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  • Erica Darnell

Glimmery-Eyed Spiders and Starfish Pose

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

I love to wander. I let my mind wander, sure, any writer can say they do that. But I like to get off the beaten path to see what else I can find. I crave that kind of adventure. While some seek the rush itself -- jumping from airplanes like mad hatters with no inhibitions -- I find a rush in experiencing new things that amaze me.

My absolute favorite place to wander is the wilderness. Something about the hum of nature around me strikes a chord deep in my soul. I can feel myself vibrating with wonder and fulfillment when I walk through the woods, watching patches of light shine like beams of heaven through the tree canopy. The sound of the earth shifting beneath my boots, the musty smell of my old backpack, the secluded darkness that allows all of the stars to shine through, the crackling campfire that sings with the crickets -- I love it all. For those of you who think this cannot lead to adventure or danger, I'm about to prove you wrong...twice.

I had the opportunity to go to Zambia, Africa and camp along the Zambezi River for three weeks with a group of people who set up drip irrigation projects in remote villages. I don't mean we drove to the villages and drove back to the city. I mean I did everything in the bush by tent and fireside the entire time. For some (my husband in particular) this sounds like pure torture. But I couldn't say yes fast enough. Amos stayed in the comfort of our home while I embarked on an unforgettable journey.

The African wilderness didn't disappoint. I fell in love with the gorge and the river. Every morning I drank my coffee watching the rapids rip in a powerful torrent clashing with the rocks and splashing into the coves. I have a soft spot for gorges anyway, although most outdoorsmen aren't huge fans of them. And Every evening I would stand at the edge of the gorge, looking at the breathtaking stars. You can ask Amos, "What does Erica miss most about Africa?" He'll tell you the stars. I couldn't shut up about their beauty, their depth, the vastness of the sky uninhibited by city lights. It brought tears to my eyes some nights, knowing now what the true night sky looked like to our ancestors.

I'm not all tough and splendid when it comes to loving the wilderness, though. I hate bugs. Any onlooker could easily misinterpret my bug freakouts as demon possession. Africa has the biggest spiders I have ever beheld. Thank God for the stars and the gorge or I might have hopped the first plane home. The spiders are so big, that when I walked around at night, their eyes would glimmer as the beam of my headlamp swept the ground. Glimmery-eyed spiders are the stuff of nightmares, people. In fact, it's the only thing that kept me from sleeping outside under the stars. I could even hear them tap dancing on the outside of my tent some nights. If you ask Amos what I missed the most about America, he'll tell you small spiders.

One day, a group of us hiked from our camp down the rocky side and to the river. I had been watching from above for at least a week before we had the time to venture in, so my face glowed with a silly grin of excitement the whole time. Sure -- it was tough, but I loved every minute of it because there were no trails like here in America. We jumped from rock to rock, wove our way in and out of coves, discovered huge stacks of bones (from animals that accidentally fall over Victoria Falls), and we shuffled in the riverbed sand. It felt wild. It felt remote. It was heaven.

As we came to the spot where we would climb back out of the gorge (a danger that was omitted from the original description of our hike), we rounded the corner to a drop off. One of the guys explained the 'best way out' just around the corner. I peeked beyond him, observing a six inch wide ledge that went for about 20 feet before easing into a place where we could ascend.

He grinned confidently over his shoulder at my apprehensive expression. "Don't worry. If you go one foot in front of the other very carefully, you won't fall."

I wasn't encouraged but I nodded in agreement, contemplating the survival rate of this endeavor. He went out onto the ledge first in an attempt to calm the nerves of the newbies in the group. He walked chest-forward without even attempting to hug the rocks. I glanced at Marcos, a young man from Brazil who also appeared to have jello legs over this precarious path. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to.

When it came to my turn I plastered myself like a starfish to the side of the rock and inched at a painstakingly slow pace. My heartbeat made a wooshing noise in my ears. My mouth went dry and I wanted to swallow but feared the action might be enough to throw me off balance and send me cascading to the rocks below. I pressed my body so firmly against the rock that it scratched the skin on my arms and face.

I wish I could say I felt brave and adventurous, but I was terrified. The wind taunted me as it bounced around the cove. The gusts probably didn't rival any other average gust of wind, but when hanging by ones toes on an edge, the actual velocity of the wind doesn't matter. If it's enough to make my hair and my clothes move, then it's enough to knock me off. (I do have an author's imagination, after all. Gets me every time.)

My eternal journey finally ceased as I reached for the hand of the man standing at the end waiting for me. I grabbed on so tightly and yanked so hard that I thought his skin might slip off of his arm like a glove. I'm quite strong when I'm terrified. He didn't admit it, but I think I scarred him for life.

This is where Africa taught me a life lesson I will never forget. What if I told you that I avoided this experience during my next hike in? You're probably thinking "Duh. Anyone would choose a safer route." But it just so happens that the six inch ledge was the safer route. Sometimes in our effort to avoid certain hardships (or jello-legs-heart-attack-experiences) we put ourselves in an unintentionally more perilous situation. Oh, the irony.

Part II coming soon.....

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