I remember the first time I rode a horse… I was a 6 year old runt at Circle Z Ranch in Arizona. My sweet mare paid no mind as I swung my scrawny leg over her back, settling into the oversized saddle. I squeezed the reins as we set off down the trail. The nostalgia reel cuts off later that afternoon. With the stables in view, my horse, spooked by a deer across the meadow, bolted down the home stretch. She accelerated to full gallop before I, terrified, let go of the reins and melted off the saddle… slow motion, I fell to my right… then, all black.
Rio de Janeiro is renowned for its stunning inner city topography. Shake out your beach towel, toss your machete-violated coconut, and swap your Havaianas for a pair of tennis shoes... Just like that, golden beaches become jungly trails. As a local told me, “God took 6 days to create heaven and earth...on the 6th, he created Rio de Janeiro.” Yeah, it’s a magical place alright. Still near the city but far less famous than features like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf, are Bell Rock and Devil’s Finger, belonging to the Serra de Orgaos national park. While most tourists remain downtown to fuel an insatiable appetite for caipirinhas, Samba, and acai… my hips refused to gyrate at tempo and two acai bowls per day was wreaking havoc on my digestive system, so I branched out to tackle a two day town-to-town hike amongst The Bell and The Finger.
We pick up this story at the end of my afternoon trek into the park. Its first steps were blind, along a deserted backcountry road in a dust cloud kicked up by my frustrated Uber driver. Its last were jubilant, through a high-alpine meadow overlooking the Rio Bay at golden hour. I arrive at the Castelos do Açu mountain hut - Welcome home for the night. She’s as spartan as they come - Open door policy, no electricity, no stove, no water, bare bunk beds, and a communal table for cards and passing around the overnighter's favorite sleep aid. Luxurious. And apparently private, as there’s no evidence of other campers on site. I drop my bag and head out to a nearby rock slab to catch the sunset. Bluetooth speaker blasting, I finally dance in Brazil sans shame of my awkward white-boy-ness. Yeh, straight up tribal revelry, that’s how a proper sun goddess would have us celebrate a solid day.
Plummeting temps eventually chill out the solo nature rave and force me back to the hut. Here, glued to the soft glow of my kindle on a top bunk, I allow Ryan Holiday to school me on how life’s most challenging circumstances are ripe for personal growth. The Obstacle is the Way. I devour page after page bundled in every layer of the few I packed back in 95 degree Ipanema. I fear finishing the short book, as it means facing certain nocturnal misery, but eventually Holiday runs out of words. I power down and settle in. Brimming with inspiration, I embrace the circumstances. This night, frigid, alone, in the wilderness, sans pillow or blanket, would be my perfect obstacle. Yes, I’d prove my worthiness of applied Stoic wisdom through this testy battle.
Straight up, the night is terrible. Bone-cold up at 7K feet and far beyond the warm Atlantic breezes, I toss and turn for its entirety, catching brief moments of featherweight sleep. Finally, the first sign of dawn shows through the cabin window. I stumble to the front porch where the new day is rose-petal pink. My aching body collapses onto the stairs, desperate to be thawed by the sun’s early rays.
Misery aside, I feel survivor’s pride while lacing up my boots after breakfast. Confidence and optimism soar as I set off towards Teresopolis. Never mind the lack of sleep, I bust ass on the trail all morning, maneuvering scraggy playgrounds of rock slabs and streams. The Bell Rock monolith looms ahead; a titanic beacon pulling me in one mile at a time.
Progress slows big time through what I ultimately coin “The Gauntlet”. The trail descends into a jungle valley of ankle swallowing mystery mud, skin grabbing thickets, spider webs with high levels of facial magnetism, and all the most terrifying insect noises imaginable. Not fun. Thank God traverse hikes are one-and-done affairs. Mud-soaked boots dry, bloody scratches heal, and heart rates spiked by arachnid-induced terror normalize. Another obstacle cleared, add it to the weekend’s resilience resume.
The trail rises out of the Gauntlet and onto the doorstep of Bell Rock. I love natural features named after their evocative shape… the name creates a relatable aura, a more dynamic character. Bell Rock is a stellar example. I imagine the bone-rattling reverberation of its towering curved walls after being struck by nothing short of a small meteorite. BONGGGGGG. I chuckle to myself… such a nerd. A second mountain hut lies beyond this tremendous slab of granite, which I’d be skipping in favor of an afternoon descent to Teresopolis. There awaits my 7pm bus back to toasty Rio.
These smooth sailing plans enter choppy waters as I approach the cliffed-out northern wall of the Bell. Up ahead, single-track dirt turns to uneven stone as the trail narrows into a precarious series of “stairs”... Legs freeze as my eyes track up the flight of rocks until, at the very top, they spot a disastrous development. Laid on its side, from cliff-face-right to cliff-drop-left, is a gigantic semi-cylindrical boulder blocking the trail. Make no mistake, it’s a fossilized London phone box perfectly positioned to ruin my day. I tentatively approach the ancient tourist attraction, where closer inspection confirms the worst. My gut calculates a 10-15% mortality rate for a non-aided mounting maneuver. One wrong move and you’re off the cliff into the jungle abyss below. The chilly night is now laughable compared to this life-threatening and all too symbolic obstacle. There is no alternate hiking route… at best I back-track 14 miles, tail between my legs, to a sketch-tastic town in the Brazilian jungle with no export transportation arranged. SOS.
I find a flat boulder. I ponder, then brood, then curse. A lot. No less than a dozen scenarios simmer on the hyperactive stove of my imagination. Wait & pray. Risk & scale. Backtrack & pray. Wait then backtrack. Find cell service or pray. Pray & risk? Ultimately, 3 indecisive hours pass baking in the Brazilian summer sun before I choose to backtrack & pray that I run into somebody with proper gear and a kind heart. The loose backup plan is to reach the original trailhead with enough cell service and battery to somehow arrange a ride before nightfall. One granola bar and half a bottle of water left. Isn’t nature fun!?
Mobilize. Starting with… another buzzkill. Back into the GAUNTLET. Round 2, ding! All the same nightmarish horrors, but with the added salt of retreat stinging my doubling of wounds. To hell with it, I own you, Gauntlet. Nothing will stop me from avoiding a second night in the Açu ice box. Positivity in struggle! The Obstacle is The Way! Yeahh, this is getting old...
An hour later, game-changer...people. I round a blind corner at a quick clip, nearly plowing into a small hiking convoy. Two girls with a Brazilian trekking guide. My attention is drawn to the climbers rope coiled around the neck of who I’d soon learn is Pablo, Rio native and Serra da Orgaos territorial expert. We chat. Thankfully they speak excellent English. I summarize my predicament and solicit advice...
Pablo’s response goes like this, “Oh mannnnn yeah good choice man, you met the HORSE. nobody climbs that without one of these...man.”
He tugs at the orange rope tucked between his drooping left ear gauge and 70 litre army-green pack strap. Considering the city-rated Victronix laptop bag clinging to my back, I feel thoroughly…unprepared...yet validated that my not challenging the Horse solo was smart.
Pablo throws me a lifeline: “You’re welcome to join us man... I’ll get you over the Horse no problem… man.”
Again, he draws attention to the rope. Of course I want to conquer the granite stallion and finish what I started - I run a quick analysis: time, distance, safety, manners, rations, hydration, culture, sun exposure, energy... and, oh for fuck’s sake, THE GAUNTLET. I wince. The godforsaken jungle-hell resumes control of all my fear centers. By accepting Pablo’s invitation, I subject myself to a third passage through that shit-pit of South American hiking misery.
“Yeah sure thing” I manage through cowardly teeth, “thanks, let’s do it… m-m-man.”
Can the same obstacle be the way multiple times? In one day? I say YES.
We set off as a quad unit through the thicket, only to encounter a new issue. The two chicas from Buenos Aires are slow motion hikers. Each step, tentatively placed on a perfectly particular little safe-haven of trail, is like a paper-cut to my free spirit. That bus will be long gone from Teresopolis at this snail’s pace. I speak up and split after 30 minutes of agony; before the pushy American in me hurls himself off the next fatal grade cliff. Peace... for now. I bolt ahead to DOMINATE THE GAUNTLET and catch a nap at my original waiting point, now in the late afternoon shadow of the Bell. Two hours later and on the verge of abandonment panic, Pablo and his alpinistas emerge from the brush. Thank Jesus... but at this point, my dreams of exiting the park and spending the night in cushy warmth are crushed. That is, unless I choose to night-hike by the mega beam of my dying iPhone’s flashlight through a Brazilian rainforest with “nocturnal poisonous creatures”. Yeah no thanks. I surrender to the expert with the rope. Let’s get this over with.
We arrive back at the Horse, where its name origin dawns on me. The only way to clear it will be via a body-hugging leg-swinging mounting motion that shares all similarities with a timid rider saddling a horse for their first time. Add a 700 foot cliff to the equation and I can’t help but laugh at its ridiculousness. The timing of that damn book has never been so incredibly fitting, for anyone, EVER.
Hours later I lay defeated on the mountain hut bunk bed that should not have been, dreading a second frigid night in the wilderness... Why hadn’t I spent the weekend rum-buzzed on Ipanema beach with a simple book of enjoyable fiction? Just six days prior, I’d overcome an equally absurd hiking challenge on the island of Ilha Grande. Since one Dan Kern mishap story at a time is plenty, I’ll leave its Brazilian predecessor at this: 24 miles logged on the last of 4 marathon days in a similarly lonely and unpredictable Brazilian jungle. Paradise turned into a man vs nature gladiator face-off complete with snarling stray dogs and midnight fire ants. Yet here I was, just days later, wondering what the hell led to this obstacle-ridden déjà vu. Why all the chaos? Was I completely missing a sign?
I hear soft laughter from the common area beyond the cracked door. Pablo and company are still awake, savoring the heat of the wood burning stove before calling it a night. I relieve my hula-hooping mind and join their pow wow.
Pablo sees me first. He clears space on the wooden bench to his left. I’m suddenly grateful for this little misfit family in the Brazilian mountains. We plug details from the day, connecting links and adding color to the stories that brought us around this fateful fire. Mind blowing synchronicity. The cabin goes silent as we embed shared experiences into personal narratives. Then, Pablo and the brown haired chica, who’s name escapes me, excuse themselves for the night. I’d learn the hard (and fast) way, at 6am, that they had other “business” to attend to before braving the frosty night. With the fire on its last legs, I commend their resourcefulness.
Aduana, I do remember. She remains, sitting cross-legged on the bench angling away from mine. Her presence is soft, her energy welcoming. Without making eye contact, I carefully vent my frustration about not seeing “the sign” in these bizarre circumstances.
She sits with my irritation a little while before offering, “maybe you’re holding the reins too tight? Trying to maintain control?” ...I had not considered that... “Besides, you mentioned that you write… are these not the stories worth telling?”
Aduana’s wisdom leaves me wordless. I see her lips give way to a sympathetic smile as she hears the tune of a perfectly struck chord. Her teeth catch the dying flickers just long enough for me to notice just how delightful she is.
“Don’t think about it too hard” she suggests while leaning over to kiss me on the cheek, “Goodnight Danyell.”
“Mmmhmm, goodnight then...” I manage, as she rises to leave me alone with the slow-pop fire.
Her mention of “reins” lingers with me… The word brings me back to Circle Z Ranch. The first place I literally held reins and quite possibly the only time I’d allowed myself to let them go. Did I indeed have a stranglehold on the reins of my life? I ponder this while closing the wood stove’s flu and stumbling through the dark to my bunk bed.
If Aduana was right, it’s no wonder I struggle to release my grip... The only time I had, as a toddler, I fell off a sprinting horse, fractured my skull, was airlifted to a hospital, and woke up 18 hours later without a clue how I got there. Pretty traumatizing shit. I pull every scrap of blanket over my body to maximize coverage. Perhaps the granite stallion offers that dropping the figurative reins is OK. We can perceive any life event as high or low, boon or bust, planned or not… or we can lean into each obstacle with an open mind and full heart knowing that it is always the way forward to exactly where we’re meant to be. There may be pain involved and fear to overcome, but you won’t be knocked out like mini me in Arizona.
On the brink of psychological breakthrough, the unmistakable scurry of tiny rat feet passing under my bunk causes me to bolt upright. I slam my head against the top bunk crossbar, knocking me out into a deep and peaceful sleep.
I wake 7 hours later to Pablo and chica doing the alarm clock honors. My discomfort and lingering headache fade upon opening the cabin door. I inhale the crisp morning air, standing in the threshold, admiring the dew-soaked mountain paradise laid out before me. Who the heck knows what I’d be doing back in Rio at this moment. Who the heck cares… this felt right, and my God was it a beautiful morning.
I organize insights from the weekend while bounding down to Teresopolis. It all comes back to Faith. Not Faith in the purely religious sense, but Faith in the generally secular “everything happens for a reason” kind of way. We all know the popular saying, but now, thanks to lesson-laden obstacles, the depth of its pure wisdom finally stuck.
We each saddle a horse in the metaphor of life. That horse represents our soul. Our horse is tuned into the destiny of our best self. As riders, we have the choice to grip the reins and forcefully steer the horse according to our feeble expectations, wishes, and wants… or we can relinquish control to the horse and learn to ride with her, at the will of her unpredictable lead. Our horses know the way. We must have Faith in their ability to guide us. It may feel like they’re trying to buck us off as we sync rhythm, but cooperation is how we learn to ride gracefully through all circumstances in this life. Only as trusting riders will we clear obstacles and reach the marvelous places our horses wish to take us. The question is, do we want to ride circles around the pony paddock? Or skirt soaring mountain peaks and race sprawling alpine meadows?
Who knows how many more icebox nights I’ll face, or jungle insect gauntlets I’ll run, or telephone boxes I’ll hurdle...But so long as they stand in my path, I’m poised to navigate every obstacle with faith that beyond it lies my illuminated path forward. It took the hilarious pairing of a clever self-help book and a toppled boulder to teach me this important lesson. Isn’t life so magical when we allow it to be?
May my frightened six year old self find peace… it’s time to let go of the reins.