“I can’t,” I said, stopping to catch my breath. The thick heat of the rainforest at sea level had worn off at 4,000 feet, and I shivered in my thin cotton shirt as I sank down in the cold dirt, laying my cheek against it. My heart was pounding so hard in my ears it sounded like it belonged to the volcano, pulsing at its center. Through my haze, the vague thought occurred to me that fire ants and centipedes, the vast, unknowable universe of rainforest creatures were currently devouring me. Let them, I thought.
“We are so close,” Andrew said. I shook my head, trying to get out those two words again, words I wasn’t accustomed to using—I can’t—but they failed in my mouth. From my vantage point on the ground, I could see the guide’s boots as he walked around me, joining Andrew.
“Ok,” I said, steadying my gaze ahead as I did a weak push up. I looked upward, unable to see where the volcano ended, its top disappearing into a thick bed of fog. The chorus of the rain forest—the calling birds and monkeys rustling in the trees—was beginning to quiet as the day headed towards dusk.
“I’m ready,” I said.
“1…2…3,” Andrew said, and the two of them pushed me hard towards the summit like a hopeless, broken down car. My feet practically lifted off the ground, and for one wondrous, humiliating moment I felt like I was floating, like their strength had taken over entirely—these men were now the only force getting me up this volcano at all.
My boyfriend Andrew and I had come to Tangkoko for the Tarsiers. Just before dawn that morning, the sky still dark, we got up in our cramped room, our bodies covered in sweat, the mosquito net crumpled on the dusty cement floor. We walked a silent half-mile with my father through the woods, casting the glow of our small flashlights over the path that led us to the huge, spindly Strangler Figs where the Tarsiers—some of the smallest primates on earth—lived. Nocturnal, they came out to feed just before morning broke, clinging to branches with their tiny Nosferatu hands, their enormous eyes unblinking as they looked out at us.
But really, the trip to Tangkoko was an excuse to break out of humid, pot-holed Manado, the crowded city where my father lived with his Indonesian wife, the kind of place travelers pass through as quickly as possible, timing their trips so they won’t have to spend the night in a place best described with that dirtiest of words—westernized. After two months of travel through Java and North Sulawesi, I’d contracted a respiratory infection that had laid me up in my father’s third floor apartment, eating western pastries blessedly available in Manado and generally gaining back any weight I’d lost during the trip. In the mornings, we’d sit on the apartment’s terrace overlooking the city and the ocean at its edge, the huge clouds in the sky close enough to touch. Andrew would get restless, and walk through Manado, buying bootlegs, eating street food, and wandering the floors of the new, aggressively bright mall that was the city’s central attraction for Indonesians. Then, at night, we’d watch the movies, consuming two, sometimes three at a time.
These were decidedly un-travel-like activities, and we had grown comfortable—too comfortable, we realized, about fifteen movies into this impressive marathon of doing nothing.
“Let’s go see the Tarsiers in Tangkoko,” my father said, sick of us lounging around the apartment, and so we did, not really understanding what was so special about them, but welcoming any excuse to snap ourselves out of paralysis.
After the pre-dawn hike, a guide named Burhan approached us as we were finishing our morning coffee on the porch outside of the park’s guesthouse, and asked Andrew and me if we wanted to hike Mount Tangkoko, the dormant volcano that the nature reserve lay at the foot of. It was just a day hike, he told us.
“Sounds fun,” I’d said, shrugging my shoulders, thinking this was something the guide must do all the time.
“Be safe,” my father said.
About an hour into the venture—a deceptively easy-going hour of walking up a slight incline, fallen leaves crunching beneath our boots—the trail grew dramatically steeper, narrowing as we climbed. Gradually, it began to disappear behind an increasingly thick tangle of wild, overgrown foliage and branches until it was all but gone. Burhan stopped suddenly.
“I guess we have to go back?” I said, hoping the question in my voice would hide the hope in it. What lay before us did not look like a hike—it looked more like a long, claustrophobic journey into some hellish center of the universe where no one is supposed to go.
Our guide, who had come equipped, of course, with no water and no radio, responded by turning his back to us, taking a step forward, and brandishing a machete. “What the hell?” I mouthed to Andrew. He shook his head, smiling as Burhan began hacking away at the snarls of poisonous rattan and fig tree branches ahead of us. No doubt, this was satisfying some kind of Indiana Jones fantasy he’d harbored since he was a kid.
“OK,” the guide said, turning to us and nodding when he was finished, as if this communicated everything.
“OK,” I said unsurely. I did not nod my head.
He turned back to the clearing he’d created, and moved forward, hacking away with every step. In a worn T-shirt and rain boots, he was thin, catlike, and agile, just like Andrew. They moved through and over obstacles with impossible speed while I struggled to keep up. Each wall of foliage hacked away exposed yet another obstacle: A mammoth fallen tree crawling with fire ants; a swamp of mud; a web of thorns. The trail, the guide said—the few words he’d uttered in the time we’d been together—looked like it had not been traversed in at least a year.
“Any reason no one’s walked this in so long?” I asked, pausing before a particularly unfriendly-looking tree trunk that blocked my way. By North Sulawesi’s standards, Tangkoko was crawling with tourists, and it seemed strange that no one in the past six months had volunteered to conquer this thing. That morning before dawn, there had been at least twenty photo-snapping Europeans in our stead.
On the other side of the trunk with Andrew, the guide paused for a moment, as if considering, and then shrugged. This did not bode well. I knew my exhaustion had unmasked a look of concern on my face, one Andrew had been seeing with increasing frequency during this trip.
“It’s going to be fine, Simone,” he said curtly, words of comfort worn threadbare by frustration. This was, I knew, starting to get old, had been getting old for quite some time. As the months went by in Indonesia, my sense of adventure did not grow as I thought it would; instead, it shrank, crippled by what I found to be the increasingly clear fact that it’s really not all that hard to die. A new kind of fear took seed in me, a fear of every possible thing: dodgy aircraft that ascended at an unsettling speed; small, wooden fishing boats out at sea; overcrowded ferries that sunk by routine. Life seemed more tenuous here, and, at 24, a new terror of life’s fragility had suddenly been released in me, moving through me like a poison. Andrew had been patient so far, but I could tell it was wearing him thin.
I wondered how long it would be until we reached the peak, but it was a futile thing to ask, I knew. Rarely was anything explained in Indonesia, my father had warned me. He’d lived here as an expatriate for five years, and he still had no idea what the hell was going on half of the time. Everything was shrouded in mystery, like the rainforest itself, a world of camouflaged realities. The nonchalance was staggering: When I was stung by a Man-of-War three days into a backpacking trip through the Javan rain forest, we’d asked our guide if it could kill me. “Probably not,” he’d said. Even the way people crossed the street—head-on into chaotic traffic—felt impossibly graceful, like they were all following some unspoken choreography. I hung back on street corners, nervous. This unexplained method of living—this total lack of why, how, or what—made my stomach clench: I had never felt so utterly out of control of my own life.
Beads of sweat had now become showers of sweat, soaking my shirt and pasting it to my skin. I stopped for a moment and looked up, wiping my brow with a handkerchief. I had been tracking the white heels of Andrew’s shoes in the dimmed light of the forest, and it took me a moment to realize I could no longer see them in front of me.
“Andrew?” I called. I listened, but didn’t hear a call back.
“Andrew!” I quickened my pace, my thighs burning.
“Wait for me,” I called, a pleading in my voice this time. I was suddenly terrified that I’d lose him in this wilderness—or, more to the point, that he would lose me. In his absence, the forest felt menacing, the rustling in the trees and whirring of insects growing louder around me, filling my head.
I have never been athletic. But I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to ignore that fact: enduring grueling cross country races at the end of the pack; playing the clueless half-back in soccer as a child; going for long swims in the ice cold Pacific and steep hikes in the outer reaches of Marin County. My father had grown up in the Sierras, and he’d given me a love of the wild and an admiration for those who were at home in it. By the time I got to high school, I’d decided that’s the kind of person I wanted to be: rugged, outdoorsy.
And when I first joined the cross country team in high school, I looked the part: Lanky and rail thin, my long arms swung at my sides. But I was often lagging behind, my weak ankles turning over rocks as we struggled uphill, my shins aching with exquisite pain. For whatever reason, my immune system had become useless in my teenage years, and I was constantly running through head colds and sinus infections. But my coach was insistent that my body was built for this. After a particularly shitty race, he approached me in the dirt parking lot, where I sat slumped against my friend’s Volvo.
“You’ve got the body of Sarah Baie,” he said, referring to California’s high school cross country champion. “You could be Sarah Baie.”
I cocked my head, squinting at him through the sunlight. Hadn’t he figured out by now, halfway through the season, that I was a fraud? I wanted to tell him that the body he could see wasn’t the one I lived in. But I nodded my head and did just what he told me to after every practice and every race: I pushed through the pain.
And that motto became my mantra: push through the pain of shin splints and stress fractures, of fevers and bladder infections. It worked, for a while. But then, at the age of 17, I faced something I couldn’t push my way through. I’d gotten a bladder infection just before my first backpacking trip abroad, suffering through it for months, too broke for a doctor, and too daunted by the task of finding one in a foreign country.
And then, when I got home, a terrible thing happened: the infection never went away. Or rather, its symptoms stuck around—in force. I left for college at the end of that summer, where I spent a quarter of my time in the health center, testing for infections I didn’t have. The symptoms worsened over time, multiplying and warping until they had gone beyond the symptoms of a bladder infection and become something else entirely—aches and sharp, knife-like pains rendering me dizzy and nauseous, fire licking at my insides, moving along the paths of my legs and back as though it had caught a trail of kerosene. The chronic pain condition I had developed took four years and a slew of doctors to diagnose: Called Interstitial Cystitis, it’s an incurable bladder condition of varying severity that some manage while others are practically bedridden by it, tied to their bathrooms, heating pads, pain meds, and hot baths. Untreated pain had rewritten my central nervous system—I would never be without pain again.
I’ve told a lot of harrowing stories about those four months in Indonesia, but this is the part I always leave out, the detail that undoes the narrative I’ve spent the better part of my adult life trying to construct: Throughout it all, I was in pain. Throughout my entire adult life, in fact—eleven years—I’ve been in varying degrees of it, sometimes crippling, other times a low hum that has become the background noise of my life. Either way, it’s burrowed so deep in me that it has become one of the most defining parts of myself, the origin of every desire and every fear, the place I spend the majority of my energy either tending to or ignoring. At 21, when I was diagnosed, I flew home to California for a year to recover, but in those three intervening years between my diagnosis and this misguided volcano hike, I hadn’t gotten much better. My life, once full of ambition, had slowed, but, before this trip, I still thought of myself a certain way, thought, this isn’t really my life—I’m just on a break. I still felt like I could be the author of my own story. But pain, as Melanie Thernstrom says in The Pain Chronicles, rewrites us. And to admit that pain had rewritten me felt like an unforgiveable failure, an admittance of shame.
The truth is, I was terrified in Indonesia not of going down in a shoddy plane, but of the stunning realness of my own vulnerabilities. It was clear to me now, on this wretched volcano, just how much my condition had taken out of me. I wasn’t living up to who I’d planned on being. The life I’d wanted had been taken away from me nearly as soon as I began dreaming it.
The trail—if you could even call it that—veered to the left suddenly and opened into a clearing, where sun had managed to make its way in, coming through the trees and falling across the ground in splotches.
“Andrew?” I called again. “Andr—“
“Dude, I’m right here.”
I spun around. Andrew and the guide were sitting on two tree stumps, smoking cloves.
“Oh,” I said, trying to rid my voice of the panic that had taken hold of it.
“You OK?” he asked, giving me a look like he was pretty sure I wasn’t.
“Yeah, totally fine,” I said, as I sat down on my own tree stump, a couple yards away from them. “I just got a little behind.”
It felt good to be finally taking a break, the sun warming my lap. But, make no mistake, I also felt like shit. The muscles in my lower back were pulsing in swollen knots of pain, and my abdomen felt bruised, like someone had punched me. Andrew stubbed out his cigarette on the stump, put it in his pocket, and walked over to me.
“How’s the pain?” he asked, squatting down next to me. He was the only person, other than my mother, who asked this question, the only person who saw, up close, the body I actually lived in.
I glanced up—the top of the volcano was nowhere in sight. “The usual,” I said. He put his palm on my lower back and kissed my shoulder, a silent apology for being hard on me earlier in the hike.
There was a visible mist in the air, and, despite the bit of sunlight coming through the leaves, it felt like we were in a different climate entirely from our dusty beginnings—the ground was moist, the air wet. My shirt was chilled with sweat. I took off my shoes and rolled down the cheap, green soccer socks I’d purchased in Manado. I was hoping they’d protect my legs from gonones, the chigger-like creatures in Tangkoko that devour you in small, bloody bites. But my ankles and shins were covered, swollen and red like an angry case of Chicken Pox.
“Jesus,” I said.
“I know, Andrew said, standing up and pulling down his sock to show me his own damage.
“You about ready to get going?” he asked. “It’s gonna be dusk pretty soon.”
I sighed. I didn’t have it in me to say no, even though everything inside of me was screaming it.
“Sure,” I said, getting up slowly.
For a lot of people, travel is a chance to reinvent yourself, an opportunity to leave an old self behind in search of a new one. I think that’s what I must have been looking for when I decided to quit my job, put my stuff in storage, and spend four months traveling in the country where my father now lived. I was sick of the person my illness had turned me into. But I couldn’t get away from it: I ran into my disease again and again, standing out in stark relief against the hardship of travel in a developing country.
But I did have one tool of reinvention left to me: my writing. In hiding my illness, my life has largely been about the art of omission; in some ways, my writing has been just as much. Laura Hillenbrand has found success not in writing about her debilitating case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome but in telling the stories of the extraordinary—people whose lives she tries on and vicariously lives through. In the travel writing I did after Indonesia, I did the same with my own persona, weaving a true—but tailored—nonfiction.
Because physical pain—particularly pain that never heals—does not make for a good story. In the first remarkable pages of her essay, “On Being Ill, ” Virginia Woolf wonders why sickness has not become one of the great themes in modern literature, alongside love, jealousy, and war: “Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to Typhoid; odes to Pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.” It’s hard to say all the reasons for this, but in The Pain Chronicles, Thernstrom provides one answer: “[Illness] threatens our deepest sense of ourselves, and—portending death—reminds us of the ultimate disappearance of that self.” In short, a literature of illness would be an awful reminder of our helplessness, of the fact that most of us do not die for, but of.
“Let’s do it,” Andrew said. I shielded my eyes from the sun and looked up at him. He’d fallen in love with me when I was too sick to work—he’d never even known the girl who jumped into rushing rivers from 50 foot-tall rocks, slept in a public park in Paris’s red light district, took a 4 AM motorcycle ride along the shores of the Aeolian Islands. He’d never even known the me I’d planned on being. But he didn’t question once that I could make it to the top. To him, it was a given that I would, no matter how long it took me. I could, at least, write this part of the narrative, and it was going to end with the summit, the view of rice paddies and rain forest below.
The summit was finally within sight, just feet away, enveloped by mist.
“All right,” Andrew said. One more push.” I could hear the exhaustion in his voice.
“Wait,” I said, panting. “You guys can let go.” I felt their support disappear almost immediately, and every muscle in my body tensed up. We had been pushing, crawling, and slogging our way to the top for a good twenty minutes, and they were almost as useless as I was at this point.
“1…2…3,” I said under my breath, and launched myself upward. For a moment, I was sure I was going to go skidding down the incline, but my foot caught on a rock.
“I can do this,” I said, more to myself than Andrew. Now was the final crawl. With everything in me, I lurched forward, and threw myself onto the summit, landing on my stomach in the cold, wet mud. I rolled around and sat up. And then, I started laughing.
“This is the worst view I’ve ever seen!” I called down to them.
This measly part of the summit would barely fit the three of us, and I could see nothing but trees, just more goddamn rainforest—it was even more claustrophobic than the climb up there had been. Having grown up in northern California, Andrew and I were accustomed to the open views of Marin County and the Sierras, those expanses that make you feel beautifully small and insignificant. We were used to a final reward.
Andrew climbed up next to me, and put his arm around my shoulders. He was panting.
“Beautiful, huh?” he said.
I looked at him. “You’re kidding.”
“Hey, we made it,” he said, shrugging. “You made it.”
“Yeah” I said. “I did.”