I’m Leaving Chicago

Hi folks! It’s been awhile since my last post about surviving the first few months of cat ownership parenting guardianship personal assistant-ing roommate life. I’ve been meaning to write but also I’ve been sitting on some news. I’m leaving Chicago.

After exactly 7 years (anniversary: tomorrow ūü•Ļ) in the Windy City, I’m moving. It feels a little wild to type that, but the wheels are firmly in motion and I’ll be moving back to my hometown of Lynden, WA as of Labor Day. Or as I’ve tried to explain it to people: ‘the corner of the corner’ or ‘Vancouver’s American Suburb ūüá®ūüᶒ or just ‘2 hours north of Seattle’ or ‘the artist formerly known as ‘5 minutes from the border crossing.”

The first thing you’re probably thinking (and I was too) is why?! I’ve said for years that I wouldn’t move back to that area, that who I am now doesn’t fit my idea of Lynden (which was shaped by my 18-year old brain). Which leads us to the 2nd piece of news:

The cats said I had to I’m starting the process to apply for the Foreign Service. ‘I’m sorry Bailey, the what?!’ Yeah. Me too. Let me give some context and then the definition, because its decidedly not the French Foreign Legion.

When I went to Tanzania last year and climbed Kilimanjaro (oh yeah, I know I haven’t written about it! I wake up in the night knowing! It’s been 10 months!) it was such a breath of fresh air. Literally – how much fresher does air get than at 19,000+ feet – but also, to wander, to explore, and to try out new Swahili words that my hosts would gently correct – and I felt…right. That newness, that sense of discovery, of wonder, was something I hadn’t discovered in a long time. I found it really missing in Chicago for me after 7 years; and there are so many amazing things in Chicago. I have adored my seasons (some more than others) but after walking what felt like half of Chicago in 2020-21 in prep for Kili, I feel like I’ve satisfied some critical parts of me as a performer and person, knowing I can thrive here. We’re ready.

Are you done with improv? I’ve performed with people and on stages that I dreamed of when I arrived in 2015. I’ve done music and short and long form improv, took voiceover and standup classes, I got my wish of being on a long-term team (I heart y’all, RIFF ūüéĻ), I learned from some of the most kind and insightful and downright hilarious human beings, am friends with many of them, and my heart feels pretty full. I am not forever done, but I am delighted and satisfied. There’s also a pretty-dang-wonderful improv theater in Bellingham, The Upfront, that has let me guest before and I’m hoping they’ve got an audition spot with my name on it.

Are you quitting your job? Nope! Not anytime soon; I really like my bosses and the company, and I’m going to continue doing my role from WA with some trips to the ‘hub hubs throughout the year.

Are you moving with the cats? Will you have to buy a car? Yes and yes!

So I’m happy, full, content, thriving, in my lane – why am I moving?

Back to the Foreign Service.

“The 14,000+ men and women of the Foreign Service represent the government and people of the United States. At more than 265 diplomatic and consular posts, the U.S. Foreign Service safeguards national security and manages America’s relationships with the rest of the world.” – Inside a US Embassy (2011)

In my words (and if you’re in the FS reading it and it’s real wrong, please forgive me), members of Foreign Service work in embassies and consulates around the world and in DC to promote and protect US culture and relationships. They issue visas, facilitate adoptions, handle birth/death/detainment issues, manage study abroad programs, create and cultivate relationships with local peoples, advocate for economic growth, connect with the press, and much more. There are many titles and roles in the FS, but the ones you probably know best are the Secretary of State (currently Antony Blinken), ambassadors (appointed by the President, approved by the Senate), and consular officers (visas, adoptions, passport control, the birth/death/detainment bits). There are 2 general categories – FS Specialists and Officers – I’m interested in the Officer role, from which you also choose 1 of 5 specialties or ‘tracks.’

But why me? What about this is me? Many things about the Foreign Service appeal to me, and specifically the Public Diplomacy track (read more about the 5 tracks here) – serving something much bigger than myself, international living & travel, building relationships, crafting writing & messaging, shaping and influencing and learning – those are all things that I’ve been clicking into in most of my jobs for the last 15 years. The world is full of kind, vibrant people who have helped me and invested in my success, fed me, laughed at slash wept with me, and those qualities aren’t limited to Americans. I want to learn, but I also want to share the best things about America, our ‘whys’ and failures and growing pains, with others. I am proud to be an American even if I often ache with frustration about the slow, grinding gears of justice and freedom for folks of color, indigenous peoples, for women, for friends in the LGBTQ+ spheres. I am hungry to connect and soak in new languages and meet people where they are, not where I idealize them to be. I am not looking forward to dressing in business-wear for the next several years, but you win some, you lose some, right? #teampantsuit

Joining the FS – if you’re successful – is a long process. It very often takes multiple tries too. If you are successful on average it takes 12-24 months from application to entering your orientation class, and there’s several steps. You might make it to step 4 and have to start over. Background checks might take longer than you think. There may not be as many openings that year, etc. Here’s a rough breakdown:

  1. Application – You’ll write an extensive list of info from references to job duties, as well as 6 mini-essays known as the Personal Narratives, which each need a verifier. Applications open 5 weeks before a testing window. You choose your job track here – and you really can’t change it – so I gotta be sure I like it.
  2. The FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test) – this 3ish hour test is only offered 3x a year in February, June, and October. I’ll be taking it the first week of October, probably in the Seattle metro area. The FSOT is heavily multiple choice and most similar (I’ve heard) to an AP History/Government-flavored Jeopardy exam. You can study study study and still the luck of the draw may not come out in your favor. There are also some essay portions. Until recently the FSOT was a pass/fail test. Those who passed went to the next stage, those who didn’t have to wait a whole year to retake the test. However, last month/June 2022 they now are having all those who take the test move onto the next stage. This ensures that those who aren’t Jeopardy masters still have a shot!
  3. QEP – Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) review, which looks at a candidate‚Äôs total file; their FSOT score, and application info like personal narratives (PNs), work history, education, and personal experiences. Since as of June everyone now goes into the QEP stage that takes the FSOT, there is apparently an AI/computer-screened QEP that goes through application, your FSOT, etc. that scrubs for experiences/text and forwards relevant candidates to the human QEP review. These folks are the ones that determine if you’re invited to the OA.
  4. Oral Assessments (OA) – this one-day interview/assessment includes everything from traditional interviews to group situational activities, tasks and more in Washington D.C. They’re pretty hush on what it is other than it’s a group assessment (I think 5-7 candidates in a cohort) and that it’s a long, taxing day. At the end of this day they tell you individually if you’re moving on to the next stage and give you a conditional letter of employment. Typically if you sit for the FSOT in October (like me) you’re doing OA within the next 6ish months. In the last 2 years sometimes the gap is shorter and sometimes longer, like any industry the pandemic has really adjusted the timeline. What they want to see here is the 13 Dimensions (critical role competencies) displayed in your behavior and how you work with others.
  5. Medical and Security Clearances – if you pass the OAs, they have to be sure you can be deployed anywhere in the world, at any time. This can be one of the longest parts of the process if folks have lived overseas, have multiple citizenships, relationships, etc. that need vetting.
  6. Suitability Review Panel – they take a deep look at your entire file (and life) top to bottom (except medical records) to ensure you’re the right person to represent the US overseas (and at home).
  7. The Register – if you pass alllll the steps you get put on a rank-ordered list by your specialty (track) of successful candidates. This means you can be ranked above those who got on the list before you (and those that come after you that score/rank higher can be above you on the list). You can be on the register for 18 months before you have to start all over. It’s been rare (I’ve heard) in the last 2 years for people to time out, but not impossible. With forced retirement at 65 and the changing administrations, pandemic, etc. there are a lot of openings that need filling in those 265 worldwide postings, and at the home office in DC for the Dept. of State.
  8. A100 – If after all that you get called up from the Registry you’ll attend the Orientation Program at FSI – the Foreign Service Institute in DC/VA. The general program is I believe 4-6 weeks and then additional role and language training could add weeks/months onto that first step into doing the actual job!

OK. So. That’s the process. We kinda see how it takes 12-24 months again, on average, to get to the Register or A100, right? If you want more details you can visit the FSO Career Page at State Dept.

So I am moving home to Lynden, but it is likely for just a few years. If I’m likely/looking into living overseas again for large chunks of time it feels right to move me (and los gatos) home – to soak in family time, to minimize and align all the stuff I own in one spot, etc. I think the best way I’ve heard the FS application process explained is to not look it in the eye all the time. Watch it out of the corner of your eye, occasionally turn your bright focus on it (FSOT, OA, etc.) but you’ve got to keep living your life. You can’t hold on too tight because you may have to start over. Multiple times.

There have been so many great resources I’ve been able to absorb – from podcasts to study guides, books, web communities, webinars, and even humans I know in the FS plus ones I’m getting to meet (friends of friends). If you are/know someone in the FS or in the process of the FSO role, feel free to connect us!


7 years is a long time. It feels wild that I lived in Korea (the reason for this blog) 7+ years ago now. It feels like the right time to transition, although Chicago is by far the longest place I’ve lived as an adult. I want to go while I love this place – warts and heartbreak and tragedy and riotous joy – and am excited to revisit rather than overstay my time. This is going to hurt, though.

When I was preparing to leave Korea I made up (maybe?) the term pre-grief. It’s that feeling as you wonder if something is the last time you’ll do it because you know you’re leaving soon. Even small things take on a bit of a hue of nostalgia. Food tastes different, more savory, brighter. You give away and sift the keeps, the giveaways, the sell items. You find so. many. bobby pins. And you cherish those people you love. That’s always the worst/best part. Loving, and being loved, and choosing to leave for new things.

I’m going to probably post at least a few more times before leaving the city at the end of August. We might get reeeealllly sappy. But I love you, Chicago. I’m grateful for this city. For the comedy scene. Even in the broken bits. For a personal trainer and friend who took me to higher heights even as I doubted. For two weird little cats who do not understand that weekends are for sleeping in. For the job that was ‘just a place where I could leave work at work’ that keeps bringing me to new places and recognizing my investment. For people that have challenged me to elevate personally, spiritually, and professionally and fiercely loved me. For rewarding my big bold wild leap to move to Chicago, sight unseen, knowing no one, from a foreign country (Korea). A blind date with a legendary city; and here we are at the end of the chapter, better for it.


If you’re reading this and in Chicago and want to do food ūüćē, a show ūüé≠, drinks ūüćĽ, meet the catsūüźĪūüźĪ, hit me up! I move on 8/30 ūüďÖ so don’t delay, babes. I’m selling a bunch of things (clothes, furniture, etc. so if we’re IRLs keep an eye on my socials for links/pics) because cross-country moves are for paring down. More to come but enjoy a lil 2015 ‘first month in Chicago’ revisit below ‚ú®

I Have Somehow Survived A Month With Cats

“Have you ever had to relinquish a pet?” I reread it.

The cursor pulsed at me, insistent.

I skipped over the question and filled out the rest of the application. Even though there was a red asterisk, I tried to submit without filling it out. Failed.

I went back up and took a deep breath and told them about Olive.


In mid-2012 my boyfriend adopted a puppy from the Arkansas Humane Society. A wildly sweet little lab mix puppy who became an even sweeter dog. I grew up with dogs, mostly labs. I loved dogs. And I thought, “I can do that.

But I lived in a 1-bedroom apartment and labs gotta lab (run) and I’d always loved the smushed nose and mini size of black pugs. So I scoured the internet and found a listing on Craigslist, out in the sticks. One look at this tiny beast, surrounded by the clear signs and eau de puppy mill, and there I was taking out $300 at a backwoods ATM and bringing her home. I’d rescued her (really though?) and named her Olive. An unfortunately prescient choice, because I do not like olives of any kind. My best friend? Loves ’em. Can eat straight from the can. If I have to pick them off pizza I’m miffed. I CAN STILL TASTE THEIR GHOSTS.

Olive and I struggled from the get go. I worked full time, and even with a large crate, that life was too small for her. Raising a puppy alone was not what I’d thought. While growing up I’d had the benefit of family around to share responsibility, a large yard, and always at least one other dog to entertain (and show the newbie the ropes). I had none of those things here. Labs are vacuum cleaners – if you drop it, it now belongs to them – and I was used to their garbage disposal bellies eating anything and being fine. In the first week I dropped one grape, Olive ate it, I thought nothing of it until she threw it up on my comforter that night. Small dogs had different things going on.

We became irritated at each other. She’d loudly yelp, making neighbors text me about her howling when I was gone all day. I’d take her out in the morning, she’d do her business, and then when we came in I’d jump in the shower and she would poop under my dining room. Did you know you have to express their anal glands because I did not.

All this to say, I made a childish choice. I didn’t think through the responsibilities of raising a pet in the environment I lived in. I didn’t adjust my life and schedule around her. When I went home for Christmas, friends volunteered to watch her with their equally-small dog. I’d never felt so relieved. When I came back, we did another difficult week together, and my friends sat me down for an incredibly kind talk. They’d been thinking about getting another small dog and if I ever needed them to keep Olive for short or long term, they were willing.

I felt ashamed. I couldn’t hack it. There I was, ‘grown’ at 25, having had dogs my entire life, and failing. I knew it too. I was failing Olive. I said ‘let’s try a month’ and brought all her gear over. It sucked, telling people about it. I mostly kept it quiet. A month or so later, I visited her at their place.

Was this the same dog?! Her coat was shiny, she tore around the house with their dog, she lovingly jumped all over me and I asked ‘did you switch her food or…?’ to try and explain the changes. ‘No, we’re still working through what you gave us.’

And I knew. The difference was that she was happy. She wasn’t lonely all day with another dog around now. She had multiple pairs of hands loving her. She was living a better life than the one I could give her.

10 years later, it was still the right choice. It’s sometimes still an emotional bruise, one that is occasionally pressed if someone asks ‘hey, didn’t you have a dog once?’ or when I see a black pug or when Facebook is like ‘hey, remember when you had this gorl around?’

Olive is doing well. Her owners sent me a picture of the lovely lady, sun-drenched and gray muzzled, this past Christmas. I haven’t been brave enough to ask to see her the last two times I’ve been in Little Rock. It’s a cowardly move, but one that seems best (or easiest). She’s living a happy life, and I’m so thankful for my friends, who saw two creatures suffering and offered us a better way.

I was free to move to Korea. She was free to be part of the right family for her. I’ve never doubted it was the right thing, even when it’s hurt.


So here I am, 1 month ago, adopting two cats. Kittens, really. And multiple times in the first two weeks I thought “did I even learn?!” as I googled ‘am i a bad person if i return cats.’

Fleck strolled up to me as I sat in the lounge at The Catcade, rubbing her face all over my KN95 mask and sitting on the open book in front of me, as if to say ‘let’s not pretend you came here to read a book. We are women of action. Lies do not become us.’ I laughed, knowing this cat saw through my clear ruse. Of course I was there for her.

Talking with one of the owners, Shelly, after, she mentioned that Fleck was just 4 months old and would need a hernia repair after her her spaying the week before. She’d also need a buddy to come home with since she was so young. I nodded, thinking ‘we are going from 0 cats to 2 cats and 1 of the cats has a medical thing I will have to monitor oh lord oh lord oh lord‘ and filled out the application that night (Saturday).

The adoption coordinator emailed me Monday, asking if I had a preference on Fleck’s ‘buddy.’ I didn’t, so they recommended a ‘reindeer kitten.’ I frantically googled with some weirdo results, to find out that Blitzen had been one of several kittens brought in in December, all with reindeer names (Like Comet and Prancen and Balthasar or whatevs). I’m sure reindeer kitten is a type of very cool Level 17 BJJ move though, and agreed that the 2.5 month-old Blitzen sounded good to come home too.

I had a hot/cold/hot/cold week leading up to the adoption/surgery date on Tuesday, 2/1. Which might be putting it nicely. Really: I cried, I railed about it, I was so scared, I wondered if I was having a panic attack, I messaged my friends “is this a mistake,” I placed my first Chewy order and sent out alerts on neighborhood Facebook groups for items needed to house these two rascals. I spent the weekend before picking up items and going to fancy pet stores to get grain-free food and writing follow up emails to the adoption coordinator and suddenly Tuesday was here.

I’d carefully gone inch by inch through the house prepping for their arrival, setting up litter boxes and sweeping dust, gathering toys and museum gel-ing down anything precious. I was as ready as I was going to get, and was technically taking them out on ‘medical foster’ until Fleck’s incision was healed and had a follow up with the vet.

I got off the train at Southport, walking the final 10 minutes carrying my newly-acquired free carrier from a neighbor. I cried most of the way there. Not a cute cry. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad sign as I knew my life was about to change.

I thought it was maybe a bit like when I left working for Apple. I’d cried a lot, making and doing the decision, but it was the right thing for me. It was hard, but it was right. I was scared, but its worked out wildly well for me over the last 4 years.

I knocked softly on The Catcade door, and Emma let me in. “I’m nervous,” I blurted out, but she couldn’t have been nicer. She showed me syringes, and I balked, but they were just pain medicine suspended in gravy to squirt into Fleck’s mouth. I wrote everything down with shaky hands and she joyously chatted at the cats as she brought them out. She handed me both and we tried to take a ‘gotcha day’ picture but both cats acted like their bones were jello in a windstorm. We tucked them carefully into the carrier and I called a Lyft.

Gingerly I wrapped my arms around the carrier, lifting them from underneath, not trusting the plastic handle. I slide them into the backseat of a Hyundai and tucked my fingers into the metal grille to graze their soft noses and assure them. They couldn’t have been more chill. Two casual car veterans enjoying the city lights, didn’t even make a sound as they nuzzled my fingertips. I unlocked my front door and carefully set them down in the kitchen, filming their emergence into my place.

They strolled out like this was already their house and slowly explored. They sniffed and smelled and meandered as I followed them around like a realtor murmuring about the apartment having good bones. They used the litter box and ate heartily as I gave Fleck her gravy cocktail, careful not to let her jump and disturb her belly incision.

They got sleepy around 9 and I thought ‘sleep when they sleep,’ like I’d heard people should do with babies. I lifted them both up onto my bed in a soft blanket, and they easily curled up and slept. I thought ‘well that was easy’ and crashed, my emotions catching up to me. An hour later I felt the tiny shakes of paws walking and jolted awake. Trying to corral them, we resettled. And again. Again. We finally got out of bed around 6, when I couldn’t keep her still. I had given up and let him jump off the bed several times.

I fed them, grateful they were still for a bit as they wetly munched away. I glanced at the clock; 6am on a Wednesday. I don’t do 6am. You’re lucky if I roll out of bed at 8:15 to start working at 8:30. I love my late nights. I love my independence to go to bed when I want. I scrolled ze apps, made a massive jug of coffee, and watched the cats re-roam, carefully monitoring Fleck’s vertical game.

The found anything that wasn’t carefully tucked away. I thought my under-bed was well packed, but they found nooks. Crannies. Soft extra blankets I kept under the couch. I looked at everyone via webcam at work that day sleepily and said ‘its going fine,’ and ordered an extra strength cold brew around noon. The cats slept most of the day, which was good, right?

The second night was worse.

Having slept all day, they wanted to roam all night. In a weird architecture choice, my bedroom door…doesn’t exist. It’s an open doorway. Which, who cares, right? I live alone. No visitors of any kind have been here in a long time, its fine. But now…now it’s 11pm and I can’t take another sleepless night and don’t trust them in the rest of the apartment without me around.

I made ‘the mature choice’ and put them in the bathroom with a litter box, two beds and a blanket, rigorously triple checking that the toilet is shut and the shower curtain tucked up out of reach. I was choosing to give myself sleep and keep them in a small, confined (not that small, it’s not an Andersonville micro bathroom) space, and yet couldn’t sleep all night. I felt guilty, like I was robbing them of exploring or worried she’d jump off the counter, I heard Blitzen’s jingle-y little collar as he paced (she’d already got hers off 2x). I think this was the first night I googled ‘can I give cats back.’

I learned that in my mid-30s I can do one all-nighter, I can’t do two in a row.

At 6am I gave in and let them out to be fed, only to see that one of Blitzen’s eyes was swollen shut. You’d think he was winking and like our parents said ‘don’t do that your face will get stuck that way.’

My first thought: I broke the cat. I made a selfish choice and put them in the bathroom all night, and this is what I deserve.

Rationality tried to creep in and I thought ‘well maybe it’s sleep crusties and he’ll be fine in a few minutes.’ Reader, he was not. It cracked open a slit, but was clearly swollen. I paced my 500 square feet until the 7am online vet that Chewy gave me free access to came online and initiated a chat with pictures. He either had scratched his cornea or had conjunctivitis, aka pink eye. Goop was accumulating in the corner of his eye. As the day went on, it spread to the other eye too.

I cried all day Thursday. I’m serious. From 6am when they got up and cried to be fed, to I think all-but-one of my work Zoom meetings, and after work, I cried. Everyone who asked ‘how are the cats,’ I answered honestly that it sucked. They were cute and sweet but I was cracking under the pressure. I was not enough to keep two tiny creatures alive and healthy even 48 hours.

I thought I was getting 1 cat and got 2. I thought there was 1 medical issue and now there are 2. All I could think about was that I was wrong and broken and stupid and DO I NOT LEARN and that they would limit what I could do where I could go, the jobs I could get, the apartments I could live in, and more.

Was this all in the application to be serious and consider? Yes

Did I seriously read it and truly think I was ready? Yes

And yet. And yet.

On Thursday I rewalked the same route from Southport to The Catcade, crying, again, for different reasons. I wondered if I’d overrode my clear ‘no’ feelings to adopt the cats and should just give up, even though we were barely on Day 3. Emma met me to give me some eye medication and demo’d application on another cat. She asked me how F & B were, and I kept up my routine of bawling. “It is hard” she said, kindly. I felt my soul (and butt) unclench 2 degrees.

Messages from friends and acquaintances, people I went to high school with, my grandma, my parents, my co-workers and more were pouring in.

“A dog trainer told me my dog was a terror and untrainable and I shouldn’t have it around my kid 16 years ago. I was a single parent. I cried the first 3 months.”

“Puppies and kittens are the worst. Especially when you’re single.”

“I sometimes think I should have fostered first and would have known what it was like. I love my pet but I think I had no idea and may not have been in the best place to do it.”

“Don’t give up”

“It gets better”

“Don’t give up yet”


I’ll be honest. I googled ‘give back adopted pet’ ‘how soon is too soon to return cats’ ‘will animals be negatively affected if I return to shelter’ more than once. Or twice. More than twice.

I filled my 6am mornings with Youtube videos of The Cat Daddy, Jackson Galaxy, based on a friend’s recommendation who works in a vet office.

I overnight ordered his book, Cat Mojo, and devoured it.

I ordered more items on Chewy. We got into a semi-routine. The cats were cool from 11pm-6am in the bathroom.

Life still was hard. And sucked. I had improv shows and felt guilty leaving them in the bathroom. I felt like going to the gym or grocery store was stolen time. I reveled in it and felt horrified that I loved getting out of the house and chose to wear an N95 mask to surf the bread aisles vs hang with them. I didn’t cook because I was scared of them jumping on the counter and lighting their paws on fire or touching hot pans with my back turned.

And yet. Inch by inch. Every day. We’ve gotten a little better. Sweetly curling up on my lap. Lazily stretching or wide-jaw yawning. That moist monch monch as they devour wet food. The truly rank smell of cat turds. Spending my annual merit increase on a fancy litter box. The pure relief at the vet check-up with Fleck and her hernia being totally healed. An apartment maintenance visit where they willingly went in their crate.

We are better. We made it to 1 month. 32 days and 31 nights. I haven’t slept a continuous 8 hours since February 1. I changed the layout of my entire apartment to accommodate their huge (free) cat tree. They have only knocked over my monstera once so far.

I do love them, I think. I made myself start saying it at the end of that first week, when I didn’t feel like I loved them. I knew they were just bein’ babies, but I was so lost and frustrated and tired and they were everywhere.

Nuzzling their soft bellies or pressing kisses into the downy bit under their necks, crowing back at them and watching their Cirque du Soleil routines attacking a feather wand, it’s all softening me. It’s the glorious part. The part that offsets the hard things. The hard things aren’t less but they’re more expected and I feel semi-capable of keeping them alive. Me too, I guess.

I’m grateful for every single message and heart’d reaction, for the friend that came over and talked to me like a human person that first week and the video calls, the texts and articles and links sent. For the Cat Mojo book and Cat Daddy videos – which truly – turned the tide.

There’s still a type of panic that can rise up, sour in my throat, when I think about the future, and apartments or jobs or going back to the office this month 2-3 days a week, but I’m trying to take it more of a day, an hour, at a time. We are figuring each other out. This was a hard fought month, and I’m celebrating the progress.

Here’s our family photo Tuesday, at 1 month with me (L>R, figure it out), Fleck (6 mo) and Blitzen (4 mo).

And here’s a few more from the past month:

A Big Year in Review

This year has been absolutely bonkers for so many of us. I started the year thinking I’d been in Africa summiting Kili before Spring…and definitely got some surprises along the way. Some beautiful chapters came to their conclusion and new ones (some expected, some not) cropped up too ‚ú®

January

  • January 12th I got the call! KILI FEBRUARY IS A GO! Bought flight tickets!
  • THE NEXT MORNING get a call that it’s cancelled. As is their March trip, due to new US travel rules kicking in on 1/25 requiring a PCR test within 72 hours of arrival back into the US. With the long trip/transfer time in Amsterdam and very few resources in Tanzania…”there’s a chance you could get stuck mid-way and we don’t want that.” Honestly tho leave me stuck there, please?
  • The next date I could possibly go is June, but most likely (since I already have Baker in July), in September. I feel…lethargic. And don’t know why I should bother training, etc. It’s a perfect storm of cold and disappointment and loneliness post-holidays.
  • I drink some bourbon and eat a bunch of tacos and wallow. I try to rally and bootstrap, etc. to middling results. I write about it.

February

  • February is really hard. It’s cold, the weather is trash, I feel no drive to ‘try’ and my original departure date is coming. I have to remove all my OOO calendar dates from my work cal, disappointed.
  • I’m proud though, that I proactively realized the day would be hard and I take it off. I get my nails done, haircut and treat myself to my favorite bakery and a wander through my favorite used bookstore.
  • The day I ‘should’ be summitting is even harder and I didn’t realize how it would carve me up emotionally. My next possible summit date is 7 months away, which in COVID times feels like the same thing might happen again. How can I be hopeful when a new strain or issue might pop up then too?

March

  • Bought myself a ‘push present’ or just a rally gift of a necklace that says ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’ aka ‘through hardships to the stars’ and it feels right.
  • Tried on my ‘big’ 65L backpack that I’ve had for like 4 years that still has the tag on! This 65L Osprey pack I got on a screaming deal at REI several years ago is gonna be my Baker bag.
  • VACCINATED! I qualified by being obese according to the BMI (the BMI is a trash measurement, check out this amazing podcast ep by Maintenance Phase) so I spent Friday refreshing the Cook County website until a spot popped up 1 hour away in Tinley Park. I snagged it then scrambled to apple and aquire a Zipcar membership – I do! I get a J&J shot and cry I’m so happy. It feels like finally we’re turning a corner on my loneliness/end of this thing.

April

May

  • Former neighbors Jason & Regan get married! First wedding I’ve been to since 2018! I mistimed/forgot that I’d lose an hour jumping ahead to ET (it was in Michigan) and changed into my jumpsuit in the 2-door rental car and put on makeup, all in 12min, walking in 2 mins before ceremony started.
  • Applied for Discovery Channel’s tv show ‘Who Wants to be an Astronaut?’ and well, they called! I know! I kept it on the DL for so long! I had a Zoom call/recorded conversation with producers twice; one the end of May and one the beginning of June. No calls since so my dreams of hugging Mike Massimino are squashed (for now). Seriously though if they call back? I WILL LEAVE YOU ALL AND GO TO SPACE or at least go to Houston and hang with Bekah and the dogs for a few weeks.
  • I go to Little Rock for Memorial Day weekend (I’m only one year late) and see my loves, eat my faves, stub my toe and I’m 94% sure I broke it.
  • Check out the altitude room at Well Fit for the first time – since Chicago is hella flat/sea level – Brian and I go to check out this tool to practice acclimatizing for Baker (and Kili).

June

  • Make my first ever mint julep! And from mint I grew!
  • Lots and lots of altitude gym; truly a weird flex to wheeze and start panting during the WARMUP
  • Long long walks; 5+ hours, we’ll taper in July to Baker
  • Tornado alert – the sirens go off so much in one day that I actually pack a bag and set shoes by my door to go to the basement
  • Start taking Photo I at Chicago Photo Classes

July

  • Go into the office for the first time in 14 months and see several of my faves – we’re hopeful and happy and yet – I don’t go back until post-Kili. I don’t want to risk getting sick pre-Baker nor in my 6 weeks to Kili window.
  • Made my first charcuterie board using a gorgeous board my dad made me from a maple on my parents’ property
  • I go home to climb my first mountain! With my sister Brianna, I summitted Mt. Baker (10,781ft/3286m), our ‘hometown mountain.’
  • Cast on Laugh out Loud’s comedy improv ensemble! I can still do make believe!

August

  • Longest walks of my life. I am running out of podcasts/music to listen to for 5+ hours on Sundays. My PR: 6H22M, aka 18.9 miles on 8/22
  • On 8/10 they call: THE TRIP IS A GO. It almost wasn’t though; they let me know one other guy signed up for September just a few days ago. So it’ll be the pair of us.
  • Hit some truly creepy O2/pulse ox numbers in the altitude room on the 14,000ft Saturdays; broke 55% one day.
  • Last piece of Kili gear acquired with the addition of a Kula cloth! Check out my full gear list (including what I actually used/was worth it)!

September

  • September 1-9 feels like a fever dream. PCR tests and check ins and packing over Labor Day weekend and delivering on some truly wild work things before my Friday, 9/10 flight.
  • KILIMANJARO BAYBEE! Summitted at dawn on Monday, 9/20/21
  • Safari, Serengeti, Ngorogoro, I left some chunks of my heart and soul in Tanzania
  • ^^ still writing about it!

October

  • Life feels weird – things are still happening but THINGS have happened to me (Kili) and I’m not over it. I feel a need to come up with a new driving focus; a reason to workout or be healthy or just give my life structure. I don’t know what to do with myself but answer everyone with ‘it was great.’
  • Go on my first adult ‘Girls Trip’ with a bunch of phenomenal female improvisers to a lake house in Michigan; visiting a distillery and laughing until we cried.
  • Take myself out on a date to see Dune at the Davis and dress up
  • Start my first ever modern dance class – at Old Town School of Music
  • Dress up like Lydia Deetz and crushed it out in the ‘burbs at Jason & Regan’s house

November

  • Met up with Marissa and Bhavini; we met through Well Fit (the altitude gym) but never met in person until now! Marissa went the month before me and Bhavini 2 weeks after me!
  • My coworker Matt goes and climbs Kili on the Marangu route (5 days) vs my 8 day Lemosho route. I feel homesick for a place I only was in for 2.5 weeks.
  • Got a homemade Thanksgiving dinner from a neighbor
  • BOOSTER BAYBEE! Get yer boosters when you’re eligible!

December

  • First ever trip to Florida for Robbie & Barry’s wedding! Kayaking and gowns and beaches and Japanese gardens and weird wonderful vintage stores.
  • My first Laugh Out Loud show! And first live improv show in over 630 days.
  • Home with the fam for 2 weeks, soaking in the love, having my birthday and a Christmas and a ton of snow.

It was a full year. Big dips, big wins, stood on top of multiple mountains, celebrated hard, long-fought joys and saw family 3x in one year. Crushed some huge work projects. Achieved a big dream for a big girl and I’m pretty damn proud. Onward and upward, pals.

The Great (Baboon) Train Robbery – Arusha National Park

Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

The baboon is in the car. “Whoa, whoa Bails, don’t you mean a different preposition? On, around, before, beneath-” NOPE, I do not, folks. THE BABOON IS *IN* THE CAR.

After the 3am arrival dinner (pre-breakfast?) I slept hard in my Itikoni Camp tent, halfway up the slopes of Mt. Meru, in the heart of Arusha National Park. I wake up around 8:30 and tug my earplugs out to the rumbling ‘whirrr’ of colobus monkeys and birdsong. Sleepily washing my face using the still very hot thermos of water from last night and fumbling, figured out the chemical toilet situation. I stepped outside to a whole new world.

After my first (two) mugs of strong Tanzanian coffee and a truly massive breakfast, Ben met us in the ‘lounge’ tent for a trip briefing, which included some of the deep history of Tanzania, Kilimanjaro, and cultural norms to be aware of.

  • Did ya know (bc I did not): Tanzania is the compound name of two countries – Tanganyika + Zanzibar = Tanzania – which merged in 1964
  • There are over 55 million people who live in the country and over 125 tribes
  • Most people are trilingual – speaking their tribal language, Kiswahili and an additional language like English, French, etc. and many speak additional languages – quadlingual? When does ‘multilingual’ kick in? Pentalingual? I feel like there is a ORU joke there but I’m just gonna leave it alone!
  • Swahili or Kiswahili Swahili is a ‘lingua franca’ aka a language that bridges the 125+ tribes in Tanzania (and the many outside of TZ) and spoken by over 100 million people in Tanzania, Kenya and surrounding nations. When speaking Swahili, the language is called Kiswahili – but when talked about in English it’s usually called Swahili.
  • The Kilimanjaro routes (there are several) are named for the village(s) located at the bottom of each trail – I took the Lemosho route but other popular ones are Machame, Marangu and Rongai (which starts in Kenya)
  • Ben’s been guiding on Kilimanjaro for 25 years this year – he’s seen it all – and always with Mountain Madness
  • The Chaga (sometimes written Chagga) tribe are the ones around Kilimanjaro; Ben is from the Chaga tribe and his extended family still lives in the Kilimanjaro area.
  • Arusha is both the name of the city and the region (and the national park we’re in) – think of it like a city and county/state name – and when people say “I’m from Arusha” it could mean either!

We plan to go on a short afternoon hike after a light(er) lunch (seriously – this whole trip – there is SO MUCH FOOD and it IS ALL DELICIOUS). Our park ranger, Tony, leads the way; casually wearing a bolt-action rifle on his shoulder.

It feels so good to stretch my legs a bit – my body has been training training training for so long that 2 days in transit has felt almost oppressively still – and the guides are subtly watching how we walk and breathe to gauge the level of support we’ll need on Kili. We stop often to note animals, plants and tracks; Ben, Geoffrey and Tony have eyes like hawks and can spot critters on a dime.

We return to camp, spotting our first giraffe through some trees, eat dinner and do a gear check – I have everything I need and it’s now got Ben’s official stamp of approval – I continue to make some cuts, asking myself “Is this need to have or nice to have?” and make a plan for tomorrow’s game drive. Since J and I both came a day early (remember how KLM was like ‘come on time and pay $2000 more or come a day early and…save $2000′ and so…I have chosen the better path? Yup. We’re going to continue exploring Arusha National Park and Momella Lakes (there’s 7!) with our bonus day.

Monday morning blooms bright and after a hearty breakfast – Robert makes omelettes an art – we tuck into the Land Cruiser and head out for a walking safari with Tony, Ben and Geoffrey. We stop in a massive open savannah and my eyes hungrily drink in this view.

It’s wild and magical and unbelievable how we just…walk…through this area. There’s so. many. animals that it’s like going to a zoo but there’s no walls. In just this one open area we see baboons, buffalos, giraffes, warthogs, bushbacks, ducks, and more just harmoniously living. It feels like we’re getting away with something secret and wonderful; we’re mostly hushed except for a soft word from a guide (or Tony) to keep (or stop) walking in certain spots. The water draws all the animals to this spot and they find an unspoken rhythm taking turns at the stream.

We drop off Tony at the ranger station (don’t worry, he’ll be back!) and head with Ben & Geoffrey to explore the Momella Lakes and eat some lunch. We drive up on these pals – aren’t they cute? THERES A BAYBEEEEEEE!

BUT y’all, that baby is Matt Damon and the adults are Brad Pitt & George Clooney because this isn’t ‘cute game drive’ this is now Oceans 11: Tanzania. After stopping in the Land Cruiser to photograph this troop (yes, a group of baboons is a troop) through the open roof (it pushes/pops up so we can stand and photograph from inside the car), we start to pull away and I have my head out the side of the car window snagging final shots. I look over my shoulder and spot a baboon running up beside the car, thinking ‘oh cute, it’s like a Dalmatian chasing a moving car or whatever.’

Me:”Geoffrey, there’s a baboon running next to us on our side.”

Geoffrey: “Oh, where?”

Me: *looks back over my shoulder* “Oh I don’t see – oh I think it just jumped on the back tire”

For context – this is our Land Cruiser – 2 spare tires on the back. The driver’s side is the RIGHT – as is the side of the road driven on. My de facto ‘spot’ this whole trip is the right (driver’s) side and J and I unspoken stick with those sides for the next 15 days.

Me: *looks up* “Oh my gosh, it’s on the [open] roof”

Like Y’ALL I AM MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH THIS BABOON. There is nothing separating us. We are breathing the same air.

And then the baboon is IN the car. He’s jumped inside.

SERIOUSLY in less than 10 seconds it’s:

  1. Baboon running beside us
  2. Baboon on tire
  3. Baboon on roof
  4. Baboon in CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CAR IN THE CARRRRRR

And I just need to say – have you ever seen someone’s face when they’re panicking a bit but trying not to look panicked so you don’t panic? When I say Geoffrey and Ben’s faces looking back at that baboon…that is the face they both made. The ‘don’t scare the clients’ face, throwing the car into park, both shouting in Swahili and Ben threw a water bottle at this baboon and all I can think is THERE IS NO WAY FOR THIS DUDE TO GET OUT EXCEPT GOING BACK OUT THE WAY HE CAME IN HE’S GOING TO NEED/WANT AN EXIT OH MY GOSH I AM GOING TO GET BIT AND GET RABIES BEFORE I EVEN CLIMB KILI

and pretty much treated this baboon like a weird person hollering on the train in Chicago – I turned my face/body into the corner of the door, hunching over my valuables (read: camera) and waited for the rant to be over. Rule 1: don’t make eye contact. I’m serious fam, I’m a Krav Maga certified instructor but like…the most important lesson is to know when you shouldn’t engage in a fight. And I was not here to get bit on DAY TWO! This was a jacked male baboon who had been doing Gym, Tan, Laundry and STEROIDS and I avoided this juiced up guido, who not only came in our car but ran up and CHECKED THE SEAT POCKETS. Seriously, he was right next to me and checked the pocked of the seat in front of me.

Between the baboon screeching and Ben/Geoffrey hollering in Swahili and me just hiding out in the door’s buttcrack, the baboon grabbed our lunchbox (think those big pink cardboard cake boxes) and jumped out of the car the same way he came in – through the open roof. Jokes on him though, that box is hinged, so our wax paper-wrapped lunch items fell out and dude left with an EMPTY cardboard box. Ben and Geoffrey jumped out, throwing stones and yelling as a ranger car spins up in a cloud of dust and two rangers jump out, berating the guides for getting out of their car in this area (a big, well-signed faux pas).

I turn to J, wide eyed, and say ‘did that really just happen?’

Ben and Geoffrey get back in, laughing with the rangers, who return the empty box that Danny Ocean had angrily discarded, explaining we were the third car hit that day. This was getting to be a common spot for this troop to prey on safari vehicles; and they’re so smart that they knew to jump in the open roof, check the pockets and where lunch is usually kept. In 25 years, Ben had never seen anything like it.

So…I learned the word for baboon is ‘nyani’ and we used it. A lot. I didn’t trust an open roof near a troop of baboons the rest of my time in Tanzania. Not afraid, just…wary. Y’all know they got a whisper network going on to talk about gullible tourists and I was not here to get got twice in one trip!

Something was in the baboon water today, I swear – Robert, our chef – had another baboon encounter with one coming in the open door to the camp kitchen. He had to shake a machete at it! Mercury rising or whatever; nyanis were making bold moves! We came back to camp to an absolute feast; Robert outdid himself with our ‘night before starting to climb Kili’ meal. Pork chops, purple yams, chicken, lamb kabobs, grilled veggies and a breathtaking lemon passion fruit cheesecake that I wanted to roll around in. Critical vocab was quickly learned and deployed – ‘tamu sana’ – very delicious.

They had to roll me outta that meal tent; Tony walked J and I to our tents, which he’d done each night. Honestly, I’d thought it was a bit overdone, something they probably do for tipsy clients or those too old/young that might get lost, etc. A bit of theater to keep clients feeling ‘safe.’

Well, serve me up a plate of crow, people.

,Following Tony we waddled quietly in a ‘I’m very full and sleepy’ pace to our tents, under a wide, almost full moon. I breathed deep that fresh, mountain air, thought ‘whew, smells like manure,’ and suddenly he just. stopped. and put a hand up.

We stopped too. After our safari walk earlier today, we knew – when Tony stops – you stop. But I didn’t see anything. Not taking a step, I raised up on tiptoe and craned my neck to look around the corner, where all of Tony’s focus was. He slowly shifted the rifle off his shoulder and held it, ready, in his arms.

You know it’s serious when the rifle comes off the park ranger’s shoulder. Their job is to protect you and the animals, in that order. They’ll always try a warning shot to scare an animal, but if needed, they’ll put it down to protect you. My eyes snagged on the swooping curve of a massive, male cape buffalo’s horns in shadow, just outside the floodlight’s reach. I knew now why I’d smelled manure. We’d been told about big, solitary ‘bachelor’ buffalos earlier today; they’re big and mean. And we were less than 20 feet away from one, with a bolt action rifle and some paltry bushes between us.

We waited, silent for probably 2 full minutes, in a standoff. Turning his head but not looking away from the buffalo, Tony spoke so quietly that we had to half-lip read: “Walk backwards. Very slow.” We took two steps and the buffalo bolted, thankfully away from us. We laughed, breathing shakily to expel the adrenaline. Unlike previous nights, Tony walked us all the way to the door of the tents and waited until the double zip was completely sealed.

“Usi Kumwema” he called.

“Lala salaama” I hollered back.

‚õįÔłŹ‚ú® We start up Kilimanjaro in the morning ‚õįÔłŹ‚ú®


Bailey’s Kiswahili Vocab for the Day(s): A Series Written Phonetically

(AKA how I thought it should be spelled, likely v wrong)

  • Jambo: Hello/Hi
  • Asante: Thank You
  • +Sana: Very/a lot
  • Mambo: What’s up
  • Habari: How are you
  • + Asabuhi: This morning
  • + Mchana: This afternoon
  • + Ageoni: This evening
  • Nzuri: Good
  • Sawa: OK
  • Poa: Cool
  • Lala Salaama: Sleep Well
  • Usi Kumwema: Good Night

In Transit

It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled internationally – but more than that – it’s been 6+ years since I traveled somewhere new internationally. I forgot how fun it is to have a completely new experience. To blend nerves and discovery together and not be totally sure it’ll work.

I slept most of the way to Amsterdam; a good plan on an 8-hour flight that left Chicago at 4pm. We descended through the misty, Seattle-esque clouds around 7am local time and I was looking forward to hanging out in a lounge for the 4-hour layover, using them sweet lil credit card perks, only to find out it was closed. Boooooooooo! C’mon capitalism! Do your girl a solid! Instead I snagged an iced coffee (I mean, it was Seattle weather), watched some Ted Lasso and did a 10-minute meditation in a quiet nook of the terminal.

Waiting to board the AMS > JRO leg, I saw so many people at the gate who looked like me – daypack, hiking boots, REI-ish layers – and had that same feeling: what are y’all doing on my special adventure?! On one hand I’m aware many, many people go to Kilimanjaro (and Tanzania, the Serengeti, etc.) in general and on the other hand it felt odd to have spent 2 years overall preparing for this thing so incredibly solo (being isolated in a pandemic, living/working out alone, etc. for the past year and a half) but being surrounded by other people realizing their dream ON THE SAME DAY AS ME. I may be your only friend/family/person to climb Kilimanjaro but trust me; there’s literally hundreds of us at any given time.

After an easy, uneventful 8-hour leg south to JRO, we arrived around 9pm local time. Seated in row 43 of 45, it took me awhile to get off the plane. I almost vibrated with palpable excitement, looking out the window at the bright letters KILIMANJARO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. We rushed outside, groaning with relief in stretching our legs…to get into line. A huge line. A cozy, 75 degree darkness enveloped us, sandwiched between the outer walls of the airport and the massive KLM jetliner we’d evacuated, bottlenecking to be paperwork-checked.

  1. Get in 300+ person line and slowly get to the front of the pack.
  2. Get waved over to one of 10 people checking paperwork, temperatures and IDs.
  3. Paperwork approved, temp check ok – go stand in a different line to pay the $10 COVID test fee – with a credit card machine that is out of receipt paper so they’re handwriting/stamping all receipts, taking forever
  4. Go inside, get pretty thorough COVID rapid test up the schnozz
  5. Booty barely touching the waiting area seat when they loudly call your FULL GROWN FIRSTNAME MIDDLENAME LASTNAME and hand me the (thankfully) Negative results
  6. Get in different line to get a visa, fill out paperwork, scan all ya fingerprints, you’re Jason Bourne now
  7. Pay $100 for the privilege of the finger scanning
  8. Go to a different window to get a receipt for paying $100 for the Bourne finger scan
  9. Go get your bags from the floor (they’ve been nicely pulled from the carousel and set in a line with the other hundred bags, watched over by airport staff)
    ***It’s been 2 hours since you landed***
  10. Bathroom break
  11. Put all bags (including carry on) back through another X-ray machine so you can leave. X-ray attendant is halfheartedly scrolling on their phone.
  12. Finally emerge out into the night, where 50 Tanzanian men are all holding signs with various safari company names on them in varying fonts and font sizes

Honestly? I just started scanning left to right. I was the only person to walk out the door at that moment, so they’re all just watching me stand there, eyeballs glazed over. I started at my 9 o’clock and was going clockwise through all the names, standing in one spot like a spooked baby horse when – suddenly – out of nowhere this guy pops through the ring of men, saying “Mountain Madness?”

“YES” I gratefully breathed as he and another guy, fully masked, took my bags and led me past the other guide companies, closer to the parking lot. “I’m Ben” and “I’m Geoffrey,” they added, as I felt my shoulders finally droop below my ears. Someone else was in charge now. I could rest. There was no more big, solo decisions to make, things to coordinate, etc. It was a relief to have someone else take the wheel.

I think that was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I didn’t fully realize it until I got back home. There’s only a few people that I’ve talked to about it that really get this, and they’re also single women. Its not unique to us but there’s a unique perspective to it. It’s exhausting to have to do all the things alone. Not just the tasks of living (although that’s a lot) but also the decision-making, the weighing of options, the research, etc. When you’re in a couple (or family) you can take turns wearing those hats, even if one of you does it most of the time, it’s rarely all of the time for all of the things.

You have to get up for work no one is going to wake you up so set your alarm ok it’s time get up and decide what to wear I’m hungry but what are you gonna eat you should use that cookbook that mom got you or maybe just get on google and type in the ingredients you have and see what looks good do not open Grubhub you’ll never cook and those bell peppers are 84 years old in the drawer you gotta do it today or they’re going to rot on you ok I found 2 recipes for stuffed peppers well when are you going to cook it you just started another episode of L&O SVU ok but are you going to eat it like a wolf out of the pot because why get another plate dirty it’s just you and you’ll have to wash that dish oh you’ve just used the same 3 dishes for the last week that’s ok who’s gonna know oh lord that trash has gotta go out I’ve pushed it down too long gotta take the rent check to the post box on the corner tomorrow or it’ll be late I also gotta look at flight times so Mom knows when I’m coming home for the holidays but need to check and be sure it doesn’t conflict with work or theater schedule are my plants dying? when’s the last time they were watered – well – if I didn’t do it then no one did it…etc. etc. etc.

I know there’s beauty in the freedom to make my own choices and it’s a privilege to have the financial flexibility to live alone. Most of the time I’m aware and grateful for it but sometimes it catches up to you – that mental & emotional labor – and the fact that you can’t take all the hats off. The Beret of Personal Responsibility is glued on, y’all.

Standing in the black-velvet Tanzanian night outside the airport, there was a palpable, physical (and mental and emotional) sigh, listening to the bugs softly chirp, a light breeze soothing my almost 24-hours of travel soul. Someone. else. was. in. charge. I took a step away, pulled down my mask and gazed up at the star-flecked sky, gulping in fresh air and rubbing the mask lines imprinted on my scalp. I could rest now. I’d done everything right – I’d trained, I’d prepared, I’d executed, I’d been in the right places at the right times with the right paperwork and my reward was finally here – someone else in control. Glorious.

We tossed our duffels and bags in a khaki-colored Toyota Land Cruiser and started the 90-minute drive out to Arusha National Park and Itikoni private camp, where Mountain Madness has taken clients for decades. It was just after midnight, but to J (our other hiker) and I it was about 4-5pm to our stateside origin bodies. With our whole car vaccinated (and J and I very freshly PCR tested (in the states pre-flight) and rapid tested (about 1 hour ago in the KIA airport) negative for COVID), we took off our masks and happily chattered away. I didn’t even know J’s name before I left the country yesterday and was about to spend a week+ on a mountain with him and the guides, so I was curious.

We turn off the main road into Arusha National Park and put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive for the rugged, teeth-jostling final 30 minutes of the trail. It was too dark to take any photos but we leaned forward, hopeful we’d see a critter or two illuminated in the hazy lights of the car, and were rewarded with half-glimpses of a giraffe and a cape buffalo just off the road. Pulling into Itikoni just shy of 2am, we were taken to the mess tent and introduced to Po, who had made a full meal for us.

Y’all, I know my brain was like ‘hey girl, it’s only 6pm-ish’ but also, after 24 hours of travel I was ready to big sleep. And here an incredibly nice crew made us a full multi-course meal – tangy, brightly-colored salad, freshly sliced steak, even a hand-crafted dessert – and were smiling, waiting for us to eat. They offered me a beer or a glass of wine but I knew I’d be out before we hit ‘asante’ if I did. When my eyelids were heavy and belly full, Ben, Geoffrey and our armed camp ranger, Tony, walked us to our spacious private tents and after a brief tour (how to use the toilet, wash my face, take a shower, and to not to leave the tent while it was dark (there was an emergency whistle if I felt unsafe!)), I said goodnight, zipped the inner and outer tent door and crawled into bed just before 3am, pulled up my sleep mask, squished in my earplugs and slept a deep, dreamless, thankful sleep.

Note to self: Panoramas in split light are…not great. Left side is a desk, 2 coat racks, 2 benches for luggage (1 per person for a couple), behind back ‘wall’ is toilet, shower, double sinks, hot water thermos for washing my face, etc. My back is to the front of the tent, including thick canvas double-zip door.

[Sidebar pro-tip if you’re going to KIA in the next year-ish: You can pre-pay your COVID test and you can pre-file/get your Tanzania visa online but I didn’t pre-do either and still beat the other travel/hiker in our group out of the airport by 20+ minutes. Normally I would have pre-done both but, shrug, six of one and a half-dozen of the other, you know?]

Next Up: Itikoni Camp & Arusha National Park (Days 2-3)

  • Baboon Danny Ocean
  • Swahili 101
  • We get up close and personal with why our camp ranger carries a bolt action rifle

Finally.

I stared at the ‘Out of Office’ banner splashed across the top of my work Gmail and gave a half-hearted cackle and fist pump – and then couldn’t stop – I stood up and suddenly it was way too hot. I whipped my shirt off and just stood in the middle of my living room having a Disney villain moment clad in a sports bra.

“It’s happening,” I muttered to myself in increasingly loud increments. I ran to the bathroom to look at my face and said it in the mirror like a mantra. “It’s HAPPENING. It’s hApPeNiNg.” I put on some music and couldn’t stop dancing maniacally. If you think this is a fever dream/memory – here’s proof:

Yeah, it’s a video, and yeah, I’m taking that one to the grave.

Everything to be done was done.

  • The packing – ‚úÖ
  • The PCR COVID test – ‚úÖ – and results were in: NEGATIVE
  • The OOO Gmail, Slack, etc. for work – ‚úÖ
  • Someone to water the plants & grab mail – ‚úÖ
  • The fridge food – eaten – ‚úÖ (and the next day’s breakfast & lunch set up ‚úÖ)
  • Downloads of podcasts, support videos (friends, parents, my trainer Brian), audiobooks, book books, etc. – ‚úÖ
  • House cleaned top to bottom – ‚úÖ
  • Travel outfit set out – ‚úÖ
  • Folder of critical travel documents, copy of passport, trip insurance, TZ address for on-the-ground Visa, etc. – ‚úÖ

All there was left to do was execute on the plan.

Day 0 – Friday, September 10

I remember thinking, ‘wow, what if I don’t sleep tonight? I’ll be so excited the adrenaline will probably keep me up.’ And promptly knocked out around 11. I set a 9am safety net alarm, but woke up around 7:30am – my flight not being until 4pm. I made a french press of coffee and sat quietly on the couch, drinking it slowly and looking at my bags. I had a checklist on the door of final things to confirm while going out (take out trash, triple check you locked the door), and a smaller one on the kitchen table for different final things like a gov’t form I had to complete w/in 24 hours of arrival in TZ and writing Katie a note about my plant children’s care, writing my rent check, etc.

I’d fortified myself – a weird word, but true – with emotional boosts, should I need them. My fresh journal has a ton of recently-installed stickers, phrases and quotes making me think of places or people or feelings that would help lift my moods on tough days/nights.

  • Mt. Baker, celebrating my first summit
  • A Bryce Canyon groundhog that makes me think of my sisters ‘ALAN! ALAN!’ joke in AZ & Zion
  • The fear litany poem from Dune
  • A beautifully terrifying Gritty masterpiece from Dana & Adam
  • A fortune cookie stating “Depend on your feet, you can climb the highest mountain’ I got about 5 years ago
  • 2 excerpts from Psalms (121 & 139)
  • Some manual camera settings for night photography (that I did not use)
  • 3 Instax polaroids of my friends/family
  • Korean sticker saying ŽĆÄŽįē – ‘awesome’
  • “The finish line is for the ego, the journey is for the soul” quote that’s followed me across this 2-year saga
  • A card tucked inside with a quote from St. Therese of Liseaux (also attributed to St. Therese of Avila and Minnie Louise Haskins 1908 book of poems, but still hits me): “Today may there be peace within, may you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”

I felt as prepared as prepared could be. The week before the trip everyone kept asking ‘do you feel ready?’ And I did. Body, mind and spirit – I was ready to go – there were no more muscles to build or last-minute-shove-this-in-the-bag epiphanies or frantic items to buy.

A friend came by and picked me up around 1:15pm to head to the airport and I finally breathed out – we were on the path – plan in motion. We missed our airport turnoff and laughed, looping around and finding a modified route back to Terminal 5, O’Hare’s international wing.

4 bags surrounded me: North Face 71L Base Camp mountain duffel, medium-size suitcase, 35L hiking pack on my back, and my Mountainsmith Tour bag on my shoulder with things I’d actually need during transit (travel folder, passport, all camera gear, phone, electronics, book, sunglasses, possible three hand sanitizers?). As I navigated the airport, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ve had to do a full 4-bags airport dance since I moved back from Korea 6 years ago.’

In line for KLM, I found myself – shockingly – unaware of a form I needed. I felt my spine lock up until the rep said ‘just scan this QR code and you can fill it out online.’ Rapidly filling out a declaration form for the Netherlands (my stopover in Amsterdam for 4 hours needed it, I guess (tl;dr they never looked at it once)), I got to the front of the line and pulled out my travel folder. I glanced to my left, where another man stood with a duffel and a pack, answering the agent’s query ‘Headed to Tanzania.’ I was surprised to see another person in Chicago leaving on the same flight, also headed to the same place; I’d felt like I was on some grand unique hero’s journey and here this random dude was on a parallel track to my story!

Standing in the security line, I was a little bored, so I pulled out my phone and checked work – I KNOW – and someone I’d never met had messaged me, asking about putting a meeting on the calendar next week. I chuckled and typed, ‘I’m literally standing in the international departures TSA line at ORD headed to Africa; unless you want to wait 2.5 weeks, you’ll probably want to find someone else.’ Apparently the OOO notification wasn’t that noticeable…

Once in the terminal, I finally used my fancy credit card perk (getting a travel credit card in Oct 2019 was a stellar move, jk) and hung out in a lounge until boarding. I was reading Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, and craving those last minute Kili-cramming moments. Do you know they give you free Diet Coke in there?! They doooooooooo.

Boarding call. Everyone was casually sitting and I was practically vibrating. I just wanted to shout ‘I AM GOING TO AFRICAAAA I AM DOING IT IT’S FINALLY HAPPPPPPENING’ but I was not here to get dragged into the Jack Bauer bowels of O’Hare 5ft from the finish line, y’all. We boarded, and I wound my way to my seat in the back of the plane. It was pretty empty – just how we like it! I tucked away my hiking daypack above and snugged my Mountainsmith under the seat in front of me, buckled my seatbelt and sat back, sighing in relief.

A feeling was overwhelming me. A peace that I’d done everything that could be done. Everything happened exactly as I’d planned, thought, worried and laid out for almost 2 years. Wheels in motion and there was truly no turning back now. I was so happy. Happy happy happy and incredulous. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Genuinely I had half-thought it could still be canceled, up until now. That I’d have to use that travel insurance at the last minute. Tears rolled down my face. I took a picture – it was not a good look – but I didn’t care. I realized there was one more thing I wanted to say before leaving US soil.

I’d never truly considered how dangerous this was. Things happen, you know? People still die on Kili; on average about 10 people per year (stats pre-2020 bc COVID) out of ~30,000 who attempt the climb. It was still a dang mountain, and a big one. Literally one of the Seven Summits. Sure, it wasn’t a technical climb like Baker. No abominable snowpits to be swallowed by or glacier ridge spines to tip over on. But it was a formidable mountain; altitude sickness can make your brain swell, or pulmonary edema can make your lungs explode (apologies for the science inaccuracy but I think that’s close) or you can just trip and hit your head on the wrong rock.

I don’t have a will (Will?). I think I’d googled it like 2-3 weeks before leaving, but you know, it was an insanely busy season with work and we were still doing all the final prep/workouts/I was big-time preoccupied. Seated in 43I, I wanted to have one more word to y’all on my trip and also, I don’t know, kinda ‘eulogize’ if something happened. If I didn’t make it over the ocean, or I didn’t make it up this mountain or if a zombified giraffe went to town on my spleen and I didn’t make it back…I wanted my people to know I was still glad I went.

This sounds hella morbid (and I am writing it on Halloweeeeeeen *ghost voice*) but I didn’t feel freaked out or strange doing it. If something happened I wanted y’all to know I was still going to be happy I did it. That I did a big, wild, I-am-not-sure-if-I-can-but-I’m-gonna-try kind of adventure. That I leaped when my landing spot was still cloudy, not fully clear. Big swing and not sure if it would be a home run or a whiff. I wasn’t going to regret this decision, no matter what. I typed and retyped several times, tears running down my face, thinking about what would bring peace (if needed) and be authentically my voice.

“I‚Äôm going to go do this thing – chasing something fun and unsure and wonderful – I‚Äôm in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. 

Hakuna Matata, bbs ūüŹĒūüźė‚ú®

The pilot came over the intercom in Dutch, then in English, and the flight attendants began striding up the aisles, checking for compliance. I looked left down the completely empty row 43 and put my head on the headrest, willing myself to stop crying because the snot inside my mask wasn’t helpful for ya know, breathing.

We pushed back from the gate. I sucked in one, happy sob and looked out at the tarmac and smiled so big that my cheeks lifted my glasses up.

Finally.

Tinker Tailor Writer Editor Catch Upper

I can feel that I’m putting off writing about the trip. Just a little bit. I will write about it. You know those first moments of a relationship – when you’re not telling people – and it’s private and special and just the two of you? That’s a little how it feels. That and I’ve only been back 10ish days, but it feels like forever and 5 minutes ago, teeth jostling loose on Ngorogoro Crater dirt roads in the Land Cruiser and waking up in my frost-coated orange tent halfway up the mountain.

I’m working on it – telling you about this jaw-dropping adventure – the highs, lows, critters, and the unforgettable men who kept me safe, made me laugh to the point of tears and saw through my brave front. I’ve edited down from ~3300 photos (2700 DSLR, 600 iPhone XR) to ~650 that represent the experiences and feelings, the smells and sounds, the dusty, wonderful moments in Tanzania.

Serengeti vistas

Life is also reminding me of all the things I set to the side while training (and doing) this journey.

  • Work – Still in a record-breaking hiring season for the vertical I support, and getting back up to speed on projects we’d already set in motion.
  • Comedy – I was cast into the ensemble of Laugh out Loud Theater in Schaumburg in late July, and I’m ramping up in new cast member rehearsals and attending shows to acclimate to their process. RIFF, the music improv show I’ve been a part of, is also getting a run at the Annoyance Theater this fall/winter!
  • Personal – Between the ‘Panini,’ busy summers and me training/working out every day but Mondays, I haven’t seen many people in the last year and a half. Those 6-hour Sunday walks didn’t leave much time! So I’ve been doing a looooooot of catching up! I went out FIVE TIMES this week – pre-panorama me scoffs – but it’s a big step up from pre-trip me. I may have overdone it a little but it’s a such a good thing to be reconnecting with so many folks. Have I done trip laundry no I have not buzz off to the next bullet, y’all *pushes down laundry hamper, sits on it*
  • Fitness – Um, noooooope. And it feels weird. This was such a massive chunk of each day/week. I don’t know what my next fitness step is. Do I rejoin my gym regularly? Do I just see Brian weekly? Do I go back to at-home workouts? What’s the new goal; I’m not great at consistency in this realm without a little fear-of-something in me like my Krav instructor cert date or climbing Kili.
  • Things I’ve been wanting to do: Take Photo II at Chicago Photography Classes, a dance class at Old Town School of Music in my neighborhood, some domestic travel to see friends, some LinkedIn Learnings on new topics, attend weddings, etc.!

Thank you thank you thank you to all of you have reached out by text, Instagram (or blog) comment/DM, Facebook post, via-a-family-member or friend – I am very excited to start knitting this story/pictures together and I’ll have the first post by the end of this month or I will not touch a Diet Coke for all of November.

THOSE ARE HIGH STAKES. Here’s an absolutely unbridled, child-like joy selfie as a reward from Day 1 in the Ngorogoro Crater! Look at her face! I remember thinking ‘there’s so many of them’ in total wonder. And then we saw hundreds more over the next 4 days; zebra babies and zebra bellies and zebra(s) crossing the road at. their. own. pace.

The Departure Has Arrived

We’re here. The day has crept closer and closer and today she’s ready.

From announcing in my 2019 life review that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro in October 2020 (ah, EOY 2019, you calm before the storm) to fleshing out the reasons I was doing it (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) to getting the heart crushing news that it was delayed the day after I was told ‘it’s on!’ in January 2021 and dealing with the emotional fallout and re-training.

From the trip-specific gear gathering dust now safely tucked into my bags to the hometown mountain I was scared of but conquered in July, it has been a long season. And now…we do this.

In February I wrote:

It is 210 days until September 19th, 2021.

209 sunrises to go. 

209 beats of rest in whatever time signature this song is in. 

209 blank pages until book 3.”

Heart siren – it’s time to see the clouds beneath us and sing this song.

Capable, strong body – you’re ready, you’re prepared right, you can, you can you can.

Soul who told herself ‘no’ too often – you are more than enough, it’s time to ‘yes.’

Welcome to Book 3.

Radio Silence

“Wifi? Where we’re going we won’t need wifi.” – Doc Brown, 2021 (probably)

Since I’ll be AWOL on the internet for pretty much this whole trip I thought I’d give a rundown of where you could find me (why? for what reason? LET ME BE) on my Kilimanjaro sojourn and which day you can raise a glass to my likely summit! A lot of this was lifted from the Mountain Madness (my guide company) itinerary and is heckin’ useful.

Day 0 – Friday, 9/10

Depart home late afternoon and fly Chicago > Amsterdam (sadly, not leaving the airport; I’ll be back to explore another time, I promise), +7 hour on US Central and +9 on US Pacific Time.

Day 1 – Saturday, 9/11

Fly from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro (JRO) Airport, landing around 9pm. I’ll have a rapid COVID test and get my Tanzanian visa; a Mountain Madness rep will meet us and drive to their private compound. I’ll be +8/+10 hours ahead of CT/PT, respectively.

Day 2 – Sunday, 9/12

This is a bonus day – most people fly in/land this night – but it was $2100 cheaper to fly in a day early! So fingers crossed we do something fun local like visit a coffee farm, shop in Arusha or walk around a bit.

Day 3 – Monday, 9/13 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 6,500 ft / 1981 m

Trans¬≠fer to a pri¬≠vate camp in Arusha Nation¬≠al Park. Here, at about 6,500 feet / 1981 meters, we’ll begin to accli¬≠mate; Chicago is about 597 feet above sea level. With only our climb¬≠ing team (guides, porters, fellow climbers) here, we’ll ease into our adven¬≠ture, enjoy some game view¬≠ing, try to relax from trav¬≠eling, and pre¬≠pare for the climb.

Today our guide(s) will host a trip brief¬≠ing and review our equip¬≠ment. There may be time for a walk or game dri¬≠ve, which will be tak¬≠en out into the grass¬≠lands for views of African game and Mount Kil¬≠i¬≠man¬≠jaro, as giraffe, buf¬≠fa¬≠lo and ante¬≠lope usu¬≠al¬≠ly seen in the area.

Day 4 – Tuesday, 9/14 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 9,000 ft / 2743 m 

MON¬≠TANE FOR¬≠EST‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČLOMOSHO APPROACH – Hik¬≠ing Time: 3‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ6 hours (3.2 miles / 5.2 km)

After a short dri¬≠ve through the grass¬≠lands and scat¬≠tered Maa¬≠sai vil¬≠lages we’ll arrive at the for¬≠est edge of Kilimanjaro Nation¬≠al Park. From here we’ll walk a few hours through the undis¬≠turbed lush jun¬≠gle to our camp for the night. Our Tan¬≠zan¬≠ian guides will share their knowl¬≠edge of the local ecol¬≠o¬≠gy as we walk through the fan¬≠tas¬≠tic plants and trees, hear birds, and see oth¬≠er exot¬≠ic wildlife. Y’all know I’mma be asking tons of questions here. With luck we’ll be able to see Colobus mon¬≠keys and signs of ele¬≠phants on the walk to camp. If I see an elephant I will attempt to hold in an excited squeal. ATTEMPT. Upon arriv¬≠ing at camp, we’ll find our tents set up as well as hot tea and snacks wait¬≠ing for us in the din¬≠ing tent.

Day 5 – Wednesday, 9/15 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 11,400 ft / 3474 m

SHI¬≠RA PLATEAU‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČWEST SIDE – Hik¬≠ing Time: 6‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ8 hours (4.8 miles / 7.7 km)

Our Tan¬≠zan¬≠ian guides will greet us at our tents with tea and hot water to wash with before enjoy¬≠ing break¬≠fast as I try to rouse my carcass and tame my inevitable hair tangles. We’ll take our time walk¬≠ing through the for¬≠est, which enables us to accli¬≠ma¬≠tize com¬≠fort¬≠ably and spot the plen¬≠ti¬≠ful game and bird life while enjoy¬≠ing the views down canyon through breaks in the jun¬≠gle. Today‚Äôs hike will take us through the Mon¬≠tane For¬≠est and the Hage¬≠nia Zone. We will point out the unique envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal dif¬≠fer¬≠ences that char¬≠ac¬≠ter¬≠ize these sep¬≠a¬≠rate equa¬≠to¬≠r¬≠i¬≠al zones. Harlan Kredit would be proud (I think). I shall endeavor to ask as many kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species as possible and reward myself with a Jolly Rancher.

Day 6 – Thursday, 9/16 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 13,500 ft / 4115 m

MOIR CAMP – Hik¬≠ing Time: 3‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ6 hours (4 miles / 6.4 km)

It will take us rough¬≠ly three hours to hike across the Shi¬≠ra Plateau and then one hour up the west¬≠ern slope of the Kibo Mas¬≠sif. Our Camp will be in the upper Heath Zone. We pass the Fis¬≠ch¬≠er Camp, which has a plaque ded¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed to Scott Fis¬≠ch¬≠er, friend and founder of Moun¬≠tain Mad¬≠ness. In the 1980‚Äôs, Wes Krause and Scott Fis¬≠ch¬≠er pio¬≠neered the Shi¬≠ra Plateau route on Kil¬≠i¬≠man¬≠jaro, which we trav¬≠el. The views of the moun¬≠tain at sun¬≠set and sun¬≠rise are tru¬≠ly spectacular – I’m attempting to make the instructors at Chicago Photography Classes proud (or at least not embarrassed!).

Day 7 – Friday, 9/17 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 15,000 ft / 4572 m

LAVA TOW¬≠ER – Hik¬≠ing Time: 5‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ7 hours (3.6 miles / 5.8 km)

After break¬≠fast, we’ll slow¬≠ly hike to 14,850 feet / 4526 meters, just under the ‚Äč‚ÄúLava Tow¬≠er.‚ÄĚ This will be our first intro¬≠duc¬≠tion to the Alpine Zone where the only plant life is the hardi¬≠est of grass¬≠es and lichens. We will have a spec¬≠tac¬≠u¬≠lar view of the final route of ascent up the West¬≠ern Breach. There is an excit¬≠ing option¬≠al rock scram¬≠ble (non-tech¬≠ni¬≠cal) to the top of this unusu¬≠al lava tow¬≠er – its gotta be easier than the Roman Headwall, right? The views from the lava tow¬≠er sum¬≠mit of Mt. Kil¬≠i¬≠man¬≠jaro, Mt. Meru and the sur¬≠round¬≠ing val¬≠leys are quite impressive – fingers crossed I capture them in their glory.

Day 8 – Saturday, 9/18 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 16,000 ft / 4877 m

ARROW GLAC¬≠I¬≠ER – Hik¬≠ing Time: 2‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ3 hours (1 mile / 1.6 km)

The West¬≠ern Breach ascent route is now in full view. We spend a few hours climb¬≠ing to the base of the route and make camp near the Arrow Glac¬≠i¬≠er at 16,000 feet / 4877 meters. To fur¬≠ther our acclima¬≠ti¬≠za¬≠tion, we take an after¬≠noon hike up a spec¬≠tac¬≠u¬≠lar ridge fur¬≠ther up the route before relax¬≠ing in camp. This camp is famous for the absolute¬≠ly mag¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cent sun¬≠sets, which illu¬≠mi¬≠nate the African sky.

Day 9 – Sunday, 9/19 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 18,700 ft / 5700 m

SUM¬≠MIT CRATER CAMP – Hik¬≠ing Time: 7‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ10 hours (1.6 miles / 2.6 km)

A looooooong day but should make the next day easier. Today we climb up the West¬≠ern Breach for about sev¬≠en hours to the top of the crater rim. There will be time to explore the inner crater before mov¬≠ing to our high camp on the crater floor. It is com¬≠mon to find snow along this sec¬≠tion of the route. Our high camp will be next to a spec¬≠tac¬≠u¬≠lar glac¬≠i¬≠er and the sum¬≠mit mere¬≠ly a short hike away! The rest of the day will be spent drink¬≠ing lots of liq¬≠uids and enjoy¬≠ing anoth¬≠er fab¬≠u¬≠lous sun¬≠set dinner (plz yes).

Around 8-9pmish for you Central folks and about 6-7pm for the Pacific ones – this is when I should be summiting (the next morning for me) – raise a glass at your dinner (or from your couch) and I betcha I feel it.

Day 10 – Monday, 9/20 – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 19,341 ft / 5895 m

SUMMIT DAY, Y’ALL – Hik¬≠ing Time: 1‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ2 hours to summit

This is one of the big reasons I chose MM; I loved the idea of camping in the crater, close enough to touch the stars at 18,700 feet, and making the very hard summit day/night a little easier. After break¬≠fast, we’ll leave camp and hike to the top of the crater rim. From there it is just a ten-minute hike to Uhu¬≠ru Sum¬≠mit, the high¬≠est point in Africa at 19,341 feet / 5895 meters! We arrive at the sum¬≠mit and are reward¬≠ed with clear views before the mid-morn¬≠ing clouds roll in. We will bask in the glo¬≠ry of our accom¬≠plish¬≠ment, grab a bite to eat, enjoy the views and take lots of photographs. PLZ BATTERIES DO NOT FAIL ME NOW. I SURVIVED CHICAGO SNOWPOCALYPSE WITH AN iPHONE I GOT THIS.

Now we go down, down, down 9,000 feet and descend to Mwe¬≠ka Camp – Ele¬≠va¬≠tion: 10,500 ft / 3200 m

Hik¬≠ing Time: 8‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ10 hours to camp (6.8 miles / 11 km)

After sum¬≠mit cel¬≠e¬≠bra¬≠tions we will begin our descent past Bara¬≠fu Hut and down to our camp near Mwe¬≠ka Hut, where our porters will have pre¬≠pared a spe¬≠cial cel¬≠e¬≠bra¬≠to¬≠ry feast! We will have descend¬≠ed almost 9,000 feet / 2743 meters today and will feel intox¬≠i¬≠cat¬≠ed by the oxy¬≠gen rich air. AIR DRUNK AIR GUITAR, GO GO GO. Will sleep a deeeeep sleep.

Summit day is ~10-12 hours and that’s a ‘shorter’ one compared to other companies. Although Baker took 16 hours so honestly, bring it, Kili.

Day 11 – Tuesday, 9/21 – to 4500 feet / 1372m, then drive

Hik¬≠ing Time: 4‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ7 hours (5.2 miles / 8.4 km)

Hik¬≠ing time will vary depend¬≠ing on the trail con¬≠di¬≠tions while trav¬≠el¬≠ing through the lush veg¬≠e¬≠ta¬≠tion at this ele¬≠va¬≠tion. Rain can occur any time of year at this loca¬≠tion and can make the trail mud¬≠dy requir¬≠ing a slow¬≠er pace. Once we have descend¬≠ed the 4,500 feet / 1372 meters to the road head we will have our lunch and say good¬≠bye to our moun¬≠tain staff before head¬≠ing off to safari with our same guide team. We’ll night at Ikitoni Private Camp (where we started) before transferring to safari the next day.

Day 12 – Wednesday, 9/22

LAKE MAN¬≠YARA NATION¬≠AL PARK AND NGORON¬≠GORO PRI¬≠VATE CAMP

Safaaaari szn, bbs! We con¬≠tin¬≠ue on our jour¬≠ney with a vis¬≠it to Lake Man¬≠yara Nation¬≠al Park, a park Ernest Hem¬≠ming¬≠way described as ‚Äč‚Äúthe loveli¬≠est I had ever seen.‚ÄĚ Found amid the vari¬≠ety of ani¬≠mals is an abun¬≠dance of bird life, includ¬≠ing the pink flamin¬≠gos that enjoy the water-based micro¬≠cosm of the lake and its envi¬≠rons, all of which add to the eco¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal diver¬≠si¬≠ty of your safari. After our vis¬≠it we dri¬≠ve to the high¬≠lands of Ngoron¬≠goro Crater Con¬≠ser¬≠va¬≠tion Area. We stay for two nights at MM’s deluxe pri¬≠vate camp at Ngoron¬≠goro, near Ol√© Dorop‚Äôs, our Maa¬≠sai friend and walk¬≠ing safari guide.

Days 13-16 – Thursday, 9/23 – Sunday, 9/26

Continue exploring Ngorongoro and Serengeti, seeing animals, visiting villages and taking all the photos my heart can stand! Return to Arusha for our final night.

Day 17 – Monday, 9/27

Another ‘bonus’ day that saved me another $2100 on the flight – shop, connect, savor – and fly out at 9pm from JRO > Amsterdam.

Day 18 – Tuesday, 9/28

Fly Amsterdam to Minneapolis (there were no directs to Chicago, so odd); then MSP to Chicago, landing around 3pm local time. Customs, bags, Lyft, home. Greet my plants, eat whatever dry goods I’ve squirreled away in the cupboards and likely crash/sleep because my body will still be +8, soul stuck in Tanzania time.

So that’s the plan…

10,781

We’d all slept like trash. Every muffled squeak as someone rolled over on a sleeping pad. Every critter wandering in the dark, snuffling for snacks. A soft throat clearing. I doubt I slept 10 minutes between 9pm and my 2:00am alarm. It was a relief when someone else’s alarm when off at 1:45; the whole camp had been holding our collective breath, awake, waiting. 12 sleeping bags unzipped at once and the muted glow of headlamps made each tent a brightly-colored lantern in the moonlight.

I was glad I’d set out everything I’d needed the night before – the layers to wear, the gear already 95% packed, the snacks tucked away in side pockets, the water pre-purified – my eyes felt gritty, like college all nighters or red-eye flights. B and I didn’t really speak; we didn’t need to. I got up and grabbed hot water for oatmeal; shoving some bites in my mouth quickly before my nauseous brain caught up to my stomach’s signal of ‘hey, I’m not really in the mood right now.’ Double-knotting my rented boots and triple-checking my (and B’s) gear I ran and re ran through my mental lists.

Just before 3:30am, we set off up the narrow, protruding spine beside Easton Glacier, summit-bound on Mt. Baker. It was hushed other than the crackling groans of the glacier to our right, but we were in high spirits. The only light was a constellation of headlamps before and behind me, and the massive, round moon on our left. We walked on the dusty ridge, mostly in silence except to murmur a word of caution to another hiker about a thorny spot. The group broke off into two chunks, with B and I linking up with the ‘fast guys’ group and one of our guides, Peter. We pulled ahead and began sinking our feet into snow, duck-walking the way we’d been taught the day before at ‘Snow Camp.’

The sky softened to a salt lamp pink – the moon still holding court – but not for much longer. We reached our ‘snow from here on out’ point and sat to snack and put on our crampons, helmets, harnesses and roped up, each holding an ice axe. As the groups converged and the guides divvyed us up, we laid out our intentions for the day and pace plans.

We’re put in a group with Kush, our rope guide. He’s followed by B, myself, and a couple from Seattle behind me. A pack of 5 all ‘summit or bust,’ with all of us (sans Kush) on our first technical climb. We shuffle out, slowly figuring out the rhythm of having people before and behind and keeping the rope slack (but not too slack). ‘A smile,’ they say – not dragging – and not pulling on teammates. One hand clutches my trekking pole, the other wraps around the blade of my ice axe. They are decidedly not the same height, giving me a lurching gait up the mountain.

Don’t step on the rope don’t step on the rope shoot I stepped on the rope maybe I can get off the rope before B notices okay got away with it this time don’t step on the rope don’t step, step – step – step – step – okay I’m doing it okay this isn’t so bad aw man I stepped on the rope again good lord we have so far to go, don’t look just focus here HERE here brick by brick, bite by bite, step by step you’ll lead me and I’ll follow you all of my daaaays what is that song? Oh right, walk with your toes out, Alex said it saves your calves, and I’ll need them more, my butt is tougher, I have a very tough butt. All those stupid box step ups thank God Brian still never made me do box jumps what was the french word for the way we’re walking again? Oh plie – right – like ballet – I should sign up for a class at Old Town when I’m done with Kili –

This was it. The whole way. Welcome to my brain.

We took breaks ~every 35-50 minutes on the way up. Sinking my butt into the cold snow was such a relief, even if it was damp as I stood up. Steam was probably coming off me; I shed layers and unzipped as we walked but after 2 minutes on a break would start to shiver as the sweat (and snow) rapidly cooled me down. Snacking on gummies, goos and Sour Patch Kids, the sun peeked over the skyline and poured down the ice towards us. I looked over my shoulder and gasped at how far we’d come. I looked up, wondering when we’d see the infamous Roman Headwall. I’m wildly grateful that at no point in the first 6 hours did someone say how far we were from the top.

Gradually, one climber peeled off with a guide, headed back downhill. The groups shuffled, and our pack had to pick up the pace. I began to chatter at B – for her and for me – to just give my mind something to do as my body got whiny, got tired, got very over just keep swimming-ing along. Songs from our childhood (Pocahontas was a favorite), did she think Mandy Moore moved faster than us (she’d climbed Mt. Baker literally the week before), and on and on, stepping over small crevasses slashing the snowfields and further up, further in.

We stopped to lunch just below the headwall around 10:30am. I hadn’t googled it – the only thing I knew was a brief blog/writing on Mountain Madness’ website, written by a previous climber. I thought it was like a 100-150 ft. difficult bit. Over in 10-20 mins max.

Reader, that was not accurate.

First – Kush cautioned us that this was not a place we could stop and pause to catch our breath. There would be no butt-sitting, Sour-Patching, reflective moments; anything more than a one breath pause would be dangerous to someone else on our rope line, vulnerable to the rapidly warming (and melting) snow.

Second – Did we want to continue? We were the last summit-bound rope team of the morning – from our company and any others. Groups were coming down as we were sitting at the bottom of the headwall, making our decision. We needed to speed up if we wanted to summit – and speeding up through the hardest part – where we couldn’t pause/take a break.

As we ate, looking at each other, I thought about the summit. I’d always thought it would be such a big deal. Just that week I’d written a post here about how summiting really mattered to me. That I was a prideful little dragon who wanted to roar from the top. I can’t believe the same person is telling you this now but – at this moment sitting at the base of the headwall – butt damp, 7+ hours into this exhausting climb, still 2+ hours from the top and considering if we should continue…I did not care.

I felt wildly proud of how far we had come. This was the view:

All those halting, sliding, crampon-footed steps. I was tired. I was still ok to keep going but I was worried about being 2+ hours still from the top. I knew the snow was softening. I was nervous about the crevasses we’d stepped over on the way up being stealthier, cracking open further in the sun as each second ticked by. I say nervous – but afraid is more like it – these abominable snowman caves were scary and only getting scarier.

I thought about the night before, laying in the darkness next to B. The sun had just set and a soft haze helped us just make out our features as we faced each other, curled up in our sleeping bags like parentheses.

“I’m scared,” I whispered. A tear ran down my face as I admitted it to her, and to myself.

I was scared that if I couldn’t summit Baker, that I couldn’t summit Kili. That something in my body or spirit was too weak, too chickenshit, that despite over a year and a half of training that Brian and I hadn’t found my secret Achilles Heel, some secret streak of physical or mental cowardice, and it would somehow shamefully rear it’s head on the side of the mountain. Someone had been airlifted off Baker just the weekend before, barely misstepping, slipping and injuring their ankle so bad they couldn’t walk.

“Me too,” whispered B. We sat in that uncomfortable silence. There was nothing left to add. There was no changing the path. Several times following in that sleepless night I went through this mental cycle where my body tried to produce an excuse. “Am I sick?” I’d thought countless times. “No, you’re not. You’re just freaking out. Try to sleep,” the angel on the other shoulder whispered back. I felt panicky, checking my heart rate on my watch, but it was relatively normal.

Repeat.

Repeat.

I sat just below the headwall, looking at that view. All that boastful, puffed-chest pride just seemed like cotton candy now. I’d thought the idea of summitting was such a big deal; it certainly looked huge as it twirled up in my mind before the trip. Every whisk around building another layer of spun sugar, another layer of why it mattered to summit. The summit matters, the summit matters, the summit matters. Sitting there, though, it was like that cotton candy in a rainstorm. Just a sad, sodden little lump of sugar – it never mattered. Or it mattered so much less than what we’d already accomplished. We’d come so far. If we had chosen that moment to not summit, I wouldn’t have been mad.

I know that sounds so incongruous with that previous post. And it was. It didn’t line up with what I thought I would feel. I think I would have come back. Attacked Baker again. Felt challenged to strap crampons back on and take on Koma Kulshan. I was truly at peace with the effort we had done. 7 hours of pushing, clawing, sweating. We all took a few minutes to sit with that idea in our souls. That we had come far enough. That we had nothing to feel ashamed about.

Kush checked in with each of us.

I tried to catch B’s eye – to tell her I was at peace with us stopping here. I didn’t want her to feel like my cotton candy pride was influencing her decision for her safety, for our group’s safety. She was facing away, looking west; gazing over the ‘horns’ of Lincoln & Colfax Peaks towards Whatcom County, having her own moment with her soul.

“Yes,” she said. We made eye contact. I asked her again if she was sure.

She was. I was. We were.

We went.

I don’t know why it’s called a headwall. I googled it when I got back and didn’t feel like I got a clear answer. Something like ‘the final push before a summit,’ which I guess is accurate. In my head I’d thought it would be an icy stone-ish scramble; maybe we’d have to use our hands.

It was a single track slushy snow ledge, winding around crevasses I genuinely was too frightened to look into. I felt like the crevasse would notice me, like the Eye of Sauron, and I didn’t want their attention. Focusing my mental and physical energy to being present, aware of the rope, each step a precision placement as we inched alone, ice axe then trekking pole, ice axe then trekking pole, never stopping for more than a deep breath.

The top of the headwall was ‘messy,’ per Kush. Not wrong, and yet woefully light on details. It was like the devil’s gravel playground; every rocky step you thought would be solid was mush gravel and those you thought would be mush gravel were strangely firm as your crampons screamed, scraping over glacier-fed rivulets and streams of dirty water. All I could think was “1, get through this, 2, stay present, 3, if this is bad now what will it be like on the way down as we’re shaky in an hour or two?” Walking out of the headwall we let out a relieved ‘whoop’ to be back on our faithful pal, ole’ snow. We trekked across a pretty flat 30-minute stretch, the false summit, towards a little ‘dirt mound’ that is Grant’s Peak, the true summit of Mt. Baker.

The wind whipped at us – with nothing to block it at the top of the world – and our sweat cooled as we pulled on whatever layers were left. Dropping our packs and unroping, B and I leaned uphill, arm in arm up the dirt track at the end. A small box was at the top. I never looked inside; it made me think of geocaching and felt sacred. We looked around in wonder, grabbing a few pictures and marveling at the views of Rainier, Shuksan, Glacier and countless other Cascade peaks jutting into the horizon. B waved at Baker Laker, where a co-worked was camping this weekend. After a round of photos, we looked at each other and said ‘let’s go.’

Everyone has asked me “How long were you up at the summit?” and literally everyone is so disappointed when I say “10 minutes.” “Only 10 minutes?! Why?!” Because we’d seen what we needed to see – the summit! We felt accomplished, we got our photos, we ate some snacks, we were very tired and knew it was 5-6 hours down; including the increasingly treacherous crevasses, the rapidly softening headwall, and fighting our own mental exhaustion. At this point we also thought we were the last rope team heading down on the mountain; potentially risky/dangerous if anyone needed assistance or fell. B peed behind a hump of snow, we latched up our pack wait belts, roped back up and took one last glance at our accomplishment, beginning the descent.

As we marched back through the false summit snowfield, we crossed another team – relieved we were no longer the last ones on the mountain and someone was coming behind us – we murmured verbal encouragements as others had given us and trekked on. The gravelly top of the headwall was as treacherous as we’d thought it would be; two team members slipped slightly, soaking their boots/butts in the frigid, murky water. I fleetingly thought about how grateful I was for all those stupid core stabilizing moves Brian had made me do, each hip extension, PT stretch and superman back flexion alone at 11pm on my belly in mid-2020, afraid of our own groceries.

There was no time for other thoughts, though. Every step had to be perfect. All I wanted to do was disassociate and take my mind away – to Kili, to invent dumb songs because I missed RIFF, to thinking about the raspberry pie I was promised – but I couldn’t. I thought about that idea from “The Good Place,” the one about ‘what we owe to each other’ and I felt I owed my teammates my mental focus. Each of us protected each other by carefully placing each wide, cowboy-stanced, cramponed foot down with intention. We gave each other the gift of razor-sharp focus as we descended down, down, down, Kush in the back quarterbacking our route from above.

‘Go faster,’ he called – and I accidentally glanced at and quickly away from a crevasse – hoping it hadn’t noticed my gaze. We picked up the pace, heel-plunging down as the sun beat on us. It felt like walking in an exceedingly bright orange Slushy; our poles and ice axes catching us every 4-5 steps as a seemingly-firm step made our feet slide forward. It was only when I got back and looked at photos that I realized the orange/brown haze of the snow I’d been seeing all day (assuming it was dirty) was my glacier sunglasses filtering the glare. My photos looked a lot better than I thought; everything I saw looked like a toasted meringue on top of a pie but the photos were just high-exposure white on white.

We finally reached the bottom of the headwall and paused at our former lunch spot. There was a ‘dicey’ spot just below us; I remembered feeling like ‘whew that’s risky’ on the way up and thinking at the time ‘that’s gonna suck on the way down.’ And it did. It kept sucking. I remembered stepping over 4-5 cracks on the way up and about 3 truly spooky spots.

Well, the spooky spots had been fruitful and multiplied in our absence. The sun did her job (and us no favors) and we slid and slushed all down that mountain. For 6 hours we went down and down and down. Multiple times I thought (and said) ‘we cannot have come up this way. Nothing here is familiar.’ The artist formerly known as ‘strong butt and thigh game’ had the shakes and loudly let me know anytime we paused for more than 3 seconds. We were quiet as we descended, all alone with our thoughts, narrowing to ‘just this step’ and resetting each time. At one point, everyone but AJ (our anchor) and Kush had fallen multiple times in one minute. “You all are probably setting some kind of record for falls,” Kush deadpanned from the back. I didn’t have enough energy to laugh as my foot slipped again.

It was hot. We’d all stripped back down to sun shirts, stowing our fleece and jackets in our bags. B and I were very low on water; we’d brought 5 liters between us and it wasn’t enough. Our team shared; but I knew I was dehydrated. Enough punishing walks roaming around Chicago and I knew my signals. I hadn’t peed since we left camp, over 12 hours before, nor did I need to pee.

‘Just this snowfield, that has to be the last one’ I told myself, dismayed at each new snowfield we saw. ‘Pick up the pace,’ Kush called again to AJ, and the long-legged dude obediently ratched up the speed of descent, making us all groan. At one point I remember chastising myself and saying ‘listen you either walk off this mountain with your own two legs or get helicoptered, get it together, we’re not falling here, this close to Kili.’ I slipped again. It felt unending.

The snow eventually gave way to snow and rocks, and wet, dark gaps between stone and ‘berms’ that we were cautioned to avoid. We looped around an outcropping I felt looked like “The Martian” and I finally recognized where we’d initially sat to put on our crampons in the pre-dawn light with Peter. ‘Only a little further’ said Kush and I recognized the same tone that aerobic instructors use as they promise ‘just 15 more seconds’ and give you another 20 burpees. My feet felt bruised and soaked as snow had snuck in on our mushy descent; what had felt like cooling relief now felt like probably blisters and audibly squished as we pulled off our crampons. I finally needed to pee but didn’t trust my body to squat; I also didn’t think I had the energy to de-rope, walk off trail, take off my harness and come back without just saying ‘leave me here’ and likely meaning it.

We reached ‘high camp,’ about 20 minutes from our campsite at ‘low camp,’ and de-cramponed. It felt a bit like stepping off a treadmill as my gait re-adjusted to normal booted life. AJ and Amber scooted ahead, and B and I walked slowly like two female Frankensteins back onto the spine of the Easton Glacier ridge.

I remember thinking ‘don’t fall now; you’re probably not going to get back up.’ Kush slowly walked with us as we silently made our way into camp. It was just past 7pm. Someone snored happily in one of the tents. B and I slumped into our tent; beyond spent. I put on fresh layers and slipped into my camp shoes (Crocs!) and went to go have a very-delayed pee break; genuinely too scared to look at the dangerously dehydrated color after 16 hours.

I grabbed some stuffing and mashed potato dinner with shaky hands, weakly smiling at another hiker who was back and happily chattered away about their team’s experience. I nodded politely and walked off to refill and repurify 2 liters of water for B and I. Sitting on a small boulder next to the brook, circling my Steripen around and around the rim of my Nalgene bottle, I looked at the alpine meadow, towards the setting sun, and briefly felt my tired little dragon give a tiny wing flap. Like when your dog is tired or sleepy, laying on the ground and you call their name and they give a single tail wag, a soft ‘wap’ onto the floor. They’re tired but they acknowledge you – that was it. A brief ‘thank you’ to my mind and body for the focus. For the grit. For not giving up. I was too beat for any other reflection.

The following afternoon, I waited in my bathrobe for B to get done with the shower and I looked out at Baker from the window at my parent’s house. Bathed in pink and lavender as the sun set, I couldn’t reconcile this view with these legs with that experience the day before.

“I climbed that. These legs did that.” I kept whispering to my soul. I believed it (and my legs wouldn’t let me forget) but it seemed almost dream-like. Even though it had been less than 24 hours ago. A whole mountain. From the 4 hour hike in, the 16-hour summit ascent and descent day, the 2.5 hour hike out that next morning – I remembered all of it and fleeting pieces of it at the same time – the memories firming up like setting cement in my mind.

I woke up the next morning and padded out onto the deck, warming my palms with a mug of coffee, gazing at the sunrise coming up over the crest of the peak.

I spoke out loud to myself, hushed. “I did that. I did that with these legs, and this body, and that whole mountain.” I kept repeating it because I almost didn’t believe it. 10,781 feet. Of grit. Of fear. Of focus. Of exhaustion. Of Sour Patch Kids. Of hours of workouts during a pandemic where I was alone, sobbing in my apartment. Of Zoom calls and masks and virtual happy hours. Of disappointing trip cancellations and build-up of pride and the humility of shakily clinging to the side of a crater, 7 hours in. Of wonder, and joy and raw beauty out in the wild. This world isn’t tame.

My heart siren burbled a question and I shook my head. “Not yet. Let’s just enjoy this one for a bit.”