Nicholas rolled over to the bittersweet feeling of waking up the following morning in the small bunk room he shared with his twin brother, Levi. On one hand, he hadn’t violated his commitment to himself and to Becky that they wait until after marriage to sleep together. On the other hand, he missed the opportunity to wake up in the arms of the most incredible woman he’d ever met.
They still managed to fit in brunch together, his treat since she’d already lost the bet she’d made with the other guys on the team. A hearty meal of eggs and chorizo with handmade tortillas was delicious but hardly a substitute for the sweet kisses from the night before.
Knowing they’d be called out and accused of messing around if they so much as walked inside either of their bunk rooms, Nicholas and Becky sat up half the night talking at a picnic table in full view of the whole camp. Sure, they kissed—a lot—but nothing beyond kissing.
Even with just kissing, Nicholas was high as a kite with emotion and Becky’s eyes were glassy like she had a secret only he could share. They were in love; head over heels, planning the wedding and naming the babies kind of in love. All that stood in their way was a six-week hike through the jungles of Guatemala and eleven of their colleagues. Minor inconveniences and a blink in time compared to the rest of their lives together.
Becky played up the flirting with the rest of the team and made a show of tempting Nicholas beyond his ability to resist, yet would flip a switch into a mature lady who could discuss the philosophies of the world, politics, religion, financial planning, vacations, scientific discoveries. Nicholas loved all of her faces; the flirty, playful girl, the temptress, and the lady. She was everything he’d ever dreamt to find in a life partner and by some stroke of luck, she loved him too.
The team spent hours each day planning and working together as a team, organizing equipment and supplies, setting up camp each evening and tearing it down each morning just like they’d do once they’d left the safety and security of Flores. They poured over maps and aerial photos and drone videos, getting as much data about the terrain as they could before hacking it apart with a machete. Finally, a week after arriving at the basecamp the site manager deemed them ready to leave and declared the following morning as Day One of the expedition.
“Are you nervous?” Nicholas asked that night while sitting at their picnic table at the center of basecamp.
“A little,” Becky admitted. “I mean, you know, bugs, snakes, monkeys, Mayan Aborigines.”
Nicholas leaned his head back and laughed heartily. “We’re not going to Australia so I’m pretty sure you won’t see any Aborigines, but Mayans, sure. There might be some native tribes hiding.”
“Do you think they’re going to be mad at us for disturbing their sacred ground?”
“Maybe a little,” Nicholas said. “We’ll try to leave the site as unscathed as possible. These guys are good at what they do. All we want is to collect some data and analyze what we find.”
“That makes sense.” She pondered for a moment; brow creased. “Are you glad I dragged you on this adventure?”
“More than you could possibly imagine.”
They slept in their bunks for the last time that night and Nicholas was sure that would be the last time anyone would sleep in these bunks. He’d already begun the construction for a state-of-the-art research facility where future explorers could rest in comfort before trekking out into the inhospitable jungles.
He wasn’t looking forward to cramming into a tent with his brother the following night. Sleeping in Becky’s tent sounded better and better all the time.
The hour drive from Flores to Tikal was easy compared to braving the almost nonexistent trail into the jungle. They stopped in Tikal briefly because most of the team were Americans and had either never been there before or hadn’t been back in at least a year.
Visiting the ancient ruins was surreal knowing that its size was thousands of times larger than they’re realized just a few short months ago. The use of LiDAR to evaluate the landscape truly had changed history, as Becky had first mentioned.
Nicholas stood in the center of the square in Tikal and turned slowly, gazing out into the jungle, imagining the buildings that were hidden within its trees. Some buildings were nothing but rubble on top of foundations. Others were full sized pyramids and temples, homes, businesses.
Teams of archaeologists were tripping over each other to explore the newly discovered sites. But none of them were venturing as far into the wilderness as the eleven men and one woman who would set out with him today.
After paying homage to the great city of Tikal, the team piled into the Jeeps again and skirted the tourist areas, taking a little used road into the jungle where a group of foresters had created a secret trail off to the south, hiding the entrance in such a way that a person would need to know the path existed in order to find it. The drivers knew to travel exactly ten miles then stop. The only clue to the entrance was a set of GPS coordinates and intuition.
The Jeeps were parked just long enough for the team to unload their basic equipment and they would leave the explorers to travel on foot for the rest of the trek.
Bushwhacking through the dense jungle would not be easy but the most important reason for not bulldozing hundreds of trees and creating a road was to deter looters. So far, this site was as hidden as all the other ruins that were shrouded in vegetation and only visible from the air through LiDAR.
Keeping the integrity of the ancient temple was paramount. Rarely did scientists have the opportunity to collect data in situ from an undisturbed site. Usually the ruins had been pilfered decades ago. This site was not only intact, it was sacred.
A small team of foresters had cut a path that would make the journey easier, but the cuttings didn’t start until after crossing the first mound so as not to be seen from the road. Foresters had also created several cutouts just large enough to set up camp for the night. At their final destination the foresters had cut down enough trees that the team would be able to spread out a little more and set up a more permanent work site. Even that clearing had to be strategically hid from the air. Their goal was to keep this site invisible to anyone without LiDAR technology.
Even surrounded by twelve other scientists—one of whom was his twin brother, and one who was the woman he planned to marry—Nicholas felt very alone watching the taillights of the Jeeps disappear.