“Your guide will probably tell you,” Ezekiel said, “that the name Kilimanjaro comes from kilima, the Swahili word for ‘mountain,’ and jaro, the Maasai word for ‘white capped.’ But that’s just for the
tourists. We Chagga people who have always lived here, we believe the name comes from our own language: kilema-kyaro, which means ‘Impossible to Climb.’ ”
Flying south from Nairobi earlier that day, I had seen Kilimanjaro for the first time. Gazing through the plane window at 17,000 feet in the air, I looked up at the peak. Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa and at 5,850 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level it’s the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. I stared at it hard. I have hiked in the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas. Yet my mind struggled to fit this solitary, staggering mass of rock into the rest of the landscape: a glacier-ringed mountain at the equator; a rainforest in the middle of a desert.
From the Serengeti plains to the Indian Ocean, East Africa is mostly yellow sand and red clay. But from the white-streaked crown of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic cone run streams and springs that trickle down through miles of grey lava and scree to create a green girdle of rainforest in the foothills. A vast, flowing skirt of cultivated, fertile land encircles the mountain for hundreds of square kilometers below. As if by some mysterious power, the mountain makes its own weather. It conjures clouds from the hot air, bringing down rain and dew that nourishes the land even during the long, arid months when the surrounding savannah turns as dry as bones.
“It’s like walking from the equator to the North Pole in a week,” Ezekiel told me.
The two of us sipped sweet milk tea at stall outside Kilimanjaro Airport. Ezekiel was a young Tanzanian man with dark black skin. He wore a red t-shirt with SPAIN written on it in big yellow letters, the team he was cheering for in the 2010 World Cup. Ezekiel worked for the company we hired for our trek up the mountain and he had met me in the terminal when my plane landed. Now he was keeping me company while I waited for my son Joshua’s flight to arrive from the US.
“So do you work in Nairobi?” Ezekiel asked.
“I was only in Kenya for ten days, working for the World Bank. My wife Teresa and I run a small communications consulting company. We work for development and environmental organizations. The two of us train their experts all over the world to communicate better about why their projects and programs make a difference. Things such as why it’s important for local banks to finance small businesses, and how to get electricity into remote villages.”
“And where is your wife?”
“Teresa had to return home to Washington DC to spend time with her daughter. I stayed in order to climb Kilimanjaro with my son, Josh. He just finished his first year at college. He’s studying to be an actor at the University of Maryland.”
“He’s a movie star?”
“Not yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me someday. He has been on an American national TV show, and in a lot of plays.”
“He’s handsome then?”
“Hey, I’m his father. Of course I think he’s handsome. Friends tell me he looks like a young John Cusack.” From Ezekiel’s blank stare, I could tell this description meant nothing. “Well, let’s
just say he’s got a lot more hair on his head than his old man,” I added.
“So it is just the two of you climbing, father and son?”
“Yes, that’s the idea,” I nodded. “I haven’t seen much of him in the last few years. We used to do a lot of wilderness vacations together. When he was younger, before he started doing theater camps every summer, we would go river rafting in Western Canada and sea kayaking. We even did a safari in South Africa when he was thirteen, and we got chased by a rhino. It’s been six or seven years now since we’ve done something like this–well, I guess we’ve never done anything quite like Kilimanjaro.”
We heard a distant roar in the sky. Josh’s KLM flight was headed for the runway. When the plane touched down, I talked the customs officers into letting me back into the baggage claim area. From there I could peer through the immigration lanes, spot him, and let him see that I was waiting for him. A minute later I recognized the unruly head of thick brown hair bopping through the gate and into the building. He was one of the first off the packed flight. We waved wildly at each other. When I see Josh after several weeks apart, it’s still sometimes a shock. How did that little kid I used to pick up by an arm and a leg and twirl around while he made airplane noises turn into this lumbering twenty-year-old with sideburns and stubble who wears the same-sized clothes as me? He may seem like a man on the outside, but I still see all the behaviors he had when he was a child–the way his right foot sometimes drags just a fraction, how he bites the inside of his cheeks when he’s distracted, that puppy-dog smile of unbridled affection. I see all these things and it sometimes creates the illusion for me that he’s still a little boy wearing a Halloween man-suit.
I gestured to Josh that he needed to fill out a form to get his entry visa. I knew if he could do this quickly, he could beat the rush. 350 tourists were filing out of the plane right behind him. He found the form then knelt on the floor, his legs splayed out in an M-shaped position as he filled in the boxes. No, no, I gestured frantically, not on the floor! Get in line and do it, otherwise the queue will fill up and it will take forever! But his head was drooped down, concentrating on the paper. The place was now too noisy for me to be heard even if I yelled. I watched, helpless, waiting for him to look up, willing him to look up. God, just chill, I told myself. He’s been on his own in college for a year. He can navigate his own way through a border crossing. So what if it takes an extra hour?
The luggage carousel started up. I know, I’ll wait for his bag, I told myself. For 45 minutes I watched four hundred rucksacks and gear bags spin round and round, searching for Josh’s new blue duffel among them. We had bought it together in the spring at REI, and stuffed it full with new boots, shirts, thermal underwear, fleece, and a poly-fill jacket. I remembered my own first duffel bag stuffed with similar gear–but for work, not play. I was seventeen and headed for Saskatchewan to live in a tent and sweat twelve hours a day under the hot prairie sun on a pipeline survey crew. By Josh’s age I had spent over a year of my life in various survey crews and oil rigs to make money for college. I watched the luggage go round and round, and remembered what it was like to be young, strong, and living outdoors.
It was hard at first for a nerdy, middle-class kid like me to do punishing, physical labor and fit in with the tough bastards who work on pipelines and oil rigs. But my dad had done the same thing when he was a young man. He had worked as a deckhand on Lake Ontario and cut brush for new power lines in Northern Ontario. He helped me get my first jobs out west. I remember figuring it out that for many generations boys my age went off to war, and the ones who survived came back as men. I knew I was lucky there were no wars when I was growing up. But I also knew I needed some kind of rite of passage. The oil rigs did it for me. There were days that I cried in my bunk, scared and exhausted, knowing that no one within two thousand miles cared if I lived or died. But I kept pulling on my boots and hardhat. Not a war hero. But by surviving I knew I could make it in the world of men. It changed my perception of who I was.
I remembered coming back from the rigs before starting university in the summer of 1978. My dad took one look at me, squeezed my large bicep then challenged me to arm wrestle. I tried to put him off, but he insisted. He had beaten me at this game more times than I could tell when I was a teen. We went out to the back patio and sat down on either side of the table. I beat him slowly with my right hand, then quickly with my left. That was last time we ever played that particular game together.
“Hey, Dad!” Josh bounded through immigration.
He threw his arms round me and squeezed. Josh has this great, uninhibited, full-body grab. When my own father hugged me, I used to flinch. Right up into my late forties I had to steel myself for his embrace. He’d spanked us as kids, and told us that love meant teaching us discipline. Decades later I still had to fight a reflex to pull back when he touched me. That’s part of why I never hit Josh, and I’m grateful to my ex-wife that despite all our fights, on this issue we agreed. As a little kid Josh would sling his arms around my neck and just hang on me. I’d feel him breathe deep and relax. I loved this sense of being a safe place for him, a shelter. That had changed some as he grew older, especially during his teenage years, when he and I had fought and there had been a time there was a real fracture in our relationship. That was past now, but the memory of those childhood hugs came back to me at moments like this.
Zombies on Kilimanjaro - A Father/Son Journey Above the Clouds
Foreword by Wade Davis, author of Into the Silence, winner of the 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
A father and son climb Mount Kilimanjaro. On the journey to the roof of Africa they traverse the treacherous terrain of fatherhood, divorce, dark secrets and old grudges, and forge an authentic adult relationship.
The high-altitude trek takes them through some of the weirdest landscapes on the planet, and the final all-night climb to the frozen summit tests their endurance. On the way to the top father and son explore how our stories about ourselves can imprison us in the past, and the importance of letting go. The mountain too has a story to tell, a story about Climate Change and the future of humankind - a future etched all too clearly on Kilimanjaro’s retreating glaciers.
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