For years I had worked in the school system, and therefore, had the fortune of having at least ten weeks off every summer. While I lived in New York City, I spent those summers exploring the city and finding adventure in that. When I moved to the surrounding suburbs, however, it did not take long before I found myself restlessly wondering if I wasn’t wasting this opportunity I had. I had the time to do something purposeful with my life, but felt as if I was just sitting around, letting time pass. After weighing various options, I decided to spend the next summer volunteering in Tanzania. As part of the program that I joined, the volunteers would spend a week on safari in the Serengeti, Lake Manyara, and N’gorogoro Crater. On top of it all, during the drive the northern safari region, we would pass Mt. Kilimanjaro. I would get to see the legendary snows of Kilimanjaro and put another check on my life to-do list. At that point, I had no thought of ever hiking the mountain. I loved to hike, camp, and explore, but I was not a mountain climber and, therefore, the idea of hiking the mountain that I would be in the shadows of never crossed my mind. It was not until I was in the country and began talking with the other volunteers that I learned that Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and, therefore, does not require climbing skills. Sometime after returning to the States, I would find myself scolded for even referring to it as a climb. “You did not climb Kilimanjaro”, I was told by an irritated climbing guide, “it is not a technical route, so it’s not a climb, just a very long hike”. There was one volunteer who was going to hike it later that summer, another who had hiked it on a previous trip. I was in awe. If only I had known. But there was no way to fit it into my trip at that point. So I settled on seeing it. Just to see the mountain and the snow on its summit would be a dream come true.
The weeks of volunteering passed and the day to head north on the bus finally arrived. I had been told, quite emphatically, that, given the time of year, it was highly unlikely that the summit, or any of the mountain for that matter, would be visible through the clouds. I was so close, though. I could not be so close to this opportunity of a lifetime and not at least try to see it if there was even the slightest chance. So, while the rest of the passengers slept or read or daydreamed, I kept my eyes fixed on the horizon outside the window. Miles drifted by, minutes turned to hours. No sign of a mountain. As my eyelids were growing heavy, I found myself thinking that one cloud in the sky was especially white compared to the others. Like a bolt of lightning it struck me, that was not a cloud; it was snow! I yelled nearly loud enough to wake the entire bus and sent my friend sitting next to me jumping up in alarm as I almost climbed over her to get closer to the window. Just like that, the clouds, for the first time in hours, drifted apart. In the space they left, stood the majestic and awe-inspiring Mt. Kilimanjaro with its beautiful, white, snow-capped summit. Up until that moment, I believed that just seeing it would be enough for me. Just seeing it would fulfill my desire and it could be checked off my list. Instead, in that moment, a new desire came over me. I wanted to hike it. I knew I would not be satisfied until I was standing on the mountain and making my way towards the summit. Someday, I thought to myself. I would have to come back someday. My flight home was already booked for the day after safari, I had obligations back home, I did not have a guide set up, and on and on went the list of reasons as to why I could not possibly hike this time.
A few minutes after passing the mountain, the bus gently pulled over to the side of the road to let on a single passenger. As he climbed onto the bus, I remember having a feeling about this person. It was as if I had known him before or that he was going to play a role in my life in some way. The feeling was fleeting, though, and as the bus started to pull back onto the road, I was already back to daydreaming about standing in the snow on the summit of a mountain. After hours of driving, we finally pulled into a dusty bus station. As we filed off the bus and gathered around our safari guide, I was surprised to see the stranger who had gotten onto the bus join our group. He was introduced as a volunteer from another site who was going to be on safari with us and then staying on to hike Kilimanjaro. My jaw dropped. I was so envious of him and I thought, maybe, there was a way I could stay and hike, as well. The idea of staying was exciting, but was immediately followed by all the reasons I had as to why that would be impossible. Even so, the idea now never left my mind. Each day, as our safari truck jostled its way through the wide open plains of the savannah, my thoughts knocked down reason after reason for why I could not stay. I realized that so many of the reasons I thought were real, were actually excuses made up in my mind and were not real at all. I did have a flight booked already, but flights could be changed. I did have obligations, such as work, but that did not start for another four weeks after I returned. It did cost a fair bit of money for a guide, but what had I been saving for all that time? One by one, the excuses, the walls that prevented me from reaching this dream, were knocked down, until there was only one remaining, which I could not find my way around. I did not have a guide. Being on safari, I was out of reach of any telephone to start searching for a guide and by the time we would return to the town on the last day it would be evening and we would be getting back on the bus to return to Dar es Salaam early the next morning. There was simply no time to make it happen. So close. But it would have to remain what it was, a dream. I began to wonder, though, how often in life do we decide something is impossible, before truly determining if it is a possibility? How often do we build walls of excuses telling ourselves we can’t, instead of taking the chance to follow a dream? As it turned out, at dinner that night, even the last wall crumbled. The stranger on the bus had since become a friend and in the middle me explaining why I still could not stay, he turned and said “why don’t you just join my group?” As simple as that, the impossible became possible and I was staying in Tanzania to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The road to actually getting onto the mountain turned out to be as full as ups and downs as the mountain itself, but it was the start of the most spontaneous adventure of my life. The next morning, I simply did not get on the bus. I was committed. There was no way to get back to the airport in time to catch my flight. The guide company was happy to have another hiker and when the guide himself walked in to the room, with his fedora and wide smile, I knew everything was right. But then, when the airlines told me I could not get a return ticket for at least two months from that day, I questioned my gut and was terrified that I had made a tremendous mistake. Do I purchase a ticket for the first bus out in the morning and hope that I all the stars aligned and I make it to the airport in time? Do I stay and risk being stranded in Tanzania without a plan? I was devastated that I had come so close to this amazing opportunity and there was still a chance of it slipping away. That evening during a long conversation with a friend that lasted well into the night, I decided to take the chance, follow my dreams, and see what happened.
And what happened was, somewhere in the middle of the week-long journey to the summit of that beautiful mountain, I found myself thinking, for the first time in years, that I was truly happy and that I was exactly where I wanted to be in that moment. I knew, without a doubt in my heart, that there was nowhere else I wanted to be. The mountain and the chance meeting with that stranger on the bus changed the trajectory of my life. I was hooked. Mountains became my obsession, which expanded into rock climbing, ice climbing, trekking, travelling, and, eventually, moving halfway around the world. It took me from my boring, mundane, unfulfilled life and led me to a life I love. When I got back down from the mountain, I was amazed to find that was able to catch a flight the very next day. It all worked out perfectly, as if it had been planned that way all along. The adventure taught me that things will go as they are meant to go if you look past the walls of your own creation. The universe will shift. You just have to be willing to open your mind and your heart to the opportunities that surround you.