Mount Rinjani was a sketch in charcoal. Acres of burned-out grassland, the northeastern flank of the mountain eaten up, turned under. At the trail’s edge, scorched alang-alang grass trembled, the husks fragile and ashy and blowing away.
A bleak scene for a honeymoon. But that didn’t matter. We were here for adventure, however it might look.
“This must have gone in the last few weeks,” I said.
Caroline, my hiking companion for the past ten years, my wife for the past ten days, adjusted the bandana around her nose and mouth. “I’m glad we weren’t here when it did.”
Dust curled around my running shoes, dust caked in the sunscreen on my legs, dust drifted in through my own bandana-mask, so that what I spat out every few steps was like a mouthful of sesame paste. This was late October, Indonesia’s dry season, and it had been a bad one. So bad, I’d read, that wildfires on nearby Java and Sumatra had already burned up 8,000 square miles of forest and peat swamp, threatening rare species, spreading a choking haze across Southeast Asia, and generating more CO2 every day than the U.S. economy.
Above us, Rinjani wavered in the heat, one of those platonic-ideal volcanoes, the kind you see in books about dinosaurs. A nearly symmetrical cone blown twelve thousand feet up out of the ocean. At the base was a skirt of tropical forest, which gave way to a broad grassland slope, and above that, where the rim rock grasped above tree line, a row of gray teeth.
Our destination held the promise of an altogether different world. The night’s camp on the crater rim overlooked the massive caldera, which looked like the inside of a thousand-year-old egg: a lake the color blue as in dreams and, rising from the east side of the lake, the smaller, active cone of Gunung Barujari. Another three thousand feet up on the rim was the summit. We planned to rise at two the next morning to scale the peak before sunrise. From there, we’d be able to see not only the caldera, but the circumference of Lombok and a good span of Bali, too.
We hadn’t planned much for the trip, which we’d squeezed in between the wedding and a move abroad. We’d pointed a finger at Indonesia, chosen Lombok on a friend’s recommendation, because the one thing we both wanted to do was to see inside a volcano.
“Rinjani,” our friend had said. “Go to Rinjani.”
We hired our guide, a 23-year-old Sasak named Jamal, when we arrived on Lombok. He met us in Sembalun, one of two gateways to Gunung Rinjani National Park, dressed in jeans and insulated winter boots and a black leather ball cap. He approached the climb in the manner of someone who had done it so many times he’d lost count. “I spend more nights on the mountain than my house,” he said. “Rinjani is home.”The trail cut straight up the mountain. Passed through a stretch of forest and emerged onto a small table of rock. Below, I saw the tin roofs of Sembalun sparkling. Though the climb wasn’t much steeper than some I’d lately done in the States, the soil was incompetent and the dust levied a tax on every step I took.
Two miles in, the trail hooked around a series of small ridges. From this vantage, I saw something that I hadn’t been able to before, a white plume on the mountain’s face, a mile and a half upslope.
“Is that smoke?” I said.
Caroline followed my gaze. “Looks like it.”We pushed on through the early afternoon. Jamal encouraged us to take things slowly, rest often. “It gets harder,” he said. “Keep your energy.”
Clouds formed near the rim, but promised no relief from the heat. They were thin, withering things that arose and vanished, as though the mountain were gasping. We stopped to sip water in a stand of scrubby trees. I eyed the smoke. It was thicker than it had been at lunch. But I couldn’t tell if the fire was growing, or if we were just closer to it.
“What do you think?” I asked Caroline.
“Let’s keep an eye on it. Maybe half an hour more, then reassess?”
The wind was starting to pick up, blowing across the mountain’s face. We walked for a while in silence. I observed the mountain. The trail drifted north and followed a watercourse for a while. The ravine was dry now, but seasonal rains had carved ethereal, wavelike sculptures into the rock. A raptor of some variety, maybe a goshawk, circled on a vector of warm air. Then the trail and the ravine diverged and we climbed a ridge, scrambling over outcrops of andesite and welded tuff. I looked again at the plume of smoke. Our plume. I was beginning to think of it as an unwanted companion on our climb.
Up a switchback, I watched a man and woman descend. They were moving fast, a few hundred yards ahead of their guide, who seemed to be hustling to keep up with them. When they got close, the woman pointed with her trekking pole and called out, “Are there still fires down there?”
“There?” Caroline said, looking back. “No. Were there before?”
“Oh!” the woman said. She had a German accent. “This whole place was burning yesterday. It was right behind us. It started down below, and then it caught up to us. We had to outrun it.”
“The flames were, like, right here,” the man said, waving his arms behind him.
“They’re not burning now?”
“Not that we could see,” I said.
The man pointed uphill at the plume. “That’s what’s left of it. It burned all night.”
“Be safe,” the woman said.
We nodded goodbye. My worry was beginning to grow, like our plume, into full-blown fear. But the fear met countervailing winds of resolve. We’d come all the way out here, I thought. We were going to get a look inside that caldera. I watched the fire. Now I could see flames. Trees were disappearing in the smoke and emerging again like ghosts. The wind was steady, and seemed to be driving the fire toward the pass where we were heading. It all seemed far away still, but I wondered whether we’d be able to clear it in time.
And then I stopped. I looked around me. I looked at the scorched ground, looked up at the peak, looked at Caroline. Hang on a second, I thought. This is our honeymoon. What are we doing? And also, what kind of reasonable risk assessment involves wondering whether we’ll clear a wildfire before camp? I remembered a bit of news I’d read that week, about seven hikers who had died in a surprise flare-up on Java’s Mount Lawu.
“What are you thinking?” I asked Caroline.
“It looks pretty bad,” she said. “And the Coloradan in me is saying don’t fuck around with wildfires.”
Though I didn’t want to let the summit go, I was grateful to her. The fact that we were reading the situation the same way, even if our fear was disproportionate, made me think we might be right.
I pulled my bandana down and told Jamal we were nervous about going up.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “If there’s no fire, then no danger.”
“But there is fire.”
He smiled. “But no fire on the trail. So no danger.”
“But what if there is fire on the trail? Up there?”
“Then, maybe danger.”
“We don’t want to put you in danger,” Caroline said. “Or ourselves.”
“I feel bad. You don’t make it to the top.”
“Well, we’ll feel a lot worse getting burned up,” I said.
A crew of five came up from below. We stood aside and let them pass.
“They’re going up,” Jamal said. “No problem.”
“It’s all right,” Caroline said. “We’d really feel safer turning back.”
He demurred, shook his head, looked up at the mountain.
“You will be happy?”
“We’ll be very happy not to burn to death on our honeymoon.”
We turned back.On the way down, my first instinct was regret. Here we were in Indonesia, giving up on the one thing we’d wanted to do, the one big venture we’d planned for. Clearly we were overestimating the danger. The burn was probably smaller than it looked, and further away. And maybe the brush fires here in Indonesia weren’t like fires in the American West. Maybe they weren’t Moloch-entities, things that make their own energy, spin their own weather, leap through space, move about as though with consciousness. We were turning it into something much bigger than it was.
But my perspective changed when we passed another group on the way up, and Jamal stopped to talk with their guide. Translating, Jamal said, “I told him, ‘They want to go back because of the fires.’ He said, ‘Good idea.’”
Now, how was that for a loaded phrase? At first I felt vindicated. But then, I thought, if heading back was such a good idea, then why was this guy still leading his crew up the mountain? And what about the others ahead of us? It cast Jamal’s reticence in a strange light. “You will be happy?” he had asked. Was the pressure to get clients to the top of the mountain so great that it came at the expense of safety? It would make sense. The incentives are all in the right places: you don’t get people to the top, you get a couple of bad TripAdvisor reviews, and there goes business. In a place that’s both less dangerous and less regulated than, say, the big Himalayan peaks, it’s easy to see how this kind of thinking can take root. So, yes, I felt vindication, but also a twinge of guilt, for being implicated in an arrangement that took this kind of approach to wilderness.And this went ahead and resonated right on out into the rest of my life. I think that I often venture out with the implicit sense that getting there is what’s really important. Yes, yes, there’s the journey. Of course the journey matters. That limitless feeling that comes when a redwood forest cedes to the blue Pacific. Or when I find prairie-fire flowers flaming red-hot out of a crevice where nothing ought to be able to grow, or spot the rare hairstreak butterfly, the pygmy rattlesnake, the red-tailed hawk. But I have to remind myself to pay attention to that stuff, and if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t really do or see or feel any of it if it weren’t for the destination pulling me along.
I’m conditioned to think this way, and I would imagine a lot of folks who consider themselves “outdoor types” are too. The top of the mountain—that’s where the action’s at. And we’re incredibly disappointed when we don’t reach it. It’s plausible to say that this is our culture’s dominant paradigm for approaching and experiencing wild places. But it’s a troubling one. In my mind, it reflects a fundamentally consumptive approach toward the outdoors. We lose something essential, I think, when we approach wild places as things to summit—and not submit to.As we descended Rinjani, I found that not having the destination in mind changed my whole perception of the place. It was as though I’d started on a different kind of walk. I was more attuned to the land around me. I noticed the palette of pebbles welded into the melange rock. I heard the muezzin call in the valley below. I saw the burned ground and remembered its context, its history. Treeless grasslands like this one weren’t endemic to Lombok, but grew mostly as a result of centuries of clear-cutting.
It wasn’t until the destination had been revoked that I was actually able to be there.
As I’ve turned this story over in my head, I’ve reflected that there’s a lot of power in turning back. It’s one of the unsung pleasures of an outdoor life. If we become more open to turning around, to not getting where we plan to go, it changes us in subtle ways. It makes us less consumers of wilderness and more observers, or even generative participants in it. I’d argue that when we have cause to bail—and we probably do more often than we think—we should be glad of it.
Perhaps I’m treading on problematic ground here, a male writer offering this conclusion in a publication that rightly gives voice to badassery performed in the outdoors, and particularly that performed by women. But I’d also suggest that badassery can take many different forms, and that we might find common cause here, we adventurers, in challenging an outdoor culture that positions our wild places as places to be consumed. For my part, when I have cause to bail, I’m going to do it, and do it with aplomb.
That evening, Caroline and I discovered that our decision had been a prescient one. While we set up our tents at the base of the mountain, another guide drove up on a motorbike. Rinjani was shut down, he said. They’d closed it an hour after we’d turned back. The fires had spread, and down inside the caldera Gunung Barujari had erupted, throwing ash half a mile up into the sky. Park police were at the top now, evacuating the other crews.After sunset, we watched a small orange glow appear behind a stand of trees a mile up from us on the mountain’s north slope, where before it hadn’t burned. The glow brightened as the night deepened, like an otherworldly sunrise that cast the mountain in gold light. Caroline and I set an alarm and woke every hour to check its progress.
In the morning, the mountain wore a swath of black three miles wide.Jamal came to sit with us. He looked exhausted.
“Did you sleep well?” I asked.
“I had a dream last night,” he said. “I dreamed that I woke up and looked outside to check the fire, and it was right at the tent. In the night it came for us.”
Marshall Worsham is a writer, (mis)adventurer, and newlywed from Savannah, Georgia. He lives in Taipei.