burden |noun| something that is carried, a load, a duty, something worrisome
Objects conspire to tell our story. Just ask the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda or American author Tim O’Brien. In The Things They Carried, O’Brien gives us a window into the hearts of the men in a U.S. platoon during the Vietnam War through the things they carried with them into combat, while Neruda, in his delightful “Ode to Common Things”, says about things that:
“they were so close
that they were a part
of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.”
How, then, can we deny that the things on our shelves, in our bags, in our pockets take our temperature, document our life like a fingerprint? It’s a basic principle of archaeology, crime scene forensics, the painful task of sifting through a deceased loved one’s belongings. So the pressing question for me, an unlikely backpacker bound for Marrakech, was this: if by mishap, my backpack were found by another trekker on a lonely mountain trail, what stories would its contents reveal?
Through an elaborate web of straps and clasps, the backpack was firmly fastened around my rather delicate frame: turtle-like. And, at about that speed, I began my way on foot up the M’Goun Mountain in Morocco’s Atlas Range. These glorious mountains lie deep in Berber country and are named after the famous Titan condemned by Zeus to eternally shoulder the celestial sphere. In compensation, the naughty deity got to oversee astronomy and navigation, which is why a bound collection of maps – a relic of the pre-GPS era – is known as an atlas. Let’s not forget, of course, the bonus of messing with hikers as they trudge their way across the spice-colored mountain range, its fragrant powders spilled and spiralled by rushed breezes bound from valley to mountaintop. Atlas may carry the heavens on his shoulders, but these poor souls are saddled with burdens of their own, their sense of balance slightly askew under the weight of insulation layers, first aid kits, emergency blankets, energy snacks, sun screen, Goretex shells, cameras, sun glasses, smooshed rolls of toilet paper, matches, photographs of loved ones (whether in pixels or ink). But oddly enough, bearing the brunt of our weightless burdens is often the greater challenge. These are the jagged concerns whose sharp corners rhythmically poke at our unprotected flank as we ascend.
Only the fear of celestial revenge kept Atlas from blowing my little group of brave hikers clear off the mountain ridge as we painstakingly made our way around its rim to the M’Goun’s barren peak at 4068m above sea level. The violent gusts repeatedly broke my stride, making me walk curved in a right-handed parenthesis. To add insult to injury, the cocktail of gales and strained, open-mouthed breathing gave me a stubborn case of the hiccups, which didn’t make keeping my heart rate down any easier. But in the end, the wind was little more than an overplayed joke and, when I finally reached the top after a 6 hour ascent, my heels tingled with the tears gurgling deep within the earth, as they searched for a vessel to spring.
By far the heaviest physical thing I carried with me was the most basic: water. The Earth’s very lifeblood, coursing through its cavernous veins. The water pouch in my pack pressed up firmly against my kidneys. I wanted to reach the top of the M’Goun, avoiding as many symptoms of altitude sickness as possible. This unforgiving disease can cripple even the stoutest of athletes and I am but a wisp of a hiker. Soon enough, my most common symptom was upon me: shortness of breath. It felt as if Atlas himself were sitting on my rib cage, laughing as I struggled to suck enough oxygen out of the thinned air. To keep the other symptoms at bay, I continually drank water in small sacrificial gulps. Taking-in the elements. Whatever glories our vain souls thirst for, they too must allow themselves to be immersed in the earth’s elements, if they are to thrive. The only necessary bravery is for our desires to permeate the compounds through which their fruition can take shape. For a longing to come out into the Atlas’s ochre dust and there suffocate is a better fate than to live unbirthed in our thoughts. Locked in the mind like a tumor.
One of the more random items I had on me was nail polish remover. The day before my trip, I caught my first bastard of a grey hair in flagrante delicto – the new grey half merrily funnelling into the brown section of yore. My urge to run to the hairdresser was tempered only by the concession that this had been a long time coming – I am 33, after all. So I compromised: instead of coloring my hair, I colored my nails fire-engine red. This is an admittedly unusual pre-trek ritual, but I wanted to look down at my nails after a 5 day, no-shower hike and gloat over the polish chipped and cracked, like a retired library book. At my fingertips, I’d have created a monument to an experience fully embraced and would merely be admiring the evidence thereof. So this was an existential manicure – one to remind me that it is ok for time to show its markings on my body, as long as my life has been fully embraced.
In a side pouch of my bag, I had a smartphone. Every gram of weight sweetly humming at the outset of a trek will end it screaming, so you quickly learn to pack light. I’d been told by our guide, Hamed, that Mr. Atlas had cut-off cellphone reception, so the extra weight was, objectively, poor strategy. But I didn’t care. I wanted it with me just in case the deity was distracted long enough for me to sneak a call to Luís, with whom I hadn’t spoken since I’d landed in Marrakech 3 days before. For a generation nursed on unlimited instantaneous communication, being cut-off like this can be profoundly disorienting. A bad thing on a mountain. What to do with the finger twitching to What’sApp a photo of the landscape? To text a quick “thinking of you – <3”? I ended up channelling this energy into something very healthy indeed – simply missing him. Which turned into being thankful for him, worried for him, praying for him and scribbling a tent-side letter to him. My ability to communicate may have been cut-off, but it was also suddenly deeper.
Repetition is the fabric of long treks. Extended repetition of the same physical gesture – the step – tip top, all the way up the mountain. The effect is of a regular beat lulling you into a state of quite reflection, like a baby soothed by a car’s humming engine. Add to this the fact that I am incapable of uphill banter above a certain altitude or temperature (I need all my strength to keep my breathing regular) and you get long stretches of fruitful silence with a built-in rosary at your fingertips. When I really need to whine at God, the rosary is my go-to. It’s repetitious, high-pitched pleading – just like a kid begging his parents for a candy bar. So I tugged at God’s sleeve about Luís’ career, about my career, about where we are going to live, about personal dreams that have been reluctantly delayed. With each step and each repetitive Hail Mary, my walk was reconnected with the author of these mountains. I was roped-in, like my shoelaces to my boots. And I know from experience that just as loose laces are dangerous on unstable ground, so is a life disconnected from its ultimate meaning.
Nestled in between my anxiety and my hopefulness was my Black Marble Mead Composition Notebook. It’s my writing quirk and I’m lucky enough to have a friend who sends me batches of them from the U.S. Despite the predictable lack of opportunity to jot down inspired tid-bits, my notebook earned a spot in my backpack anyway. One reason for that was the blank pages that followed some very scarred, crossed-out, blotched and botched pages. A bloody battle involving a leaky ballpoint pen had clearly taken place there. Lately, whenever I attempt to tie any words down to the page, they keep getting tangled up in existential questions like “am I any good at this?”, “will I get recognition?”, “do I have the stamina to stick this out?” Before I know it, I’ve left my letters gasping for air as if they were the ones at high altitude. I kept feeding myself all sorts of high-caloric mantras. Look at the blank page the same way you’d deal with a mid-mountain blister: stick a Compeed bandade on it and keep going. A bruise is not a good enough reason to back down mid-trek. Have a snack, take a breather, pick a mark on the mountain and walk to it. I can talk the talk, of course, but it remains to be seen if I can walk the walk. Here’s hoping I’m not just another fluffster. But there was another reason for that notebook’s extra weight in my bag. The day before we summited the M’Goun, I’d sat at the entrance of my tent at base camp, facing the next day’s peak and colouring-in the fat letters of an inscription spread across two pages (with markers that incidentally ended up in the pockets of some cute little Berber boys). Professional climbers are often paid by sponsors to snap photos with the sponsor logo when they reach the summit. But me, I planned to dedicate my summit to someone who is very dear to me and who is sick and far away. She’s been braving a storm that many people in my family have faced before her and she has unsurprisingly showed her true colors – brighter and bolder than even the Atlas’s astounding array. I wanted to send her all of my love and strength. It’s a conundrum, but when you yourself need strength, to give it away is often the best way to gain it back. So as far as I was concerned, the M’Goun was all for my sister Filipa. When I finally rounded the top, a bit worse for wear, I pulled my notebook from my backpack carefully maneuvering myself so that neither backpack, nor notebook were blown away by the unrelenting wind. Although burned out, I was so proud to hold up that sign and send my sister all my love. Of all the stories my backpack could have told that day, the one I was holding up was my favorite one. Such are the ingredients that make up our lives.