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Friday, June 18, 2010

The Heart of the Atlas, Part 1:

NOTE: Due to length, I am splitting this entry into two parts, I will try to publish the second half in the next two days, but certainly by Monday. Email if you have questions, but for now, enjoy.

On the desk before me lies a journal. It is small, roughly the size of a passport and just as thin. Its covers are black and scratched and its pages stained; the ink blurred with water and sweat. I remember it crisp and new only a few months before as my good friend, a Park Ranger in Nevada, pressed it into my hands as a gift. Only five of its pages have been filled so far, but it is the story contained in those five pages that I will attempt to convey in the following account. It is an account of a mere 48 hours in the Atlas Mountains but the events of those 48 hours, I feel, will shape the rest of my service here. So given the personal importance of these events, I feel that it is best to translate them to you in all honesty. I will not make myself out to be a hero, and I will not cut out the fear, pain, and doubt I felt.
These five pages have very little rhyme or reason, no structure at all really. They are simply a bulleted list of a strange shorthand, my shorthand, with words or phrases written to trigger my memories of moments past. Looking through the list I see the points begin neat and legible and end in a more desperate scrawl. Now, I will attempt to recreate the series of events from this list and let the memories flow from the little journal onto this page.


06/11/2010 – Day 104 in Morocco – 693 Days of Service Remaining
“Nishan”, my host father is speaking to me, his weathered face illuminated by the early morning sun; a cigarette hangs from the corner of his mouth. “Nishan”, he says again, “go straight”; he gestures to a hazy mountain pass over my shoulder. The white landrover sits behind him, engine ticking in the cool morning silence. The mountains between us and my village are shadowy and wreathed in fog, their slopes a play of dappled light. I nod solemnly and point at the pass “Nishan, anikkin fhmgh” “Go straight, I understand”. He nods once and waves goodbye before getting back into the Land Rover and vanishing into the fog.
I turn around and look down at a large lake, named for a bridegroom, which shines like a mirror in the slanting light. My pack, not very heavy at 40lbs, already begins to bite into my shoulders and reminds me how much conditioning I have lost from the myriad of illnesses I have played host to in the past 3 months. I grip my stout walking stick, perfect for fighting off third-world dogs, and start to walk. Road underfoot, a barely discernable track, is soft purple soil almost the color of a bruise and contrasts sharply with the shifting turquoise of the lake that I am skirting. All around me clouds pour into the valley leaving the passes and canyons shadowy and mysterious.
I meet two shepherds who look at me curiously and ask me questions which I answer in my halting Tamazight. Next there is a man in a striped Jelaba, he is riding sidesaddle on a gray mule laden with goods; I greet him and move on. I leave the road and follow a route over a series of purple gullies, shallow here but canyon-like near the lake thanks to erosion and over-grazing. A mustard-like plant sways at my feet, I have no idea what it is. Nearby, I hear cascading birdsong and look to my left where I see a killdeer, or what would be a killdeer, except that it is black and white. The same and not the same… I top a rise and a broad valley filled with shifting cloud shadows spreads out before me. Herds of sheep move across the flat surface trailed by robed shepherds and small clouds of dust. Beyond the valley, the mountains tighten and the valley rises to the pass my host father had pointed to which shimmers in the distance.
The valley floor is arid and ravaged by countless decades of overgrazing; all of the plants have been reduced to small patches and much of the ground is simply dirt. I stride forward lost in thought; I think of my hero, John Muir. He spent much of his life walking alone in the mountains with nothing but bread and an unquenchable passion for life and the natural world. While I never hope to be as brilliant or as eloquent as Muir, I find his outlook on life a worthy goal. Passion, childlike wonder, and great love of simplicity are things that I strive for. Maybe I can learn more about this while I am here in Africa. “A man needs naught but bread and beauty…”
A patch of greenery at my feet catches my eye and I look down into a tiny patch of star-like morning glories, blooming from a crushed and unrecognizable be if chewed leaves. It is things like these that show the resilience of nature and give me hope for this fledgling park that I am hiking end-to-end. After all, it is my primary duty while I am here in Morocco to research and draft an Ecological Management plan for the park and its resources; everything I see, I see through that lense.
The sun blazes down on my head but the wind is chill. I am hailed by two dusty shepherds, a father and son named Haddou and Moha, and we speak briefly in Tamazight and they point the way once again to the pass, Tizi-n-Isuwal. I continue on and step into an akka or dry-riverbed filled with round, water-sculpted stones. I quickly enter a canyon and am struck by the silence. The canyon walls are angular and the beds of sedimentary rock are tilted toward the sky. The canyon is deep, narrow, and dry reminding me of “Blue Creek” in Big Bend National Park where I had worked two winters previous. I hear a crunch and look down realize all of the stone I am walking on is perfect fossilized shells and corals. I pick up a tiny cockle and roll it between my fingers, hefting it in my palm. It looks as though it just washed up on the beach, but I know it is millions of years old. It is from a time when this place was beneath the sea; long before the mountains were thrust violently skyward by the grinding collision of continent on continent.
The wind dies and the sun continues to shine without mercy; I shed a layer and continue. My gaze is drawn by what looks like an emerald on the canyon wall. It is tiny seep spring hung with lush, green draperies of flowers and leafy plants out of the range of hungry sheep. It is beautiful and perfect and makes me smile to myself. I round the corner of the canyon and see that the sandstone has met with shale and that water has been forced to the surface. The sudden sound of trickling water startles me and seems deafening in this silent defile. There are hanging draperies on all sides and colorful butterflies flit among the tiny flowers; above my head a pair of doves flush from a hidden nest in a whirl of movement and a rush of wings. This sudden life in the midst of such a barren place reminds me of the “Banta Shut-in”, a remote oasis in Big Bend National Park where the geology forces hidden water to the surface in deep, clear pools.
A pool at my feet is teeming with ephemeral life; insect larvae wriggle across the bottom and water striders scull lazily away from my shadow. Tadpoles swim back and forth; I take one in my hand, thinking of a passage in a Craig Childs book concerning tadpoles. In the passage Childs describes the tadpole as a “raven’s eye” glistening against the dry roughness of his palm. I look at my tadpole and see only what looks like a speck of mud against my hand, with two eyes that are regarding me with reproach. I gently place it back into the water and it swims away to the far end of the pool.
I continue on and the water dwindles to a trickle. I hear buzzing and look down to see the last pool of water alive with bees drinking their fill to take back to a distant hive. It is an echo of another time in Big Bend where I was hiking with my friend Katie in a narrow gorge called the “Devil’s Den”; there it was a blind leap off of a pour-off through a cloud of thirsty bees drawn for miles by the intoxicating scent of water. The canyon climbs on, hot and dry, and I see a rock cairn to my left. My gaze shifts to a small stone enclosure nestled into an overhang in the canyon wall. I go to investigate, expecting a food or water cache of some kind. Instead I am struck by the smell of death. In the stone structure lies not a carcass, but select parts of one. A sheep’s head, feet, and entrails lay strewn in the dust, swollen with heat and decay. The world is flies. I step back and wonder why. I see no evidence of cooking or splashed blood so why is there a carefully marked, carefully constructed stone enclosure full of sheep parts here in the middle of nothing? I realized just how little I know about this culture and these people here in the Atlas. Oh well, this journey will simply bring me one step closer to such understanding.
The canyon forks and I follow the side with the most recent evidence of water. It climbs quickly and I soon scramble up onto a high slope to get a view. The pass lies before me, bounded by high limestone cliffs; an all important horizon, over which lies the extreme unknown. I look down at my feet at a pile of sheep spoor made feathery by dung beetles. There are no beetles in sight now, but I have seen them in the valleys. Rolling balls of offal to unknown destinations, they are nature’s janitors. I think on John Muir again and his tendency to refer to all living things as “people”, a distinction which my scientist side dismisses as anthropomorphism but which my sentimental side enjoys. If dung beetles are indeed people, then they would be content ones at that; happy with their role in the universe that other creatures find disgusting and awful. I think I would like to meet a dung beetle; he would be good company once one got past his smell and general appearance.
Lost in my musings I crest the last rise onto Tizi-n-Isuwal and drop my pack; the view that spreads before me is unlike anything I have ever seen and certainly not what I expected after the ravaged lands I had crossed in the previous hours. The land falls sharply away below me and a rough trail, or “piste” can be seen winding down to the valley floor which is lush with the greenery of carefully cultivated fields and orchards. The village of Tirghist clings to the hillside opposite; it is a series of stair-stepped mud buildings with an incongruous yellow “sbitar” (clinic) on its far edge. Above the village rears a mountain as sharp and sudden as a meat cleaver; according to the map, this is Jebel Fazaz and it runs from west to east in a jagged spine of limestone. I can see other mountains from my perch and they also trend in the same general direction, sometimes for miles. Below, a dusty road winds into the village; my next destination. Before I leave the pass, while eating my lunch of bread and cheese, I receive a call from home. I speak to my father for awhile about what I see and my optimism for the remainder of the trip; we will not speak again until it is over, and that conversation will be far different.


The descent is rugged, but on a defined trail which is more of a comfort than I realize. The piste winds past huts of mud and stone, presumably occupied by shepherds that are out on the mountainsides with flocks right now. I look up at the gathering clouds, they are dark but not yet menacing and the weather is still quite warm. The juniper trees on the slopes are gnarled and wisened by the elements and on the road below I can make out the tiny forms of farmers leading or riding their laden donkeys from the fields back to their homes in the village. It takes about an hour to reach the valley floor where I spend some time speaking with a crew of construction workers in Tamazight, answering their questions with mounting pride in my linguistic prowess. I walked into Tirghist, followed by the usual stream of children who actually were not asking for handouts for once. I heard them whispering to eachother, trying to guess my nationality, finally settling on Arab; after all, what European would ever want to learn Tam? I was quite pleased with myself as I walked through the village and felt the stares rolling off of my back. I walked to the yellow “sbitar” and was invited inside by the doctor and a berber man with a University of Michigan Baseball cap.
The doctor made tea and we all sat and pored over my map; I spoke in Tam to “Michigan” and he in turn translated for me to the doctor who only spoke French and Arabic. Michigan advised me to turn around and take the piste from Tirghist to Tilmi and from there to my destination. I gestured to the (presumably) more direct route I had chosen and he nodded and said he hadn’t tried it but gave me the names of the passes I would be crossing and wished me luck. I finished my tea and threw on my pack, walking out the door I looked down at a dog half delirious with age and disease. It regarded me blearily and its tail thumped once before I move on. I left the village talking to an old berber woman and a young boy of about 13 they asked where I was going and I told them. They looked at me dumbstruck and we soon parted ways.
My road stayed high above the river and its shimmering wheat fields, looking below I saw the boy I had spoken with talking to a group of women on the riverbank who immediately looked in my direction. I wave and they wave back; I smile knowing that my story is being spread and that I am impressing the locals. Pride is so insidious.
The trail drops to the edge of the river and winds through a gorge of red stone streaked with white jags not unlike lightning. The riverbed is a black shale and hard underfoot; easy walking with little or no mud to deal with. Clouds roil overhead but I pay them no mind in the euphoria of the beautiful unknown. It is silent here save for the whisper of water over rock; even the wind has died away. The canyon widens and I see my pass, Tizi-n-Aroush, off to my left. I step out of the canyon onto an outcrop of shale. I pause to drink water and make water as well, looking toward the distant divide underneath the churning sky. There is animal dung on the outcrop and I realize then what will be one of the most vital epiphanies of my journey: where there is shit, there is a way. This means that if I can find the spoor of domestic animals, or even their human masters, it means that this way is used; this way goes. I understand now what Craig Childs meant in his book, the “Way Out” when he spoke of looking for animal sign to find a way out of a canyon or, in my case later, over a mountain.
I continue walking and pass a woman bent low under a load of hay, leading a fully loaded donkey and followed loyally by a black cow that was munching contentedly from an oat bag tied to her muzzle. The woman sees me and asks me for candy. I say I have none, which is true; I offer her water instead and she raises an eyebrow and points at the creek behind me saying “there’s water right there, why would I want yours?”. I flush and murmur an apology; my pride deflating a little at her bent form a the knowledge that she had done something far more strenuous every day of her life than I was doing with my clean blue backpack and designer gear. My peg was taken down a few notches.
I was following a small stream at this point, bounded by hanging gardens of moss and rushing cascades singing down the mountainsides. Massive cushion-like “ifssi” sprouted on all sides and, between them were wildflowers unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a spiny variety of Phlox and peculiar flower that bloomed at ground level looking for all the world like a Bachelor’s Button, but from a thorny “thistle” rosette. Many other beauties demanded attention but the show-stopper was a delicate raceme of scarlet orchids which sprouted from a marshy area near the trail. I stopped to admire them for a second and kept moving as I felt a raindrop splatter on the back of my neck.
I stopped halfway up the pass to rest, eat a bite, and put on my raingear. It was sprinkling but nothing had yet come of the storm and I was still hopeful it would blow over. My legs ached from the abuse of the day and from the wasting of illness; I could feel bruises blossoming on my now prominent hipbones and the shoulder-straps tugged hard at my upper back. I reckoned that I could camp soon and that it would be an easy walk to my destination the next day. I stretched, looking down into a pool of reproachful tadpoles, and wondered for the first time if this venture may have been a bad idea. Ah well, no turning back at this point.
I kept climbing and could see the pass in the near distance, another horizon between me and the unknown. I noticed that some of the ifssi around me had been burned to the earth and I remembered what I had been told concerning ifssi as a berber firestarter. Looking back, I could see plumes of smoke visible on other high slopes marking the location of burning ifssi and where shepherds were huddled around the burning bushes with their flocks, jelaba hoods raised against the coming storm. Grey rain curtains sweep the landscape behind me and I stagger exhausted onto the saddle of Tizi-n-Aroush.


My heart sinks into my shoes and become aware of my racing pulse and tunneling vision as I look down at the valley, the unknown. My pride evaporates and sweat appears on my palms; above me the sky opens and the rain pours down. I stare mutely through the driving rain at this vision of hell and look down at my wet map. According to the contour, the general shape of this valley is correct, but its rugged violence is entirely unexpected. Rocky hills and promontories all bounded by cliffs, wreathed by fog, and made grey with sheets of rain. Below me the land drops away suddenly in a chaos of wet scree and ribbed shale. The faint trail I was following vanishes entirely and I feel a sick dread. I shiver with the sudden cold and damp and know that I have to begin my descent.
I am cliffed out several times and lose my footing on the slick stone, saving myself with my stick from dashing my brains out in the narrow creekbed. I keep my ears open for the sound of floodwaters but I am still high enough in the canyon that it is not much of a worry. My mood descends as I do and I am exhausted from the day so far. My watch beeps and I look down at it, wondering why this time is important. I remember and my mood sinks even farther as I realize that, at this moment nearly 6000 miles away, two of my best friends are getting married. I realize how utterly alone I am, that I am in the middle of the Atlas Mountains in Africa, with no friends to help me and no safety net to fall into. All I have to rely on is my wits, my skill, and the mercy of my creator; the realization is terrifying.
I turn my ankle on a wet stone and fall heavily again my stick. I curse myself and my stupid pride, realizing what a wonderful life I left behind in America and how here, in the middle of nowhere, there is actually potential for my story to end unfinished. This is how is happens, I think darkly, this is how good people die, all it takes is one mistake to set off the spiral and that’s it… forever. But I realize that I have not yet made that crucial first mistake and continue on, carefully. I look up at the sharp crags and back at the pass, now high above me. I stop to drink water and raise my bottle grimly in silent tribute to my distant friends; friends that I was unsure I would get to see again. I curse myself again, this time for being a coward, and continue on, praying quietly for some comfort, some sign that I would make it out of this
The rain begins to lessen and then ceases entirely, but night is coming fast; I know I have only one hour to find a place to camp. In my peripheral vision, as silently as ghosts, trees begin to appear out of the mist one by one and then many. They start small and then become massive with huge trunks and weird umbrella-like spreads of dark branches. I know them at once and I stop to stare in awe; I am standing on the fringe of one of the last stands of old-growth “Atlas Cedar” on the planet. This tree is an endangered rarity and I realize with a start that this tortured valley is like an “eden” of sorts, a lost world untouched by time. I close my eyes and murmur my thanks; the giant trees have given me some small peace. But the fear stays, just under the surface, sitting in the back of my throat like bile. My hackles are up and my heart continues to race.
I see no sign of humanity save for a couple abandoned herder’s shacks and evidence of old trails, now fallen into disrepair and forgotten. I reach the confluence at the heart of the valley which is marked by a spire of red stone. I turn and shuffle exhaustedly up the other fork, my eyes scanning the ground for a place to camp. I almost settle on a spot where I could sleep half-inside the trunk of a fallen and burned out cedar, but I keep moving forward mechanically, not know what force is driving my exhausted limbs.
Ahead of me, on a bend of the creek, there is a two room hut of mud and stone. I had passed several like it, it is constructed the same as all berber dwelling have been constructed for millennia. But this one has people. People on the roof, people next to a smoking outdoor oven, kids running to meet the men returning from the mountains; around them a few dogs lay on the ground. One hand tightens on my stick and the fear rises. I set my jaw and raise my other hand, palm open, fingers splayed, toward these unknown people, seemingly the sole occupants of this forgotten place.
Activity ceases and all eyes are fixed on me, this strange European dressed in bright colors; it is as though I have fallen from the sky. One of the men strides toward me and puts out his hand. I take it and smile weakly, my limbs feeling suddenly heavy; I greet him in Tamazight. His has lights up and he looks at me incredulously. This mysterious stranger speaks my language? Albeit badly? He takes me by the arm and introduces me to the family, 7 in all, 5 men and 2 women. His name is Hassan, the same name as the one I was given by my family in the desert. I follow them inside, hoping for good intentions, and lean my pack against the wall of the hut. I am seated on a dusty rug next to a rusted woodstove which glows with a welcome heat. I am brought tea and a crust of bread; my exhaustion threatens to overtake me and I sway slightly. My every movement is apparent to the seven pairs of eyes that are watching me from the opposite side of the room.
The evening passes in a blur, my language is surprisingly passable and Hassan is familiar with the Peace Corps, being from a nearby town with modern conveniences such as… dirt roads. I am able to explain who I was and where I had come from to everyone’s mutual satisfaction and I am soon ushered upstairs to the other room I had seen where dinner would be served. Looking at the state of the cooking area and having been told that there was no bathroom. I knew that any food I took would be a dangerous gamble on my already weakened system and that I may not be able to make it out of this valley if I got sick. I told the family this before dinner was offered they knew I was not going to eat from the steaming pile of sheep organs and vegetables that watched being devoured. I kept taking glasses of tea and apologizing for my bad behavior, trying to appease the woman who expressed her consternation to me from behind her few teeth. I looked remorseful as I could and she accepted my apologies. I am accompanied to the “restroom” by Hassan who protected me from the family dogs who apparently wanted to eat me. I throw down my sleeping bag on the floor of the first room, the rest of the family sleeps in the other, next to the dying woodstove.
I lay awake for many hours listening to the bleats and coughs of the sheep outside and to the skittering of mice in the corners of the room. My mind is racing with the impossibility and surrealistic nature of my situation. Finally, toward morning, I fall into a dreamless and troubled sleep...