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A Close Call in Costa Rica
By John Kirkpatrick

It was my fault, really it was. Peggy insisted on apologizing repeatedly but ultimately it was my fault. After all, I was the one behind the wheel. Once the tires left the last of the rock road I knew we were in trouble. The lack of other tracks told me that we were venturing where even a foot hadn't stepped in a long time, let alone a 5000 lb SUV. The Costa Rican forest was in the process of reclaiming the old road and we were sliding into it like a metallic insect down the throat of an immense tropical pitcher plant. My sense of dread increased when I lightly tapped the brakes and initiated a skid. Peggy, for her part, was innocent. "I thought that 4-wheel drive meant you can go anywhere". She was correct in that, but there is a universe of difference between going and getting back. Once we were safely and sufficiently stuck we exited our vehicle and surveyed the situation. We were facing an uphill incline the length of a football field that was both treacherously steep and slick with the kind of greasy red tropical mud that makes even climbing out on two feet a challenge. Then it started to rain. The rain had been intermittent all week but had finally made up its rain mind to rain. We would later find out that this wasn't the best it could do but at the time it seemed pretty impressive. Soaked to the skin and demoralized we trod uphill to our companion vehicle. The situation looked all but hopeless. Miles from anywhere and 200 feet from the closest place you could put a tow vehicle the rental car looked like a lost cause, a lost cause worth tens of thousands of dollars that was secured by my credit card. I didn't sleep well that night. The rain continued. In between wakeless dread and short nightmares I kept seeing the three ton SUV inching its way downhill. Sliding imperceptibly at first, then picking up momentum and speed as it followed the path of the water, cascading first down the remains of the road, then off a convenient curve, rolling side over side careening off trees and rocks until finding the river at the dark center of the steep ravine. The descent ended there, but only because daylight interrupted the scenario. Another hour of darkness would have taken it to the Pacific Ocean. Steven was convinced he had a plan. I had a couple too but no confidence in either. Peggy, her husband Benny, Michael and Sonya rounded out the rescue party. After all, we did share a common interest in retrieving our valuables and gear still inside the vehicle. The six of us crowded into Steven's Landcruiser and set out on our mission. "A piece of cake" said Steven. Three machetes, 200 feet of rope, a tow strap and some odd pieces of chain rounded out the supplies. Except for Steven, there was a void of optimism in the equipment list. Liked doomed minors seeing a glimpse of light from a shaft above we were elated to fix our eyes on the SUV. Looking both out of place yet so perfectly wonderful at the same time in the dark forest below the car was still there. The second good news was that we had enough rope. With both the tow strap and the 200-foot line we could tether the two vehicles together. But there were serious problems. The path we had not chosen was bordered by a steep ditch on one side and a bottomless ravine on the other. To complicate matters further the path we had not chosen include at least two sharp curves that cut off any visual connection between the tower and the towed. At any point on this joyride there was barely enough room for the vehicle's wheelbase with a foot or two to spare. Going off one side was disaster; going off the other was death. Steven worked feverishly first with a machete then with the ropes to design a counter pull to initiate the climb in the general desired direction. When all was ready he climbed back uphill to his Landcruiser while waving his arms and shouting inaudible instructions. I made peace with God and climbed in behind the wheel. If I had taken the time I probably would of removed the surfboard from between the driver and passenger seats. The proximity of the sharp fiberglass fin was a concern. I visualized a slow tumble sideways with the car while being sliced, diced and impaled. But there was no time for safety concerns; Steven already had tension on the rope. I envy the certainty and confidence that some possess in a time of danger. Steven has those qualities that come from being on firm traction and out of view of the consequences of his acceleration. I on the other hand would rather stop that be pulled off a cliff. My brakes worked well enough to snap the towline and come to a brief stop at an odd angle in the path. A brief stop before the effects of gravity overcame my fragile traction and the car started to slide. Only the quick action of my stalwart companions prevented a disaster. Somehow I had the forethought to include two short but stout poles in our equipment pile. Only because they were in the hands of Benny and Michael at that instant could they halt the glacial disaster by applying them as levers against the rear bumper. This was, as it turned out, just a practice run. The real life and death story was further uphill. While my archangels held me in place the ropes were reattached and the hellish experience begun anew. "This time give it more gas" was Steven's advice. Once again it was my fault, using the brakes instead of the accelerator when heading over a cliff. I made peace with God for real this time. As the rope tautened I accelerated. The tension caused the towline to strain to the point of breaking when I felt uphill progress. The first few feet were perfect, and then everything seemed to go wrong. Steven's vehicle was out of sight around a corner above and the towrope tension was increased. I'm not sure what happened from this point. Time and space turned inside out while I spun the wheel in full turns to the left and right and the SUV responded in slow motion. I had no idea how close I came to the wheels going off the cliff but if it could be measured by the intensity of the screams from Michael and Benny as they battled with their staffs then it was real close. Ultimately I felt my tires on solid ground. The battle was over, I would survive and the SUV was saved. This was not the day I would die. I would have to figure out a better story and more dramatic way to finish myself. We had made it. It was my fault. I flew 3000 miles, rented an SUV, and then drove it down paved and unpaved roads until I almost lost everything in a place where the roads all end. I had no business taking those risks, both physical and financial. But I did, and at least this time everything worked out all right. Will I ever do something so crazy again? Of course not! But when I do I can only hope that I have the great fortune of having the strong backs and firm minds of good friends to come to my rescue again.




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