Digging Deep Inside . . . What do I See?

serious look-alpine desigsn.jpeg

September 15, 2019 - Day 19 of 5.8 AFRICA

The Londorossi Gate, on Kilimanjaro’s west side has an opulent design that was probably beautiful once and also managed to keep people out during off hours. But as I stand before it, the gate’s mangled and jagged edges look more like a work of abstract art and is no deterrent to entry. The ill-fitting left side of the gate drags its bottom edge through a deep gouge in the earth, a wound clearly inflicted anew each time the gate is opened. The right side clears the ground by nearly 12 inches, enough for me to crawl under if I wanted to, which I did not . . . at least not yet.

While the gate may have been a bit unsteady, the guard who approached me was solidly built and all business. 

“What do you want? You shouldn’t be here.“ 

He was right of course. I shouldn’t be here, for so many reasons. For starters, it was after hours and I had elephants on my heels . . . I just stared at him, not really knowing what to say or how to explain how I had come to be standing at this gate in the dark, looking exhausted and frayed. Then he shined his flashlight right in my face, smiled a huge smile.

 “Wait, you are the runner, are you not? I have heard of you. What took you so long??!!” 

I looked at him, felt relief and then just started to laugh. He joined in, quietly at first and then both of us were full-on doubled-over in hearty belly laughter, neither of us knowing or caring why we were laughing so hard. It was a simple shared moment, beautiful and deep, with a stranger who was not strange at all. We exchanged hand shakes and a jovial hug and then he ushered me through.

“Go on now. Be well, my running friend. It has been a blessing to see you on, so you may approach the mighty mountain. But you were late!”

His laughter faded as I ran past. I continued smiling even as I struggled up the punishing incline, under the moonlight.

A young friend in Djibouti who ran with me, along with her uncle and brothers. They offered me water!

My arrival at the gate to Mount Kilimanjaro was nearly identical to my entire experience crossing Africa . . . my enthusiasm stubbornly met with initial suspicion followed by curiosity, then acceptance and even occasional appreciation. Warm smiles are a beautiful universe language. Granted, there have been more than a few highs and lows along the way, but after all, that was the point of this journey. Now that I am here, ready to begin the final phase of 5.8 AFRICA, I can see that it has all been worth it. Even the worst of it has given me new experiences that I will carry with me to the top of the mountain and beyond.  Everything that has happened to me along the way had to happen, needed to happen. 

It’s taken me 19 days to reach this geographic location, this spot where I am standing as I draft these words. But it’s also taken that same 19 days to empty myself out, to dig into the dark corners and open myself up fully to this place. I try not to move forward in fear, instead focusing on positive feelings. But the fact is, I am afraid at times and that’s nothing new to me. This fear, rational or not, isn’t based on what others might do, but rather on how I treat myself, about who I am when I scrape away at all the dark places. I might not like what I find or even recognize the person I am. What if that darkness that I purge is what’s been holding up the entire structure? 

I’m not sure that I know how to survive without struggle, without chaos. Who I am without the struggle is a mystery to me. My love, Astacianna, has taught me to better appreciate the good moments and not allow them to be swallowed whole by the fear that they are fleeting feelings that can’t be trusted. Perspective, right? I am here to climb this mountain in order to gain perspective, but I needed the first 19 days of struggle, of purging really, to even have a chance of replacing the darkness with light, or dare I say, peek a glimpse of enlightenment. 

My desire is to be braver, my intent to be of service to others, to have more empathy for the people and places I pass through, but I also have to have more empathy for myself. My mom and my wife have been the humans on this planet who have shown me what empathy looks like. Their hearts are models of inspiration for me. And while I don’t really know how to turn my empathy inward, I am certain that I need to learn to help myself be better if I truly hope to help others. 

The world is filled with human suffering and environmental devastation. We see it everyday in the media and with our own eyes. I have strong feelings about taking care of the planet and I will continue to do my part as well as I can, inadequate as it may be.  But when I envisioned this 5.8 Global Adventure Series, I knew that I wanted to focus on the incredible people and beautiful landscapes that I would pass through and not dwell on the obvious destruction, human or otherwise. Too much time is spent on what’s wrong and not enough on what’s right.

Hell’s Gate National Park - Kenya

Along the way I’ve seen animals that I never knew existed and some were so comical that I questioned their reality. I’ve been known to have a hallucination here and there after running for hours in the heat! During the Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, I’ve seen Native Americans dancing, bonfires burning, and wolves howling. None of those things were actually there, yet they seemed so real in the moment! But back to Africa: my crew and my photographs have given me proof that birds like the Dik-Dik and Hoopoe do exist. I’ve witnessed that the Wild Ass, yes that’s their name, is one of the fastest land animals on our planet. Warthogs . . . well, need I say more about them? Ok, I will say more. They run like either their tail is too heavy or their internal compass is set about 33% off. Whatever the reason, the swirly pattern in which they scurry is hilariously baffling.

What a way to start the day!

I’ve seen some of the most remarkable sunrises and sunsets of my life here. From the shores of Lake Assal, above salty dunes, in high deserts, over the edge of waterfalls and volcanic lagoons, the sun has risen and set in rich hues of reds and orange and in soft pastels of lavender and rose. I’ve biked up switchbacks that had no end in sight, while marveling that the forest ahead and above also seemed to never end. It’s invigorating to be surrounded by so many trees and it gives me hope to know that these places still exist. 

What I get out of this adventure is up to me and nobody else. My takeaway will be determined by a combination of the life I’ve lived up to this point and the one I am willing to live today. Kilimanjaro can only reveal exactly what I am prepared to see. I will take what I can use and leave the rest behind. 

Headed closer and closer to that Kilimanjaro summit — the highest point in Africa!

Headed closer and closer to that Kilimanjaro summit — the highest point in Africa!

See you down the trail and from the mountain,

Charlie

One bullet. . .one goat

An intro note from Charlie’s wife, Stacey Astacianna Hatcher:

The following blog post is not lighthearted. It is a reflection written by Charlie about an experience he had one week ago, just after he crossed the border from Ethiopia into Kenya. Something really scary happened, to speak plainly. Following this harrowing event, there was debate amongst social media experts, PR professionals and Charlie’s friends and family as to whether or not this story should be shared. Was the material too sensitive? Would Charlie’s tone be misinterpreted? Would this misrepresent East Africa and its diverse nations, tribes and clans? Would it bother sponsors to think Charlie had been in such peril? Would Charlie’s narrative seem biased?

The questions were many and their effect was paralyzing.

Today, as I sat at home in North Carolina working on logistics for Charlie’s 5.8 Africa Route, my paralysis morphed into a tingling paresthesia followed by an intense, restless burning. The source of my symptoms: Charlie’s voice! ;-) . . . I know my husband; he wants the stories of this journey to be shared openly. He believes that it’s not just the good times that need to be highlighted; it’s also the times when every single thing goes wrong that deserve attention. I opened my laptop and carefully read an email from Charlie titled “One bullet . . . one goat.” Even though I was already all-too-aware of what had happened after that border crossing, the words twisted my stomach and touched my heart in unexpected ways. I was reading honesty. I was reading an experience. I wasn’t reading opinions, politics, or social commentaries. These words weren’t propagandist or academic. They were simply my husband’s candid words, written to share the jarring details of what he, his friend Clay Frost, and their Kenyan drivers encountered on a dark. muddy, desert road.

Now it’s your turn to read . . .

Thank you for lending me a moment,

Astacianna


One Bullet. . .One Goat

The story of a bishop, 3 Turkana warriors, a poorly timed laugh and AK-47s.

What struck me as strange was the abstract beauty of the half-moon, high overhead, reflecting off the barrel of the AK-47 pointed at my face. In truth, the young Kenyan, a Turkana warrior, was sitting in a seat directly in front of mine, in the Toyota Land Cruiser I’d hired as a crew vehicle. He was facing forward, immersed in a heated debate with his two, armed companions, while his weapon was casually aimed at my left eye. I leaned ever so slowly to my right, but the heavily rutted road caused the barrel to bounce crazily, crisscrossing my head and torso. I finally stopped looking at it. This situation made me think of chaos theory, and the unlikely number of things that had to line up perfectly in order for me to find myself under the control of 3 men arguing about whether to simply rob me or to kill me first, then rob me.

Years ago, when I got sober, my fear was that life would be boring. Drugs and the ubiquitous lifestyle that came with it, had long since lost its luster, but the adrenaline pumping quest of drug procurement became the payoff, much more than the actual doing of the drugs. I craved the unpredictable process, fraught with the kind of danger that filled me with joyful dread. The moment of the exchange always struck me in a primordial way, knowing that anything could happen. The possibilities seemed infinite. After the transaction was done, the dive into the abyss was all too predictable, unable to achieve a real high anymore, simply hoping to disappear for a while. Damage done, my body worked to purge the drugs, while simultaneously trying to keep the cloak of invisibility for a bit longer. But deep down, I knew that while others might not see me as I truly felt, I was fully exposed to myself, flayed open and unable to deny my purposeful destruction, let alone the accompanying self-loathing. Nothing about it was fun. But it wasn’t boring! Despite the misery that addiction brought me, letting go of the danger was one of the hardest parts.

My first 11 days of 5.8 Africa fulfilled every need I may ever have for danger and excitement, spending every day wondering how I could possibly get through this. Some of the challenges were purely physical, fighting my way through 13-hour days in blistering heat, choking dust and torturous climbs. But there were also painful episodes of rock-throwing that was dead-on aimed at my head, sides, and back along with name-calling at close range and 18-wheeler side swipes. Add this to Africa’s relentless heat, wind, bugs and roaming animals . . . I couldn’t possibly feel more alive!  

But this moment in the Land Cruiser was different; this was danger that had a taste and feel, visceral in nature. Only 3 hours earlier, I had reached the border of Kenya just 15 minutes before the crossing closed. I felt victorious for having met a goal that was important for me. Bureaucrats, paperwork and warnings of danger delayed our actual crossing for a couple of hours, but at least we were working our way through the system with the help of a priest and a peace worker sent by my wife to help me through the border challenges. Finally, we were escorted to the Kenyan side, where we said goodbye to our Ethiopian crew and were picked up by Charles and Vincent, our Kenyan support team, who would be with us until we reached Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. 

The tension was palpable as we loaded the gear into the Land Cruiser. The guards were on high alert and everyone looked like they would rather be ANYWHERE else but here. I watched Charles having a conversation with two federal police officers. It was clear by the serious tone and body language that Charles was being reprimanded. When he walked over to me, he looked crestfallen, clearly shaken by the conversation. He explained to me that only 2 days before, several Kenyans had been killed less than a mile from the border crossing. A fierce tribal war was in full swing between the Turkana tribe of Kenya and the Murle tribe of Southern Ethiopia. The reasons are many, but the core of the dispute is based in a fight for grazing land for cattle. Murders and robberies were at an all-time high. Charles was being advised in no uncertain terms that if we chose to proceed, it was against recommendations. We would be on our own. 

It's true that I am a risk taker by nature, sometimes too quick to say yes, but I didn’t see this situation like that. We could not go back to Ethiopia and we could not stay at the police station. Our only choice was to go forward.

We departed the border as darkness fell, headed for a Catholic Mission, only a couple of miles away, where my wife had arranged for us to camp with a Kenyan bishop on the property. Vincent was driving and we were all getting acquainted. 30 minutes later, Vincent and Charles began to speak in low voices, which was not necessary since my Swahili is a bit rusty! ;-) They began pointing in different directions, clearly recreating the route that we had taken. In short, we were lost, very lost....in open desert, with no cell signal. Together we all concluded that we should try to return to the border crossing and begin again. Easier said than done. We became hopelessly stuck in the mud. It is rainy season which meant that at any moment the car could punch through the hard outer-crust, into sticky deep mud. It happened, just like that . . .

Vincent gunned the engine, switching from forward to reverse, our lights shining like a beacon for miles around, the engine screaming our location to anyone in the region. Just as the car lurched forward one last time, breaking free of the mud, a figure appeared in our headlights. The first thing I noticed was the rifle, an AK-47, slung across the man’s back, the strap angled across his chest. In the brief seconds he was illuminated, I saw the remarkable facial scarring of a warrior and skin that was an opalescent blue-black. He was shirtless but adorned with various bracelets and armbands. He had the intensity of someone accustomed to fighting.  

He stood at the driver’s side window speaking with Vincent. Luckily for us, Vincent understood and spoke some of the Turkana dialect. The man demanded money in exchange for giving us directions to the mission. It was clear he was very curious about the passengers in the back of the truck (that would be me and my friend, Clay Frost). As we pulled away, I saw Vincent breathe a sigh of relief, but it was short lived, as we drove directly into the path of two more Turkana warriors.

Now there was a Turkana on each side of the truck and one standing in front. Vincent became very agitated and I could tell he was pleading for something. I might not have known the words he was speaking, but their visceral fervor was clear. Still, I could not have possibly known the stakes in that moment. 

The oldest of the three Turkana, who appeared to be the leader among them, demanded to ride with us in the truck and that, then, they would take us to the mission. The two younger ones, probably in their mid 20s, climbed in the front seat. I moved farther back so the leader could take my seat. To be clear, he had not made a request, he had simply taken over the vehicle. He turned and looked me in the face, clearly disgusted by me. We began to drive again, slowly and seemingly without direction. It felt like movement was safer somehow than sitting in one place. As the we bounced and bumped along, this is the moment when I noticed the moon glowing on the barrel of the gun. I silently reached down and hit the record button on my phone. I didn’t dare raise the phone, but I thought maybe the audio would be useful, especially if I ended up buried in the desert.

Then the worst possible thing happened. We became stuck again. Vincent revved the engine, rocked the truck back and forth, but we could not get free. The Turkana leader ordered everyone out of the truck. Instinctively I knew this was bad, that getting out of this truck could change everything. Just as my door was opened, Vincent slammed the gas pedal down one more time, freeing us from the oozing mud. Without thinking, I let out a loud whoop of joy, smiling and pumping my fist. All eyes turned to me, the leader clearly glowering, not sharing my enthusiasm. Charles was seated next to me and he gently put a hand on my arm and slowly shook his head side to side. Apparently, I had done the exact wrong thing. I tried to lighten the mood, to use my spirit and enthusiasm to ease the pressure. I would later learn that the leader thought i was calling for help and mocking them. He demanded, without nuance, that Charles let me out of the car so he could shoot me. 

From here, I mostly remember raised voices, pointed weapons, hand gestures. The words uttered were translated to me after the fact. The debate was not about robbing us, they had already decided to do that. The leader said that he had not killed anyone for a few weeks, and he wanted to see what color white blood was. 

It was at this moment that Vincent had an idea. He told the Turkana that Clay and I were doctors, just arrived to work at the mission. There was no need to kill us now because they would know where to find us anytime. The leader turned to look at me again, weighing some unknown number of things, deciding our fate. It’s important to note that shooting Clay and I would have also meant shooting Vincent and Charles. This a zero-sum game, all dead or all alive. The leader seemed to reach a decision, turned back towards the front seat and gave an order. I saw Vincent visibly relax and I hoped that meant that we were free. He started the truck, began to drive towards some distant lights, which I hoped was the mission house. Ten minutes later, we arrived at a locked gate. The bishop himself opened the gate and led us inside.

The Turkana warriors immediately launched into a story of how they saved our lives and deserved to be paid. A price was negotiated, around 200 dollars, and they seemed satisfied. I did not relax until the Turkana were on the outside of the gate.

I sat speaking with the bishop for a while longer, as nighttime paced near daylight. He said that there had been killings even inside the mission camping recently. He had “never seen it so bad.” I asked him why they decided not to kill us. He looked at me with sadness and gave a simple answer. “It costs one goat to purchase one bullet and the Turkana did not want to waste a bullet on you.”

The adventure continues,

Charlie

Postscript: I’ve now been in Kenya for a week. Each day I have been greeted with warmth and generosity. After that first, truly awful night, things have been as I remembered them. I visited Kenya when my wife was working here 5 years ago. We made lifelong friends and filled our memory banks with positive mementos. As I have run and biked through the communities of the Great Rift Valley, I have said to myself around each bend: Ah, yes, I remember this place. I love it here.

Granted this time in Kenya is much more grueling. The physical demands of covering up to 200 miles each day are great, and that’s exactly what I signed up for. Lowest to highest journeys aren’t meant to be easy. I welcome the physical and mental challenges of this journey. I might not always be happy in the moment and I might loose my cool — I’m sure Clay will have some stories to tell — but I try to find my way back to this singular thought: I have chosen this pain, this opportunity to suffer properly.

 

Missed Maps and Missed Expectations

Thursday was day number eight, and our sixth day in Ethiopia. It started off well enough, but it fairly quickly devolved into a map-finding problem. I don't mean that I couldn't find the map. What I mean is that the map did not match our on-the-ground information, local driver’s experience, or even GIS data gathered by my wife back home. I knew the approximate distance I needed to cover that day was about 260 km (approx. 160 miles). What I couldn't figure out was what that terrain was going to be like. Plainly put, I like knowing where the hills are. But that knowledge just wasn't available.

I started at the exact same spot where I stopped cycling the night before. On my human-powered expedition, there is always a flag placed at my stopping point, so that my crew can get me back to where I need to be the next day without missing any steps, strides or RPMs. This flag was a bit in the middle of nowhere, but I had been accosted by a group of motorcyclists about 30 minutes after dark, and we’d decided that was enough for one day. But Day Eight would bring a whole new set of challenges.

I began riding at 6:45 a.m., a little later than I like. But as long as I could keep riding steadily, I knew that I was doing everything that I could to makeup time. We can’t always control our outcomes, but we do have ownership over our efforts. I had to make it to Weyt’o by the end of the day or there was very little chance that I would make it to the Kenyan border by 5 pm on Friday, our cutoff time to get exit stamps from Emigration Officials in Ethiopia to be allowed to leave Ethiopia. And if I didn't make that deadline, the expedition was most certainly over. It would take my very best effort!

The weather was cooler that it had been, and the towns we were going through seemed to be more low-key. Every kid still screamed something at me. Usually, they were just saying hello, asking for money, or just calling me a “firangi” in Amharic which simply means “foreigner.” I was not offended by it in the least. It's what I am! I always respect the fact that I am an outlander and those who live in the countries that I visit are kind to allow me entrance and passage.

At some point in the bike ride, I realized the maps we had drawn and the terrain I had expected – hills included – simply weren’t materializing. Despite our best attempts at planning and plotting and mapping, this land was indeed foreign to me, the firangi. After much fretting and trying to take control over the terrain, to tame it with logic and charts somehow, I realized I had to let go of my need for information and just be still. I let my brain quiet, and I kept climbing the massive hills, some of them bigger than any I've ever climbed. As I continued to ride, I found myself hoping that this would be the last big climb…and then this would be the last big climb…and then this would be the last big climb.

I was driving myself crazy because I was disappointed time after time. I finally understood I had to let go of this too. Eventually, I stopped thinking about whether it was THE last big hill and just focused on the climb I was on. I kept myself in the moment, and as the day wore down, I finally found the last climb, although I didn't know it until it was over! 

Harnessing hope that each climb would be the last had put me on an emotional roller coaster. It was torturous. But once I let go of those expectations completely and surrendered to the reality that all these climbs had to be done, regardless of whether it was the first or the last, it became much easier.

Acceptance always helps things work out. And it allowed me to mentally be free of calculation on this day. My only job was to ride the bike.

If you’re following my journey, you already know whether or not I made that deadline and continued on into Kenya. Stay tuned for the next blog to learn ABOUT THE BORDER-CROSSING ADVENTURE AND BEYOND!

See you down the trail,

Charlie

 
Sun is up and I’m ready to ride!

Sun is up and I’m ready to ride!

 

One of many late night map sessions with my team. Solomon is giving us his thoughts on the route, based on his local expertise.

 

Rugged, diverse and truly beautiful.

Hill after craggy, bent hill…