See You in Six Months: In the Mountains of My Youth

Risk comes with the territory when trekking in Bolivia's backcountry. But go with a posse of teenagers, as Joe Kane did, and the stakes get even higher.

Where few men dare to float: the sometimes fierce, sometimes meandering Tuichi River, Bolivia.     Photo: Sergio Ballivan

Remote File: South America

Continent Size
7,127,600 square miles

Population Density
48 people per square mile

Claim to Fame
World's driest region: Atacama Desert, Chile

Most Remote Region
The Amazon Basin, Brazil

Required Reading
One River, Wade Davis
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
Alive, Piers Paul Read

FOR QUALITY TROUBLE, give me South America. Whole countries get lost down there. (Ask ten people where Suriname is; only one will even know the continent.) Yes, you can get yourself in a good jam right here in El Norte, but there's almost always a safety net. Cell phone, sat phone, GPS, radio: Help is an uplink away. Expensive help, but they take credit cards. Go remote down south, though, and six seconds of inattention will land your ass in a serious sling. Then what? Call the park rangers? The army? Sure. Quizás, tal vez, de repente, as they say in Peru&3151;maybe, perhaps, we'll get right on it. Mañana posible.

I've visited the South American backcountry often enough to screw up with the sort of depth and regularity that is inconceivable without an expense account. In Yasuní National Park, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I found myself thrashing through bush so thick I didn't see the sky for three days. No maps. No food. No sense of direction. I was traveling with Huaorani Indians, whose jungle navigation skills are perhaps the finest in the Amazon—and they were lost. By the time we stumbled out, I was close to starvation.
Or rafting the Apurímac canyon, in the Peruvian Andes. The Apurímac is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon; our maps, made by the Instituto Geográfico Militar, had big white spaces where the river was supposed to be. We certainly hadn't expected to encounter Maoist guerrillas down there. But there they were, firing at us at dawn one morning. Cerebral edema at the source of the Amazon in the Andes? The medevac, if you're lucky enough to have one, eats grass and wears a saddle.

After several close calls in South America, I did what any rational man would do: I went back with nine teenagers. I volunteer in a program that sends high school kids to Bolivia for six weeks every summer. Some are rich, some poor, some beamed in from Mars. One year, in one of those decisions that seems logical at the time but insane in retrospect, we took them on a backpacking trip way off the grid, from the Andean crest on an old Inca highway, then down into the Amazon basin. I worked sweep behind the only two girls. The trail was solid stone and slick as an ice rink. One girl wore Birkenstocks; at 16,000 feet she blew out an ankle. I emptied her pack into mine. The other girl got blisters and hurt her back. I took most of her stuff, too. My load now totaled about a hundred pounds. I kissed my knees good-bye.

We got blasted by snow, hail, rain, and wind until, late that first afternoon, we lost the rest of our group. Suddenly, characteristically, the Andes went from barren to so thickly forested you couldn't step off the trail without a machete. The sun set. It got darker and colder. Only then did it occur to me that we had no food, water, or shelter and that if we did not reach our campsite we would spend the night standing up on the steep, narrow trail, alone, in the blackness and rain, hypothermic and hungry. We'd made mistakes; the bill had come due. But the girls soldiered on. They didn't complain; they didn't say a word.

Somehow we stumbled our way into camp, a barnyard I'd call fit for pigs except that I've met pigs who had it better. Two days later, when we reached an inn, I walked by the girls' room and noticed that the stuff I'd been hauling included hardback books, jars of cosmetics, a copy of Clueless on videocassette. I stifled a scream.

Because by then we'd had a conversation. "It's like there's this whole other world out here," said one. "I can go home, but nothing will ever look the same again." Trite, perhaps, but for a 17-year-old girl who totes mud mask into the Bolivian backcountry, poignant. I knew what she was saying; I experienced the same feeling—like the rust was blasted off my soul—the first time I went south. Fifteen years later, I still do.

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