Emerging from Darkness
Backpacker|September - October 2021
For one hiker, nature is the best place to confront her past and consider her future.
By Kara Richardson Whitely

I stood in the mouth of Cueva Ventana, afraid.

Everyone else’s hard hats looked snug on their heads, ready for an Instagram moment at one of Puerto Rico’s most well-known caves. Situated high on a limestone cliff and offering framed views of the valley below, it’s known as a window to the past.

My own helmet wobbled dangerously, nearly falling off with each step. Still, I was determined to enjoy this place: the setting for a legend of love and hope for eternity, and where history is etched on the walls in the form of Taíno petroglyphs. But to see that, and understand all of that, I would have to go through the dark.

I was already in a dark place. It didn’t matter that this 2-mile roundtrip is a tourist trek, trod by thousands of people most years. At this moment, it seemed as challenging as any hike I’d ever done. I was coming off a knee injury and, thanks to aqua therapy (walking on an underwater treadmill without the burden of my own weight), I was feeling good and ready to do some hiking. I’d been working to heal from so many hardships, from my knees to the twin traumas of the pandemic and divisive politics this past year.

This vacation had consisted mostly of water adventures and relaxing with my family in the sun. But now, it was ending with a hike. Hiking was my thing. I climbed Kilimanjaro three times while weighing almost 300 pounds. I took on 100 miles of Vermont’s Long Trail. I’ve always sought out adventure.

But last year kept me mostly close to home. On the final day of my Long Trail hike in July of 2020, my knees began to break down. It was my last big trek. After, I stuck to the Peloton. I tried rounds of cortisone shots, gel injections, physical therapy. I spent a year mostly grounded—physically and emotionally.

But I was not myself without hiking. Now, with a vaccination and a renewed sense of hope and wanderlust, it was time to emerge, even if my self-worth had taken a beating.

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