September 4, 2003
What to throw up for breakfast. It was hard to decide.
Such was life Saturday morning, high in the mountains outside of Crested Butte.
The night before, I crawled into my tent with a headache scraping at the inside of my skull. The headache turned to nausea, and I spent the rest of the night on all fours vomiting.
Just feet away, a porcupine had waddled into my camp and was trying to figure out how to get at my food. I alternated between retching and fighting off the porcupine with a swinging headlamp.
Those aren’t the stories you tell.
But a long conversation with travel writer Tim Cahill got me thinking.
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He talked about “phony epiphanies” at the tops of mountains that mark the denouement of most adventure best-sellers.
Epiphanies, he said, rarely happen at the tops of mountains. They happen days later under a revolving ceiling fan.
For Cahill, the epiphany often comes mid-sentence.
“I usually don’t know what it’s all about until I write it,” he said.
Inspired, I hung up the phone and started flipping through his book “Pass the Butterworms.” It dredged up unsorted memories. I wanted to try out his theory.
Call this column a therapy session. Call it a belated journal entry. Here it is.
My parents still call it my malaria trip. No matter what I told them about Africa, they only remember that I got sick.
We were on our way to an island in the middle of Lake Victoria to celebrate Christmas.
We were headed for hammocks and full moon canoeing.
So I thought.
I don’t remember the offending mosquito bite. There were so many.
But I remember the headache that started on the ferry ride to the island, and I remember how heavy my pack felt as we walked across the island. I remember needing to rest.
I lay down on the beach and didn’t get up for days.
My friend Lester looked like Ghandi sitting next to my feet, wrapped in a blanket, head shaven, thick round glasses.
“The most important thing is not to be alone,” he said.
If I were a better writer, I could describe to you how clear the sky was that last night on the beach. The lake was motionless, but I hallucinated that the stars were close and that they moved in waves like water.
I’ve always felt that I made a conscious decision to stay alive that night. My body was emptying of red blood cells. My bones ached. I thought, “This isn’t a bad time to die. I’m in Africa. I’m with friends. It’s Christmas.”
I decided to stay awake until morning.
I don’t know how long they would have let me stay on that beach without a doctor.
But in the morning, an African man in a three-piece suit saw me and started yelling at my friends.
“What are you doing? She has malaria. This isn’t a game.”
With a snap of his finger he had me in a truck to the beach, on a boat to the mainland, in a van to a private hospital.
His driver checked on me every day until I was strong enough to walk again.
A blood test showed the malaria was gone and wouldn’t be coming back. I’m one of the lucky ones.
No, these aren’t the stories you tell, but I just did, hoping to have a Cahill-style epiphany about how fragile life is or the kindness of strangers or how stupid existentialism is when you’re 22 and your friend is suffering from malaria on some island.
But understanding why something happened isn’t as easy as Cahill made it sound.