Late October, 1993, and a perfect day for traveling. Jamie and I struck forth on a train to Eastern Java. Malang had a a particular appeal to me, being the home town of the woman who had taught me Indonesian the summer of 1991, and I was happy to go visit her.
Afterwards, we took a bus north to Pasururan and then another to Parasen. Not easily, either! We were annoyed more than once by mysterious money deals happening in our presence, bad information, price changes, and the usual lot of the foreign traveler in places where prices are suggestions and formed on the basis of need and expectation. But the last leg of the trip was spectacular: by motorcycle up the hills through a Tolkienesque forest to the mountain town of Wonokitri. Hill after hill was surprisingly farmed right up to the peak, and deep cut valleys of stone esplanades unfurled before us. The tree tops formed a leafy canopy over our heads as the afternoon sun set over our left shoulders. The air chilled in that delightful way only altitude in the tropics can arrange, and as the road thinned and finally sputtered out the foliage melted into pines.
“Courage is found in unlikely places.” -- Tolkien
There we were, at the top of the hill, among a people short even by Javanese standards, and puny in comparison with my own New York frame. The people looked Tibetan to me: hardened and withered, wrinkled by mountain air and the rigors of hard living. They were the Tenggu, a stronghold of Hinduism in a land overwritten by Islam. I’d been adventuring for nearly five months in Indonesia by this time, and had a good feel for what seemed like my new home and my most spectacular travels. But the cold air threw me off, brought me mentally back to Ithaca and autumn in the Adirondacks. The soundtrack changed in my head, and I went spinning.
From the top of Bromo you could see what seemed like all of Java before you: the coastline dissolving into the sunset, the rumpled ranges of mountains. We slept in Wonokitri like refugees: there was an abandoned shack out behind a restaurant and after eating, negotiated the right to crash out there on sleeping pads and flattened rice sacks. We were cold but not uncomfortable, and weren’t there for long anyway, needing to awake sometime around 4:30AM to begin our hike.
The sky was full of stars that early morning. We ascended a narrow trail to the mountain’s rim where we caught the sunrise, the colors of a ripe mango washing over the Ring of Fire like something primeval. From there, we headed down into Bromo’s caldera.
It was difficult! The inside of a volcanic crater - even an extinct one - is typically steeper than the outside, and we made our way down trails that seemed practically vertical and kept us grasping for the long grasses that lined the slope. We made it down the crater wall and hiked across a Coloradoan landscape along a dusty, long trail we followed to a small settlement. The sun arched over our heads, keeping us mindful of the return trip back up the hill and towards home. Fortunately, we had minimal gear even by our own standards. It was my first trip with the small Jansport bag I’d used along the Fingerlakes Trail in Ithaca and taught me just how easily you could travel if you didn’t worry about taking stuff with you: quite the epiphany as you traverse the dusty interior of a fallen volcanic cauldron. I had been reading Peter Matthiessen at the time, and this came to my mind:
“Whatever this man is - wanderer or evil monk, or saint or sorcerer - he seems touched by what the Tibetans call the “crazy wisdom” - he is free. … And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.”
I managed not to die on that ghostly, starry, illuminating hike, or on many others over the next twenty-plus years. So let the adventure continue. But let it continue in simplicity, with the stars overhead, with nothing in the backpack, with the hard soil under my feet, the map blown away, the waves rising, the wind blowing, and no destination in mind.
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