Happiness is a Place

(While You Are Still Breathing)

Bhutan Adventure Thoughts – Day 4

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022.

I was anxious to get on the bike early because we were headed back to the capital city of Thimphu, and I wanted time to explore the city on foot before dark. I felt another night’s rest had upgraded my legs as I took over the pace-setting on the climb back up to Dochu Pass. I dropped Pema after only 19 of the 50km climb. I momentarily felt bad about this before remembering all the times on the road when I had felt like trash and he had continued to dance on his pedals. So I rode on knowing he’d probably catch up during my next bad stretch. That never came around though, and the next time I saw him, he and our driver pulled up beside me smiling and taking photos. He would ride in the truck the rest of the way to the pass leaving the narrow and windy heights all to me. Every five kilometers or so I’d find them holding water or snacks out as I came around another switchback. My very own Tour experience! In between those feed stations, there was nothing but incline and thin air. It was such a freeing otherworldly experience, and I couldn’t stop thinking about just how rare moments in life like these are.

The temperature fluctuated between brutally hot in the sun and cool and breezy in the shadow of the mountain, but I did my best to keep the pedals turning over at a high cadence regardless. I wasn’t pretending about my cycling chops, I was simply pushing to that comfortably hard space without any external pressures or influences. An Hors Catégorie (HC) is a French term used to describe a climb that is so tough it is beyond categorization (A category 1 climb is the most difficult while a category 4 is the easiest). According to Wikipedia, the average HC climb in the Tour de France is roughly 16.1 kilometers long and has a grade of 7.4%. The “Dragon Fury” climb that was to make up most of my day four ride stretched over 37km at a grade of 4.4% and had over 2000m of elevation gain. Twice as long but half as steep as an average Tour climb. What a beast! Near four hours of climbing at elevations between one and two miles high. That little kid playing right field in my imagination was pumping his fist and throwing his glove in the air when I finally pulled into the rest stop at the pass. My quads ached as I stepped off the bike, but my lungs were good to go another round. I ate two lunches and enjoyed an entire pot of wonderful black tea on the patio before climbing back on to the bike for the last 25km down into the capital.

Thimphu is a great little city of roughly 100,000. Locals like to tell the story of how the city got and then got rid of the country’s first stop-light (apparently many felt it was too impersonal and the people asked the King to have it removed). Sure enough, at the square in the middle of the city a white-gloved police officer waved and whistled to move traffic along. Not an electric signal in sight.

Thimphu hums. Motorbikes politely zip through the slow moving procession of cars. Neon lights flicker to life as the sun dips below the surrounding hills. I walked through the center square and down towards the river. Unlike Singapore, people make eye contact and smile. I had no map and no SIM card, but I felt confident enough that I could navigate my way back in the dark. Dogs out for a jaunt or their evening commute rambled along the roadside. All kinds of music streamed out of store fronts at reasonable volumes. Cheers erupted from the football stadium down near the river as the flood light flickered on. Bhutan’s capital sits here, at this cross roads of eastern and western ideas of happiness. There’s an immediateness in the commerce, but it’s bustling, not hurried. There’s movement but without the stress that the worst of capitalism produces and nourishes. The city felt like something out of another time. Walking around downtown, I noticed how few people were on their phones. People were having conversations. Kids were leaning out windows just watching. They were all present. Waiting to cross a street I recognize a Jamiroquai song bumping from the car stereo. The driver slowed as he approached and pulled up next to me. Window down and smiling bright he shouted “Hey man…” And I think he’s going to ask if I need a ride. “Yo! Impressive height mister!” And he nods and grins and then rolls off again singing into the twilight. “Futures…made of… virtual insanity…” I fumbled with an ugly attempt at a Bhutanese “thank you” but resorted to a smile and a wave. How could you not love this city? Walking back towards the hotel I passed kids playing soccer on the sidewalk in the dark, a women carrying groceries with her headphones in, dogs lazily lounging on stoops and next to open front doors. It’s the quietest capital city I’ve ever visited. The stars almost outshine the street lights.

I happen across a small restaurant that seems just my speed. Naughty Pigs serves Bhutanese BBQ with a side of rice and a gravitational energy. The neon glow is thick and warm and the floor is slightly sticky, not the gross kind, but this is a good eats kind of sticky. You walk in, and the place just smells like happiness. Again, nobody is on their phone. Customers are sharing tables. Customers are sharing laughter. The music and lights and cool night air out on the deck make me feel like I’ve been transported to a summer night in the late 90’s. People look you in the eye and ask about your visit and when the world will be coming back to Bhutan. There’s an authenticity that isn’t tired or apathetic. I have no other word for it but happy. It’s not a western version of happiness though, all glossy and striving, gamified and filtered. Somehow happiness in America always feels more incomplete, like there is another installment, something coming later, bigger, brighter… The promise of which puts the anticipation of future happiness where there could be more present happiness. I blame some of this on Marvel and Fast and Furious and season 47 of the Kardashian spin-offs, but in Bhutan the moment itself is full of happy. And I’m confident that tomorrow night and the next and the next it will feel happy in there too.

For many Americans, myself included, this kind of lasting happiness… The kind that feels like contentment absent the resignation or fulfillment minus the shortest of half-lives remains beyond the horizon. Can we live there too, or is it just a place we’ll visit? Is that the price of America? I can’t help but wonder, if happiness isn’t complete, is it still happiness? Can happiness and longing coexist?

To be continued…

Happiness is a Place

Exploring Bhutan continued…

Peddling out of Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

Day 3

The next morning produced one of those rare brilliant sunrises that comes along only every so often in this life. There was the one after a night spent on a sailboat with friends. And the one that followed an impossibly cold mid-winter long run. And then there was that one morning camping on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. I live for sunrises like that. The sky to the east was cloudless. How could I possibly be expected to handle ANYTHING on a day like this? The water that remained glazed on everything only enhanced the brilliance of it all, refracting sunlight in a thousand directions. The valley, already pristine, looked as if it had been wiped clean by some cosmic squeegee. I remember when I first needed glasses in high school. I couldn’t get over the amount of detail in the world that I had been missing. If you ever wondered why I couldn’t hit a curve ball before 10th grade, there you go. That morning felt like my contact lens prescription had been upgraded. I enjoyed a steaming cup of tea and sat on the inn’s front steps and bathed in the mountain air. I felt it trying slip between my neck and collar, I played with it in the cave of my mouth and warmed it in my lungs. If this wasn’t living, what the hell was? I had stepped out of my room and felt I was being featured in a commercial for fabric softener or light beer or some new medication called ‘Flexor’ or some crap like that (you should ask your doctor about if you feel it’s right for you). The little league kid in my head stepped from the dugout and took it all in. Satisfied, he pulled a gummy worm from his back pocket and jogged out to his spot in right-center making sure to step over the perfect chalk foul line. Today was going to be his day.

The plan was for another 100km, this time headed north. As I was getting ready I felt an extra moment of gratitude for last night’s woodstove when I unexpectedly found my cycling shoes and gloves perfectly dry. Effin’ right! We did our pre-ride bike check and rolled down the drive hungry for the rode before us. Coasting back through the small town, we passed dozens of kids in uniform walking to school. I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure every single last one of them said hello. Hello! We climbed with the morning light, up and out of the Phobjikha Valley to the Lowa La Pass at 3360m (11,023ft). The road was almost as splendid ascending as it was descending the day before. A pickup truck with a tailgate full of young monks passed by and waved and smiled toothy grins. I thought it was odd, but then I again I remembered that I was the six foot white dude biking up their driveway. If anything is out of place in this life, it’s me. At a hairpin turn I got another smile and then fist bump from a teenage passenger leaning out the window of an old gremlin-looking hatchback that was struggling to make the grade. It seemed like everyone was happy to alive. The retreating shadows were cool and the sun was kind, not yet overbearing, as we started to really press on the pedals. Feeling a little bit more confident in my lungs’ ability to handle the elevation, I kicked over to the right side of the road and jumped ahead of Pema and shot him the same smile I had just been gifted. After the first 5km of climbing, I decided I was ready to set the pace for a couple of kilometers before letting him pull me up and over to the top. After years of lock-downs and then a couple more months of uncertainty with the move, I felt I was heading somewhere, finally. It didn’t even matter where it was that I was headed, but that I was moving again, and under my own power even.

At the Lowa La Pass, we stopped for fresh water and to shed an insulating layer and grab windbreakers. The descent to Wangdu was going to be 51km of downhill at an average 4% grade. We double checked our tires and brakes and rolled off. It would prove to be almost 90 minutes of fun diving down into the mountain switchbacks. We would hit speeds of 55km per hour without any real effort. Several times we were able to drop our support truck on the road behind us. Pema probably wanted to go even faster, but I was happy to let the wheels run at their most confident speeds. Remember, I’m a lucky cyclist, not a good one. In darting in and out of corners and trying not touch the breaks and then stomping on the pedals to get back up to speed, we were playing. Playing! Two old guys on bikes on a glorious autumn day, with only a destination in mind, enjoying the moment. We could have been in Colorado or Switzerland or Peru, it didn’t really matter. Those sleek roads are the stuff dreams are made of. The cliff walls plummeted a thousand feet on the northern and eastern side of the road, but they also allowed for spectacular uninterrupted views of the lush green valleys and snaking rivers far below. On the other side of the road, waterfalls cascaded from unknowable heights cutting and carving into the Himalayan rock before being channeled under the road and spit out the other side. The terrain felt very much alive and primordial (as immense quantities of water and rock and gravity often do) and not so much transgressed upon by humans, but as if humans had asked the land’s permission to build these perilous roads and had been humored by the mountains themselves.

This is abundance. A luxury of place and time. Something rare and wonderful. It’s almost historically unprecedented. We must do extraordinary things. We have to. It would be absurd not to.”

 – Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


We stopped just south of the Punhaka Dzong for lunch. By this point the sun was getting carried away and starting to feel oppressive. It was early afternoon and lunch was fresh and locally sourced and delicious, but that’s not what I remember most about that meal. You can imagine my elation when after they cleared the table I was offered a bowl of homemade ice cream! You can’t tell me there’s anything better in the whole freakin’ world than an unexpected bowl of ice cream after riding all morning. And the look on the staff’s face when she served it up was just a good. It said “we’re so happy you’re here” without her actually saying anything at all.

Rather than getting back on the bikes immediately, I decided to play tourist for a bit. Pema and I took a walk and were rewarded with a tour of a local nunnery and temple. Public schools are good in Bhutan, but like most other places private education is considered more prestigious even if it’s not necessarily better. Private schools in Bhutan are also more heavily focused on the teachings of Buddhism as they are looking to produce the next generation of monks and nuns to serve the country. From what I understood, anyone can study to become a monk or nun, but it helps both your application and your exam results if you’ve been enrolled in one of these private institutions first. The royal family of Bhutan sponsors several institutions like the one we visited and also contributes with school fees for individuals who wish to attend but do not have the means or family support.

From the nunnery we moved further upriver to the Punhaka Dzong, a 17th century fortress which is the symbol of the country’s founding and place of worship and ceremony. It sits at the convergence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female). Everything is balance. In the courtyard monks and civil servants both were working to prepare for the upcoming festival season which would bring thousands of domestic tourists (and hopefully a few international ones too) to the inner courtyard for music and dance and celebration. It was difficult to understand our guide because of the language barrier, but from what I gathered, the fortress was built to protect local populations from invading Tibetans and Nepalese. I found it odd that while these 17th and 18th century Buddhists believed that suffering is a result of human desire, they could then also go and sack and pillage neighboring Buddhist tribes because of… wait for it… desire. But then again many Christians in my country continue to rage against and actively try to prevent people from seeking refuge in the United States when that entire religion was literally founded by a guy born in a stable to a mom who then had to take him to seek refuge in Egypt for a number of years. Despite all my education, I remain thoroughly confused by most world religions. The feeling is probably mutual. Probably.

So this is where the fortresses (which doubled as temples and commercial centers) come in. They are built all over this country and some have applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site protection and status. Waves of invasions took place over several hundreds of years. So naturally hundreds of strategically placed strongholds were built and still remain. Another interesting fact I picked up is that Bhutan was never a colony of the British or of anyone else for that matter. That makes it one of a dozen or so (depending on how you count) to hold the distinction. (The British did try though, but Ashley Eden, the British Chief Commissioner of Burma “signed a treaty favourable to the Bhutiás, after being assaulted by having his hair pulled and face rubbed with wet dough”). A short five-month war ensued, but because of the home terrain advantage enjoyed by the Kingdom, the British backed down rather quickly having gained only a small piece of land for strategic tea producing purposes near the border with India. No lie. Fair play to the Druks, I’d say.

Not surprisingly, none of this complex history or culture was touched on in my American public school or liberal arts education. To be fair though, Bhutan has only been open to most of the world since 1974 (49 years!) and saw fewer than 100,00 tourists a year (and mostly from India) up until 2012. In fact, it was only in 1999 that the then King of Bhutan lifted the government’s ban on television and internet access. Traditions are strong, and the world is still very new to Bhutan. The Kingdom’s stance towards tourism is one of “high value, low impact.” As you may know, there is now a $200 fee per tourist per day to visit in Bhutan (this is up from $65 pre-pandemic). This fee goes to support tourism infrastructure, but it has also been criticized in the media and travel circles as redefining Bhutan’s policy as “high income, low volume.” I started to think about these paradoxes while we drove up the hill to our hotel that afternoon. The Zhinkham Resort was an acceptable place to stay, three-stars, but I was much too tired to really notice much about it to be honest.

After only two full days of riding at altitude, I was starting to feel the physical and resulting mental fatigue set in. My lungs had adjusted to the elevation just fine, but my legs were getting heavy, and I would need an extra cup of tea before getting on the bike the next day. As I ate dinner, I wondered what does it mean if a place is absolutely wonderful and welcoming, but it isn’t open to everyone? Should Bhutan temples and landmarks be given UNESCO World Heritage Site status (a designation that mean a place is “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”) if most of humanity couldn’t afford to experience it for themselves because of that $200 per day fee? I mean, the national and state parks in my home country all charge for access even though those places are supposedly for all American’s to enjoy. So what felt different about Bhutan? I tried again to think it through as the sound of the rains on the metal roof carried me off to into deep and restful sleep once again.

To be continued…

Happiness is a Place

Bhutan Adventure Part 1

Like many ex-athletes my age, I exist in a constant state of being nearly in shape. I can improve my conditioning, but not by much, certainly not as much as I used to anyway. At 43, I maintain a higher floor but lower ceiling than when I was 35. I’ll say that I’m okay with it, I’m grateful for all I can still do, but what I really mean is that it sucks. I also can’t really do much about it without making more than a few life altering sacrifices. And as much as I complain, I like my life right now. In fact it’s probably the best it’s ever been. How often do you get to say that? I can enjoy a glass of wine now and again without thinking about the impact on tomorrow’s workout, and I don’t have to sacrifice my tea with too much sugar or my chocolate biscuits in the name of race weight either. Best of both worlds, right?

Of course I’m lying to both of us right now. A Canadian friend in South Africa once suggested an anecdote to this tragic impasse of age and ego. “The Tour of the Dragon,” he said “is the most brutal one-day cycling race in the world.” We were talking about how the family vacations, while always enjoyable, didn’t usually cut it in terms of stimulation for us over-40 somewhat-former athletes. I looked it up. 260km and four thin air mountain passes totaling 8,000m of climbing in a single day. I laughed at the thought of it. He was serious though. He didn’t want to do the race, but the appeal of just completing the course over a few days sounded like the kinda thing that he could get excited about and would get him training again. At the time I didn’t see the appeal as I had just recovered from a broken elbow sustained in, you guessed it, a cycling accident in own my driveway. But that’s how these things usually start to germinate, after a friend plants a seed.

Nearly two and a half years of global pandemic later and a world away from that conversation, I happened to spot the word Bhutan running across the news channel chryon while I was in the gym. Because the country is not a usual news-maker, I stopped what I was doing and read on. The Kingdom would reopen to tourists on September 25th, just a month away. I paused and remembered the conversation with my friend under that majestic African afternoon sky while our kids played in the backyard.

You know that voice that isn’t quite your own but always resides in the back of your head? The one that’s kind of like an 11 year old kid planted out in the left field of a never-ending little league game? I’m sure you know the type. The kid who wears his glove on his head and kicks at dandelions and tries not to get stung. The kid who doesn’t often have the ball hit to him, and wouldn’t know what to do if it was. He’s not good for much anymore, but I keep him around because he still provides a steady absurdist comic relief, and his quick wit got me through a decade of public school teaching. I feel he’s earned his place in the town square that resides between my ears. “That’s it! Tour the Dragon! Let’s GOOOOO! ” he howled at me as he threw his glove into the air, and I smiled at the thought of it.

It was then that some neurons started firing along a well-worn pathway that had long since been covered over. I could feel the synapse actually travel down through my massively underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and into that place that produces the urge for self-induced suffering. Thoughts were lighting up. At the end of that line a happy neon sign appeared. JUST DO IT! “It’s not a race, I bet you can even do it without training! Think of the Strava kudos!” The 11 year old shouted. Not to be out-done, my subconscious snarkily lobbed back “You’re fat! You’re old! You’re a horrible cyclist!” The Super Ego and Id are relentless around here and unfortunately for everyone involved, they are mostly running the show.

Another good friend in another lifetime once told me “Not every one of your thoughts needs a voice.” She was right of course, but the opposite is also true. Sometimes those shouts from the kid in outfield deserve serious consideration.

“Swing batta’!” he yells and spins in place.

A quick search on my phone in the gym that day found a tour company that provided cycling tours in Bhutan before the lock down (www.kimkim.com). Sebastian, the agent in Rotterdam who responded to my inquiry wasn’t entirely sure if his company could get me there for the grand re-opening, but I could hear his excitement about it all. In my experience the Dutch aren’t exactly the most enthusiastic people in the world unless there is some combination of beer, the color orange, or cycling involved. Luckily for me ‘Bas was a cyclist. After a couple days of phone calls and texts, I had a plane ticket, a visa, and an itinerary booked for nine days and almost 600km of cycling across Bhutan.

So how do you prepare for riding a mountain bike over and through the Himalayas? I’m stuck at sea-level without a bike and nothing but a poor man’s excuse for altitude (humidity). I think there might be a couple of bridges I might be able to use for hills? The kid out in left chanted to no one in particular “Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always gotten!” He was right again. I dusted off a nearly 30 year old playbook that isn’t entirely research based, but but has been shown to boost confidence to a level where I can no longer tell the difference between being prepared and being unprepared. False confidence is a counterfeit currency that is easily passed. The itinerary would consist of 60-90km rides or about 5 hours of pedaling per day. The subcommittee in my head got to work and wisely decided that I only needed about one hour of hard stationary cycling in a hot gym every day for the next three weeks. Why? Because why not? Forget the heart rate and the speed and distance metrics. For twenty days I went to the gym and pounded on the plastic pedals till there was more than a decent size puddle under the machine and my quads felt like Jell-O.

“I’m a maniac, MANIAC!” the kid was doing his best Flashdance now. “And I’m dancing like I’ve never danced before.”

In between that steady stream of sweat, I was smiling again. I had a goal. I was physically working towards something. A number to chase is all I needed now. At some point I had read that generating two watts per kilo of weight was a magic formula for amateur cyclists. It stood to reason then that if I could hit 2.1 watts per kilogram for an hour, I’d be better than the average amateur cyclist, right? The day before I left I hit the magic 2.2w/kg for an hour and was suddenly feeling pretty good about my chances for no other reason than that being able to hit that number.

Nestled somewhere between myth and mystery is the true Bhutan. Long closed to foreigners, the Kingdom is probably best know for it’s Gross Domestic Happiness metric. Bhutan has also recently made international news as being the first country to be carbon negative (absorbing more carbon than it emits). I was curious if the country long isolated from both the West and the East would be as happy as advertised. In high school I read (and have since kept a very old copy of) James Hilton’s Lost Horizons, the story of Shangri-La and the Englishman Hugh Conway and his party who through a series of events find themselves guests in the magical lost city. After much secrecy and indecisiveness among the party, Conway reluctantly returns to civilization, whereupon he realizes his mistake and attempts to return to Shangri-La only never to find his way back again. His paradise was lost to him forever. I think the book had something to do with youth being wasted on the young, but I’m not smart enough to be certain. At the time I loved the Romantic (capital R) nature of the adventure, the allure of paradise, and the Lost Generation’s disillusionment.

By today’s standards, it a pretty problematic book with its thinly veiled racism (paradise for humanity is supposedly where there are no black people and the servants are mostly submissive Asian women?) and its cultural ethnocentrism (the hero being a white mid-level British foreign emissary who may have had a hand in over-throwing a local tribal government of two but has a Laissez-Fare attitude about it all). Regardless of the book’s influence, I was aware that I carried more than a few western stereotypes and biases to the places this in this world where I lacked real information. Like in my travels to Cuba and Catalonia, I wanted to remain open to what the people and the Land of the Thunder Dragon really were instead of searching for what I thought they might be.

“Conway said quietly, “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.” “You’re too confoundedly philosophic for me. That wasn’t your mood during the trouble at Baskul.” “Of course not, because then there was a chance that I could alter events by my own actions. But now, for the moment at least, there’s no such chance. We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason. I’ve usually found it a soothing one.”

― James Hilton, Lost Horizon

Day 1

On Sunday September 25th, less than 24 hours after the official Grand Re-Opening Ceremony, my plane from Singapore touched down at Paro International Airport. There is only one airline that serves Bhutan, Druk Airlines (named after the first people of the region) and only a handful of cities it visits. The approach had us weaving through the canyons and clouds, and I don’t think we descended as much as the earth rose up to meet the plane. The single runway and terminal airport was immaculate and freshly painted. The welcoming was warm and personal. Immigration and customs were friendly and efficient. The cool dry mountain air was a welcoming hug from an old friend. The sun was setting behind the mountains as I exited the secure area and found my driver and guide waiting.

“Welcome to Bhutan Mr. William! Come, come, we have an excellent truck for you!” the shorter of the two men said to me as the other draped a white silk scarf on my shoulders. I assume he recognized me from the passport photo I had sent. He gave me a fist bump. It’s not the first time this type of name confusion has occurred. Because U.S. passports state names as Last, First, Middle, many people assume that my family name is Mr. William. We sorted out it quickly on the ten second walk to the truck we’d be using for the week. They were right, it was excellent, dented and well-loved and all. In the back were three mountain bikes and several cases of bottled water. My bags were tossed in and we got on our way. The capital city of Thimphu is ten miles due east of Paro, but the road to get there is nearly 30 miles of switchbacks and bridges crossing the Paro Chu and Thimphu Chu Rivers. As I would come to understand, “Bhutan is a land of short distances but long journeys.” My hotel that first night was quiet and modern and welcoming. It was very apparent that the staff were excited to have guests again, but they were still working on refining the check-in procedures after such a long hiatus. I would be a guinea pig of sorts throughout the trip. That night I ate a traditional Bhutan dinner of spicy noodles, namma (a leafy vegetable), and fried rice in the hotel lobby with the owner of the hotel (also an avid cyclist) before heading off to bed.

Day 2

When my kids are are apprehensive about upcoming events, I try to re-frame being scared as being excited. All through breakfast I was telling myself how excited I was to climb and descend these mountains. How excited I was to ride with another cyclist! How excited I was be heading to passes over 10,000ft where the air was far thinner than I have ever been. I’m lying again. I was scared. I’ve been fortunate to never be seriously hurt while biking, but I know where my skill level resides, and it has always been luck that’s kept me out of the hospital.

I found Pema and Sonam working on the bikes in the hotel courtyard. A new Trek Marlin mountain bike was being double checked. I filled some water bottles to appear useful while they adjusted seats and inflated tires. Being the first day of riding we (I) opted to start outside of the city instead of downtown cutting a few kilometers off before the long ride up to Dochu Pass at 3048m. We found the road was quiet, the weather was good, and the kilometers clicked by relatively quickly. Pema was a strong cyclist and it took all I had to hold on to his wheel on some inclines. Heading east we stopped once at a checkpoint where I had to present my visa and passport. A little over ten miles of climbing later and without much fanfare, we arrived at the pass which was clouded over. On a clear day Pema said you could see the tallest un-climbed mountain in the world, Gankar Punsum (7550m) to the north. The Bhutanese believe the mountain tops are sacred spaces reserved for the deities who live there. Other mountain summits are fair game though. Apparently even the gods are subject to the first rule of real estate (location, location, location). After a warm tea and simple lunch of spicy noodles, we started our 43 km descent in the rain. Our destination was the much more tropic Punhaka Valley at 1400m of elevation. In the drier the central valley, fruits and vegetables grow year round. We passed banana trees and cacti as we shed our wet warmer layers and cruised along the Puna Tang Chu River. The sun burned through the clouds with intention as we zipped through small villages and around traffic circles. We stopped at the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, a monastery and fortress built at the convergence of two rivers for water and sunscreen. The next leg was to be 50km of climbing at an average grade of 3.8%. I was faking fit and knew that trying to hang on a climb like that might take me out of the game for the rest of the week if I went at it too hard. I’ve never had altitude sickness and didn’t want to experience it now. I decided I would take a break and hop in the truck for bit. I think my guide was also relieved to get off the bike. We were 60km in and still had another 20km from the top of the pass to the hotel. Starting the tour with 130km day might have been a little ambitious, Bas. I noticed I hadn’t heard from the kid in the outfield as the truck bumped and bounced back up another mountain road.

At Lowa La Pass (3360m) we got the bikes out of the truck again and cruised down to a small village that surrounded the Gengtey Monastery. The quiet pine stood straight and tall against the fog creeping up through the valley. Ghosts on the move. If you had to pick a spot to live a life of contemplation and meditation, you couldn’t do much better than Phobjikha Valley. Home to the migrating black-necked cranes, rich green grasslands, a Buddhist university, and a series of stunning hiking trails, the valley was surrounded on all sides by cloud capped peaks. The older towering trees gave small sway and with it a glimpse of the old world. Some people travel to relax. Some people travel to experience luxury. I travel to find other-worldliness, and here it was sprawled out before me, a tapestry for the senses. I felt like Conway looking down at Shanga-La for the first time. How do you describe such a sense of place (when you yourself have never seen it before) to your readers who will likely never experience it themselves? It had a presence all its own, welcoming, but not familiar. It was a place I wanted to know, a place I wanted to be. The low hanging clouds milled like party guests around the walls of the valley floor. Cowbells in the distance clanged as the thud-thud-thud of a farm tractor joined the conversation. The wind was still and grass was wet and the sun neither could nor cared to burn through the patchy clouds. Time evaporated.

Without speaking we turned off the pot-marked road and onto a forest trail. Our wheels spun without effort over the orange needle carpet. The slope of the hill pulled us down deeper into the valley. The single track was clear and easy to follow, but not from overuse or blatant markings. It simply rested there waiting for us to come along. At the far side of the forest we crossed a stream and entered into the grazing fields. A cairn here or a graying wooden planked bridge there were the only signs others had ever been to this place. It was breathtaking, but not because of the elevation. No, it was more the solitude of it. Not a jet in the sky above nor a house or road in the distance. Crickets called, water tumbled down the stream, and the beat of a cranes wings on the pond ahead broke the silence. Even our bikes seemed quieter moving in respectful hushed tones over the trail showing reverence for the moment. I want to share it with you. I want you to go and find it, to see it and hear it and feel the augustness of it for yourself, but I also don’t want that. Is that selfish? Very well. Terra mobilis.

“What most observers failed to perceive in him was something quite bafflingly simple—a love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone.”

― James Hilton, Lost Horizon

We rode on. The afternoon grew long and the white clouds darkened threateningly. At the far end of the valley we found the road again and it held our hand and brought us into a quiet village. Dogs trotted down the street with purpose, chickens wandered in and out of yards, and young kids peeked out from behind gates and windows as we rolled through. Six kilometers out of town, a steep hill driveway brought us to Dewachen Hotel. The guidebooks will tell you this is a three-star hotel. The guidebooks will lie to you almost as often as I will. The rooms are rich and warm and welcoming. Mine had a wood stove, wool blankets, and heavy quilts. There were no TVs. There was no minibar. There was no WiFi. While there was an electric light, my room was also well stocked with a large oil lamp in the corner and small candles in glass jars. Cozy doesn’t even begin to describe it.

In the main lodge there was a large central wood stove around which I found my guide and driver and the hotel owners talking with a German couple who were on a bird-watching and hiking expedition. I was offered a piping hot ginger tea and a steaming bowl of red pepper and potato soup. I hadn’t realized how cold and wet I had gotten on the ride, but now with the fire crackling and sipping on the soup I was aware of the deep chill melting and the feeling of appreciation for the good food and a warm place to rest. I used to feel this way often, mostly in high school and college. I felt it coming home from cross country or ski practice in the still darkness of autumn or winter. I felt it after stacking the firewood that had been delivered in the November rain. I felt it shoveling snow in the hours before dawn. In a paradoxical way, it was so comforting to be that uncomfortable. And I’m probably misremembering, but I think I enjoyed being in that state of discomfort. I ate my dinner savoring its flavors and the nourishment, and I wrote, and I listened to the music of the conversations in the many languages couldn’t understand. That night as the rain pelted the metal roof and the wind whistled outside my window, my little wood stove put on a shadow puppet show for the ages.

To be continued…

Incomplete Thoughts

Wait, what? It’s over? But we were just getting started! On December 12th, 2020, Finn, Eamon, and I packed the last of our belongings and boarded a 60 hour flight bound for home. Erin and Atlas departed 30 days before, and we were all excited to make the family whole again. And with that long flight to Paris and then New York and Atlanta and finally Huntsville, our fantastic African chapter, one that added so much richness and vibrancy to our lives, came to a close. Within the first couple of weeks of our arrival, Covid numbers in the United States would spike to their highest point to date, a madman would bomb downtown Nashville, and a bunch of idiots pumped up on Monster Energy drinks and delusions of grandeur would storm the Capitol. Quite the welcome home party. Jennifer Egan in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, calls it what it is. “Structural dissatisfaction” she says is when you return “to circumstances that once pleased you after having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, only to find that you can no longer tolerate them.” Or as Eamon asked it, “What do we do instead of safaris now?”

Recently I’ve found a few more hours in the day, and I’ve been using those to write about travel and to think about the closure that the life during the pandemic couldn’t afford. This post is an attempt to reflect on one of the previously undocumented highlights of our African adventures. Also in the works is a full recap of the seven days I recently spent biking across Bhutan. I’m glad to be back writing and reading again. I’ve missed y’all.

“I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside.”
U2, Where the Streets Have No Name

Life on Mars

Sossusvlei, NAMIBIA – Seaming fresh 4×4 tracks across the Western Kalahari and the Eastern Namib Deserts with good friend, former colleague, and fellow Gen Xer Paul Beavers in our seemingly indestructible five speed Isuzu pickup truck will forever be one of the great adventures of my lifetime. Located northwest of South Africa, the country is the third least densely populated country in the world (coming in behind Greenland and Mongolia). Over the last few years I’ve felt a growing attraction to these types of places. I’d much prefer a trip to St. Helena over one to St. Croix. Some of you probably understand.

We took an early morning flight from Cape Town to the South Atlantic port of Walvis Bay, Namibia where we quickly gathered the necessary provisions (bottled water, a couple of sandwiches each, and a real folding paper map!) before pointing the wheels down the dusty C14 road for the eight hour drive to Solitaire. The air-con was weak, the speakers sucked, but we had an undiminished 80’s playlist and thousands of miles of undulating and ever-shifting single lane dirt roads to choose from.

I read somewhere that some of songs on U2’s The Joshua Tree album grew out of Bono’s humanitarian experiences in Ethiopia and Egypt. Maybe it is because they were born out of the eastern Sahara and the droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, that songs like Where the Streets Have No Name feels entirely at home in the desert. The lines on the map had a letter denoting the type/condition of the road (A and B are the paved four and two lane highways, C is usually single lane graded dirt, and D is for the farm roads and lesser traveled/local travel routes) followed by a number (they start at one and increase the further north you go). The land we covered had no signage at all with the exception of the sticker adorned Tropic of Capricorn. There’s certainly something eternal in that song that captures the timelessness of landscape like that. We joked more than once that we were road tripping on Tatooine. Few trees, far fewer people and the horizon expanding limitless in all directions.

Desert sky. Dream beneath a desert sky. The rivers run but soon run dry. We need new dreams tonight.”
In God’s Country, U2

Just outside of Sossusvlei National Park we spent the night in a castle-like desert oasis. It was here at Le Mirage Hotel where I booked a combination indoor/outdoor room that allow guests the option to sleep on top of a turret and under the prodigious tranquility of the empyreal desert sky. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t imagine it, and I’m sorry that I could never find the words to adequately describe it. Suffice it to say, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life, and I probably never will again. As the sun faded over the dunes, I was treated to the history of the galaxy playing out above. Over there was the Southern Cross and light that had left from from nearest stars as Newton was writing his Principia. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, a cosmic scar pulled across a sea of black. Who could sleep? Shooting stars and satellites. I rarely sleep in the open air anymore, let alone under a blanket of comforting darkness. And to think no matter where you are on this planet, that above us at every moment there exists this field light so dense with stars trapped in time. Each night those pinpricks there twinkling above us are transmissions providing near constant messages through the darkness if we’d only look up to receive them. It seemed a waste to not greet each voyager traveling from some far flung solar parent in a more deserving fashion. Starlight that had covered time and distances of such magnitude that I could never understand (not really anyway) deserved better. I slept with my contact lenses in that night trying to take it all in, to welcome the light of so many yesterdays. “The universe is constantly visiting us,” writes poet Etel Adnan, “while waiting for us to reverse that itinerary.”

Last image of the night sky is from Le Mirage Hotel’s Instagram page.

Side-note: International Dark Sky Reserves are my favorite kind of national parks and Namibia’s is an absolute treasure. And like any treasure, it’s value lies in it’s being rare and obscure and removed from the ordinary. Check out these 18 sites that have earned and maintain I.D.A.’s standards for darkness. They are all on my list of places to find and experience. The world can often feel like a dark place these days, but somehow I think a helpful response (on a personal level anyway) might just be in creating more time and space for this other type of darkness.

“With the exception of the wit and wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes, not much lasts forever.” – Ted Lasso

Just after sunrise, Paul and I went out exploring the dunes around Sossusvlei. While “Big Daddy” was intimidatingly immense (325m/1066 ft), Dune 45 (170m/560ft) seemed manageable enough for us to climb before the sun became relentless. I felt nothing but gratitude as I clawed my way to the top of that five million year old dune with the sand shifting under my feet. It would be a recurring emotion on this trip. The ceaselessness of the desert connects you to time in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The light changes, but even in it’s cycle of day and night it’s never ending. Even the wind seemed constant. Before the sun was too high, we climbed back into the truck and turned east on the C19.

The C19 to Mariental.

On a stretch break somewhere between Sesriem and another speck on the map named Mariental, I climbed up onto the roof of the truck looked over the dervishes and onto a place where nothing existed and nothing most likely would ever exist. The land was a barren rocky slab baking in heat of the midday sun. Even geologic time even seemed to have abandoned this place. You might think what a depressing place to stop. A spot so brutalized by the elements that it’s own existence seemed meaningless, a wasted land devoid of any significance to life. I immediately fell in love with it.

Take notice of what light does – to everything.”

Tess Guinery, The Moonflower Monologues

Let me explain it another way. The previous night I went for a run from the castle before dinner. After 20 minutes of running west across the pan, I slowed to a stop before turning back. A bead of sweat dropped at my feet and disappeared into that red earth. Crouching down, I collected few rough rocks no larger than the size of my fist and placed them around one foot then the other. I stepped back to admire my work. Two size 11 ellipses just touching to form a figure eight. A primitive attempt at graffiti? Maybe. Or rather I think it was less of an artistic expression and more of an existential one. Someone was here once. I was here once.

Just the other day I watched my son rummage his feet down into the sand at the beach, and I thought about those outlines in the desert. They are still there, I’m certain of it. And when I think about them next they will be there too. In fact, I’m fairly confident they will still be there in a hundred years, and perhaps even a millennia or more, possibly even long after everything else I ever touch has disappeared. Would you think of that? For all the energy and commotion and exigence of my life, my most lasting direct result here might be those rocks, a hastily arranged into the same symbol we use to signify the infinite moving through the universe at God’s pace under those gorgeous everlasting stars. It makes me smile to think about the absurdity of it.

Standing on the roof of that truck under that noon sun dreaming about the adventures that lay ahead of us in central Namibia I was overcome with the augustness of it all. There are moments when I wonder out loud whose life this is. It often doesn’t feel like mine. How can you feel simultaneously liberated and domesticated by your experiences on this planet?

“This is our secret world, filled with the unreachable.”

Yang Mu, Fourteen Sonnets

If you ever have the chance, Namibia and all its lonely haunting beauty will always be waiting for you.

Be good and keep in touch.

Finding Certainty In My Uncertainty*

Have you ever risked a belief? I see nothing particularly courageous in risking one’s life. So you lose it, you go to your hero’s heaven and everything is milk and honey ’til the end of time. Right? You get your reward and suffer no earthly consequences. That’s not courage. Real courage is risking something you have to keep on living with, real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and suffer change and stretch your consciousness. Real courage is risking one’s clichés.”

– Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

As my kids say, I’ve been feeling some big feelings recently. Since April our family has been counting down to August 9th. That would be the day when all three boys could go out into the world to make friends and to learn and to be kids. They are heading into the wonderful life that is grade four and grade two and pre-school. At this point on the calendar I could start to think about and work on what’s next in my professional life. It was an exciting time full of potential. But as July slammed its door without even saying goodbye, I realized that the combination of Delta variant and our nation’s anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers were going to run interference with our plans. I spent the last week of July scouring reviews and ordering children’s’ masks. The boys could still go to school, I thought, we’d just have another year of masking and distancing and being careful. This would be most difficult for our two year old, but okay we’d still see it through.

As August 9th approached it became apparent that Delta was hitting different. We knew this from India’s experience, but we failed to prepare for it. Unless there was a local school mask mandate, our elementary classrooms would be petri dishes for a variant that was no longer sparing children the worst of its effects. Six days into the school year (with only about 50% of kids at school masking) we pulled everyone out again for a another semester of homeschooling. As I write this nearly 40% of Tennessee’s almost nation-leading infections are children. Like their grown-up counterparts, pediatric ICUs for 300 miles in every direction are at a breaking point. It’s a devastating turn of events, not because our kids can’t go to school and I can’t go back to work, but because this level and intensity of suffering was mostly avoidable had people done something that isn’t that radical (but certainly feels so these days). Rather than doubling down on personal freedom mantras, if people had bet on uncertainty, on not knowing, on listening… Well maybe we’d be in a different place. As it stands, we are back in lock down. No restaurants, no grocery stores, no large gatherings for the kids. Yes it’s hard, but it’s not as hard as having our kids intubated or dying. So here we are, feeling grateful that we can shelter in place until this storm passes again.

Over the last two hundred years there has been a great improvement in personal and public hygiene and cleanliness; and this was largely brought about by persuading people that the results of being dirty and apathetic in the face of disease were not acts of God, but preventable acts of nature; not sheer misery in things, but the controllable mechanisms of life. We have had the first, the physical, phase of the hygienic revolution; it is time we went to the barricades for the second, the mental. Not doing good when you usefully could is not immoral; it is going about with excrement on your hands.”

John Fowles, The Aristos

So this is how it happened that I got into several heated discussions almost simultaneously with friends and family on social media. Turns out that anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers didn’t like it when I called them selfish. But here’s the thing, the way I see it, they’re wanting to ride the society bus for free. They will refuse the vaccine but some will still take up a bed and professional medical care in an ICU. Here in the south they are already squeezing the last of the precious resources from car accident, hurricane and flooding victims. They will also benefit from herd immunity (whether they like it or not) and they don’t have to do anything to enjoy that advantage. I took a risk in getting that shot (we all did, there’s nothing in this life that is entirely without risk). Don’t get me wrong, it was a tiny risk, like one so small I can’t even explain the mathematical probability of it being a risk, but it was still a risk. Keep in mind, I’m a fairly risk-averse guy, but this was the price of admission and it was worth it to protect other people, even if I didn’t know them. I did my part to help society fight this thing. I thought of it like this, I don’t particularly like paying taxes either, but I still do because we all benefit from roads and bridges and fire departments and libraries and schools even if we can’t see those advantages directly. These anti-Americans who only want to watch rather than participate are trying to take advantage of the work and knowledge without wanting to contribute in the building process. I call that selfish. They think I’m being mean.

I wonder what it is it like to be that self-unaware. Truly, I do.

Here’s the thing… I think this world has little use for those who choose to stand aside but who also will try to issue instructions for how to live in it. I kinda feel like if you don’t play the game, you can’t be in charge of making the rules. If you can’t find a way to aid in the progress of humanity, then know that smirking cynicism is a form of sickness much worse than COVID. There are carriers of death among us who are not themselves sick. Strong words? Yes, and deeply felt. Along with a borderline narcissistic personality disorder, some of these people have the shallowest view of history. They want this free ride, one in which they aren’t expected to contribute to the cost of the journey, but they don’t respect the fact that somebody else paid the price to build the vehicle of the civilization they inherited. They aren’t being asked to pave the road or to even to drive the bus. So many people before us paid for that. They paid it forward for us. Now it’s our turn. We owe it to others to risk a little something for a better tomorrow. Jesus, M.L.K., Ted Lasso, all believed that there is a moral obligation to participate in the work of society. Well, I’m telling you the moral crisis of our time is unrelenting.

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must… undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”

– Thomas Paine (my favorite radical, drunken, atheist)

But it wasn’t these anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers take on freedom (without responsibility) that bothered me so much. I’ve learned to live with (not accept, but live with) the myth of America propagated by Toby Keith and Tucker Carlson since my days in undergrad. No, the part about this nightmare that gets into my bones and makes me openly hostile with my words is their god-damned certainty. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand the mRNA technology. I don’t understand my microwave or Bluetooth headphones or bitcoin either. Not fully. Enough to be dangerous mostly. I have a working knowledge, not an expertise, on many things. The world is much too vast, much too complex to be an expert in even one area. But I stay sane by keeping in mind one simple mantra, “I could be wrong.”

I’ve been wrong a lot more in this life than I’ve been right, as tough as that is for me to admit, it’s true. I’m wrong all the effin’ time. Ask my wife. Ask my family. And I’m wrong regarding just about everything, even things I’m supposedly knowledgeable about. I oversimplify. I create heuristics. I repeat what I hear others say (the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell). But here’s the catch. I know that I don’t actually know this stuff beyond a surface level understanding. So I’m curious and open minded and skeptical of my experiences and depth of insight. Knowing that I’m so often wrong allows me put a tiny asterisk on my beliefs, on my knowledge, on my position. Knowing that I’m probably working with incomplete information allows me to hedge my bets. It allows me to keep the door open for improving my position when I’m presented with more or better data. My faith in being right has room for doubt. Faith is not a rock solid tangible. It is a fluid and like the properties of a fluid it is subject to change shape depending on conditions and the container it is in. My faith in science and medicine and government has room for doubt. Do the institutions that you have faith in have room for a bit of fluid doubt? If your faith doesn’t, is it still faith? If I was as certain in my position as some of these people I’m exchanging words with, my sense of self and of the world would crumble if I was presented with an alternative narrative. I too would fight like heck if I wrapped my self-image and identity and wagered everything on being right. There is no alternative for them. What happens when you put all of your faith into a belief and it disappoints you? That sounds like a fantastic premise for a novel…

If I had painted myself into an anti-vax corner, I too would call masks and mandates tyranny. I too would find a way to blame doctors and local governments and Nancy Pelosi for everything rather than admit I might be wrong. Because admitting that I was wrong would be akin to finding a crack in the foundation of everything I’ve built my world on. In short, these people who I used to like and respect, have left themselves no room to reconsider. Their beliefs are brittle and constructed with unwavering hubris. The deathbed realization of so many anti-vaxxers is both ironic and tragic. It didn’t have to be this way. I am certain of that.

Can you be skeptical about what people tell you to put in your body but also have faith in the power and knowledge of established experts and institutions? I believe so. Yes, a single expert can be wrong, but when 100 or a 1,000 or 10,000 experts from around the world, people who have dedicated their lives to learning (not only YouTubing) put their names and reputations on something, they have my attention. When my distant relative or college roommate writes something counter to those experts, sure, I’ll read it and consider it from their perspective, but in that consideration I will allow space for being wrong. Could the WHO and CDC and the world’s foremost epidemiologists and leading health experts all be in on a big pharma conspiracy trying to sterilize whole populations? Yeah, maybe. But then again could Covid just be a highly infectious virus which happened to be more deadly than the flu before we had a vaccine, which hundreds of millions of vaccine doses have proven to help dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death? Yeah, maybe.

So which do I doubt more? How do you decide where to place faith? Let me frame it another way. Is it more likely that my blood relative in working with the internet super-sleuths has ferreted out a world-wide conspiracy using only Facebook posts? Or that the CDC and thousands of scientists and doctors worldwide just want to help people avoid needless suffering by submitting their work to the rigors of the scientific process and their data and research for peer review? Hmmm, experts who genuinely want to help verses a college buddy who couldn’t write his own freshman composition essays? It’s not really close call when you put it like that, is it? Actually it’s pretty easy to pick a winner and a loser in this instance.

So when these anti-vaxxers ask me if I will vaccinate kids when it comes available?

Yes, I’m certain of it…

… Although with more information, I’m subject to change my mind.

Get your shot. Wear a mask. Keep well and stay in touch.

Iron Mike

Well, well, well. Would you look at who we have here. I can’t believe I’m sitting here and attempting this absurd pastime again. It’s been a year, hasn’t it friends? And yet, look at us! We are still churning out efforts day after day despite it all. And as difficult as it has been to move back to the U.S. (at the height of a global pandemic and in the midst of an attempted coup), damn it’s been good to see you again. For those of you that I haven’t caught up with yet, you’re on my list. I’m coming for you!

After several failed attempts and months spent in other people’s homes, I’m happy to announce we have secured a place in Sewanee, Tennessee. And boy is it worth the wait. It’s a place rich with trails, lakes, pastures, and the slower pace of life that we fell in love with in South Africa. Finally. The sea shipment arrived and has been mostly unpacked. The boys have friends and a school year on the horizon. All seems to be unfolding as we hoped it ultimately would. My stress and anxiety, having peaked in February and March have now receded leaving an abundance of gratitude in their wake. Maybe we really have turned the corner.

I still think often of my former students, and some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to keep in touch with fill me on their challenges and accomplishments. Recently I was walking in the woods with Atlas and reflecting on how anxious some of those kids were about taking the next steps in their lives. And it struck me that some of the people who needed so much support back then are absolutely thriving today. Schools are fantastic at teaching and enforcing compliance. They are a dime a dozen. It’s much more difficult to find a place that values and teaches students how recognize when and how to pivot, how to read the oncoming winds and how to tack when necessary. As I hear from these friends near and far, a recurring theme is apparent. They are all surveying the immediate landscapes of their lives and checking the maps and making adjustments accordingly. I mean, that’s some seriously impressive neuroplasticity.

Twenty years ago in a tiny dorm room I had yellow post-it notes with favorite quips and quotes tacked above my desk. I don’t remember where I read it or if it was even authentic, but one of them said “Everybody has a plan till they get hit.” It was attributed to Iron Mike Tyson. I don’t know why I had it up there. I didn’t particularly like the quote. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t the one doing the hitting. At that time life was like that. I would make a plan going into a race and then something would go wrong, a split would be way off or I’d be much further back than I had envisioned, and I’d spend the rest of the miles before the finish line trying to survive. In my classes too, I’d nail all my school assignments but blow up on a mid-term or a paper, and I’d struggle till finals because I couldn’t ever put things back the way I had pictured them. That’s why I’m so impressed by the stories from these young people. It took me at least a decade and too many false-starts, abandoned relationships, and half-hearted endeavors to get to a place where I could take a hit and not throw up my hands in surrender.

Even still, I think that’s been the most difficult part of the last year for me personally. Recognizing in the confusion of the moment just what needs to be done is a gift age has kindly bestowed. And after a year like this, it is a most appreciated one and well worth the cost.

Be good and keep in touch.


No, this is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
And you love until you don’t
And you try until you can’t

You laugh until you cry
And you cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took

Then you take that love you made
And you stick it into
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood

And walking arm in arm
You hope that don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

Regina Spektor

Well, well, well, look who it is. It’s been nearly nine months since I last sat to write in this space. Ansel Atlas Bennett was born on July 8th, happy and healthy. The adventures of Kilimanjaro and Kenya and Paris and Cape Town had exhausted my desire to travel, and I was set to rest and read and write. But a funny thing happened not long after the baby was born. The words escaped. I couldn’t find them or even the desire to even look for them. Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the load shedding. Maybe it was the demands of my last two grad school courses. Whatever it was, they were gone, and so was the clarity of thought that came with them. I still enjoyed adventuring, the hiking and biking and running, but the cohesiveness of a story and reflection had dried up in dust and the late winter sun. Not only did I not want to write, I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. During this time another change occurred, one I knew and feared was coming. Since leaving the U.S., the teacher in me, my professional identity of the last twelve years, has been sliding away, evaporating. I lost touch with many of my co-workers and students and parents, the local politics, and curriculum developments. When the writer I aspired to be also began to recede over the horizon I felt adrift, not here anymore and not yet there. I think this is common experience of expats and people changing career trajectories. I recognized it, but in this space I felt that I was losing touch with me.

Then in late November, I received a 3AM text from a former student. His friend and a former classmate who had been battling with mental illness had taken his own life. Devastated, I felt immediately and deeply for for his parents and friends and the wider community. In his obituary I learned that his memorial service would be the day after we arrived home for the holidays. I made plans to attend.

Six hours after reading the message, the rainy season arrived in Pretoria in full force and the flooding began. Ten days of cold torrent. Big drops, heavy with the weight of the sky. A year’s catharsis. After day three, South Africa started rolling blackouts as the nation’s coal supply had become saturated. The power would be cut twice a day for up to four hours at time. No heat, no sound, no light. The days were gray and the nights were black. Atlas caught a sniffle and struggled to sleep. For me the light at the end of the tunnel was our planned home-leave, booked ten months ago. If I could just get home, just re-tether to a known world. But our travel was a series of misadventures of the Odyssean kind. Last minute flight itinerary changes left us scrambling to find seats together, missed connections, lightening strikes, lost luggage. We didn’t meet Cyclops on our journey, but there was a pretty ugly encounter with a gate agent in Atlanta that I think counts. By the time we went to bed in Nashville, my emotional gas tank was empty and the jet-lag only compounded the exhaustion.

Early the next morning I headed to the church for the memorial service. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Memorials for older people are easier in many ways compared to someone so young. What do you say or do for parents and family and friends of someone with such creative energy and potential? Again, I had no words.

The service was warm and welcoming and a beautiful tribute. The pastor recognized the shared grief and the uncertainty of how to grieve felt by many in the room and addressed it frankly and with empathy. The family of the young man spoke. Friends shared memories. And the community did its best to offer comfort both immediately and in the coming months and years. After the closing prayer, I hesitantly approached the young people who at one point were the awkward teenagers that populated my class rosters. Each face full and grown into itself, now free of braces and bad skin and awkwardness. These young men and young women who once wore their uncertain identities buried under their oversized clothes, these kids who were trying so hard to be something for someone else now stood before me having arrived as themselves. And they started telling me about grad school applications and fellowships and honors programs. They told me about papers they wrote, books they read, and publications they were submitting to. It was delightful to see the light in their eyes. But I also heard about challenging semesters and unexpected obstacles and the disappointment of taking a semester off, of transferring, of dropping out, and the uncertainty they felt about their future. There was both pride of what they had done and that acceptance of what life was dealing. Some were excelling and some were managing, and a few were only just getting by, and to them I offered what support I could. After all, I wasn’t their parent or teacher or coach any longer.

Again, what could I say to a young person really hitting the wall of disillusionment for the first time? It sucks? I’m sorry? You’re not alone? I felt hollow and empty and unworthy and unqualified of offering any sort of advice. And I felt like my un-teacher-like reaction compounded the confusion as well.

A day later I started feeling the symptoms. My body was breaking down. Sore throat, headache, congestion. By Monday I had a full blown illness. By the week’s end it was in my lungs, and I was suffering despite antibiotics, a steroid shot, and a ton of Advil and Sudafed. The trip only spiraled from there. In Maine, I stayed in a hotel room down the hall away from my wife and boys. I felt like I was walking-dead. Three weeks passed before I started seeing improvement. It was gone though, the holidays, my time with my family and friends, the opportunity to enjoy being home. In a flash I had lost the energy to celebrate Christmas morning with my boys, and to connect with the people I care about to a haze of decongestants and cough suppressants. On New Year’s eve, I went to bed early, wishing only to wake up in the warm sun of South Africa, and to be able start again, to see the last of 2019 disappear in the rear view mirror. I was sad at what was lost and what wasn’t gained.

Two sick Bennett boys in Maine.

The ups and downs and meanders of life take their toll on everyone. And it has taken me a long time to learn to read the patterns and hear the rhythms of my emotional life. When I withdraw from friends and into books and reading, it’s because I’m sad. When I’m surly and sarcastic, it’s because I’m sad. When I get angry, it’s usually because I’m sad. When I want to destroy a part of myself out on the roads or the track or the trails, it’s usually because I’m sad. And when I feel self-righteous, it’s also because I’m sad. These habits are how I’ve learned to deal with the welling-up of disappointment or loss. Fight or flight. Withdrawing is easy, isn’t it? Hide behind a book page, a screen, and wait for it the feeling to subside. Anger shows well too and people certainly take you seriously for a short while after. And it never lasts long either, blowing through like straight-line wind before of an impending summer storm. And my chosen forms of self-immolation are socially acceptable too. I mean going to the gym or on a long hard run doesn’t scream sadness, but sometimes it is.

Fight or flight. Those are our options, right? As Americans we are good at fighting, at anger. In fact, I think we are so good at fighting and anger that it fills in when for us when we don’t know how to express what we are feeling. Feeling scared? Get angry. Pride? Anger. Sadness? We might be the best at hiding and rebranding our sadness as something else. Substance abuse and self-medicating and eating and consuming do well at hiding sadness. Whole generations of Americans were and are still sad about Vietnam and 9/11. Those two events alone are responsible for most of our government spending year after year. And I would venture that most visits to Target and Wal-mart and Amazon are driven by the loss or longing for something like acceptance or community or status. We even have a term for it, retail therapy. Our economy is based on the idea that spending will make you feel better, if only for a short while. We are sad about our bodies, about our jobs, about disappearing friendships, and a world changing too quickly. We are sad about loss. Sad about the distance between expectation and reality. Everywhere I look, I see evidence that we as a society, as a species, are wrestling internally and individually with sadness. But we still can’t say that to each other, can we?

Tonight, its storming outside. The loves of my life are sleeping in the next room. Illuminated by the pulses of lightening, the rain drops race down the window pane beside me. The glass reverberates with the growling thunder. I’m writing from a place that is warm and dry. A place of safety and comfort. I appeal to gratitude to lift me from this bone deep sadness. I appreciate the fates which, like a game of cosmic Plinko, have landed me in a time and country and with a language and a family and an education to be able to navigate 40 years plus years virtually untouched by most forms of hardship. Gratitude is usually my magic bullet. Re-centering and focusing on my present and my people often helps. But tonight not even that is working.

I had a friend once who named my waves of sadness. Alligators, she called them. She said some people just have creatures who come up from the depths every now and again and try to pull them down. And I think that’s right. Because while I can laugh with my wife and boys at the dinner table, I can be healthy and run, and I can spend time with friends and love my life and I can also be sad. So for this New Year, I am going try to sit with this feeling when it surfaces. No running, no wine, no Netflix, no music, no Amazon, no anger and no sarcasm to drown or avoid or numb it. Just me and and the quiet acceptance of this storm. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand these sharp toothed visitors, and maybe I’m not meant to. They rarely overstay, and soon I will feel more like myself again. Tomorrow I will keep pursuing a life that brings meaning and will try again to let go of the absurdity of it all.

And someday soon, I know the words will return.

Be good and keep in touch.

(I started this post in December 2019, and it has seen no fewer that 30 revisions. I want it to see the light of day, even if I’m still not entirely happy with it. I’m finding it more and more important these days to express how we are doing, not just what we are doing. I hope you are safe, and you know that you matter.)

Unstable Possibilities


Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed, and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possible invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. The pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes, They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.

Robert MacFarlane, Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit.

So there I was… In Africa… Inching my way through an aggressive headwind to the summit of a 19,000ft extinct volcano. Sounds glorious doesn’t it? I wish it was. With each raging gust, I could feel dust and wind-kicked dirt plastering itself to my face and driving up under my contact lenses. The mouthpiece of my Camel-Back had frozen shut around 3AM. Even if it hadn’t, it too was caked in prehistoric dirt. I can’t overstate this, I was positively miserable and negatively existing. I had had enough. I wanted to let my legs go, collapse, curl into a ball, and fall asleep. I didn’t want to quit, but I wanted to stop. I’ve questioned my resolve in training and races for almost three decades, and I know the difference between hurting and being in distress. I was beyond hurting, well into suffering, and approaching distress. That hour between 4AM and 5Am was the most difficult one I’ve ever endured. It took all my energy to force the next step. I focused on watching for Hilary’s boot print in the shifting sand and stepping on it the moment after she vacated the space. When she stepped again, I planted my foot exactly where she had.

There were several times I wanted to signal to Kevin on the switchback when he would be sure to see me. After one particularly hard straight, I started to but as the moment came, I had the briefest moment of clarity… I can’t ruin this for her. There is nowhere to stop here. And if I decide to descend I would split the party, and if she or the guides were even as remotely as miserable as I was, I knew we would all turn back. Our story would be the same as the majority of hikers who failed to summit. So over the last hour I didn’t find motivation in thinking about the money spent, or the time, or the personal commitment to the endeavor. I only cared about not being the reason that Hilary didn’t get to to the summit. It never ceases to amaze me what we become capable of when we act in the service of others. I’ve seen it time and again in athletics. Those who focus on the success of others find physical and emotional reserves that are un-accessible compared to working for oneself.

So it would be a bit of a laugh later to learn that she too was suffering in extreme and was only maintaining her phenomenal pace because she was terrified of slowing me down and preventing me from reaching the summit. Six days before she didn’t exist to me, just one of the other 7.5 billion faces in the world. And now after a few shared conversations, cups of Kenyan tea, and kilometers walking together, we were choosing to suffer to see each other’s dream actualized. Stranger things. Literally.

Just after 5AM we left the scree field behind and found a bit of shelter between a series of jagged boulders. I could hear Kevin yelling up ahead when Naom grabbed my arm and put his hooded head to mine and joined Kevin singing:

Jambo, jambo Bwana (Hello, hello Sir)
Habari gani (How are you?)
Mzuri sana (Very fine)
Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome)
Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, there is no problem)

They would repeat this several times with growing intensity as if challenging the wind to drown them out. Confused, my headlamp traced up trail and there in front of us was 12 foot battered wooden sign with yellow lettering. Congratulations. Gilman’s Point. Kevin hugged Hilary and then me, and then all of us, like castaways on some extraterrestrial island planet who have spotted a rescue ship, embraced and danced like idiots in the pre-dawn light. I snapped a photo and in the 20 seconds that my hand was exposed to the cold and wind it began to throb with pain. On the discomfort continuum, it skipped cold and numb altogether and went straight to god-forsaken, ice-in-the-veins, danger-level pain. Kevin and Hilary were trying to hide from the wind further up the trail, and they turned to beckon us. I was confused. In my head I was shouting. We made it! Shouldn’t we be going back down now?! Why are we going on?! I can’t feel my hand, you guys!!! Behind layers of Gortex, Naum read my panicked expression, and a few steps later in the shelter of a rock face he took me by the arm again, leaned in, and in his best English shouted “Where you want to go, it’s further than you think.” The wind whipped his words up to the top of the the troposphere. I knew what he meant, but I also heard the truth he spoke (either intentionally or unintentionally). We were going to Uhuru Peak. We were not settling for most of the way.

Sunrise at 5,800m (19,000ft).

Arm-in-arm, Naum and I hiked a stride behind the others. The sky brightened ever so slightly, and brought with it hope. The wind was as relentless as ever, but being able to see beyond the reach of my headlamp somehow improved the experience. I wasn’t less miserable, but I could see a world that looked almost familiar. To our left, the top of the last of Kili’s legendary glaciers stood at attention. To our right the sky slowly bled an icy golden light. And an hour after celebrating at Gilman’s, we approached the highest point on the continent. It was a lonely monument weathered and waiting for the day’s first light and the pilgrims the it was sure to bring. I was both enthusiastic and exhausted as we posed for pictures. Behind Kevin and Naum, we could see a procession of headlamps making progress up to our desolate summit. I did my best to pry my frozen face into a smile. I wondered what day it was? Saturday. I was pretty sure. The first full day of winter. And somewhere down below, my family and the rest of Africa was stirring.

For over six hours we toiled in darkness, and for fewer than six minutes we stood to appreciate the beauty of that labor. That’s the way it is though, right? Eleven years spent teaching to what end? Tens of thousands of miles run, for maybe a few moments of fleeting joy and a bit of memory? Yes. In all it’s forms. We must continue to fulfill the human fate by challenging ourselves and conquering that which we struggle against. By touching that signpost 19,341 feet above the sea in an environment hostile to life, I bested a familiar enemy; myself.

As we strode down the scree and frozen rock, our faces reflecting the light of the rising sun and our euphoria. The wind continued to howl, but who cared now? We passed those who were on their way up, and we congratulated, and we encouraged, and we cheered, physically and emotionally buoyed by the ultimate form of contentment, the kind that is born from achievement. In 20 minutes we covered distances had taken over an hour. At Gilman’s we encountered a larger group just climbing over the rim. They were exhausted and hid from the wind behind the rock face just as we had earlier. On the other side we saw for the first time the height and length of our ascent. There at the foot of the mountain was Kebo Camp, 5km away and 1km down. In between boulders and in embrace of the strengthening sun we sat and enjoyed frozen candy bars and shared the only unfrozen water bottle. We laughed and sang and recalled the thoughts and moments which lingered with us.

By 9AM we were receiving a hero’s welcome in camp. Enthusiastic high-fives, hugs, and cheers in both English and Swahili made me wonder if the crew were doubting our chances as much as I was. We ate eggs and pancakes and changed into lighter clothing before continuing to our last camp at Horombo. Hilary and I laughed and sang the whole way. We enjoyed the pull of gravity, richer oxygen levels, and promise of a cell signal at our final camp. That night we savored our meal and recalled the long day’s events. We also celebrated the fact that Erin was still pregnant. I hadn’t missed it. The temporary amnesia produced by our sleep deprivation even allowed us to dream of an assault of Mont Blanc later this year. We were very tired, but I’m open-minded and optimistic about the chances.

Day 7 covered 20km (12 miles) from Horombo to the Marungu Park Gate. There we were greeted by tour buses and day-hikers from every corner of the earth. I felt a swell of pride at my grime covered face and dusty clothes even if the tourists turned in disgust. Hilary and I congratulated each other again, and while the joy of accomplishment was still firmly resting on my internal trophy shelf, I also found I was a bit sad to be leaving the experience and people behind. I want to believe I will be back, “but knowing how way leads on to way…”

As a child I spent a lot of time in the natural world. By the time I was the age of my eldest son, my friends and I were climbing trees, camping out on the 4th of July, building forts and fighting imaginary foes in the fields and woods behind our homes. From third grade on we walked together over a mile or so to the elementary and later the middle school through the same Maine forests and elements. In high school, cross country running and ski practice and racing took us on trails around the town, county, and state. And once we even successfully convinced our A.P. environmental science teacher to let us spend a school day in the town forest “surveying.” I genuinely enjoyed being outside shoveling snow or stacking fire wood or rigging up a makeshift zip line. But something happened in the 20 years since. While I still I enjoyed nature, I have had to bypass the anxious questioning part of my brain to get out there. How cold will it be? What happens if I get wet? Is it really worth it? I’d opt for treadmills and postponing outdoor activity if the weather or environment wasn’t conducive to optimal enjoyment. This wasn’t always the case. But at some point as I grew older I chose a human comfort level over an existential one. The security of the predictable outweighed the unstable possibilities of the world out there.

I still get out and run on trails from time to time, and I know how to enjoy a hike with my family, but these are the exceptions. This trip rekindled a long forgotten enjoyment of the mountains and being exposed to their elements. I’m humbled by the experience, and now I’m actively looking for my next adventure before this feeling wanes again. Mont Blanc anyone?

Be good and keep in touch.

Unstable Possibilities

A minute too heavy or too beautiful has weighed on me for a long time.

Aime Cesaire, And the Dogs Were Silent

Every few years, usually when I least expect it, I experience a recurring nightmare. These aren’t exactly the same dream, but rather different versions of the same idea. I’m with friends or family on some adventure in the wilderness. We are enjoying the sunrise or camp fire and the feeling of being out there. Inevitably we find ourselves moving up above tree lines. The walk, hike, or run steadily climbs to the point where the steepness of the grade prevents me from going any further. In fact, I find that I can’t even get back down. I’m holding on to the tall thin grass patches or precarious boulders watching the others move on ahead or staring down at the incomprehensible distance to the valley below. I’m not on a cliff nor am I rock climbing and there are no ropes or harnesses. I’m simply leaning on to the side of a mountain hoping that its gravity will prevent me from tumbling back into oblivion. And this is where I stay, unable to catch up with the others, unable to slide back down to a more horizontal and stable ground. The dream ultimately ends with my white knuckles either letting go or the grass or rock giving way, and my body free falling off the mountain. Nice, yeah?

Now, I’m no psychoanalyst, but I don’t think you need to be in order to interpret the fears and desires here. Sometimes I can be a bit over-ambitious. I bite off more than I can chew, and then I chew like hell to prevent choking on my own aspirations.

Remember the time I thought I could handle being a dad and husband, a full-time teaching load, coaching, two graduate school classes, training for a marathon, and playing Baptista in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew? Yeah, neither do I.

And while it helps that I have the All-Time Greatest spouse in my corner to save me from myself, it doesn’t nullify the anxiety I feel when something big is looming. It has become a bit of a running joke between us. A supervisor once told me that I can do three things, but I can only two of them well. I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to prove him wrong to no avail. We thought Africa might break this cycle, and for a while it did as we were focused on getting our bearings. But with the New Year came new dreams. Kenya. Ultra-Marathoning. Writing (and publishing) a book. Finishing the graduate degree (that just won’t die). Climbing Kilimanjaro. To complicate these intentions we combined them with her work and travel schedule, raising two boys, and being pregnant. What we have here is our best attempt yet at finding life’s tipping point to entropy.

So one month before our due date, I loaded a large waterproof duffel bag with outerwear, and made Erin promise not to have a baby before I returned. While there was confidence that the kid wouldn’t show up early, I left the full name on a piece of paper tucked in the drawer of my running gear (Erin decides when we have kids, I get decide what we call them). I felt scattered leaving this time, and it resulted in some interesting packing choices. I remembered books, four paperbacks to be exact (only one of which I finished, The Dream Peddler), but I forgot a water bottle. I packed snacks, but had to buy a headlamp at the airport. And I had running shoes (just in case), but left behind hiking gators. The airport and first flight went smoothly (by African standards), and I soon found myself in Nairobi boarding a small propeller plane to Arusha, Tanzania. I worry my kids will never know the pleasure of some of the finest ways to travel: the thrills of driving stick shift, being rocked to sleep on a sail boat, or the terrifying big drops that prop planes experience on the whim of mountain thermals. Nothing reminds you that you are alive quite like the feeling that you are about to die.

Kili is the best welcoming committee a hiker could wish for.

A driver from my climbing company (Team Kilimanjaro, highest possible recommendation) was waiting to take me to the the small but comfortable Zawadi House Lodge. The drive to Arusha was about 45 minutes of picturesque sunset over green pastures and farms. Tanzania is the fourth African country I’ve visited, and it was by far the cleanest. The government banned plastic bags and is making progress on recycling and reducing single use packaging. As we drove I couldn’t help but notice the difference from South Africa in this regard. Dinner the first night was a lonely bowl of chapati and vegetables at the hotel bar. It seemed that I might be the only guest staying there.

Of all of the adventures on the calendar this year, Kilimanjaro was the one I was most looking forward to, but maybe not for the reasons that you might think. In Kenya I sought a specific feeling, one from years ago, of the delight in exhaustion and of the body’s capability to adapt. I found it in the boundless world-class talent and camaraderie of the training group. In Paris with 20 other writers, I sought affirmation of my work and effort. But coming to Kilimanjaro solo during the low season was for something else. So eating alone in an empty bar was expected. In fact until only a month ago, I was set to hike alone too. This might sound sad to you, but actually it was the opposite. If there is any aspect of modern life that I would change, it would be America’s obsession with time. More specifically, that time is money and that time not spent being productive is money lost. I wanted to go somewhere that time (or maybe my age) couldn’t reach me. I love my wife and family more than life itself. But to be the best husband and father I can be, I also I need to hit the reset button on who I am every so often. There are better months than June to climb Kili. It’s the rainy season. It’s winter. The park, especially above 2500m, is mostly empty space. But what better place to allow thoughts to come and sit and stay awhile without rush or distraction or the omnipresent urge to connect and share? So I sat there at the bar alone, drinking a Kilimanjaro Lager and took in the last light of day and welcomed the freedom that night brought knowing that there was no place I had to go, there was nobody I had to be, and there was nothing I had to do.

On Sunday, I ventured into Arusha for some last minute items. The way to get around Arusha is on the back of motorbike which can be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll never want to ride by taxi again. At the top of my list was Diamox, a drug used to ease the symptoms of altitude sickness. South Africa prohibited it’s use for anything other than glacoma, but the pharmacy in town sold me ten tablets for $2.50. Deal. On the way to the pharmacy I had spotted the Cultural Heritage Center. Walking back to it was well worth the time and effort. I spent a couple of hours marveling at the fantastic works of art in their collection. Photographs of the Maasai, bronze sculptures of wildlife, hand-carved wooden furniture, and paintings with brilliant explosive colors. After a massive lunch portion of the Center’s amazing curry, I hopped onto another motorbike and headed for the Maasai Market. This is a bit of a racket and tourist trap, but you can bargain freely here, and I was channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain by this point. While the stalls are each fairly similar in product and the interactions with the merchants can feel a bit patronizing at times, one young man was able to coax me into overpaying for a painting for my kids. He was funny and personable and he earned it.

That night at the hotel, my guide joined me for a pre-hike gear check. His name was Harold, and he has stood on the summit of Kili over 400 times in the last 14 years. When I asked it if ever gets old, the smile lines around his eyes creased with energy. “Never. Never. It always feels like the first time.” This was my kind of guy.

Team picture before the journey begins. Yayha and Hilary on left, Harold and I on the right.

The next morning the bus arrived at 8AM, and I meet our assistant guide Kevin and our “stomach engineer,” Naom. Most of the porters speak very little English, but they are smiling and happy to shake hands and take a group picture. We climb on, and I look around. Twelve staff for two hikers. The old VW seats 20 or so but with our gear on the roof and in the back seats everyone is packed in for the four hour drive to the Rongai Gate. It’s at this point I meet my fellow climber. (Side Note: I can’t lie. I was a bit disappointed when I learned that another climber had signed up. I thought I wanted complete solitude on the mountain. I was wrong, but only because Hilary turned out to be such an outstanding human being.) We immediately hit it off, and our conversation ebbed and flowed naturally for much of the bus ride. She was an American and living overseas for work much like we were. This was her first trip to Africa, and while she is over a decade younger, she is an accomplished traveler, athlete, and academic so we had lots in common. Over the next seven days we would kindle a friendship that I’m certain will last through the years.

Day one on the Rongai Trail took us 7km (4.5 miles) from 2300m (7,500ft) up to the Simba Camp at 2700m (8,800ft). It was a gentle grade on a well maintained trail that my kids could have easily handled. Along the way we would meet one of only a few other hikers in the park. He was a German who worked in IT and was hiking solo on the much more arduous five day ascent. We exchanged a brief but pleasant conversation and went our own way. Simba Camp afforded a great view of both the summit and the Kenyan valley below. We were elated to finally be on our way, but as I went to sleep that night I felt anxious about the days ahead.

Day two took us 16km (10 miles) further into the park and another 1km higher to 3700m (11,800ft). The hike was long, but not difficult with a mid-day lunch break at Second Cave campsite. The air was noticeably cooler and dryer here than at any previous point. The camp was well above the clouds and afforded both a supremely enjoyable albeit cold sunset and sunrise. Our food was ample and surprisingly delicious for trail grub. Breakfasts included omelets or hard-boiled eggs, porridge, and coffee or tea. A couple of times we were treated to pancakes and jam, which was always a sure sign of a good day. Lunches started with soup (cucumber or leek or butternut) and always had noodles or rice and a hearty vegetable sauce. Dinners were often similar to lunches in that there was soup, but they also usually included a meat like chicken or sausage or tuna. All meals also included fresh fruit. I can’t overstate how impressed I was with Naum and his menu. In fact, I felt guilty eating as well as we did until I learned that the crew were eating the same meals we were. Living in South Africa (more so than at any other time in my life) I understand the inequities of the world in which we live. We earnestly wrestle with effective ways to act to remedy these inequalities around us. But on the mountainside, imagining the men outside the mess tent eating less or worse than we were was a stomach turning thought. When we asked Harold, he assured us again that as a guide his staff never went to bed without the nourishment they needed.

This is the history of mountaineering though, isn’t it? Usually white affluent westerners hiring local men for dangerous expeditions and treating them as less than equals. We ate and hiked and slept separately from the porters, our only interactions were brief recognitions in camp or when they came flying up the trail overloaded with gear. I genuinely wanted to know them, to hear their stories. The divide felt like a bridge too far. In my life I’ve rarely, if ever, participated in an endeavor which felt so like a colonialist practice. Or maybe I have, it was just better hidden. Where were my running shoes made and by whom? How about that new phone in my pocket? The house I live in? The food on my table? I wasn’t climbing that mountain fueled by my own sheer resolve. Quite literally everything I needed was carried up there by someone making approximately $6 a day. Everything I ate was cooked by someone making much less daily than the average American fast food worker. While watching the last of the sun’s light race up the mountain behind us, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t as much of an accomplishment as it was the accomplishment of privilege.

While day three would be a short hike in distance (4km, 2.5 miles), it would add another 600m in elevation gain over rougher terrain making it much more difficult than the previous day. The Mawenzi Tarn Hut was at 4315m (14,150ft), and Harold anticipated that we might have trouble sleeping as neither of us had ever been in that thin of an atmosphere. After arriving at camp, Harold and Kevin refilled our water and pressed us to continue to climb up Mawenzi for another 30 minutes. In the clouds and jagged peaks we sat and waited for our bodies to acclimatize as best they could. Hilary broke out a deck of cards, and there at 4580m (15,000ft) we played war with one cold had exposed and the other buried in our jacket for warmth. Descending back to camp we found the sun set painting the mountain walls and scree red and gold. That night I didn’t sleep well. The wind was violent at times and the cold air froze in my nostrils. Erin suggested that I pack a hot water bottle and to have the crew fill it with boiling water before bed. I think that was the only reason my toes didn’t freeze off that night. At some point in the early morning the wind died down, and I drifted off for an hour or two.

When I opened my eyes the tent betrayed the departure of night and arrival of the early morning hour. I put my boots and jacket on (I wore my pants, long underwear, shirts, and hat to bed) and stumbled to the outhouse. After a quick pit stop, I climbed up on the rocks to the east of the campsite. In the brutal still and quiet mountain air, a spark of a sun emerged in the east. I looked back at the camp in the shadows behind me and felt the first rays of sun awaken a feeling of gratitude and presence. In that moment I crossed some invisible line and found myself someplace I never thought I would be. I thought of the meandering trail of my life over the last 40 years. The decisions I thought would make or break me weren’t the ones that ultimately mattered. The ones I barely thought on were the ones of real consequence. I thought about the people and the work which defined me much more than the classes or degrees. I thought about Maine and West Virginia and Tennessee. I thought about Oxford, Bates, and Belmont. I thought about how the failures that I continue to carry with me are not academic or professional or monetary, but are what George Saunders calls “failures of kindness.” The failures to respond humanly to the person in front of me are much heavier and taxing than anyone told me at 10, 18, or 25. And I know I didn’t have to come to the mountains to arrive at such a place, but standing there watching the sun dawn, I felt like I had traveled from where and who I was both literally and figuratively.

I hadn’t really slept, my fingers had crossed from cold numb to cold painful, and I couldn’t take a deep breath, but the thought carried me to another place, to a vantage point where I could see my life accordion out behind me. The golden light of sunrise and reflection lasted two minutes, and then the moment was gone.

Walking back to camp I felt a like I had finished a book or another year teaching. I felt a little taller and bounded from rock to rock. Yayha, one of the porters, greeted me with a hot tea and an even warmer smile.

“Habari za asubuhi! It is a good morning.” He said with a heartfelt emphasis on “good.” We both looked to the east.

“Asante sana. Yes. It is a good day.” I replied. And I felt it. And I think he did too.

Within an hour we had broken camp and moved out across the Martian landscape on day four. The sun was warm, but a stubborn wind kept us from uncovering our skin. We moved west to the Third Cave campsite. Surprisingly, we were descending again to 3900m, and I think everyone was looking forward to sleeping better with more oxygen. Cave Three was at a crossroads where trails extended in cardinal directions. Here we met another hiker, an Aussie teacher who lived in Malawi. He would prove to be the last person we met before our decent from the summit.

After dinner, Hilary and I solved all of the problems facing American public education. The idea basically is that private companies should earn certification labels for participation (either directly or indirectly) in support of schools in much the same way that buildings and infrastructure projects earn LEED certification for environmental design and efficiency. I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it came around organically through the question and response portion of our dinner. She was feeling better after a bout with nausea and was proving to be the perfect hiking companion and a good friend. We completed crosswords, played cards, sang favorite songs, and enjoyed several really engaging conversations. I grew to appreciate having someone to learn about and to think deeply with.

On day five I really struggled with the hike in a way that I hadn’t before. My legs were fine, my lungs were solid, but I had a headache behind my eyes that no amount of water or rest could shake. I asked Harold if I should start the Diamox that I bought back in Arusha, but he thought that I was doing really well and without other symptoms I shouldn’t add the upset stomach and risk dehydration this late. He was right, and my body adapted by lunch the at the School Hut Camp (4800m, 15,750ft). The wind had grown relentless, kicking dust up into our eyes and ears and shaking the tents with reckless abandon. The forecast was for the conditions to degrade further with temps plummeting and the gusts to strengthen. At our pre-summit meeting after dinner with Harold we reviewed the timetable and did a gear check. Tonight would drive temps deep into the winter side of freezing. I don’t know how Hilary was feeling, but I was anxious. I was also second guessing the Diamox decision, anticipating another headache on the way up in the morning. Back in my tent I stowed the clothes I would wear down into the bottom of my sleeping bag along with the hot water bottle. Warm clothes are infinitely easier to put on than cold ones. I tucked my contact lens solution, phone, and backup battery in the bag too. My Camelback res would have to fend for itself. As I slid down into the bag liner fully clothed, the cover image of The Mitten, a children’s picture book I once owned, popped into my head and made me smile as the wind continued to try and wrestle the tent away from under me.

Day six actually started at 11PM on day five. I slept about for an hour as the wind shook the tent with an anger that bordered on savagery. Dressing with the hot water bottled tucked in my shirt to glean the last of the warmth was easier than expected. I packed my mostly empty carry-all bag for the porters to take to rendevous at Kebo Camp. For the record, on top I had on a 250G merino Smartwool long sleeve, a Cloudveil Run Don’t Walk halfzip, a Polartec 300 heavyweight windpro fleece, a Rab Zero G down jacket, two Buffs, and an L.L. Bean Gore-Tex Guide jacket. On bottom I had Smartwool underwear, Nike running tights, Smartwool 250g baselayer pant, Craghopper pants, and Mountain Hardware windproof/waterproof full-zip pants. Along with Black Diamond mountain mittens, wool cap and socks, I was ready to go. At the mess tent I ate two bowls of porridge, an omelet, and a Snickers bar. We topped off our waters, and silently shuffled out into the dense night.

Kevin, our assistant guide, and Naom, the chef, would we accompanying us for the next nine or ten hours. We focused our headlamps to the six feet of shifting sand and scree ahead of us. With Kevin in front, Hilary and I followed step-by-step, and Naum stayed a few meters behind choosing his own footing. Under two hoods and behind my a face buff, I was alone with my thoughts, and I let them come and go as they pleased. Tom Waits crooned “Long Way Home.” I did the math to figure out which of my family and friends around the world were awake and which were asleep. I could hear my heartbeat almost in time with our six-inch steps. I wasn’t thirsty, but I took sips from the mouthpiece to prevent the water from freezing in it or the tube. Every few steps the warmth from my exhalation was snatched by a raging gust and whipped off into the vacuum of blackness. Above us the stars pierced the night sky, cold as knife points. For the first hour our climb was linear, progressing up and across a barren face of the extinct volcano. After meeting up with the trail from Kebo Camp, we started a kilometer of 200 switchbacks, each rising only a few meters above the previous. Below us I could see the headlamps of other climbers. Three or four groups seemed to gain and then recede. As far as I could tell, no one was ahead of us.

Minutes vanished. Then an hour. Then another. In between periods of zoning out, I would conduct a full body scan. What felt cold? Numb? Did I have a headache? Was that blood running from my nose or snot? The scree deadened my legs like no marathon I’ve ever run. Step up and slide back. Repeat. We rested briefly at the mouth of a small cave. On the right side I found the men’s room. A bit dusty, but you couldn’t beat the view. We pressed on past 3AM. The wind grew worse. It was no longer punching in gusts, but steadily leaning on you like an overdue obligation. When it ran up under my hood it carried prehistoric dust, and I had to tightly shut my eyes to keep them from the sandblasting. A dozen of these episodes had eroded my resolve. I wanted to be done. I wanted to be back in a tent. I wanted to sit down. I wanted something warm to eat. I wasn’t too cold or too uncomfortable. It wasn’t hard, but I was overtired and not thinking clearly. I focused on Hilary’s boots and following in her footsteps. If I could just follow her lead…

Only three more hours till sunrise.

To be continued…

Unsolicited Advice

Never trust someone who has not brought a book with them.”

Lemony Snicket

I’m supposed to be working on my grad school final. But at this moment, I feel that this is a better use of my time. When I email with former students and co-workers and friends back in the states, the conversation will inevitably turn to what we are reading. Last October in Nashville several people asked what I would recommend that they read next. I understand the request, but I also have learned that book selection, like friend selection, is idiosyncratic and often unpredictable. Congressional approval ratings are slightly higher than successful reading recommendations of my favorite books. So with the same size asterisk that is reserved for Lance Armstrong’s cycling accomplishments, I offer my All-Time Desert Island Favorite reads. *I won’t pretend that these are for everyone, but I enjoyed them or they helped me grow or the voice spoke to me. So here they are in no particular order.

My All-Time Go-To

There are times when you just want to read something good. Not difficult. Not sweet. Not something from the book club shelf. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is the book I turn to when I need to feel something without thinking too much about it. Did you just hear the collective eye-roll of a couple hundred college students? Yes, I taught this book. Or rather, I prescribed this book, and the students taught me about it. I’ve owned no fewer than five copies. I’ve given away two, and one was destroyed by a friend’s dog (to this day I’ve never been more forgiving). The book was gift from a friend twenty years ago, and I’ve read it close to a hundred times. I’ve highlighted it. Dog-eared it. Underlined it. Quoted it. I’ve given it away. And no matter how many other new and exciting books I pick up, my copy resides firmly on my bedside table.

The Passion is a story about people and what happens to them when what they love no longer loves them. Henri is a simple French farm boy who drinks Napoleon’s Kool-Aid. Make the world France. Bread and circuses. Henri enlists. Of course he’s disillusioned, can you show me a teenager who isn’t? The other character, Villanelle, is a young Venetian woman who works in the local casino disguised as man. She is fascinated by risk and those who gamble it all away without hesitation. But that’s not her. Not until an older married woman sits down to play at her table.

“What is more humiliating than finding the object of your love unworthy?”

– Henri, The Passion

Winterson is a master storyteller. The Passion unfolds in such a way that as a reader you are never sure-footed. She weaves her plot with a command and richness of language which satisfies, but never satiates. The prose is fluid and dynamic, and yet also strangely familiar. All of Winterson’s books read like songs you once knew, revealing the words you’ve long forgotten. I highly recommend Written on the Body and her autobiography, Why Be Happy When you Can Be Normal. Quite simply The Passion is the book that made me want to be a writer. I will leave you with a warning however, if you read this book I will want to talk to you about it for far longer than is comfortable.

A Gateway to the Heebee-Geebees Genre

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is the book that I have most prescribed to students who want something a little darker, a little more fantastical, and a little more grown-up. I tell them it’s a fairy tale for adults. Gaiman is the best at writing characters we identify with and characters we want to identify with. This is the story of a middle aged man who returns to his childhood home only to experience the return of a long suppressed memory. The book is a powerful recollection of events from his childhood and is full of monsters both real and not. Ocean also has the most fantastic heroine in all of modern literature, Lettie Hempstock. Think Lyanna Mormont from Game of Thrones except even more bad-ass.

The story takes readers back to the age in childhood before reality cemented itself into something more certain. It traces the events of a year of the narrator’s childhood when magic was still possible, but not entirely probable.

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters.”

If you like Ocean, I would recommend Neverwhere, Fragile Things, and Coraline after. And while I liked American Gods, I realize it’s not as universally appealing as these others.

The Best Book/Movie Combo

In 1996 The English Patient film won nine Oscars. And as good as it was, I still think the book was better. Michael Ondaatje’s masterpiece won the Booker Prize in 1992 and is simply fantastic in the same way as listening to U2’s Joshua Tree or watching baseball in October. Some things just can’t be improved upon. The novel checks all the boxes: Impending war, forbidden love, espionage, the pangs of memory and loss. I just bought another copy, because somewhere along the way I have given away the previous four or five. If you haven’t seen the movie, I beg you, read the book first. You won’t be sorry, and the movie will be all that more striking for it.

The Best Guilty Pleasure

David Benioff is better known today as one of the show runners for Game of Thrones and the writer of the next Star Wars movie series. But in between gigs in Hollywood he penned a short novel about the siege of Leningrad. It’s a quick read and page turner in the same vein as The Da Vinci Code. For a couple years after its release the book was in every airport bookshop. The plot is straight forward. It follows teenage Lev after his arrest for looting a dead German paratrooper. He is sentenced to death the following morning, but it spared by a colonel who does so on one condition. Lev (and fellow prisoner Koyla) must return with one dozen eggs within a week’s time. Procuring each egg is a story in itself. They beg, borrow, and steal from Russians and Germans alike. Much like Game of Thrones, this isn’t a book for younger readers as there are encounters with cannibals, rapists, and violent deaths. However, if you’re looking for a book you can’t put down for a couple of hours, you can’t beat this one.

Honorable Mentions

Below are some of the books I’ve read over the last year or so. They might not stand the test of time for me like the ones above, but I enjoyed them and you might too.

Lief Enger – Virgil Wander, Peace Like A River – A new American voice combines a bit of Gaiman’s American Gods and Winterson’s magical realism in a midwest setting. Both books are haunting stories, but each in its own way. Virgil Wander is a unambitious movie house owner “cruising along at medium altitude” when a car accident takes away his command of language and memory. He tries to find himself again, and his journey mirrors that of his rust-belt town.

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven – In a future where flu wipes out 90% of the world’s population, small camps of survivors try to move on from the lives they remember. Without the critical density needed for food or electricity production, they are no better off than then early settlers. One of the best parts of the book is when a survivors tries to explain how WiFi worked to a child born after the world went dark.

Maile Maloy – Do Not Become Alarmed – This Nashville author is also well known for her young adult books The Apothecary and The Apprentices. But in this book, she sets her sights on a more mature topic, the modern American family and the vacation that goes tragically awry.

Nick Hornby – Juliet, Naked, Long Way Down, High Fidelity – I love Hornby’s observational wit and humor, just don’t watch the movie adaptations.

Diane Setterfield – Once Upon A River – The only problem of post-postmodern fiction (besides that term) is the writer’s reluctance to provide satisfactory endings. It’s true with River too. The opening chapters are riveting and carry you like a current deep into the book. But the last 30 pages or so make you wish you had abandoned it. If you can overlook this flaw, it’s a great read with a solid plot around the mysterious loss and return of a missing child two years later. A colorful cast of characters and stories make this an enjoyable read up to the closure. Read it. Change my mind.

Haruki Murakami – South of the Border, West of the Sun, Wind – If you are looking for something different, Murakami is a great place to start. His most famous books are Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and the voluminous IQ84, but they are not great starting points. I suggest South of the Border or his non-fiction What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

The sun is setting now and an autumn cold front is coming in. I know I’m forgetting some good ones, and I’ll regret posting this when I finally get up and go look at my bookshelf. In addition I could write another post solely on books about running, or non-fiction books, or stories about Africa. Books for kids, that would take a week. But maybe someday, after this paper is done.

“But you don’t have to take my word for it.” – LaVar Buron

Be good and keep in touch.