Stop 1: The Mountains of Puerto Rico
Racing the setting sun, we hugged hairpin turns as we rode the back of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central Mountains toward Barrio Caonillas. The narrow road cut through dense jungle vegetation and every few miles we whooshed through a bamboo forest ,where thousands of emerald green reeds, each almost a foot across, rose two stories high, bending across the swath of concrete we were following to form a verdant canopy. It was an odd sensation to see groves of these gigantic plants tower above me, with several of the smaller species in vases gracing my countertops at home. I felt a little bit like a ladybug on someone’s lawn, contemplating blades of grass.
On our cartoonish map, the route my husband Tom and I traversed appeared as a series of spidery white lines, labeled in tiny print as rural roads 145, 146 and 140 that descended across an appropriately-colored green background.
We faced forks in the road that the tourism cartographer had not deemed worthy of recording and more than once we made detours through family enclaves. Residents looked at us with both curiosity and broad smiles that suggested they didn’t see too many strangers cruise through their neighborhood and the ones that did were likely lost. After a couple of these diversions I became less concerned about getting lost, as the byways inevitably seemed to reconnect to the stretch of squiggly white line the map said we should be on.
The section of the map covering the extent of our journey named no towns; the only location that had warranted being spelled out was "Fabrica del Mueble" or “Fine furniture factory.” With no frame of reference to gauge our progress, we were both acutely conscious of the lengthening shadows, and our conversation waned with the light. We realized our assumptions about the duration of getting from Point A to Point B were meaningless. On another map of a different topography, an eighth of an inch would blow by in the blink of an eye. In this lush land that time had forgotten, that miniscule increment the size of a fingernail represented an hour.
Our eyes and our energy were intently focused on the road in front of us, as though we could will our destination to appear before us. For all we knew, the mountain retreat we were headed to would be around the next bend, or over the next mountain peak.
We made a particularly steep descent and came face-to-face with a green wall of mountainside, the road making a hard right angle. Even with the mounting sense we could find ourselves driving this terrain in the dark, I couldn’t resist asking Tom to pull over so I could take a photograph. The enormous expanse of green that loomed ahead was backlit by the setting sun, and a small white house at its base served to underscore its immensity. Tom heaved the heavy sigh of one who recognized a losing battle, and pulled off on the shoulder.
Getting out of the car, I saw that an even more minor road trickled off to the right, along which several small houses were perched, with a few people outside. I walked toward the escarpment to take a few shots and heard Tom call out “Buenos tardes, donde Casa Grande?” The response came in English and was music to our ears—if we took the tiny lane in front of their homes, and went over a small bridge, we would arrive at our destination.
Soon enough, I was relieved and grateful to see dusk descend from the deck of Casa Grande. With the waning light, the wind picked up and a symphony swelled, courtesy of the resident creatures of the night. A call and response of chirps and croaks ensued and as the harmonic hum rose and fell, the lights of the handful of houses hanging on the hillside across the valley began to twinkle in the darkness.
The next morning, from the same perch, I enjoyed my coffee and seeing day break over the peaks, their cloak of mist rising and then disappearing with the sun. In a matter of minutes the dove-gray sky turned periwinkle and fluffy clouds began to tumble across the tree line atop the mountains. Tom and I went for a short but laborious hike up the mountainside, accompanied by a black dog with a friendly smile, who we learned had just turned up the day before. Life’s cycle played out before us, from the fallen leaves carpeting the jungle floor to the tender tendrils of leafy vines curled around massive tree trunks.
The night before, I spent some time talking to the lodge’s owner Steve, who told me about the path that had led him here some 15 years ago from life as a Long Island lawyer. He shared with me some of the myriad changes that had taken place in that time, ranging from getting divorced to becoming a yoga instructor to bringing his new business successfully through economic downturns and a major hurricane. In each instance, he was never completely sure what the outcome would be, but he also said he felt sure he wasn’t making a mistake. Today, he told me, he can look back and see that it was destiny.
Welcome words to a gal whose roadmap is sometimes a little vague.