W Publishing Group
November 12, 1995
The dense canopy and violent thunderstorm had killed any hint of daylight. I peered into the dark deluge, searching for any sign of my guide or the others.
“Ashuco!” I screamed into the rain. “Ashuco! Where are you?”
I saw only the jungle, thick, wet, and hostile. It surrounded me, pressed against my skin, threatened to suffocate me in its malevolent greenness.
“Ashuco! Darcy! Esteban!”
I stood motionless in the downpour, straining for a reply. The only response was the pounding of the rain, falling so hard and so heavy I wondered if I might actually drown while walking in it.
My hoarse voice was weak and pitiful, barely audible to my own ears. How was it possible for rain falling on leaves to be so loud?
I scanned the foliage around me for machete marks, a footprint, any hint of human life.
I stumbled ahead into the choking, dripping brush, weighed down by my sodden boots and clothes, bent beneath the deadweight of the backpack that held my crippled cameras and the crushing burden of my disappointment.
This was supposed to have been my golden opportunity, the solution to all my problems, my shot at the big time. A better life not only for me but for my boys. Poor Sean, Ryan, and Ian. I’d convinced myself I was doing this largely for them; that a successful expedition would somehow result in more time together, new adventures for the four of us to share.
Instead, I was leaving them fatherless.
My own words haunted me. Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll be okay. God’s going to take care of me.
Poor kids. They would probably never believe in anything again.
A deafening clap of thunder rattled my teeth. Unbelievably, the rain began to fall harder. A hanging vine clawed my face. I reached up to yank it down, and caught a pungent whiff of my own sweat.
God, I was so tired. So tired and so hungry and so bruised and so bug-bitten and so wet.
“Ashuco!” I screamed with a raw throat. “Ashuco! Where in God’s name are you?”
I was alone, lost in the jungle. And night was coming.
A sickening sensation rose in my gut. I struggled for control, fighting the irrational panic I felt welling up inside. No, I realized, that wasn’t right. The most frightening thing about this panic was that it wasn’t irrational. This fear was well-founded, justified, reality-based. Barring a miracle, I was going to die in this jungle. Maybe today, in this very spot, alone in the rain.
I had seen the animals, the bugs, the rot, the effects of the constant heat and humidity.
I knew what the jungle could do.
The fear exploded into full-blown panic, a wave of dread that left me shivering in the tropical heat. It was followed by a hot rush of adrenaline that threatened to send me screaming into the jungle, crashing blindly through the wet foliage.
Run! Some primitive instinct screamed. Get out of here! Just drop the gear and run!
But there was nowhere to run to. Instead, I fell to my knees in the mud and groped at the zipper of my backpack. With shaking hands, I retrieved my battered journal and fumbled to a blank page. Clutching my shiny Fisher Space Pen (“Guaranteed to write upside down, underwater, and even in outer space!”), I hunched over the journal, struggling in vain to keep the paper dry.
A splotch of bright red blood splashed across the page, spreading like a fungus. I choked back a sob. I knew it was nothing fatal, nothing even serious, just a little seepage from the deep gash on my torn left hand. But the sight of that crimson stain blooming on the page was horrific, a dreadful portent that triggered a fresh surge of fear. I ripped the bloodstained page from the journal and threw it into the rain. It fluttered to the forest floor and lay there curled and limp, like a wounded bird. A single tear snaked down my scratched cheek, mixing with the rain and sweat. I scribbled in a wild, rambling hand.
This trip was a mistake, a fatal mistake. We are going to die here. All of us—Ashuco, Esteban, Darcy, Mario, me. The jungle is going to take us all.
Thunder rumbled, then exploded in an ear-splitting clap that shook the soggy ground beneath me. Lightning illuminated the horizonless tangle of trees and brush around me, revealing in a flash my utter, complete aloneness.
I stared down at the journal. The words were barely legible, a black, spidery scrawl that looked like fear crawling across the page. Looming up at me were the words die here. I ripped out the page and ground it into the mud, then forced the fear into a corner of my mind. I felt it waiting there, struggling to get out, to gobble up the last of my reason. But I had regained enough clarity to know I could not allow those frantic, faithless scribbles to be my final message.
I took a deep, shuddering breath, then gripped the pen between white knuckles, waiting until the trembling in my hands quieted to a manageable quiver. Then I wrote.
November 12, 1995
By venturing off course, I fear we have put together a plan that could end our lives. Even if someone came searching for us, they would have no idea where to look. We are miles from the river, and the canopy is too thick for any hope of sighting or rescue by plane. I still have faith. I’m praying and putting my trust in God.
But I have to be realistic.
Christians die just like everyone else.