Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dirty Socks

(This was a For the Birds transcript from 2010, but I never wrote a blog post about it.)

These are the socks I wore on my hike to see the Horned Guan in Guatemala in 2007. Photo was taken in 2016, so the stains have faded.
Ten years ago [now over 15 years ago], I bought ten pairs of plain white Cool Max socks before my first trip to Costa Rica. Eighteen of these socks are interchangeable. None of them are pure white anymore, but they’re in pretty good shape. The other two bear orangey brown stains covering the toe and sides and sole. A few times friends have noticed how discolored they are and suggested it was time to retire them. But these are the socks I wore on the biggest birding adventure of my life. Every time I put them on, or even just notice them in my drawer, memories flood back.

This pair of socks earned their colors in February 2007 on a hike to one of the most remote spots on the planet to see one of the rarest birds in the world—the Horned Guan. I was with three professional tour leaders staying at a lovely coffee plantation in Guatemala—a plantation that was literally at the end of the road. Two local guides, one experienced and with excellent English, one a teenager just starting to learn English, woke us up at 2 a.m. so we could reach the highlands at dawn—the best time to view the guan munching its leafy breakfast in the treetops. We started out in a jeep that took us up and up the volcano, along a bumpy trail far too narrow to accommodate a truck—branches whipped our faces as we rattled along in the dark. After an hour, the trail ended and out we hopped, flashlights in hand, to hike a narrow path hacked by hand through the forest. It was 3:30 am, too early for even a slight grayness on the eastern horizon, and we had a long way to go before we reached the area where the guan was supposed to be—they said it would be at least a three hour hike from here.

The other three birders were gung ho guys in their thirties, antsy to charge forward and get that guan. None of them brought a camera or spotting scope—one even forgot his flashlight. I tend to be pretty laid back and methodical even when I’m excited—I figured I was either going to see the guan or I wasn’t, and if I did, I wanted a photo. And I wanted to bird along the way. I was twenty years older than they, and didn’t want to slow them down. So the older guide took them ahead while the younger moseyed back with me, carrying my scope. Every now and then we tripped on stumps of saplings jutting out of the ground in the pitch darkness. Our boots kept sinking into the coarse, loose volcanic ash, making the footing more treacherous. And with every step, my feet seemed to be getting heavier—which they actually were, since so much ash was seeping into them.

My Spanish was rusty, but my guide and I managed to carry on a conversation. With the endearing tactlessness of a teenager, my asked how old I was, and when I said 55, he gasped with surprise, blurting out that I was older than his grandmother. He said I might be the oldest woman ever to have made that trip.

The others hiked at a rapid clip, and found a guan around 7:30—their guide called mine on his cell phone. We still had a long way to go—it took us over an hour to catch up. But they kept the guan in sight the whole time to make sure I saw it too. 

Horned Guan

The bird was worth every moment of the hike, every grain of volcanic ash scraping against my feet inside my boots. Horned Guans are as big and plump as turkeys, with iridescent black and white plumage. A brilliant red horn juts out of their forehead as if they were unicorns. I gazed at it for half an hour, but never saw the entire bird at once—wherever it moved in the canopy, leaves always managed to obscure parts of it. I snapped dozens of photos, lovely mementos of this splendid bird. 

Horned Guan

Horned Guan

My stained socks serve as a more visceral reminder of the long climb up, and the longer, more treacherous trip back down through the gritty ash. I was exhausted when we finally made it back to the lodge after a five-hour descent and another hour in the jeep. The first thing others said when we arrived was that we’d want to throw out our socks. I just smiled and tucked them safely in a bag for the journey home.