Hail Seitan

We have chosen my house to conjure the demon.

Allow me first to set the stage. My bungalow is buffered from the road by a waist-high stone wall, then an entrenchment of stoic elms. A walkway lined with river stones winds its way to my arched front door. Inside, my decor could be described as Adirondack Occult. Taxidermied jackalopes, deer and otter watch over the room with knowing eyes. Most of the furniture—bookshelves, end tables, and lamps, among others—are constructed from denizens of the forest: birch, antlers, feathers, pine.

I have dimmed the lights so when Matilda—the first of the others to arrive—steps into the doorway, she looks around and purrs gamely, “How necromantic, Betty.” I giggle and sweep her inside.

Matilda is tall, soft-spoken with a dry wit; the type whom, when she finally speaks, people listen. She is a green witch—not the color (for the uninitiated), but one who spends her days aligning with the Earth goddess, mastering the use of herbs, flowers, oils. It was with great ceremony that she sacrificed a lamb for the evening’s liturgy.

Two shakes later and Linda is at the door. She is petite, always wearing leather, boots, piercings, and not a stitch that isn’t black. Linda, a staunch feminist, lauds her relationship with The Morrigan, a powerful Irish goddess associated with fate and death. Linda joins me in the kitchen while Matilda begins painting a triangle on the floor with the blood of the aforementioned lamb.

Me? Well, I am what is known as a Kitchen Witch, and as I see it, just because we are summoning the mighty and awful Bileth tonight, there’s no need to do it on an empty stomach. And with that I begin slicing a baguette for bruschetta.

The three of us are having a nice gab when there comes a knock on the door. Before anyone can answer it, it opens by itself. George stands on the porch at a foreboding six-foot-two, long hair parted neatly down the middle, hands at his sides. His head is angled downward, and eyes face-forward; eyebrows arcing over his best evil glare. George is a devotee of the dark arts.

Anyone could tell you: George takes things very seriously. His arrival zaps the levity from the room more effectively than finding a chunk in your glass of milk.

Our coven has five members; five being the chosen number, as George likes to tell it. He says that we have been hand-picked by the dark lord to coincide with the points on the inverted star. We are the living, breathing pentagram, he says. What he doesn’t say is that we had a sixth member who —despite his protestations— moved to Albany to join a Widespread Panic cover band. That part of our history has been redacted. Because we are all serious witches here. As George tells it.

He enters solemnly, uttering a greeting in Latin, “Salve Malefici.” Linda is at the sink with the mortar and pestle grinding juniper berries into a rich purple paste. She rolls her eyes and scoffs.

“Hello George, how are you?” I say affably. I often find myself trying to counterbalance his intensity, which can be suffocating.

“All be well, praise the dark lord. Tonight will be a night for the ages.”

He glances behind me and sees the food on my cutting board. His brow furrows.

“Are the…preparations proceeding according to schedule? We must be ready to summon Bileth, praise his vileness, when the blood moon hangs—“

“—Lowest in the sky. We know. We’re not stupid,” finishes Linda. She and George have history. They dated for a year or so and it did not end well. After some time—and plenty of healing spells—they agreed to remain in the coven. Well into our secondary bottle of dandelion wine one night, Linda confessed that she had performed a voodoo hex on his crotch.

“I was aiming for his balls,” she whispered to me, and we fell apart with laughter. Since then, I’ve become aware of him scratching when no one is looking.

George busies himself about the scene, supervising Matilda’s progressing blood-triangle on the floor of my house, dimming the lights, peering out the window for Ronaldo. He approaches the butcher block where I am scooping a diced tomato mixture onto slices of toasted bread.

“Betty, are you using our holy basil…for your bruschetta?”

“I just used a little, George. There’s more than enough for the ritual.”

“Well. I hope you haven’t been using the bolene for your appetizers.”

“Hors d’oeuvres. And no, George, I haven’t. Linda’s cutting the herbs with the bolene,” nodding at the white-handled, crescent-bladed knife that Linda is using to mince clover.

There is a rap at the front door. George crosses the room quickly, throwing open the door to reveal the round shape of Ronaldo. Ronaldo carries his ample girth through the threshold, looking like he had thrown his robes on in the car. A white shopping bag from Michael’s hangs from his meaty hand.

“Hey guys, sorry I’m late. Rusty scored a goal but they lost in overtime.” He holds the bag aloft, glancing at George. “Got the candles. All black.”

“Really, Ronaldo? Michael’s?” Arms folded, George stares at the bag with disdain. “We’re summoning one of the greatest demons under Lucifer himself, and you bought our candles from Michael’s?”

“They were on sale,” Ronaldo perkily, dropping the bag next to the triangle. Ronaldo seems to have an enviably immunity to George. Ronaldo is…well, Ronaldo calls himself a witch but sometimes we think he’s one of us because his wife kicked him out of the house, insisting he make more friends.

Ronaldo beelines his way to me, eyes on the food. “Betty, whatever you’re making smells fantastic.”

“It sure does, Betty,” chimes Linda. “The holy basil really was the perfect touch.” Matilda snickers. She has finished the triangle and starts trimming the candle wicks.

“Thanks guys. And please help yourselves. There are vegan chicken nuggets in the oven. You can hardly tell they’re not meat.”

I can see George is frustrated. I bring an olive branch in the form of bruschetta.

“George,” I stretch his name out placatingly. “Have one.” He eyes the food warily, considering. “We can still summon Bileth—all praises be unto him—with some snacks in our tummy.”

Reluctantly, he reaches out and steers one into his mouth. His face softens and a flicker of appreciation crosses it.

“Thanks Betty,” he manages, through a mouthful. He doesn’t notice the extra ingredients I have sprinkled on his piece. As he swallows I smile warmly at him, comforted by the fact that soon he will be less of an annoyance. George can be a formidable witch, but underneath it all he is fearful and controlling. We don’t need that tonight. Along with tomatoes and basil, on the way to his stomach is kava, valerian, and ten milligrams of kitty xanex.

George clears his throat.

“Witches of the coven, allow me to address you.” Matilda puts down her scissors. Ronaldo takes a seat. Linda wipes off the bolene and turns to face George.

“If I seem… overly eager, maybe even…overbearing,” he glances at Linda. “Accept my apologies. It’s just that we are bringing one of the great kings of the underworld into human form,” He looks down, taking a dramatic pause before continuing. “The notoriety—both spiritual and worldly—this could bestow on our coven could be limitless. Which, speaking for myself, makes tonight perhaps the most important—and challenging—thing I’ve done since I chose the left-hand path–”

A loud fart emits from Ronaldo.

“Sorry, George. Too much chili at the soccer game. Please, go on.”

– – –

The door opens, letting light into the dark room.

A 20-something man lies on the bed, naked. He is wiry, tanned, peppered with tats.

“He’s skinny,” remarks Ronaldo.

“Compared to you,” says George.

Ronaldo turns to me. “How’d you get him, Betty?”

“I roofied his Kombucha. Followed him home.”

Mouth slightly ajar, Ronaldo gazes at me with newfound admiration.

“You did well, Betty,” George musters. “All right, Ronaldo. You get his head and I’ll get his legs.”

“To work, Patriarchy,” calls out Linda from the kitchen. “Remember Ronaldo, lift with your legs.”

“And me, Linda? What should I lift with?” George calls in her direction as Ronaldo fumbles with the boy’s torso.

“Definitely your back.”

The two men haul the boy into the living room and lower him onto the triangle, which is now dry. It converges to a point just below his genitals. Matilda begins applying sandalwood oil to the boy’s wrists, the nape of his neck, temples, the soles of his feet.

Ronaldo turns to me. “You don’t think he’ll wake up, do you?”

“He shouldn’t. I gave him another dose this morning.”

Ronaldo pops a vegan chicken nugget in his mouth as he regards the limp body on the floor.

“Mmm. What’s this made of, tofu or something?”

“Seitan.”

Ronaldo cocks his head, looking at me. “Satan?”

Seitan. S-E-I-T-A-N. Seitan.”

“Huh. I thought you were saying ‘Satan’ in an Australian accent.”

As is often the case with Ronaldo, I feel no need to respond.

Matilda and Linda place small mounds of herbs into shallow bowls around the room.

They light each one and tamp it once it catches, leaving a smoldering offering; the smoke of myrrh and basil and eucalyptus and desert sage all mingle in the air above, writhing like lazy ghosts.

I take a bowl from the kitchen and kneel next to the boy. I part his lips with my fingers, then spoon a pungent quenelle of hornwort and nightshade paste delicately onto his tongue. I gently press the bottom of his jaw and his mouth closes.

“That should be it,” I say. The preparations are complete. One by one, our coven kneels in a circle around the triangle. George leads the ceremony, beginning with a prayer to the Big Man Downstairs himself, Lucifer, asking permission to evoke one of his mightiest demons. Then for the main act: the invocation directly to Bileth, for which George puts on his most dramatic voice, sinking an octave and putting on a slight British accent.

“Oh Bileth, great and frightful king, rider of pale horses and wearer of raven’s heed!”

George clears his throat again. I wonder if I ground the kitty xanex finely enough.

“Your arrival is announced by multitudes of trumpets, er, the long kind, from days of yore, not the Louis Armstrong kind. Symphonies and all kinds of music could only be so lucky to announce your presence. Ruler of 85 legions, which, incidentally, is more than anyone else we could find in our Grimoire…”

I open one of my eyes to see what’s going on with George. He seems to be veering off-script. Linda is smiling ruefully though her eyes are still closed.

“You were first invoked by Ham, son of Noah. Noah, like, of the bible. And um,” At this point George is beginning to stammer.

“We thought about evoking Astaroth but read that his breath is awful…the actual words in the grimoire were ‘intolerable fetor,’ so we are so grateful to have chosen you, I mean, if you will choose us, we invite you to, I mean—“

“Offer the boy!” I whisper urgently, as something is happening. The air seems to have taken on weight. The smile has vanished from Linda’s lips. We all feel it—something is trying to enter the room.

George rights himself. “Er, yes, we humbly offer this vessel to be your host if you will have him, great Bileth. We would be so pleased, as we are your servants, now and forever.”

I open one eye again to find George covered in sweat, trembling mildly.

It starts off small, but there comes a vibration from an atomic level, as if the particles in the air are colliding with each other. It grows, and I can feel the hair on my arms stand at attention.

“Something’s happening!” Ronaldo whispers.

“Quiet!” George hisses.

A gust of wind whips the room for just an instant, and then everything is still again.

Collectively, our eyes open.

The body of the boy moves. Its muscles twitch, and he lurches, then falls back. For a moment I wonder if he’s seizing. All jaws are slack as we wait for a sign to come.

The boy coughs. We gasp. He coughs again, then again, then he tilts his head to the side and violently ejects the paste I had inserted in his mouth.

“Bleccch!” is Bileth’s first word. He continues to spit, and his eyes open slowly, testing the light. We all wait, occasionally glancing at each other. Finally his retching subsides into throat-clearing. George breaks our silence.

“B-Bileth? The almighty dark king? Is that you?”

“Tis I, summoner. What manner of foulness hast thou smited my tongue with?”

All eyes turn to me. It is my turn to stammer.

“I just f-followed what it said in the grimoire! Hornroot and nightshade?”

“Were you trying to poison me, woman?”

I feel the blood rush to my face as I hope his question is rhetorical. “Never, your lowness!”

He spits a few more times on my floor. His indignance about the taste in his mouth seems to fade. We breathlessly await his next move.

“In spite of the soul I just devoured,” he muses, to the air. “I daresay I am rather peckish,” he levels his focus onto the coven to see who will oblige him.

We all leap into action, looking for some food to offer. Ronaldo grabs the plate of vegan nuggets, sticks it underneath the nose of Bileth, who eyes them with instinctive disdain.

“What manner of sustenance is this? More poison, I wonder?”

“It’s Satan,” replies Ronaldo.

Bileth’s locks a steely gaze onto Ronaldo. “Your non-sequitur takes liberty with the Lord’s name.”

“It’s made from wheat,” I blurt out. “I hope your host wasn’t gluten-free.”

As Bileth tries his first bite of veganism, we all try to get a grip. Our expectations have been shattered. A demon who…gets hungry? I mean, it doesn’t not make sense, since he’s in a human host, but Bileth, the mighty king of darkness…eating nuggets?

“I demand wine. For not only have you failed to brandish a silver ring on your right hand as homage to my greatness,” he turns to accuse George. “You summoned me with fear in your heart. Now placate me with wine or my smorgasbord of souls will continue with yours.”

George and I scramble to find a dusty bottle of pinot grigio in the cabinet, pouring him a glass, hoping he doesn’t mind that it is warm. He quaffs two and a half glasses, finally seeming pacified.

Matilda peeps up. “Dearest Bileth, how may we be of service to you further?”

Bileth takes another sip of wine before looking down his nose at Matilda.

“Well I could use some proper garb, lest I sit here any longer with you gawking at my loins.”

I retrieve the boy’s clothes, which I had folded and placed on the nightstand next to the bed. I deliver them to Bileth. He lifts the boy’s tattered t-shirt and proceeds to put it on backwards. As he slides it over his chest, it unfurls to read: Make America Queer Again. George looks at me. I shrug.

– – –

Whatever autonomy we expected Bileth to have, well, we were mistaken. We buy him clothes, food. We explain the use of soap, toilet paper and toothbrush. Sometimes he confuses them and we find him rubbing the bar of soap on his teeth, and let’s just say multiple toothbrushes are required before he cements the correct orifice they belong in.

Eventually we get Bileth a one-bedroom apartment nearby and enroll him into the local community college, where he majors in Women’s Studies.

“I will spread my evil seed faster this way.”

With every set of failing grades and each complaint from his professors, our hopes for the potential of Bileth crumble a bit more. Ironically, we have cursed ourselves—giving a needy demon a human form is proving to be nothing but trouble.

Next time our coven convenes, it is Linda who brassily broaches what’s been on all of our minds.

“I think we need to exorcise him.”

“What, like get him a gym membership?” Ronaldo asks.

“Goddamn it, Ronaldo,” snarls George. “Exorcise. With an ‘o.’ Like cast him out.”

“Oh,” registers Ronaldo.

“Maybe I could roofie one of those vegan nuggets I made. He seemed to like those.”

“Those were good.” Ronaldo pats his belly.

Linda turns to Matilda. “What do you say, Matty?”

“I never signed up to pay someone’s college tuition. I say we exorcise.”

“Ronaldo?”

“I’m okay with it. He’s mean. Meaner than George.”

“Speaking of…what about you,” Without looking at him, Linda tosses her head in George’s direction.

George’s visage is cloudy, his eyebrow juts like a shelf.

“I,” he begins, pauses. “I just thought it would be different.” For a moment the blowhard is nowhere to be found. In his place is a man, crestfallen.

Linda’s hand raises, stops halfway to George’s arm, hangs in mid-air, fingers moving slightly. “We all did.”

They look at each other for a moment before George speaks again.

“Whatever the coven decides, I support.”

Linda lowers her hand. “It’s settled then.”

I sigh. “Guess I’ll head back to the high school to pick up more roofies.”

A week later we are all sitting around the naked body that was once Bileth. Ronaldo is weeping. Matilda has passed out. We’re all covered in sweat.

We put clothes back on the boy, load him into Linda’s Honda Element, deposit him in front of the ER.

It is George who then hollers, “Step on it, Linda!”

Ronaldo hoots and yells, “Haul ass!”

Linda stomps the accelerator and we are thrown back in our seats, roaring with laughter. We all look at each other, and keep on laughing. For an instant all of our covenly disagreements are forgotten, and we are just five friends speeding away from the scene of a crime.

It’s definitely a moment of solidarity for our coven. But more likely it’s the cannabis oil I had poured all over the sandwiches I made for us earlier.

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The 8 Manifestations of Gordy Wright

Gordy scans the parking lot for his jeep, spots the orange Clemson Tigers sticker on his tailgate. He discovers that he has left his rag-top down from the night before, and his bucket seats have been showered with leaves, an late autumn offering of yellows and oranges. He opens the door and sweeps the leaves from his seat into the parking lot. Last night’s shots of Jameson are causing his head to throb. His jeep turns over willingly. Classic rock blares from the stereo.  With a wince he turns down the volume, takes a swig from a bottle of coffee, and slides it into the cup holder.

The air along highway 29 is cooling down, a premonition of winter. As he drives, the strip malls and chain restaurants of Spartanburg proper begin to thin out, the spaces between them growing with each green light he passes. Gordy pushes a button and the Rock Alternative station comes on, playing Don’t Stand So Close To Me by The Police. The sidewalk falls away and the road is flanked by woods, broken only by the occasional church, business, or claptrap house.

A large sign on his left announces that he’s arrived at the paper mill.  At the guard post he is waved in. He gives a lazy salute, upending the last of the coffee and tossing the bottle among the leaves on the passenger-side floor. He weaves his jeep through the sprawling plant, smokestacks jutting upward around him, their tops pouring jets of opaque gray into the sky. A crane towers dizzyingly to his left, dangling its load like a baby’s mobile. The sounds of industry encroach upon the radio’s volume until it is barely a whisper. Whistles, clanking, steam rushing from valves, a hammering against steel assault his hungover ears.

Gordy parks his jeep under the sign for D Wing, gets out. He looks up, judging the threat level of the impending clouds. He mutters “fuggit” and heads for the nearest building, leaving his ragtop down.

– – –

“Mr. Wright. The dream team is complete.” His supervisor, Donnie, stands with his perfect posture behind the day’s crew, who are sitting crowded around someone’s phone. He holds a mug that reads “Liberal Tears,” and grins at him beneath his mustache.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Gordy deadpans. He puts his lunch in the fridge and pours himself a cup of coffee. “The next 14 hours of my life are all yours.” Someone at the table groans.

“Gordy, you gotta see this.” Jeanine looks up with laughter in her eyes. She is one of the few locals he knows with the guts to proudly declare her love for the same sex. She has a tight, bleached-blonde crewcut and wears sleeveless shirts, exposing cultivated biceps adorned with copious amounts of tats. It is her phone that everyone is ogling. “Someone did a video of the top 10 most redneck towns in South Carolina. Hilarious. He based it on the number of gun stores, Wal-marts, bait shops, and the consumption of chewing tobacco.”

“My dad owns a bait shop,” Gordy mentions, to no response.

“All them towns are within 50 miles of here,” observes Lawrence with a mix of amusement, pride, and resentment. Lawrence is a proud Christian and family man. He tucks his plaid work shirts in and always wears a belt. It is not uncommon to find him preaching to a cornered millworker.

“Yeah, it’s like a redneck Bermuda triangle,” Jeanine snarks.

“I dunno, man,” Dig Dug Dan pipes in. “Guy sounds like a queer to me.” Jeanine shoots him a look. “No offense Jeanine.” Dan had moved down from West Virginia to find work. From decades of pack-a-day smoking his voice comes out as a slow, grating croak. There is a running joke about him being voted Most Likely to Act in a Stop Smoking Commercial where he has to say something sad through one of those robot voice boxes once his larynx is removed.

“Now now, Dan,” intones Donnie, slurping the coffee from his lip hair. “We here are an equal opportunity employer. We can’t be saying things like that. Especially around Jeanine.”

Jeanine snatches her phone up, breaking the attention of the group. “Whatever. So what’s the deal with the 14 hours, Donnie Boy?”

“We got a big shipment going out. Guys over in processing dragged their feet and now we have to pick up the slack. We got 100 rolls to get out tonight.”

Dig Dug Dan whistles through his teeth.

“It ain’t nothing y’all haven’t done before. I know you can do it. Besides, after y’all hit eight, it’s time-and-a-half all the way, baby.”

A murmur of consent ripples through the crew.

– – –

To a newbie, most paper mills are surrounded—sometimes for miles—by a pungent odor of rotten eggs. This is caused by the heat and chemicals used to reduce wood chips to pulp, which releases sulfur into the air. To Gordy though, this smell has come to feel almost familial. He is so used to it that when he goes to the bar directly from work he is momentarily surprised when people recoil from the odor which has permeated his clothes.

What he has not gotten used to, however, is the temperature on the floor. The constant motion of huge machines and emissions of steam only add to the often oppressive heat. Not long after he started the job, Gordy incorporated a shammy into his work outfit, hanging it from his back pocket.

Gordy mops the sheen from his forehead as Donnie assigns teams.

“Dan, you and Larry. Jeanine, you work with Jorge, show him the ropes. Gordy, same with Mackey. See if you can’t get him a little less wet behind the ears.” Gordy makes eye contact with Mackey, nods. He would’ve preferred to partner with Jeanine, but hides his disappointment.

Will Mackey is in his mid-20s but barely looks out of high school. The faintest wisps of hair grace his upper lip. His hat sports a fishing hook, and his eyes remind Gordy of a captured animal. His wiry physique and shifty actions are those of a young man who seems ready to take off running at any moment. His fingernails are nubs, having been gnawed to the cuticle.

The crew makes good progress for the first half of the day, spooling 56 of the rolls. Dig Dug Dan and Lawrence seem to have the most paper jams. Over the din of the machines Gordy catches the occasional profanity from Dan, which is always entertaining: Dan’s curses are the equivalent of a 5-car pileup with some animal involved. “Shitfuck asshole dinglebirds!” “Goddamn motherlovin’ deerdicks!” Christian Larry on the other hand, only curses in the most extreme situations.  When Gordy glances over it appears that Dan is on untangle duty. Whenever the paper begins to fold over and become a tangled mess, they stop the machine. Larry then reverses the spin, then Dan removes it by hand. None of them are working for commission, so they’ll earn the same regardless, nonetheless there’s an unspoken pressure to not be the team who drags the crew behind.

Donnie seems particularly concerned today about this job done on time. He hovers on the floor, neck craning, head oscillating between the teams and his watch. He has taken to chewing on the corner of his mustache.

10 hours into their shift, they’ve fallen behind. They’re only up to 72 rolls. Gordy’s shammy is damp with sweat. Dig Dug Dan sidles over to Gordy and leans in close.

“Hey Gordo. Need a little pick-me-up?”

Gordy briefly makes eye contact with him, turns back to his machine.

“In the spirit of productivity? Sure thing.” Gordy grins.

Dan slips the baggie into Gordy’s palm. “Bring it back when you’re done.”

Gordy lets Mackey know he’s taking a minute, and they slow the machine down to a crawl. He enters the one-person toilet around the corner, locks the door. Pulls the door hard, checks the knob. As soon as he lays eyes on the baggie, his insides begin churning in Pavlovian anticipation. He takes out his keys, scoops out a small hill of the crystal, gently navigates it to a nostril, inhales sharply. The effect is immediate, a chemical wave that travels from his brain to all of his extremities. He takes another bump out, inhales it with the other nostril. He squeezes his nose, grimacing at the sting in his nasal passages. Almost immediately he needs to relieve his bowels. Business complete, he sniffs some water from the faucet, wipes his face, reaches for the door knob, reconsiders. He does one more bump, checks his nose and the mirror, and leaves the bathroom.

Not long after he has returned the baggie, Dan approaches Mackey with it. Mackey takes the bag and looks at Gordy, who nods and slows the machine down. Mackey comes back from the bathroom looking more skittish than ever.

Twelve hours in, Donnie paces the floor. Whatever is going on with him is affect the crew. Everyone is rushing, and whenever a jam occurs there is shouting and cursing.

And then his machine’s spooling breaks its perfect blur of continuity and the paper buckles. It folds and contorts as it makes its way around a few times before he is able to stop the machine. He leans around, his eyes making contact with Mackey’s. Mackey looks geeked out his mind. How many bumps did that kid do in there? wonders Gordy. He points at the jam.

“I got this one. You reverse it.” Mackey nods like a man being electrocuted. Gordy climbs up on top of his dashboard, and the spooler begins reversing. The paper is badly mangled. He uses two hands to pull it out straight. Beads of sweat on his forehead roll down into his eyebrows. He can see the end of the jam less than one rotation away.

Sweat rolls down the slope of his nose and into his eye. He tries blinking it away, but it is already in his eye. He jerks his head sharply to the side, and again, but it doesn’t help. It stings, and he curses aloud as he clings to the paper.

That’s when the paper stops reversing, and lurches forward.

Gordy loses his balance, falling towards the rolls. He drops the paper, flailing for support. One outstretched hand reaches something solid, and the first thing he notices is a sensation of pressure, a pull. It helps to stabilize him. He turns left just in time to watch the tips of his fingers disappear into the rolls.

The machine has him. The clearance between the rolls is half an inch, and before his mind can even register a thought, the rolls have consumed two joints of each finger and the tip of his thumb.

His first instinct is to pull, to yank free of the devouring rolls. But they have dragged him in up to his palm, and there is a sickening sensation as he pulls, a savage understanding that the greedy rollers will not show him mercy, or relax, or slow down. He is an animal caught in a snare, his only human thought that he will rip his hand apart if his pulls hard enough. A scene from Star Trek flashes through his head, the Enterprise having incurred significant damage from enemy fire, the ship’s computerized voice piping into the bridge: Structural integrity compromised. Structural integrity compromised.

He hears a high-pitched moan and it is coming from his own lungs. His eyes swing wildly towards his dashboard, but the red shutdown button is too far. With his free hand he grasps for it anyway, connecting with nothing but plastic and metal.

He screams for help, an uninhibited yelp curdled with terror. Mackey’s face emerges from around the corner, and the sight of Gordy in the clutches of the machine staggers him. His eyes are those of a deer, tongue slack in his open mouth.

Gordy’s hand is now gone, and he can feel the flesh tearing off his arm as the rollers pulverize the bones in his wrist.

A shape streaks across the floor, and a hand slams into the kill button. The edges of his vision are beginning to darken as he looks at the hand of his savior. He traces it up a tattooed arm to find Jeanine’s ashen face.

In a final haze, he sees Mackey whimpering behind Jeanine. He sees Dan and Donnie nearby, frozen.

The last thing he hears is Lawrence, who very, very slowly exclaims, “Holy fuck.”

– – –

Gordy lies supine in the hospital bed staring at the ceiling when a knock comes at the door. He tilts his head. There, wearing her usual mischievous smile, is his older sister Lucille.

“Lucille? You drove up?”

“‘Course I did, for my one and only brother,” she exclaims, sauntering up to his bed. Everyone else who has visited him over the last week—his mother and father, a few family friends, Jeanine—has entered the room tentatively, almost on tip-toe. But not Lucille. Her cavalier approach makes him momentarily uncomfortable. Her eyes scan the bed to find the emptiness where his arm used to be. But Gordy has hidden it under a blanket.

“Well, let’s have a look at it,” she says, as if she’s a doctor herself. He can tell it takes everything in her to refrain from yanking the blanket off to see.

“Hey. Sis. Power down a notch. I’m not lyin’ here with pneumonia. I lost my fuckin’ arm.”

She feigns hurt. “I know, I talked to mom about it. That’s why I’m here.” She rolls her eyes and sighs as if he’s being unreasonable.

There is a moment as Gordy adjusts himself in bed, sitting a little straighter but keeping his arm under the blanket still. He feels blindsided. Lucille watches him.

“Didja get some good drugs for pain, at least?”

“Yeah, I was on morphine for a few days but they’re weaning me off that and onto Vicodins.”

“That’ll get it done.” Lucille seems to abandon the urge to see his arm. She walks around the bed and takes a seat. “So what are your plans, Gordo?”

Gordy stares at her. The bluntness of the question rips into him. Plans? He doesn’t want to get emotional in front of his sister but he can feel his eyes become suddenly heavy. He looks away, down at a tray full of untouched food.

“I dunno. I’m getting some money from the mill. The lease on my apartment is running out soon. I may just move in with mom and dad for awhile.”

Lucille erupts. “Mom and dad!? Hell baby brother, why don’t you just shoot yourself now. It would be quicker.”

His voice cracks, the tears threatening to spill over his eyelids. “I don’t know what else to do, Lucille. I don’t know if I can take care of myself.”

Lucille blows a raspberry at the same time Gordy releases a small sob.

“Listen baby brother. That’s why I’m here. I have a proposal for you.”

Gordy wipes his eyes with a tissue. She waits for him. “What,” he finally musters, his voice nasally and full of emotion.

“I want you to come live with me. In Charleston. I want you to be my roommate.”

He is dumbfounded. “Wait, what? What about David?”

For just an instant, Lucille’s composure falters, exposing pain in her suddenly downcast eyes. “David and I are getting divorced. I’ve already put down the security deposit on an apartment.”

“Whoa. When? What…happened?” But as he speaks he sees her face return to its sanguine expression.

“That’s not important, Gordo. What is important is that I have a two bedroom apartment on Broad street, and you’re gonna be my new roommate.” She leans in, lowers her voice. “I think this could be good for both of us.”

“I don’t know, sis. Maybe I should stay someplace familiar…while I get used to this,” he nods towards his arm.

“No,” she says flatly. “You will go into a spiral of self-pity up here, probably get hooked on meth, and then blow your brains out. Instead, you’re gonna come with me and go live with the pretty people down in Charleston.”

Although her approach is overwhelming, something of what she is saying finds purchase. He stares at her, considering. I have been complaining about being bored with my life…

She raises her eyebrows, smiles wickedly.

“Now are you gonna show me that stump of yours or what?”

– – – – – –

She pulls up flush with the curb and throws it into park. The engine still running, she turns to Gordy.

“This is how your big sister rolls.”

The renovated antebellum structure that stands before them could easily be described as a mansion. Paint gleams, the yard is verdant and pruned. The massive brick and wood home feels solid, balanced. Gas-lit lanterns flank the walkway to a grand staircase and sprawling porch. Spanish moss hangs from a leafy canopy overhead, a sultry complement to the house’s reserved architectural style. Hidden cicadas drone loudly from all directions.

Gordy is awash in intimidation, and the familiarity of home feels light years away.

“But Lucille, that house is gigantic.”

She snorts. “My place—excuse me, our place—is in the back, you nitwit.”

She turns the car off and they get out. He follows her down the driveway, all the while expecting a well-heeled patrician to barge out of the house, casting them out for trespassing.

A narrow brick walkway takes them to the rear of the big house, where a large back yard stretches out in front of them. In one corner of the yard stands the carriage house that Lucille had been describing on the drive down. It is more striking than he’d imagined.

The building is rectangle in shape, its brick exterior laid in a zig-zag pattern swimming with reds, oranges, grays, and browns. Wide windows, flanked by teal shutters, emit a soft glow from within. Iron-wrought flower boxes sprout forth with pops of violet and yellow.  Like its larger counterpart, it feels balanced and strong, but this one feels uniquely inviting.

“Wow. How’d you find this place? More important, can we afford it?”

“When you’re in real estate you get the pick of the litter.” Lucille sashays down the brick walkway. She throws open the door and looks back at Gordy. “This is your new home, baby brother.”

He ascends each stair hesitantly, taking it all in. Inside, the common room is expansive and open, connected to the kitchen. The apartment has already been partially furnished, with tasteful couches and seats, an antique dining table. It is nicer than anyone’s home he’s seen, aside from on television.

Gordy stands in the doorway. “You never answered me when I asked if we can afford it.”

“Get in here and shut that door or we’ll be swatting mosquitoes all damned night,” Lucille scolds. “And yes, I got us a deal. Look, it’s gonna be more than Spartanburg, okay? Just understand that. You’re not living in Spartanburg anymore.”

Gordy dislikes what he interprets as condescension. He enters just enough to close the door.

“How much, Lucille?”

She sighs. “It’s two thousand a month.” Gordy scoffs loudly, shaking his head. “Plus utilities,” she adds quietly. “But listen, you got a whole bunch of money from the paper mill, right?”

“Some… but I wasn’t expecting to blow it all on some fancy apartment.”

Now Lucille is exasperated. “And why not, huh? What are you gonna do with it? You’re not gonna travel the world; hell you’ve never even been on a plane, Gordy. Have you?”

Gordy feels his face get hot, from anger or embarrassment he’s not sure. He remains silent because no, he has never been on a plane before.

“You’d have probably stayed with mom and dad and drank and drugged it all away until your liver exploded!”

He feels cornered. Self-pity and rage and shame all vie to be the emotion at the forefront of his pain. He does what he knows. He flees.

“I’m gonna go get some beer,” he grunts, awkwardly opening the door with his left hand, exits and tries to slam it but it merely shuts a little harder than usual.

He walks for awhile before he finds a place that is open and sells beer. He picks out a 12 pack of Coors Light, puts it on the counter. He has had to start carrying his wallet in his opposite pocket now, and he pulls it out with his left hand, laying it on the counter. He notices the older cashier looking at his missing forearm. He tries to remove his debit card from its sleeve, but his fingers slide over it without purchase; once, twice, three times.

“Can I help you with that, son?”

“Uh, sure,” mutters Gordy. “Thanks.” At least my manners are still intact, crosses his mind.

The man swipes his card, then goes out of his way to position the credit slip and pen so it will be easier for Gordy. His new left-handed signature is complete scrawl.

“That’ll do,” the old man says quietly. The gentle way the old man speaks to him brings sudden tears to his eyes. Gordy shoves his wallet into his front pocket, grabs the carton of beer, and heads to the door.  He can feel the man’s eyes on him as he reaches for the knob with what remains of his right arm, slowly sliding the knob against the skin until he can twist his body and the door opens. He jams a foot in, pulling the door with his leg until a bell overhead rings and he is able to exit the store.

He instinctively goes to open a beer for the walk home but realizes that is no longer possible while he is carrying the pack. There is a new calculus limiting his actions. He finds a bench among the shadows and sits, tearing a hole in the carton to extract one of the cold cans. He puts the beer between the vise of his legs so he can pop the top. Then he’s taking big gulps of the frothy beer. After a few minutes, the alcohol harmonizes with the Vicodin in his system, and everything is A-okay.

He drinks a few more, the empties piling up around him. The scene elicits wary looks from people walking by.  Finally he decides to take the rest to Lucille’s apartment. He cannot concede, just yet, that he lives there.

Gordy scoops up the carton awkwardly, trying to keep the tear facing up. The repeated jostling of every step and the sweating of the cans finally causes the bottom of the carton to break open like a trap door. The weight in his hand evaporates, and cans of beer rain down on the pavement.

A couple burst from the impact, hissing and spewing foam, the force of which causes them to roll down the sidewalk.

“Oh no, oh man, come on,” Gordy moans. He stands, surveying the scene. He sinks to his knees. He puts his head in his left hand. His right hand stretches upward but it doesn’t reach his face.

No tears come. Eventually Gordy reaches over with his only hand and grabs a beer, puts it between his knees, and opens it. It bursts its froth into his face before dying down. He sputters, shaking the suds out of his eyes, then drinks what’s left of the can.

Gordy is slumped forward over one of the remaining cans, dripping beer when a car’s headlights come into view, growing larger. Finally they turn in towards him, and the car comes to a stop a few feet away.

“Oh, Gordy. Jesus Christ.” It’s Lucille. His older sister. The sister that convinced him when he was 4 that lying in an anthill would give him special powers. The same sister who he smoked his first joint with. The sister who moved out right after high school, leaving his parents and him behind. Lucille stands behind him, squats, puts her arms under his, pulls him to his feet with a groan.  She leads him to the car and deposits him inside.  She surveys the wreckage of beer cans on the otherwise pretty sidewalk, mutters “fuggit” and drives away.

– – – –

Days pass and Gordy resigns himself to the new apartment. He offers a rotating selection of excuses when Lucille comes home from showing houses and asks if he’s been outside. “There’s a Simpsons marathon on TV.”  “I don’t know my way around.” Depending on the day, some are steeped in self-pity. “No one wants to look at me like this.” Others crackle with resentment, aimed in her direction. “Oh no, I’ve been counting the remaining minutes I can afford to live in this money-suck of an apartment.”

He is aware that he is chipping away at his sister, but he does not understand why. He wants to hurt her though he knows it will make him feel worse. He strains under the weight of feeling trapped in this new life, where everything feels unfamiliar and complicated, and his only solace—albeit fleeting—is to lash out.

One day while Lucille is at work, he reluctantly begins to explore the apartment. Amidst other bric-a-brac on a shelf rests a small statue of a sitting Buddha. Its right hand is raised, facing outward, while its left rests on its thigh. Gordy turns it left and right, examining it, wondering what it signifies. The passing thought is a curiosity that is clean, unencumbered by the rage and self-pity that have become his bedfellows. But as quickly as it comes, it is gone, and he returns to the numbness of television.

Later, Lucille is in the kitchen, Gordy on the couch, watching Wheel of Fortune.

“So what, you’re a Buddhist now?”

Lucille is rinsing berries in the sink. She turns the water off, reaches for a dishtowel, continues facing the sink.

“I don’t know, maybe. I don’t know that I’m anything, really.”

“Here I was thinking you were Christian like you were raised.” Her head turns slightly but she does not turn around.

“I guess I like what I’ve heard about Buddhism because there aren’t so many rules, like with church and all.” Lucille’s characteristic sass and humor are absent. “Not as much judgment.”

“Nothing ever was good enough for you, was it,” Gordy digs.

She spins on him, lip curled.

“Don’t you judge me.” She takes a step towards him, fists clenched. “Don’t you dare. Yeah I left town. Because there nothing there for me. What you don’t understand, Gordy, is that the small-town mentality wants you to stay small. Goddamn rednecks think that being a manager at a Starbucks is puttin’ on airs.”

Gordy holds his tongue. She continues.

“Now I’ve been listening to you taking digs at me and feeling sorry for yourself for days now, and I am done with it,” she spits the last words out in staccato. “Enough is enough,” Lucille yells, her anger cresting, then subsiding. Her tone softens and her fists unclench.

“I’ve been taking your shit because I know you’re upset about your arm. You’re grieving and I get that. But you’re not the only one going through shit, okay?” She looks down, lowering her voice. “This morning I saw David…with his new girlfriend.”

Gordy’s defiance towards his sister crumbles. Lucille continues.

“She was younger—much younger—and pretty. Motherfucker couldn’t have had the decency to not take her to our coffeeshop. And the timing! Talk about my side of the bed being still warm!”

Gordy gets up, shuffles over to stand next to his sister. “Hey, I’m sorry. That really sucks.”

She wipes at an eye. “Yeah, it does,” then she raises her voice plaintively. “So can you please stop being such a sad-sack dick?”

Gordy’s resistance crumbles further. Tears spring to his eyes.

“Yeah. Yeah, I can try,” he manages wobbily.

After a moment she fishes paper and pen from a drawer, and they sit at the dining room table, where she proceeds to prove mathematically and without emotion that he has enough from his settlement from the paper mill to not have to worry about money for a few years at least.

“Okay?” She looks at him expectantly.

“Okay,” he acquiesces.

– – –

Gordy’s stinger is removed, but the sight of his truncated limb still floods him with shame and sadness. He finds it hard to think about life outside the confines of the apartment, or about engaging with anyone but his sister.

Then one day Lucille opens the door, and something is jingling that isn’t her keys.

The puppy’s legs splay outwards in an ungraceful split when it hits the slick hardwoods. It rights itself, takes a few steps, lifts its leg and beings urinating.

“Well, that was fast,” snarks Lucille.

“Who’s dog is that?” Gordy rubbernecks the scene from the couch.

“Yours!” Lucille replies with spunk.

“Nuh uh,” Gordy says, like he did when they were in grade school together.

“Well, it can be ours, but really I bought it for you.”

He watches the puppy sniff around the kitchen while Lucille wipes up its puddle. “Sis, next time you decide to do something for me? Maybe call me first.” He turns, hanging over the back of the couch and watching the animal in the kitchen. “First you kidnapped me to this overpriced” —she shoots him daggers— “apartment, and now you’ve bought a dog?! I can barely take care of myself.”

“Well, you’d better learn, Gordy,” she declares, standing up, urine-soaked paper towels in hand. “The training wheels are officially off.”

– – – –

The puppy is a rescue, a mutt with what looks like German Shepherd and Lab in him. They toy with naming him Pluff Mud, but after a few times calling him that, Gordy suggests Chettrick, the last name of his ex.

“What? That’s creepy. You’re naming your dog after your ex?” Lucille crinkles her nose.

“Shut up. I like the name, that’s all.”

“Hey! What about Buddha?”

“I think you’ve smoked too much weed,” Gordy cuts, but the name has an appeal.

“C’mere Buddha,” Lucille calls into the kitchen, where the pup is compulsively licking the linoleum. She turns to Gordy, conspiratorially. “I think I like it.”

“I don’t hate it,” he gives in, shrugging.

– – –

Monday rolls around and Lucille is back to work, leaving Gordy with Buddha. He does his best to ignore the dog at first. Buddha gnaws at everything that he shouldn’t, and when Gordy intervenes, he looks up, wagging his tail. As soon as Gordy gets into the Clemson game, a waft of excrement hits his nose and he leaps up with a curse to hunt for its source. Though he chastises the dog, Buddha just smiles back at him, wagging his tail.

“No such thing as bad attention, huh, ya dumb dog?”

For better or worse, however, with Buddha around Gordy finds it increasingly difficult to pay attention to anything else. Gordy slowly comes to terms with the idea of taking the dog outside.

And so, after having been in the apartment without break for 5 days straight, Gordy opens the front door. He is struck by the scent of freshly-cut grass, suffused with the piney tang from nearby rosemary bushes. Buddha rushes out into the yard until the leash is taut. Gordy emerges onto the steps of the apartment warily, scanning for the threatening presence of other humans. Buddha takes a leak, and Gordy tows her back in. Door safely closed behind them, Gordy unhooks Buddha’s leash.

“See, that wasn’t so bad.”  But Gordy isn’t talking to the dog.

– – – –

Their excursions begin with exploring the yard. The fences separating them from neighbors’ yards are tall, and intertwined with ivy, granting the yard sanctuary from the outside world. This helps to coax Gordy out of the apartment. As soon as the door is open, Buddha takes off, running as far as the leash allows. He strains against it, his direction seemingly unimportant. Occasionally he stops to sniff the grass, look back at Gordy and lift his leg. Gordy follows his own nose to the spindles of rosemary, which stand sentinel against the kitchen-side of the apartment. Gordy rubs his fingers against the leaves, whose oil imparts its piercing scent to his skin. Soon, Buddha’s tugging pulls Gordy to the far reaches of the yard.

Before long Buddha grows restless, and begins pulling towards the pathway that leads to the front yard. Faced with reentry to the outside world, Gordy first retreats to the apartment. He digs among the still-unpacked pile of his belongings, exhuming a gray plastic briefcase. Inside are two prosthetic arms; one ends in a two metal claws, the other ends in a rubbery skin-toned prosthetic hand. One practical, the other for show.

He stands in front of the full-length mirror, turning left and right. With a long-sleeved shirt the fake hand is barely noticeable, and not at all if he sticks it in his pocket.

– – –

Gordy and Buddha’s first venture outside of the yard takes them a few blocks up Broad street and back. Buddha’s attention span is that of a mosquito, which keeps Gordy’s hands full. Hand, singular, a cynical voice corrects in his mind. Before they can turn around, three attractive college girls turn the corner in front of them. When they spot Buddha they begin making fawning noises and approach until two of them are scratching him. The puppy obviously loves the attention. Gordy, however, is unsure of how to position himself in the dynamic, and can only think of his hand, which he has stuffed into his pocket. Still facing the dog, the blonde girl speaks.

“How old is he?”

“I’m 29,” Gordy states without thinking, and the girls laugh. But when they see Gordy’s nervous expression, on a face that is now turning brick-red, they back away warily and continue walking.

Desperately he calls out, “I thought you meant me! The dog is probably 4 months or so?” But the girls keep walking, whispering and laughing to each other.

He wallows in that little humiliation for days before Buddha’s persistent efforts eventually drag him back out to the street. This time, having practiced responses, Gordy feels more prepared to deal with pedestrian encounters.

As the days progress, so does Gordy’s confidence, as well as the reach of their walks. They wander south of Broad, where vines of noisette rose reach like drunken arms over wrought iron fences. Hitching posts remain from the time when horse-drawn carriages were the de rigeur mode of transportation. Lawns are lush and perfectly manicured, unlike in his previous life where most served as repositories for dissected vehicles stacked on cinder blocks.

They continue to push south, and eventually the residential streets give way to the salty air of the Battery, which is crawling with dogs and their owners. Buddha throws himself good-naturedly at every dog who crosses his path, which inevitably throws Gordy into an obligation to interact with the owners. 

It is through these repeated exposures to other humans that Gordy starts to loosen up. Most people fail to see his prosthetic hand, or have the manners not to stare. It is only teenagers—who have just discovered the allure of cruelty—who snicker and point when they don’t think he’s looking.

They return to the Battery many times before Buddha decides one day, leaving the house, to strike off in a new direction. He heads north at the first cross street, and Gordy decides to follow his lead.  North of Broad, the houses are still nice, if a little smaller. He passes more college students; most with calculus and french and chemistry textbooks in one hand and a quantity of beer in the other. He turns left onto Queen street, an intimate one-way that seduces him with the scent of gardenias. It is a scent that curls in his nostrils like hair submerged in water.

Many of the houses leave their blinds open, inviting observation. He peers discretely into the open windows, letting himself get lost in fantasy from each living room or dining room scene he passes. He is daydreaming about a different life when Queen street runs into Colonial Lake. Buddha’s first instinct is to dive into the brackish water, but after a few yanks on his leash, he takes the hint.

As they walk, Gordy notices a woman and young girl sitting together on one of the benches along the lake’s perimeter. As he and Buddha get closer, the girl sees them and runs over to play.  The young girl, who appears to be about 7, kneels down and begins rubbing Buddha’s ears, to his delight.

“Ally, I told you to ask before you pet people’s dogs!” The woman, wearing large sunglasses, shifts her gaze towards Gordy. “Sorry. Is it okay?”

“Uh, sure. He loves it.” He looks at the two of them, then back at the woman, who he gleans is around his own age. “He’s friendly.”

Gordy nods at the empty spot on the bench. “You mind if I take a load off? We’ve been walking for awhile, and I don’t have his energy,” says Gordy, pointing to Buddha.

“Of course. Please.”

Gordy sits, and for a moment or two there is only the sound of the girl tittering over the dog. He figures the woman next to him to be the girl’s mother.

She is a fidgeter, straightening her dress, adjusting her sunglasses, tapping a short rhythm on the bench. 

“Do you live around here?” Gordy poses the question while acutely aware of his prosthetic hand resting on the bench to his right. He decides that it is hidden from her view. Better that than having his hand in his pocket while he’s talking to an attractive woman.

“Just moved, actually. Got a small carriage house on Ashley. How about you? Your accent sounds like you don’t, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“I’m from Spartanburg. Upstate. I just moved myself not too long ago.”

He is looking into the obsidian mirrors of her sunglasses when the girl stands up and turns her attention towards them.

“Hey mister what happened to your hand?”

A wave of embarrassment washes over him. The woman, confused, peers over and catches a glimpse of his fake hand, and in her own embarrassment bursts forth in profuse scolding and apologies.

After an awkward moment in which the woman continues to alternate between chiding her daughter and groveling to Gordy, he rights himself inside.

“No, no, it’s okay.” He turns to the young girl. “I lost it in an accident.”

The young girl asks tentatively, “Does it…does it hurt?”

The woman again stammers apologies and admonishments, but Gordy reaches out and gently touches her on the arm to quiet her.

“It hurt a lot when it happened. Now, not so much.” He leans closer to the girl, as if to share a secret. “But there’s something called the phantom limb effect, and every once in awhile, I can feel a pain and it feels like it’s coming from where my hand used to be.”

The girl squeals and Gordy chuckles. The mother’s face relaxes and permits a smile.

– – –

Her name is Lauren, and the daughter is Alice. They moved down with her boyfriend from Dayton. Just prior to she and Gordy sharing a bench at the lake, she had gone to the courthouse to file a restraining order. Underneath her sunglasses one of her eyes is swollen to a purplish slit. After having spoken for over an hour, Lauren and Gordy exchange numbers awkwardly, but two days later, when he calls, she answers.

Gordy and Lauren and Buddha and Alice start going for walks together. As Christmas decorations sprout across the city, the group explores the peninsula, from quiet residential Harleston Village to the bustle of Meeting street.

This goes on for a few weeks before Gordy decides to do something he’s never done before. Alice and Buddha have run off ahead, affording Gordy enough privacy to ask the question.

Hey, why don’t you let me cook you dinner this weekend?”

A smile plays at her lips. “Oh yeah? You can cook?”

“No,” He leans into her. “But I’m gonna try anyway.”

She pretends to think about it. “Okay, I think I can swing that. I’ll get a sitter for Alice.”

“Well hell,” Gordy says, letting his upstate accent off its leash. “I best hit the grocery store soon then. A fella with one arm’s gonna have to make more than one trip.”

– – –

Lucille helps him truss the chicken as she gets ready to leave. She is not at all bothered that her brother has asked for the apartment for the night. She has arranged to stay at a friend’s on Folly Beach.

“Just what kind of friend is this, sis? Would this be of the male variety?”

Lucille demurs. “I never kiss and tell, nosy,” but the way checks herself in the mirror lets Gordy know that she’s not just meeting a friend.

The sun is beginning to bleed across the western sky when Gordy walks out to the rosemary bushes. Their scent wraps its arms around him. He lingers, picking off a few sprigs, the plant and he exchanging breaths.

He checks the oven as night settles in. The chicken’s skin is golden-brown. Its redolence wafts through the apartment. There is a knock at the door.

Gordy opens the door, wearing Lucille’s lucky apron. She had handed it to him before she left, and with her suggestive smirk, wished him a good night. It reads “Kiss the Chef” in cursive lettering.

Lauren enters the apartment, and it isn’t long before she does just that.

Clouds Underfoot—My trek up Kilimanjaro

Day 1

The Airbus A320 from Doha touched down at the Kilimanjaro airport as the sun was beginning to move from overhead to the western part of the sky. I was expecting to be bowled over by some imagined African heat, but I emerged from the plane to mild temperatures, with a hint of a chill.  I scanned the horizon, hoping to see Kilimanjaro. While lesser mountains surrounded the airport, none were majestic enough to be the king.

Other than the occupants of our plane and a few workers, the small airport felt mostly deserted. Just outside the exit, a man stood clutching a flimsy paper placard with my name scrawled in sharpie, offering a smile and an outstretched hand.

Endless fields of sunflowers floated by on the way to Kilimanjaro Wonders hotel.  “Sunflower oil is one of our bigger exports,” my otherwise quiet driver offered when I asked. 

At the hotel, the receptionist greeted me with “You’re welcome,” which made me think: Wait, did I say ‘thank you?’ until I realized that she was simply communicating “Welcome.”  Over my stay in Africa I can’t count how many times this happened, my instinctive confusion compounded by the effect that I’m a New Yorker who instinctively  barks out “You’re welcome” to someone for whom I’ve held a door and offers no acknowledgement.

After a shower and change, I met my guide in the lobby. My first impression of Aiden, as he’d introduced himself to me, was: oh, this is what an African hipster looks like. He was shorter than me but not short, thin but not skinny, his clothes a patchwork of layers with purples, yellows, greens—the colors of Tanzania. From a piece of leather tied around his neck hung a wooden ram’s head.  His eyes, irises lined with gold, disclosed a sense of mischief and humor, though he seemed reluctant to express it, at least for now.  By all appearances he was in his early 30s. Unlike the other Tanzanians I had engaged with, Aiden seemed less motivated to coddle my needs, and though he would often refer to me as “commander,” I suspected he considered himself in charge. 

Aiden described the trek, day by day, what I was to expect, ending each small coda with “Are we together?”  I nodded as he talked, trying to listen intently and stay focused despite my jet-lag and hangover. He asked if I had any questions.

“How many times have you gone to the top, Aiden?”

“Almost a hundred and fifty.”

My jaw dropped. I swore under my breath. 

“Is it hard?”

There was a pause that one takes before answering diplomatically.

“It is not hard. Uh, it is not hard. No.”

It was enough for me. He told me to be ready at 7 AM the next morning for pickup, we shook hands, and he was gone.

My driver from the airport had returned, with a fellow American in tow.  At first glance, Andrew was the picture of middle America, late-40s with pragmatic prescription glasses, a hairline that was on the verge of surrender, and a slight bulge hanging over his waistline. The driver introduced us, and he was immediately friendly and engaging, fueled by a boyish exuberance. It was perhaps a little too much for my hangover; I responded to his overtures a bit coldly.

I found myself judging the way he didn’t try to speak (even nominal) Swahili to the Tanzanians, or slow down his English a little. He struck me as a typical ethnocentric, provincial American who was supporting the kind of global stereotype that I’ve always tried to chip away at. He said that he was taking the Machame route as opposed to my Lemosho, and I found myself relieved at the notion of not being stuck traveling with him. I wished him a good trek, but was already edging in the direction of my room.

Day 2

I was picked up in a mini-van, offered quick introductions to its ebony-skinned occupants, which I promptly forgot. My seat was in the center of the van, no one to my right or left. We began the long drive from Moshi, circling Kilimanjaro so that we could approach it from the West. Moshi is the town which comprises the base of most of the mountain’s tourism. The drive to Lemosho gate, at the western edge of Kilimanjaro park, consisted of 4 hours of animated discussions in Swahili, many of which collapsed into laughter. However, it came from the front of the van, where Aiden, my guide sat, as well as the cook, and driver. Porters, the grunts of the operation, sat behind me, mostly without talking.  They were younger, and projected a less-comfortable aura in contrast to the lively coterie of Tanzanians up front.  I found myself wishing someone would try to speak a little English to me, just so I could feel included. With a few small exceptions however, they continued in their baritone Swahili.

While we passed a number of well-maintained farms, growing corn, coffee, and wheat, the commercial aspect of the area was decidedly third-world. Most commerce I saw, at least as we were outside of the inner circle of Moshi, was undertaken in primitive strip malls, their stores simple concrete enclaves. Some had hand-painted signs, few had doors or windows, just rusty garage sliders that would be pulled down at the end of the day. One store sold soft drinks, toiletries, and a selection of dyed kaftans. The next store offered bike tires, motor oil, and a small selection of hand tools. There were no Home Depots, no Pet Smarts, no Barnes and Nobles. In fact, the only places that had even proper doors and overhead lighting were pharmacies, gas stations, and banks.

Where in America there would’ve been pristine Dover white curbs hugging manicured flowerbeds in the median, here there was only dirt. Here a person didn’t just have a car. He or she had a cheap motorbike, and if their industry called for it, a tiny pickup truck or a minivan. The few times I spotted an Audi or other sedan, I immediately presumed it must belong to a government official or owner of one of the farms.

In the environs of Moshi, the prominent religion was Christianity. “Jesus is King,” “Christ has risen,” and the like, were gaudily displayed across windshields, or in giant lettering on the sides of vans.

Asphalt became dirt as we neared the Lemosho gate, and the open rural countryside was swallowed by something between forest and jungle. We pulled into the Lemosho glades gate to find a swarm of other trucks and vans. Hordes of porters, cooks and guides milled about. They were all black and entirely male.  Small groups of white people were sprinkled among them, checking each other’s packs, taking pictures, talking excitedly. 

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I signed into the trail log, which asked for my name, nationality and occupation. Previous entries revealed that the recent arrivals were almost all Americans. Surprising, considering how far we were from home.  Where were the Germans, the English, the French, the smattering of South Americans? I felt a twinge of embarrassment when I saw that the other trekkers were overwhelmingly white, with the exception of a single black American couple who sat on a bench, looking around warily. By my approximation, trekkers’ ages ranged from late teens to mid-60s. The majority seemed to have some hiking experience, a few kitted with gear that was dusty and well-worn. Voices speaking American English tugged at my attention, coming from all directions.

I was presented a boxed lunch by Aiden and told to eat. It contained an apple, a roasted thigh of chicken wrapped in tin foil, tropical juice box, cookies with the word “Glucose” on the packaging. I nibbled at it hesitantly at first, but finished most before giving the leftovers to a young man hocking Kilimanjaro-themed sun hats at the gate. I assumed I was doing him a favor, but then I thought, wait, is that racist? To hand him my leftovers, like he’s some poor person?  He seemed to appreciate it, though, so I waved the thought away. I turned down one of his hats and wandered back into the fold. 

Our driver’s name was Emmanuel. He emitted warmth, and, unlike the others, an eagerness to engage with me. (Aiden had simply stated on the ride prior, “Emmanuel is a Christian.” I feigned significance.)  Emmanuel spoke decent English. He approached me, and asked me how i was doing. I admitted that my stomach had been bothering me since the hotel. He seemed genuinely concerned, contemplating, then began scanning the surrounding forest, as if a pink bottle of Pepto would be dangling from a branch.

“Come here,” he said, and led me into the brush. I followed, into a small clearing, and he seemed to locate what he was looking for, and began digging into the dirt with his hands.

Locating the roots of the small tree, he ripped at them until he held a handful of thin roots in his hands. He brushed (some) of the dirt off, and popped one into his mouth, looked at me while chewing, and said “good for the stomach.” He held out a handful of the dirty roots.

I laughed nervously, but said “okay” and took one, putting it gingerly between my teeth. As I chewed, an astringent juice was expelled and my face became a mask that read: Gross. Emmanuel laughed. I managed to get a piece of root down, with enough water, then tried another but my throat threatened to gag, so I just swallowed the acrid juice and spit the rest out. I croaked “cool” and he laughed again.

To my surprise and wonderment, about 15 minutes later my stomach was completely better. Meanwhile a single man was weighing all of the porters’ bags, so a large queue had formed behind him. He gave most the go-ahead while others had to take items out to lessen their load. Porters are limited to no more than 15kg, which translates to 33lbs, but oftentimes the person weighing allows a few kgs over. A man with a Kalashnikoff on his lap sat nearby, looking bored.

We finally plunged into the forest, taking up the trail. The incline was immediate, jarring my system. I had been sedentary for the past 2 days and was suddenly ambling up steep, loping steps which had been cut into the earth, outlined with branches for support and traction. I was immediately taken by the thought, Wait, this hard…already?

Despite my preference for a more gradual start, I was swept up in the flow of porters, who passed us effortlessly, their loads easily 4 times mine. Pride stepped in, and I maintained my pace, although my panting sounded louder in my ears than any other sound in the forest.

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After an hour of this, I began to rationalize my lagging confidence. I was jet-lagged, still slightly hungover, and clearly these guys had done this countless times before. Plus, most of them were younger than me.  I nevertheless found myself daunted, wondering how the older trekkers were faring.

The immediate toll on my confidence lent itself to the overall sensation that I was out of my element. Breathing heavily, I found that even stopping to urinate if others were around was a supreme task of willpower. It took me sometimes a minute just to start, an eternity to finish, my spray eking out as if from a corroded watering can. I watched enviously as from behind Aiden’s turned back, dick barely out of his trousers, his stream shot strong and true.

The Tanzanian jungle was damp, threaded with a chill that was not at all what I had expected.  As the heat from my body increased from the exertion, I could not tell whether I wanted to keep or remove layers of clothing. I found myself constantly wanting to ask Aiden how close we were to camp, but pride kept my efforts focused on taking the next step, taking the next breath.

Relief flooded me when Aiden announced that we had arrived. Big Tree Camp stood at 2650 meters above sea level, a vertical ascension of 400 meters from the gate. A squared wooden structure held the gate’s warden, where we signed in. A sprawl of different colored tents dotted the giant clearing. The camp rested under a canopy of the jungle, only a few beams of sunlight were able to penetrate it. Aiden led me to where the porters and crew had already assembled my tent, an orange 2-person number whose only contents was a sleeping mat.  Eventually my pack and sleeping bag were delivered, and Aiden announced that dinner would be in a couple hours.

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What I would learn over the next days was that the climate was ever-shifting, and therefore layering was essential. Sometimes I had just removed my hoodie due to the heat and moments later I was cold again. So clothes came on, and came off, and came back on again.  It was disorienting at first. 

Too early for dinner, and not sleepy enough to take a nap, I explored the campsite. It consisted of clusters of tents, separated by each trekking company. One that stood out was Zara Tours, whose tents all had logos emblazoned on them, and seemed to stand more proudly than those of my crew.  While there were only seven of my crew, including myself, there must’ve been 20 of the Zara crew to handle what was obviously a larger—and better-funded—group. I would come to envy the fact that their group contained a tent holding an actual dinner table and benches.

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A concrete building containing toilets stood to one side of camp, illuminated by solar-powered electricity. Because I had begun taking the altitude medication Diomox, whose side effect was that it was a diuretic, I would become very familiar with it over the course of the night.

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Night fell, and with it, the chill intensified. I returned to my tent, attempting to make some semblance of sanctuary while I waited for dinner. I hung a battery-powered light from the ceiling of my tent, unfurled my sleeping bag. I removed from the crush of my pack the next day’s outfit, piece by piece.

Frank, my “waiter,” poked his head in the tent, offering a hello (the extent of his english, which made his title that much more ironic) and spread a little red-and-black checkered tablecloth down in the corner of the tent.  Next came hot water and tea. Then, a squat round thermos-like container containing cucumber soup, which was pretty tasty. When I finished, he brought the largest plate of spaghetti I may have ever seen. Or, to be fair, it was a giant plate of noodles, light on sauce, with a few slivers of vegetables hiding among the pasta. I normally recoil from huge amounts of carbs, but I tried to eat what I could.  Three-quarters of it went back—I assumed the porters would eat it.  Frank then brought slices of mango, to which I begged “no more, please” and rubbed my bloated belly.  Eventually all was taken away.

Aiden tapped at my door and entered, squatting on the spot where the tablecloth had been. I said, “Jesus, Aiden, that was too much food.”  He chuckled and said, “but you must eat, it is very important to eat on the mountain.” I disagreed that getting me this bloated every night was beneficial, but decided to let it go. He pulled out a Pulse Oximeter and slid it onto my index finger, writing down my blood-oxygen level and pulse on a chart he had unfolded from his shirt pocket. Next came the altitude sickness questions: Was I nauseous? Vomiting? Did I have diarrhea? Headache? How was my appetite?  Everything answered in the clear, he then went through our plan for the next day. We would wake up at 6 AM, have breakfast at 6:30 and hit the trail at 7 AM sharp. He stressed that the next day would be a long one, and that I really should get some sleep. With concern, I told him I would try, but that I didn’t feel very sleepy. He looked at me, and repeated that I should really try to sleep. This made me anxious, which, incidentally, is not good for sleep.

The night crawled by as I marinated in my thoughts, staving off a panic at the thought of the daunting day that approached, in some ways too slowly and in some too quickly.  I imagined, in the camp of 60 some people, I was the only one still awake. To make matters worse, the Diomox was making me pee every hour.  Getting up to pee required an amassing of willpower to move me from my sleeping bag. It was cold, so I would put on an extra layer, in addition to my headlamp and hiking boots. Then I would crawl from under the awkwardly-low shell of my tent out into the dark of the campsite. Every time I exited my tent over the course of the 7-day trek, I cursed the fact that I had to contort my body to exit. Finally standing upright, I loped almost guiltily to the toilets, an empty-handed thief in the night.

Giving up on twisting and turning, I turned the overhead light on and read my book, then played a game on my IPad for awhile. I checked my phone; the time was 3:45 AM. Though I yearned for the night to be over, I was also terrified of a sleepless dawn. I turned the overhead light back off, bringing to mind my meditation practice. I focused on my breathing; slowly, steadily, repeat. Eternities passed, but I maintained the effort. My anxieties began to subside, and finally, probably just after 4 AM, I drifted off to sleep.  A couple hours later, the first rays of daybreak woke me, bringing sweet relief that the night had not consumed me. The deep-throated chittering of Colobus monkeys from the jungle beyond stirred the camp into action.

Day 3

I chased breakfast (porridge, eggs and sausage) with a B-complex, two naproxen, and two cups of coffee, plus my altitude and malaria pills. By the time Aiden and I left camp, I was feeling pretty good in spite of lack of sleep.

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We hit the trail before any of the others at Big Tree. Gradually ascending up through more rainforest, the damp chill still confused my senses into not knowing whether I was hot or cold.

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About an hour later we emerged into the second climatic region, known as Heather Moorland. The canopy of the forest gave way to direct sunlight, which banished the chill almost immediately. I stripped off a layer and relished the comparatively straightforward air of the moorland. The next hour or so was flat to downhill, and, bolstered by the warmer temps, my spirits rose.  

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Then we hit what is known as Elephant’s Back. Imagine the slope of an Elephants tail from the ground to it’s towering back, and you’ll have an idea of the unforgiving incline of what the next two hour’s climb was like.  Early on I suggested, “I think we could go a little faster,” but that became, “Maybe let’s take a break soon please,” to just finally just blurting out, “Fuck. Me.” “Pole, pole,” was the perennial response. It came from Aiden, Samuel the cook, Frank the waiter, my porters, porters from other companies who passed us on the trail carrying giant packs on their backs. “Pole, pole,” they all said, which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly.”

I recalled a self-help phrase My Ego is not my Amigo as I was fighting my way up Elephant’s back. Because I very easily could’ve slowed down (“pole pole,” after all), but I was propelled—against my body’s wishes—to get to the camp before the other Mzungu (Swahili for “white people”). I had given up on ever beating the porters, rationalizing that they were used to this, had acclimated. But I would beat every one of those white people, if it killed me.  As I was cresting the last incline of Elephant’s back, heart hammering in my chest, I thought that death was in fact a possibility.

We reached the top of Elephant’s back, and during a rest, Aiden declared that I was “Imara Kama Simba,” which translates to “Strong like Lion.” I would’ve swelled with pride had I been able to catch my breath. What is praise, if not my favorite opiate?  I’m sure he had uttered those words to hundreds of other mzungu, but at that moment, they felt like mine alone. I had earned them.

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Cresting Elephant’s Back had expended the resources from the caffeine, B-vitamins, and the little sleep I had gotten, and now I plodded along, scanning the horizon for Shira 1.  Surely it was close by now?  

Gradually the flora began to be winnowed by an increasingly arid ground. It was as if, at the top of Elephant’s Back, the sun was now too close for anything but the hardiest of plants to survive.  What had been a consistent blanket of rich green coming up, now became patches of chartreuse, plants battling for moisture.

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“The mountain sun can be bad,” Aiden warned cryptically.  I had up until then eschewed the use of my safari hat, thinking it too dorky, but as we trekked across the Shira plateau, sun overhead, I pulled it from my pack and slapped it on my head.  His words were as if, while it was in its vicinity, the mountain owned the sun.  He had made other ominous statements too, that implied that Kilimanjaro was no ordinary mountain. “You must always tell me what is going on when we’re on the mountain,” he had said in the lobby of the hotel. He referenced Kili as if it were a demigod with powers that could lift you or crush you at whim. “If you don’t tell me what is going on, there could be…problems.” I had read that at least 10 people die on the mountain each year, and I didn’t plan on being one of them. “Trust me,” I assured him. “You’ll be asking me to shut up.”

The flat landscape was marred by giant lichen-covered igneous rocks. Three-quarters of a million years ago, molten lava had blasted forth from the area on which we walked, creating the Shira volcano, the oldest of the volcanoes forming the Kilimanjaro massif, which stopped erupting and became extinct 500,000 years ago.  Shira’s cone collapsed and became the Shira ridge, which stretched out in front of us, and held both camps of Shira 1 and 2.

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Thirty minutes later we had arrived at Shira 1. Other than a smattering of tents, there was a sense of desertion about the place. Though I needed the rest, there was an unspoken urge to keep moving. I was presented with another boxed lunch, most of which I devoured. I offered the rest to the crew. All was taken. The temperature was warm in the sun—I could feel the strength of its rays whenever it grazed my exposed skin—but as soon as I moved to shade the temperature seemed to drop 15 degrees.

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There was a lively conversation happening in Swahili amongst the crew.  I tried to follow clues or context but was lost. I felt the need to interject myself, so I informed Aiden that I was ready when he was. We started ambling towards the edge of the camp, when Samuel playfully gestured that I pick up his pack. I did—the bag felt as if it were filled with metal plates. The implications were immediate and lacerating, at least in my mind. Perhaps he was just being playful, or maybe he wanted me to know that he, Samuel—whom I had learned was a year older than me—was making the same trek as I with triple the amount on his back.  I squeezed his bicep and shouted, “Imara Kama Simba!”  If there had been resentment, their resulting laughter signaled that all was forgiven. 

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We continued along Shira ridge, vacillating between patches of uphill and flat terrain. We rarely saw a passing porter, so for most of the journey between Shira 1 and 2, there was a quiet sense of solitude around us. An hour outside of Shira 1, my exhaustion turned into resentment. I soldiered on regardless, but could sense some permanent toll being taken from my strength.

I fell into the rhythm of Aiden’s plodding footsteps. My eyes trained on his corseted gaiters, my feet ticked forward and back like a metronome. I tried to lose myself in this slow, steady rhythm. Our combined shadows formed a camel that crossed the arid ridge.

Shira 2 arrived reluctantly, the last few steps feeling barely possible. I was beaten, cored.  We had hiked 17 km from Big Tree, and ascended 1200 meters. Unlike the previous Shira, Shira 2 had a more social atmosphere, with far more tents, and shouts of Swahili coming from all directions. I was the first of the Mzungu to arrive. I clambered into my natty orange tent, stripping off my socks and shirt.

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Once-reticent sleep was now mine for the taking. But as the sun exited behind the horizon, the wind picked up in its place, bringing with it a greedy chill. As my dinner plates were being collected, its needling fingers penetrated my tent, reaching deep into even my sleeping bag.  We were positioned on top of Shira ridge, an easy target for the wind. I shivered despite wearing multiple layers inside a mummy-style sleeping bag, thinking heavily, What a dumb fucking place to put a campsite. Nothing was spared from the icy cold. The previous night seemed warm by comparison. Because of my exhaustion, I slept close to 8 hours, waking just shy of 4 am. I turned on my headlamp and reached for my book. It felt like a winter tombstone.

Day 4

The morning’s daylight brought hope that the sun would beat back the malicious cold. My hot tea, which was delivered at promptly 6:30 AM, radiated it’s heat into my stiff, chapped hands. Three cups later I was feeling a sense of capability return to my limbs. Over the coming days, I would develop a Pavlovian response of joy at the arrival of my morning tea.

Outside of my tent, white-necked ravens strutted around thuggishly, looking for abandoned morsels. Their resentful caws kept hungry sparrows at a distance. When they took flight, their wings sounded like the chopping of an army helicopter.

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My hopes actualized and I was able to remove layers of clothes as the cold receded. We embarked on the day’s journey just shy of 8 AM. I didn’t yet realize how the day before had pushed me past my limits and my body wouldn’t be long for payback.

About an hour and a half in, we crested a ridge and merged with a small group of English-speaking trekkers coming from the Machame route. A British man and Welsh woman, in their late 20s-early 30s, a early 20s couple (Canadian boy, American girl), and an older Australian. We chatted a bit, my curiosity piqued by the attractive Welsh girl’s friendliness, although I intimated that her handsome male English companion was more than a hiking partner.  Nonetheless it was genuinely pleasant camaraderie, and the Welsh girl even invited me into two of their pictures.

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We made Lava Tower camp by noon, and everyone dropped their packs to take a break. Lava Tower was so named because the earth near we were standing shot up dramatically, forming a vertical column, one which offered plenty of shade to relax in.

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Just as I was about to start on my boxed lunch, around the corner came Andrew, the American from the hotel. It had only been three days, but loneliness and a lack of familiarity had reformatted me; I called out to him, greeting him like an old friend. We ate lunch together and suddenly I was almost greedily interested in his story, so desperate was I to converse with another American and fellow solo traveler. I learned that he was from New Hampshire, married with children; a talented (yet very modest) engineer who worked in Munich for weeks at a time. Andrew seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly, and happy to share in his positivity. Any provincialism which had irked me before was forgotten. We spoke about our jobs, books, horror movies.

After eating and our pleasant chat, Andrew got up to leave. Despite his corn-fed huskiness, he seemed ready to run to the horizon. Meanwhile my body was beginning to announce its displeasure, mostly with a dull ache that permeated my legs, as well as a throbbing knot in my left thigh. I remained sitting while I watched Andrew and his guide become smaller and smaller, until they finally disappeared over a hill.

Aiden seemed antsy to continue, so we set off on the trail to Baranco camp. The mountain-desert terrain had turned very rocky, and we were going downhill at various points.  The combination presented repeated opportunities for a slide-fall or twisted ankle. But Aiden seemed propelled by some motive to reach the next camp in a record time.

I called out “pole pole” like it was a safety word. He slowed a bit, but our pace was still causing the pain in my legs to get worse, not better. I felt like I was being rushed, and with the growing discomfort, a latent petulance and rebelliousness bubbled up to the surface. I stopped in my tracks.

“Aiden.”

He turned, slowed, stopped.

“Do you want to just go ahead without me? I can see the trail.”

Immediately he began protesting, possibly recalling the configuration of our relationship.  Maybe it had slipped his mind.

“No, no, we can go slow, pole pole, it is okay.”

“Because my muscles hurt. This pace hurts. I’m getting fucking annoyed, because I’m uncomfortable.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. Pole pole. Do you want to take a break? We can take breaks anytime.”

We ended up finally slowing to a pace that wasn’t so painful. Aiden seemed more conscious of my presence, and now pointed out local foliage as well as the scrambling ascent we would make the following day.  He also announced that we had transitioned from the Heather Moorland vegetation zone to Alpine desert. And sure enough, the fauna now consisted of cacti and other hardy plants whose roots could reach deep enough to find some otherwise hidden source of water.

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A couple of kilometers later we were greeted by tents on the horizon, which signaled the approach of Baranco Camp, our destination for the day.  Two of our porters appeared on the trail, having backtracked to meet us and take our packs. “Asanti sana,” I said over and over again.

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When I got to my tent,  I collapsed only halfway inside, motionless like a piece of driftwood. Frank did something then that really left an impression. He came over, got on his knees, untied my shoes and took them off for me. Such a simple gesture, but I nearly teared up from gratitude.

The cute Welsh girl vomited by my tent an hour later.  I heard the sound of someone throwing up, then her Welsh accent as she apologized to my crew, who—when I emerged—seemed indifferent.  They reacted as if she had sneezed instead of spewing her lunch all over the rocks outside our living quarters.  I came out and wiped a small bit of it off her cheek, which didn’t seem to bother her. She used the term “boyfriend” to describe her companion, then added, “he’s an ass.” After some banter, she said that she was “first-language Welsh,” to which I replied self-consciously, the words dragging on their way out, “uhh, don’t the Welsh speak English, but just in a Welsh accent?” She taught me that the Welsh’s first language is actually Celtic, not English. I had learned something; here I was thinking that they only spoke English everywhere across the UK (save a little Gaelic in Ireland). (Maybe I’m not as worldly as I’d like to think.)

Aiden entered my tent around 8 PM to join me for dinner. I had asked him to earlier on the trail, tired of eating my meals alone in my tent like some sad hermit. However, I soon regretted it; he seemed displaced, and I could tell he wanted to get back to rapping with his mates in his prima langue. After dinner, we conducted our nightly status update. I had come to enjoy it, if for no reason than the undivided attention for a few minutes. The oximeter revealed my blood oxygen level to be in the 80s (out of 100. Aiden said that >55 was okay), and my pulse to be in the low-90s (good; over 130 was dangerous). He recorded the results onto my daily status chart as usual.

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Samuel, my “stomach engineer” (the joking title given by Aiden) poked his head into the tent. I thanked him for dinner, overstating how much I had enjoyed it.  (Other than the fried chicken—which made regular appearances—and occasionally the soup, the food was consistently mediocre.) Samuel didn’t seem eager to speak English; he smiled shyly and nodded in response. His face seemed familiar somehow, youthful in its expressions but creased by deep wrinkles. He said something in Swahili, from which Aiden translated: “How old are you?”

“41,” I replied.

They exchanged some words. Aiden exclaimed, “Samuel is 42!”

I grunted in solidarity, but in my mind, looking at Samuel’s prematurely wrinkled face, I was again reminded of the privilege disparity.

Another short exchange between them.

“He says you look young.”

Instead of extolling the virtues of Kiehl’s or a low-gluten diet, I deflected. “Well…Samuel is strong like Simba!” Looking at Samuel, I flexed my arms and made a roaring noise.

Pro Tip: Whenever at a loss for words, pantomime works wonders.

Day 5

Another cold night, though slightly better than the previous one at Shira 2. I slept almost 8 full hours! Having achieved my first full night’s sleep on the mountain, I felt goddamned celebratory. The ravens began calling at daybreak, and I sat listening to them, and my thoughts, for the hour until my hot water would arrive.

My stream of thoughts had purified somewhat, less belabored by fears and anxiety, the worries of things to come. Now I found myself exploring trains of thoughts for possibilities, opportunities. Suddenly the idea of abandoning an inconsistent freelance run back home to return to full-time didn’t seem so detestable. I imagined myself showing up for work in smart business casual attire.  Maybe it was time for a change of scenery: SF? LA? Hell, maybe I would even start waking up earlier. The distance, the mountain air, it was giving me new perspective.

The first cup of tea after each cold night was a simple comfort, yet one that filled me with the sense that things would be okay.  I rolled the clear glass mug between my hands, from palm to fingertips, again and again like I was rolling dough for a baguette. It dispelled the cold slowly but surely.

Knowing we weren’t leaving today until 8:40, I splurged 10% of my phone’s battery on Spotify, including some old-school Michael Jackson, Big Pun’s “I’m Not a Player,” a few thunderous death metal tracks, and the artsy brilliance of Perfume Genius.

At 9 AM we departed camp, headed for Baranco Wall to the east, a very steep rock face.

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It wasn’t long before we were climbing hand-to-rock, though the holds were generous protrusions, knobby like giant bones.

After an hour of scaling the wall, we were at the top. I had become a ancillary member of the two couples’ group, and we took pictures of each other. A late-20s French couple seemed to want their picture taken but were too shy to ask anyone, so I hailed them in my rudimentary French and offered to do the honors. They were openly appreciative, and thanked me in English while I tried to art direct their photos in French.

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I began getting the sense that Aiden didn’t like that I was developing a rapport with the other crew.  It certainly wasn’t that he wanted to monopolize conversation with me, because our dialogue was spartan, almost entirely pragmatic in nature. I started to wonder if, in contrast with his freewheeling chumminess with other Tanzanians, he actually had control issues. (It wouldn’t be the last time I would see this in Aiden.)

The two couples would start off before me, eventually stopping for a break. Aiden and I would catch up with them, but instead of stopping to rest with them, Aiden would wait until we were 100 yards in front of them before saying, “let’s take a break.”  A few minutes later, the couples would pass us again. We continued to leap-frog each other like this until we all converged in a deep valley with a energetic stream cutting across it. “This river runs from the melting snows of Kilimanjaro and goes all the way into Moshi town,” Aiden pointed out.  The camp lay just over the sharp ascent that took us out of the valley. The younger men decided to flaunt their physical prowess, leaving their guides (and ladies) behind. The Brit (Ollie, 31, whom I had learned was ex-military) tore up the mountain without a moments pause, the 20-year old Canadian (also named Ollie, and an obnoxious little shit) not far behind him. I sensibly stuck to “pole pole.” Canadian Ollie had irritated me over the course of the day, with a combination youthful arrogance and countless reminders that he was, indeed, Canadian, and therefore an expert at all things  mountain and snow. Ironic, here I was judging Canadian patriotism when, after Trump’s election, I toyed with the idea of moving there. (So Portlandia of me.)

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At the top and into Karanga camp, I found Andrew eating a lunch of fried chicken and french fries. He informed me that he had made an impromptu decision that—instead of staying here for the night like the rest of us—he would push forward to the next camp, which was 4 or 5 hours away still. It would shave a day off of his trek. Though it was only 12:45 PM at the time, I marveled at his energy. He responded with compliments on my own pace. How my tune had changed about him; I was now charmed by his effusive niceness, although maybe I was just starved for human contact. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed—and a little envious—that a man at his age with his body type could have such boundless energy. “Dude…don’t kill yourself,” I offered in the way of advice, but I could tell he had already made up his mind.

I found my tent and crawled in to splurge on naproxen and some more music, this time my “Mostly Mozart“ playlist. I played XCom until my IPad notified me I was at 10% battery power, with a chime designed to sound disappointing. I landed my spaceship in Mexico, saved the game, slapped the cover shut on the IPad. I wasn’t too worried, as my solar-charge Powerpack had been soaking up direct rays since that morning. I had tied it to the my backpack and let it bathe in the sun.

I should plug the advantages of having a good book in a situation like this; I can’t describe the number of hours over the trek that I spent awake, at night, in a cold tent, not wanting to do anything but stay as deep in my sleeping bag as I could burrow. Or simply bored during the day with no one to talk to. Sometimes the boredom, or stillness, and resulting restlessness, threatened to drive me nuts. My solution: affix my headlamp (if night), find a comfortable position on my side, and reach for my book. In this case it happened to be Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, which started off slow but really developed into a vibrant, charming, detailed, and all-around wonderful novel. (You’re welcome, Jennifer.)

Day 6

Another day. Ravens bullied about at daybreak, the anticipation for my hot tea, a mediocre but filling breakfast.

Yet despite all the similarities, I knew this day would be different. We would make a 4 km trek to Barafu base camp, rest for the day, then set off again tonight at 11 PM for the summit.

We set off, and I learned quickly why the signs had attributed 4 hours to travel the 4 km to Barafu. 4 km walking through the mostly-flat streets of Brooklyn is not the same as 4 km of straight-up incline, some of it very steep.

I shadowed Aiden as I had become accustomed to. We had been the very last (save a few straggling porters) to leave camp, but we passed more and more people—most of them younger, to my pride’s delight—along the way. From the depths of the Aiden’s bags a new piece of equipment had been exhumed: a silver oxygen tank was now strapped to the rear base of Aiden’s pack. It was about the length and thickness of my arm, enough to get one or two trekkers safely off the mountain if they fell ill from the altitude.

“Do you have a mask for that in your bag?”

“A mask? For the oxygen tank. Yes, in my bag.”

We walked for another few minutes before I suggested, in my best California stoner voice:

“So, like, d’ya wanna like hit that when we get to camp?” I erupted in laughter. He pretended to laugh along but didn’t seem to appreciate the humor, and said nothing about taking future pulls from the oxygen tank.

As we trudged along, I kept very close to Aiden, physically. So close that at times the oxygen tank swung below my chin. It strikes me as peculiar in retrospect, as I definitely like my personal space. But then, it was as if the closer I remained to him, the more an invisible tether hummed between us, allowing his inertia to help pull me along.

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The rocky landscape began to take on shapes in my eyes. A giant stone crocodile loomed to my right, and up the hill on the left, a 4-foot high onion. On the last steep incline, the head of a vulture provided my next marker.  I tried pointing out these totems to Aiden; an invitation to play, like the game where you find shapes in clouds. He was not impressed, nor was he interested in joining me. Maybe he thought I was losing it.

Finally we crested the ridge, approaching Barafu (“ice” in Swahili) base camp on deliciously flat ground. Underneath my boots, natural shale tinkled like wind chimes. The sign from Kalanga camp had said it would take 4 hours; I had made it in 2 and a half. Perhaps at the detriment of my body, my ego had ignored “pole pole” once again.

Aiden pointed out a nice tent situated at the front of the camp, saying quietly, “You see that one?” Inside was a father and two sons, whom I knew were Russian–I had overheard one a couple camps back saying “Nyet, nyet.” He continued, “That company is owned by an American in Arusha. You pick that company if you have very very much money.” I stared at the setup, gears turning in my head as the thought of “An American in Arusha” shimmered in marquee lights while flashing dollar signs fell like rain behind it.

Aiden and I took our first pictures together at the Barafu camp sign. It was a welcome act of camaraderie in what had thus far felt like a strictly professional arrangement. (In the picture, I’m attempting a fist bump while he ignores me.)

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Barafu camp was where all routes converged, so unlike the others, there seemed to be a near-constant parade of trekkers and their crews coming and going.  Now, unlike my experience at Lemosho gate, I saw the Germans, Irish, British whom I had suspected were on the mountain all along.  Just off the western edge of camp, the summit of Kilimanjaro burst dramatically from the horizon, closer than ever, its icy white cap contrasting against the cerulean sky.

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An unflinching sun baked the campsite to warm temperatures although the threat of cold never felt far away. Further into camp we found our tents; Samuel, Frank, and the porters were all there. Our outfit seemed meager against the backdrop of many other tents and companies, many larger and equipped with name-brand tents. One crew even wore matching outfits, from head to toe. My bags and sleeping pad were inside when I arrived. I crawled in, took my boots, shirt, and socks off, and yawned. I doubted I’d be able to catch any sleep before tonight’s departure, but after lunch I would give it a shot. I knew I would need it.

It would be a lie to deny that part of me was looking forward more to tomorrow’s descent than to reaching the summit. The thing that I had worked so hard for all along seemed eclipsed by thoughts of a hot shower back at the hotel—the hotel that was, incidentally, at an altitude that could not cause an edema in my brain. I forced myself to push away those tempting thoughts. Even if all went without a hitch, that shower was still 48 hours away. I was certain that getting up this goddamned mountain was going to require all my energy and focus. Despite that, I found myself again anxious about getting sleep with the sun blazing overhead and Aiden shouting loudly to someone in Swahili four feet away from my ears.

After lunch, Aiden informed me that Andrew had just returned from from the summit, so I went looking for him. I couldn’t help laughing when he pulled his tent door open; his face was sunburnt, tufts of hair sticking up, eyes bloodshot; he looked like a man who had been nursing a savage hangover and then struck by lightning. “I should’ve listened to you when you said not to kill yourself,” was the first thing he said.  He admitted that, having skipped a camp the day before and with only a bit of rest between that and taking the summit, his day had been grueling. I consoled him by saying that he was one day closer to a hot shower than I. We exchanged words of praise and encouragement again, and I promised to give him a ring when I got back to the hotel.

I tried to take a nap but as I’d expected it was futile. Somehow, at this camp only, a folding chair had materialized outside of my tent. My crew must’ve been carrying it all along and simply forgotten about it, which annoyed me. I could’ve been sitting in a chair this whole goddamn time?! Or is this a reward for making it to base camp? I thought sarcastically. My resentments melted as I took a seat and luxuriated in being able to sit upright and comfortably for the first time in almost a week. I sat, stretching my back while listening to the tinny radio in Frank and Samuel’s nearby tent. They, as well as almost everyone else in camp, were glued to the World Cup. I had never been all that interested in soccer (“football”) before, but I found myself trying to hear who was playing, and who had just scored when excited cheers (or boos) suddenly erupted from all over the camp.

I asked Frank if I could eat outside, in my new throne. He shrugged and began setting up my dinner station on a small crate next to me. I felt a little self-conscious with the optics of so clearly being served, but taking the first bite of food in an actual chair brought such pleasure that those trepidations faded away.

Once I’d stopped moving, it seemed as if my muscles had suddenly atrophied. Our tents, like most of the others, were down a ridge from the camp entrance, though only by about 100 meters or so. Yet getting up to the series of toilets was a feat that took me minutes rather than seconds. I tried not to entertain the thought (but did anyway): If getting 100 meters to the restroom is this much of an ordeal, how the hell am I going to hike 7 hours uphill at freaking midnight?! I shoved the fear away, growling at it. Then I noticed a porter watching me standing in place and growling, and I forced myself to take another step. At one point when I was resting, taking deep breaths, I must’ve been close to Ollie the Canadian’s tent, as I heard him say, “This is pretty fun. I see myself on Everest in, oh, three years?” I debated finding the energy to go punch him in the face.

The sun started to slide west. Aiden came in and sat. A newfound urgency punctuated his preview of the day ahead.

“Where are your mittens. Do you have another pair of gloves? No? Hmm. You have handwarmers? Good. You’ll need those.” “How many t-shirts do you have. You will want to wear three t-shirts, underneath your long-sleeve shirt, then your hoodie, then your ski jacket.” “I think two pairs of socks will be fine, although you could wear three.” “We will give you hot water in your Nalgene tomorrow so it does not freeze.” “Got your gaiters? Good.”  “Did you take your Diomox this morning? Okay, great.” He informed me that I would wake up at 11 PM, have breakfast at 11:30, and we would depart at midnight. Frank would be coming with us. He also conveyed that the normal time to get to Stella Point was 6 hours, and one more hour to Uhuru peak, the final destination.  Before he left, he warned me, “When we are on the mountain, you must tell me if you are feeling bad. You must.” I assured him I would, we shook hands, and he was gone.

My teeth had been brushed, bathroom used, bag packed for the next day, outfit laid out. It was just after 6 PM when I swallowed a melatonin. I inserted my earplugs, and opened Manhattan Beach, laying on my side, propped up on an elbow. I was on the last chapter, which felt like perfect timing.  I was tired, though not particularly sleepy; however, as 7 PM rolled around, I closed my book, pulled my elbow in, and closed my eyes.

Day 7 (almost)

I slipped out of sleep’s delicate hold just shy of 11 pm. Adrenaline began to drip into my system immediately, and I was upright and putting on clothes mere moments after my eyes were open.

Breakfast was served. Aiden called out from his tent to make sure I was awake. I affirmed I was, and asked if he could help me with my gaiters. He called out to Frank in Swahili; Frank soon popped his head in and I looked at him, a little embarrassed and said, “Sorry, Frank.” I handed him my gaiters and stuck my boots outside the tent.

Fed, gaiters on, B-vitamin taken, tea sipped, Camelback filled (room temperature water), Nalgene filled (warm water), bundled in all previously-discussed clothing, hand warmers oxidized and shaken and inserted in my mittens, bladder emptied, headlamp battery changed and headlamp affixed to my forehead. I have never liked using hiking poles, but I strapped them to my pack in case I would need them. I was pretty sure I was ready. I felt warm, maybe too warm, which concerned me. Aiden gave me a quick equipment check.

“Aiden, I’m kinda hot.”

“That’s okay. You won’t be for very long.” He caught sight of my blue Camelback tube. “When you finish sippy-sippy, you must blow water back so the hose is empty. Understand? Because it will freeze.” I sipped my hose, blew it back into the reservoir, gave Aiden a thumbs-up.

Aiden and Frank announced that they were ready, and we turned toward the mountain. Aside from a few of the solar-powered pole lights that dotted the campsite, we were surrounded by pitch black. Yet winding up the mountain in front of us was a connect-the-dots string of headlamps, each one a trekker making his or her way to the summit, stretching away until the lights were miniscule rays oscillating at dizzying heights. At a few minutes past midnight, we embarked, following their lead.

We began hiking across the same dusty, rocky earth that had led us to the camp. Just after we left the glow of the last lights of camp, the land sloped upward. With it, so did my body heat. First I unzipped my ski jacket. Fifteen minutes later I unzipped my hoodie. Then off came my ski hat, then my mittens. I wiped sweat from my brow.

We must’ve been moving quickly, because we kept passing trekkers, each one a feather in my ego’s cap. The French couple whose picture I had taken a few days before, a lanky and silent trio of Scandanavians, a pudgier quartet of middle age Chinese trekkers. I kept climbing the mountain, one step after another on a staircase that stretched off into the inky sky.

Two hours into a winding trail uphill, we stopped at a large rock, relieving our bladders behind it. Just ahead on the mountain, I could hear the voices of the two couples. This motivated me to continue. Was I thinking I could reach the top before them? I had accepted the fact that–being much younger than me–they would get there first, but I guess being competitive doesn’t always adhere to logic.

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Soon after the winding trail became a series of switchbacks. Now the earth had been overtaken by ice. With each step came a crunch. Every time I moved my head, my headlamp shone into millions of ice prisms, which exploded into a dazzling gem-shower of sparkling light. It was dizzying at first, and there were times that I became wobbly and had to right myself, causing Aiden to glance over his shoulder to make sure I was all right.

The switchbacks continued for hours. As we gained altitude, the temperature steadily dropped. My hat and mittens were back on, and all zippers were now up.  Let me tell you something about my boots: because I get hot easily, I love breathable fabrics, so when I saw a pair of Sportiva hiking boots in my size that were both breathable and waterproof, I thought to myself, Perfect, and clicked the “Add to Cart” button. For the first time, I was regretting the breathability of my shoes. Because the cold air was going straight through the fabric and weaving it’s way through my socks, and my toes had lost all feeling.  Soon they would begin aching, forcing me to try and curl them repeatedly to generate some friction.

I took the mouthpiece of my Camelback and sucked on it. Nothing moved. I sucked again. Nothing. I reached back and squeezed the hose. It was frozen solid.  I took a swig from my Nalgene instead. What had been warm water a few hours before now was cold, swimming with chunks of ice.

I can’t describe the singleness of summiting during the night. I had memorized every detail of what Aiden was wearing. Looking over, say, at the expanse of ice meant a million light-diamonds would explode in my vision. Otherwise everything was black, impenetrable night. Each step had been predetermined by the hikers ahead of us, who had left indentions in the ice. That is where we put our feet, and would be where those behind us would put theirs.

My heart leapt when I spotted a group of headlamps stopped ahead, and in their light was a wooden sign. We approached to find a few of the faster groups–including the two couples, whom I greeted enthusiastically–at the sign for Stella Point. Stella Point is 18,885 feet above sea level, and only an hour from Uhuru Peak, the top of Kilimanjaro. It was 5 AM when we arrived. Aiden took a couple of pictures of me. The two girls were looking pretty worse for wear, but the couples set off before me for the top. Aiden, Frank and I left soon after.

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From Stella Point, the incline began to decrease into something (finally!) more gradual. My spirits were bolstered from reaching Stella Point; now I knew that the lion’s share of the work was done. Nonetheless, it was still an hour away, so I allowed myself to slip back into the meditative following of Aiden’s footsteps.

I heard voices ahead and above me, closer than they had been, so I permitted a glance upward. There, off the trail, doubled over and throwing up violently, was Ollie the Canadian. I stifled laughter as I passed him, tempted to chant, “USA! USA!” The other couple and his American girlfriend stood a few feet away, waiting for him. As I was passing them British Ollie called out.

“Matt! How’s it going?”

“Oh man, it’s a battle!”

“Well, you’re winning it, mate.”

Now I don’t care how cheesy that exchange might sound to you, because most anyone who reads this will probably be at or slightly above sea level as they do. We were 19,000 feet above sea level. I shouted thanks as I trudged forward, then continued to quietly snicker at Nature proving to Canadian Ollie that he had overestimated his abilities.

To my right, the black sky was beginning to be diluted with the faintest hint of light creeping over the horizon. As I continued, my surroundings started to come into view.  And there, out on the expanse of ice and snow, beckoned the wooden sign for Uhuru Peak.

I picked up my pace, soon jogging, and then my hand was on it. On the day of June 17th, 2018, I was the first person to reach Uhuru peak, the highest point of Kilimanjaro mountain. I was standing at 19,341 feet above sea level. We had arrived at 6 am, almost on the dot.

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Canadian Ollie was the next to reach the sign. I high-fived him; in the jubliation of the moment all was forgiven. The rest of the couples arrived just after. Photos were taken.  The Welsh girl—I never remembered her name for some reason—began taking video. We all shuffled around, trying to avoid obstructing all the pictures and videos being taken. Sunlight was now streaming over the horizon, and we were illuminated in its glow. Aiden led me away, pointing out Arrow glacier, which, in the distance, looked like the White Wall in Game of Thrones.

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The world around us was now completely visible, and I looked around, awestruck. We stood on a rolling floor of dappled blue-white ice that sallied off into the distance. It was otherworldly. But even more unbelievable to my senses was that, in every direction I looked, the clouds were actually beneath us. The ice seemed to roll away and merge into a pillowy expanse that stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see. I mean, sure, from the windows of planes I had seen clouds below me, but this—this felt like I was standing on the surface of another planet.

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None of us stayed very long to soak in the glory of the moment. Less than 15 minutes had passed before we were on our way back down.

I may have been the victor of the ascent but the couples left me handily behind on the way down. Aiden keep shepherding me away from the ice and onto the scree of loose pebbles. I kept slipping and falling, which not only slowed me down, it eventually started pissing me off.

Ollie the Brit passed me easily on the ice, and the others followed in his tracks. A few minutes the couples had disappeared from view. At that moment I felt Aiden was trying to control me like a head of cattle, as if I had never walked on snow or ice before.

“You must walk on the rocks, Matt.”

“Why the fuck do you want me to walk on these goddamn rocks?! I can get traction on the ice, and if I fall there, I won’t bash my head in! Fuck these fucking rocks!”

The serenity of being on top of the world had devolved into a temper tantrum. Aiden muttered something under his breath and started walking away. Frank stayed dutifully behind me, babysitting. (This kinda pissed me off as well.)

The mood was foul for the next couple of hours. Aiden and I had had our first fight. He and Frank spoke in Swahili, and I just grumbled angrily as I tried not to lose my footing on the sliding rocks.

We continued passing trekkers going up, even hours after we had left the peak. One middle-aged woman wearing a Florida Gators cap was moving very slowly, and at the rate she was going, wouldn’t be long for this world. I cheered her on, (“C’mon, Florida!”) telling her that she was getting close (not true).

The temperature rose steadily and rapidly as we descended in the sun. Soon I was tearing off layer after layer, until my torso was only covered by a single t-shirt.

Finally, to my utter relief, the downhill slope began to flatten, and I could see the tents of Barafu camp. We arrived 45 minutes later. Aiden and I hadn’t spoken since I yelled at him, so I sidled up to him to make amends.

“Hey, I just wanna thank you for helping me get up there. Sorry I got mad. I was just mad that I kept falling. I was really frustrated.”

He put on a smile and said, “No problem commander. Hakuna Matata. You did well.” He pointed to the tent. “You should try to take a nap.” He looked at his watch, which read 11 am. “We will depart for Mweka camp at 1 o’ clock, after lunch.” I nodded assent.

I took off every layer of clothing but one and slid on a pair of espadrilles. I needed to brush my teeth and use the toilet, but the outhouse seemed miles away. Each small step was an undertaking, and I was panting, leaning over to try and fill my lungs. The altitude was finally getting to me, in the sense that I couldn’t get enough oxygen. I finally made it to the outhouse, did my business, rested for a moment, then headed back—slowly, slowly—to the tent.

The afternoon sun transformed my tent into a heat lantern. So despite the nine hours of hiking, I just lay there, resting my body without any actual sleep.

We ate lunch and left camp just after 1 PM.  We left Barafu the same way we came, descending into the desert valley, until another trail split off in a more easterly direction. About an hour from camp we encountered a bizarre sight. It appeared to be a graveyard of what looked like long mesh metal carts, with a single wheel in the center of them.  There were probably 20 or 30 of them, laying on their sides. Looking more closely though, I could see that they weren’t rusted at all; in fact, they appeared to be relatively new.

Stretcher

“What are these, Aiden?”

“Stretchers. If someone gets sick. It takes 8 porters to carry someone out.”

My jaw fell. “You mean they have to go all the way to the gate with one of these?” (We were still about 12 km, or 8 hours, to the gate.)

“Yeah. It’s either that or a $5,000 helicopter ride.” He paused and said, “You know, back at Baranco, after you were asleep, someone had to be helicoptered away from camp.”

My mouth hung open still. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He smiled wryly. “I didn’t want you to be intimidated.”

We reached High Camp—also called Millenium Camp—a couple hours later. It was one of the more ancillary camps, like Shira 1. Only people who were struggling, or those older or less-fit trekkers who had signed up for a 9-day trek would stay overnight here. Ironically the facilities seemed to be more recently renovated than the other camps, and the campsite was more scenic.

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“Andrew stayed here last night, I heard,” Aiden mentioned as we rested for a moment in the shade of a tree. “Instead of going to Mweka.” I recalled the ragged sight of him after he had returned from the summit and expelled a belly laugh.

“I told him to take it easy! Well, I hope he’s okay.”

“He should be arriving at the hotel today,” Aiden noted. This thought cut my laughter short, turning Schadenfreude to envy.

We stood, stretched, and continued. I watched as the Alpine desert acquiesced to the greenery of the Moorland. Plants began popping up more and more often, until the landscape—which had been nothing but umber-hued dirt a couple hours before—was blanketed with green.  I was running on fumes, and began asking Aiden if we had reached the camp, with the regularity of a child in the back seat on a long road trip. We hiked over hill after hill, until we could see rainforest ahead.

Entering the forest was reuniting with the dampness. Soon mists began rolling in from the East, reducing visibility to only a few meters. 45 minutes later we entered Mweka camp, a 17.5 km hike from Barafu base camp.

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Aiden saw me urinating by a nearby stream, and approached. “Hey commander! Andrew is waiting for you at the hotel.” I was flattered. “He is?” “Yes, he is waiting for you at the hotel. His guide wanted me to tell you.” Had I become popular on the mountain?

After we all settled in, Aiden came to my tent with the explicit objective of discussing tipping. It was awkward. I told him how much I planned on giving each of them, following what was stated in the KPAP, or Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, a pro-porters website I had found online. Aiden made an exasperated expression, and said, “That is the old book.”  While the last thing I wanted was to undertip the guys, my bullshit meter started to tick upwards. He continued, “Did you look on our website? They tell you what you should tip for each,” and listed out higher figures, which translated to about $150 more, total.

“But Aiden, don’t you see why that is…questionable? Why wouldn’t I look at an independent source to tell me tipping standards?  Of course the trekking company website is going to give me higher figures. That’s like a waiter coming up to a table after the meal and saying, ‘I know the standard is 20%, but at this restaurant we encourage 30% gratuity.'”

He took a different tack. “That is the old book, but listen, tipping is optional, you give whatever you feel we deserve. It is what you will leave us with,” yet his words dripped with disappointment, judgment.

I told him I would think about it and give them what I thought was right. Seconds later I heard him talking to Samuel and Frank in Swahili in the next tent, his tone raised. I may not have known what he was saying but I could hear the frustration in his voice.

I fell asleep at 7 PM, after spending at least a half-hour calculating and recalculating tips, trying to find the perfect balance of generosity and frugality.

Day 8

I woke at 5:30 AM. I had slept over 10 hours, probably the most I’ve ever slept in a tent in my life. We set off at 7 AM for the gate, and reached it by 11 AM. The last of the park signs read, “Bon Voyage!” which was strange because everything else had been in English. I had to wait as Aiden signed some paperwork, letting the park know I had made it back alive. While he did so a young Tanzanian led me to a garden hose, where he cleaned all the mud from my boots. I gave him two shillings for his trouble.

Emmanuel, the driver, appeared, greeting me warmly, congratulating me on making it to the top. I raved to him about how well the roots he had dug up had worked on my indigestion. We piled into the van and began the ride to Moshi.

We had descended the mountain in the direction of town, so we only needed to drive 45 minutes, to my relief. As we left the gate, we passed by rural poverty: the homes were almost entirely concrete, without glass windows or doors, corrugated metal sheets slapped crudely on top to keep the rain out. People stared motionless from their porches, watching us go by with eyes that searched for something that would probably never arrive.

The poor houses turned into coffee farms. “It is harvest season,” Aiden informed me. Groups of Tanzanians were out in the fields, picking the pink coffee berries; other groups shelling them on large sheets in clearings. The farms became shops, the frequency of which increased until we were clearly in the chaos of Moshi proper. We drove first to an ATM (at my request), where I took out a little over $500 for the crew.  It was more than I expected to spend on tips, but when I saw how excited they were when they received it, I felt confident that I had made the right choice.  My final, deciding rationale was that $500 for me was a completely different sum of money than it was for them. Were they the best crew on the mountain? Probably not, but they had worked hard, and deserved it.

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We stopped by the office and thankfully they did not interrogate me or ask me to write them a review; I just returned my sleeping bag, issued thanks and hugs, and Emmanuel and I departed for my hotel.

My new bestie Andrew was waiting for me in the lobby when I arrived. We shook hands and hugged. I excused myself for a hot shower and change of clothes. I returned to the lobby, renewed. We sat outside by the pool and drank beers together, comparing our experiences. He told me of how exhausted he had been approaching the summit, how he’d been reduced to repeating 30-second breaks for each of the 50 paces he’d taken, over and over, until he had reached the summit. We cackled about Canadian Ollie’s vomitous set-back, and compared our crews and guides. Even in the silences between our stories, there was something shared. Finally, we exchanged numbers and email addresses, urging the other to stay in touch. My flight to Zanzibar would be leaving soon, and I went to collect my bags.

Epilogue

I had plenty of time to ponder on why I wanted to climb Kili. What I landed on was this: yes, it seemed like it would be a life-changing experience. But more than that; something inside continuously urges me to push my limits. I am someone who loves to question everything, including myself, and that can translate into a trepidation for taking risks, for making leaps. So was it life-changing? Hell yes. And what did it do for my limits? Well, the next time I face down one of my many fears, and that overbearing voice in my mind is trying to convince me that I don’t have what it takes, I can think of Kilimanjaro, and that, if I take things pole pole, I am capable of so much more than I could’ve ever imagined.

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