Kilimanjaro Diaries: “We Climbed the Mountain After We Read Your Book”

My daughter is currently taking 11th grade English in high school. This means that no dinner conversation passes without her lamenting the “boring and stupid” process of having to analyze yet another book. She takes particular issue with having to infer what the author might have meant when making, say, the walls of the hospital room blue in color. She knows the teacher will want her to say that blue symbolizes feeling blue or sick and was purposefully picked to reinforce the hospital theme.

“But what if the author just liked the color blue?”

As an author, I feel qualified to answer that question. I must say that on this one I’m siding with her.

When I tell my readers that they should bring ample supplies of wet wipes onto Mount Kilimanjaro, I don’t mean this in any kind of metaphorical way. All I mean to say is, bring enough wipes, because shit happens. If I tell them that Mike and Dylan were fighting over the black fleece with the thumbholes, black has nothing to do with the mood. Those two would have had the same exchange over a hot-pink fleece. (Come to think of it, they would have fought twice as hard.)

Yes, my book is a memoir, and therefore I had no reason to change any such details (though, as a memoirist, I would have had latitude to do so). Perhaps writers of novels do put more symbolism into their narratives, but overall I think English teachers get too carried away with it. Our foremost objective as writers is to tell a good story, one that the reader will be eager to pick up again and again to get to the end of. I’ll venture to say that we are more interested in putting beautiful language on paper (and avoid any blatant grammatical errors) than thinking up ways to insert symbolism.

Beyond telling the story, the only deeper meaning I meant to insert into Kilimanjaro Diaries was this: “If I can do it, you can too.” Case closed.

This is why I’m always thrilled when a reader contacts me to let me know that he or she is planning to climb Kilimanjaro. It means that I’ve succeeded in convincing them they should do the climb despite the hardship, the discomfort, the altitude (all of which I do my best to fully disclose, with perhaps a few too many references to potty breaks).

Since my memoir’s first publication in 2014 – and the German version in 2015 – I’ve had lively email exchanges with many would-be climbers. Sometimes they have questions – hiking poles yes or no, where to buy the same exact socks as mine – but mostly they just want to share the exciting news about their upcoming Kili climb. It’s been wonderful to share in so many Kilimanjaro adventures.

But what’s really exciting is when I actually get to meet such climbers after they return from their own trek. This is what happened recently, right here in Brentwood, Tennessee, on the patio of the coffee shop The Perch. (They have the most amazing Nutella crepes, in case anyone is interested).

Meet Cheryl and John McAuley.

Kilimanjaro climbers John and Cheryl McAuley showing off their climbing route
Here are John and Cheryl showing off their climbing route on the patio of The Perch.
Here are Cheryl and I. She was wearing the hat for my benefit – an easy way to recognize a Kili climber out of context! All that was missing were the zip-off pants.

John and Cheryl are an American couple that climbed Kilimanjaro in August this year as part of a larger group organized by Compassion International, an organization supporting poverty-stricken children in 25 countries. Their goal was to raise funds for the WaSH (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) project to help families in Tanzania, but it was also so much more. Cheryl fondly recalls their trip as “the best two weeks of my life.”

It wasn’t just the Kili climb that convinced her that her future would lie in many more trips to Africa. It was also the opportunity to meet Beatrice, a 16-year old Tanzanian girl Cheryl and John had been sponsoring from afar and were eager to meet face to face.

“I did not expect her to run to me. WOW!” wrote Cheryl of their first encounter. Before they set out to conquer Kilimanjaro, they spent a day with Beatrice.  They witnessed her joy when playing on a swing and inflatable slide for the first time in her life, her awe at spending the night in a hotel, and her excitement when sharing her plans for the future (she wants to be a nurse.) They so much enjoyed their encounter that they decided to sponsor a second little girl, Juliana, who is four and also lives in Tanzania.

I learned all of this over a yummy salad (I refrained from the oh-so-tempting Nutella crepe!) in September. John and Cheryl were passing through on a road trip back to their home in Huntsville, AL, and had contacted me to see if I wanted to meet. It was lovely to share so many Kili stories. All that was missing was a big bowl of communal popcorn.

As with other Kili-climbing readers I have been in contact with, I felt very honored that John and Cheryl put so much faith in what they learned from my book. That we were actually able to meet in person was gravy on top. We even made friends with another guest on the patio that morning who inquired about buying her own copy of Kilimanjaro Diaries.

Here is to all future Kilimanjaro trekkers and adventure junkies. May you all get there and back safely without ever running out of wet wipes! If you happen to take my book with you on the hike, as one reader has professed she did, please send me a picture of yourself brandishing it at the summit.

And please don’t try to read any special meaning into anything I wrote. My daughter and her high school English class will thank you for it.

John and Cheryl on the Rongai Route on Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
John and Cheryl on the Rongai Route. I particularly like this picture as it has so much of the special atmosphere on a Kili climb in it.
John on the summit of Kilimanjaro in August 2017
Here is John posing on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2017. I still get jealous when seeing the retro brown sign with yellow lettering. For a few years, they had a new and really ugly sign, which is the one I got my picture taken with. They then returned to the old look after too many people complained that the sign didn’t live up to the Kilimanjaro mystique.


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