Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Bach and the opened window: a map of meaning

 Let me tell you why I do what I do.

In the beginning, there was no conscious connection; it was just me and my bodily interaction with sound. There was an old upright piano in our apartment, and I found it and began playing things I was hearing on the TV and record player (yes, you read that correctly) by ear at age two, with both hands (if parental accounts are to be believed). I only vaguely remember this, mainly because of how the space looked: I have a clear picture of the wall the piano was up against, even though we had moved out of that place by the time I was four or five, around when my brother was born.

So: in the beginning: sound. Pure sound. I would go to the piano whenever the spirit moved me, or whatever you want to call the force that guides you to things before you even have much of a mind developed that could be called “subconscious.” 

A few years later, my parents tried signing me up for lessons, around age 4, but the lessons didn’t take. I was too interested in riding my Big Wheel around my neighborhood, apparently; obviously I can’t speak to my motivations at such an early age, but I do indeed remember zooming around on my Big Wheel––perhaps to the neglect of the piano.

Then, when we moved, I found another piano, a grand this time, at the Quaker Friends school I attended for second and third grades. This is how I trace the map of my history, whenever I can’t remember something: where was I living at the time? We moved around a lot, for various reasons. The first reason was to find a bigger place, because my brother had been born; the second reason was because of  divorce, and therefore to find a different place. But this second piano I found in the second place, at the Quaker school. We weren’t Quakers, and I don’t even now know the reason I wound up at that school, but I can honestly say that it was the highlight of my education pre-college, for whatever it’s worth. The Quakers had worked out some stuff.

Anyway, this second piano was in the music room of that school. I found it––I don’t remember how––and, without asking anyone’s permission, began to play on it regularly, mainly during lunch.

One day, the school’s music teacher found me playing on it and took me under her wing; she became my first piano teacher. I remember going to her huge house up a winding driveway through a forest in Media, Pennsylvania for my lessons, and playing whatever graded lessons she was giving me. When we reconnected years later, around when I matriculated from undergrad, she told me I was only with her for a short time, because apparently I had progressed so quickly that she felt she had to hand me off to a colleague she felt was more qualified. But I have many fond memories of going to that big house and begging her to let me learn even just a little of the Brahms D minor concerto, Op. 15; it had made an indelible impression on me recently. She made me a deal: for every Thompson (or whatever the piano “method” book was––I feel like it wasn’t that, but I don’t honestly remember) piece I learned, she would “let” me learn a page of the slow movement of the Brahms concerto. I was over the moon. 

Needless to say, that carrot kept me one-pointed. I can picture, even now, sitting at her 9-foot Bechstein (my first Bechstein, and I’ve loved that brand of piano ever since) and devouring Brahms along with whatever else. That cavernous living room with a fireplace at the end. Tapestries and trinkets on doilied tables. It felt like a castle. She even had a harpsichord, which of course I’d never seen, and occasionally I’d play on it, even though I preferred (even at that age) the resonance of the piano. Still, it opened up my sound world. 

One thing that happened which is relevant to this story: at one point I was aware of being frustrated at how slowly my sight-reading was progressing. I would try and try, and it was as if there were a wall between me and the notes. Or at least, a window which would only let in a few notes at a time, at most. I longed for the full light of day.

Then, one afternoon, it suddenly clicked. I don’t know why or how. Persistence plus frustration equals “click,” I guess; the best math equation I’ve ever happened across. But that day, whatever the switch flipped, I could suddenly read fluently, and it’s something I’ve been known for ever since, although obviously also concurrent with technical ability. If technique is the body’s ability to produce the sounds you hear, my early “breakthrough,” while major in feeling, was probably relatively minor to the outside observer. Still, it kept goading me, and I kept following it.

Skip to my freshman year at Peabody (now part of Johns Hopkins University, but at one point just a conservatory––albeit the oldest in the U.S.). This scene is, I think, at the core of why I do what I do, or at least why I do it in the way that I do it.

I was studying with Ann Schein and loving every minute of it––this was pre-Leon (Fleisher)––and working on Bach’s Toccata in D Major, BWV 912. I think I just discovered it in the Peabody music library one day; I had been voraciously/nerdily sight-reading everything I could get my hands on for years ever since the ability presented itself, and when I got to Peabody, the sheer amount of music on their library’s shelves yielded hours and hours of gluttony. I’m sure I picked the Bach up there, since I’d never even heard of the piece before, let alone heard it.

One night––this was night, I remember, because at age 18, what is time, and what need has one for sleep?––I was sitting at the piano in my teacher’s studio and going over the score. Not playing it––just reading the page. It was one of the things I had learned how to do along the way, somehow: look at a piece of music and read it like a book, only a book of pitches and rhythms rather than nouns and verbs. Only later would I realize the direct connection between inner ear and intention, the definition of “technique” I mentioned above, which I consciously received from Leon. But even before that, the process was similar, if inchoate.

Anyway, on this particular occasion, I was reading the score and listening to it internally. I got to the “adagio” after the first several pages. And I don’t know what it was in the music––a harmonic shift, a gesture, something––but before I knew it, I was in tears. It was just so damn beautiful. Prior to any physical sound being made, I was being moved by the music. 

It didn’t last for a long time, and I probably started practicing the piece shortly thereafter, but that moment stays with me. We are ombudsmen (another word I learned from Leon) of the beautiful. That night, the beauty spoke to me before words. It operated on my nervous system even prior to the nervous system, in the innermost ear of mind. Power was communicated to me in that moment, and I realized what we as musicians can do, whatever the character of the music. It all just is whatever it is, but in that moment, it was Bach, and it spoke so simply and directly to my entire being.

Years later, in a lesson with Leon, he would mention his own teacher’s idea of “music that is better than it can be performed.” Immediately those words of Schnabel took me back to that experience my freshman year, and it clicked. 

That is why I do what I do. I live to speak this to you. To all. As Leon said once (and I’m paraphrasing), “the day the general audience can open up a score and read it like they would a book is the day we performers become more or less obsolete.” There was something in the way he said that that wasn’t negative, as it could be interpreted; he sounded hopeful. For me, when I heard him say that, all I could think was, of course; why would I not wish for my every fellow being to experience music the way I experienced that Bach toccata that night? So much of the world could be healed. So much could give way to love, to light, to all the things which ultimately sustain us. 

Meanwhile, I can play, which is a journey of getting ever closer to the magic these tones can confer. And I can teach, and try to uncover the blockages in each and every one of us (myself included) which inhibit that ecstasy, that direct contact and communion. For that is what it feels like, in the best moments. 

I would love all of us to be able to be moved in this way. I know many of us already are, but...this is my story with the wonder that enfolds us, in at least one of its languages. It has taken me over, and I love it. Furthermore, I also love exploring its other languages: anything that can be considered an art! Composing, conducting, acting, writing, comedy...anything that has inspiration as a possibility. Every time I connect with that moment, it is the moment, singular yet boundless and before time. Bach felt it and lived in it. It is every moment of creativity, of love, of understanding, of pressing forward even when you have no idea what’s going on. It is grabbing the tail of that incredible horse and being taken to who-knows-where, and drinking in every second.

This is our birthright, each and every one of us. For as long as this light exists, I will face my prism to it.

I am grateful for all of you who have been coming along with me, with your own prisms and open windows. 

Let’s magnify the light. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013


Author's Note

I haven't contributed to this blog in a while; in fact, it's been several years since I've even written any poetry.  But, for the sake of life-continuity, I'm adding this account of the trip I took last summer to Mt. Kilimanjaro.  It isn't poetry, per se, except insofar as what it has added to my tapestry of experience and understanding is exceedingly poetic in feeling.  It's a bit long, but I'd love it if you allowed me to share it with you.  It's occasionally funny, occasionally serious, and hopefully inspiring.

See you on the other side!

—Michael Sheppard, May 12, 2013


Today I just used the last of the coffee beans I purchased at Kilimanjaro.  The reason it took me so long to use all of them may or may not be related to the reason it’s taken me so long to write about the whole experience.

It’s been nine months now since I came down from the mountain, and I keep rewriting this sentence to include the new amount of time.  I can’t decide whether to call the process of figuring out how to write about this chapter of my life “struggling”, “waiting”, or “allowing”.  Depending on the five-minute increment in which I consider the matter, it could go any of those ways.  But one thing I’ve been sure I don’t want to do is to force it when it isn’t ready.  The experience was too profound to try to yank its words out of the ether.  

That said, here goes.

The Social Network

A lot of you know how this story begins, since I saw many of you before the trip (yet after having made the decision to take it) and have seen many of you since.  And even though this part, being the most often told, is beginning to feel a little bit plastic — much in the same way, for instance, that holding a smile for a camera can begin to feel plastic  — the whole story and experience still throbs in my veins, so I don’t mind telling it again, and even “officially”.

It happened because of Facebook.  Yes, Facebook.  (Any of you who actually know me are likely stifling a yawn at this particular revelation.)

My friend Ingrid — an old Peabody chum from undergraduate days, who has been living what has seemed to me to be a rather carefree lifestyle on a schooner for the past 12 years (but which, probably in fact, involves lots of hard work of which I can’t even begin to grasp the magnitude) — had a sudden Facebook post saying that she was going to be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and would anyone like to join her.  

Not thinking anything more concrete than “cool, good for you!”, I typed something to the effect of “haha, when?” in a comment beneath her status.  Within hours, she responded directly to my inbox with “I’m so glad you’re interested!  Here are the details!”, followed by, well, details.  All I remember is I had to scroll down a lot!  (I hadn’t written under her status in an “I’m interested” kind of a way; as I said, it was meant in more of an “awesome, hope you have fun” sort of a way, which she then fatefully — and to my forever indebtedness — misinterpreted.)

Chuckling at her impulsiveness, I began to read.  As I read, little things clicked, and the thought started to form:  “well...dammit, why not?”  After all, I’d been hoping to leave the country on some sort of a vacation this summer, only it had been turning out that virtually all of my friends in Europe (which is where I most wanted to go, I thought, having not been there in what I was beginning to judge as “too long”) were not going to be around (most, ironically, going to be over here in the U.S.).  Ingrid had already arranged the trip through the trekking comany with her friend, Christine (who, I would later find out, was the impetus for the whole thing), and was just basically inviting me to attach myself to it.

So, without a whole lot more consideration, on a “why not?”, I did.  This was nearly the last week of June; the trip was to begin on August 4th.  I had just enough time to do everything I needed to do, but only if I started right away.

Gear, Shots, Airline Tickets, Drool (N.B. this is not a punk band album name)

Between “why not” and takeoff, I did the following:  

1)  Basically spent way more money than probably any one single person ever has spent at REI, getting enough supplies for what seemed a platoon of Navy Seals but which was, in fact, only stuff for me so that I wouldn’t die on the mountainside.  You’d think this would include band-aids, but it didn’t.  It DID include a nifty headlamp, which I may wear at Halloween in what will likely turn out to be a lame attempt at the killer’s outfit from “My Bloody Valentine”.  (“Lame” mainly because he was wearing a coal miner’s outfit from the early 19smhsnmhsnwhatevers with a giant, ass-kicking pith helmet that looked like it had a Klieg light on it, plus a pickaxe, and I just have this little headband with a light the size of a Hershey’s Mini.  But it’s really bright, so.  RAAAHHRRR!  Yeah.)   (N.B. It being currently after Halloween, I can say with some authority that I did not do that.  Though it seemed a decent idea at the time of that paragraph’s original writing, if only for the sake of comedy.)

2)  Plane tickets.  KLM had the best deal, in that I didn’t have to sell my liver.

3)  Innoculations.  The head nurse at Passport Health’s eyes lit when I mentioned that we were going on safari after the climb, and she practically drooled the words “rabies vaccine” at me from across her desk (probably because it is a series of three shots, each of which is $285, so they were going to be able to vampire me out of some more cash). (Is it possible to drool across?  Whatever; it is now.)  (N.B. I was never ONCE mauled or macerated by any wildlife, though a very brightly-colored bird did give me the stink-eye in the Tarangire National Park, and a baboon almost climbed into the car with us, or at least was about to in my imagination, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Anyway, enough about her.  By which I mean, she was possibly very helpful in preventing me from getting malaria.) (The head nurse, not the baboon.)  

3a) Malaria.  It’s a thing.  Take pills.  

3b) Diamox.  More pills.  They keep your head from exploding from altitude on the mountain.  Or something maybe more medically technical than that.  Anyway, it worked.  

3c) SteriPen, a device which uses ultraviolet light to purify drinking water.  This seemed necessary, and was even recommended to us by multiple people (including, and most convincingly, by the Drooling Head Nurse, herself), but turned out to be about as useful as an extra finger sticking out of one your heart valves.  (More on that later.)  (The SteriPen, not heart-fingers.)

4.  Some other things.  Seriously, it’s now been several months since Africa, and the minor stuff like that — while amusing to write about — was really secondary, plus I’m starting to forget about it anyway.  As my life moves farther away from the trip, all I’m left with is the presence and significance of the mountain, itself, or the significance of the entire trip, itself; peripheral things are receding into the background.  (Yes, I’m as confused by the schizophrenically-changing tone of this thing as you are.  Deal.)

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Imaginary Machetes

I met up with Ingrid and Christine in Amsterdam, and we flew together to Kilimanjaro.  There are apparently something like six airports in Tanzania, I found out when buying the tickets, so it helped that the one we needed was conveniently named “Kilimanjaro International Airport”.  (Kinda nipped in the bud any anxiety about not choosing the right one of the six.  Bonus.)  

We landed at night.  My first impression of Tanzania, driving from the airport to the lodge (we had planned for one “relaxation day” between landing and the day of the climb), was that it reminded me very much of Fiji in terms of vegetation and feel, except something in the corner of my intuition told me that, while Fiji’s natural edges felt gentle, Africa’s felt wild.  (This was a very specific thought, in words, that came into my mind as I looked around.)

Our driver, whose name I forgot probably within seconds, was rather taciturn; I began to wonder — especially as he made the left to what would later turn out to be the lodge but wasn’t immediately apparent because I didn’t see any signs to that effect and so thought, perhaps, that we were about to be murdered in the middle of the woods by men with machetes (seriously, it was a LONG driveway, down which he was driving HELLA-slowly) — if this was due to a lack of English or because he had clubbed our actual driver to death and was going to kidnap us (or, you know, see giant middle-of-this-terrible-sentence).

Luckily for us, but not for my paranoia, we arrived safely at our hotel, the Arumeru River Lodge.

A Minor (Or Possibly Major, If You’re Uptight) Note About Race

Up to now, apart from in the airport, it had been basically black people everywhere (because, duh, Africa).  Here, however, apart from the porters and waiters (and probably lots of people behind the scenes that I couldn’t see), it was mainly white people; the couple who owned the lodge were German, and the guests were from all over (mainly Europe and the U.S.).  I mention this part only because it is odd — not necessarily unpleasant, though in certain circumstances it can be, which I’ll get to later — to feel like you stick out immediately in a place because of your skin color.  (I felt this for the first time in Sri Lanka some years ago).  Once you make friends with the feeling, which is initially a bit off-putting (for how long it’s off-putting I guess depends on how long you’ve spent in an ethnically-undiverse environment previously; I grew up outside Philadelphia, so it took me about nine seconds), it gives you an immediate sense of some kind or level of racial-minority empathy which I feel like can only be a good thing.  So, that.  Anyway, everyone, of all ethnic persuasions, was super nice to us, either because a) they were inherently nice people, b) we were in the process of dropping gobs of cash on them in the form of our trip/accomodations/tips/etc. (it was all part of one big package through the trekking company), or c) some combination of the two.  

Turkeys and Dogs

Our “relaxation day” was fairly boring, except that we were IN AFRICA, which made it automatically not-boring.  We mainly lounged by the pool, tried not to get malaria, and hoped that we wouldn’t get traveler’s diarrhea from weird microbial water or something.  (It turned out that the water-treatment facility at this hotel was top-notch, and we needn’t have given it a second thought. Still:  we did.)  We also wandered around the grounds and took pictures of what might have been exotic flowers but which might also have been, you know, flowers.  

A word about the wildlife:  at the lodge, it consisted of dik-diks (cute little mini-deer-like things) and game fowl.  I pretty quickly took to referring to them as “the turkeys and the dogs”, because the birds had all the personality of mailboxes (though were generally more vividly-colored than most mailboxes I’ve come across, with the possible exception of San Francisco post office during gay pride) and would just run around in uniform squawking clumps (or uniform silent ones, which was a bit creepy, as if they were practicing for turkey ninja school) in the general direction of away-from-you.  And the dik-diks, well...they would stand and stare at you like deer, or they would gambol about like lambs in groups of three (are there any other groups of animals that we regularly describe as “gamboling” besides lambs?), but they seemed to have the intelligence of sawdust, which puts me in mind more of dogs than any other pets, so...dogs.  There were other things that also made me think of them as dogs, but right now I can’t remember any of them.  They wouldn’t let you touch them, which is very un-dog-like, but that was good, anyway, because these were ANIMALS IN AFRICA, which, rabies, etc.  (On the other hand, I would often find myself wishing, as the trip progressed, that some creature would give me my money’s worth on those vaccines.  Even an errant, disinterested lick would have been fine.)  

Anyway:  turkeys and dogs.  Also, some of the birds sing in chromatic scales, which I found strange and, being a musician, geeked out on for a good five minutes in bed that morning, having been awakened by it.  (I even videotaped.  Yes, I know; I can feel your judgment.)

Livestock and flowers and Germans (oh my!) aside, the mood of that first full day in Africa can be summed up in the following way: “holy shit, we’re IN AFRICA, and tomorrow we’re going to CLIMB MOUNT FRIGGING KILIMANCRAPPINGDEEDLYJARO!”  Or something like that.  (To be fair, some of the members of my group, it would turn out, were not big swearers — at least out loud — but I’m sure they’d agree that the above sentiment crystallized their feelings fairly accurately. My point is, as the kids say — or as they said in 1986 — it was pretty rad.)  

Corn and Dearth of Sarcasm

The morning of the climb, we got our stuff together, had breakfast at the lodge, and then met our guide, Tumaini, for the first time.  Rather than describe Tumaini in a nice, literary containment-bubble, I shall let you discover the fact of his awesomeness through my relaying of our adventure ahead, so don’t get in a “you’re a lazy writer” tiff.  (I am, probably, but now is not the time.)  Let’s for now just say that Tumaini, while initially displaying great gentleness and soft-spokenness, would keep both of those attributes and add to them fortitude and...  Dammit, I started doing what I just said I wasn’t going to do!  ARRRGH!!  Onward.

We got into the van and drove toward the mountain.  As I could sort of tell by having driven from the airport the previous night, there’s a lot of visible poverty in Tanzania, and it just became even more apparent in the daylight.  Little towns/villages/wide spots in the road would float by; everything looked disorganized and littered with trash.  One thing that impressed (as opposed to depressed) me was the way people carried things, i.e. on their heads.  Just, you know, walking along with perfect posture with a giant bucket of some kind or a huge swatch of cornstalks perfectly balanced on their heads.  No big deal, they seemed to say.  What, if anything, this may have had to do with the physical poverty I was seeing is a subject for greater cultural anthropologists than myself.  (Or, you know, actual cultural anthropologists.)  Ultimately I couldn’t tell if the people I was looking at were happy, unhappy, or just looking that way because we were probably the ninth carful of tourists driving past them that day.  Ultimately, I felt I was soaking it all in, below the impression/depression line, with fundamental pleasure, because it was a new experience in a new place.

One thing that became apparent immediately was that corn is a thing in Tanzania.  It’s basically like Iowa, only with far more black people.  (I’ve never been to Iowa, but come on...let’s be real.  It’s got to be true.)  

“There’s a lot of corn,” I remarked sagely to our guide at one point.  I could feel the entire vehicle shiver with delight at my grasp of the obvious. Tumaini agreed and then informed me that it was the major crop of Tanzania.  He did not roll his eyes even once, because he is not that kind of person.  Anyway, enlightenment attained, we continued the drive.     

7-11 at the Feet of God, or: We Do Not Have Squishies

We were to have one bathroom/refreshment stop before heading to Londorossi Gate, where you sign in and do all the legal stuff so that, if you die on the mountain, people can find you and the trekking company won’t get sued, etc.  (Kilimanjaro is technically a national park, so a lot of the same rules apply there as apply here in America, like no fires, no littering, no poking antelope with sticks, etc.) A couple of other groups had apparently decided to do the same thing at the same time, so we all chatted it up and generally voiced our anticipation of what was to come.  A Tanzanian dude wearing at least six hats and approximately 54932569874326598764975 bracelets saying things like “Tanzania” and “Kilimanjaro” and “Pole-Pole” (more on that later, too; it figures prominently) and “Hitler Youth” (just kidding) repeatedly tried to sell us the things he was wearing (well, the hats and bracelets, not his clothes or whatever), but I personally felt that it was a little too early for souvenirs, since the trip hadn’t even technically started yet, so I begged off in the form of ignoring him.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I said “no, thank you” out loud at least once.  Or, more likely, about as many times as he had bracelets.  (It was a long rest-stop.) (And most people understood at least basic English, I found out, or at least better than my rather lackluster handling of basic Swahili, so language was not the issue here.)  I asked him where I could buy an authentic East African butt plug, but he just looked at me as if I had an insect crawling over my lower lip.  (I did not do this.  Relax.)

It was at this rest-stop where the clouds around the mountain cleared a bit and we could see the peak of Kilimanjaro for the first time.  It seemed fantastically, unfathomably high.  I wondered how we would ever be able to reach that.  We were about to go UP THERE, I remember thinking.  It was a stirring thought; seemingly an impossible task when what you were looking at was above the clouds, and the clouds themselves appeared unimaginably high, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was looking at cirrus or snow.  And the fact that it was the lone mountain of any appreciable size in the area made it look even more impressive; Everest may be 10,000 feet higher than Kili, but because it’s surrounded by mountains of nearly equal height, it somehow looks less impressive.  Kilimanjaro completely dominated the entire area, and we were still quite a long way off.  

After we had pinched off our respective loaves (except me; at this point, I hadn’t evacuated my bowels since leaving the states, which is another thing to remember, as it will also play a prominent role later on) and filled our coffers with cookies  (neither did I buy any cookies, and I don’t think anyone else did, either; I think mainly what we did was politely look around the shop, which was like the Tanzanian version of a 7-11 with bottles of water and processed and prepared foods and sacks of grain stacked around the place), we got back into the vehicle, said our tenth regretful(ish) goodbye to the many-hatted man, and drove the rest of the way to the gate.  .

Martians and Motorcycles, or:  We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Though we had vaguely been able to make out the looming shape of Kilimanjaro after a certain point on the drive from the lodge to the rest-stop, it had still been too far away to be impressive except in a very general way, like, “well, there it is: the only mountain in the area.  It is rather huge.”  Aforementioned momentary sighting of the peak notwithstanding, it was on the drive from the rest-stop to the gate where the full scope of what we were about to engage became clear.  

First of all, the terrain began to change from mainly yellow cornstalks and scattered trees to red earth and rock, which put me in mind of a martian landscape.  Being in a strange place already, this seemed to fit.  Adding to the strangeness was the sheer amount of Tanzanians on motorcycles I was seeing, which of course I had no business thinking of as out-of-place, having never been here before, but which I did anyway.  Tanzanians on motorcycles, rolling around a vast, red, rocky landscape at the base of a mountain.

And the mountain.  Oh, the mountain. It was a monster!  Not in any threatening way, but in an immense way which I can feel one hundred percent down to my guts even while following my memory these many months later for the occasion of writing this.  I have no trouble imagining that that feeling will be just as easy to locate at the end of my life. That mountain has PRESENCE.  I don’t care how weird or “woo-woo” it may seem to sophisticated, 21st-century, “information-age” people to say that, but there was no denying it when I caught that first glimpse.

Astonishingly, I couldn’t even see the whole mountain: I could only see one side, rising into the clouds, and it was in shadow.  Looking at — no, looking INTO — the hazy, still-distant blackness of Kilimanjaro ascending into the sky, I suddenly felt I intuitively understood primordial mysticism.  I was gazing into its very face.  The shadow-mountain looked like it had been cut out of reality before the Earth ever existed, and the Earth had been born under it, like a reverse cosmic cyclone sucking up the heavens and forming a planet under it — and not just in the past tense, as in “ like a reverse cosmic cyclone HAD sucked up the heavens and formed a planet under it”, but in the very living present:  it was doing it now.  It was the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz”, except instead of bringing Kansas to Oz, it was bringing Oz to Kansas, and Oz was the entire universe, prior to the arising of anything.  Every sense told me that Kilimanjaro was cut out of time.  


As we milled about at the Londorossi gate, talking with other groups, taking photographs, going to the bathroom, setting small children on fire with the power of thought (not true), a middle-aged Tanzanian guy approached me.  He pointed at my boots, then at his; they were the same kind.  It turned out he was a guide.

“How long have you been doing this?”  I asked.

“Five years,” he said.  “Guess how many times I’ve been up the mountain.”  (His English, while good, is not quite getting represented properly here; I just can’t remember his exact flavor of usage.  Just imagine the occasional incorrect verb tense and/or missing pronoun.)

“Uh...”  Here I was in a conundrum.  On one hand, I didn’t want to offend him and guess too low a number; on the other hand, having no knowledge of Kilimanjaro guides other than that they were people who went up the mountain occasionally, I didn’t have a concept of what “low” or “high” could even BE in this context.  It was now or never, though.  

“...like...30?”  I stammered.

He laughed and looked at me like an indulgent uncle.  “This will be my 200th time.”

Tanzanian Comcast Sucks

After I cleaned my pants, we all met up again and commenced scraping the paint off the side of our bus in a pentagram shape.  Well, no, we actually just continued knocking about and chatting with people.  It took an inordinate amount of time for us to get registered, because apparently there were internet issues that day (first world...problems...?), so we wound up hanging out at Londorossi gate for like three hours.  Still, we were IN AFRICA, so even this, which would have pissed me off to no end back in the U.S., was awesome.  Anyway, eventually everything got taken care of, and we drove the further hour or so to where we were to start our hike.

Sugar Cane

As we were heading away from the gate, Ingrid noticed some people selling sugar cane.  Being the kind of person who likes to do everything “native” possible in a place, with the possible exception of being sold into slavery, she asked Tumaini if we could get some.  (I swear I remember someone coming up with the idea that sugar cane — SUGAR CANE — was “good for your teeth”, but that may have been jetlag talking to me.) 

Since there was still a little while to go in the drive, I guess Tumaini figured it would be good to keep us occupied in the back seat so as not to have to deal with a chorus of “Are we there yet?”s, as if he were a suburban dad driving five ten-year-olds to the beach or something.  So we got some sugar cane, about a foot each, which, after cursory instruction from Tumaini, we all promptly managed to fail miserably at eating as he gnawed through his in about thirteen seconds.  (Okay, it was slightly longer.  But only slightly.)  I came the closest to getting what might, if you’re feeling particularly generous, be called “the hang” of it, in that I managed to chew through more than half of mine before deciding, upon reaching a particularly cumbersome, recalcitrant knot in the cane, that this might not be the most opportune place on earth to crack a tooth, at which point I jettisoned the forlorn, uneaten chunk out the window.  Tumaini was graceful in that he only made fun of us about 342,706 times for not being able to finish ours, but I steadfastly maintained that I felt good about saving my teeth, and that, even though he was our guide and was therefore responsible for making sure that we didn’t plummet to our doom on the mountain, he should shut up.  

Rain in the Rainforest: Who Knew?

We arrived at our starting point just in time for an early dinner.  This seems an opportune moment to mention the porters and how mind-blowingly awesome and incredible they were.  

The trekking company determines the number of crew based on the number of people in your group.  We were five:  Ingrid, Christina, and I, plus Natacha and Stephanie, two American girls the company put us with because we happened to be traveling the same route at the same time.  (I can’t believe it took me this long into this to talk about them; have I mentioned that I never went to memoir-writing school?) For the five of us were appointed sixteen porters, a cook, our guide (Tumaini), and two assistant guides.  

One of the incredible things about the porters is that part of their job was to show up before us at any given camp or mealtime location and set up camp, or whatever rudimentary version of it was required for a short rest or meal.  Then, after we were finished, we would continue hiking, and they would stay behind and break down the camp, then (at some point) pass us on the same (often difficult) path we ourselves were hiking in order to set up the NEXT camp before we arrived.  Oh, and did I mention that each of them had to carry about 15KG on their heads?  Well, I guess the method of carrying wasn’t a requirement, but most of them did that.  Buckets, barrels, tents, food, supplies: all on their heads, like the Tanzanians we’d seen in the villages.  And nary a fall, nary a drop of an item!  Well, there was ONE incident that I heard and which I saw out of the corner of my eye:  that first day, it rained, and so the paths were slippery, and as I made my own snail-like way up the muddy inclines, I heard a yell and a crash behind me: one of the porters, who even in the rain routinely travel at speeds approaching that of a bullet train, had slipped. It turned out that the guy was fine, and he was laughing and shaking his head at his fall.  Other porters laughed, too, and it wasn’t the least bit mean-spirited.  I joked to one of our assistant guides that I hoped it wasn’t the new guy’s turn to carry the eggs.  He may have been laughing with me instead of at me.  

So yes, that first day, the first meal:  rain.  It started innocently enough; we arrived at the edge of the jungle to a table already set up, and intermittent very fat drops began to patter down around us.  We looked at each other like, uh-oh, and the guide said it was normal for this time of day in this area. (We were supposed to have arrived some hours before, but had been delayed by the registration process and its attendant hamster-wheel-driven internet.)  We grabbed our stuff and hunkered down at the edge of the forest, waiting it out.  When it became apparent that this would not serve any purpose except to make us arrive at our first night’s camp after nightfall, which might entail the risk of getting eaten by gorillas or whatever, we decided (or rather, Tumaini decided) that we should just go ahead, at which point, slippery slopes and the porter incident, etc. I was just secretly jazzed, though normally I hate being in rain, because I’d bought rain gear JUST FOR THIS TRIP, and I was now officially GETTING MY MONEY’S WORTH.  I didn’t want a broken leg (inopportune place, remember, as with the sugar-cane/teeth consideration), but I was grinning inside.  (Outwardly, I was more like, “DAMMIT, shit, crap, AAAAAH [slip] frigging rain,” etc., which is just normal for me in such weather, no matter where.)  

Big Tree

Camp that first night was in a place called “Big Tree”.  In Swahili, its name is “Hakuna Matata”.  Just kidding.  But really, it might as well have been, for as much as I understood the language.  The only phrase I learned early on is “karibu sana”, which means “thank you very much”, and the only reason I could remember it is because I literally pictured a bunch of caribou in a sauna.  I just had to remember to place the accent slightly on the second syllable, i.e. “ka-REE-bu”.  Anyway, it’s good to have some words of gratitude in one’s foreign-language arsenal, so I was happy that the goofy image worked.  

So:  Big Tree, the first campsite and the only one that would actually be in a forest.  We reached it at around 4:30 PM, just in time for what would become the afternoon ritual of popcorn and tea (it’s a thing, I guess), and of course the camp was already set up because the porters are awesome, as I mentioned.  As for the popcorn-and-tea thing, I knew that our trekking company, Team Kilimanjaro, was a U.K.-based company, so I understood the 4:30 teatime thing, but...popcorn?  That never did get satisfactorily explained to me.  Whatever, though; by that time on most succeeding afternoons, we would be so famished by the day’s hiking that I’m pretty sure they could have served us fried boots laced with porcupine quills and we would have gobbled it up and looked around for more.  Point is, we got used to the popcorn thing in a hurry.


I’m going to be kind to you here and not subject you to every last little detail about every single day and every single meal, since the meals all tended toward the same basic routine and the hiking between the meals, while covering often vastly different landscapes, was also kind of similar.  So, from here on out, I will relate highlights, though still basically in chronological order.  Also, I forget a lot of it; while Ingrid, the responsible one, went into her tent every night to do extensive writing in her journal, I usually listened to my iPod or, more often, just listened to the sounds of nature as I fell asleep, mainly because I was a little bit paranoid about using up the batteries in my headlamp before summit night, which would have been dire indeed.  (Final night: the last 4,000 feet in less than six hours. Starting at midnight.  Light: necessary.  But I’ll get to that.)  All of that is to say that my notes, while I definitely did take them, were more of the “highlight” variety and less of the “what color was my bowel movement” variety.  (N.B.  I mean in no way to imply that Ingrid’s journal is filled with references to bowel movements; I’m sure it’s delightful.) (Also, I can pretty much guarantee that my own recounting of this trip will have the most bowel movement references of anyone’s, either of my company or any other; dare I even say, the most bowel movement references possible in any account of anything short of a medical journal.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I just broke the world record for number of uses of the words “bowel movement(s)” used in one paragraph just now.) (Believe it or not, there is an actual story involving this subject, which, as I promised before, I’ll get to.  Don’t worry, it won’t be too gross, unless you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to be reminded that we’re biological organisms.) (Bowel movement.)  

We should move on.

We Are The World (of Nightcrawling Turkeys)

The thing I remember most clearly about that first night is the random animal sounds.  I thought they were birds; it was the dead of night, and I kept hearing these staccato gobble-like sounds from all around the camp, stereophonically, as if we were about to be swept away in a wave of turkeys.  Game fowl?  More of those little critters from the lodge?  They seemed much more ominous in the dark of the forest.  Still, they didn’t scratch their way into my tent and make off with my eyeglasses (or spleen, or whatever it is nightcrawling turkeys might be after in the African jungle), so I slept.  I later found out that they were golobus monkeys.  My supposition was that there were a lot of them, and they were curious about who these people were, invading their space with radios and cooking.

Oh yes, did I not mention?  Radios.  Some of the porters had them.  In fact, I was occasionally jarringly reminded of the ‘80s, when the popular thing to do (especially, for some reason, by young urban black men, at least in Philly) was to walk around with a “boom box” the size of a Buick on your shoulder, subjecting the entire swath of human hearing in their purview to, for instance, MC Hammer’s latest.  

The radios I saw on this trip, while still toted by young black (decidedly non-urban) men, were smaller and did NOT spill out the sultry sounds of hiphop (you may replace “sultry” with your own adjective, if desired).  That first morning, in fact, I was awakened by the dulcet tones of that (speaking of ‘80s) classic, “We Are the World”.  Yes, that happened.

Normally, though, random music throughout the day aside, we were woken up by Moto.

Fire and Movement

Moto...so many things could be said.  Moto quickly became my favorite person in the entire trip.  I never got a read on what his actual title was, so I began referring to him as “mother hen”.  His job was to wake us up, give us our daily ration of warm water for washing (one small bowl, which I usually used for my hands and face), and bring us our meals.  

His English was only okay, but I enjoyed his unique sentence constructions.  My favorite one has to be the one he used whenever he would wake us up, which he did by coming to each of our tents (there were three; I had my own, and the two pairs of girls each had their own) and serving us tea on a tray, and even though I eventually got used to waking up at 6:30am (to say nothing of ingesting things before I’d brushed my teeth, which was strange at first) and would often be awake slightly before Moto’s arrival, I still looked forward to his particular warm, soft, doward vocal cadence on the words, “GOOD morning” and the way he would pronounce “good” as if it rhymed with “dude” and elongate the second syllable of “morning” into “morneeeng”.  Even before I could see him, he would be outside my tent (or I’d hear him outside one of the other tents) with the catchphrase we all came to love:  “GOOD morneeeng!  Time is tea!”  

Slight of build and graceful of movement, Moto was a truly upbeat individual with a giant heart.  I never got to find out for sure, but my feeling, through so many little hints and “tells”, was that I had found a genuine African pocket-gay.  He told me that, in Swahili, his name meant “fire”; I told him that, in Italian, his name meant “movement”.  Fire and movement:  whatever he was, he was great at his job of seeing that we had everything we needed in terms of nourishment and general well-being.  If Tumaini’s task was to oversee everything and make sure we were okay globally — knowing where we were, what we were doing, and what we were going to be doing  (or where we were going, and what we needed, supply/clothing-wise, for wherever we were going that day) at all times — Moto’s was in the more intimate sphere of “inside-the-tent” business...in the taking of food, the having of conversation, and the spending of much down-time.  In that more vulnerable space, after hours of wearying travel, Moto was always a sight for sore eyes.  

Also, he had an adorable knitted hat with a pompom on top.  Say no more.  

Under Armour Should Pay Me for This Part

My main concern while preparing for this trip was being as sure as I could that I had all the right clothing and gear, but especially clothing.  The gear lists on all the Kilimanjaro-trek-related websites were pretty extensive, almost overwhelmingly so...but they were also fairly consistent; so it became clear which items were essential (e.g. headlamp) and which items were negligible (e.g. contraceptives)  (not kidding; the handbook and websites talked about that).  But the clothing was trickier.

The trip takes you through five climate zones.  At the base of the mountain it’s basically tropical (though mild at the time of year we went); as you ascend, it obviously gets colder and colder, until you’re at the peak and it’s -15ºF.  So naturally I wanted to make sure I had the proper wear, especially on the colder side of things, since I didn’t want my fingers (for instance) to crack off, thereby rendering a piano career problematic.  (Needless to say, as recommended, I brought two pairs of gloves.)  

Now, I normally run hot, i.e. it takes me a little longer to get bothered by cold than it does for me to get bothered by heat, but I didn’t want to rely on this overmuch.  So I wound up, in one of my trips to REI, buying more warm-weather clothing (that I was sure I’d never use again) than I ever could have imagined.  For instance, I didn’t even own ONE pair of thermal anything, and the websites were talking about thermals as if you just lounged around in them every day, even when hanging out at home.  I mean, doesn’t everyone?  Yeah, not so much.  So I got thermals, and they were a far cry from the kind I used to have as a kid, which were basically cotton and not at all form-fitting.  There have been some advances, let’s just say.  I felt like a Solid Gold dancer under my trekking pants and fleeces at 15,000 feet.  (Alas, dancing opportunities were limited.)

Also, “cotton kills”.  That’s a mantra for climbers, apparently, or anyone active in cold climates.  What happens is that cotton doesn’t release moisture quickly at all, so when you sweat in cold climates, the chances of hypothermia become greater.  Luckily, I already owned a bunch of Under Armour. (Yay Under Armour!  This is probably the closest I’ll come to being a cheerleader for a product.  Well, maybe Vibrams, the barefoot-style toe-shoes I run in, which are also amazeballs, and which I thought for a hot second about doing this trek in, but then laughed roundly at my silly thought-generator.)  And I got MORE Under Armour.  Basically it’s just synthetic, poly-like blends that wick (yay wicking! Also, a great word.) moisture away from you so that you don’t turn into Ted Bundy’s freezer.  (It’s okay, nobody was decapitating anyone on this trip, to my knowledge; I’m just saying.)

Also, the secret is in layering.  Like, you wear your skin, and then underwear (no freeballing it on the mountainside, unless you enjoy the prospect of your scrotum freezing to your thigh), and then MORE underwear (thermals) (depending on the day), and anywhere from one to three (Under Armour!) t- or long-sleeved shirts, and blahhh this part is boring.  Just, if you ever do this, pay close attention to the whole clothes thing.  And fleeces are important.  I didn’t even know what those were before this trip.  Honestly, again, the only time you really need to worry that you have all the right stuff is on summit night.  Also, did I mention Under Armour?  Moving on.

The Inner iPod

I remember, on the afternoon of the second day, as we pulled into our camp, seeing Kibo for the first time.  Kilimanjaro is a mountain with three peaks:  Kibo, the highest (and the one we were going to climb), and then Mawenzi and Shira.  I was overwhelmed, once on the mountain and seeing Kibo, that all of this that was encompassed by the entire 360º horizon — all I could see — was the mountain, and that Kibo was merely a peak.  As we drew nearer to it — with still several days to go — it began actually to seem less daunting.  We can do this, I thought.  We were doing it.

I should mention music.  As anyone who knows me knows, I am a professional pianist (mostly classical, though I do dip into cabaret and “other” now and again) and composer. I have music in my head pretty much all the time, either “mine” (in quotes because I don’t come up with it; it just appears, and I have nothing whatsoever to do with it, seemingly, so I can’t very well take credit for — nor, furthermore, possession of — it, but that’s a subject unto itself) or someone else’s.  Always, or nearly always.  Some snippet of a tune, some portion of a Brahms symphony or an Irish folk song or a Lady Gaga hit or anything in between.  The point is, I have no control over what shows up in my head, unless I make the conscious decision to start “listening” to something; usually, it appears, and I just follow it along, for as long as it decides to stay or for as long as I decide to follow it.

On this trip, music seemed to play an even larger part in my inner life than usual, perhaps because of the relative lack of outside stimuli (by which I mainly mean man-made distractions, with which we tend to surround ourselves, especially in urban and suburban areas).  (Or maybe the amount and/or role of the inner music wasn’t actually different from when I’m at home in my “regular” life, but it just seemed louder or more present because of the lack of stimuli/distractions.  I don’t know.)  Yes, there were long stretches of inner silence, of listening to the wind and our footsteps crunching on the path, but there were also long stretches of the most random pieces of music playing, often in the strangest juxtapositions, in my inner iPod.  

For instance, I have in my notes from that second day that at least an hour of the hike heavily featured the endearing yet jarring (or is it “jarring yet endearing”?) combination of Schumann’s Toccata (a flashy, virtuoso 19th-century-Romantic solo piano piece) and the Broadway classic, “You’ve Got to Wash That Man Right Out of Your Hair”.  Sometimes the pieces would take on each other’s forms, meld or melt slightly or greatly one into the other; one song would be in the key of another, and vice versa, for instance.  

Often something I heard from one of the porters’ radios would worm its way into my psyche, and thus onto my inner playlist for that day.  On day three, for example, “A Whole New World” (no, I’m not kidding) made it into the mix, courtesy of a source I never did locate.  

Anyway:  music.  Lots of it.  Never an entire piece, but usually, because of the rhythm of the hiking (especially as it got difficult), just four- or eight-bar sections, repeated ad infinitum in whatever weird way or odd tempo or melodic/harmonic “marriage” with another piece it decided to appear in.  

Biohazard, or:  How I Will Never Think of Dvorak The Same Way Again

I’d like to say that day two was memorable to me for something poetic and beautiful, like the clouds taking up my entire field of vision in the late afternoon as we entered camp (well...they did!), but I’m somewhat chagrined to report that day two was most memorable because it contained the first crap I took since leaving the U.S.  

Yes, I’m going to talk about this, so brace yourselves.  I said I would, and here it is.  

A little backstory: for whatever reason, whenever I travel on a plane, I can’t crap for at least a day.  I have no idea why this is.  My diet doesn’t change appreciably, my sleep maybe a little bit, but I feel like that shouldn’t matter, and that my body should just go on assimilating and releasing in much the same way it always does under normal circumstances, because dammit, I will not be a slave to my bowels, etc..  

I found myself increasingly concerned (which probably doesn’t help) with each passing day in Africa, that I hadn’t yet shit, but after about the fourth day of no movement down there, I almost began to find it funny; I began to treat my colon as a separate person, like a recalcitrant relative who won’t put his coat on so that you can all leave to go somewhere.  “Wonder when you’re going to make that happen?  Haha, you’re such an asshole, Uncle Vic.”  (In this case, literally.) (For the record, my asshole does not have a name.  I was merely painting a picture.)   Anyway, the waiting almost began to turn into a game.  “Find the Turd”, maybe?  Eh.  (Don’t invent it, please.)  

(Note:  for those of you doing math, I should point out that I’d come from California the day before leaving for Africa, so really I hadn’t taken a dump since leaving there.  That means nothing came out of my body but carbon dioxide, urine, and sweat from August 3d — or maybe even August 2d, since I left in the morning — until August 8th.  I know, right??)

Another note about the sleeping situation vis-a-vis the bathroom.  You’re in a tent and also inside a sleeping bag.  Now, I don’t know if it was the Diamox (remember, the altitude medication?  You have to start taking it just prior to the first day of the climb) or what, but for some reason, every night, whenever I had to pee, it wasn’t like “Oh, I’m awake now; looks like I have to pee.  Better leisurely unzip my sleeping bag and head over to the toilet tent and take care of business.”  No, this was pretty much routinely a situation of, “Oh, I’m awake and HOLY SHIT I HAVE TO PEE LIKE A SONOFABITCH HAS NEVER HAD TO PEE IN ALL HIS LIFE GAAAAAAHHHHH”.  (Approximately.) It was going from zero to “I’m going to need a canoe to float out of here” in four seconds.  (I think I had read something about Diamox making you need to pee more, but I guess I’d decided it was worth it not to have my head explode on the mountain.  My bladder exploding was, apparently, just dandy.)  

So each night, some version of this would happen at least once:  I would wake up at ass o’clock pre-dawn whenever, and suddenly go “AAAAAAH peemergency!”  (not out loud) (I hope), then frantically go about 1) locating my headlamp and glasses, 2) unzipping my sleeping bag, 3) maneuvering myself out of the sleeping bag, 4) putting on pants (it was cold), 5) yanking on my coat (it was cold), 6) swiveling around to face the front of the tent, 7) unzipping the inner flap, 8) clambering out into the outer inner part of the tent, 9) shoving my bare feet into my untied hiking boots (secret: cram the laces into the shoe first) (like you’re gonna TIE those things when urine is coming out of your eyeballs?  Get real!), 10) unzipping the outer flap, 11) tripping/hobbling/loping over to the toilet tent, which seems about as far away as Azerbaijan in this situation but is in reality maybe twenty feet away, 12) dealing with the recalcitrant whore of a toilet-tent zipper, which became the bane of our existence because after the first day it broke and would unzip as it zipped, so we had to basically find the one place where it would act like a tack and keep the tent just closed enough to shield us from wind (of which there was plenty in certain camps) and the prying eyes of dirty-minded mountain-dwelling goats or lascivious porters or whomever, THEN (in the colder climates), once you’re standing in the tent, 13) spend nine minutes (approximately) trying to locate your johnson (with gloves on, thank you) through four different waistbands of varying heights and thicknesses, because of course you don’t want to piss on your clothes and spend the remainder of the trip-with-no-running-water wearing thermals that smell like you had a bad time at the carnival.  All while pinching your pee-sphincter (medical term) shut with a force of will that Obi-Wan Kenobi would admire.

Anyway, you get the idea.

This particular night, though, I was beginning to feel something ELSE going on down there.  I had a glimmer of hope.  It was still pre-bedtime, so I actually began to anticipate something finally getting loose in the ol’ gutty-works.  I almost prayed.  (Almost.) But mainly, I continued to see it as a science experiment, along the lines of, “Gee, I wonder when my bowels will have a bowel movement of bowel-like motion.  With bowelness.”  

It didn’t happen before I went to bed, though; slightly disappointed, I figured, okay, well, SOMETHING is clearly happening.  I’ll probably just have to do it in the middle of the night, hopefully not in one of those emergency-situations described so lovingly above.  

So I went to bed, hoping for release soon.  But then my stomach started feeling weird, and I started farting even more than more-than-usual (by which I mean, more than I’d already been farting on the mountain; one of the things they actually tell you in the guidebook, and which was kind of a motto even back when  earlier climbers attempted Kili, is that if you’re farting more than usual on the mountain, it’s a sign you’re acclimating well.  No joke!), and I had increasingly more and more trouble sleeping.  

In one of the spells of awakeness, which became more and more dire, I felt like I maybe had a fever; my thoughts became neon-chaotic, as if dreaming while awake, or as if the spirit of Pink Floyd had somehow been exorcized into my body and REALLY didn’t like either my thoughts or my bowels and was going to do everything in its power to turn them both into rainbow jelly.  With music.  

I did make it to the toilet tent, though, and lo, there was blessed release of days of everything from avocado-based (California) to styrofoam-based (airline) to random-African-concoctions-based (...) diet.  I shall spare further details. I did, however, have an intuition that I had some kind of bacteria or something, and that this wasn’t just a normal evacuation of days of bowelness, so I took an antibiotic (thank you again, Diarrhea Kit from Passport Health; I really should send that Drooling Head Nurse a thank-you card) and started feeling better within the hour.  I still had to go back to the toilet tent a few times that night, but each time I went with a lighter heart.  And, likely, a lighter entire body, since I was, over the course of the night, crapping out approximately the contents of a dormitory-sized refrigerator.  

And yes, as I mentioned, there was music going on in my head during this episode; I vividly remember my brain helping me digest (hahaha) the many different heaving sensations going on simultaneously in my body by sending, as if from on high, that part of Dvorak’s piano quintet, Op. 81, in the second movement, where the main “Dumka” theme in F-sharp minor gives way to a churning triplet-against-duplet-against-quartuplet (the “B” theme”, in F-sharp major — the first time it appears, anyway, which is the part I was hearing in my head, because that’s the key it was in).  All those cross-rhythms...my subconscious sending me just the most perfectly appropriate music at the height of my diarrhetic acid-rock fever dreams on the side of a mountain.  Universe, you are funny.  Needless to say, I’ll never be able to hear that part of the piece again without thinking of that night.  (Also, I think I should get some kind of karma points for being able to successfully juxtapose scatology with towering music-nerdiness.) (Bowel movement.)

So, there was that.  You may relax now, prudes; I’m finished talking about shit.  Though let me just say, as a parting thought, that of all the games one may play in a sleeping bag in a tent on the side of a mountain, “Is This Going to Turn Out to Be a Fart?” is definitely the most off-putting.  Moral:  just do everything the nice (possibly drooling) lady at Passport Health tells you to do, and get that Diarrhea Kit.  Don’t be a hero.  

Brothers, Plants, Clouds, and the Lava Tower

Kibo loomed larger and yet looked somehow more approachable each day.  We can do this, I thought.  We were going to.  

There were people we kept running into on the trail; even though it’s rather arduous, Kilimanjaro-climbing is still kind of a touristy thing, so there were definitely a decent number of other climbers we came into contact with along the way.  Some groups, who were taking the same or similar routes as us, we ran into time and again.

One of those groups consisted of three guys.  Eventually — it usually takes me awhile to talk to people I don’t already know — I found out that two of them were brothers.  They were all from the midwest.  My favorite part of telling this whole story to people’s faces — especially if they’re older and have just hit me with some version of “Kilimanjaro?  I could NEVER do that...”  — is the part where I reveal the brothers’ ages.  

The youngest of them, Al — lifelong friend of the brothers — was 69.  Philip and Sam were 73 and 75.  They weren’t particularly fit, or at least didn’t seem so under all their hiking gear.  They just seemed like normal guys.  Normal guys...with a lifelong dream, of course. 

We kept running into them, and others, from all over, over terrain which, once we got out of the forest on day two, basically turned more and more stunted.  Not colorless, which sort of surprised me; whereas the forests were mostly green with random bursts of flowers in the trees or bushes, the smaller vegetation had less bursts than patches of all kinds of amazing colors.  Mostly they were pastel, like the lavenders over the rocks, and actually my favorite was a plant which, though anyone who knows me can tell you that I have hardly any interest in (or knowledge about) botany, I HAD to find out about:  it was a little flower — like a white sunflower the size of a dandelion — called the Everlasting Flower, and it was EVERYWHERE, pockets and plumes of white, sometimes as far as you could see.  It was like the ground was jealous of the proximity of clouds overhead and had decided to make some clouds of its own. 

So, plants.  And small bushes.  There was one forest of moss-covered branches about nine feet or so high that made me very distinctly think of Harry Potter’s “whomping willow”, though admittedly much smaller.  That was on day three, I think, when we went to see Shira Cathedral, which is a formation in the mountainside which looks — powers-of-deduction WIN — like a cathedral.

And all of this in clouds — clouds in the sky, clouds on the ground in the form of the Everlasting Flowers.  And days of fog and rain, though not many; on the morning of day 4, we trudged from Shira 2 camp up to the Lava Tower, which would have been difficult anyway, since it was a rise in elevation steeper than any we’d done yet, but which was made worse by the fact that it was just wet and miserable out.  Still, whenever I found myself in a dire place mentally or physically, one galvanizing thought would flash across my being, and it never failed to put a smile on my face and a (comparative, depending on how steep a grade we were on) spring in my step:  “I’M CLIMBING MOUNT FUCKING KILIMANJARO!!!”  Never failed.  

The Lava Tower, well, you can read about it; I’m not National Geographic.  Basically, that whole day looked like the Morla scene from the Neverending Story (which, if you haven’t seen it, what are you seriously doing with your life, and what do you think you could POSSIBLY gain from reading this?  Seriously, go see that movie and then come back.  I’ll wait.).  The Lava Tower stood shrouded in fog (is there any other natural phenomenon we use the word “shrouded” for besides fog?  Didn’t think so.), under normal circumstances probably very cool-looking but unclimbable, now very cool-looking in an even more mysterious way and DEFINITELY unclimbable due to the rain and general slipperiness of things, to say nothing of the fact that all we wanted to do after we reached it (at something like 15,000 feet) was to climb into a hole and die of exhaustion.  (I’ll leave it to the other members of the group reading this to call me out on any hyperbole.)

So, Morla.  This part of the climb, summit night aside, was my favorite, because after we rested and ate at the Lava Tower, having regained feeling in our legs, the rest of that day was downhill (yay!) through the weirdest terrain imaginable, to the 4th night’s camp, Barranco.  The closest I can come to describing it is to say it’s like a moonscape.  Or at least something from outer space, from a distant, barely-living planet.  Because there were plants, not just rocks; but the plants were of such an alien nature and physique that I somehow felt even more removed from the world I’d left than I previously had.  Of course, they could have been African potted palms, for all I knew, but they were three times my height and looked like potted palms had somehow managed to bang pineapples and give birth to flowers.  If that makes any sense at all.  (“Banging” is, I believe, a recognized botanical term for plant reproduction.) (That is not true.)  Anyway, Barranco was definitely the most out-there camp for me, and I’d say my favorite for that.  Also, we literally walked over a rainbow on our way down to it through the damp rocks and struggling sun.  Which was, you know, all right.    

Mount Meru, the neighboring mountain, was always visible by this time, like a younger brother a little jealous that his mighty sibling gets all the attention but encouraging just the same.  At a certain point of being with, in, and among the clouds, I noticed that, in fact, there were also clouds below us, and not just the Everlasting Flowers.  I looked down on one of those late afternoons, and it seemed as if snow — like cotton, in the neatest rows and gentle striations — had laid itself from our feet at the edge of the trail all the way over to Meru.  

Climbing, Kissing, Sharing/Oversharing

After breakfast the following morning, we were to attempt the most dangerous part of the climb, the part where some actual climbing might be involved.  

One of the things that had attracted me to doing this in the first place was the fact that it wasn’t a “technical” climb, i.e. no ropes or carabiners or ice-axes or gripping-of-rock-with-pianist’s-hands necessary, which was a huge bonus and went a long way toward me not freaking out over doing it. 

That said, the Barranco Breakfast Wall — so called because it was the first thing you had to do after breakfast, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else without turning back — was a little bit scary.  Not a lot; just a little.  The guides were great, Tumaini led us assuredly, and of course the porters — who had done this approximately 543259467 times — were practically doing cartwheels, carrying all our dishes in the meantime.  But there was one moment, called the Kissing Rock, where I legit thought I might tumble off the mountain.  

It’s called the Kissing Rock because the only way to get past it is to walk sideways, pressing yourself as flat against it as you can (face included, hence the “kissing” part).  I did fine, thanks in equal part to 1) Tumaini’s sure grip on my wrist and 2) a pair of Depends undergarments.  (#2 may be an exaggeration.  Okay, it was Under Armour.  Lined with a Hefty bag.) 

After we all made it up the Breakfast Wall, we rested for a moment and had our respective snacks — everything from protein bars to protein bars, with maybe some nuts and whatever Australians eat (maybe dingo placenta) — I decided, since the sudden view of Kibo was so magnificent and closer than ever, that I would attempt internet connection for the first time.

You see, I had brought my iPhone 4 — not with the intent of getting online, since that would be, I figured, a relatively lost cause in most places, but mainly for the camera.  (I’m not much of a religious photographer, so those of you wondering in disgust how I could have brought anything less than a Nikon Prius Zippety-Doo-Dah Whiz-Bang Derpaderpa 86Z with a telephoto lens the size of a wheelbarrow can just chalk it up to that).  I’d read in the guidebook (which was fairly recently published) that there are intermittent spots on the mountain where you could get online, but I didn’t really care; believe it or not, even though I typically spend approximately 467 hours a day on facebook between other activities, I actually was looking forward to having some time offline just to take in the Earth without the enhancements of electronics.  Believe me, it’s a thing.

The conundrum, though — as all of my facebook friends can attest who haven’t hidden my 5498732654872-post-per-day feed — is that I’m a sharer, so the first thing I want to do upon arriving in a place I’ve never been is to share, share, share, post picture after picture and status after status.  Right?  How can I not?  But apart from the expense — I’d purchased the medium-level data package for foreign travel in that particular area with the iPhone, with I think 3 GB of data allowed, or maybe it was 60 MB, or maybe it was four farts over a goat moon, I don’t know, I don’t work at Best Buy — I just didn’t want to reenact my civilian life of being more or less attached to my screens.  Screens all the time.  It’s all I can do to read a book.  (I do, rest assured, make time for that on a daily basis.)  

So I didn’t want to overwhelm the perhaps precarious Tanzanian internet (hamster wheels, remember from Londorossi Gate and the snail-like registration process?), and I didn’t want to miss as much of this experience as I could manage.  I had done a little back at the Arumeru Lodge, mainly because they had wireless, and therefore the cost was moot, plus I wanted to see how well it could handle my phone.  (It couldn’t really handle photographs in under an hour, so I gave up on that pretty quickly.)  Apart from a few statuses (“I’m in Africa, bitchizzzz!!!”, or something to that effect, you can go back and check if you want to), I kept it pretty much to a dull roar until we left for the mountain, after which point I would check only periodically, only because 1) I had my phone in my hand nearly at all times for photo-taking purposes, and 2) come on, I had to at least KNOW whether “Big Tree” had internet.  (It didn’t.)  There were moments of spotty 3G here and there, but I largely ignored it, because, as I said, I wanted to take in as much of this trek through my unadulterated senses as I could.

So, that said, the moment we reached the top of the Barranco Breakfast Wall and I’d had my fill of ostrich jerky mixed with nuts and M&Ms with a side of whatever protein goop-from-a-pouch thing I’d gotten from REI (bless them), and the most perfect view of the mountain was RIGHT there, I knew I HAD to take a picture and post it immediately (like, NOW) on facebook for the entire world of my friends to see.   

And there you have it:  it’s still there if you care to check: my profile picture to date.  (Or whatever they’re calling that giant mural-like thing that goes behind your profile picture on facebook these days.)  Maybe it’s just the fact that we were all so exhausted after climbing that wall, but that sight lit me up from inside.  Ever closer; still daunting, but not impossible; friendly, even, if still with an incalculable sacred-seeming presence.  My whole body thrummed with both blood and the feeling of the reverse cyclone, except now — being actually on it — the contents of the cosmos were being funneled into me, and it was immensely strengthening.  Let’s just say, I felt prepared for the rest of that day, even though the hardest part was now behind us.  Well...the hardest part so far.

Of Ravens and Wind

The remainder of the trip to base camp, through increasingly barren terrain of mostly rocks, went smoothly; the only appreciable difference between Barranco camp and Karanga camp — where we stayed on night 5 — was the sheer absence of plant life.  Rocks lived here, and small snowdrifts in crevices, and the only animal life we encountered was the ever-present white-necked ravens (thank you, Google image search; I am nothing if not not an ornithologist), who are cheeky little buggers.  Once in Karanga I was washing my face in the early evening with my small bowl of warm water that Moto had prepared, and had put my tiny bar of soap on a rock next to me, with the bowl in front of me and my microfiber towel on my lap, when I noticed out of the corner of my eye a raven creeping stealthily (honestly, is there another way to creep?) up to the soap rock.  I’d just managed to rinse my face in time, because when I pulled the towel away from my eyes, the brazen little bastard was almost to my bar of soap!  He wouldn’t have liked it much, but losing that would have been at least momentarily inconvenient.  I still chuckle when I imagine a big black buzzard burping soap bubbles.  

But by far the most memorable feature of Karanga was the wind.  By then we were up so high — past 15,000 feet — that what meager shelter there was consisted of the occasional boulder.  The porters and guides were geniuses at setting up camp, though, so — although we heard the wind screaming around the rock faces and gullies — our tents held firm, even through much shaking.  Truth be told, I kind of enjoyed falling to sleep that night with my tent shaking, wondering if we were going to be blown off the edge of the world.  

You Are Peace.  Smug, Pregnant Peace.

Day six, all I truly remember is that it was a relatively short hike between Karanga and Barafu (base camp), though, because of the elevation, everything was that much more taxing.  My favorite part of this particular stretch was just before reaching Barafu, when the path consisted entirely of a kind of rock — by now the terrain made me think of nothing less than Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, only without the decimated buildings, clean of the remnants of humanity — that, when you stepped on it, made a musical sound almost like chimes.  It was like walking on particularly melodious, hollow glass.  I thought that John Cage would have really enjoyed this part.  As for the music inside my head, this day’s melange of tunes — for a good hour at least — was a remix of Schubert’s song “Du Bist die Ruh” (“You are peace”) with Garfunkel and Oates’s recent classic (at least to my mind), “Pregnant Women Are Smug”.  Google them both and then wonder how I’m not on psychotropic drugs.  

As a bonus, this was the day I found out that two of our porters were named “Muhammed Ali” and “Mandela”.  You really can’t make this stuff up.  

Summit Night:  Bach and the Field of Dreams

Base camp, Barafu, stands amid giant boulders at 15,357 feet.  We’d spent six days reaching this point.  The final 4,000 feet, from Barafu to Uhuru Peak, the summit, would be done in six and a half hours.  

We were to start at midnight, as I mentioned a while back; the reason for this was mainly that, as morning wears on at the peak, clouds move in, making visibility an issue.  But also, they wanted us to see the sunrise.  I’d seen a few of those in my day; I remember hiking once up Cadillac Mountain in Maine, the first place the sun hits in the entirety of North America; nothing like sunrise on a mountain, I thought.  This, it turned out, would be the understatement of a lifetime.  

So, midnight.  We got there in the late afternoon and ate, and did our usual routine of washing up, except this time we were to prepare for bed early — as early as we could, which wasn’t all that early, considering we were going to be awakened by our beloved mother hen, Moto, at 11 PM (yes, PM).  I think I slept maybe an hour or two.  “Anticipation” doesn’t begin to cover it.  

The weather had been getting progressively colder, as you might imagine, but for this night we were solemnly instructed by Tumaini to wear ALL of the layers of clothing we’d brought.  For me, these layers consisted of 1) Under Armour T-shirt and underpants as a base-layer, 2) thermals for my legs, 3) fleece for my legs and long-sleeved Under-Armour thin jacket for my upper body, 4) hiking pants for my legs and fleece for my torso, 5) one more layer of synthetic something (remember, “cotton kills” — hypothermia was decidedly NOT on the menu!) for my upper body that I called my “Patagonia blue cloud”, because it was super light yet surprisingly warm (“Patagonia” is the company that makes it), and 5) rain gear for the whole body as an outer layer, mainly for wind purposes.  I’m really lucky in that I’d never tested my rain jacket to see if it would fit with the 647 layers of crap under it, so I breathed a sigh of releif when it worked and I could zip the thing up.  Well, “breathed” is relative, considering I looked like the Michelin Man, but still.  

Also, up until this point, our Camelbaks (brand name for a large bladder of water that many hikers, including myself, carried, usually in our backpacks, as close to our bodies as possible so as to prevent the water from freezing) had not encountered any serious freezing threat, but we were told to watch it on summit night; the trick is — in addition to keeping it close to your body — to blow hot breath back into the hose after you sip, in order to prolong the inevitable freezing for that much longer.  With temperatures at the peak reaching -15 degrees (fahrenheit), you can bet I took this seriously.  Without water, on the most taxing leg of the journey, you were finished.  

Tumaini gathered us in the tent after we were awakened at 11 PM and explained all of this to us during a meal of, well, I can’t even remember at this point; I just remember that we’d eaten a matter of only a few hours ago, before our scant amount of sleep, but because of the nature of the trek ahead, we were going to need every ounce of energy we could get, so they were feeding us again.  As it turns out, I’m glad they did.

As always, Tumaini was very earnest with his instructions; though he could joke around at times, the nature of his job — namely, preventing large numbers of people from dying each year while simultaneously somehow providing them with both a “good time” AND lasting memories of a major undertaking — dictated the utmost seriousness at its core, and this was in fullest evidence tonight, our last meal before the final, and most difficult, ascent.  He explained everything in detail and managed to iterate all the most important points of what we were to do and what we were not to do while simultaneously comforting us and encouraging us (really, the man is a saint AND a genius, and I’m not sure at all that I could do his job with an iota of the effectiveness, tact, and warmth that he did).  We chatted nonchalantly for awhile, alternately hiding and displaying our nervousness and excitement.  This was GOING TO HAPPEN.  In a matter of minutes!

Finally, Michelin-Manned (and -Womened) up, we were led from the tent.  Crunch, the gravel under our feet.  Gleam, the stars in the sky.  Oh wait:  those points of light were the headlamps of the host of hikers already before us on the path.  Have I mentioned that this is — though difficult — kind of a tourist thing?  Yeah, there was a bunch of people.  I was reminded, looking up at the zigzags of light on the switchbacks up the trail ahead, of that scene in “Field of Dreams”, that Kevin Costner movie where he gets a vision to build a baseball field in his Iowa backyard, and all these ghosts of famous players come to play, and people from all over the place hear about it and come to see — and there’s one scene where the camera pans out from the field, with its bright, sodium-arc lights, and you see crisscrosses and switchbacks of lines of lines of headlights from cars from miles and miles around, larger and longer as the camera pulls back, all waiting to get their chance to experience their dreams.  This comparison would prove more apt than I could have imagined.

We began walking.  “Pole, pole”, the Tanzanians say — “slowly, slowly”.  This had been said many times along the way, because if you were stupid and tried to do too much too soon, because of elevation, you would pay the price.  But it was especially pertinent tonight.  4,000 feet in 6 hours may not sound like much — or maybe it does, I don’t know — but it’s no joke.  Step by step, we climbed rock at a glacial pace, with seemingly hundreds (I didn’t count) of other hikers, switchback after switchback, blowing back into our Camelbaks, occasionally encountering ice anyway, freaking out because of that, then getting past it (either because of the ice breaking up or one of the porters generously offering up one of their own insulated bottles for us to use) and moving on, one foot in front of the other.  Trudge, trudge, glorious, weary trudge.  We would joke around, when we felt like joking, with the other hikers — “Are we there yet?” proved the most popular, and it’s living proof that, the more tired you are, the funnier even the most tired things seem, so we all laughed as unreservedly as our energy reserves allowed.  And we kept walking.

The music in my head, the ever-present music, began with an eight-bar segment of Mozart’s 25th piano concerto, the glorious and lyrical second theme of the first movement, repeated in a loop at whatever rhythm my step dictated, because all was at the mercy of sheer physicality at this point, and not the other way around, as in a workout at a gym where you’d adjust your movements or pace to the movement and pace of whatever song happened upon your actual iPod.  No: my inner iPod operated sheerly at the whim of whatever my legs were doing.  

We would stop every now and then, either to let others pass us or to take a snack break in the dark, and the criss-crosses of headlamps ahead of us seemed to stretch on unfathomably forever, as daunting to me as a thing ever could be, and yet I had no thought of giving up.  People have given up; I’d heard it.  Even some we were passing on the path seemed to be in a state of worse-for-wear, stopped over to the side, and I overheard on one or two occasions the words “turn back”, once even in French.  But we kept going.  The piece of music which lifted me out of my darkest hour, when even I had the fleeting — fleeting — thought of, “will I make it?”, the one which helped me put one “pole-pole” foot in front of the other with the utmost purpose and care, was the indomitable monument of music by J. S. Bach:  his Chaconne for solo violin, from the D minor suite.  

The Chaconne carried me for most of the last hour; Mozart died away at some point and was replaced by the most fundamental force of all western music, the one at whose grave and memory all composers after have worshiped:  Bach.  This piece is like climbing a cathedral, which, in some very real sense, it felt like I was doing.  Not the whole Chaconne, mind you; just, as everything else on the trip, four or eight or sixteen bars shuttling constantly back and forth like a loom of life (and only the major section, for some reason, and my brain wanted it in C major instead of D major; way to go, brain!  Random, but I went with it...) in my head as I sweated through my underlayers and froze more and more on my outer layers, including the two pairs of gloves I’d been advised to wear.  (There was not even the remotest thought of getting on my phone for photos or any other reason; this was me and the elements and Bach and my feet, only.)

Finally we got word that we were almost there.  How “almost”, we wondered?  (I can’t recall, no matter how vivid this part of the trip still is to me even this many months later, if any of us actually asked this of our guides/porters or not.)  About a half-hour, we were assured, or told out of the clear blue sky, although the sky wasn’t blue yet.  

We reached Stella Point — the point at which one has technically “done it” without actually reaching the highest point on the mountain (Uhuru Peak) — just before sunrise.  Stella Point is 18,871 feet high; Uhuru is 19,340.  We hadn’t actually discussed whether we would go on from Stella (after “making it”) to Uhuru, but after resting for a minute (you couldn’t stop for too long up there, because even with all those layers on, your limbs would start to lock up; you had to keep moving, even if it was just in place), I noticed that our group was heading onward.

I was more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.  Bone-tired.  Yet I never had any thought of stopping.  I also didn’t have a concrete thought of going on; my only concrete thought at that point was that, gee, it would probably be really nice to die right about now!  Or, if not exactly “nice”, at least inevitable.  But once I saw the others going on, I thought, welp, I guess we’re going on, and I followed them. 

Like I said, it was still dark when we got to Stella; for some reason, even after all this effort and exhaustion and preparation and anticipation, I was mildly disappointed.  Not hugely — after all, we did surmount a huge amount to get to this point, and that was not to be discounted — but I remember feeling less elation than sheer drop-dead tiredness.  Yet, I marched on, toward Uhuru.  

Then a strange thing happened:  as I walked toward the others, something began to change in the sky.  At a certain point, I realized what was going on, and I looked behind me. 

I could see the curvature of the Earth, and it glowed a soft pink-violet.  I couldn’t comprehend it; all I could do was stare, even in the freezing cold.  But what I was seeing lifted me so completely out of that, off the tether of my tired body, that I forgot for a moment where I was.  I may have forgotten to breathe.

It was as if I were staring into God’s furnace, and it was breathing the day into red-violet being along the entire horizon.  All I could do was behold it. Tears sprang spontaneously to my eyes.  I couldn’t move.  Have you ever seen something so beautiful that you almost felt that you didn’t deserve to see it?  This was like that.  It gave me strength.  Every vestige of exhaustion, every thought of not needing to reach Uhuru, vanished in that gentle light.  

As I trudged forward, I would occasionally turn around and look back at the brighter-and-brighter horizon, and it renewed me — even while, incredibly, bringing fresh tears — each time.  Let me tell you, it’s decidedly inconvenient for liquid to come out of your eyes at -15ºF.  But it was just necessary.  Sometimes, it’s just necessary.  Words break down, and only the galvanized, battered, beatified body remains, leaking salty truth into the wind.  The sunrise literally made me finish. 

And the best part?  As if that wasn’t.  Hahaha.  Well.  Yes, we reached the sign where everyone gets their picture taken, the sign that says you’ve reached Uhuru Peak at 19,340 feet (actually it’s written in meters, but what are METERS? says the American, lolz).  I got my iPhone out, after briefly wondering whether Steve Jobs had reckoned with this kind of cold in his design, and risked my fingers freezing off in my fingerless gloves for just long enough to take a couple of videos.  The sun was directly behind us at this point, fully supporting our having made it.  But the best part, the best part:

Remember the two brothers and their friend, Philip and Sam and Al?  The septegenarians we kept running into along the way, who would randomly joke about how they weren’t sure they’d make it?

They were up there, too.  

Descent, or: "Scree, Forrest, Scree!"

In all, I don’t think we stayed up there for more than about 45 minutes; it was just too cold.  We got our picture taken at the sign, and then then a strange thing happened:  we all sort of randomly started leaving on our own, with one or two porters each, not as a group.  We didn’t even question it; we just went.  When a fresh-faced young porter came up to me and asked me if I was ready to go down, I just said “yes”, he said “follow me”, and I went.  I did ask, as I trailed him, “shouldn’t we wait for the others?”, and he just smiled and said, “not necessary”.  I was too inspired and exhausted to argue.  It must have been that combination that enabled me to stomach the Red Bull energy drink (which substances I HATE under normal circumstances) that he all but forced me to guzzle.  I supposed, as I grimaced, that — in this situation, anyway — porter knew best, so I swilled it as quickly as I could under his approving gaze.

Now would be a good time to talk about scree.  What is scree? you might ask.  Scree can suck it.  But as that’s not exactly a helpful definition — or even, technically, a definition — I shall elaborate.  

One of the blessings of summiting in the dark (and possibly one of the reasons — aside from the sunrise and the possibility of clouds moving in later in the morning, which I mentioned — that they have you do that) is that you can’t see beyond what your headlamp illuminates, which tends to be just the trail ahead of you.  You can’t really see off the sides of the trail, i.e. off the edge of the mountain. I imagine it would feel much more daunting (not to mention possibly immobilizing) if you could.  

Coming down, however, it was light, and I could see everything.  Oh, I thought, it’s a good thing I didn’t step too far to the left when I was clambering over that particular boulder on the way up, because right now I’d be a pile of bruised blood-bones 6,000 feet down.  Wheeee.  (And similar thoughts.)

There was scree — the loose stones and gravel that covers most of the mountainside  — but on the way up it was easier to gain purchase on it, both because of having to lean slightly forward and having to walk so slowly.  Still, occasionally I would slip and have an “oh shiiiii-” moment, but it was fairly easy to right myself again.  

Now, the scree that covers the path is a slightly friendlier animal than that which lies to either side of the path, or way over to the side of the entire area where the switchbacks were.  On the path, it’s smaller, and, because it’s well-trodden, there’s less of it.  Why does the scree off the path even matter? you might wonder; why even mention it? 

Well, because you don’t go down the mountain on the path.  Yes, you read that correctly.  When I nonchalantly asked the porter where the path was, I wasn't sure if it was his limited English or my general exhaustion that detected the words “scree-surfing”, which caused me to laugh, but then before I knew it, he had jumped feet-first off the just-newly-visible path and basically slid down to the next level of path.  This seemed dangerous and possibly foolhardy, but also fun, so, with a level of “fuck it” that only a sheerly exhausted, mind-free body can manage, I followed suit.

I don’t ski.  Or, well, I did; once, about half my life ago.  To say I was “experienced” at it would be an exaggeration of utmost generosity.  I’ve also surfed; twice.  Still a generous term to apply.  

So, as I hurled myself off the mountainside in what I hoped was a controlled way, I just had to hope that my body would remember what to do.  That first drop was fine; I stopped several times, because, unlike surfing or skiing, the material you’re negotiating is small rocks, so let’s just say it doesn’t quite compare in terms of smoothness.  Still, when I reached the beaming porter — I couldn’t tell if he was so jovial because he was proud of me for having not died just then, or because he was just happy in general, or because he was Kilimanjaro’s own Forrest Gump — he said it takes half the time to go down this way, and I vaguely recollected Tumaini having mentioned something about scree-surfing early on in one of our briefings but blocking it out because what the hell is that.  

Anyway, eventually — as in regular, non-rock, plain-ol’ water surfing — I became rather adept it, by which I mean I didn’t faceplant even once.  I maybe became even more adept at the scree than at actual surfing, because, though I’ve done the latter more times, the motivation for regular surfing tends to be more along the lines of “WHEEEEEEEEE!”, whereas the motivation for riding the scree is closer to “let’s not fly off the side of the mountain and be in the local newspaper tomorrow!”  I guess one learns in a hurry when the potential for death is greater than the potential for fun.  That said, at some point in the nearly three-hour descent, I realized I was, in fact, having fun; your body “gets it” after awhile, and, while I did still have to occasionally stop ski-surfing for a larger-than-usual rock in my way, I managed eventually to find a flow of relative smoothness and follow that down in the wake of my sunnily-dispositioned porter.  I’d catch up to him here and there and we’d have a water and/or protein-bar break together and just look around at the vastness.  I asked him if climbing the mountain ever got old.  After a moment of hesitation, he suddenly understood what I meant and said, “no.”  

I looked out at Kibo’s brother peak, Mawenzi, with the morning sun gleaming off its snow, and had no trouble believing him.    

Coda:  Sleep, Song, Farewells 

I landed back at base camp somewhere around 11 AM, tired to my core, too tired even to be giddy.  I’d caught sight of some of the others here and there at various distances up the mountain behind me during the surf-fest, so I was the first to arrive back.  I don’t remember much about that morning from sheer exhaustion; the others drifted back in clumps, and I’m pretty sure we were fed (Moto and some of the other porters had remained behind for just this reason, as well as to pack up camp), after which I dropped like a log onto my sleeping bag and slept the sleep of the stupid for maybe an hour and a half. 

We got up (the others had basically done the same as I), had another meal (one does eat a lot on the mountain; have I mentioned?), and then we left for our final camp, Mweka, back in the forest.  

Down and down we went.  Six days it had taken us to summit; the descent would take only two.  It was a blur, both from general tiredness and being blissed-out.  It was all we could talk about.  “Did you see the sunrise?”  Did I see the sunrise.  It was still lighting me from within.  It is still lighting me from within.  As I write these words, I am brought back there with astounding immediacy.  The wind, the cold, the Bach, the sweat, and the light.  It will live with me forever.  

But that afternoon, on the descent to Mweka, we had been released from some degree of sublimity and into general chattiness.  We talked about the rocks and plants; it hadn’t gotten old.  We stopped at a kind of way-station/shelter, where we encountered one of the porters from another group lying in the bushes with some kind of stomach thing going on.  We tried to get him some help, and did, and left there not quite knowing if he was going to be okay, but knowing, at least, that he was in capable hands; more capable, in terms of healing, than ours.  We kept walking.

Mweka hid the sky with a canopy of leaves, but, oddly, the trees that belonged to those leaves were no more than maybe 12 feet high.  Sun broke through here and there, especially around the registration building and bathroom.  We pitched our tents (well, our stalwart porters did) with untold numbers of other grateful, weary climbers.  Dusk arrived.  

The porters and guides from a combination of different trekking companies, including our own (Tumaini and Moto and other familiar faces were present), then gathered together in the middle of a grassy area with no trees overhead and proceeded to present the random gathering of hikers with a song.  We didn’t know what was going on at first, but Tumaini came to the front and explained that they had gotten this little number (well, he didn’t say “number”; he may be many things, but he’s not Dave Brubeck) together as an ode to our success at having climbed the mountain.  Their celebration song included a form of dancing which looked suspiciously like “crumping” (look it up, those of you who aren’t teenagers; I work part-time in a high school, so I’m at least partially abreast of these kinds of trends), making me wonder about the connections between folk- and urban- and whatever-you’d-call-it kinds of dance, and whether there’s a genetic memory associated with it or not.  Anyway, at that moment, we simply stood around and enjoyed this gift to us, after they had already given us so much.  It was completely unnecessary but wholly appreciated.  In a way, it brought the whole experience full-circle: everything after that — our evening meal, further rest and emotional coming-down, bedtime, and the rest of the hike back to the gate the next day — was coda.  

One moment of note took place after we’d descended back into the rainforest the following morning — I’d managed not to damage any of my items the entire time thus far (which isn’t such a big feat for me, generally, being that I’m not exactly oafish, but still — it was rough going in parts!), but it had rained heavily the previous afternoon, and the trails were treacherous with mud.  We were all being extra careful, but I did one funny move and BAM — I slipped and fell backwards, landing on one of the two Nalgene bottles I had in a waist-pack on either side (luckily, or I might have broken a rib), shattering the bottle and breaking one of my trekking poles.  Because of this, I was ready to throw them both out when I got back (of what use is one trekking pole?  I’m not MacGyver...), but Tumaini said they could fix it, so instead I opted to donate them to the porters’ union, or whatever they’re called; they take used (and new, if people feel like donating) items that would be useful for the climb.  Even though the trekking companies outfit their porters and guides nicely, it seemed, every little thing counts, so I was happy to make some small contribution.  

And then we were back at the gate, though a different one from where we’d started.  We checked in with gaggles of other climbers from all over the place, so that the park registry would be clear on the fact that we hadn’t tumbled to our doom or gotten that really bad altitude-related medical thing. (I believe it’s called “brain-explodia”.) (Possibly this is not true.)  The sun was bright, and we did not chew sugar-cane on the way back in the bus with the porters and guides.  We did, however, stop for what is apparently a traditional “celebration meal” at a restaurant in the town of Moshi, where we had “hamburgers” (sort of) (I mean, it contained meat) and beer and received our certificates of having climbed the mountain.  There was much handshaking and hugging and general merriment, even though we’d all only had one (or so) beer(s).  (I think I might have had a coke, but my memory is foggy on that; I want to say I didn’t, because of the whole third-world ice/diarrhea/possible-meltage-of-all-internal-organs thing, but who knows.  Possibly Ingrid, because journaling.  I’ll have to ask.  Anyway, it was a good final meal before being once again dropped off at Arumeru River Lodge.)

Back at the lodge, we said our goodbyes and karibu-sanas to Tumaini and Moto and the other guides and porters — or, well, at least the remaining ones who hadn’t disembarked in town to go back to their homes — and took many photos and generally hugged much.  We were finished.  The bus carrying the purveyors and facilitators of this profound, grueling, fun, adventurous, life-changing experience trundled down the rutted dirt driveway of the Arumeru River Lodge, leaving a wake of dust and memory.  

Codetta:  Caribou Sauna 

Even now, closer to a year later (have I mentioned how long it’s taken to write this?  Your best bet is to just make up a number when I talk about how long it’s been), the memories haven’t cleared; or, well, the major ones haven’t, anyway.  I try not to be the kind of person who holds onto things too tightly; the experience, itself, was more important than grasping onto single scenes and thoughts from it, except for the occasion of this writing, which hopefully has painted a picture.  If one day I’m able to remember fewer concrete things about the trip, I know at least that its net effect upon my entire being will still be there, in the way that every new experience gets woven into the tapestry of your life, even if that weaving doesn’t come with the power of explanation.  It thrums in the deep, lighting your step, widening your view.  For that, I am grateful to my new friend Kilimanjaro.  I hope I get to see you again, but if not, I thank you for shaking up my world for those eight beautiful, arduous, inspiring, harrowing, exquisite days.   Karibu sana.   

Outtakes (With Some Sociopolitical Overtones, in Which I Attempt Not to Sound Like a Jerk)

—I didn’t wind up using the Steri-Pen for sterilizing water, because the company provided treated water already.  I used it once, though, anyway, just because I’d bought the damn thing, so I was By God going to USE it, almost as a way of saying “so THERE!” to my wallet.  Humph!  I’ll sterilize the crap out of this already-fine water, and that’s all there is to it!  Anyway, it made me feel momentarily useful, even if it accomplished nothing more than turning my water momentarily purple.  

—After the climb, Ingrid, Christina and I went on a three-day safari at three different national parks (Natacha and Stephanie went on their merry ways, having opted out of this particular part of the package), which is where the copious pictures of animals I posted on facebook came from.  It was cool — the closest I’d ever gotten to a pride of lions without a cage between us — but honestly, after what felt like the most sacred expenditure on the mountain, the safari basically amounted to “Look at all the white people!  Oh, and an ostrich.”  The most memorable part of that was when our car broke down and our guide/driver had to get out and figure out what was wrong; a couple of Masai (one of the local indigenous tribes) men approached the vehicle, and apparently they speak (usually) neither Swahili nor English; he started poking his head into the windows and muttering at us and our strained, please-don’t-whack-us-with-that-giant-stick-you’re-carrying-and-take-our-passports-and-maybe-our-kidneys smiles.  Tension was alleviated slightly when he whipped out a flip-type cell phone from under his lustrous (if well-used) red blanket/robe.  We couldn’t tell whether he was actually using it or not; he just appeared to be treating it as a compass or something, occasionally muttering into it and pointing it in various directions.  I began to wonder if the Masai had a secret version of AAA.  Alas, we never got to find out; he and his mate receded into the distance and our guide fixed whatever was wrong with the tire, and we were off before robed reinforcements could arrive.

—About the particular awareness that I mentioned very early on about becoming strikingly aware of how different you look from everyone else in an area, and how it can have the potential to be unpleasant.  This manifested most obviously in the towns we stopped in.  Literally, the moment the vehicle was stopped — either for gas or for the driver to go into a place to get some random thing he needed — we were surrounded by people trying to get you to buy things.  The guides called them “flies”; even the guidebooks talk about it.  I initially laughed at the name, but when it happened for the first time, I became acutely aware of just how appropriate that image is.  

See, because you’re white, they know you’re not from there; because you’re white, they also know that you’re (comparatively) rich; therefore, they surround you and try to get you to buy things from them.  I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I am by even one person (anywhere, of any ethnicity) trying to sell me something (I hate salesmen as a general rule; not personally, but in the abstract), let alone when just the color of your skin marks you as a target.  This went way beyond empathy and out the other side, to get-me-the-hell-out-of-here.  There was never any violence, but you could sense the disappointment; you could sense the perceived inequality.  I’d already gotten a bunch of souvenirs in the shops our driver had taken us to, so I wasn’t going to buy anything else; lack of room in my luggage was one consideration, plus just the general overwhelm of being in a large group of people who WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU; I mean, being in large groups of people is bad enough, but it’s magnified a thousand times when they WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU, and even more so if they think it’s  a matter of fact that you have the SOMETHING THEY WANT just based on what you look like.  Anyway, that happened a few times, and it still leaves sort of a bad taste in my mouth.  Until the gap between rich and poor all over the place is narrowed considerably, I’m afraid that’s going to be a thing.  

Meanwhile, though, the flavor of the overall trip remains exceedingly positive, and I certainly don’t fault the locals for feeling (and acting) toward us tourists the way they do.  It’s just weird to feel like your hands are tied, you know?  I wasn’t intending to end this on a political note, but...well, there you go!


The long and short of it is, I’d recommend Kilimanjaro to anyone.  It doesn’t matter your age, so much, just that you’re generally fit; look at Al, Philip, and Sam.  Those guys in their 70s accomplished it, and without any grousing; they took their time, but they did it.  So did I.  That part still kind of amazes me:  even now, closer to a year later, sometimes I think about the trip and it seems like a dream, or like a particularly vivid thing I’d read; but then the fog clears, and I realize that I actually did that — I did it — and I am back on that mountaintop in the pink-violet dawn again, tears of beauty and gratitude freezing to my upturned face, heart full of light.  I did it; it is with me even now, whenever I think about it.   I can only wish everyone that type of experience.  

I guess the moral of the story is: don't be shy about commenting on your friends' Facebook statuses; you never know where they might lead!  You could set foot on the face of God because of Mark Zuckerberg.  Stranger things have happened.  

Now go climb a mountain.