I left Cairo on a bus and a prayer to the rural regions of Sinai, to climb the mountain of Moses on my own personal pilgrimage.
Sinai is a shield of land wedged between Egypt and Israel — an emptiness covered from one coast to the other with mile after mile of nothing but hot dry sand, and then more sand; a strategic piece of real estate won hard and fought over often; its canal the shipping route of war and commerce; a coastline rich in marine life, coral reefs, pristine waters and European tourists; the land of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the great parting of the sea by the hand of God.
I threw everything I thought I’d need for two days and nights into my leather backpack: a change of underwear, a toothbrush, cigarettes, passport, cash, my journal. I was to climb Mt Sinai, and what I took with me, I would carry up 2,600 vertical feet. And back down.
So I was traveling light – without the highly coveted blow-dryer for my hair, without my Lewis N. Clark Model DK2000 Dual Converter with Adapter Plugs, without a jacket, without a change of clothes. I did pack lipstick, though. It weighs almost nothing. And moisturizer, of course. And, according to lifelong instructions from my grandmother: a cotton handkerchief.
Gardens and cypress trees surround the monastery, but hard dusty scrabble covers the rest of the land, rising toward the jutting edifice of Mount Horeb. The centerpiece of St. Catherine’s, its reason for existence, the source of its mystery, and the living artifact that has drawn thousands of pilgrims for hundreds of centuries, is the Burning Bush. The Burning Bush, through which God spoke directly to Moses.
If such a thing could really happen, could it happen for me, here in this place, at tomorrow’s new light? Could I hear the voice of God? Even if it was just a word? Even if it was just a whisper?
From the monastery, we launched our attack on the 2,600 vertical feet still rising between us and the summit. There, the sun would light upon the very same place on earth where Moses received the Ten Commandments of God. And we would be its witnesses.
But first, the Steps of Repentance. Orthodox monks built 3,750 steep steps into the barren mountainside, adorned with arches and chapels of stone. This path has also been called the Stairway to Heaven. The distinction, I believe, depends on whether you are heading up them, or down.
Most tourists who climb Mount Sinai choose another path, a longer path, gently sloped and winding to the top. Still, a four-hour excursion waited them, in the dark, on an unfamiliar path. It is said that the local Bedouins – with camels for rent – just hang around and wait for people to collapse. I chose the steps.
Our little enclave from Dahab met up with organized tour groups and random travelers and we all milled around waiting for some holy green light or sign from the heavens that it was time to set out. I chatted over a cigarette with two mates from London, Matthew and Humphrey. They’d gone to Sharm el-Sheikh to dive and wound up at St. Catherine’s on a lark. I was happy to be hearing simple English. They said they were glad for “sensible company” for a change. Matthew was the silliest of the two, lighthearted, easy going. He had a broad smile, hair cut short and the look of someone with a constant stream of friendly mischief on his mind. Humphrey was the more handsome, more serious, more brilliant. Blonde, tall, confident, he gave me the impression of someone who just dropped out of prep school to travel to the dusty corners of the world.
We decided to trek up the steps together. People were clustering around their guides and climbing onto the backs of uninspired camels. I asked someone where the steps started and a guide shook his head and graciously handed me a flashlight. “That way,” he sighed. Undaunted, Matthew, Humphrey and I charged off in the dark toward the stairs.
The trail wasn’t marked, so with three flashlights darting against a landscape of gray rock, we sought our path. Bedouins tried to give us directions, but most didn’t understand us at all, and when they did, they urged us toward the other path. We would have none of it, and stumbled through the darkness on our own. We found the way thanks only to Humphrey’s logic, a vague trail, and the good grace of God. That and a general sense of which way was upward.
I worked hard to keep up with the guys. “I’m so glad I started smoking again when I got to Egypt,” I said, between gasps of cold air. “I’m so glad I started smoking when I was 14,” replied Matthew. We listed as many of the Ten Commandments as we could remember, and I silently noted the ones I had broken. “Thou shalt honor thy mother and thy father… Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… Thou shalt not steal…”
If the Steps of Repentance put an ear to my silent confessions that night, they would have heard this: That I hate my parents, as much as I am bound by love to them. To the exact degree that I adored them and put them on cherished pedestals, they in turn dashed and disappointed me. I don’t know if I ever really felt their love. Though I know in my head they both loved me deeply.
As for the Sabbath, well, Sundays are tremendously suitable for sleeping in, drinking champagne and making love out of wedlock. Admit it. A lonely Sunday, in a series of lonely Sundays, is also less sacred than the Monday that takes you out of the abyss and back into the land of the living.
I stole lip gloss once, in the seventh grade. I got caught and the whole episode absolutely mortified me. Imagine calling my dad, my dad, and asking him to please pick me up at the police station. Truthfully, the shame of that experience stayed with me my whole life. But it was really Suzette Gerz’s fault, because she taught me how to steal, by example. She was what my grandmother would call a troublemaker.
“Thou shalt not take the Lord thy God’s name in vain …” My list of sins went on.
Then Humphrey, Mathew and I listed the northern states of America–Washington to Wisconsin to Maine–why, I cannot now imagine. It’s not as easy as it sounds. And it’s funny as hell. Matthew and Humphrey didn’t laugh at their own jokes, or each other’s, but that made them even funnier. I giggled and gasped all three arduous hours to the top.
I got rest breaks by stopping and pointing out constellations in the sky; Matthew and Humphrey said they’d never seen such stars. I showed them the three-starred belt of Orion, which is aligned perfectly with the three great pyramids of Egypt. We found the North Star, Venus, Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper, which they called the Sauce Pan. The night sky is a familiar friend to me, a great mystery and an awesome spectacle. I cannot imagine not knowing it.
Looking toward the summit, we saw several dots of light sprinkled against the black mountain. Mystified, we pondered the possibilities: Pilgrims with big flashlights? Lampposts? Tent camps? Hearty entrepreneurs manning hot chocolate stands? Indeed, as we approached the first light we found a little ramshackle hut, lit with a Coleman lantern and furnished with a solitary cot. A cardboard sign announced: water, tea, coffee, hot cocoa, cookies, biscuits and candy bars for sale. A Bedouin, bundled head to toe in heavy layers, shifted his weight to keep warm.
How in the great wide world of free enterprise did a Coleman lantern find its way to a rock mountain on the Sinai Peninsula? Ebay? Not likely. Regardless, we three weary travelers bellied up to the counter and ordered our mid-mountain snack. My mates bought hot chocolate and “chockie bars,” Snickers to be precise. This sent me over the top. But if a Coleman lantern could find its way to Sinai, why not a box of Snickers? I wondered, though, did they come straight from the factory in Nevada? Or did they come in bulk from Costco? Was there a vast Bedouin distribution network staged in Suez? My great spiritual quest spiraled into the considerations of more practical matters. How exactly does one set up shop on the mountain of Moses to sell coffee and cookies at 6,000 feet?
The solitary proprietor didn’t speak English. But he took our American dollars and Egyptian pounds and hopefully considered it a good night’s work. I would never unravel the mystery of him. And the sun would not wait for me. A Cadbury bar, bad coffee and a few minutes of rest, and I joined Matthew and Humphrey on our final passage to the top.
People such as me, whose dreams are bigger than our capabilities, become intimate with disappointment. We become accustomed to striving. We search endlessly for thin golden threads in the complicated tapestry that makes up our lives. Which is why, when Humphrey announced, “That rock looks like a face,” my heart did a layout-back-handspring. About three-quarters of the way up the steps, we had stopped for another breather and some water. I concerned myself with the temperature – which was falling rapidly – and wrapped myself in the one thin sweater I’d brought. But when Humphrey said, “Look,” I forgot the cold and the sweat and the toil.
A huge, serious profile jutted out from the mountainside, gazing across the vast, low land: brow, eyes, nose, lips, chin. I had expected more of a vision or an epiphany. I rose and laid my hand on the cool stone. Where are you, God, if not here—if not in my heart and my efforts and in this good company? Where are you?
We were quiet now, the three of us following our own thoughts on the cold hard mountain, wherever they wanted to take us.
The temperature plummeted as we continued upward. The combination of exertion and anticipation kept me warm, but it wasn’t to last. Very near the top we stopped and spoke to a young couple hunkered down, smoking pot in a nook behind some rocks. They had been to the mountaintop, declared it absurdly cold, and retreated for better comforts.
Just below the summit we stopped at another Bedouin shack, where they rented wool blankets and thin mattress pads, cheap: at five pounds apiece. That would be the best $1.47 I spent the entire trip. I was woefully underdressed. I hadn’t pictured Moses in a Patagonia, fleece-lined, thermal-tested parka with ventilation zippers. If Moses could walk to the top of Mount Sinai in nothing more than a striped moo-moo, well then by God, I could do it in a t-shirt and a thin sweater.
I had things to learn on Sinai.
The summit boasts a slightly-less-than-balmy 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In Montana parlance: butt-ass-cold. Shivering violently, I could honestly report that I was colder than I had ever been or thought I could be. Ever. I wondered in passing when my two blankets had last been laundered, if ever, but didn’t linger on the point. Some things are better left alone. I wrapped them around my shoulders and shuffled my way up the final path. It was three o’clock in the morning.
Sunrise wouldn’t come for two more hours. Matthew carried my hot cocoa and bedding up the last few, steepest yards of the mountain. We crawled, in the dark, over sharp slabs of rock to the east slope of the summit. With the exception of one ambitious man who had packed up a camera, tri-pod, and fanny pack full of film, we were the only people there.
One giant step from the top, I settled myself onto a flat, smooth ledge, six feet wide and a straight vertical drop to the valley floor below. My perch inclined back into the body of the mountain and I felt totally safe in the arms of Mt. Sinai. I hunkered down in my blankets and fantasized about a warm and cozy nap. It was not to be.
Fifty other travelers joined us before the sun arrived. We waited together in chatter, cigarette smoke and the anticipation of dawn. This was no place for quiet contemplation, mystical transformation, or a life-changing spiritual moment. Still, I closed my eyes from time to time to look for something bigger than me and to breathe away the noise and rattling cold.
Humble, low and lonely, in the dark morning hours, came the sound of chanting. As the music of voices drifted up the mountain, I wondered what life was like for the monks in the land below. I wondered what mysteries they understood, that we travelers passed through and by, and never noticed.
For two solid hours I stared at an ink black void, waiting for daylight. Then the stars began to disappear. Dawn was coming. The sun finally began to bleed slowly into the dark of night at about 5:15 in the morning. While I watched the thin ribbon of light widen in the sky, it seemed as though I could actually feel the earth turning itself, and me with it, slowly to the east.
Another 45 minutes passed before we saw the orb of the sun itself. This magnificent orange-red sphere brought more than light and warmth to us. It brought a sense of accomplishment. Our journeys were validated by the simple, common rising of the sun that, 364 other days that year, didn’t matter much to any of us.
The crowd came alive as if the curtain was rising on a great stage. Voices and exclamations rose over a symphony of shutter-clicks. I threw off my blankets, the cold and contemplation forgotten, and moved forward against an outcropping of rocks, jockeying for a good camera angle. At this point, Humphrey – king of the night, fearless leader of our band of three – got nervous. I think he felt that he needed to guide and protect us all.
A very pretty woman from Europe, young and used to attention, started to walk along a narrow ledge. Unless an earthquake suddenly struck or some fool decided to murder her in front of 50 people by giving her a nice firm shove, she was perfectly safe. But not in Humphrey’s mind. “Please don’t do that,” he implored. “Please come back.” Her silhouette framed beautifully against the sunrise, she paused, turned and looked at Humphrey like a bug she should squash.
How can a person be so beautiful and so ugly in the same moment? I intervened on Humphrey’s behalf with my kill-her-with-kindness, let’s-all-get-along strategy. “You should take her picture, Humphrey,” I said. “She looks so beautiful.”
“You can’t take my picture,” she replied curtly. “My face is copyrighted.”
I thought to say: You’re in the public domain, sister. Anyone can take your picture, any time, anywhere, doing anything, as long as you’re in a public place. Like this place, for just one example. And they can do whatever they want with it, including post it on the Internet with the caption: Blonde dies on Sinai. So shut up and smile for Humphrey’s camera, you screaming self-absorbed bitch. But I kept my mouth shut. God’s mountain is no place for a catfight.
Humphrey was still nervous about her precarious position next to a deadly 1,000- foot drop, but she wasn’t going to be told what to do. I, personally, wasn’t worried about her. Her life was probably copyrighted, and neither God nor gravity would claim it. Not yet anyway.
There were no signs saying, DANGER: KEEP AWAY FROM LEDGE, no railing, no ropes, no man-made viewing platforms. Nothing had been put up to make this safe or squeaky-tourist-clean. Or to reduce an owner’s risk of liability in case a damn fool tourist slipped and hurt or killed herself. Who would she sue? The Bedouins? The monks? God? We were on our own and expected to look out for ourselves. I liked that. And, with Humphrey’s supervision, we did.
As dawn settled in and people began to set aside their cameras, a group of Korean travelers gathered on an outcropping of rock and began to sing. Everyone turned to watch and listen. We asked Humphrey what they were singing, because we knew he would know. “Just wait until they get to the chorus,” he said. “You’ll recognize it.” I stood with my friends in the cold air of morning and heard, in the Korean language, on the top of Mount Sinai, Amazing Grace.
Five years ago to the day, the sun had set on Terry’s life, even as it rose that morning on Sinai. There was nothing left to do but climb down the mountain.
What a miserable affair. Crowds jostled along the stairs in a thick unruly fashion. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Bitch. Moan. Start. Stop. I had to pee, badly. I should have stayed up top alone. But in my haste to find a bathroom, I jostled with the mob instead, down 3,750 stone steps. Thus, I missed my last big chance for a spiritual epiphany. I would carry my burden, whatever sorrows or demons I’d brought up there, back down the mountain with me.
Add to this the mistake of buying rocks at the top. Indeed: rocks. The Bedouins sell stones from the mountain, about the size of eggs, as souvenirs. Each one is broken into two pieces, dull and rough on the outside, but embedded with magnificent crystals. Two halves of a whole, soul mates, split-aparts, like Terry and me.
It’s in my nature to contemplate rocks and sunrises and people. To scrape at the surface of things. If a rock, broken in half, could reveal beauty, couldn’t it reveal wisdom? Couldn’t it whisper into my ear: Beautiful and ugly co-exist in the same spaces, in the same moments. Bad things happen to good people. Life is more than it appears. Grief is lovely. Grace is everywhere. Couldn’t it tell me that somewhere, broken into pieces, there was something beautiful inside of me?
I thought of the grapevines growing in the rocky soil of Burgundy, France. Too sweet the soil, and the grapes become a plain and simple fruit. It’s the struggle that gives them their complexity; the journey gives them their character. Wasn’t the same true for me?
Or was I just a dreamer, who purchased her rocks at the top?
(Excerpted from the memoir, Lost & Found in Egypt: A Most Unlikely Journey Through the Shifting Sands of Love and Loss, about my solo trip to Egypt in 1999.)