Last week, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.
I could write about how great of a cultural experience it was, how much fun I had, the beauty of the mountainside, or the joy of camaraderie between strangers that had never met before and might never meet again. But I won’t.
I won’t, because what struck me most about my experience on Kilimanjaro was not the expected storyline of adventure, camaraderie, and scenic grandeur. What struck me was the stoic coldness with which the mountain rose above the African plains, and how I internalized that coldness as I marched slowly towards its summit.
I’m writing about clouds and dust.
It all began when I left my familiar soil – oaks and redwoods, Pacific skies, coffee shops and bike lanes – and I encapsulated myself in a giant metal tube with tiny windows and crying babies. A day or two later, the tube opened up, and I was in Tanzania.
Air Travel – the means of alienating an individual from the passage of land over time. When I drive, I see the landscape shift before my eyes. I feel the air get colder or warmer according to the whims of the weather. The sensation of traveling from one place to another is gradual, tangible, and comprehensible. You can talk to natives on the way, and smell the wind as you stop for gas. When I fly, it’s as if the plane never leaves the ground, but rather a crew of architects and painters rapidly sets up a facade of another land while I sleeplessly toss about in the fuselage, and I step out into this fabricated land when their work is complete the next morning.
Flying is a conspiracy to the senses.
This Tanzania, it’s not the real Tanzania. It’s a Tanzania built for me, built for my benefit by an army of skillful set designers. The horizon is a painted wall, the jungle is plastic, the tribesmen are actors. They can’t fool me – beyond the wall lies the San Francisco Bay. When I’m done indulging my fantasy, they’ll lock me up in another giant metal tube and tear down the set, removing every scrap of Tanzania from the land before letting me step out into the San Francisco International Airport, which I never left.
I’ve never seen Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve stood atop its summit and looked down on its slopes, but I’ve never seen it from a distance. The East African plains maintained a cloud layer at around 8,000 feet, obscuring any view of the mountain from below it and any view of the plains from above it. I would not have been aware I was climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had someone not informed me. As I marched on, I felt the ground slope gradually upward. I had to believe it was Kilimanjaro, because that’s what I was told by my guides, and I had no reason not to trust them.
I know what the peak looks like from its slopes, but I have yet to see the postcard picture from a distance. Any mountaineer knows – a mountain’s scenic character shifts when you go from beneath it to upon it. Every mountain may as well be two different mountains: the mountain from afar, and the mountain up close. And even beyond the duality of distances, each mountain face has a unique character. I am very familiar with what Kilimanjaro looks like up close, from the south side. I spent a week looking at it. But I have no idea what it looks like from afar beyond the photography of others, or from any other angle. Most of the mountain is still a stranger to me.
How can something I climbed and conquered continue to hide its identity and keep its secrets? How can we say we’ve known someone or been somewhere if even the objects of our triumphant conquests continue remain a mystery to us?
Again, lets return to clouds and dust.
For most of the journey, we hiked above the clouds. You couldn’t see the earth below. Earth might have not existed below. It was as if we were atop a mountain island, suspended above a great white sea.
Had I not already known we were in Africa, would I have been able to guess?
When talking of places we’ve been, we debate what counts and what doesn’t. It’s generally accepted that only being at an airport doesn’t count as being in a place. For some, you have to at least touch the ground. For others, you have to talk to a local, or spend the night. But what is a place? If you are within a place, but that place is devoid of its ethereal essence, can you say you’ve been there? Like a resort on a Caribbean beach – an outpost of the USA on some unspecified foreign nation’s soil. Is that really going to another country, or is it just going to an extension of the Florida Keys?
What is the essence of Tanzania? What is the essence of Africa? What does the African Continent mean to us? Is it the jungle and the savannah? Is it the combination of regional languages and cultures that create modern ethnic and national identities? Is it the history of European imperialism over an indigenous and subjugated tribal population that carved out imaginary borders grouping together people who had no business being considered the same? Giraffes? Monkeys? Zebras? Malaria? Marathon runners? How can we reduce an entire continent of people into an essence that we can feel and believe?
Atop Kilimanjaro, looking down onto the African Continent, there was no jungle or savannah. There were no zebras or giraffes. Only clouds – clouds stretching as far as the eye could see, and beneath my feet, not the dirt of a cultured road, but rather volcanic dust, upon which stood Americans, Europeans, Asians, and of course Africans – a globalized blend of flavors that could belong anywhere. But in what sense could I say I was in Africa if the essence of Africa was left beneath the clouds where I could not see or feel it?
The dust – volcanic dust. Not too different from the dust covering the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the volcanic alpine desert, and myself standing upon that desert, I could’ve been fooled into believing that maybe I wasn’t on Kilimanjaro after all, but Mount Rainier, or Mount Shasta. There’s a point of elevation at which land loses its character. It’s the point at which life becomes lifelessness. The soil becomes dust. Where I stood, on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, had more in common with the slopes of the Oregonian peaks than it did with the African plains resting somewhere below the clouds.
But alas, ascending to the final upper reaches of the crater rim, a midnight march guided by moonlight and determination revealed that the enigma of being, that alienating plague of doubt, the numbness of emotional distance, and even the dust and the clouds can be transcended by the stars of the Southern Sky reflecting off the glacial ice. And as the sun rose from somewhere over that bubbly white sea, I began to understand that I don’t need to feel some ethereal essence; I don’t need to believe that I exist in a time or place that suits my fancy. The Earth owes me nothing. It does not need to dignify me with peace of mind or arrogant pride. It only needs to remind me that it’s there, and that I am weaker and more fragile than it. Mankind is but a temporary anomaly of existence, crawling foolishly on its skin. My search for essence is laughably trivial, because I am a being of limited perceptive power, and infinitesimal importance.
But I should take comfort in that. I should take comfort in knowing that there exist things in this universe far greater than myself, because if We, with our five senses and foolish whims, were the greatest beings in the universe, then how much incomprehensible awe must the Universe really contain? Just because we can’t feel something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Let us kneel with humility and accept the limitations of our egos.