Updated: Feb 21, 2020
What do you do when a "platinum club" friend's birthday falls on the same day as a jungle trek to ocean-side cliffs and a freshwater pool cave? You hike a #cavecake out there, damn it.
It was Sharon's birthday, the first birthday hike of our still relatively new group on the little Pacific island of Guam. We wanted to do something special for her on her trip-around-the-sun anniversary, so I wanted to bring a surprise cake for all of us to enjoy. The hike that day was Pagat Cave and Cliffs, arguably one of the most gorgeous and rewarding hikes on the island. The trail descends through limestone jungle forest, emerges on dramatic oceanside cliffs, then backtracks to a sinkhole cave with a large back room and refreshing pool. Before we get into the absurdity, it's important to know how much we love Sharon. She's retired military, in her fifties - a "platinum club member" as we've endearingly termed her - and lives with her husband full-time on Guam. Aside from being a wonderful friend, she's become sort of our Mom-away-from-home too. While Sharon isn't a marathon runner or a crag climber or of the daredevil sort per se, she's one of the most badass women I know. Over the last year, she's gone from average beach walker to forty foot waterfall climber.
Now don't get me wrong, the physical-feat aspect is something to admire, but I don't want to imply that physicality should always be the goal when we go outside. It's incredible to watch women like Sharon in our group bag mountain peaks or muscle up ropes to top out a series of seven waterfalls, but what's even more awe-inspiring is witnessing their mental stamina while they do it. It's easy as twenty-somethings to tell ourselves to "embrace the suck," to recover from strains and sprains and muscle fatigue fairly quickly, to have the tendency to view ourselves as a little more invincible than we may actually be. But add thirty years with a side of menopause, complimented by a glass of finely aged muscles and bones, and even the toughest of us may begin to regard the body as much more finite and limited. At cruxes such as these in life, there's really only two options - to stop or to keep going, to stay home or to hit the trail, whatever your version of the "trail" may be. For Sharon, the "trail" was hiking. It was secluded beaches and ocean cliffs, underground pools and mountaintop views, which to be honest, probably makes the "going" a little easier. But the "going" certainly didn't happen overnight, it took months of hiking, sweating, scrapes, and middle fingers at us any time we ended up off trail.
And so after a lot of incremental "going," here we are - Sharon's in her fifties and she's being dragged up and down mountains and through the jungle by a group of twenty and thirty year olds - can you tell how proud we are? - and she's having the time of her life, so of course she deserves cake on her birthday.
I woke up early that morning, got dressed for the perpetually hot and humid climate, filled up my Camelbak, threw in some paper bowls and forks, and headed to the bakery down the road. I picked out a miniature red velvet cake - enough for about eight people - with chocolate frosting, whipped cream, and red sprinkles. The thoughtful cashier put it in a little cake box and made sure to tape the top in a slightly-open position so as not to crush the sweet little frosting design and sprinkles on the top - a touching but futile act, I thought.
I set it on the seat beside my daypack and drove to the trailhead on the side of a potholed road. As the rest of the group put on shoes and sprayed that extra strong, deep woods bug repellent, I worked inconspicuously to fit the cake into my backpack. I tugged at the zippers and gingerly shoved on the box until it was positioned on top of the med kit and paper bowls and in front of the water bladder. It was nine o'clock, time to hit the trail, and that was about the best I could do. I said a quick prayer to the imaginary protectors of cake and we set off. Pagat Cave and Cliffs is a fairly straight-forward trail, not too difficult, but does require ducking under branches, climbing down a rough and rocky jungle hillside, and eventually squeezing into the back room of the cave. The best way to hike the trail is to bypass the cave, check out the cliffside, return to the cave for a relaxing cool down, then hike back up the hillside to the parking area. This is also the best way to not get lost, resulting in a middle finger from Sharon - but that's another hike for another story.
We set out on the trail, wandering through open air grasses and butterflies and made our way down into the jungle, stepping carefully from one jagged boulder to the next, the cake's fragile life ever on my mind. We skirted around the top edge of the sinkhole and passed through small rows of Chamorro latte stones from the ancient village of Pagat. Emerging out onto the cliffs, we beheld huge waves crashing into the rocky crags and felt the salty breeze against our sweaty faces. We took pictures and climbed around on the large natural arch that creates a window into to the wild waters below, then we headed back up the trail to the sinkhole again.
We climbed down the trail into the large circular sinkhole, where a couple of relatively large entrances lead down into the first room of the cave. We donned our headlamps, sprayed more bug spray, then headed down into the cave. Pagat Cave is about as much of a walk-in cave as it gets - plenty of room to stand with a gradual dirt trail down to the bottom. The first room has a few small stalagmites, whose growth is stunted no doubt by frequent visitors, as well as a small pool that ranges from ankle to knee-deep depending on the ocean tide.
A narrow channel leads from the front room to the back room, and while it's not much of a squeeze as far as caves go, it requires a little leaning, shuffling, and a step down into waist-deep water. A small feat for a precious cake crammed into a daypack.
Headlamps switched on, we filed into the back room - a rocky slope that slips down into clear turquoise water. Everyone shrugged off their backpacks and waded down into the invigorating, cool water. We explored the dark corners of the room and joked about cockroaches and floated on our backs admiring the formations overhead.
When everyone was thoroughly cooled off, I made an announcement, "I heard that today is someone's birthday..."
and pulled out the cake box,