“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or said to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”-Helen Keller
Over the next two hours I hike in silence as the same question keeps bubbling up in my mind, why am I really on this hike?
And when I strip away all the bullshit and answer it honestly, I don’t like what I find.
The truth is that I actually hate hiking. I’m not an outdoorsman in any way, shape or form. Kilimanjaro was pure hell and I remember something I’d forgotten about it. Once I finished the hike and made it back to the base camp in Arusha, I donated all my hiking gear to Festo because I swore I’d never hike another step ever again.
And so if I actually hate hiking then why am I really doing this?
And that’s when the real answer hits me. The money made me do it. This hike isn’t any better than my old corporate job, I’m still slogging through the day like I used to way back then, it’s just a different kind of slogging masked by what I thought I wanted. But the simple fact is that when I’m really honest with myself, I only agreed to film this hike for a paycheck.
When I realize that I’ve sold out, my thoughts start spiraling downhill.
This isn’t the pot of gold and if this isn’t what I want to do with my life, then what is?
When the answer doesn’t come I feel about as lost as I’ve ever been.
The hiking becomes too challenging to keep dwelling on it and I have to brace myself for each step because the higher we get, the steeper the trail becomes. Plus, due to the fact that I really didn’t sleep last night, my energy begins to dip, which makes the backpack more colossal and uncontrollable.
Around 3 o’clock and at the verge of losing my mind I call out, “At what point do we stop for lunch and where do we get more water because I’m starving and dying of thirst?”
Jonathan and I had been reminiscing about Philadelphia all morning. In particular its food. I lived in the city for two years and grew up in its suburbs so we’ve been debating age-old questions like Pat’s or Geno’s? Whiz or without?
He told me he liked his cheesesteaks from Geno’s and I said that I preferred mine from Pat’s, which is Geno’s rival. We did both agree on whiz however, which in Philadelphia of course means with cheese. But it’s not just any cheese, it’s this special cheese that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s warm cheese whiz, which gets slapped onto the top of the steak the second you order it. It then quickly melts into the meat and seeps into the nooks and crannies of the fresh roll before you bite into it. The whole thing is a thing of beauty.
We also discussed how special Wawa’s are and the intricacies of every kind of Tastykake made in the 1990’s. I’ve never been much of a foodie, but there was something so special about these simple conversations with Jonathan as we hiked along.
Maybe it’s because I haven’t bumped into another American in nearly two years, especially one from the same neck of the woods where I grew up so it could be that it’s just nice to be on the same exact page with someone for a change. Usually when I met someone while traveling we cover the same kinds of basic topics like, where are you from, what do you do for a living and where are you going next. But when Jonathan and I talk its almost as though we can finish each other’s sentences.
But then again maybe it’s deeper than just being on the same page about cheesesteaks and butterscotch krimpets. Maybe it’s because I don’t relate to that part of my past anymore. I left Philadelphia in 2003 and ever since I left I haven’t looked back. I haven’t gone back to visit and I haven’t maintained my friendships with the people I grew up with like I probably should have. And so talking to Jonathan really feels like I’m reconnecting with a forgotten piece of my past.
But the big problem with all this cheesesteak and Tastykake talk is that it’s making me hungry. Really hungry.
I call out again, “Seriously, when do we stop for lunch? It’s already 3PM?”
As Alan gets ready to respond I can tell by the look on his face that I’m not going to like his answer, “Well, all of the food is dry food, so we need to add water to it to cook it, but we don’t have enough water left. By the time we go and find a water source, set up the stove and cook the food it might take an hour or two and the campsite is just three more hours away.”
Alan’s response causes me to completely unravel, I take off my backpack and throw it like a shot put as far as I can, “It’s 3:00! I’m starving for god sake, we ate breakfast at 5:30 this morning and I haven’t had anything to eat since. If you’re going to take people on a hike that’s this damn challenging you have got to give them a lunch break! I would have packed a sandwich or something if I had known this. My blood sugar is low!”
I hold out my hand and it’s shaking like a leaf.
Before Alan can reply I keep going on my rant, “And I don’t know how I’m going to hike for three more hours! My toes are killing me; they have got to be bleeding inside these damn boots.”
Then I start to really lose my patience and launch my water bottle down the trail, “And what about water? I haven’t had any all afternoon, this is inhumane!”
Jonathan shakes his water bottle; he has less than a quarter left in his and Alan the same.
“I understand your frustration Eric. There is a water source close to the campsite. The one I was planning on filling our bottles up at this afternoon was all dried up.”
Alan walks down the trail and picks up my water bottle and dumps all his water into it and then Jonathan does the same and with nothing else left to say or do we get back on the trail.
Eventually I come to my senses and apologize for freaking out, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t what I thought it would be and I’ve realized that I’m really only doing this for the money and so I’m just overall pissed off at myself.”
The next two hours is a slow march; I’m well and truly drained, mentally and physically.
As the sun starts dipping towards the horizon I can barely get one foot in front of the other. I’m scared to see the state of my toes if we ever actually reach the campsite. They are going to have to be pried out of these boots tonight; the constant pounding up against the steel tip has left them a crumpled mess. It gets so bad that anytime we get to a portion of the trail where there is even the slightest downhill slope, I have to turn around and walk backwards so my toes don’t slide down into the steel.
The group as a whole is spent and as morale takes one final dip, Jonathan takes a misstep and falls. As he’s sliding down the gravel trail on his stomach, I reach out for him and we hook arms. I help him back to his feet, but the damage is done, his whole right side is cut and bruised from the fall.
The trail has well and truly humbled us all.
“We are the Bad News F@cking Bears of the hiking world,” I scream out.
Alan’s dry sense of humor affectionately adds, “Even as a group we are still a couple cards short of a full deck.”
Two hours later and four hours behind schedule we make it to the last stretch of trail; we’ve now been hiking for 12 straight hours with no food or water.
I look up at a never-ending stone staircase that Mother Nature’s carved into the top of the mountain and Alan lovingly says, “This is called the stairway to heaven.”
Jonathan looks at Alan and says, “More like stairway to hell.”
I chime in, “You mean you saved the hardest part for last? We have to hike straight up now?”
Alan forever the optimist says, “The good news is, it only takes an hour and at the top is our water source and campsite.”
I look up, the rocks literally look like they go on forever, “They cut through the clouds and I can’t even see where it ends.”
Jonathan is somehow still in good spirits and points to outer space and says, “I think up there.”
I’m really not in the mood for jokes by this point, “I’ve got this monstrous backpack on, I haven’t eaten all day, I don’t have any water left, my only pair of jeans are covered in mud and in shreds, I can’t feel my toes, and on top of all that you’re telling me I now have to scale these stone steps for an hour in order just to get to the campsite?”
Alan quietly says, “Unfortunately, yes, that is what I’m saying.”
As I stand there I feel completely confused. Today was supposed to be my dream day. This type of filming project is what I’ve worked so hard to get to. This was meant to be my Bill Cunningham moment. Now that I’m here and doing it, it’s actually one of the most awful things I’ve ever done.
Then, as I’m looking up into the sky I see Hayma’s smile. I haven’t been able to get her out of my head all afternoon. I keep replaying the moment we met and I started to miss her like crazy. It’s hard enough to climb a mountain and now I’m going to have to do it while my hearts breaks. The friendship and banter with Alan and Jonathan this week has taken my mind off her and eased my pain, but all that was just a band-aid.
She’s the one, I know it, and I don’t understand why she’s running from that!
Throughout the course of my travels around the world I’ve become the definition of resilient, which is something I’m extremely proud of. When there’s been no way, I’ve found a way because at the end of the day no one’s out here with me to keep me going. No one’s there to lift me up when I’m down or to reassure me each time I doubt myself. The sad truth is that my best friends probably couldn’t tell you what country I’m in and even my own family forgets sometimes.
The simple fact of the matter has always been that if I’m going to transform my life and make it around the world, that I’m the one that has to do it. No one can do it for me. I’m the one that has to muster up the self-belief day after day and every morning it’s like I have to start over.
I’ve been hit with so many setbacks along the way that my thinking’s gradually changed from, why me to what’s next?
And so it is with that what’s next attitude that I stop thinking, stop talking, and stop feeling, and I take off like a dart.
Whatever this fire is inside me that pushed me to quit my corporate job and try to live a creative life and make it around the world takes over every muscle and fiber of my body and I start running up the rocky stairwell. I begin to move like I’m possessed; inside each step I take I gain more and more momentum.
I climb through the clouds and up and out of sight of Jonathan and Alan. The climb feels like sustenance to me, like all the pain I’ve bottled up along the way is releasing itself and fueling my fire. Miraculously I get stronger and stronger the higher and harder I climb.
The only thing I can think to compare it to is WWF wrestling in the 1990’s when Hulk Hogan was all but beaten, but he would find this untapped inner strength and mount a comeback against his opponent. As his opponent would close in for the kill and hit him over and over, the Hulkster would start shaking like a maniac as if the blows inflicted upon him were actually recharging him.
Now I realize that that was fiction, but this is fact. So much so that at one point I’m in a full out sprint and moving so fast that I can barely see where to place my foot as I leap for the next rock. I could go on forever if I have to.
By the time I make it to the top of the mountain I’m fully out of breath and panting and wheezing for air, but nothing was going to stop me.
It takes Alan and Jonathan about 20 minutes to catch up to me and they both say that they’ve never seen anyone move like that. I try to explain it to them as we pitch our tents and make dinner, but I really can’t, “That stairway restored something in me, half of me saying, “why am I doing this” and the other half of me was saying “this is exactly why I’m doing this”. Most of the best moments of my journey have come during the times when all seems lost.”
After dinner, the three of us sit around the campfire like we’ve known each other for twenty years, bonded by the hike from hell and all our collective mistakes. On a serious note, I lean over the fire and tell Alan that I hope he knows that on good faith I can’t recommend this hike to anyone just yet. Then after a long pause I say, “But I have zero doubt that you will get this right and you’ll figure out the route, the water supply, the lunch breaks and the whole nine yards. I’m sure you’ll turn this into one of the best hikes in the world one day. You were right; it really is beautiful out here and worth the visit. So even though I can’t recommend the hike just yet, I can recommend you.”
Alan looks back. His fire burns bright. His passion for hiking and getting his adventure tour company right reminds me of my own journey in that it’s only been amplified because of today’s setbacks, “Thank you. I’m sorry for today, but you are correct, I will get this right.”
Alan then says, “Well I guess there’s only one thing left to do. Let’s go and take that picture of the stars you were talking about.”
I let out an exhausted sigh, “I don’t know Alan, this campsite is pretty comfortable right now.”
It’d be pretty easy to sit by the campfire and fall asleep at this point. My toes are a crumpled black and blue mess. It looks like I’ll lose a few toenails before it’s all said and done. Plus, I’ve been filming all day and every muscle in my body aches, but then I think of what Roger Staubach once said, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”
So I get up and delicately squeeze my feet back into my boots and grab my camera and tripod. It’s about a ten-minute walk to where the trees clear and a rocky cliff runs out over a sprawling valley that never ends.
For the past three years I’ve taken one creative photo every single day, but I’ve never once taken one of the stars. I’ve looked at cool photos of the night sky online and dreamt of being able to do it one day, but I’ve never actually tried. It always seemed too technical for me. You have to know how to do a long exposure, which I’ve really only ever done once. Plus, you have to be way out in the middle of nowhere to be able to do it. If you’re close to a city, the reflection of the city lights against the night sky will block out the stars.
“There isn’t a city light, a house light or any other light out here so you have nothing to worry about tonight,” says Alan.
“But I can’t really see any stars. It doesn’t look like they’re out tonight,” I say.
Alan agrees, “Well let’s try it anyway, you never know.”
“You’re going to have to bear with me. We might have to do this photo like fifty times. I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
I set my tripod up on the cliff and then I slow the shutter speed down to 30, which means that when I take the photo the shutter will actually stay open for 30 seconds and capture everything over the course of that time.
Once I have the shutter speed set I ask Alan to walk out and turn his headlamp on and look up towards the sky. It’s so dark out here that I bump up the ISO to 2000 and then open the f-stop to 2.8 so I can let as much light in as possible, but even then I can’t see anything on the LCD screen or through the viewfinder.
“I think it’s too dark. It’s funny for as often as I use my camera I still don’t quite know what I’m doing. I doubt I can get anything close to the cool shots I’ve seen online.”
Then I tell Alan how important it is that he doesn’t move and then I focus on where I think his headlamp is and say, “Okay, its ready, stay still for the next thirty seconds.”
I snap the shot and while the camera does its thing for the next thirty seconds I stare at the only star my eye can see and replay the entire day from the sausage rolls to the setbacks.
Once the shutter snaps closed I tell Alan that he can relax now. I take the camera off the tripod and hold it in my hands.
Alan walks back and looks over my shoulder and says, “Okay, let’s see what we got.”
After we both turn our headlamps off I push play and the LCD screen lights up and glows across our pitch-black world.
When the photo flashes on the screen, I gasp.
“I don’t even know what to say.”
Alan says, “Oh my god, you did it. What an incredible photo!”
In my hands is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever taken.
In the picture, the entire night sky is lit up behind Alan’s silhouette. We can see every single star the galaxy has to offer and even the crevice of the Milky Way.
“The whole day was hell, but through the pain we kept going. When we started out on this hike I didn’t even know where we were hiking to and then I started questioning what I was even doing this for and now on the edge of this cliff, above the clouds…”
I have to stop and compose myself because when the magnitude of the moment hits me and I can feel my tiny, but powerful place in this Universe I get a little lump in my throat.
“I’m holding the entire Universe in my hands Alan! Thank you. This, this is my dream!”