It seemed rather absurd to shack myself up inside the Orchard House for my birthday, so I called up a friend a few hours away, and before I knew it, there was a hike planned in the heart of the Middle Atlas with a small group of volunteers from the surrounding area.  Actually, the hike had been planned for weeks, but I had no problem turning it into a birthday extravaganza of sorts.

The hike set out from Boulemane, a valley outpost on the roads between Fes and Missour, and we planned to crest a mountain range called the Tichoukt, including a nearby mount called Lalla Bnti, or The Ladys Daughter.  The best we could figure was that the peak was about 9000 ft.

From the top of the pass, the views from the east were starkly different from those in the west.  In one direction, miles and miles of barren desert and plateau lay before us, while the opposite gathered cedars and pines, first in a small copse and then in dramatic sums, the brown dirt overtaken by a rich, dark green.  It was as if the mountain pass itself separated two worlds, and even the rain clouds were banned from the east.

When we started our decent, the rocks were slick, and if you weren’t careful, you could take quite a fall, so our descent was slow and tedious.  As we moved from the barren acres of rock into a more wooded area, the trees were sparse at first, just one or two Spanish Firs, tall and stately but very alone and distant from the nearby copse.

When I was at Vanderbilt, I remember discussing a metaphor about a forest.  Above the ground, every tree is unique with its own twists and turns stretching into the sky.  But below lived a much more intertwined and complex world, where the roots had bound together.  No tree was left alone in the underground network.  If one went without water, all “knew” it.  If one was drenched in water, cut down, or burnt, the symbiotic relationship entailed that the whole forest was affected in some way or another.  So it is with us.  On the surface, we are all unique and different, but deep down, we’re immersed and intertwined with one another, a reality we cannot (and must not) deny.

Then what of those Spanish Firs, stuck alone and far from any “network” of roots?  Did they grow so tall solely because their roots dug deeper and deeper searching for some other tree to befriend?  Had they begun to fall apart because they were more vulnerable in the empty desert?  Does a lone tree stand a better or a worse chance of survival out there without companions?

And what of the sacred?  Was the wind and rain and dirt and sun the epitome of the divine, or was God the fragile balance of those extremes which we are so dependent?

At night, we built a fire to stay warm, because even though it’s July, the desert can be a harsh place and cold without the sun.  As the seven of us sat around on rocks we’d made as chairs, I listened to an older couple in their sixties tell stories of their life together.  I listened to those of us who were younger whisper hopes and dream for a life after Peace Corps.

All the while, I thought of the past several months, the solitude that had been handed to me and the many faces of those who have come and gone.  I felt a little bit like those Spanish Firs growing tall and searching deep in the ground, and it occurred to me that even in their solitude, those old trees never stand alone; they are a safe-haven to the birds and desert animals seeking shade and a sudden shelter in a storm.  I imagined many a shepherd and sheep, alike, had ducked under these trees a thousand times, and even now, we rested our aching feet and feeble knees underneath this little oasis in the desert.

Maybe that’s actually what my two years have been about on some level, discovering the many ways of building an oasis in a desert, whether we live in a copse of firs always connected to one another or stand alone as a safe-haven for others.  There is no escaping or denying our responsibilities to one another and to ourselves.  That’s just the way it is.

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