Herosim, lost brothers, Desiderata, Canary Islands, Roque Muela, Russian merchant ships, lost luggage, Walden, Capitan Angel, Tenerife, Guardia Civil, Soda Powder, The Black Sea & the royal yard.
The headline of the July 9, 1990, La Jornada announced that West Germany had won the soccer World Cup. Next to the article, the Canary Islands newspaper ran a more somber piece: “Un Cadete del buque escuela Ruso aparece muerto en Valleseco—Cadet from the Russian sailing school found dead in Valleseco.” The article told of an 18-year-old American sailing student from the Russian merchant ship Druzhba who had not returned from shore leave the day before. The cadet’s disappearance had prompted the ship’s captain to contact the police, who in turn broadcasted a missing-person alert on the radio. On the morning of July 8, a fisherman who also raised livestock in a ribbon of steep mountains about three miles northwest of Tenerife visited police headquarters to report that, two days before, he had encountered a young English-speaking man walking, without a flashlight or water, into the mountains in the direction of Roque Muela—Molar Rock. The fisherman tried to dissuade the man from walking any farther, as it was getting dark and he knew the trail ahead to be precarious. According to the fisherman, the young cadet responded, “Yo voy a seguir caminando con la luz de la luna—I’m going to keep walking by the light of the moon.” A search helicopter and mountain rescue team was dispatched in the area, and his body was discovered that evening at about 8 p.m. His name was Alan Mudge. He was my older brother.
On May 7, 2015, nearly twenty-five years later, I rode a train to Madrid holding a copy of this quarter-century-old newspaper in my hands and reading the article for the first time. My uncle, who had made the trip to the Canary Islands to claim Alan’s body, brought the paper home with him. My family left it unread, and it was consigned to a shoebox, along with other newspaper clippings and a few of my brother’s personal belongings—objects that for most of my life have been too painful to look at. Twenty-five years later, I decided at last it was time to go to Tenerife. To retrace my brother’s final steps. To see the mountains that drew him in and took his life. So in the first step of a journey that would be one part pilgrimage, one part detective story, I unearthed the box in my parents’ attic that reads, in black Magic Marker, “Summer, 1990.” In it, I found Alan’s travel journal, letters, newspaper articles and a half dozen photographs and drawings. I kept the attic lights off, so I had just enough light to see what I was gathering but not enough to allow me to sink into it. I knew that once I did, the memories would flood back. I would save that until I arrived in Spain.
Twenty-five years later, I decided at last it was time to go to Tenerife. To retrace my brother’s final steps. To see the mountains that drew him in and took his life.
A few weeks later I was on a train hurtling south through Catalonia. The sun dropped behind the Pyrenees as a blur of scrubland and Spanish settlements raced by. I opened Alan’s journal, an ordinary yellow notebook. He had taped a photograph of his girlfriend, Chrissy, on the inside front cover. On the first page he wrote out his favorite poem, “Desiderata.” Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…
Alan discovered “Desiderata” in the spring of his senior year of high school. He saw it framed somewhere, copied it in tiny handwriting on the back of a Radio Shack receipt, and later rewrote it on the inside cover of his physics notebook. He copied it a few more times, giving it to friends and teachers. I’d never seen him so taken by a piece of writing. On the inside of his journal, he highlighted one line in all caps: EVERYWHERE LIFE IS FULL OF HEROISM.
Around that same time, Alan received an early graduation gift from our parents: a giant backpack, yellow and black, with long nylon straps and so many shiny black plastic buckles it took us the better part of an afternoon to figure out which ones connected where. The North Face Snow Leopard was the first internal-frame backpack we had ever seen, and it looked like it could fit half the contents of our house. Alan stuffed it with seventy pounds of books and laundry and traipsed in a circle around our yard, dwarfed by his improvised cargo like an ant carrying a raisin, until he collapsed at the front door. “It’s perfect,” he said with a smile.
Alan was about to see the world. He had decided to take a year off before going to college. He enrolled in ten months of travel, internships and volunteering with a Boston-based gap-year program—character-building adventures that would take him to China, the Middle East and Europe. The first leg of the journey would be a two-month sail aboard the Russian merchant marine ship Druzhba, named with the Slavic word for friendship. On what was to be the first-ever Soviet-American training cruise, the 680-ton tall ship was to set sail from Odessa, pass through the Mediterranean Sea, then cross the Atlantic, eventually reaching Baltimore. Alan had no particular interest in being a cadet, but he did want to learn to sail—to navigate by the stars, feel the topsail line in his hands, stand watch by the bowsprit. A few weeks before he left, I sat on his bed, watching him write out the first draft of his packing list while he continually rewound and replayed his favorite song, Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” on a cassette player. I was seventeen months younger than him. While I suffered through final exams my junior year in high school, Alan would be clipping across the Mediterranean Sea on a majestic square-rigged ship. I was envious as hell.
Alan arrived in Odessa, in what was then the USSR, on the morning of June 8, 1990. At the airport’s baggage claim, he discovered that the colossal backpack was nowhere to be found—lost or stolen in Boston, Moscow or Odessa. Everything—clothes, sleeping bag, camera, books—was gone. Besides his wallet and passport, all Alan had were the clothes on his back, his Sony Walkman, three cassette tapes, a paperback copy of Thoreau’s Walden, his journal and a spare notebook.
Rather than panicking, Alan seemed to react with nonchalance. In fact, he was almost content with the turn of events. He wrote in his journal, “It will be a cold sail across the Atlantic, but now that I have no clothes, I think the true adventure has just begun.” Later that day he arrived at the ship and found his bunk. With the spirit I’d always admired, he made fast friends with the Russian cadets, showing them the journal he had started and giving an extra notebook to his roommate to start a diary of his own. Despite the language barrier, the Russians were drawn to him, as demonstrated by the many doodles and notes they wrote in the margins of his journal pages. By the time the Druzhba left Odessa, Alan had traded his Walkman and a Rod Stewart tape for a Russian army jacket. Three days later, he wrote in his journal that his feet reeked, and that with only the jacket for warmth, he often got cold on deck. He kept his blood moving by doing push-ups. Yet he seemed to relish the simplicity of having only one pair of pants. My brother was the kind of guy who could lose his backpack and everything in it, and a few days later forget that it ever existed.
I met up with my younger brother Weej in Madrid. He had traveled from Kenya, where he lives with his family. My Italian brother, Francesco, came from Milan. Francesco, while not my blood brother, lived with my family as an AFS exchange student when we were in high school. He and Alan formed a deep bond, and he had since become like a brother to Weej and me. Francesco told me a few years ago that he had long desired to go to the Canary Islands to “walk Alan’s last walk.” As for Weej, we first talked about it at Logan International Airport on Thanksgiving Eve 2006. The conversation about climbing the mountain where our brother died drowned out the rest of the world. Neither of us heard the final boarding call. To this day, that is the only flight I’ve ever missed. In early 2015 I emailed Weej and Francesco to suggest that we not put the trip off any longer. They didn’t hesitate. Within hours we had made plans and were comparing schedules.
The Canary Islands have long loomed in my imagination as a mysterious place. I’d never seen a photo of them, nor read anything about them. I didn’t even know precisely where in the Atlantic they were located. Somewhere off the west coast of Africa, that’s all I knew. The information blackout was by my own design. I wanted the canvas to remain completely blank. I wanted to know nothing until I set foot there myself.
Weej, Francesco and I were not the first to journey to Alan’s mountain. About ten years earlier, Alan’s high school friend Derek arrived in Tenerife with a similar mission. Derek was the last person my brother had written to. On a blank page in his journal dated July 6, 1990—just hours before he died—Alan began a letter to him. “Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Well Derek, I’m now off to do an ultimate Derek and Alan adventure. There are some awesome mountains and I’m gunna go hike and spend the night somewhere. I wish you were here so I wouldn’t have to go alone. But nobody can take your place.” Some years later, Derek revealed that the trip was deeply meaningful to him, but he didn’t offer any details. “You’ll want to have your own experience someday.”
On a blank page in his journal dated July 6, 1990—just hours before he died—Alan began a letter to him.
I asked Derek to provide me just enough specifics to help me find my way. The day before I flew to Europe, he sent me an email. Weej, Francesco and I read it in our Madrid hotel room the night before our flights to Tenerife. Derek described the police sending him to the Registro Civil in Tenerife, where he met a man who remembered Alan’s accident and was able to show Derek on a map the general vicinity of where it happened. Derek’s email included a Google map, as well as a scanned copy of Alan’s death certificate, which I had never seen before. The cause of death listed is “fractura de vertebras cervicales.” A broken neck. I was told as much by my parents, but I later wondered if it was made up so that my family could take comfort that he died quickly. Seeing it written on the death certificate brought a modicum of peace and closure for me. Derek then described walking from the port of Tenerife to the village of Valleseco, and then following switchback trails to the uppermost dwellings of a smaller village called La Cardonera. There, Derek encountered a woman and a young boy and explained that he was looking for the place where his friend fell. “The boy then started leading me up a trail. He stopped after maybe two hundred yards, pointed in the right direction, and then I continued on my own. I hiked for a while into the mountains. From here, you guys will find your own way.” And Weej, Francesco and I agreed it was just the right amount of information. We had to make this our own.
The next morning we flew separately from Madrid to Tenerife, the consequence of an airline booking error. By the time I landed, Weej had been in the Tenerife airport for two hours. He looked uneasy. “I need to look through your backpack.” He hurriedly pawed through my stuff, explaining that he hadn’t seen his wallet since the night before. He hoped it had been mixed up with my belongings. But it was nowhere to be seen. “I must have left it in the taxi,” he said.
It was a troublesome turn of events, but Weej ruefully remarked that it fit right in with Alan losing his entire backpack. Since Francesco wasn’t going to arrive for another two hours, and still had the rental car to pick up, Weej and I took a taxi directly to the Registro Civil. While Weej phoned his credit card companies to cancel his cards, I explained our mission to the government secretary, who patiently listened to my rusty Spanish, then directed us to the record-keeping department, on the fourth floor of an adjacent building. Arriving there, I offered up the well-traveled La Jornada newspaper copy to a bespectacled archivist who looked to be in his early twenties. “We’re trying to find the place where our brother died,” I said. The office became abuzz with phone calls and the sounds of file cabinets opening and closing. A second archivist produced the original copy of Alan’s death certificate, which they made a copy of for us. Ultimately, however, they couldn’t find any details about the incident and suggested we meet with the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force—the organization that would have mustered the rescue team. “If any information still exists,” said the young archivist, “it would be there.”
Weej and I took a taxi to what appeared to be a minor military command post, where a junior officer searched our backpacks, photographed the newspaper article and instructed us to wait on hard wooden benches in a tiny holding room that smelled of Lysol. After some time, we were summoned upstairs to another room, where the affable officer-in-charge, Capitan Angel, greeted us with warm handshakes and offered us seats on a plush green couch. “Twenty-five years is a long time,” he said somewhat apologetically. “We’re trying to find more information, but this is a little bit complicated.” The captain’s eyes sparkled, and his bushy moustache reminded me of photos I’d seen of Gabriel García Márquez. He went on to explain that they didn’t keep records more than five years back, but that he might be able to locate one of the members of the rescue team who found Alan’s body. Capitan Angel left the room and came back thirty minutes later to say he hadn’t been successful yet. Looking again at the newspaper article, he suggested we go speak to the people of Valleseco. “Maybe you’ll find the man who spoke to your brother.” We gave the captain my phone number and thanked him for his efforts.
Weej and I still had an hour before Francesco was to arrive, so we headed to the port of Muelle Sur, where the Druzhba had been docked. We wanted to see the mountains from the place where Alan first saw them. Here, luck was on our side, for the elderly harbormaster remembered not only the Druzhba, but he also vaguely recollected the events surrounding Alan’s death. He spoke rapidly, with an unfamiliar accent, and I couldn’t entirely follow his Spanish. The harbormaster finally pointed to three rows of black-and-white television monitors on the wall, each screen giving a distinct camera angle of the port. With a joystick, he panned a camera across the main pier, stopping at a long stretch of vacant cement dotted with marine bollards. Between each of these bollards was a number in yellow paint. The harbormaster zoomed the camera in until a pixilated “32” filled the screen. “Right there. That’s where the Druzhba was.”
When Francesco finally arrived, the three of us followed the harbormaster’s directions to where Alan’s ship had been docked. There were no vessels there, and we had an unbroken view of the mountains Alan set his sights on. At a distance of two miles, they looked enormous. Two ascending valleys cut by foreboding walls of black rock that surged into the sky, their crests outlined by steep humps and spires like the jagged teeth of a saw. Although I’d never seen this mountainscape before, it was somehow exactly as I had pictured it in my dreams. I felt like I’d been there before.
While aboard the Druzhba, Alan’s favorite place to sit was on a huge coil of rope on the stern, where he could watch the ship’s wake. He found refuge there during his free time, updated his journal and wrote letters to his girlfriend. He wrote to her like she was sitting next to him, aware of the detail of her life, right down to the time difference between them. “In three minutes, you’ll be starting your fourth exam,” Alan wrote. He described the constellations, schools of dolphins that played in the ship’s bow wave and blisters on his hands after hours of hauling the ship’s lines. He delighted in the sunsets and was fascinated with trying to catch a glimpse of the green flash that appears just before the sun drops behind the horizon. He was both apprehensive and excited about achieving his greatest goal: to climb to the royal yard, the highest on the ship, which towered one hundred fifty feet above the deck. “I’m almost at the top,” he wrote to Chrissy. “I’m doing well, but sometimes I realize that the only thing keeping me from instant death is one hand’s grip on the wire.”
He was both apprehensive and excited about achieving his greatest goal: to climb to the royal yard, the highest on the ship, which towered one hundred fifty feet above the deck.
The Druzhba sailed across the Black Sea to Istanbul and from there embarked on a twelve-hundred-mile journey to the Spanish territory of Ceuta, at the Strait of Gibraltar. Over those two weeks, Alan and his fellow cadets were trained in the elements of seamanship—setting and furling the sails, tacking the ship, celestial navigation and so forth. “Soda Powder does not work to clean floors!” Alan wrote at the start of one journal entry, in which he gave a detailed account of he and a Russian cadet sliding all over the messroom as they tried to mop the floor during a spell of eight-foot ocean swells. Alan was given the nickname “Curious George” for his inquisitiveness and friendliness he showed the Russians. In the streets of Istanbul, he engaged locals with a pickup soccer game, later writing in his journal, “I have found that no matter what country you are from, or what language you speak, if you say ‘football’ and are nice, the world will open up to you.” Off the coast of Italy, his hands taped up from blisters, Alan finally climbed the Druzhba’s highest ratline, an eight-inch-wide rope rung, and clipped himself into the much anticipated “royal yard.” He described a spectacular view of the island of Sicily at sunset and gazing down at the ship’s stern through the evening’s half-light, where silhouettes of other sailors stood about. He wrote about the elation he felt when watching the ship rock back and forth below him. “I’ve never felt this kind of freedom and adventure in all my life.”
On July 3, the Druzhba reached the Canary Islands and Tenerife. The next day the Russians threw a surprise Fourth of July party for the Americans. The celebration was videotaped, and months after Alan died, someone from the ship mailed a VHS copy to my family. Shortly before I left for Tenerife, I finally watched it. In one shot you can see Alan in the background, doing pull-ups on a taut rope attached to the mizzen boom. He is quiet, withdrawn. Recently, I met with one of the American sailors who were on the Druzhba with Alan, and I asked him what he remembered about their layover in Tenerife. “Most of us stayed out at the clubs all night and slept it off during the day,” he recalled. “But Alan didn’t drink. He stayed on the ship most of the time reading.” Between this new insight and what I had seen on the video, I guessed that Alan might have felt somewhat out of place. The shipmate continued, “Alan talked about climbing the mountains. A couple of us wanted to go with him, but when we went to his cabin, he was already gone.”
It was early evening when Alan penned his last journal entry—the unfinished letter to Derek—and stepped ashore. He walked through Muelle Sur toward Valleseco. He carried nothing with him. He longed for a night of solitude in nature. He turned to the mountains.
Weej, Francesco and I walked from Muelle Sur back to the rental car, stopped off at a gas station to pick up extra bottles of water and turned up a road past a cluster of houses and shops—the village of Valleseco. Soon the road narrowed, with steep hairpin turns that required Francesco to keep his foot on the gas at all times. If the car stalled, I was sure we’d have to roll back down the mountain backwards and start over again. Finally, our little green Fiat reached what was clearly the end of the road. Francesco parked and we tumbled out, taking in the spectacular view below us. Beyond the colorful houses of Valleseco, the shimmering blue Atlantic was framed by the steep sides of the vale. As Weej and Francesco pulled our backpacks from the car, I investigated one of the two driveways leading farther up the hill. The crumbling pavement turned to dirt, and through some rose bushes, I made out an elderly couple sitting in the shade in front of a modest cinderblock house. They were staring at the sea. I called to them, but got no response. Finally, a young woman in a blue soccer jersey ducked out of the doorway, squinted into the late-afternoon sun and waved for me to come over. Walking toward her, I rehearsed a Spanish translation of the three sentences I’d been waiting twenty-five years to say.
“My name is Andrew. I’ve come from the United States. I’m here to find the place where my brother died.” Before I could get halfway through the last sentence, the woman’s face lit up with recognition. She drew a rapid breath and reached out to touch my arm. “Yes! The English speaker,” she said in Spanish. “We remember him.” The way she said it, the familiarity in her voice and a certain sadness that dawned in her eyes, left me taken aback. While it’s likely she said “Lo recordamos,” the words that somehow translated in my head were different. “Te esperamos” was what I thought I heard. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
She introduced herself as Yadira Isabel. She was only six years old when the search and rescue team ascended to La Cardonera, a helicopter cutting across the sky before a full moon.
She introduced herself as Yadira Isabel. She was only six years old when the search and rescue team ascended to La Cardonera, a helicopter cutting across the sky before a full moon. What she remembers most is the story often recounted by her father, Bienvenido Alverez. Bienvenido was bringing his goats down from the mountains and came across a young hiker, a teenager with curly red hair, brimming with enthusiasm, who spoke little Spanish. They communicated with hand signals. Bienvenido offered him a bed in his house, but the young man insisted on hiking into the mountains. He kept gesturing between the rising moon and the trail ahead. Thirty-six hours later, Bienvenido heard the missing-person alert on the radio and walked four miles to the city center to give information to the Guardia Civil.
Bienvenido Alverez. The last person to speak to Alan. I wanted to know more. Every detail of that conversation. I suddenly had a thirst for the particulars like never before. When I asked Yadira if her father still lived in La Cardonera; a sadness washed over her. “Desaparecio en alta mar,” she said wistfully. He disappeared at sea. Yadira recounted how, ten years ago, her father and another man capsized their boat off the coast of Tenerife. The other fisherman was rescued, but Bienvenido was never seen again.
Yadira and I were joined by Weej and Francesco, as well as Yadira’s aunt Casilda, Bienvenido’s younger sister. Casilda was in her sixties and had clear memories of the events surrounding Alan’s death. She remembered Derek’s visit ten years prior and asked why we hadn’t come with him. “We weren’t ready until now,” said Weej, taking the words out of my mouth. Meanwhile, Yadira’s grandparents sat silently nearby, their eyes fixed on the ocean, waves breaking in the far distance below them. Yadira told me they spend most of their days in that very spot, hardly moving. The afternoon light was beautiful, so I asked permission to take photographs of them. My shutter fired away and I asked Petra, the grandmother, what she liked most about the vista. “The storms approach from the sea,” she said, coming alive for a moment. “We like to see them coming.”
To find the exact spot where Alan died, Yadira advised that we speak to her uncle Nicolas, a seventy-two-year-old shepherd who knew the mountains better than anyone. We began walking in the direction of his house, but quickly discovered the man waiting for us around the corner. Word had already spread that three foreigners had arrived in La Cardonera. Nicolas, sinewy and strong, led a brawny black goat at the end of a rope. His gaze was piercing, yet his demeanor was calm. Speaking softly, he told us he knew where Alan fell and would be glad to take us there. But we’d have to go the next morning, for it was already too late in the day. Weej asked me to translate a question about where we might be able to sleep for the night, but before I could do so, Nicolas pointed his shepherd’s staff toward the mountains. “Follow that trail. After some time, you’ll come to a cave. Sleep there, and I’ll come collect you at nine tomorrow morning.” After a quick goodbye to Yadira and her family, Francesco, Weej and I climbed west along steep switchback trails that cut erratically through sagebrush and clusters of cacti. The volcanic soil was loose and crumbled with every step. We occasionally lost the path and had to branch out to explore different options. Lizards scurried under rocks while small brown birds hopped between flowering lobelia plants. As we gained altitude, the seascape blossomed. The port city of Tenerife lay nestled on the shore. Its massive freighters now looked like miniatures.
After hiking for an hour, we discovered an earthy cavern that would be our camp spot for the night. We were surprised to find a nylon camping tent, presumably left by another shepherd. We rolled out our sleeping bags on the cool, flat rocks next to it. Dusk was upon us, and we walked a short distance along the hillside to a flat spot on the trail. Eating sandwiches and passing around a bottle of wine, we stared at the sea, talking about our lives and our futures. Weej flipped to one of the last pages in Alan’s journal and read a passage that Alan quoted—a parable from Thoreau’s writings on Walden Pond: Why do you stay here and live this mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you? Those same stars twinkle over other fields than these…
June 25, 1990—The Middle of the Mediterranean.
To Mr. Cannon.
“I have decided to keep a journal for you, as I sail across the ocean and read Walden.”
Thus Alan began an unfinished letter to his high school English teacher. He went on to examine the parable of John Farmer, Thoreau’s allegorical representation of the common man who hears enchanting notes from a flute and a voice that calls to him, “Why do you stay here and live a mean moiling life, when a glorious existence is possible for you?” By the end of the parable, John Farmer is persuaded to put aside his “mundane thoughts” and consider practicing “some new austerity, to let his mind descend into his body and redeem it, and treat himself with ever-increasing respect.”
Alan wrote to Mr. Cannon, “A glorious existence is possible for everyone, I believe. Although opportunities may be limited, a glorious existence is possible in terms of spirit.” Alan describes the nurturing of his own spirit as love, friendship, openness and warmth. And red-blooded adventure. “I went to the woods because I wanted to…live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
It wasn’t long after we woke up that we heard Nicolas announce his arrival from the other side of the cactus plant. “Canario esta aqui!” The Canary Islander is here. Nicolas had arrived early, and we tidied up our campsite before following him on the path that would lead us farther west into the mountains. The trail soon became increasingly hard to make out and precariously steep in some places. I questioned our guide as to how my brother might have come even this far—alone and guided only by moonlight. The shepherd explained that the trails were utilized more back then. They had since become more or less abandoned, as there were fewer people keeping animals in the mountains. He also spoke of two recent, historic storms. “The rains washed away most of the trail. It’s twice as bad today as it was twenty-five years ago.”
After forty minutes of gaining altitude and struggling through sage and cacti, we stepped onto a narrow plateau about twenty feet wide. Both sides dropped steeply into craggy ravines. The morning sun was punishing, and the four of us traded long swigs from a shared water bottle. Nicolas drew a wide arc over the ground with his staff and lowered a crooked finger down from the sky. “This is where the helicopter landed,” he said solemnly. “They dropped the rescue team off here and prepared the stretcher before they carried it down.” Nicolas continued to explain that as the helicopter hovered above the ravine, the search and rescue team put Alan’s body in a rescue basket, which was then pulled back up by a cable. Weej, Francesco and I quietly absorbed these new details. I pondered the difficulty of landing the helicopter on such a small patch of earth. “So where did they find him?” Weej asked. Nicolas didn’t respond and motioned for us to follow him.
The four of us walked slowly along a narrow escarpment of gnarled volcanic boulders, then climbed carefully on all fours onto a promontory of black rock that was just wide enough for all of us to comfortably stand. From there, we had an unobstructed view of three peaks, each connected by a fragile spine of rock with a nearly vertical drop-off on both sides. The farthest mountain was the highest, an impressive peak with a round top leading down to steep flanks. The middle peak was the Roque Muela, Molar Rock—a rectangular cluster of vertical rock formations, about the size of a box truck, which indeed looked like a tooth bursting from the earth. Finally, the closest peak, about one hundred yards from where we stood, was a less distinctive protrusion of black rock, a sizable hump of earth and stone that stood as a gateway to the farther, more impressive peaks. To get to those peaks, one would have to climb to the top of this one. Nicolas pointed to the south face, where we could make out a thin shelf in the rock—not nearly a path, but a possible, however precarious, route of passage that appeared to wend its way to the top. Below it was sixty feet of sheer cliff. According to our Canario guide, Alan was trying to get on top of that hump in order to traverse the ridge to the taller peaks. Or perhaps he had already summited them and was trying to make his way out of the mountains. In any case, going one direction or the other, this was where he fell. Silence reigned. Our brother’s last moment unfurled before us.
Without any of us saying a word, we all knew we wouldn’t cross to the base of the cliff. The ravine was entirely impassable—not much more than spires of rock that dropped into blackness. Nicolas hypothesized that Alan had taken an old trail that cut along the side of the ridge, a path that today no longer exists. He still couldn’t explain how my brother traversed the ravine that separated us from the rock where he fell. He would have had to scramble over enormous boulders and climb impossibly steep volcanic soil. I had a strange thought that I could not shake: I’m surprised that he got as far as he did.
We stood in silence for about ten minutes, staring out at the three peaks before us. Weej threw a rock he had picked up from the slopes of Mount Kenya. I held some black crow feathers in my fist, which I’d long ago collected from the woods near our childhood home in Massachusetts. I released them in the wind. Air currents spiraled them into the shadows beyond my sight. On the top of the stone promontory where we all stood, Weej and I built a small cairn, piling stones that Francesco and Nicolas solemnly passed to us. The view in every direction was extraordinary—expansive mountain ridges spread out like fingers. Their tops were sharp and knobby like the knuckles of a reclining giant, the ocean asleep at his fingertips. The breeze carried the smell of sage, which reminded me of summers I spent in Paradise Valley, Montana. I felt close to Alan, and at the same time I felt close to home.
We quietly retraced our steps back to La Cardonera, winding down the same faded switchback trails we hiked in on. When we arrived at Nicolas’s house, his wife came outside to greet us with bottles of cold ginger soda, which tasted like heaven. We expressed our gratitude to Nicolas, and he and Francesco embraced. I watched the Canario’s eyes well up with tears. “I’m happy to have walked with you,” was all he said. We took one last look at the mountains, then loaded into the car and rolled back down the serpentine road toward the blue sea.
Minutes later, my brothers and I stood barefoot on a sandy beach a few kilometers north of Tenerife. We plunged into the ocean in our boxer shorts, refreshed by the cool water, and let the salty current float us a short ways down the shoreline. After our swim, we followed a local’s recommendation to a shady sidewalk café, where into the late afternoon we ate seafood paella and finished two bottles of wine. We laughed about the same stupid stuff we’ve joked about for twenty-five years. I felt like a teenager again.
Early the next morning, Francesco flew to Italy. Weej and I still had most of the day, so we decided to go back into the mountains to see if we could find an alternative route that might lead us—safely—to the peak of the highest mountain. We reckoned that the third summit was Alan’s objective. “If we can find a sound route, let’s see if we can make the summit,” said Weej with characteristic optimism. It would have been a grand tribute to our brother, but it was not to be. After two hours of scrambling up boulder-filled ravines and bushwhacking from one overgrown switchback trail to another, we stopped in a tiny oasis of shade under a cactus plant. My legs had long, bloody cuts from where sage and cacti had slashed them, and I was worried about our water supply. “This is far enough for me,” I said. Weej wanted to continue a short distance to the top of the ridge to see if he could find an established trail. The terrain was steep, but not dangerously so, and we’d be within shouting distance. So I waited for him under the cactus and began to think about the poem Alan loved, “Desiderata.”
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. These are the last two lines of the poem. Curiously, Alan’s version was different. The way he wrote it in his journal, and similarly shared it with people he knew, was as this: Be careful. Strive to be happy. Some years ago I searched the Internet and found that most versions of it read cheerful, but indeed there does exist a version of it that reads careful. It’s strange to me that Alan had found the rarer, less published version. Because Alan was cheerful. But contemplating the jagged silhouette of rock spires and impassable mountain cliffs reminded me what Alan was not: careful. At least not as he continued through those moonlit mountains alone.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER, I FOUND MYSELF LYING UNDER A CANARY ISLANDS CACTUS PLANT, STARING UP AT THE VERY MOUNTAINS THAT FOR SO MANY YEARS HAD BEEN THE BACKDROP OF MY DARKEST DREAMS.
Why did he push himself to those last three peaks, a walk that was clearly perilous and uncertain? The cave where we slept, or even the high mountain plateau where the rescue helicopter landed, were remote and stunning locations, inspiring and adventurous. Why didn’t he just stop there? As I asked these questions, one answer crystallized: That glorious existence. Alan wanted to seize the day, to feel alive to the bone. He didn’t want to just suck the marrow out of life. He wanted to drink it in cupped hands. Under a full moon. On top of the highest mountain he could find. He was eighteen years old. He was invincible. Twenty-five years later, I found myself lying under a Canary Islands cactus plant, staring up at the very mountains that for so many years had been the backdrop of my darkest dreams. This was where I often saw my brother, and sometimes myself, grasping for earth and falling into blackness. Now I didn’t fear the mountains. Looking at the dark-green ribbon of cacti-dotted summits with the sun sailing above them, I saw they were beautiful. A few weeks after Alan died, a friend gave us a hardcover copy of “Desiderata,” which none of us—and certainly Alan—had ever seen before. The drawing on the front cover was a solitary person walking up a steep mountain, with a tapestry of stars above. It looked exactly like the mountain I was staring at now.
Weej finally clambered back to me with bloody shins, shaking his head, explaining it was impossible to go any farther. The ridge turned into a wall of rock. We’d need ropes and harnesses, more water and a whole lot of time. So we went back to our hotel and packed for the airport. I had collected a handful of rocks from the mountain and a bottle of water I filled in a natural spring near the cave. We all agreed we’d drink it together on the day of my upcoming wedding. My backpack was overstuffed to the point that I thought the nylon straps would break, yet Weej was determined that I find room for one more thing: a bottle of Cava that we never got around to opening. I enjoyed watching him empty my pack and repack it with intense focus. I hadn’t felt this close to him in several years and that alone was the best part of the trip for me.
On the plane back to Boston, somewhere across the Atlantic, I was halfway into a movie when I abruptly turned it off. I was restless, feeling something coming over me. Then, I quietly wept. It all came back. It was the first time I had cried for Alan in maybe fifteen years. After his death, grief was something I experienced in sudden, irrepressible blasts. Like being struck by an ocean wave. It happened repeatedly, without warning, but it diminished in frequency over the years. Then, about ten or twelve years after he died, and somewhat to my surprise, I noticed that those moments of sudden heartache had stopped. I began to wonder if I had any more in me. I realized that I did. Of course I did. I missed my older brother. I longed for the shared moments we never had, and I grieved for the life he didn’t get to live. Having finally seen the place where he died, I mourned his decision to put himself out on that wild mountain ridge by himself. For him, it was romantic and adventurous. I can see that. But for me, it took away my older brother. I was sixteen years old.
In the cramped window seat in the back of the Delta flight from Madrid, with my face pressed against the cold plastic, I stared down at the shimmering Atlantic and heard my brother’s song: Climbing up on Solsbury Hill, I could see the city light. Wind was blowing, time stood still. Eagle flew out of the night. He was something to observe, came in close, I heard a voice. Standing, stretching every nerve. Had to listen, had no choice. I did not believe the information. Just had to trust imagination. My heart going boom boom boom. “Son,” he said, “grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.” The last line took on a powerful new meaning for me. It had unexpectedly become the nexus of the journey I made to the Canary Islands. The exchanges with strangers whose lives were momentarily intertwined with the life and death of my brother—even seeing Alan’s death certificate at the public records office—it gave me a deep and sudden feeling of closure. Like I was standing by an open door that took me a quarter of a century to find, tying up loose ends that I didn’t know existed. “Okay, Big Al, I’m here. We can get out of here now.”
Since the summer of 1990, I’ve long imagined the moment when I’d come face to face with that mysterious mountain cliff halfway around the world where my brother fell to his death. In that picture, I saw a painful confrontation with something savage and unknown, a darkness I’d never seen before—in which I’d collapse with unyielding grief and despair. That is what kept me from visiting the Canaries. In the end, it wasn’t like that at all. It was quiet. Peaceful. Far more contemplative than it was emotional. More than anything, I appreciated the beauty of the place. The mountains, alive with wind and birdsongs, seemed timeless. I felt incredibly alive.
The moment that sticks with me most isn’t in the mountains themselves, but rather a snippet of conversation I had in the village of La Cardonera the first hour after we arrived. Weej and Francesco were locking up the car. I was standing next to Yadira, the daughter of the man who was the last person to speak to my brother. The man who heard the missing-person bulletin on the radio and walked the four miles to the police station in Tenerife. The man who, some years later, tragically never returned from a fishing trip. “It’s good that you’ve come here,” Yadira said in Spanish. She stared at the wide ocean before us, her hand clasped at a string of beads she wore around her neck. She then said something I initially struggled to understand, for her voice trembled, and tears filled her eyes. As the words fell into place in my own language, I, too, became choked up. “You’ll always have these mountains,” said Yadira. “And I’ll always have the sea.”
Andrew Mudge is a writer and filmmaker who has directed numerous short films, documentaries and music videos. His debut feature film, The Forgotten Kingdom, was selected for the IFP Filmmaker Labs and has garnered top awards at over a dozen international film festivals. He is a graduate of Colorado College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.