The reptilian eyes of a caiman blinked from the shadows as I paddled deeper and deeper into the jungle. Absurdly colorful birds winged overhead and mysterious cackles and whistles reverberated from the surrounding forest. The light was failing and I was alone, pushing against the current in one of the most remote places left in this world. Safety experts would insist I turn around now. Except they’d never be here at all, on a standup paddleboard in the encroaching night of Nicaragua’s wildest rainforest.
But I couldn’t bring myself to turn around that humid evening on the Rio Bartola, not yet. This could be my only chance to be here this lifetime, and who knew what mysteries were around the next corner? The light dimmed and I paddled harder upriver, pushing through vines, skimming across black pools, and hopping off the board to scramble over rocks and past fallen trees. Finally, with fireflies sparking the twilight and howler monkeys bellowing from the forest, I stopped and stood in the water and listened. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was time to turn around—and that’s when the adventure really began.
That drive to explore—to see what’s around the next bend and uncover the mysteries of the world—was exactly why I was here. Behind me, a few miles downriver, my wife and two boys were in a blissfully off-the-grid lodge we’d recently stumbled upon. We were skipping out on a year of public school for a seven-month adventure in Central America and the school of the road. Now my boys were learning about tropical rainforests, watching toucans and crocodiles, and, perhaps most importantly, learning that this world was theirs to explore.
“We did not spend millions of years getting to this point, with these magnificently capable bodies and minds, to fill our days with monitors and videos of cats.”
Nothing against school and jobs and all that, but humans did not evolve to sit at desks. We did not spend millions of years getting to this point, with these magnificently capable bodies and minds, to fill our days with monitors and videos of cats. We were meant to climb mountains, to feel the sun on our skin, to see our reflection in the eyes of a caiman. For thousands of generations we’ve tested ourselves in the wilds. It’s where we’re from and, if we let ourselves feel it, where we’re still most at home. We’re literally hardwired to be outside. It’s where we come to life.
If there were a way to measure this, a kind of Aliveness Scale, paddling through wild jungle, or even just tromping through the woods or riding a bicycle in the open air, would be somewhere near the top. Being at a desk in an artificially lit office would probably register near the bottom, somewhere above being chained to a dungeon wall. The reality of modern life is that much good work gets done at desks and we all must find our niche. That often means time indoors doing office-y things. But you’ll never wish on your deathbed that you’d spent more time in the office. You’ll reminisce about the people you loved, the places you saw, and the adventures you had.
So we go outside and explore. Once we’re out and free from modernity’s numbing embrace, we’re rejuvenated. Whether it’s for half an hour or half a year, we find the strength and spirit found only in untamed places. Ignoring the lost souls who tell us it’s safer and more comfortable inside, those of us seeking vigorous lives paddle against the current of the modern world. Much like me on the Rio Bartola that night.
But when I did finally turn around the current was with me, the river’s clear, purling water carrying me through blackening forest and back towards my family. The roar of a million cicadas filled my ears as I jabbed my paddle into the inky water, threading between rocks and branches and vines I could barely see. Flying bats dodged my head and animals of unknown varieties crashed through waterside vegetation. I had no headlight but followed the lightning bugs and the corridor of sky reflected on the water at my feet, a pathway of midnight blue through a dark, teeming world.
The stars sprayed the sky. As they reflected on the river’s mirror at my feet, it felt like gliding across the cosmos itself. My heart thrummed. My ears and eyes and every muscle could not possibly have been more attuned. I’ve never felt more alive.
I’ve come here to see the world and show it to my children (who joined me the next day for a much better-lit adventure on the river). Fueled by the thrill of exploring new places, we’re reminding ourselves that we are still animals on a wild planet. In the eyes of a caiman, in the fireflies and stars, in wild jungle rivers, we find life. [bug]