A Dream in the Clouds

*This is the full version of an article I wrote for Sidetracked Magazine’s 5th Journal, out this month. Photos courtesy of Justin Lewis and Drew Smith.

The ground drops away in shallow sinkholes, like craters. I detach from my rappel device and take hold of the rope as I cautiously pick my way across the craggy ground to the opposite side of the cave, where another rope hangs motionless in the darkness. Walls of flowstone trickle from the rim of the cave in long vertical ribs and stalactites, forming chandeliers of stone over the simple-stemmed plants that huddle under the spotlight of the sky. When I get to the rope, I tie the two together and call out to Peter, 300ft above me. He tugs the line from my hands and lifts the massive loop upwards until it forms a pencil-thin bridge over the mouth of the cave. Then he starts to pull our highline across that dark void.

I’m left abandoned, with no chance of escape. The darkness that looms in the corners where the cave has disappeared deeper into the earth seems ominous now, and I feel the weight of that dank, primordial air. I can hear a faint gurgle of water that moves unseen within the walls. Far below the clatter of humanity, and the gusts of wind and whirling fog, I’m chilled by the strange tranquility of a place forgotten by time. For centuries the Sierra Madre Mountains were a great crossroads of North America, and I look up at the rim and imagine the curious faces of Aztec warriors, steel-headed conquistadors, and bearded Franciscan missionaries, all peering into the dark cavern with hungry eyes, wondering what it hides…

“Rope!”

Peter drops a long white cord over the edge of the cave and it floats down with an acoustic whoosh that lingers in the air. A group of men 300 feet above me take the rope in their hands and start pulling me upwards, moving in unison as Peter resets a nine-to-one pulley system along the taught line every third or fourth pull. The men pause a moment and let their chests heave with breath. Their wives and children have started to appear in between the trees by now, closing in on us with a circle of inquisitive eyes and hushed exclamations. Peter gives them a nod and they begin again. It is the first day of 2015.

When Peter Hudnut called and asked if I was interested in helping him establish highlines in Mexico, I was on the beach in San Francisco, watching the sand disappear in tapers between my fingers. I had spent the last eight months on the road, rock climbing throughout the western U.S. and living in my ’92 Subaru Loyale. I hadn’t a clue what was next, though the world seemed to be telling me: hurry up and decide.

“It’s going to be epic,” he explained. “I have about thirty bolts, three brand new bits, and the best drill money can buy. I have enough hardware for at least eight new highlines.” I watched a few lonely surfers bob up and down, waiting for the break to build. I told him I had zero experience with the sport, I was a lousy driver, and knew relatively no Spanish.

“We’ll take my car,” he said.

Now I gaze out the window, entranced by the dense foliage that abuts the roadside. The cloud forests of Mexico are suspended like islands in the murky heights of the Sierra Madre Mountains, a canopy of tropical and montane forests that stretches as far as the eye can see, nearly one thousand miles, from Monterrey to Veracruz.

But for the secluded homes that ignite the dark forest in flashes of color where their walls explode out from the trees, the only thing to watch besides the road is a river of plant life passing by the window. When the yellow, orange or red colored walls suddenly paint a moment to glimpse a life built in these mountains, I savor the chance to spot something, as if the few potted plants on a dilapidated porch, or a bird feeder hung on a tree limb, might provide me with some vital clue about the family living there.

Peter gleams behind the wheel. This road trip is a welcome vacation from his work as a Youth Care Counselor in Jackson, Wyoming, where he spends his days trying to quell the fury of adjudicated youth with winter wilderness trips into the Tetons. “It’s sensory overload,” he says. “There is just something about setting off for a new place you’ve never been before, you know?” I take in the soggy clouds eddied in the lowland valleys, and the wisps of smoke that rise from behind the hard-luck hovels of roadside fruit stands, listening to Peter’s giddiness overflow onto the dash.

The slumbering town of Union de Guadalupe

By nightfall, the road steepens and we climb through the ceiling of cloud that has hung over us for miles. Peter spots a folded sign that reads ‘tacos’ split open on the street, and I notice its arrow pointing to a building floating on a cloud, suspended on pillars of concrete hidden in the opaque air.

After days of driving through the sepia-toned nothingness of Texas and the pallid dry lands of northern Mexico, the village of Union de Guadalupe gives us an occult, mysterious welcome; constantly mired in heavy fog, it’s too diversified with animal sound and active weather to feel anything like the parched dead plains we drove through. And at just the right elevation, average temperature and distance from the ocean, areas like these are unique havens of biodiversity, comprising less than one percent of the country’s total forestland, yet harboring over 12 percent of its plant and animal species. Here, the forest itself is as loud as the animals that inhabit it, with an audible drip that resonates from every drenched leaf and sunken stream — the soundscape of an ecosystem that literally distills its water from the air.

As we enter the restaurant, Feliciana is standing in an open kitchen, slapping tortillas onto a black iron slab while her younger brother Lucreciano supervises the sizzle of a large round grill. It’s reminiscent of a Caribbean steel drum, only flattened and covered in a dark mass of onions. Feliciana is distinctively short, sturdy, and has the gleam of a matriarch in the grey streaks that run through her hair, while Lucreciano smiles wide across a clean-cut jawline made boyish by the ball cap he wears.

Holas circulate and Peter falls into his routine, constantly complicating things with his courtesy and his adoration of Mexico. He is eager to explain that there’s no point in being picky when it comes to food here; if it’s tacos, empanadas, tamales, or anything else, it will be deliciously fried, a panacea for the pangs of our hunger. The aroma from the kitchen sinks itself into the walls, drifting by us in waves timed with the screams of more onions and meat thrown on the grill. Peter ends the unsolicited monologue and asks Lucreciano for a few plates of food — whatever he’s making.

“Tacos?” he asks. Perfecto.

After our hearty meal of tacos al pastor and fríjoles, Feliciana shows us two rooms on her home’s roof across the street. It’s a flat concrete terrace built into the hillside, overlooking a dark sea of green that shakes and sways in the breeze. We peek into each of the rooms and see simple beds over a simple linoleum floor. When Peter asks how much she expects from us per night, her brow drops and her face turns serious for the first and only time.

Nada,” she says.

El Sótano de las Golondrinas — better known as The Cave of Swallows — is the deepest known shaft cave in the world, like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie about a tunnel bored through the center of the Earth. A glimpse over the edge drops down a sheer wall of karst rock until it’s drowned in darkness 1,300 feet below. In this fecund landscape, where everything under the canopy is alive, the cave not only rivals the height of most skyscrapers, but also dominates the comparison in tenant numbers. Sure, picture the Empire State Building, but don’t ignore its few million occupants: swifts and parakeets, swallows, bats and millions of insects at home in nature’s largest high-rise apartment. The commute up from their nests each morning shapes them in a convulsing, frenetic circle as the avian highway slowly ascends upward and into the milky breath of morning. Once they reach the surface the birds disappear in every direction, not to be seen again until later that night when they tuck themselves into their wings and plummet home.

We sit in Feliciana’s kitchen and take turns pulling from a stack of tortillas as we try to hatch a plan. Peter’s longstanding dream is to walk a highline over this abyss, and I notice a vicious want in his eyes, the shimmer of a long held desire just out of reach.

“I’ll give him my iPad and all the money I have left.” He says, referring to the man at the helm of the community-run tourist operation, the ipso-facto gatekeeper to Peter’s dream.

His name is Leo, and he begins each day at 4:30 a.m. with a walk to the small kiosk at the start of the cave’s path. Just before sunrise, a multitude of national tourists from places like Mexico City and San Luis Potosi will arrive to watch the birds rise from the cave, and his smile will stare at them all with a row of golden-capped teeth. He’ll write their tickets on a yellow tear-away pad as he surreptitiously inspects their demeanor, deciding whether their journey to the lip of the cave necessitates one of the many child-guides at his disposal. This is how, with so many slight shrugs and cursory glances from behind his cut-out window, he preserves the livelihood of the dozen men who tie bowline knots in short ropes around the visitors’ waists (so they can lean over the edge and be terrified), and their wives, who sit patiently alongside the soaked limestone steps selling crafts and keepsakes, pouring tea and entertaining their infants.

Lucreciano bursts into the empty restaurant with a case of Corona, and as he drops it outside the door to the kitchen Leo sneaks in through the swinging doors. He’s young, in his late thirties, but moves slowly towards our table as if the great weight of the forest rested on his shoulders. He sits down next to Peter and smiles, but this too seems strained, like it was squeezed from the tight grip of an overbearing parent. His job is to protect the village from the confusing and malicious desires of outsiders who for centuries have schemed ways to uncover and steal away its secrets. I see that for Leo, it’s a responsibility that holds tightly to the ground an otherwise uplifted and weightless heart.

Peter brings out the iPad and starts a conversation about highlining. He swipes left to unveil the stratified reds of the Utah desert, sunk deep into a barren landscape. In the image Peter stands tall right in the middle of a great gap in the Earth, balanced upright on a strip of nylon that cuts through the horizon like a razor. Next comes the evergreened hills of Idaho, the sallow granite domes of Joshua Tree, and the grotesque ridge lines of Montana, each image showing Peter silhouetted out in space, arms opened to the sky.

When Peter met Josh Stempfederfer and Jeremy Shive in 2008, they were the only other highliners in the greater Yellowstone area. Together, the crew of three established lines in Jackson, Idaho Falls and Big Sky, until fall came and they made their way to Moab, Utah. There they would highline with Terry Acomb.

With its countless cliff bands, alcoves and tight canyons, Terry had been establishing highlines in the Moab area since the early nineties. Widely considered the veritable godfather of the sport, now the veteran (who for years had been developing better highline systems with climbing and rescue equipment) had a small crew of dedicated, passionate minds to mold. He showed them how to drill 5 and ¾ inch bolts into the rock, how to rig a sliding X, and how to back up the one-inch nylon webbing with a redundant safety system. Terry would scout the potential areas while the young guns would help rig them, and as the boys learned from Terry what it meant to be “up on top” and what was considered “good style,” they began to see for themselves how they could mold the sport in their own way. Over the years, Moab became the universal epicenter center for highlining, but for Peter, it was only the beginning, a launch pad for exploring the world.

Peter explains to Leo that he’s traveled over 2000 miles for this chance, and adds that the effort has already gifted him with an irreplaceable experience of Mexico: its people, its food, its delicious language. His effort resembles a plea made to a priest as Peter tries to extract Leo’s trust, confiding in him as if this were a confessional and Peter its kind-hearted, good-intentioned sinner. He explains that we intend to use the trees around the cave to secure our highline so as not to alter the environment. He assures Leo with his word that we’ll have the line rigged and broken down during the midday hours while the birds are away. Leo continues to nod at the impossible bridges below Peter’s feet, but remains silent and betrays nothing; I can’t tell if his interest is in the highlines, the scenic landscapes of America, Peter’s pitch, or the iPad itself.

And there is so much Leo doesn’t see.

What he doesn’t see are the dark lines that run along the backs of Peter’s legs, scars from the countless days he’s spent catching the line with the hooks of his limbs. He doesn’t see the tightened lips of his parents, (ex) girlfriends and chagrined employers, their faces draped in muted concern as they wonder when Peter’s talent and motivation would return to better understood and more responsible goals. He doesn’t see the man I do: a classical musician, a philosopher, a teacher, a genuine example of someone who understands deep within himself what all of us feign to comprehend: that we are at our best when we are doing what we love.

In the end, Leo’s unable to promise anything; it is the community council of la Union that has to grant permission, not himself, and he’ll have to contact the tourist authorities in Aquismón for their approval. He gives us his honest reaction with a shrug of the shoulders: yes, he thinks we could do it, but it will be impossible to track all these people down during the New Year’s Holiday.

Dos semanas,” he says.

I chew on this bittersweet, devastating news as Feliciana brings us another half-dozen tortillas, doubling the unfinished tower already on the table. Peter glances out at the green horizon through the window. I imagine he’s thinking about Texas, and the 30-hour drive home he’ll have to make a week from now. Or maybe he’s trying to spot the mouth of the cave which is just a stone’s throw away, but impossibly hidden under the blanket of green laid over the hills. Two weeks is too long. Turning his gaze back to the table, he politely asks if Leo would join him on the porch.

I watch out of earshot while Peter makes his move with the iPad. Leo takes it in his hands, and examines its obsidian reflection. He touches its glossy screen with his fingertips. He hands it back.

Initially labeled as spectacle, highlining comes from a long history of crowds craning their necks up at the sky, people in utter disbelief that someone would embrace such naked insecurity, such exposure, such unwarranted risk. But when climbers in Yosemite Valley began tailoring the act to their strengths, making equipment more practical and using their expertise in the vertical world to rig highlines high above the ground and in hard to reach places, the evolution of the sport took on a new form. Today, walking a highline is an intensely personal, transformative way to access what lies buried in us, under those heavy layers of doubt and fear that keep us from attempting the spectacular. No longer a performance, it is an effort to confront that agnostic belief in ourselves, to walk out over an empty ocean of air and let it fall away silently, like a dropped leaf.

Leo turned down our request to set a highline over The Cave of Swallows. But after registering our disappointment, he offered to walk us up the street and introduce us to his father Teno. Leo figured that if we couldn’t set a highline over one of the most famous caves in the world, we might want the chance to find a different one.

“There are hundreds of caves,” his father Teno explains, “all different, all beautiful in their own way.” Dried ears of corn hang from the crossbeams of the ceiling, paired like shoes on a telephone line. Speaking with the reserved confidence of a seasoned alpinist, or a retired athlete, Teno offers no pretension, only his experience as the first man of la Union to guide visitors down into its caves. That was more than twenty years ago, and now the memories of his past clients are scattered about his home, the various photos and torn envelopes afloat in the blue hues that pour in from the window.

I see the purpose return to Peter’s eyes in a quick flicker of hope as Teno describes a small cluster of caves that surround a remote village called La Laja, about an hour away.

Vamos,” Peter says.

As I bushwhack through the forest behind him, Teno looks back every so often with his hand lingering on a sharp vine or stem, eyebrows raised high with warning. I grimace at the vicious barbs and needles, and pass on the warning to Peter behind me. The orchestra is vibrant around us as thousands of chirps and drips and gurgles and caws reverberate throughout the canopy. The ceaseless strength fills the space around us with the weight of every living creature, every plant, as we continue hacking our way through sharp, angry plant life. It isn’t long before we’re soaked through our clothes, standing agape over caves that seem to disappear forever into the earth.

Peter evaluates our surroundings with purpose and intention, and I can see it in him — the spitting image of an industrious man in the midst of an imposing environment. But I’ve given up hope that we can control our fate in this place. There is no guarantee that we’ll find what we’re looking for, and no guarantee that the community of La Laja will understand our mission.

At the end of the day, Teno leads us to a small rocky outcrop, the first opening in the canopy for hours. At the lip of the cave, I take hold of the nearest tree trunk and stretch myself over the void. Bright yellow and green birds dart through the pool of black below me, moving in tight, quick patrols.

“This is the one,” Peter says.

La Laja is one of the few Huasteca villages remaining in the mountain forests of Mexico. Considered one of the most ancient of the Mesoamerican indigenous peoples, there are only around 60,000 Huastec speakers in the world today. Along with the Nahuas, Tepehuas, Otomí and Tetonic tribes that have all called this forest home, the Huastec people remain an intensely conservative stronghold of pre-Hispanic beliefs and customs.

The present-day community was also a living artifact of pre-Columbian Mexico, and as we made our way into the village I noticed the pastoral proofs of subsistence, of a life inexorably linked with a forbidding landscape, in the traditional thatched roofs that capped the small square homes, and in the ancient fruit tree orchards set back into the forest, standing sinister and timeless over the fallen fruits that rotted on the ground.

We’re counting on Teno to vouch for us and help us build trust with the community. He translates Huastec holas into discernible Spanish so we can introduce ourselves to a group of men, and immediately Peter, the charismatic diplomat, is pledging his undying devotion to old Mexico. I stand silently next to a circle of coarse faces, smiling at a small girl with a baby in her arms and bare feet planted firmly in the mud.

,” the group agrees. “Mañana.”

Now fireworks break apart the fog and the explosive smoke descends around us, a dizzying aroma of gunpowder and wet humidity, air so thick you can cut through it with an arm. Feliciana’s family dances in pairs to the cumbia music as it casts out from the flat rooftop and over the illuminated gloom of the jungle, the blare of tuba and accordion reverberating over a canopy that extends forever into the night. Her grandchildren scream with glee as they send more rockets into the air. It’s a fusillade now, the last moments of 2014, and as the boys hurry to light the rest of their rockets, I watch Peter move out into the gaseous mist and cut in on Lucreciano and his niece, Maria, immediately spinning the girl around in circles as she laughs out loud over the music. Our final night here has boiled down to this: the Wyoming Gringo and the Huastec Princess, dancing a two-step in the tight-twirls of their respective styles — one cumbia, one country western — both slowly soaking themselves to the bone as I sip tequila under the balcony. Lucreciano returns my way and I pour him a drink into a simple Styrofoam cup. Together we drink to one more year.

The women of La Laja were draped in colorful rebozos the next day, their husbands clad in dark jeans and collared long-sleeves for the holiday. With hard-brimmed cowboy hats topping their curious, pot-holed smiles, the men we met the day before laid empty backpacks at our feet. The unmentioned energy grew around us until we began to pack it away in pieces: green and black span-sets, a block and tackle tensioning system, pulleys, long pieces of 11 millimeter cordelette, locking steel carabiners, harnesses, helmets, 90 meters of 1” flat polyester webbing, 300 meters of rope, and the tamales Teno’s wife prepared for us that morning. We headed for the trees, following in a single-file the man in front of us, careful not to slip on the slick boulders and soaked tree-trunks in our path.

Hours later, the entire village had us surrounded in the trees. Kids sucked on cheap candy from the deposito. Mothers swayed their newborns back and forth. Men shared cigarillos in tight circles. Then Peter put on his harness and climbed onto the thin nylon, bending the line with his weight. He pulled himself into a seated position and let the energy in the system drain until both he and the bridge were still. Psychic rearmament complete, Peter took a deep breath and stood up. In an instant everyone went silent and the hum of the birds took over, ceaseless and strong like the ocean’s waves.

The question of what highlining will become will always be in the hands of its mentors, its best athletes, and the developers that continue to spread the sport throughout the world. Peter, in the same vein as his mentor Terry, understands that there is a lot riding on how these vanguards choose to promote the sport, whether they do it simply to sharpen that fine line between risk and reward in nature, as a personal pursuit of their passion, or instead, as an effort to see the world, to prove that it’s possible to take a step forward into the unknown and survive.

For six weeks, we scoured Mexico in search of great gaps in the Earth for Peter to highline across. We established five new highlines, each one unique and beautiful in it’s own way (as Teno would say). Peter christened them with proper Spanish names. Las Estrellas, at 83 meters across, might be the longest highline ever walked in Mexico, while Lo Mas, rigged at the summit of El Toro Mountain near Monterrey, may be the highest. But my clearest memories are of the people we met instead of the lines we established. I remember moments spent with the families that took us in and harbored our dreams while we battled against our doubts. And I remember Peter’s limitless invention and energy as an ambassador for the highliners of the world, his actions more reminiscent of a Peace Corps Volunteer than an aspiring athlete. I remember how he spoke three languages at the dinner table and spent his afternoons teaching children how to play his mandolin. I remember him gripping two-handed the outstretched hands of strangers, ready to befriend them all.

As we made our way back to La Laja, the fog darkened as the sun eased its burning of the clouds. We dumped our heavy packs at the car. I leaned against the red Volkswagen and listened to the sounds of the village that whispered through the trees, carried, somehow, in the mist that had come to permeate our world. Peter paid out pesos to the men who chose to spend the holiday helping us, but immediately it was made clear that the money would be deposited in the community’s shared account. Each man palmed his money to the other, until the small roll was put away in one man’s pocket. One of the men asked if we would return.

Peter and I could only smile; I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever see this village again. But I could tell Peter was holding something back, as if he was ready to give them an answer, but chose to withhold a promise he could not guarantee.

Nine days later, I stood in the living room of his parent’s house in Fort Collins and listened as he explained, with utter certainty, that in a few months time he was going to quit his job and move to Mexico.

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