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Sunday Journal

All that fuss for nothing

Published June 1, 2003

I left Imlil village alone after the two Flemish girls that I had led from Marrakesh accused me the previous night of plotting something sinister with the Moroccans. We were having a supper of fried eggs and flat bread in the last open food stall when the two mountain guides joined us. I asked them about the conditions on Mt. Toubkal, the next day's destination and northern Africa's highest peak.

The girls kept their distance at a nearby table, and the guides asked why. I said who knows and made a little joke in Arabic that you hear all over Morocco: "No money, no honey." They laughed and took out their tobacco pouches with bits of chocolate in them and confided that we needn't hire a guide because there was only one way up the mountain. The stall owner extinguished his gas lamp, and I suggested to the girls that we walk down the hill to the creek that I could hear trickling. They demanded the hotel room key. I took my time on the bank, and when I entered the room, the girls stood straight as schoolmarms and accused me of signing some flesh pact with the men. I told them that they could go to hell and slept on a divan in the lobby. At sunrise I set out, not seeing them.

I had had it with people, women in particular. I set out determined, and I hurried on the dry trail through the cool valley where my thoughts had nothing to attend to but the sounds of my breathing and the pounding of my heart. I was lean from being in country that summer, and my legs moved following the simple logic that there was no turning back.

Past the spindly cherry trees, the trail rose. It became more narrow and rocky, and angled high along a ravine. I was alone for hours until I crossed a Berber with his laden mule. We greetinged each other quickly, and he took the ledge without pause as I clung to the mountainside.

In a settlement in a pass, I stopped to buy a Fanta that was cooling in a water hole. I met an American student down from Cadiz who was quick to point out that it was the Fourth of July. He had hired a guide for the climb; the guide stood disinterested a few feet away.

As we climbed, we talked of Spain, the drinking there and the women, but he was intent on talking of home and the things he missed. And here I was being happy in a country where I could only half speak the language. I didn't miss anything back home in New York, not the racket, the boorish men, the cold women who had turned it into a haven for tiresome megalomaniacs.

In two hours we made it to an auberge at the mountain's base. We felt strong enough to make the summit, another two hours up and 90 minutes down, and as a formality, I asked him to ask the guide if he would lead both of us.

The guide refused. He would take only the student.

I asked him what difference it made.

He was adamant, either because of some abiding principle I wasn't aware of or sheer spite.

The student suggested that maybe it was a matter of money.

I offered a more than token baksheesh, but still he refused. The other guides came from the auberge and goaded him by auctioning their services at stratospheric sums. I played along, but then he assumed that I was trying to put him in his place by paying him off.

"Not for a million," was his reply, a personal insult that I returned by suggesting that he go have an inappropriate relationship with his mother.

This kind of exchange between men can have only one outcome. So the guide and I faced off inside a circle of spectators, pointing our accusing fingers and shaking our damning fists. Soon he picked up a rock and cocked his arm, to the delight of the circle, and the student became very nervous. But I told him that it was more of a defensive maneuver so as not to lose face and I had yet to see an argument in this country that had turned bloody.

We spat, swore and cursed in an international lexicon, but when the charge of violence had gone, the onlookers walked off and the student and his guide took to the trail up the mountain. I stayed back and made camp. Within the hour, they returned, the student too exhausted to make the peak. Before nightfall I climbed a few hundred feet up a hill to a patch of frost so I could say that I had seen snow in Morocco on the Fourth of July.

I slept outside on the concrete foundation of the auberge, cold but knowing that I was only two hours from the peak. At sunrise I went inside to warm myself. I saw the guide, but there was nothing for us to say. When I sat down at the long wooden table, the door opened, and the Flemish girls entered. I saw their surprise. I said hello and tried to ignore them by writing a letter. But I couldn't concentrate, because in that small room were three who weren't on my side. I took it as a bad omen.

I left and made rounds among the tents outside to see who was going up that morning. I found a group of Latvians, and we struck out after breakfast. They were loaded with frame packs, hiking poles, goggles, field glasses and topographic maps. I followed point in my sneakers and borrowed sweater.

I expected us to bank up the nearest mountain as I had witnessed the student and his guide do the previous day, but our approach took us farther afield, through a dewy plain past stringy mountain goats. For hours we followed the contour of the mountainside and hit a summit with a slight plateau. In the distance was a wheat-colored sea that was the Sahara. We took it in and felt hearty and proud. Proud even though we could see Mt. Toubkal behind us. We had climbed the wrong mountain.

Brian Christian, a Florida native, is a travel writer and screenwriting consultant. He lives in Los Angeles.

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 10:05:15]

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