By JOSH BARKAN.
THERE WAS NOTHING pretty about Imlil. The town had the feeling of a place that had just struck gold and was growing too fast. Tourism was the gold. Locals from Marrakech came for the weekend, to be near the national park of Toubkal, and foreign tourists from Europe were discovering, more and more, just how amazing these mountains were. They all needed a place to start from, and Imlil was the town, perched on the edge of the mountains, where they could funnel through. Most did only a two-day trek up and back to Toubkal. Few did the eight-day trek I wanted. Like any gold rush town, the prices for things were ridiculous. I looked at the cheaper rooms listed in my guidebook, and they were spare concrete blocks with beds that looked filthy from the hundred previous backpackers. After seeing three of these, I saw a much nicer hotel at the top of the town. I entered to see the price. They wanted 550 dirhams for a single—way out of my budget. The hotel had the feeling of a nice lodge, with flagstones and a high wood ceiling and large couches, which, though faded, gave some sense of luxury compared to the mud road just outside.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning, and there was almost no one around. I turned to go, and the owner spotted me. He asked where I was going. I told him his hotel looked very nice but it was far more expensive than I could afford. He asked how much I could pay. I said 250 dirhams. It wasn’t just the price I couldn’t pay; I needed to hold on to my cash. There was no bank in Imlil, either. I’d have to pay for everything by cash, and I didn’t even know yet how much it would cost to set up my trek. He said okay to the 250 dirhams—about thirty dollars—so I stayed, gratefully. He wore a long flowing shirt down to his feet. The heater in the room had burned, and the bedspread was fairly worn out—even though the hotel was new—but it was a perfect place to leave my pack, and as the owner showed me where I’d sleep, we talked about where I wanted to trek. He could set up a guide for me, he said. The guidebook mentioned a place where official guides could be hired. I was somewhat reluctant to arrange my trip from this person at the hotel, knowing nothing about him. He started to list off how much it would cost for the trip: for a mule, a mule driver, an official guide, the food and amenities. He was proposing a trip with two others to lead me. That was far more than I needed. I didn’t need an official guide to pamper me, along with a cook. I just needed someone who knew the mountains well, who could take me on the circuit I wanted. He said he understood. He knew someone who was usually just a cook and who took care of the mule. He could act as a simple guide. This way there’d be only one person with me trekking. “Can he understand any French?” I asked. Otherwise, I tried to imagine eight days trying to communicate with someone who only spoke Berber.
“Yes, of course. He can speak a little French. Not too much, but he can understand.” He’d started by proposing a trip for eight days at 5600 dirhams; now we were down to 4500. This was still more than I had with me, I was pretty sure. I needed not only to be able to do the trek but to go for a couple more days down the road after the hike, with only the cash I had. The trek was costing more than I’d expected. I bargained more. He asked if I could eat just the most basic food—sardines in cans and simple noodles. I told him, of course. We bargained down to 3800 dirhams, 475 dollars. I told him I’d have to check my funds to be sure I had enough. I went to the hotel room and pulled out all my hidden cash. If I spent the 3800 dirhams, I’d have only 600 dirhams for the hotel when I came out, for all the transport for two more days and for another couple of nights in a place I wanted to find down the road, where Luciana had stayed during her six-month trip just before she’d met Muhammad. I was in a different part of the High Atlas Mountains than she’d been, but near where she’d ended up spending fifteen days in the mountains, mostly by accident, when a shared taxi she was riding blew out the radiator, and where she’d found a small inn to stay. It was her photos, from that time in the High Atlas, which inspired me to want to come to this part of Morocco. Her photos of the area had been incredible—high mountains plunging into valleys and bright green walnut trees against the stark rocks and dirt wherever there was irrigation. Her photos had looked like she’d traveled to another planet, far away, exotic, beautiful and rough, and I wanted to see the beauty she’d found and had fallen in love with before she fell in love with Muhammad, too. The two were intertwined, I realized. When she’d first met me in the United States, and we’d fallen in love in the mountains of Colorado, she was working as an au pair for a woman in Denver—a French woman who’d fallen in love with an American—and the French woman used to say she’d fallen in love with her husband because she fell in love with the Colorado landscape. The marriage of the French woman had been rocky for years. Luciana and I used to joke about whether she’d fallen in love with me or the landscape. At the time, we meant it as a joke. Later, it seemed all too true. I understood the incredible feeling Luciana had in Morocco, just before she’d met Muhammad, was all part of his allure. If Morocco was beautiful, and he was from Morocco, he was part of the whole beauty and enticement of the country. I wanted to understand her state of mind when she’d met him. I wanted to go where she’d gone just before she met him. That meant coming to the High Atlas.
The next morning my guide, Abdullah, showed up with his mule. He began to pack the food and tent and other necessities for the trek. As the last of the belongings were put on the mule, he asked for my backpack. He pointed to my pack and said, “You have a sleeping bag, no?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t wanted to take anything more than necessary on the trip, since I was heading out for two months. A hot sleeping bag in Marrakech and on the beach made no sense, so I hadn’t taken my bag. I didn’t have it in Mexico, either. It was back in the States. Abdullah was upset. He gave me a look like I must be an idiot. I’d honestly thought the trek was an all-inclusive deal, with all equipment needed, but it was true we’d never nailed down the details. Normally, I’d have been much more careful with these kinds of specifics, especially since I’d been a guide once. But I was taking things more relaxed in Morocco, since the culture required more flexibility. If you barged in with American-style pickiness, you’d make enemies fast. Abdullah asked the son of the owner of the hotel for his sleeping bag. He looked upset at me, too. It wasn’t clear if we could leave. I told Abdullah I had a silk liner bag with me I could use to keep warm. He just laughed. We were going to be headed up to 14,000 feet and sleeping above ten thousand most nights. A warm bag was going to be absolutely essential. After a tug of war, I finally got a bag, and we began the first day of trekking.
ABDULLAH DIDN’T TALK much. He was tall, and he wore an orange cloth wrapped around his head in the shape of a donut as a turban. He was usually ahead of me for a variety of reasons: he knew the way, and I didn’t; he hiked these mountains constantly, so he was in much better shape than I was, even though he liked to eat a lot and he had a small paunch; he controlled the mule, and the mule didn’t like to stop or start once it got going it just wanted to keep trudging. I wanted to see the scenery, even as I challenged myself physically, so I preferred to go at my own pace if necessary. But more than anything, Abdullah had the psychology of a mountain shepherd. He liked to think in the mountains, walking alone, with his hands behind his back, clucking at the mule to keep going, and sometimes pushing the ass of the mule hard to get the stubborn animal to go forward. Since I had a lot to think about, too, on this trip, trying to figure out why I was making the voyage, what my thoughts were about Luciana, and trying to absorb all the new sights and experiences of the mountains, this relative solitude suited me fine, too. But even as we often walked apart, I felt I was walking with Abdullah. We were making the trek together. And when I was with him, I’d often ask him questions about his family, about his religious beliefs, about the villagers in the small high-mountain towns we were meeting, about the mountains surrounding me. He spoke in fairly pidgin French, but we managed to communicate just fine. He had a few stock phrases he liked to say. If we’d just climbed up a particularly hellacious steep path for a few hours, he’d stretch his arms wide, as if he could give a big bear hug to the mountain landscape and passes surrounding us, and say, “Ça fait du bien . . .”—it does one good.
The trek was grueling and inspirational at the same time. Very few plants could withstand the drought and merciless sun. To the south of the mountains is the Sahara desert. The High Atlas jut out of North Africa like high castle walls keeping out the desert from the North. The mountains are massive, running thirteen hundred miles, punching into the sky. Everywhere, there’s an open view of where you’ve come from and where you’re going. There are almost no trees, and when you find a tree it’s a twisted juniper. The barren openness makes for great views, but it reminds you of just how far you’ve come and of just how much more you have to go. The peaks rise thousands of feet up sharply, much more sharply than the Colorado Rockies, with valleys twice as deep as the Rockies, and at times there are more switchbacks looming ahead and above you along the path you will have to trudge than you would ever want to count. On the third day of the trek, I saw the peak of Jebel Toubkal in the distance, far above us, even though we’d just climbed up an excruciating pass and it felt like we were already high up next to snow. “It’s far,” Abdullah said matter-of-factly, a little impatient with me for taking twenty minutes more than him to get to the pass, though we’d barely stopped, pacing steadily and with determination to the pass. He showed me the route we still had to go to the peak, dropping seven thousand feet down later that day, then to another valley across the one we were looking at, where we would slog up eight thousand feet, then back behind that pass to the base camp of Toubkal, before I would go up the peak. Toubkal lay a bit hidden behind the dust in the air that blew across these rocky mountains, a jewel that looked simultaneously attainable and proudly declaring its independence.
There was almost no one on the paths where we hiked during the day. Sometimes, we’d see a couple of hundred goats and then a goat shepherd. The shepherds ran like animals, too. They moved quickly jumping up and down rocks, while shouting at their animals to stay together and to move forward, higher, to where they might find some scraggly nettle bushes that had yet to be fully chewed. They took their animals to high pastures, which grew in oases only near mountain streams fed by melting snow water. The shepherds were often almost impossible to see, other than their rapid movement, because they blended into the stone. One shepherd I met came up to me fast, pausing only to show off his slingshot, which he whipped around like David fighting Goliath. He picked up stones and hurled them at his animals. If he wanted, he could hit them, but he chose not to. He just ran with the herd, rounding up the babies, pushing forward the stragglers. Life was hard for the peasants in these mountains. They lived in huts made of stones and mud. The ceilings were low and the houses full of smoke from the fires that burned to keep them warm and to cook their fairly meager food. They grew vegetables on rocky terraces that they’d managed over hundreds of years to miraculously carve out of the mountains and to irrigate. They had to fix the stone walls of their small terraced plots. They cut hay by hand with scythes and then the women piled the grass in big bundles on their backs and carried the precious grass back to their animals. I saw one young woman, dressed in beautifully embroidered clothes, carrying grass as it began to rain, and I was tempted to take a photo of her, but she shot me a look that said there was nothing romantic about this work, at all, no matter how beautiful it looked to me. It’s not that these people looked miserable, although she did. I was struck over and over by the songs these women sang to each other almost constantly. They were in tune with their animals and with the other families that worked these terraces, and they sang beautifully. But this was backbreaking labor, and while I was awed by getting a chance to see how these farmers had lived for hundreds and hundreds of years—mostly still the same as they had used to, although tourists were starting to alter their way of life, bringing in pens, money, and especially garbage—it was good for me to see just how hard they worked and lived because it reminded me the trials and tribulations, the divorce I’d gone through, the pain I felt from it, was certainly no more than any of the pain these people went through. We all struggle. We all go through hardship. And if they could carry their load, then certainly I could be tough enough to go see Muhammad and put an end to the inner pain I’d felt through the divorce. There’s a saying in Spain, “The suffering of others is the consolation of fools,” and generally I believed that. If someone else suffers, that doesn’t make our own load any lighter. And yet, seeing these people working in the harshest of conditions with their animals made me feel the opposite.
THE FOURTH DAY of the trek, after hiking up the steep pass that gave the distant view of Jebel Toukbal, then going down and down seven thousand feet, with my shoes plunging into the loose scree, as two lone boys and their donkey pushed hard up in the opposite direction, I found myself thinking, as I regularly did on the trek, about Luciana. She’d told me a story once about how her bicycle was stolen. She’d loved that bicycle more than anything when she was a little kid, she said, and it was so precious to her she was always worried it would be taken. One day the bike was stolen, and although she expected to feel devastated, she was relieved she no longer had to take care of it. I told myself I was now relieved of having to take care of Luciana, and relieved of her just like the stolen bike. I believed that; and yet, the very fact I kept thinking about her and had come on this trip showed there was no comparison to the bike at all. I hadn’t let go. Why was I still thinking about her? Yes, it was less and less. But what was I doing in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains, trekking through dirt and burning up in the sun, with the skin of my feet being rubbed so hard by the steep descent that they were on the verge of blisters, as I tried to reason my way through, thinking about her, to some kind of conclusions about how I felt now that nearly two years had passed and about what our relationship had been, and why we’d split apart and how good and not good it felt for us to be no longer together? At the bottom of the steep mountain we reached the town of Amsouzart. This was a poor town, and there was garbage strewn about the village. In the middle of the town a powerful mountain river came rushing through. The water could be so strong, in the spring the river had kicked up a wide pile of loose boulders and sand around the banks of the river. The choppy landscape of stones was an odd place for people to congregate, but it formed the center of the village, and later in the afternoon, after recuperating and taking a nap and exploring the irrigated plots around the town, I sat in the middle of the village on one of the rough boulders, and I thought one last time about why I was still thinking about Luciana. Old men were grouped together on one side of the riverbed, talking slowly. Old women took care of children who ran in the only playground they had—over and around the rough boulders of the river and in a small pond they’d built from the side of the river. Younger women came and gave kisses to each other, dressed in shawls and headscarves that covered themselves from head to toe. I sat watching all these people, moving in motion around me, and it suddenly came to me I’d been feeling guilty. I’d continued to feel I must have done something wrong to make my wife run off with another man. I must have failed her.
YEARS LATER, I would come to fully understand I was more talkative and opinionated than Luciana, and therefore dominant. We were mismatched. Certainly, she must have felt this imbalance and wanted to feel free of it. My mind generally functioned with constant thoughts and strong opinions about how things should be. She had strong aesthetic opinions, but she was never the kind of person to vocalize them. I had opinions about how to cook, about everything, and while she could be judgmental about others—how they failed to live up to her ideals—she projected this sense of strong judgment onto me. She wasn’t happy with the way she felt dominated. Before she left me, she said, “Why do you always say my name, Luciana?” as if she felt the way I said her name was talking down to her. The writing life I was living was also not the exciting one she had imagined when we’d first met. When you first meet a person, and you are in your early twenties, you simply judge them based on their potential, on who they might become. In her mind, the writer I was going to “become” was exciting, but the real writing life was one of inching forward, slowly publishing, slowly getting recognition, not one of fame or easy greatness, and she didn’t like it when I could become somewhat depressed by these obstacles. All of these understandings were mere guesses, because she would never tell me why she’d left.
But what I came to understand is that despite all of these flaws between us, I hadn’t failed her. That was the revelation that came to me, in this oddest of places in Amsouzart. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have been better as a person. Of course, I could have. Anyone could have. But I’d done my best to be a good husband. I’d loved her, and even cherished her, and put her on a bit of a pedestal, and had really tried to be a good husband to her, and had, in fact, been a good husband to her. From my perspective, she’d never grown up. She was almost exactly the same person at age forty as at age twenty-five. What seemed like youthful playfulness when we had first met, a capacity to connect with the center of the simplicity of things, later felt like an effort to clutch at youth naively, to never allow herself to feel the responsibility and weight of adulthood. There was no need to keep blaming myself. I hadn’t failed her. The fact that we’d grown apart, and the fact that she’d chosen to leave me, wasn’t because I’d been bad.
JOSH BARKAN won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and was runner-up for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts and has taught writing at Harvard, NYU, Boston University, and the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. His books include Before Hiroshima (Toby Press); the novel Blind Speed (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books); and Mexico: Stories (Hogarth/Penguin Random House). Mexico, was selected as one of the five best story collections of 2017 by Library Journal. He divides his time between Boston and Mexico City.