I love to tell people about how I make a living. They light up at the tales of high adventure and misadventure, the faraway and exotic places, and best of all, the price tag -- someone else is footing the bill. What more could you want out of a job? A lot of people would settle for just part of it.
OK, I'll admit to loving my job. But for the record, I must say there have been some major moments of doubt, not just for me, but for the staff, too. One of the most memorable occurred while filming a two-part episode of Anyplace Wild, our PBS television series that premieres June 4.
We were in the Central American country of Belize, flying out of Belize City to a newly discovered Mayan city five days' hike into trackless subtropical rain forest. My journal entry, written on the plane, sets the tone: "The Maya Mountains slowly peek through brownish haze clinging to the horizon. At first I associate the lack of a view to airborne pollutants, then I catch myself. There isn't that much development down here. This is what heat looks like when it's trapped inside a blanket of humidity. Even though the air inside the plane is pressurized, I feel it growing thicker and stickier as I envision myself down there below the jungle canopy, inside that dank blanket."
It was rough going that first day in the jungle, but not impossible. I knew I'd push through the nine days we'd mapped out, although I was definitely making adjustments to life in the bush. Journal entry: "I've decided to give up counting ticks. In a typical stroll from my tent down to the river (about 100 yards), I found at least a dozen new ones clinging to me. I can see that plucking is going to become a nightly ritual...routine maintenance in these parts."
While I was only mildly inconvenienced, the rest of the crew weren't doing so well. Our cameraman lay shivering in the throes of advanced heat exhaustion, and others were hurting more than they let on. A revealing journal entry from photographer Jeff Scher: "The hike to first camp was one of the toughest of my life. The jungle is a severe environment. I feel lucky to have made it in one piece...imagine how I'll feel two days into the dense Belize jungle?!"
On the third day we were attacked by killer bees. Like a lot of people, I thought they were just a lot of hype. Former Backpacker Equipment Editor Dave Getchell, who's now the Anyplace Wild series editor, found out they are no joke. He and another crew member were investigating some caves high on a cliff face. From Dave's journal: "I was headed up for second cave when Ken started screaming, 'BEES! Get OUTTA here!' Panicky voice, wide eyes. I was above him, a few buzzing bees in between. My first thought was, 'Whatta wimp. What's his problem?' Then a cloud of bees materialized, just like on Daffy Duck cartoons. Ken took off, covered in bees.
"Suddenly the bees were on me, stinging my ears and face and arms and neck and eyes. Huge bounds downhill past Ken, down to the canyon floor.
"I saw people cowering in rocks, heard screams and cries and hoarse shouts. I stumbled blindly to my pack, ripped out a tarp, and crawled underneath to hide from the enraged bees hurling themselves at my shelter."
Luckily, no one developed serious reactions to the many stings. We went on to spot countless rare and endangered birds, to dodge poisonous snakes, to cool off in pools filled with piranhas (the wise swim with their shorts on), and to rappel into the flow of an underground river. The climax came when we explored the remnants of a Mayan city lost in the jungle for 1,000 years.
Like a lot of trips, this one wasn't over even after it was over. Journal postscript: "Yeow!!! That hurts. Gawd, I can't wait to get these things out of me. Killer bees were nothing compared to the dreaded beefworms. The eggs are planted in you by botflies, and the worm-like larvae thrive just beneath your skin.
"Two weeks after coming home, I'm tossing in bed as two beefworms fester and squirm deeper into my thigh. I remember watching one of our bush guides deal with one...after we had dinner, fortunately. He smeared cigarette tar over the larva's breathing hole in his arm. After choking for a few minutes, the little parasite relaxed its tiny, piercing grip, and he squeezed HARD until it blew out...just like a zit. The problem for me is that the little buggers are on the back of my leg. ('Uh, honey, can you give me a hand here?') So ends the first trip, from which my keepsake is preserved in a jar of rubbing alcohol."
This was our first filming episode. For more adventure, join me and the rest of the Backpacker crew on Anyplace Wild. Tuning in to the show is the only excuse we can think of to stay home.