We arrived in La Cienaga the night before; me and 4 other education volunteers who I consider dear friends. We grocery shopped in Jarabacoa and made our way , packs and plastic bags all piled into the back of the pick up truck. After going up for what seemed like 2 hours, we made it to the park entrance and met our guides. We cooked dinner by fire and prepared our stuff for the following day. We met a young boy who was simply wandering around on his birthday. And he gave ME a sucker. I'll miss that unquestioned selflessness someday soon. Julie and I showered by freezing cold water from the hose and we were off to bed early on the cold, hard wooden floor of a rickety old cabin.
A sleepless night was met by an even colder, darker morning. It was 6am and we were off; let by flashlights and a young boy (son of one of the guides) on his horse and a dog who we named Nevada because his fur was white and we knew that the cold we felt wasn't anything compared to what we were about to face in the mountains. Our mules with all our stuff would come up behind us soon.
We started to ascend pretty quickly and joked about how the climb had begun! Oh how naive we were! There were a few resting stops along the way but it was literally uphill for the next 8 hours. We sang every song that have ever existed in this world, used our walking sticks like experts, ate many snacks, walked downhill (wait, what?? We were supposed to be going UP to the top of the mountain!), got split up, and eventually arrived at site. There were cabins, a large kitchen with tons of fogóns, bathrooms with floors that we SWORE we were going to fall through, a big fire pit, and we were absolutely freezing. How there was no snow up there, I do not know. We ate a late lunch, stretched, laughed, made dinner and hot chocolate, played cards, and shared more laughs with our new Dominican companions. Bedtime was early again but the alarm was set for even earlier.
We woke up at 3am after not sleeping a wink with the freezing cold and the chatting pair. While waiting for the mules, we started a mini fire before leaving for the peak at 4am. We walked by flashlight and went up...and up...and up... After the guides swore it was all flat until the "last little bit." Every five minutes we shouted: "We see the top!! Not much further!!" After an hour or so, the sky started to light up, a lush, deep red lining the mountain tops in the horizon. And after 2 hours of straight uphill, we hit a rest stop that we had thought was the top. But there, in front of us, was another peak and a sign that said, "Pico Duarte-1.2km." Some of us caught energy and strength at the site of the sign, some lost it. But we kept going. The deep red turned to all the colors of the rainbow in their own banner across the sky. We had to make it to the peak before the sun broke through. The "last little bit" was indeed the hardest. Sometimes I even used my hands to pull myself up. And more of "there's the top!" And it being a lie. But as I walked most of the final peak alone, I heard two of the group screaming and cheering up ahead. They had made it. And eventually we all did; just as the sun, bright reddish pink, blinded us from the top. Pictures galore, snacking, more pictures, and complete shivering down to the bones. Not even a half an hour later, we headed back to base camp. Julie and I made it down in an hours less time than it took to make it up, running most of the way. And passing the rest of the hikers on their way up. When we made it (10am) breakfast was made by one of our guides who stayed back. We brewed coffee and waited for the rest to arrive. They trickled in and there we started our day of rest. Broken shoes, blisters, many dirty clothes, dirty bodies and all. We debated the next day-would we go to the valley for another day? Or would we go home? But despite the struggles and pain our group was in, impressively, we decided to fight on. The next day we set out, back the way we came, all uphill for the first hour or so, at 6am. We hit a high point and broke off the normal path (have I mentioned how much I will never take toilets for granted again?) and started our trek down to the valley. Believe it or not, this was the hardest day in regards to walking. All downwards, all loose rocks, and you could see your final destination but never felt like you were getting closer. We sang some more, lost breaths at the views of the mountains surrounding us, ate sunflower seeds, fell many many times (we kept track and I think Julie won with the most falls) and laughed harder than we had thus far. We ended up splitting again (it was difficult to keep a slow pace) and Julie, Brady, and I made it to the open, green field we had seen from the top. My knee decided to give out on me and I limped, hiking stick acting as my second leg, all the way to the cabin below. Almost 8 hours later. The rest arrived a few hours after that. Lunch, a trip to a gorgeous river (with the famous "whale" rock that looked more like the head of a turtle than anything else), the indigenous rock with a symbol carved out of it from the Taino people but surrounded by what seemed to be a dumping station for an outhouse, hot tea, and 2 friendly hikers who gave me a muscle relaxer and shared our s'mores and chocolate milk. Tomorrow was the final day. And it was my birthday.
And it was the best walking day yet. We walked uphill for 3 hours (1hour less than expected!) and downhill for 4. I finally rode the mule on the last downward slope because that was when my knee was at its worst. Everyone was in high spirits. Even the guide, who we struggled to like the last 3 days, stood silently after farting at a resting point. After Julie asked each of us if it was us, we all turned to him and realized he was crying with laughter because despite the language barriers, he knew exactly what we had been asking about. And he had been the culprit. We all became best friends after that. Working our way downhill, I stayed at the back with our poor girl with broken shoes. When we arrived at the main camp where it all began, a celebratory chocolate milk was already bought and ready to be opened. We had done it. The mountain came with more of a physical, emotional, and psychological challenge than I could have imagined, and it was some of the best days of my life. We became closer as a group (even with those many trying moments) and had accomplished it together. I was exhausted, but how good I spiritually felt made it nearly impossible to feel the physical pain I knew was there.
The friends we made in the valley left 3 hours after we did. And arrived 20 minutes after we did. It was incredible. But also meant a free ride all the way home to the capital. Not without chocolate milks in the back of the pick up truck, busting at the seams having to pee, eating ribs (!!) at a restaurant, and nearly falling asleep to merengue as the capital lights reminded us of what we had left and didn't miss.
It was perfection imbedded in all its imperfections. The best birthday a girl could ever ask for without whispering a single word to anyone about what the day actually was.
And another thing checked off my DR bucket list. I won't finish that list before leaving, but that certainly was at the top. And now I've just got more reason to keep coming back to this incredibly beautiful country. For the rest of my life.