• Merritt Gates makes her way around spring-fed Jackson's Pool on the upper reaches of Mount Elgon in Eastern Uganda.
  • Filling from a mountain stream below Mount Elgon's massive crater.
  • The mountain's flanks provide rain, fertile soil and refuge to tens of thousands of inhabitants in both Uganda and Kenya.
  • From the base of the mountain to the summit, Mount Elgon encompasses several different eco-zones. Here, Merritt passes through an equatorial rain forest on her way to the higher, treeless zones above.

Heart of the Matter

Mountains and memories converge on a run in Africa

Rickey Gates April 1st, 2016

– Photos by Rickey Gates –

When our guide, Rogers, arrived, it wasn’t so much the Kalashnikov made of black steel and hand-polished wood slung over his shoulder that concerned me. Nor was it the head-to-toe Ugandan People’s Defence Force fatigues or the lumpy, awkward army-issue pack weighing down his smallish frame.

What concerned me were the gumboots.

I considered the number of miles and amount of vertical that the day had in store for us as I scanned Rogers’s footwear decision. They were green, calf height, impermeable and completely lacking in structure. I glanced at my running shoes, then at my sister Merritt’s running shoes, then returned my attention to the gumboots. A purely imagined stench of gangrene wafted up from below.

The sky brightened and the outline of a mountain emerged behind the ramshackle town of Bumasola. If, at one point, the summit of Mount Elgon was visible from where we stood, it would have been 10 million years ago, yesterday in geological time. Before a violent eruption blew a vertical mile off the top of Mount Elgon, her summit reached higher into the heavens than her 19,341-foot sister to the south, Mount Kilimanjaro. Despite the mountain’s decapitation, its footprint remains the largest of any volcano in the world, one that would roughly cover the state of Rhode Island.

Three boda boda drivers arrived to the tin-can vibration of their cheap Chinese motorcycles, as they said they would. After confirming the price of the ride, we took our seats on the backs of the motorcycles and started up the red-dirt road toward the flanks of the mountain. A growing light illuminated the smiling children emerging from the clay-brick huts along the side of the road.

“Muzungu! Muzungu!” they yelled, and waved as we went by. Merritt had explained to me that the Bantu word muzungu was essentially a cognomen for white foreigners, not unlike the gringo heard throughout Latin America. Merritt takes mild offense to the word—it is a title that she feels is reserved for “outsiders,” the three-week safari tourists, the entourages of backpackers who pass through one country to the next, hostel to hostel, and the foreigners who live in the country but remain in their comfortable Western bubble.

Having lived in Uganda for the past two years, immersed in the underground art world of Kampala and working part-time for a non-profit that provides solar power to remote medical clinics, Merritt insists that she has graduated from that class of tourist. But as its literal translation is “one who wanders aimlessly,” I think that muzungu seems entirely too appropriate for her.

Nine years of travel and study abroad have taken Merritt from Cairo to Guadalajara, Vietnam to Argentina. Tucked away in her frontal lobe are three fluent languages and an additional four that could order a meal, bargain for a reasonable taxi fare or learn the intricate process of making Indian chapati.

In the spring of 2015, memories of my sister spanned five continents, three decades and nearly every unfettered emotion only siblings can share. A mutal propensity to travel light, far and unencumbered put the two of us in touch with a fervent reality that few other than the travel weary know and understand. When, after a year had passed and Merritt made no signs of returning home to Colorado for a visit, it occurred to me that it might be up to me to check on the Dr. Livingstone of my family.

I had arrived in Uganda a few days earlier. Despite Merritt’s lack of running fitness, I suggested a mountain, my treat. Merritt, in turn, suggested the mountain.

 

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Basalt, Colorado, 1987

I don’t remember the color of the five-gallon bucket or if it had an icon displaying the danger of an infant toppling over into it. What I remember is that it was a Wednesday, because the garbage went out on Wednesdays. I had returned from taking several bags of trash to the bottom of the drive, when I noticed Merritt’s motionless legs protruding from the rim of the bucket like tulips leaning toward the sun.

I quickly alerted my father, who was on the phone nearby. My younger brother, John, sat behind him on the back of the chair, massaging his shoulders. In a blur my father arose and John toppled backward to the floor. My father pulled her from the bucket, where she had been playing in its few inches of water only moments before, and commenced slapping her back to consciousness.

Though at the time it wasn’t in my capacity to imagine the consequences had I arrived from the bottom of the drive a few minutes later, the thought crosses my mind every so often and a certain emptiness passes through me.

 

The afternoon prior to setting off, Merritt and I stood in the government tourism office at the far edge of town, making our way through the subtle formalities of introduction with the desk agent before us. Merritt explained to me that in Uganda one doesn’t rush to the point, no matter how quick the question may be; first you must ask how someone is doing, often ask their name and then get to the point.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“How are you?”

“I am faaaiiine, thank you. How are you?”

“I am also fine, thank you.”

The entirety of the wall behind her depicted a crudely painted and long-faded profile of Mount Elgon. Different shades of beige, brown and green delineated four separate ecozones; camps were marked along the way and an international border was thrown across the top.

The woman emerged from the chair, in which she didn’t look comfortable anyway, and sat on the desk, closer to us. She crossed her legs and extended her hand.

“I am called Lona.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Lona. I am called Merritt and this is my brother Rickey.”

I had been growing accustomed to Merritt’s new, slightly affected Ugandan accent over the past few days. Owing to its British roots, the accent my sister has adopted is soft and ennunciated, yet rhythmic and cheerful, giving it an immense air of dignity. Coming from Merritt, it is merely one more arrow in her quiver of foreign languages and dialects.

“Lona, we want to climb Mount Elgon in one day.”

Lona smiled shyly then looked down and away. “Eet ees not possible.”

In just the few days that I’d been in Uganda, I’d learned quickly that tourist-centric resources are perhaps the only fiercely protected resources in the country—often to the detriment of a long local tradition. To see the mountain gorillas will set you back $600 per day. To climb certain mountains can cost upward of $200 per day. Owing to Merritt’s thin pocketbook, I had agreed to treat her to the climb of Mount Elgon. However, upon learning that it would set us back $90 per person per day, and being more cheap than practical, I amended my offer to a one-day climb of the mountain.

Lona smiled again. “Not possible,” she told us. “Eet ees a four-day hike.”

“Yes,” Merritt pushed on. “But we are athlete pipol and whenever we hire a guide, we are always waiiiting for him.” (That was actually true.) We pleaded and pleaded but she would not budge.

“I do not have the authority,” she finally told us.

“Madam,” Merritt said, “who has the authority?”

“My boss,” Lona replied. “But I cannot ask him. He will say no!”

“What if we ask him, Madam?”

She paused, then smiled coyly, obviously thinking about it.

“OK. But please do not tell him that you are here. That I gave you his number.” Numbah, she pronounced that final word.

Merritt called Lona’s boss, Simon, from her cell phone and put him on speaker. She explained that we were ambitious athlete people who wished to run up and down the mountain in one day.

“One day,” said the voice through the phone longingly. I imagined that wherever the opposite end of the line was, Simon was looking out his window, up toward the summit.

“I have tried to climb the mountain in one day,” he said after a long pause. “But I only made it to Mude Camp.” Behind Lona’s head, the washed-out depiction put the camp just beyond halfway.

“Let us say, Simon, that it is not possible. We will agree to pay for a second day,” Merritt said (about my money). “It is much, much money but in addition to being athlete pipol, we are also gambling pipol.”

But, truthfully, I was confident that we would be able to make the one-day run—even if, according to Simon and Lona, it had never been done before. With a round-trip distance of just over a marathon and an elevation gain of 9,000 feet, the parameters were not all that different from those of many runs and races that I had completed over the years. Merritt wasn’t sure we would make it, but was willing to gamble my money.

“OK. I will allow it,” Simon said, to our great relief. “When you arrive at Bumasola, you will find a desk agent. Her name is Lona. I will inform her that you will be arriving.” Across the table from us, Lona’s face was buried deeply in her hands, laughing. Moments later, her phone rang.

We arranged to have the guide meet us that evening to go over logistics. Rogers arrived at our hotel that evening looking cocky and not entirely sure what he had been hired to do. We simultaneously eyed each other up and down, each wondering if the other was truly up to the challenge.

“We will need to leave very early in the morning,” Rogers explained timidly. The “very early” part came out slow and enunciated. I imagined the northeast corner of the clock. I imagined the hours of darkness and fatigued stumbling that precede coffee and sunrise.

With great trepidation, Rogers continued. “We will need to begin hiking”—he paused for effect—“at seven o’clock in the morning.”

 

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Basalt, Colorado, 1989

If Merritt was excited to see her older siblings home from school, she didn’t show it. She stood in front of our house with her arm raised high up in the air. Her extended pinky finger traced the path of a flock of pigeons across the sky, back, forth and occasionally swooping down.

“They’re following my pinky,” she explained to John and me. “Watch.” The flock flew over the house, down the drive and back again, Merritt’s pinky sweeping along with them. As older brothers do, we teased her to the verge of tears. Unable to corral her anger any longer, she finally unleashed her unbroken, seven-syllabled expletive. “KENZIEBURMARICKEYJOHN! YOU MAKE ME SO MAD SOMETIMES!” John and I had accomplished our goal.

 

At the base of the mountain, the boda boda drivers pulled up to a small hut at the edge of a village and let us off. Merritt stretched while Rogers purchased some food and stuffed it into his army-issue backpack. We set off swiftly through a patchwork of farms and coffee plantations. Now that we were off the motorcycles, the children were a little more apprehensive about approaching us, and “muzungu” was heard only in the form of a mutter.

We quickly dropped Rogers on our way up through the farms, not yet within the boundary of the park. Merritt loped up the trail with what has always reminded me of a puppy-dog jog, owing to her long stride and too-large feet. As the youngest of five, Merritt’s running wardrobe consisted entirely of hand-me-downs from me, adding to the awkwardness of her form. Today, “Rickey” is embroidered on her hooded sweatshirt.

As we neared the final patches of farmland, we paused to take in the view. Moments later Rogers rejoined us, this time with a friend on whom he’d managed to offload his backpack.

Already drenched in sweat, he looked up at us nervously and said, “You are very strong.” A little farther beyond, beneath a band of cliffs, the patchwork of crops ended. “Now we are in the park,” Rogers informed us from behind.

We went forth into the equatorial jungle, where the fertile ground softened, roots ventured well above  the soil and the overhead foliage absorbed all but the most determined sunlight. A troop of monkeys took interest in us and followed our progress from the trees for some time. Rogers assured us that they were not of the excrement-throwing type.

We continued our run up the trail, me in the lead, Merritt on my tail and Rogers not far back. Around a corner, I came to a complete halt; Merritt bumped into me from behind. Before us stood six young men, machetes in hand, looking at us with distinct fear in their eyes, as if they had seen ghosts. They dashed into the thick of the jungle’s undergrowth. Merritt and I looked at each other in confusion. I thought about Rogers’s AK-47.

When Rogers arrived, we told him about the six men with machetes, now hiding in the trees. He called to them in Sebei, and from the trees came timid replies, though the men kept their distance.

As we made our way up the trail, Rogers explained that Mount Elgon has only been a national park since 1992—that the idea of conservation is still a new concept for people who, for thousands of years, have been harvesting honey and fruit and hunting animals on the mountain. The men we’d scared off were from the village that we’d just passed through. They weren’t afraid of us; they were afraid of Rogers.

 

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Basalt, Colorado, 1990

“And then,” Merritt said, looking at John, “I kicked you out.” A shock of tangled, curly auburn hair shot off in all directions, one lazy curl tumbling over her forehead down onto her freckled, pale face.

We were four siblings and two parents at the dinner table absorbing a four-year-old’s interpretation of how the world worked. On this particular evening, Merritt was explaining how all five of us were in our mother’s belly at the same time. One by one, as she felt the overcrowding of the womb, Merritt would kick us out. First Kenzie, then Burma, then me, then John, until finally, the master tenant had the place to herself.

 

By 10 a.m., we had left the jungle behind and arrived at Mude Camp, where Simon’s dream of a one-day summit had been thwarted. From a hillside shack, several soldiers checked our permits and requested that we sign an old and weathered registration log. After some talk in Sebei with another guide and soldier, Rogers introduced us to Steven.

“Steven will be joining us to the summit,” Rogers said, perhaps hinting that he himself might not make it.

We continued running through grassland dotted with large tufted trees that evoked Dr. Seuss’s imagination. Volcanic outcrops emerged before us as we arrived at the rim of the caldera, where the long-inactive epicenter spanned several miles across. Valleys and summits within lent the caldera the appearance of a small mountain range rather than a mountain top.

About six hours after leaving the trailhead, we arrived at Wagagai Peak, the highest of Mount Elgon’s five summits. Sucking in the three-mile-high air, we stood there in silence wondering if our guides might be joining us.

We lay on our backs, out of the wind but well in the sun, occasionally sitting up to look off and ponder the vast expanse of the Central African Plateau that stretched in every direction. The harsh, mid-day equatorial light gave a faded air to the environment around us. Not unlike the painted map behind Lona, the colors were muted greens and tans, occasionally accented with the black of volcanic earth.

There’s little need for chitchat on a mountain top. The ecozones, the farms, the monkeys, checkpoints, culture, borders, politics, continents and oceans—they all disappear, and what you are left with is a simple and pure intimacy.

 

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Steven, Merritt, Rogers and the author pause for a photo on their return from the summit of Mount Elgon.

 

Aspen, Colorado, 2012

Taking deep, steady breaths, exhaling slowly through pursed lips, Merritt filled a five-liter water bottle to take with her on the Colorado Trail. I insisted that she could filter water in streams along the way, but she just shook her head and packed her bag.

Three days before I had watched her clammy, shaky hand fill out, line by line, the surprisingly short document that read, “Decree for Divorce.”

It came as little surprise to any of us that she had eloped after staying for only a few months in India. The marriage ended almost as quickly as it was initiated.

With her bag as heavy as her heart, she started off alone on the Colorado Trail, step by step easing her spirit.

 

After some time, Steven arrived and sat there quietly with us. We shared our food and water with him—both of which he either forgot or never thought to bring in the first place. Realizing that Rogers likely wouldn’t join us on the summit, we set off on the long descent into the jungle, farmland and civilization below.

We gathered up Rogers a couple of miles down the trail and with the help of gravity, the four of us ran in line, mile after mile. If the soldiers’ gumboots gave them any trouble at all, they neither mentioned it nor showed any sign of wishing for better shoes.

The boda boda drivers were again waiting for us at the base of the mountain. As we pulled into the tourism office at the edge of town, a small gathering of business-suited men stood there, apparently waiting for us.

The best dressed of the bunch approached us, smiling, and extended his hand. “I am Simon,” he said. “Congratulations.”

 

Northern California, 2013

After riding my motorcycle around the small town of Shelter Cover for an hour, first in confusion, then in annoyance, then in fear, I finally located Merritt at the trailhead, where we’d agreed to meet several hours earlier.

We exploded at each other with accusations of not being at the right place at the right time, which all quickly dissipated when we realized that she’d soon be getting on a flight for Africa and who knew the next time we’d see each other. She hopped back on the motorcycle and off we went in search of beer and a campsite.

 

Merritt is limping around our hotel room, beat and tired. Her beer sits untouched beside her bed. Our unwritten, unspoken contract fulfilled for another year: Don’t give up. Keep being weird. Keep being strong. Don’t get too comfortable. Things don’t happen when you’re too comfy.

Sitting upright in my bed, I’m thinking back on nearly three decades of memories. My wandering mind returns again and again to a quote from Marian Sandmaier.

“A sibling may be the keeper of one’s identity,” she wrote. “The only person with the keys to one’s unfettered, more fundamental self.”

As Merritt dozed off, I wonder for a moment if maybe the pigeons were following her pinky across the sky.

 

Rickey is a contributing editor for Trail Runner. Merritt is still in Africa. This article originally appeared in our April 2016/DIRT issue.

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4 Comments on "Heart of the Matter"

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Jennifer
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I read this article last summer, and when I moved to Uganda a few months later decided I would run it. After getting the same run around with “it cannot be done”, we were able to convince them to let us give it a go (at some point my friend tried to convince the UWA that we were good friends with Rickey and Merritt). I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was a beautiful mountain to run in a day. Thanks for the great article and inspiration!

Liz
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Hey Rickey, I just got back to the United States after a four month fellowship in Uganda. Inspired by your article, an ultra running friend and I actually completed a one day run/hike of Mt. Elgon on Sunday as my last adventure in the country! (Rogers remembers you well by the way!) I might have name dropped that we were friends with you in order to convince them that it could be done, I hope you don’t mind. So I guess me and Jennifer just wanted to thank you for the inspiration, we found it to be the best running… Read more »
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[…] 2,600m descent. I got the idea for doing this from a magazine article I had read last summer in a trail running magazine, about a brother-sister team that ran to the summit and down in 1 day. It was a daunting, but not […]

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[…] I followed up that I was definitely interested and she sent me an article written by one of two siblings who hiked/ran the mountain in one day back in 2015. I told her I was all in- let the adventure […]

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