The Waterfall

I remember wondering why the hell I had agreed to do this. But I knew why. Because Lizzy wanted to. Because I work hard to please my children. We were on a mother-daughter bonding trip to Costa Rica and riding horses to a wild mountain waterfall was one of the few things Lizzy had asked to do. She’d been totally disappointed when she found out she wasn’t old enough to ride ATVs in the jungle. So how could I say no to riding to a hidden waterfall in the rain forest?

There are times when my ability to forget unpleasant experiences is an asset; other times it is a real drag. This time, when I said, “Sure we can go,” I was forgetting the other time I had gone horseback riding in Central America.

Twenty years ago, Karyn and I were on a vacation in Belize, and since Karyn grew up riding horses, we signed up for a trail ride. On the way back from our equestrian adventure, my horse decided he needed to get back to the barn and eat hay—NOW! He took off galloping and I flew off, smashing onto the hard ground. I didn’t break anything, but was in pain for weeks. Once you’ve been thrown like that, if you’re not a horseback rider to begin with, it’s hard to ever feel safe on the back of a horse again.

But my chemofied brain had forgotten all about that accident until I swung awkwardly onto the back of my Costa Rican horse—and then my body suddenly remembered for me. Panic and dread shot up through my belly into my newly tightening throat. Shit! I remembered saying twenty years earlier, “I will never ride horseback again.” But there I was, on top of a horse. Being a good sport, and not really having any other options, my next thought was, “I guess I’ll just make the best of this—for my daughter.” I’m willing to do just about anything for my kids.

Lizzy was all smiles and happiness. She loved sitting up on her horse and couldn’t wait for him to run. I stayed in the back of the pack, disgusting my horse, I’m sure, with my fearful thighs and tight hands clutching the reins. I wanted him to walk. Slowly. I didn’t want to trot, and I certainly didn’t want him to run.

I vainly tried to remember my lessons at Congo Jones School of Horsemanship in Rumson, New Jersey as an eight-year-old girl in love with horses, but those saddles had pommels and this one didn’t. I vaguely remembered something about standing up and down in the stirrups, posting, as the horse trotted, but that didn’t seem to work here.

And so I bore it. I kept reminding myself that this would be over soon. It was only one day of my life. I could do this. I tried to keep from grimacing, from letting my fear and distress show on my face. Everyone around me was having fun, even the father from Massachusetts who’d never been on a horse before.

Thankfully, this ride had two scheduled stops—one for breakfast and one for lunch. I slid thankfully off my horse when we stopped at a little hacienda for breakfast—fresh pineapple juice and cut-up fruit—big slices of papaya, just-picked bananas and pineapple slivers. Some kind of corn fritters. Monkeys scrabbled on the trees all around us. We made small talk with the family at the next table, but all too soon, it was time to get back on those damn horses again. Everyone else in our caravan eagerly remounted. I, on the other hand, had no idea which horse was mine. I had forgotten his damn name. I waited until there was only one unclaimed horse left, reluctantly made my way over and threw myself onto his back, slipped my feet into the stirrups and held on. I willed him not to trot, but did not succeed. I jarred up and down, afraid of falling into the slick mud that covered the steep hillsides. It was the rainy season and our horses in red mud up to their forelocks. I listened to the sucking sound of their hooves pulling free of the mud and willed the trip to be over.

Finally, after what seemed to me an eternity, we reached the waterfall. This was something I was actually looking forward to. I am fearless in water. I feel strong and powerful in water, always have. I was going to swim to the waterfall—no problem.

Horses tethered, we made our way to a rocky outcropping where a huge waterfall pounded into a pool that was 25 feet across. Lizzy, a water lover who is also young, athletic and strong—was the first one to venture into the water, swimming hard for the ledge under the waterfall. I followed her. It was harder than it looked, the force of the crashing, roiling water continually pushing me back. I swam harder.

One of our guides rigged up a rope so that we could pull ourselves the last ten yards to the rock shelf the water pounded on. Pulling myself up hand over hand on the rope, I finally reached the cliff, ducked under the waterfall, and pushed my body up onto the rock shelf, then leaned back out of the force of the water and lay back, panting.

Our second guide climbed through the waterfall, 30 feet up the cliff face to a place where you could cross over to a flat rock and jump straight down in to the rushing water. He tied a second rope to a rock up there, so we could use it to climb up there, too. I wanted to do it. I’d seen the picture in the shiny brochure. It was a challenge. Terrifying, but exhilarating. I’d done ropes courses and loved the rush.  Climbing through a waterfall and jumping off a cliff, why not?

Lizzy went first. She had scrambled all the way up to the top before I began my ascent. In order to start upwards, I had to put my body back out into the full force of the waterfall. The water blinded me and made it impossible to think or hear or do anything but bear the weight of thousands of pounds of water beating down on my head. One of the guides was positioned above me, and I could vaguely hear his voice saying, “Put your right foot here.” And so I did. I stepped up with my right foot. Now I was precariously balanced on one foot with the same amount of water rushing onto my face, drowning out everything but the awareness of the sheer force of water hammering down. The voice said, “Put your left foot here and pull up.”

I couldn’t see. I couldn’t move, but I had to do something, so I put my left foot up, blindly. I staggered upward, holding onto the wet, soggy rope. “Put your right foot here,” said the disembodied voice. And so I did. At least I tried to. That was when I began to think that I’d made a terrible mistake. And the fact was I had. As I tried to take the next step, I didn’t have the strength in my legs to push myself up and I didn’t not have the strength in my arms to pull myself up. I didn’t dare let go of the rope to reach higher. I was stuck with a waterfall pounding on top of me, my eyes, blinded, my body trembling all over, a wet rope sliding through my hands. I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down, so I did the only thing I could—I fell. Backwards ten feet into the raging water below. Did I hit the rocks on my way down? I must have. Because by the time I landed, I was scraped and bruised and stunned. Survival mandated that I get out of that water immediately if I was not going to be sucked under. And so with the force of adrenaline that accompanies trauma, I thrust myself back onto that shelf and lay back. It was only then that I began to feel the pain all along my left side.

Moments—or was it minutes—went by before I heard the young man’s voice yelling through the water, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I panted, though I had no idea whether or not I was. I lay there wondering if my ankle was broken but then I moved it and figured it was not. A searing pain was growing in my left ribs and I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever get out of there. Once years earlier, I’d gone hiking with my brother, his girlfriend, and 7-year-old Eli in Havasu Canyon in Arizona. I’d rappelled down the cliff face successfully and while standing relaxed at the bottom, I had tripped over a pebble, fallen and broken my pinky finger. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt and there was no way I was going to be able to climb back up the hillside. A group of young eager Christians pushed and shoved back up the canyon wall. They were the best people in the world to have around in an emergency: they knew first aid, they sprung into action, and they never hesitated in saving me. Once we made it to the top, my finger was distended and swollen, sticking straight out in the wrong direction. My brother and I decided there was no way I could walk ten miles out of that canyon with a broken finger and a seven-year-old who was already whining constantly about the hike. We took a helicopter.

I did not want all that drama again. Not that a helicopter could land in the jungle. And even if they could, there was no way to call them. I was going to have to get out of here on my own. So I eased myself back into the cold rushing water—which felt great on my wounds—and swam gingerly back to the rocks on the other side of the pool where the rest of our riding party—the non-daredevils—waited.

The group gathered there showed a lot of concern for me—they’d all seen me fall. But I wanted to draw as little attention to my stupidity as possible. I was embarrassed for attempting the climb, humbled by my lack of physical strength, and in a state of shock. I sat on the slick rocks and watched Lizzy climb up through the waterfall and jump three times. She was magnificent. For her, it was the highlight of our vacation.

Once our time at the pool was over, we had to hike back to our horses. I was trembling and unsteady on the slick trail, convinced I would fall. Once you’re injured, the whole world looks dangerous. But hiking was better than riding; I couldn’t imagine getting back on that horse. But it was the only way back down the mountain. I got back on and when he started moving, I pulled back on those reins, determined that we would walk all the way back down the mountain. I’m sure he hated me. But my side was burning with pain and I could not let him trot. I hung in the back, behind the other riders, as the young guide assigned to me watched me with pity and disdain. I felt like the stupid, middle-aged tourist I was. Each footstep through the red muck was a jolt to my body. “Why the hell did you do that?” echoed in my mind with every step. “You are not young anymore. Your body is vulnerable and it can break.”

Ahead of us was a long trip down the mountain followed by a long bus ride back to our hotel, two more days in Costa Rica before we flew home. And during all of that time, I needed to be the adult in charge, no matter how much pain I was in.

There was our lunch stop on the way home. The food was delicious, but all I wanted was Advil or Percoset or something stronger. I would have taken anything for the pain. But I simply bore it. The last time I had to mount that horse, I didn’t think I could. But there was not other choice. During that last stretch back to the rode, I tried to meditate, “Pain feels like this. Misery feels like this.” It didn’t help.

Meanwhile,Lizzy trotted and cantered down the mountain, oblivious to my distress. That was fine with me. Why should she be suffering, too?

The family we’d met on the tour crammed us in the back of their rental car and drove us to Domincal so we could catch an earlier bus “home.” Lizzy and I paid our colones to the bus driver and rode back to Quepos; then we caught the local bus back to our hotel. Somehow, I managed to get through our last two days in Costa Rica. I took Advil around the clock, but was in far too much discomfort to sleep. I hobbled through the end of our vacation. Lizzy and I even went scuba diving on our last day. (Yes, that was stupid, too—do you know how heavy scuba tanks are? But that’s a whole other story).

Despite my accident, we had a great vacation.

Now a month has passed. My bruises have gone from purple and black to a dull dusty brown. My scabs have fallen off and new skin has grown. My cracked rib still hurts, but it is healing. I can almost lie on my left side again.

I’m certain that I’m not the only ecotourist who overstepped her body’s capabilities in search of a good time. I can say with certainty that I will never ride a horse again. I will never try to jump off a waterfall. I will leave extreme sports to those whose bodies have been primed and prepared to enjoy them. I have been initiated into my limitations and am feeling my age. I will have to discover new ways to find adventure.

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