Returning from a hiking injury at Cueva Ventana

I stood in Cueva Ventana’s mouth, scared.

Everyone else’s helmets seemed snug on their heads, ready for an Instagram moment in one of Puerto Rico’s most famous caves. Situated at the top of a limestone cliff and offering a framed view of the valley below, it is known as a window into the past.

My own helmet wobbled dangerously, falling almost with every 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 Taino petroglyphs. But to see this and understand it all, I would have to walk through the darkness.

I was already in a dark place. It didn’t matter that this 2 mile round trip was a sightseeing hike, hiked by thousands of people in most years. At this point it seemed as difficult as any hike I had ever done. I was coming out of a knee injury and, thanks to aquatherapy (walking on an underwater treadmill without the weight of my own weight), I felt great and ready to hike. I had worked to heal of so much hardship, from my knees to the twin traumas of last year’s pandemic and divisive politics.

These vacations consisted mainly of water adventures and relaxing with my family in the sun. But now it ended with a hike. Hiking was my thing. I have climbed Kilimanjaro three times weighing almost 300 pounds. I hiked 100 miles of the Vermont Long Trail. I have always looked for adventure.

But last year mostly kept me close to home. On the last day of my Long Trail hike in July 2020, my knees started to break. It was my last big hike. After that, I stayed in the Peloton. I tried series of cortisone shots, gel injections, physiotherapy. I spent a year mostly grounded, physically and emotionally.

But I was not myself without a hike. Now with a vaccination and a renewed sense of hope and desire to travel, it was time to emerge, even though my self-esteem had taken a hit.

Photo: Dave Costantini

As my family and I walked towards the cave, I still felt unstable. Even as we heard the soft, swift chirping of a gray royal bird and passed under a green awning that resembled the woven hammocks first created by the Taíno that roamed these woods long ago, I was not here. I already felt like a fool for being the only person carrying trekking poles. I was out of breath at the slightest slope, when I can normally climb for days. To add more pressure, we were part of a larger group, and that meant keeping pace. Oh, and a hard hat was needed to tackle the trail, which looked like a pretty big red flag.

This helmet dang. I had a firm grip on my poles so I couldn’t hold them in place; instead, I was burning with annoyance and feared he would collapse and make me look like a fool.

I took a deep breath and considered the situation. One thing I have learned in my recovery from binge eating disorder is to know the difference between what I can control and what I cannot. This helmet was something I could change. I asked our guide how to adjust it.

“Ah, this one isn’t working,” he said. “Lucky for you, I have this one.” He walked over to the box of supplies and pulled out a smaller helmet. I put it on, still not sure why I would need skull protection on what was supposed to be an easy hike. We could now enter the cave.

We climbed a series of steps and I gripped the railing while holding my poles in the other hand. My legs started to remember. They got into a beat, building up the confidence that maybe I could finish this hike.

For months I told myself I wasn’t good enough. That I was weak. That I was never going to be cured. But with every step I could feel a transformation taking place.

Cueva Ventana was carved in limestone eons ago, creating our path deep into the earth. Our guide brought the cave walls to light, talking about creatures like bats that thrive in the dark.

He told us stories about the island’s indigenous people, the Tainos, showing faces on pre-Columbian petroglyphs and stone carvings.

Photo: Dave Costantini

There are many stories about this cave. This is where legend has it that Soleme, the daughter of a Spanish farmer, was waiting for his forbidden love, a Taino man. He was killed, but she still waited, some say, for 150 years. Juan Ponce De Leon, who was governor of the island in the early 1500s, heard the story and, according to local lore, sought cave water in his quest for immortality.

I thought about the faces and characters in my life that I would like to paint so that people could see them centuries later. As a memorialist, that’s what I did with my books: I used art to deal with the past. Make a memory beyond the limits of my mind and turn it into art, as dark and complicated as it is.

The people with me, my family, mattered the most. They were my support system as we walked together in the dark, watching out for each other as we ducked under the low stalactites and pointed out dangers such as hollows and rock formations in our path. I struggled for years with self-esteem, binge eating disorder, and injuries. But it was my family that I would carry out of the cave and into my new life.

There were countless steps in the dark. Everyone needed a moment to recalibrate my balance, watching for stalagmites and anything that might be hiding underfoot.

Our guide brought to light other cave drawings. The Taínos used the cave as a gathering place, or in their own words, their “church”.

There in the darkness were images of the sun and divine creatures, lizards, turtles and a child. I was told later that the Taino believe that we are all children of the sun.

Formerly the most populous A society in the Caribbean, the Taino were skilled in hunting and farming. Their colonies were bustling in Puerto Rico and on the neighboring islands. But in the mid-16th century, less than 100 years after first meeting them, Spanish colonizers swept away millions of Taíno in virtual extinction because of slavery, disease and starvation. The people and their culture have been almost completely erased. But here, their petroglyphs and their history endure.

Through their stories, the Taino brought light into the darkness. And maybe I could do the same. I had carried this past year and its uncertainty and grief for so long. Maybe I could leave the burden here in this cave.

For a year, I told myself the story that I couldn’t be who I want to be. That with an injury, my adventurous life was over. I was worried that I wouldn’t have my place on the trails.

And yet I was there. My feet were treading steadily on the path to follow. Each step builds on the next. Every foot forward was in the direction of confidence. I realized that I could use the resilience that I have gained over the past year to move forward. So that’s what I did.

Helmet snug, I continued until we came to the iconic cave window opening that overlooks the verdant mountains and the Río Grande de Arecibo. Finally, I could see new beginnings coming.

As I stood at the entrance to the cave, I realized how far I had come. I felt new, sensing the vast possibilities open to me as I stared at the verdant land in front of me. I was back in my hiking boots, and although I had a lot of practice to do to get to where I once was, I was back on my feet.

Next time I’m in a dark place, I know I’ll be fine.

Kara Richardson Whitely is the author of Gorge: my trip to Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds and is writing The Long Trail. Follow her on Instagram at @kararichardsonwhitely.