"Up in this high you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."
In Out of Africa
Clearly Baroness Blixen did not attempt to actually run anywhere in that thin highland air, but I like the sentiment nonetheless. I have often found myself absolutely gasping for breath as I run—okay, crawl—up a mountain, buffeted by Iowa-force winds that cake my legs and feet brown and conveniently cover the sound of my own huffing and my puffing. As I climb and climb my eyes are planted firmly on the rocky terrain at my feet, barely lifting my gaze to recognize the bemused bo-ntate and bo-mme I pass—all of whom have the good sense to walk. As the road plateaus (a relative term) I am able to lift my head and appreciate the view. From where I am the mountains to the east form what looks like an impenetrable wall and are still adorned by snow around their peaks. Below me I see the village of Mpatana, generally considered the local metropolis because of its bus stop, bar, and the best stocked shop for kilometres, whose freshly plowed fields, fenced plots, and roaming herds make it look like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The view always makes the trying climb worth it.
As I climb and climb, higher and higher, always up and up, I continuously pass houses and people ever-curious about what exactly this lekgowa is doing. "Where to?" they ask, possibly wondering what life-changing event I am rushing off to. "Ee, just up and down," I respond. They nod and accept this answer but never seem to find it satisfactory. Since Lesotho often seems to be that mythical place where it actually is possible to walk to school uphill both ways, many Basotho are understandably baffled as to why someone would voluntarily choose to spend their free time engaged in such an arduous endeavor. Scaling a mountain loses a bit of its luster when you have to do it just about any time you want to leave your front door. This also means that most Basotho, seemingly regardless of age or attire or athletic ability, are very adept at going up and down. Numerous times I have been tentatively walking down what feels like a cliff face, carefully pausing every few steps to be sure of my balance and to avoid sending a clump of rocks cascading down, only to be passed by a herdboy or grandmother gliding effortlessly down. Sometimes they have done this while balancing a bucket of laundry on top of their head or wearing stilettoes, which just rubs salt in my wounded pride.
I, on the other hand, am consistently surprised to find people, houses, and well-tended fields the higher I go. Surely, I think, surely there won't be a village all the way up here, as I look behind me and see that St. Rodrigue has shrunk to a speck in the distance. But sure enough there are people living here who are not at all concerned about the reading on an altimeter. They build their homes, mind the herd, and till the fields with only begrudging attention paid to the slopes and their gradients. Rocks seem to be the only factor that can successfully deter settling down and farming. When a slope is especially steep, farmers create tiered fields and plow on ahead. Mountains can't be avoided so they simply must be dealt with sensibly.
Sometimes I will hike up a mountain and rest at the summit to appreciate the view; the only sound the distant squeals of children. Below me is Lesotho: meandering paths, the burnt orange or deep brown of freshly tilled fields, evergreens planted around homes and villages, deep dongas slashing across the land and filled with the light green of willows, and everywhere the little bright pink dots of peach trees. And, of course, mountains, many below me but many more stretching far higher than I. Here I breathe easily. Suddenly I'll hear a familiar tinkling and look behind me to see a bovine herd sauntering up the hill to chew and moo, followed closely by a herdboy (often looking more like a herdtoddler) wrapped in standard issue Basotho blanket. These same cows will probably be around BoGrinnell in the coming weeks doing their level best to keep our yard well-manicured and equally well fertilized. But at the present they, unlike me, have not been drawn up this high in search of a mere view. In early September, after winter but before the summer rains, it is green grass they are after. Now that is something worth climbing a mountain for.