When I was in college, I had a friend who never let anyone sit still.
If a group of us were doing nothing — hanging out in the parking lot after a movie, or relaxing after a hike — he would jump to his feet and shout, “Come on! Let’s do something! We only have 40 years left to create stories to tell our grandkids!”
I adopted his mantra as my own, and by the time I had my kids, I thought I’d collected enough stories to last a lifetime. I had backpacked solo on the Appalachian Trail, wandered the streets of Budapest alone, and lived at an adventure education camp in Romania. I’d experienced a lifetime of adventures.
So I figured I’d created enough stories. But after two children and a divorce, I realized that when I gave up that mantra, I had let something vital slip away from me. Adventure feeds my soul. And somewhere along the line I had stopped going on adventures, and lost myself.
I was newly divorced and was trying everything — anything! — to fill the emptiness of my time without kids. For seven years, I’d barely had an hour when I wasn’t either with my kids or working, and now I didn’t know what to do with myself. I ran a half marathon, I wrote songs, I volunteered with a homeless ministry. But I only did things that fit around my time with my kids. They were the center of my life. Other activities I planned for myself, no matter how valuable or exciting they looked, were just ways to kill time until my kids came home.
Then one day, I was scrolling absently through Facebook. My kids had just left for a weekend with their dad, and I saw a post by my friend Tamar. “Who wants to climb Kilimanjaro with me next January?” she asked.
I do, I thought.
I messaged excitedly with Tamar late into the night, and when I woke the next morning, my kidless weekend no longer felt empty. I started reading books about Kili. I studied trail guides. I researched gear (discovering, to my disappointment, that my collection of three-season gear would be useless for our four-season trek). I started saving money. For the first time, I was planning an adventure, not to fill the meaningless of the time when my kids were gone, but for its own sake. It was the first time in years that I wanted to do something just for me.
But a year and a half later, with my deposit paid to our guide, my airline ticket bought, and my closet full of new gear, I almost canceled the trip.
Our flight was just a month away when my ex-husband texted me. “The kids know you aren’t paying attention to them,” he wrote. “Good luck with the neglect.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d texted me vague and baseless accusations. I knew, objectively, that I wasn’t neglectful. I spent most of my time paying attention to my kids. But knowing his words were lies didn’t stop them from stinging.
And the truth was, after so many years as a stay-at-home-mom, planning even a minute away from my kids felt like neglect.
Kilimanjaro would be the first time I’d go on an adventure, not to fill the time when they were already gone, but leaving them behind to do something by myself. And deep down, I didn’t feel like that was okay. Solo adventures are for single people. Moms have to settle for easy adventures — boring adventures — kid-friendly ones.
Ironically, it was my mom who talked me into going. When I was younger, she had always worried when I went hiking alone (“Tell me where you’ll be so I know where to find the body!” she’d said). But now, she knew I needed this for myself. “I’ll take care of your kids while you’re gone,” she promised. “You’ll regret it forever if you miss this opportunity.”
So I went.
Adventures rarely feel worth it when you’re in the middle of them. When I arrived in Tanzania and discovered the airline had left my baggage behind, I was stung with regret and guilt. It felt like a fitting punishment for leaving my kids behind. But once we started hiking, armed with borrowed gear from my guide, and the promise that a porter would bring my bag up the next day, I fell into the rhythm of hiking that I’ve always loved: the slow and steady purposefulness of one foot in front of the other. We took pictures of wild animals and exotic flowers; we enjoyed breathtaking views of the alpine desert, and every day we watched the snow-covered summit loom closer.
Kilimanjaro isn’t a technical hike. The hardest part about it just the altitude, which affects everyone unpredictably, in different ways. For me, altitude was a steady drip of increasing exhaustion that got worse as the trip progressed. But it wasn’t until base camp that it really affected me. At 15,000 feet, the night before our summit attempt, altitude gave me nightmares.
I dreamed that my son was with me. In my dream, my five-year-old was climbing the summit with me, but we had to go down to buy more gear first. I took him with me into a hiking store, and as we left with all our gear, he ran ahead of me into the parking lot — straight under the wheels of a truck. As I watched him being crushed under its wheels, I screamed “No!” — waking myself, and the rest of camp with me.
After that, I didn’t sleep. I lay awake trying to breathe in the thin air and waiting for morning.
Most of the hike from base camp to the summit of Kilimanjaro is straight up. Straight up through deep scree and sand, on a trail that occasionally winds in switchbacks but mostly goes just goes up. For six hours we hiked straight up, and at that altitude, every step was harder.
I made the summit, but I barely remember it. It’s a blur of exhaustion and altitude sickness.
What I do remember, though, is coming down — and especially the moment when we finally hit 13,000 feet, where my altitude sickness ended. I’d been hiking at that point for nearly 20 hours, but suddenly, I wasn’t tired anymore. I could breathe again. I could walk normally. I could look around and enjoy the flowers, for the first time in days.
There are so many metaphors in that moment — for parenting, for self-discovery, for life. But for me, it wasn’t so much a metaphor or a spiritual journey, or even a journey of self-discovery. I already knew I was an adventurer and a hiker; I already knew I don’t give up. What Kilimanjaro gave me was just a stretch of time to be, fully, the person I’ve always been.
And, of course, it gave me stories.
Next year, I plan to bring my kids with me on an adventure. Mount Kosciuskwa, the highest peak in continental Australia, is just 7,000 feet above sea level, and families do it as a day hike. I figure if I’m going to do all seven summits, I might as well bring my kids for some of them. And maybe I’ll save some of my Kilimanjaro stories to tell them as we hike together. I have so many they still haven’t heard: the one about moleskin, and the one about the monkeys, and the one about the buffalo.
A few weeks ago, I was reminiscing about my adventures as I was driving my kids to visit a friend. “Mama,” my daughter interrupted, “I like it when you do things without us.”
My heart skipped a beat, and I realized that no matter how much I told myself it was okay, I never really believed it. I never drop them off with their dad without feeling the guilt: the certainty that every minute I spent away from them is time wasted, proof that I’m a neglectful, awful mother.
“Why is that?” I asked my daughter, and held my breath for her answer.
“Because then you have stories to tell us,” she said. “I like to hear your stories.”
Someday, I hope her children like my stories too.
But until then? I’ll keep creating stories. Because you can never have too many to tell your grandkids.