The first few minutes on the trail leading north snake through a crop of corn ten feet tall, truly higher than a Laotian elephant’s eye. Cucumber and sweet-melon vines twine along the ground. Patches of papaya and pineapple edge the field.
Heaven knows how many times I’ve flown over these Annamite mountains. From the air, the tropical foliage softens peaks and valleys into a gentle prettiness. But now I’m walking, and it’s raining, and it’s not pretty. The slopes loom as a moist, mammoth terrarium, a fearsome, lonely place, almost impassable except where the trail cleaves its way.
On what had seemed from the air to be gentle inclines, the trail plunges down slimy, precipitous walls and staggers up exhausting ascents. My cleated boots become muddy anchors compared to the muscled toes of our barefoot Hmong guide.
I plop gracelessly into the mud, often. Once John clutches a shrub for support and draws back a hand bloodied by thorns. Groves of bamboo ambush the trail, and snares of vine seek to scramble my steps. The constant tepid wetness softens the flesh of the feet and erodes the will to walk.
Hmong measure distance in time, not miles. As our leader glides effortlessly, it’s obvious his hours stretch miles longer than mine. I stare the hours away, watching my feet automatically fall into the tracks ahead.
Such Southeast Asian trails have known other treads than mine. With a small twinge of guilt, I reflect that I am healthy, that before me lie welcoming villages, which you can visit nowadays only if you pay a lot of money. But some of my countrymen—captured soldiers and airmen—have suffered these jungle trails before, as have thousands of Hmong refugees. They have been sick, wounded, hungry—with enemies as their sole companions.