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.
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.
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 Go-Away-Bird 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.
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.
See you down the trail and from the mountain,