Beyond Ordinary


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Acclimatizing to Expectations & Lack of Oxygen | Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Acclimatizing to Expectations & Lack of Oxygen | Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

I was saving Mount Kilimanjaro for love. I was saving it for this imagined world where I was in love and with a partner that equally loved getting on a plane to explore some hard, beautiful place. Because that’s what I’ve done for years by myself. I board planes alone. I travel alone.

I saved Kilimanjaro for six years believing I’d get the chance to climb it with a great love. But at thirty two I couldn’t wait anymore. Maybe my impatience was OK this time. I didn’t want to hold myself back from an experience because of a man, or lack thereof. So I let it go. I found a tour group and bought a plane ticket and boarded two consecutive planes alone.

When I arrived in Tanzania I felt indifferent. I wasn’t quite sure if I was strong enough. Physically, I looked the part. Emotionally, not so much. On the taxi ride to the hotel my sweet driver asked the same questions I’m always asked: “Are you traveling alone?” “Why?” “Where is your family?” “No husband?”

I’m always asked: “Are you traveling alone?” “Why?” “Where is your family?” “No husband?”

Over the years I’ve gotten better at responding to this series of familiar questions. Sometimes I’d say, “Yes, I am traveling alone,” followed by abrupt silence. Or I’d say “Because I won’t see the world if I wait!” Sometimes I would lie and say my lover was meeting me wherever I was going.

This time I said, “It’s just me for now.” And then he drove me to my hotel, to meet the strangers I’d spend eight days on this journey with.

One of the many magical things about hiking is the option of long, connecting conversations — often with strangers that quickly become friends. There’s also an opportunity to trek in silence, thinking about everything you want and need in that moment or in general. I feel the most content when I’m balancing those deep exchanges and silence; when you’re getting to know someone else and yourself a little bit better. I welcome the discomfort of hiking and the precarity of sleeping in a tent pitched over rocks,  a cocoon surrounded by snoring neighbors. When I’m back home in the city, I miss it.

I hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with seven strangers. One night over a very stiff pasta dinner we realized we were all single. Solo travelers in between relationships, looking to do something special. Wanting to feel something. We ranged in age and in nationality and in our sense of humor, but we were all brave enough to board a plane alone. Twice. To climb 5,895 meters above sea level to a goddamn sign in Africa.

Every night at camp our guides would measure the oxygen saturation of our blood with a pulse oximeter, which is a tiny device that clips onto your finger. It would reveal how well we were acclimating to the altitude. Our group got competitive with the scores. One night I won. I took it as a sign that the summit wouldn’t be so hard, but little did I know the summit was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

After a full day of hiking everyone at every surrounding camp has the same plan. You eat dinner late afternoon, and then sleep until 11pm. At 11 pm you wake, then basically put on every layer you’ve packed and prepare yourself to hike until sunrise in the brutal cold. One of our guides carried my backpack and my water -- which would quickly become an ice block because of the extreme weather. Thousands of travelers who’ve paid thousands to be there begin hiking up a mountain in complete darkness. From the starting point everyone in front of you looks like a tiny twinkling star. All you can see is an army of headlamps. It was impossible to photograph what I saw, but it was emotional, and probably meant to be a moment you can’t capture.

During the ascent, the guides want you to tell them if you’re not feeling well so that they can help. The altitude hurts. People around me were getting sick, people around me needed to slow down. But I have a very specific type of stubborn. Pole, pole they say. It translates to Slowly, slowly in Swahili. Everyone is practically sleepwalking up this mountain for 6 hours straight. Walking Slowly, slowly.

Halfway through the summit my body started shaking, and I couldn’t see clearly, but I didn’t want to tell anyone. So Stubborn. I was embarrassed for needing help, which is ridiculous. I’ve always had a problem asking for help. After admitting my physical weakness, I was wrapped in foil and given an extra white ski jacket to warm up. I kept moving forward, like everyone else, up the mountain with tears in my eyes until we reached the first sign post. Every part of my body hurt, but the sky started lighting up and I knew I was so close to finishing what I started.

The first sign you see is still 45 minutes away from the highest point and the sign everyone is excited to be photographed in front of. I was completely gutted when I reached the first sign and didn’t want to go on. But I did.

The views were ice caps and the tops of other mountains. It made me nauseous and dizzy. And I cried at the top. I cried because I was there and always wanted to be there.  I cried because the circumstance wasn’t the one I imagined or wished for. I had frozen snot on my nose, and my guide generously wiped it with his glove before saying congratulations and taking my photo.

One of my favorite days on this eight day hike of pure frustration, pain and joy was day 3. I slowed down and started photographing the damp terrain. We were climbing through clouds and everything was wet and green and gorgeous. Our guide came looking for me and found me ogling over plants. I remember that day clearly. I was in my element -- lost with a film camera in some hard, beautiful place. I plan to do my best never to forget how happy I was in that moment — photographing familiar plants in a setting I’ll probably never see again.

Kilimanjaro wasn’t supposed to be another solo trip. In my mind it was for me and the partner I wish to share experiences with. The partner who matches my bravery, my complexity and my persistence to see it all. It used to represent a daydream. But, I let that vision go and made Kilimanjaro something else. I hiked to the top and I did it alone, with some help. It wasn’t a loss, even though I boarded that plane home feeling as if I quit a dream too soon. Because this is what I know. It’s who I am. And it’s who I’ll be until further notice.

It’s who I am. And it’s who I’ll be until further notice.
— Nicole Burgan
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