“Diana! Mindy! Get off of the truck!” We hear Lek yell from the ground below at us, as we sit huddled under a wooden bench in the bed of a truck beginning to fill up with water. We are soaked. And, the elephant standing mere feet from us on the truck, doesn’t look too thrilled that we’ve come to a stop.
She wants to keep moving as bad as we do.
It’s just after 6 a.m. and Mindy and I have been riding with Lucky, the elephant, since 1 a.m. But, we’ve been traveling even longer.
My adventure to be a part of the rescue of Lucky began a day earlier, at 6 p.m. On Thursday, Jan. 31, to be exact. Lek, myself, two other staff members, two drivers and four volunteers boarded our van and headed deep into the Surin province of Thailand to meet and take Lucky to her new home, Elephant Nature Park.
The drive is easy, compared to the rough roads we hit in Cambodia during my first elephant rescue. But the traveling is not.
Crowded into a van, Lek and I share a three-seat bench, and drive off into the night. I alternate between sleep and ache, trying to always keep in mind the bigger picture: I am a part of an elephant rescue. My comfort is second to what we are doing.
At 7 a.m., when we stop for coffee, stretching is blissful. Then, it is back into the van and a quick stopover in Cambodia to have two staff head to the foundation’s newest project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia.
We continue driving, and from time-to-time I am able to close my eyes and let sleep take over. It is never long-lasting. It is never comfortable. But, I don’t care.
We finally arrive to Surin around 2 p.m. I’m off the van quickly, heading over to see Lucky.
Mindy is already there (she arrived a day earlier) and she sits with Lucky, who is chained and rocking back and forth.
She is gorgeous.
And has a full head of hair, something I have never seen before on an elephant.
I don’t dare touch her — she has had enough stress for the day. Instead, I take her in. One eye is milky white, the other slightly cloudy. Blinded by the spotlights from a lifetime of being a famous circus elephant.
You will be free soon. You won’t ever have to perform again.
I wish she could understand the magnitude of what is about to happen in her life.
An hour later, when she walks onto the truck with no hesitation, I think for a moment that maybe she does.
Less than 24 hours after leaving Chiang Mai, we board the van and head back. Volunteers take shifts riding with her. And, at 1 a.m. when the last two decide they want to be back on the van, Mindy and I decide to climb up the truck and spend the night with her.
It is even less comfortable than the van, but there is something incredibly magical at being able to sit with an elephant being brought to freedom. Wrapped in a blanket, hood pulled tightly over my head, I sit and stare at her.
Even in the dark, her beauty touches me. Against the night sky and the waning moon, the light pink freckles dotting her trunk and ears glow silver.
I stare at her for a long time, eventually falling asleep slumped on the wooden plank near the top of the truck. Finally, I curl into a tight ball and lean my head against makeshift pillows and let my exhausted body relax. I wake over every bump and stop, but that sleep is some of the most peaceful I have had. I know it is because Lucky is there and knowing what Lek has done is so important.
I wake up at 4 a.m. and look at my clock.
“We’ve only been up here three hours?” I ask Mindy. “Oh god … time is going so slow.”
I close my eyes for another hour and then wake up for good when one of the mahouts sleeping on a hammock below tickles my foot.
The black night is giving way to a cloudy and gray morning far before the sun even pokes above the horizon. I stand up on the bench and peer over the top of the truck, looking into the distance.
It looks ominous.
During the night, we’ve headed into the lush mountains … and storm clouds. Ahead, I see a flash of sheet lightening.
I gesture to the mahout that thunder, lightening and rain are coming and he looks ahead.
“Down?” He asks me.
I turn to Mindy. Do we want to get caught in a storm sitting on top of the truck? Driving through the mountains of Thailand? Next to an elephant?
Absolutely, we do.
“Mai pen rai,” I say to him. (No worries.)
He smiles, laughs and begins to prepare for the downpour.
It starts slow, just a few drops plunking down on us. Then, the sky opens. The four of us jump down under the bench and situate ourselves near Lucky, on top of a spare tire.
When we stop, Lek calls for us, telling us to come back to the van.
I’ve never been more soaked in my life. I scramble down the ladder and grab some dry clothes and head into the bathroom of the quarantine office we’ve stopped at.
Once we’re in dry clothes, we continue on, stopping for food for us and Lucky before we begin the final trek from Lampang to the park.
Mindy, Lek and I climb back up with Lucky for the last three hours of the journey. Lek sits below with the elephant so she can learn her voice and grow comfortable with us.
When we arrive to Elephant Nature Park, the emotions from the past day hit me when I see the crowd of people gathered to witness Lucky’s first taste of freedom.
Along the feeding platform are about 50 people, all cheering and taking photos. Then, at the medical center, there are even more, filming, photographing, being a part of this elephant’s first moments in her new life.
Lucky walks off of the truck with no problem. I wait until she is off and no one can see the tears which are running down my face. While I was just there to document the experience, being able to witness this rescue, the third now in my life, never gets old. And, my emotions always are the same: I’ve witnessed this elephant get a new lease on life.
And, THAT is a powerful thing.