.

I hold my breath, widen my stance, spread my hands out, and churn forward. It gets worse, but I can practically put my hands on the other bank by now. I do so, and exit the water in a bear crawl.

Think we can all make it? Juan calls.

I barely did. Let me get a rope, so we can be sure.

Pop back on the shoes, and dead sprint to the large screen house for zip line and climbing gear. The rain gets meaner.

Giant toad in front of the door – truly softball sized or larger. I’d ogle him, but the boss’s friends are waiting. He hops out of the way, I steal a white rope, hope it’s longer than two tree trunks and a small river, and sprint back to the water.

Ah, but where is the tree I planned to anchor to? I’ll have to wade back in to get it. Juan is consoling the shivering crew in Spanish.

I’m going to tie a bowline, a knot used for rescue harnesses because it absolutely will not untie on its own, no matter how hard it’s pulled. Juan’s flashlight beam strobes and spazzes over my fingers as I work the rope around the tree. I throw the knot together as more floating bark batters my legs, as more mud erodes under my feet. Give the rope a yank and horror – it unties.

Wait a minute, this should’t happen. Sure, it’s been a minute since life asked me to tie a one, but what about all those camp challenges? Who can tie a bowline behind their back, blindfolded, or underwater while treading, which I did while sinking cinderblock anchors for floating docks? This shouldn’t happen, not after any number of years.

Juan’s light is far from my work now, and it’s become a matter of pride. No, it’s a matter of life and death, of not letting the boss’s friends take a long wet plunge to dark oblivion.

Eyes closed, going by feel this time, by instinct, tracing the loops of rope with my fingertips while a thin branch bends against my face, scratching it. The rabbit comes up out of the hole, goes around the tree, and dives back in the hole. I give the finished knot a yank, it holds fast, and I knew the trees themselves would wash away before it untied. I opened my eyes and saw that looping shape I knew to be a perfect bowline.

Coil over my shoulder, I fight my way back to the other end and find an anchor tree there. Another bowline, this one in probably less than half a second.

I twanged the rope over the water, and everyone understood what to do. Juan went first to act as a spotter. He is a big guy, but his knee ligaments were injured and torn a long time ago, so he’s a tad wobbly.

First, we send across a blonde-haired Romanian woman. She gets midway, stumbles in the water, and clutches the rope to stand up again. Juan lends her a hand up. The current has her horizontal. Without the rope, she would have been washed away in seconds.

VIP after VIP we shepherd across that roaring rush of water, those treacherous ankle-rolling rocks, those mischievous underwater thorn vines, those mini boats of bark debris that flick and fleck the skin. They make you swat at your thighs (has a water snake slithered out in the darkness?)

But a step at time, a held hand at a time, we get each VIP to safety.

Finally, I untie the far end of the rope, haul myself through the water and untied the bowline on the other side.

Next, we bring everyone back to that tin roof with the bar inside an RV. Get them towels, drinks, and pour ourselves a few celebration tequilas. For hours, we recap and re-recap the night away.

The victory and hero endorphins flow for a while, but when I lay in my bed that night – wait! We should have had them on the other side of the rope, so it braced them against the current. Holding on was good but – there won’t be a next time but – they should have been on the other side of the rope. Then, it would have been perfect work. Then it would have been perfect.

Thanks for reading! Get my book Odd Jobs & After Hours in audio, hardcover, or paperback by clicking here. It’s about drifting down the east coast of the USA chasing one sketchy, so-called opportunity after another.