The closing time of the park was ten minutes away. But there were no gates to close and prevent one from simply staying inside longer. Erik was tired, since we had walked feverishly around Tikal the entire day; he went back to our cabin just outside the park entrance. I decided to press on to Temple VI.
Earlier in the day I had overheard someone say that once it gets dark in the jungle, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. The sun would set in ten minutes, but I figured it would be half an hour after that before darkness set in. I knew the temple was an outlier, some distance from both the entrance and the main cluster of buildings we’d been exploring all day. I decided to walk as fast as I could for ten minutes, then no matter where I was, I’d turn around and walk back. Back to my husband and the small hub of tourists at the park lodgings.
The path I walked was hard stone, often smooth and slippery in places. It was wide, but hemmed in on each side with dense growth of trees and vines and scrub. Earlier in the day, we’d tried to walk through some of the jungle, off the path, just a short distance to a tree we’d been looking for geocaching. We’d been strangled with leaves and tendrils and spider webs, and we coughed our way back out. Snakes, my sister-in-law tells me, slither through these trees in the Petén Basin of Guatemala, silently stalking prey, stalking even people.
After ten minutes I was nowhere. I had no orientation. I had no knowledge of how far it was yet to the temple, or even of how far I’d come. I’d seen no signs of any sort, and no other people. I couldn’t turn around yet, not when I knew nothing. I stepped up my pace to a shin-splintering half-jog.
After five more minutes I came across a sign pointing down a side path to Temple VI. Here’s where the inscriptions were supposed to be, missing from most of the rest of Tikal -- writing and symbols on the central panel of its roof comb. I was anxious to view the intricate, bulbous hieroglyphs with their curved lines, full of circles and ovals and dots, that I’d only so far seen printed in books. The recorded dates on the panel are reported to extend over a period of 1,900 years, back to times that must have been to them mythological in nature, like Noah and the flood, and continuing to its construction date in the 700s AD.
Darkness in 25 minutes, with a 15-minute journey back. I couldn’t help it; I had to go on. I ran down the path. “Where are you?” I asked out loud to myself. “Where are you?” I asked louder into the jungle. It was silent all around me. Oddly, there were no birds calling, as they had been incessantly all day. There was no unnerving distant roar from the howler monkeys. There was no breeze through leaves, no rustling in the jungle floor of coatimundis pushing dead leaves with their long snouts. There was only my breathing and my footfalls. Then I stopped my feet and stared forlornly at my watch. Twenty minutes until dark, until the man said I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face; I had no flashlight or torch, or biochemical luminescence like creatures of the dark ocean, or like the lightning bugs flashing all around me. Twenty minutes to retrace my steps at the same fevered pace I’d come in on.
“One more minute,” I pleaded to the sun to slow down and the temple to speed up, to move closer. I was tired, defeated, and for one more minute I stepped sluggishly forward. Very, very dimly ahead, I could make out a wall of grayish stone.
So it did exist, Temple VI. Barely, only barely, just at the edge, just a gray wall. I couldn’t see the writing, the pictures, I couldn’t see the shape of the building or any features, the size, the height. Just a spot of gray. But I knew, I knew I had to turn around. “Let’s not be stupid,” I said to myself as my feet tried to move forward. “Please, let’s not be stupid.”
Fireflies were flittering all around me, their lights shining brighter by the minute as the darkness increased in contrast. For a second, it was magical. It was delightful. I turned around and headed back down the path. I walked as fast as I could. Sweat was running down my temples, my neck, my sides and my arms, my back was wet beneath my daypack. I swiped at my face with my wet hands. Bugs were landing on my legs and arms and sticking there in the dampness.
I feared I had taken a wrong turn off the forkless path because I hadn’t made it back to the main trail yet, to the sign that had pointed me down this side path. I felt panic rising. I’ve taken a wrong turn. Though that was ridiculous; there were no turns to take. I began running. Soon after that I came to the intersection and turned left, back down the main path. Relieved that I now knew where I was, I slowed down to a very fast walk.
But the light was dimming measurably by the minute, even by the second. The jungle was clamping down. Now when I passed beneath a thick arch of trees, I couldn't see the smooth, stone path, I could only feel its hardness beneath my feet. I still had a long way to go to the safety of my cabin and my husband waiting inside. I could hardly make out the rotating stems of my watch face in its betrayal of me. I starting running. My legs stretched out in front of me, my pack bounced up and down wildly on my back. I began pacing my breath. I starting singing a Bruce Springsteen song in my head because that’s the only way I know how to judge time without a watch. I know how long it takes to sing Born to Run and Badlands and Johnny 99.
I ran through the jungle, trying to outrun the Darkness.
Finally I lurched, breathless, past the park map, just before the tiny hut where the man collects the entrance fee. The structures so far uncovered inside the six-square miles of the ancient city of Tikal are represented and labeled on the map beneath a sheet of plexiglass. It was too dark now to make them out, and I was dizzy from the space of history — the strangled path from the grayish spot of 700 AD to the abstraction of oversized pins stuck in a labeled corkboard 1,300 years later.
Now on the main promenade into the park, I remembered there was a shortcut to my cabin. With just a couple minutes before there was zero natural light, I squinted along the side of the road until I made out the narrow trail that cut through the grass into the trees. At last an electric light bulb reached out to me and I sighed away the grip of darkness.
I had imagined my husband to be frantically worried about me. I was picturing our conversation … he chewing me out for disappearing into the darkness, me explaining the compulsion I had to keep going, me explaining the invigoration that fear had shot into me. In the end, he would feel sad that he missed out on my adventure, that only I would be able to tell it.
I burst triumphantly through the door. And found him asleep on the bed. Fast, fast asleep.
I set down my sweaty backpack and slipped quietly into the shower. It felt stupendously anticlimactic, and I was rather disappointed. But as the water cooled my body down, I began to feel a little smug over my brush with Darkness. I relish unique experiences, and I figured then that probably not too many people have come to refer to "darkness" with a capital "D" ... a foe, a competitor, a named adversary. However frightening it might be, there is always something worthwhile in acquiring a new-found intimacy, even if antagonistic, with an element of nature. And darkness is, after all, the primary cradle of our existence in a vast, vast universe.