The Things I Carried… Up the M’Goun

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:

My hiking boots – can’t part with even the retired ones.

 

“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?

The richly colored Atlas mountains

The richly colored Atlas mountains…

...reminiscent of the spice cones in the Marrakech souk.

…reminiscent of the spice cones in the Marrakech souk.

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.

Braving it in 42º Moroccan weather - backpack at my feet.

Braving it in 42º Moroccan weather – backpack at my feet.

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.

Cooling off after a long day's work. Check out my red nails.

This was my natural hammam after a long day’s work. Check out my red nails.

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.

Tent-side peace the day before the ascent to the M'Goun.

Some tent-side artwork at the M’Goun base camp. The wind was soon to come and shake our tent into a symphony all night long. Not a peaceful sleep.

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.

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To my sister from way up top the M’Goun at 4068 m – with all my love!

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The Air Up There

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Kodachrome spring flowers near Lauterbrunnen

walk |verb| to move along on foot; to advance by steps

A year into our marriage, my husband and I decided to revive our pre-martial dream of going to Patagonia. There was however one tiny glitch: our state of newly-wed, newly-housed bliss had left us in a relative state of financial depletion. Not a problem. As young lawyers, we were spry, resourceful and excellent negotiators. All we needed was a window of opportunity. At about the same time, I got a call from the police. Apparently, someone had broken into my VW Lupo – a tiny blueberry of a car that was too cool to be in production for more than a couple of years. (It touched – not literally, thankfully! – an entire generation of law students at my university.) The police was wondering if I knew about it… given that a week had passed and there were no signs of anyone having touched the smashed glass. The Lupo’s guardian, a stuffed frog named Principe, was clearly growing weary of the task. As I mulled over the situation, I realized that not only did I have the real prince now, but my window of opportunity was right before me, shattered and strewn all over the front seat. We sold the car and in a few weeks were on a plane to Ushuaia. One of the most memorable encounters in my hiking history happened out there in a tiny hiker’s paradise called El Chalten. Luís and I had taken an 8-hour hike to a turquoise glacier lake (Laguna de los Tres) that was breath-taking in both beauty and physical endurance. About halfway through the hike, an odd looking pair appeared on the horizon of our trail, coming in the opposite direction. The trail was narrow and one walked in front of the other. But something was slightly off in their dynamic. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As the gap between us closed, I noticed a pair of ski poles connected them – each man holding an extremity. That’s when I realized the second hiker was blind.

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Laguna de los Tres – El Chalten, Patagonia (Argentina)

Hiking is walking with a capital W. It is to me what a car ride is to a cranky baby resisting sleep – a place to disconnect from the static and reconnect with myself. It’s a carved-out space where thoughts can begin to settle and pick the words they want to inhabit, instead of lingering somewhere in the soul as a vague gas-like feeling. Feelings in this undefined state cannot be addressed head on and are basically given free-license to haunt us. It’s a bad strategy. It’s certainly no coincidence that a great many writers incorporate walks into their creative routine and that many people advocate walking to untangle knotty problems, to digest life along with dinner and to solidify bonds – my father among them. He was walking alone in the mountains of Sintra when he decided to marry my mother. The chapel he stumbled upon mid-walk was where they tied the knot – or so goes our family folklore. (Incidentally, Luís and I were both baptized in that church and were married there in 2006.) Walking is also a perfect analogy for life where the best things require a little bit of effort on our part. Earn that view. Let your steps turn into a trail and a trail a destination.

Spring in Switzerland has been tight-fisted, so we took advantage of a brief respite and made our way over to Interlaken this past weekend with some friends. Our first walk took us through a picture-perfect valley lined with thin waterfalls crashing down from cliffs the height of skyscrapers. I snapped away at my camera even though I knew it was a hopeless cause. Technology cannot bring you the taste of the faint mist emanating from the falls, the explosive coolness of the Alpine water in your throat, the existential space hung between snow-capped mountain peaks. The air pressing up against your epidermis like a palm of a hand. You feel a little kitsch repeating how beautiful all those Kodachrome flowers are scattered across the fields like that – as if Someone has planted them one by one, which of course they did. Then there is the luxury of the time to be able to walk through it all, to breath it all in, to let it pump through your bloodstream like caffeine. Facebook, Instagram and Google Glass are no substitute for the authentic experience. They can hint at an existence beyond their pixel walls, but they won’t walk the walk for you.

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The valley of Lauterbrunnen – notice the Staubbach Falls in the back.

The next day’s walk ended up turning into an Aesop’s Fable, complete with a moral and an animal embodying a vice/virtue. For an animal, we had Botox – our pampered princess of a dog. For a vice, we had his cowardice – he’s scared of everything from wheels on suitcases to plastic bags. Now, we can add things that fall out of the sky thanks to a group of landing paragliders, that made the little guy projectile-poop and break into a sprint such was his canine terror. No amount of words or lint rollers can describe the 30-minute gondola ride up the Schwarzhorn in the aftermath of this traumatic event. The plan had been to hike up to the idyllic Lake Bachalpsee – a pristine lake perfectly reflecting the mountain summits around it while embraced by lush green meadows. And the weather report seemed to confirm that that was what we were in for. Totally naïve. A meter of snow, a frozen (unreflecting) lake and an overcast sky (despite the weather report) was our prize. Moral of the story: check the webcam as well as the weather report, dummy – don’t you know global warming is making the weather go all musical chairs on us? The Spring respite was clearly over and I felt cheated by the view Google had promised me (not to mention the 114 CHF gondola ticket). But then I remembered the blind hiker. There are four other senses to go on. How would he experience sitting where I was just then? I guess that was moral no. 2: when life’s circumstances suddenly change on us, we can either stick with the now ill-suited initial plan or adapt our dynamic. Perhaps you’ll find a new way to experience things you loved – like the blind guy – pulling that verb tense into the present tense: love. On the way down from Schwarzhorn, I realized I’ve actually written about this blind hiker in one of my stories. He was so deep down in my psyche that I hadn’t realized my character was him, but there he was.

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Luís, Botox and I in front of Lake Bachalpsee – yep, the frozen white thing in the back.

Somewhere in my in-laws attic in Portugal, I still have my first pair of hiking boots – long since retired. I bought them with my dad and they remind me that I’ve walked a long way since then. And I’ll walk a long way still, even though – just now – the weather is a little foggy. But fog is curious thing – even if you can’t see the final destination, you can always see the next step.

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