We wandered along the edge of the deepening canyon. With every step, the stream’s chill, clear waters cut ever more deeply into the volcanic basalt that formed the ground beneath our feet. Gusts of wind pulled on the storm-twisted shrubs and tawny shocks of long grasses, pausing to tug at our jackets before rushing down to join the water cascading steadily into a valley hazey with distance. We stopped and squinted again at the black and white map we’d printed off at a cafe and compared it with a picture we’d taken of a map on a sign the day before. Somewhere in Colombia’s Los Nevados National Park, we guessed we were in the Valle de los Perdidos. What we didn’t have to guess was that we were lost.
As a side note: thank you, America, for having drinking fountains. On another note: thank you, Colombia, for having syrup chicken.
Some days prior we’d arrived in Bogotá on a Sunday, and on a holiday, Dia de la Virgen. Consequently, the city of eight million souls had felt almost deserted. We’d known immediately what we wanted to do in Colombia: we sought the páramo, the high-altitude tropical grasslands so characteristic of the Andes. We managed to find the National Parks office downtown and discovered when they opened (a day later) and when we returned that their own maps and information on their parks, well, sucked. National parks in America arebasically chock-full of maps, info and trail routes you can grab from a visitors’ center with as easily as you’d find a drinking fountain. As a side note: thank you, America, for having drinking fountains.On another note: thank you, Colombia, for having syrup chicken.
There was enough information to figure out which parks were closest to us and Bogotá, and with the help of some outdated guidebooks we’d sniffed out in a secondhand bookshop we’d ultimately selected the promising slopes of Los Nevados National Park.
The bus ride to the town nearest its base was a thrilling introduction to one of South America’s most beautiful and often shunned countries possessed of all the amenities a world traveler could ever desire. “Hey, Shawn, look, they have food here! There’s bananas! Also, rice!”
Indeed, the casual charm of nearby Ecuador and the ever-Instagrammable llamas of Macchu Picchu—paired with Colombia’s decades of rebel insurgencies and drug wars— seems to have dissuaded many travelers from visiting Colombia. Things have been on a slow chill-out since 2012, though, and a final peace accord was ratified on November 29, 2016, like, at least a week and a half before we bothered to show up. Correspondingly tourists are a flockin’. Flockin’ tourists. All up in Colombia’s bizness.
Passing through the larger city of Ibague, we finished our bus ride in Armenia. Armenia, Colombia, is incredibly like Cotopaxi, Colorado and Cuba, New Mexico (both of which I’d seen in the weeks prior) in that it scarcely resembles its foreign namesake. Fascinating, I know. Somewhat more interestingly, According to a Wikipedia article without any sourcing, “it is believed that the name [of the city] was changed to Armenia after the country of the same name, in memory of the Armenian people murdered by the Turkish Ottomans in the Hamidian Massacres of 1894–97 and later the Armenian Genocide of 1915–23.”
The tourist office informed us hikes into the páramo could only be done with a local guide, and so they’d gotten rid of all local maps that showed us the way to go.
We stopped at an hospedaje in Armenia and ferreted out some basic topographic maps of the national park with Google-fu. The next morning, we took a minivan uphill to the small town of Salento, which we walked around in search of additional information. The tourist office—according to old blogs, a good source of mountain intel—now informed us hikes into the páramo could only be done with a local guide, and so they’d gotten rid of all local maps that showed us the way to go. But if we wanted, they explained, they knew a guide who could take us where we wanted to go, for a reasonable price. We said thanks, said we’d keep them in mind, and marched off to the mercado, where we bought some bread and apples. Back in the main square of Salento we hopped aboard one of the many tourist jeeps that regularly ferried tourists uphill towards the famed Cocora Valley, an Instagram-famous land replete with wax palm trees whose lofty fronds once soared above the rainforest canopy and now stood vigil picturesquely above grassy, denuded slopes of grazing cattle.
We decided the Cocora Valley would best be enjoyed as the downhill section of a loop, and so we instead set off towards up the first bit of the loop, a side canyon leading to a placed boasting to be the Casa de los Colibris—the Hummingbird House.
As we advanced beneath lumbering packs, we attempted to avoid stepping in water and mud, which Shawn was able to do for a grand total of three seconds when a stream-embedded log capsized underfoot. We eventually made it to a hummingbird sanctuary which was full of, like, day-tripping Europeans drinking tea and stuff. As we sipped the warm, sweet cinnamon tea we’d purchased we happily discovered an old topographic map affixed to the wall. The caretakers told us the páramo was still several hours uphill. Unfamiliar with the path and just a couple hours from dusk, we decided to stay the night and resume our trek early in the morning. We paid them a couple of dollars and slept on the floor of a wooden building still under construction, doors left open to the mist that crept in as the sun set.
Out on the trail the next morning, we passed two men folding a tarp in a trailside clearing in the early light. Dressed in knee-high rubber boots, shorts and t-shirts, one wore a white beanie, the other donned a bowler hat and carried juggling pins. Just then, a group of European trekkers descended in boots slathered with mud. Their Colombian guide seemed upset when he learned we were on our own. “You need a guide,” he said sternly, “the National Park guard at the park border won’t let you pass on your own. Also, not only could you get lost in the fog, you could die.” We shrugged at his empty warning—we’d died inside long ago. The group then continued onward, the guide apparently forgetting to ask our Colombian companions where their guide was.
Alone again with our new Colombian friends, we learned their names and talked a little bit more. Somewhat dismissively, I decided they seemed friendly, buena onda chaps but people I’d likely never see again, being the expert hiker and Fast-Walker-Up-Things I so obviously was. We bid them good-luck and good-bye, and good-walked all up the trail at a good pace.
Before long, we came across the National Park office, inhabited by a kind human being and a raucous, tethered dog. We didn’t ask this kind sir if two Americans needed a guide, and neither did he. Instead, he gestured for us to sign our names on the trail register and he told us about a time when he’d spied the elusive Andean sun bear, a shy species that eats a nutritious variety of bromeliads, grubs, and Michael Bolton fans. He told us one of the greatest difficulties in managing the park was the presence of families who had been settled on the high plain a generation or two ago, and now they had always lived there, darnit, depending on cattle to eke out an existence. The cows pooped everywhere, he complained, and their manure tainted many of the streams and rivers the cities below depended on for water, including the brook that ran nearby. Cows, I concluded, are terrible people.
We’d packed some snazzy Gatorade-brand protein bars, a strange colloid of high-tech Rice Krispies and caramel whey stuff generously lacquered in chocolate-flavored palm oil coating.
Wheezing, hungry and sun bear sighting-less, we busted out our grub for lunch, consisting of the last of our bread and apples from the Salento mercado and some snazzy Gatorade-brand protein bars, a strange colloid of high-tech Rice Krispies and caramel stuff generously lacquered in chocolate-flavored palm oil coating. “This is delicious,” remarked Shawn, and I agreed. We’d packed enough for the duration of our journey in the páramo, some three dozen 250-calorie packages of coagulated-whey America.
Whilst we feasted upon this chocolaty bounty, we were joined by Camilo and Andres, who apparently hadn’t been trailing too far behind us. After chatting for a bit. we started up the hill again, this time together. The trail was a downright slog, ofttimes covered wholesale by deep
patches long blob areas of mud. Resistance was futile, and before long our shoes and legs had been assimilated by the mountain.
Weary hours passed as we made our way beneath the drab green cloud forest canopy, each tree trunk and branch covered in a profusion of feathered, silvery lichens, ruddy mosses, and bright fungi.
Abruptly, the thick forest gave way to amber sedges and tufted grass. Interspersed among the lower vegetation were curious plants, solitary stalks the width of a child’s wrist growing anywhere from several inches to several times the height of a deer in platform shoes. Topping these stalks were leaves covered in fuzz, a soft, green flannel. These curious plants, these frailejónes, indicated we had reached the páramo.
Camilo, Andres, Shawn and I rejoiced as we followed the trail up tawny ridges, marveling at the views and shivering as the alpine winds–no longer slowed by trees–tore at us and our belongings.
At length, the trail led us to a farmhouse and hospedaje, the first of two in the area. But we had a tent we’d lugged up the mountain, darnit, so we advanced on to the second hospedaje, leaving Camilo and Andres behind.
A European sort excoriated us when we told him we’d flown to Colombia and would be flying out. We took no offense, knowing without having to ask he’d walked slowly across the entire Atlantic seafloor from Western Europe to arrive.
The hospedaje was a bit further than it’d been made out to be. Even if we’d wanted, they didn’t have any available rooms with beds—a European tour group presently infested these—but they did have a toilet, and this sneaky fancy-person house feature nabbed us right in the comfort organ, pzang! For a couple dollars we set up our tent in a room consisting of a concrete floor walled off from the wind. Our shoes were a mess from the day’s mud slog, so after a scrub in a tiny rivulet we hung them by their shoelaces on the eaves of the house, where they dripped and swung in the stiff nighttime wind. We talked a bit with the other guests; one guy who told us the national park was under threat of huge mining developments and another sort who excoriated us when we told him we’d flown to Colombia and would be flying out. We took no offense, knowing without having to ask he’d walked slowly across the entire Atlantic seafloor from Western Europe to arrive.
We woke up before dawn and set out for some hot springs a number of miles away.
The hike was visually nice and not too chilly. As we walked, we breakfasted on a protein bar each. We’d now eaten them for three straight meals, and they didn’t seem to be as good as we first remembered them.
We dropped in elevation from our spot the night before, passing through frailejónes and emerging onto a flat, grassy plain. Uphill to our right, a 20 m waterfall slipped over orange-ish rocks, indicating geothermal activity. Ahead of us, the trail seemed to go through the center of the wide plain and through a herd of cows.
We walked for a while, the trail petering out. We continued gamely, figuring it would re-appear as is often the case with less-used trails. It didn’t, but we headed anyways in the general direction we thought we were supposed to be following and walked along an chill river which deepened into a gully, then a gulch, then grew into a canyon. We kept the canyon to our left side, still keeping a lookout for the trail. Ahead, the canyon could be seen descending far, far, below. It didn’t look impassable, but it also seemed… wrong.
It was almost as if OKAY LOOK WE GOT LOST AND I THINK THIS HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED I HAVE RUN OUT OF FANCY
FEAST DESCRIPTION POINTS FOR THIS OTTER MEMORY AND IF I KNEW HOW WE HAD GOTTEN LOST WE WOULDN’T HAVE DONE SO so anyways we finally halted when a steep ravine cut across our path from the right, and consulted what little information we had. A future version of ourselves would have a GPS-enabled smartphone with offline locating-powers to divine our location, but present-us had a small paper map, some grainy pictures and a desire to not lose any more of our hard-gained elevation. Maybe… eating would help us think. “Hey, do you want a protein bar?” I asked my brother, waggling one temptingly in front of his face. “Ugh,” he said in revilement, and rose to leave instead.
“You might be lost,” he continued, “but I was just a little disoriented. The trail is up that way.” He pointed up the ravine towards Tolima above. “Good thing it’s not foggy.”
We climbed for a while, seeing nothing besides sweet fuzz-plants and weird moss.
Then, movement, up ahead. Two figures picked their way into the ravine—one with a beanie, the other with a bowler hat and juggling pins: Camilo and Andres.
Enthused but tired, we slithered up to meet them with the sudden enthusiasm of weasels that have just encountered a roadkilled ‘possum—astounded, thrilled.
Enthused but tired, we slithered up to meet them with the sudden enthusiasm of weasels that have just encountered a roadkilled ‘possum—astounded, thrilled. They seemed pleased, but not surprised to see us. They’d also lost the path for a bit, but had stayed closer to the mountain above and hadn’t gotten lost. As we chatted, I noticed what appeared to be a twisted piece of aluminum, two feet long, torn jaggedly at the edges and bearing many small rivets. Curious.
We left the ravine together, Shawn and I trudging from exhaustion. The trail would rise and fall several times and traverse some marshy, sulfurous areas before finally cresting a ridge somewhere around 13,500) feet elevation.
We dropped and walked around a bend and beheld a green carpet of verdant grass far below us. A handful of small corrugated-roof buildings clustered alongside two small pools which steamed visibly. We had arrived at the hot springs. (12,795 ft elevation)
We sat in the warm waters of the pool and soaked as the the sun set. We’d hiked up the hill above the settlement fifty feet at a time before we’d collapse to the grass, breathing ragged with exhaustion. “Why… why are we so tired?” Shawn muttered querulously, “The elevation… maybe?” We were somewhere around 13,000 feet, so this was certainly part of it, but it didn’t seem complete. I was doing better, overall, and this gave me an idea.
“Shawn, how many of those bars did you eat?”
“The protein bars.”
“Oh. Gross. Um, one in the morning, one later… two?”
‘You’ve eaten 500 calories today. I’ve eaten 750. We should be eating maybe… 3,000 calories each up here. That’s why we can hardly move.”
Indeed, though our bodies desperately needed food, our minds had concluded nauseously we they wanted nothing to do with our Gatorade-endorsed mainstay. Unfortunately, it was also all we had left. We weren’t in danger of running out, but actually stomaching the things was becoming most unpleasant.
The view from the top of the ridge had been tremendous, but the simmering waters of the springs were better. It was easy to forget we had been too weak to reach the very top of the hill, and more relaxing to consider the mysterious pictographs we’d seen on the rocks partway up the slope. The caretaker didn’t know how old they were, but by their faded condition it seemed people had been visiting this area for a very long time. What kind of world had it been, then? Did people live up here? How far had the cloud forests extended below? Had there been pizza? What about syrup chicken?
The springs themselves had certainly been changed. The water was piped from slightly above the settlement to a series of two pools. The first was a sitting-depth pool the size of a large hot tub and very warm indeed, the water exited this pool and dropped about ten feet until it reached a larger, more tepid pool below, probably 20 feet/6 m across. The water here ranged from 3-6 ft deep, the floor a slick bedrock in places. The edges of the pool were made of long bands of riveted aluminum. Investigating further, we noted these same pieces of metal could be found supporting various parts of the spring pool complex and its surroundings, including the walkway between the pool and the mud-daubed structure above it. Two shedlike areas were full of scrap metal, all made of the same riveted aluminum.
They were pieces of a wrecked airplane.
They were pieces of a wrecked airplane.
As I’ve written this overly long, boring account I’ve wondered about the identity of this plane. When did it crash? Who did it carry? Where were they headed? I tried to suss out its identity online, and followed many wrong leads before learning there had been many, many crashes in Colombia. Eventually, I found a site that explained there were had been 55 crashes in Colombia from 2000-2015, and 414 total crashes since 1920. This site helpfully mapped out the more recent crashes, and of these just one was anywhere near the hot springs, near La Venecia on the map below.
This particular plane crash was flight FAC-1659, a Vietnam-survivor Douglas C-47 Skytrain apparently used in anti-rebel fighting.
Further e-search into its demise begins to reveal conflicting information—supposedly crashed on an 11,200 ft tall mountain called Cerro Montezuma: actually a mostly-flat area 4,400 f/1350 m in elevation, but actually it crashed on its return to the airbase, and actually it crashed in either the Serrania de la Tatama or the Nevado del Tolima mountain areas, which are in completely opposite directions a hundred miles apart. Was this our mystery plane, carefully packed mile by mile in manageable pieces by horseback to the springs, or was it the remnants of some other hapless flying machine?
I have no idea. When I would try to find the caretaker the next morning to ask him where he’d come across the metal, I’d learn he’d gone into the hills.
We spent the evening hanging out with Camilo and Andres and discussed plans for the morning.
“You guys staying tomorrow?” I asked.
“Well,” Camilo said, “We thought there’d be more people here. We thought maybe we’d do a little juggling for the crowd to offset the cost of coming here. But it’s just us. And we still have to earn enough for our bus fare back home somewhere.”
Indeed, it was just the four of us, besides the quiet, but enigmatic caretaker, who had told us at times there were dozens of people camping at the springs.
“We’re just going to go back the way we came,” said Andres, “make it home by the evening. What about you?”
“Our flight leaves in two days, so we’re taking off tomorrow as well.”
We spent the rest of the evening companionably. I choked down a Gatorade bar. Shawn demurred. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said.
The next morning dawned cold, clear and beautiful, with few clouds, illuminating a mountainside frailejónes in rosy morning light. I returned to the tent to find Shawn awake, but reluctant to leave his sleeping bag cocoon.
“Is my swimsuit out there?” he asked.
“Here,” I said, and handed him frozen swim trunks. Shawn glared at the fabric Frisbee and considered for a moment.
Looking outside and seeing the coast was clear, he ran across frosted grass a short distance to the pool and jumped in, swimsuit in hand.
“Thawed at last,” he said as he pulled it on.
After the tent had dried in the sun, we reluctantly left the spring behind for the last time. As we packed up our stuff, we came across our protein bars. They weren’t bad, per se, they just needed to be eaten in reasonable quantities. I had an idea.
“Hey, guys, would you guys be interested in trading for any protein bars?”
“Sure,” Camilo and Andres responded. They didn’t really need the food, but now they were headed back down to the city they had more than they wanted. Trying a bar might be alright, though.
I returned with four of our eight remaining bars, trying to be generous.
After a minute they emerged from their tent with a massive bag of roasted, shelled peanuts, a couple pounds, maybe, and handed them over with a smile. This bag of legume loot even had candied toffee peanuts mixed in. It was a treasure, a thing most crunchy and sweet. We’d just traded for peanuts, and it was glorious.
We’d just traded for peanuts, and it was glorious.
After we’d said our goodbyes to our friends—for real, this time—we’d taken off to the south, leaving the high mountain plains behind and entering the cloud forest. Energized and enthused by our peanut bounty, we walked for hours.
We reached the small town of El Salto (elevation 3376 m/11076 ft), and waited by what seemed to be some kind of hospedaje. After an hour or so, a lady returned and informed us the beds were $3 dollars each, or we both could stay in another room sans beds for $2.
An oddity of traveling in another country is that regardless of the coin you bring, you quickly acclimate to whatever the going rate is for things. Dollars stretched reasonably far in Colombia, and so Shawn and I began to debate whether or not we had the money to pay for such a luxury as a bed. By the time we concluded that yes, in fact, the two extra dollars would not ruin us, six Colombian teenagers on a hiking trip (an energetic teen guiding them) had nabbed the beds and guaranteed our spot in a room with bags of potatoes and wet saddles and bridles hung out to dry, eau de shoe complimentary.
The landlady informed us that a meal was just a few thousand Colombian pesos, a couple of dollars. It seemed expensive, but anxious for variety we decided just to go for it. As we warmed alongside the teenagers sitting on kitchen benches raised by the wood-burning stove, we marveled at just how good rice, red beans and a fried egg could be (we’d later learn we were charged more than our Colombian friends… oh well).
We awoke the next morning just in time to see the dawn’s light warmly suffusing the southern slopes of Volcan Tolima. Returning to our humid mud room, we concluded our evil plan to pitch and dry our tent by sleeping in it inside had failed. As we aired it out in the sun that soon crested the valley ridge, the teenagers arose, chattering excitedly about a waterfall they planned to visit that day. Their leader was particularly enthusiastic. The hike would be quick, he claimed, not more than an hour. Skeptical, we concluded even if the expedition went overtime we’d probably still have plenty of time to make the descent to Ibagué, our bus back to Bogotá, and our flight to Peru in the wee hours of the morning.
The descriptively named waterfall of El Salto (you guessed it, “waterfall”) lay just downstream of the town that bore its name. The ringleader/tour guide of the boys had previously visited, but as his flitting attention span, tremendous amounts of energy and scant patience took us several times through thick forest to the cliff’s edge near the head of the waterfall our confidence in his abilities began to wane. Nonetheless, the path to the falls’ base was at length discovered, and after a steep descent using mossy trees and rocks as handholds we arrived.
The damp clay soil banking the trail had the precise color and texture—tragically, not the flavor—of a rich, fudgy dark chocolate ganache.
Over two hours had passed by the time we returned to El Salto. Shouldering our packs, we passed a farmer digging a field by hand as we began to slog up the mountainside. The damp clay soil banking the trail had the precise color and texture—tragically, not the flavor—of a rich, fudgy dark chocolate ganache. The trail snaked back and forth across the slope, but for the most part carved straight up the mountainside. Foot traffic, cattle and water running along its length had slowly transformed it into a deep gash into which frustrated, motivated people had occasionally wedged timber in an effort to reduce the number of times plunging a foot into deep mud was a requisite, but cows, remember, are terrible people and had jacked up a lot of it.
Muddied feet at last gained the pass at the ridgetop. Far beneath us, clouds obscured the view of distant Ibagué like dirty clothes hiding a dorm room floor—we’d see it eventually, but not without a day’s determined effort.
The hike from Ibagué had gained a reputation among online forums and blogs as an arduous, ugly descent but instead was one of the most beautiful hikes through cloud forest I’ve ever had.
As we entered Combeima Canyon, cloud forest occasionally gave way to steep slopes of coffee. Waterfalls slipped into the river far below and we saw fields and houses perched precariously on the few flat areas.
As we descended the slopes from Tolima a strange copper-colored stream crossed the trail from our left, eventually disappearing into the forest. Did it harbor some fascinating microbe from geothermal activity, or were these mine tailings from the illegal gold mine we’d heard hid somewhere in the hills above Ibagué ? Shawn thought geothermal. I wasn’t so sure.
After some time, we reached the outskirts of a town. Seeing a child playing among the barbed-wire clotheslines of a yard, we asked if we were headed in the direction of Ibagué. He responded, but with a heavy speech impediment we found difficult to understand. We continued to speak with him until his mother called him sharply from somewhere inside the house. Not long after, we came across another two children playing. Oddly enough, one of them also seemed to have some sort of mental or communicative disability. Their mother called them inside when she spotted us.
I have no experience whatsoever in identifying developmental issues in children, but it seemed odd that two of three children we’d met had various conditions. I was reminded uncomfortably of the copper stream and the gold mine somewhere far above.
We spotted a man on the slope above us, who gave us directions at last. We confirmed them with a father and son busy at work planting a field that sloped steeply into the ravine below.
Several more hours yielded the end of the trail. We caught a jeep in Juntas, the small town above Ibagué, riding past outdoor restaurants that looked to be a popular weekend spot for locals. Fun fact: A city just like Juntas was destroyed almost completely in 1985 when the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz (a volcano within sight of Tolima) unleashed a lahar of mud, ash and melted glacier.
One of the lahars virtually erased Armero; three-quarters of its 28,700 inhabitants were killed. Proceeding in three major waves, this lahar was 30 meters (100 ft) deep, moved at 12 meters per second (39 ft/s), and lasted ten to twenty minutes. Traveling at about 6 meters (20 ft) per second, the second lahar lasted thirty minutes and was followed by smaller pulses.
Over 23,000 people were killed, making it the fourth-deadliest volcanic disaster in recorded history and rendering the town of Armero a ghost town. Juntas, at the base of Combeima Canyon and the active Tolima, is at high risk of destruction. from Tolima.
But anyways, here’s some recycled plastic art.
On the way to Ibague, we spoke to our fellow passengers, Colombians who had been doing a small modeling shoot in some abandoned buildings in the town where we’d joined them. We chatted amicably as we approached Ibagué . When we arrived, they gave us a general outline of the town and gave us a few suggestions of places they recommended and a few better left alone. We ate delicious food—reveling again in how little it tasted like Gatorade bars—until we remembered we had to catch our flight out of Bogotá later that night.
After a few frantic minutes locating a bus and purchasing tickets, we took turns showering in the public bathing rooms (maybe about 30 cents) of the bus terminal in an attempt to smell less like the mud and sweat of three days, using the small bar of soap to scrub some of the mud out of our clothes. After boarding the half-empty bus we made a beeline for the back and cracked open the windows, trying to set up our clothes and shoes in such a way that they might ride.
Though I’d like to pretend it is better, my memory is actually pretty bad, but I do remember this about our evening journey:
As the bus returned to Bogotá, the feel of the warm, humid wind drifting through the bus window and the rhythmic sounds of spinning tires on the wet highway wove a tapestry of sensation, wrapped us gently into sleep.
Right. That’s beautiful prose and whatnot, but like much of the crap you read in travel blogs (some unintentionally here, hopefully mostly elsewhere)–overly romanticized, flowery and at least partly untrue. Luckily, oddly and surprisingly for us all I have a journal entry penned on this very bus, which in distressed letters scrawled thusly:
“The bus from Ibagué to Bogotá is stupid, smelly and shaky.”
An entry several hours from the plane from Bogotá to Lima elucidated.
“Remember the stupid smelly bus from Ibagué ? I couldn’t really get to sleep. A maniacal child boarded the bus and began to entertain himself by opening and closing the window, grabbing my hat while I was wearing it, and singing. Perhaps believing himself to be the next Colombian pop star, this [nascent Shakira] kindly treated us to his own renditions of mutated songs. [Alas], this lad’s caterwauling left something to be desired. His voice was the musical equivalent of placing thirty-eight gerbils in a centrifuge: intermittent garbled shrieks and a decided disregard for social norms.”