After my freshman year in college, I couldn’t wait to get off of that conservative campus and into the wild world. I was finally old enough to participate in the archaeological dig I had had my eyes on for a few years, and, with my parents’ permission and financial support, I planned on dedicating my entire break to the Blue Creek dig in Belize.
Orange Walk was the nearest city to the deserted Mayan settlement that we were uncovering. The camp where we slept and ate was surrounded by a Mennonite community. In this part of Belize, the Mennonites spoke a Germanic language and seemed to be grappling with the temptations of technology: the road was full of horse and buggies, but also pick-up trucks teeming with dirty blond children. Our camp was built upon the Mennonite’s old landing strip. Legend had it that they used to smuggle cocaine using an airplane, but now the USA monitored the area with a satellite so the airplane was hidden and the airstrip was no longer of use. Now, our neat tin cabanas lined the narrow grassy patch, two lime outhouses open either end.
The archeological work was hard, but my teenage body was more than up to the task. For weeks, I bend over a square of dried dirt in a sunny field, looking for shards of pottery. Later, I joined a scouting team, and we cut swaths through the jungle with machetes, encountering looted temples, trees humming with killer bees, and poisonous snakes. At 4:00 every afternoon, our work was done, and we returned to camp. Some showered, some joined the trip to a nearby swim hole. I, crazily, usually went for a run.
It must have been an effect of my introversion. I needed to run, because it gave me an excuse to be actively by myself. I would run down the road to the right, where the jungle crowded the road and the silence was broken by the gasps of howler monkeys. It scared me to run somewhere so lonely, so soon I started taking a left onto the main road. In this direction, there were houses set far back from the road. This was the direction of the gas station and general store, and so there was more traffic. But this populated area came with its own dangers.
The houses were far away from the road, with a dirt lane leading to the door. And in the dirt lanes lay at least two or three dogs, loose in the yard and alert. They barked at me, but I didn’t feel threatened because they didn’t move from their cool spots in the shade. There was one dog, though, that did scare me. He was a solid pit bull, with short white hair. He always ran right up to the lane when I approached, and barked ferociously. I was not going to test his ability to guard his territory: I figured out that it was better to turn around before that house appeared around a bend in the road.
One day, though, I was having one of those runs where you lose yourself in your own health and athleticism. My legs felt strong and full of energy. I was lost in a fantasy, and before I knew it, I had passed the house and the pit bull was loping up its front lawn to chase me. Turning around would have meant confronting the dog, so I kept running, and the dog, satisfied that I was gone, lied down in the dust and panted. I had gotten away, but the only way back to camp was down this same road, past the pit bull again. Would he let me pass?
I reached the general store and turned around. The sun was starting to set, and the palm tree forests stood dark against a whitish sky. It was later that it should be, and if I didn’t hurry, I would miss dinner. But I was worried about the dog, and so I kept my pace to a jog. As I approached the house, now lit up by a single street light, I didn’t see the pit bull. Before I came much closer, though, something stirred in the twilight by the roadside, and the white shape of that pit bull, tense and waiting, became clear. I couldn’t pass it, it knew now that I was terrified and would probably try to bite me. In the growing darkness, I stopped in the road, far enough away that the dog didn’t bark. I was stuck.
Coming up the road behind me, I heard an unfamiliar sound. The clopping of heels on asphalt, a jangling of reins. A Mennonite farmer was steering his wagon up the road, and I made a quick decision: sticking out my thumb, I asked the man for a ride. We shared no language, but the thumb is a universal symbol, and he slowed to let me hop on the back, with a few bundles of hay. The pit bull stood sentient in front of his yard, watching us pass but not barking, and once we had gone around the bend in the road I hopped off the wagon, and ran off ahead into the night, faster than the Mennonite’s old horse. I’m sure I was the smelliest archeologist at dinner that night.