One recent afternoon in Morocco, a fifty-nine-year-old former Royal Marine Commando named Phil Asher walked me into a desolate valley in the Atlas Mountains, shook my hand, and abandoned me. Asher, whom I had met only the previous evening, has a gray beard, a piercing gaze, and a bone-dry sense of humor. He teaches survival skills to people who have never fast-roped from a helicopter or killed their dinner. That morning, he had spent several hours educating me on the rudiments of living in the wilderness, alone. Now I was in the wilderness, alone.
The travel firm that organized my trip, Black Tomato, calls this experience Get Lost—a playful misnomer, since the idea is to do the opposite. A client is dropped somewhere spectacular and scantly populated, and challenged to find his or her way out within a given time period. From the moment that Asher left me in the valley, I was allotted two days to walk to a rendezvous point eighteen miles away, over and around mountains.
I had stuffed my backpack with everything that I thought I might need, within strict guidelines set by Asher: no matches, no tent, no phone. My pack contained clothes, paper maps, a compass, two G.P.S. trackers, spare batteries, notepads and pens, a big knife, a sleeping bag, flashlights, fire-lighting equipment, dried food, a few energy-rich snacks, three litres of water, a mosquito shelter, a roll mat, and a tarpaulin. I also carried an old Samsung handset with its sim card removed, so that I could take photographs. Asher reckoned that my bag weighed fifty pounds. I was going to trek for two days, at altitude, with the equivalent of my six-year-old daughter strapped to my back.
If I got hurt, I was to press an SOS button on one of the trackers, which also featured a rudimentary text-message capability, for sub-SOS emergencies. Asher would leave another three litres of fresh water at the site of my next camp, along with some firewood. Other than that, the assumption was that I’d navigate unassisted to the finish line.
“See you in a couple of days,” Asher said, as he left me. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
He walked away at 3 p.m. Soon afterward, I deliberated whether or not to erect the tarpaulin. The mosquito shelter was mesh: excellent for keeping out bugs but not the rain. Though the area where I found myself was close to the desert, it sometimes rains—and sometimes violently. The tarpaulin was waterproof but tricky to set up. That morning, in a tarp-training seminar, Asher had emphasized the need for geometric precision, accurate assessment of wind direction, the proper use of knots for the guy ropes. I’m not a knot person, and I had butchered every attempt to make the correct series of loops to fix the ropes.
I decided to skip the tarp. The sky had been blue all afternoon. I wanted to gaze at the stars once the sun went down. Moreover, I was uncertain about what kinds of animal or human threats I faced. On the long drive into the mountains, I had been informed that I was in a part of the Atlas range known as the Anti-Atlas, which is near the Sahara desert. That morning, Asher had aired the possibility—rather casually, I thought—of “the odd scorpion, and maybe some snakes.” It also seemed possible, if unlikely, that someone living in the area might choose to do a lone hiker harm. I preferred a clear view of whatever might approach my sleeping spot.
On a flat and sheltered patch of gravel, I laid out my roll mat and put up the mosquito shelter. Satisfied to have completed these tasks, I admired my surroundings. My home for the night was a dry riverbed, at about seven thousand feet above sea level. Obelisks of dark volcanic rock towered on the far side of the valley. I looked up and to my right, where a mountain loomed. The next morning, according to my maps, I would need to spend my first hour or two climbing a thousand feet toward the peak. For now, the views were too gorgeous to contemplate such labor. The afternoon sun was like olive oil; the rocks in the valley glistened.
In the early evening, I gathered fuel: tiny pieces of dried bush, slivers of wood I’d sliced off a larger log. I made a circle of stones for a fireplace, and inside it I placed my dried bush stems, with a pyramid of wood shavings on top. To start a fire, I used the Asher-approved technique of striking a fire steel, so that a glowing piece of ferrite flew away from me. A spark lit the stems, and I added ever-larger pieces of wood. My fire was soon crackling. I had not excelled in fire-making school earlier in the day, and I felt like shouting joyfully to my teacher. But he was long gone.
I boiled water, then rehydrated a dried meal-in-a-bag. It was among the worst dining experiences of my life. The texture of my “Burger and Beans” brought to mind viscera. (“It’s just calories,” Asher had said, when we ate a similarly unappealing bag dish during training.) With the leftover boiled water, I made a billycan of instant coffee, to take the taste away.
By 6:30 p.m., the sun was falling behind the mountains. I brushed my teeth and removed my contact lenses, then took a shit behind a huge rock, armed with a packet of Kleenex. When the light died, I climbed into bed, began charging one of my G.P.S. devices with a battery pack, and made notes in a rainproof pad, which was illuminated by a flashlight strapped to my chest. Soon I flicked off the light, then I stared for a while at the thousands of blazing stars, before trying to close my eyes.
I was half asleep when I was jolted awake by beams of light and the sound of crunching rocks. Two men with flashlights were headed toward me, with some urgency, and they were calling out something. I caught a glimpse of one of the men: his face was partially obscured by a scarf. I unzipped the shelter, scrambled for my flashlight, put on my boots, and, in a panic, tried to remember where I had packed my knife.
The Black Tomato travel company has predicated its business, in part, on the notion that many affluent vacationers no longer wish to lounge for a week by an infinity pool: they want to earn their enjoyment in some way, either through physical exertion or by doing good works abroad. Black Tomato specializes in adventure, and its Web site beckons daring customers with such offerings as “iceland: snorkel and dive between tectonic plates.” The company’s packages are expensive. Some cost more than fifteen thousand dollars per person.
The concept of Get Lost isn’t only that clients must find their way out of desolate situations; they have no clue where in the world they are going, until the last minute. Participants are also encouraged to surrender their cell phones. The imperative is not just to disappear but to disconnect. After an expedition ends, clients are pampered at a beautiful hotel before flying home. The locations for Get Lost range from the Mongolian steppe to the jungles of Costa Rica to the deserts of Namibia. Its clientele is similarly various. Predictably enough, several tech bros have taken such trips. But the firm has also arranged an ambitious expedition for a newlywed couple, and for a stay-at-home mother—who, upon returning home, applied to join the Air Force.
As soon as I read about the idea, I also wanted to get lost—although I couldn’t quite explain the urge. I live in Manchester, England, and, unlike many of my friends there, I have never been an enthusiastic camper. In fact, I avoid such weekends if I can, not least because British campsites are laden with persnickety rules about where you can wash up and where your kids can play sports. It’s like being back at school, except less comfortable. You have to put on your shoes if you need to pee in the night. Also, I’m a huge man, and I find crouching in tents annoying. Yet the Get Lost concept had an enticing sense of scale, and there didn’t seem to be too many rules. During the various lockdowns, unable to travel, I had longed for adventure. Here it was.
I had some reservations about Get Lost. It would feel strange for me to travel without having first researched my destination. In my work as a reporter, I go abroad often, and I would never fly to a new country without at least reading a few books, or talking to other journalists about their experiences there. But I realized that it might be freeing, just this once, to travel with few preconceptions and with no control. I discussed Get Lost with my wife. She said that it sounded fun; I also detected an eye roll. We agreed on my taking a trip lasting six days. Black Tomato started preparing an itinerary that would begin in early October.
Two weeks before takeoff, Black Tomato sent me a packing list. The suggested items—not too many warm clothes, sunblock, hiking boots, long-sleeved shirts, a waterproof jacket—indicated some mixture of desert and mountain terrain. Because the trip’s time frame was tight, I thought that it wouldn’t make sense for the company to send me too far from Greenwich Mean Time. I guessed I’d be going somewhere in North Africa. Two days before I flew, I received my tickets: Manchester to Marrakech.
The morning after my arrival in the city, Rachid Imerhane, a genial mountain guide with slicked-back hair and an impish smile, collected me from my hotel. I turned off my phone and put it in a bag in the back of the car. We travelled ten hours to the starting point of my adventure. I tried to winkle out my destination from Imerhane, but he was implacable. Once we left Marrakech, I did a lot of staring out the window. The experience was like a very pleasant kidnapping, with coffee breaks.
We drove over high, winding passes and down into a desert plateau, through the city of Ouarzazate, which is sometimes called the Hollywood of Africa, because it has a thriving film business. A giant clapper board adorns the entrance to the town; “Gladiator” was filmed there, among many other movies. After Ouarzazate, the High Atlas Mountains rose to our left. On our right was the Anti-Atlas. We turned right onto a deserted tarmac road, and out of the plateau.
The elevation increased, the roads becoming narrower and snakier. We swapped cars, to let our driver return to Marrakech. A sturdy white Toyota took us up gravel and dirt tracks, higher into the mountains. We gave a farmer and his two bashful, doe-eyed children—a boy and a girl—a lift to a small homestead at the top of a remote road. They were about the same age as my kids, who are nine and six, and evidently not used to seeing tourists. Their father—speaking Berber, which Imerhane translated—said that his son had once visited a city, but his daughter had never left the mountains. Imerhane remarked to me, “This is a Morocco that most Moroccans don’t know.”
Finally, at sunset, after many harum-scarum switchbacks, we reached an apex where two high valleys met. Standing there, in a black T-shirt and combat pants, was Phil Asher. He shook my hand firmly and suggested that I put on a jacket. “It’s about to get cold,” he said, and he was right. He tended to be right about things like that.
Asher motioned toward one of two camp chairs that had been set up beneath a tarpaulin. He explained what my expedition would entail, which seemed daunting; what lessons he would try to impart to me the following morning, in a brief period of training that seemed insufficient; and where I was going to sleep that night, which was not in the comfortably adorned canvas tent where Asher himself was staying but beneath a mosquito shelter, on a roll mat, by myself. As a first-night treat, I was allowed to eat tagine in the canvas tent with Asher, Imerhane, and Hicham Niaarebene, the driver, who prepared the meal—it turned out that he was also a chef. The three men composed Black Tomato’s support team in the mountains.
Asher, looking me dead in the eye, asked, “What do you want to get out of all this?”
I didn’t have a good answer. I also felt a jangle of nerves.
As the two men with flashlights approached me in the dark, I realized that they were calling out in French, which I know well enough to get by. They were curious about what I was doing alone in the mountains. I clambered to my feet and shook hands with them while trying to explain that I was going on a long walk. They shrugged, looked at each other, and left.
I wasn’t sure what to think. Although I was almost certain that this encounter was no cause for alarm, I got out the tracker and sent a text saying that I had received a visit from some locals. Imerhane knew people in a nearby village. I figured that he could make a call and work out whether I was in any trouble. I received no reply to the text. It took me a couple of hours to fall asleep.
I woke up at 5:30 a.m.—long before dawn. I was cold, and I hunkered in my sleeping bag, looking at the stars. I think I saw the Plough, although I’ve always been baffled by the constellations—it seems as if one could link any group of stars together to make a pattern. As the light in the valley became milkier, I put on my boots and began my morning chores. I filled my water bottles for the day from a large drum that Asher had left, built a fire for breakfast, cooked a meal, struck the shelter, charged my Samsung, brushed my teeth, and packed my bag. I also donned my yellow-and-black shemagh, or head scarf, which Asher had insisted I wear, telling me that it might be more than a hundred degrees in the sun in the hottest part of the day. In Asher’s words, the scarf would stop my head from “boiling.” I felt ridiculous wearing the shemagh, as if I were in costume as an Afghan warlord, but I wanted my head to remain unboiled. I folded the loose ends around my head and took a selfie. My kids, I knew, would laugh themselves silly when they saw the picture.
As I started on my route for the day, at around 8:15 a.m., I received a message on the tracker, from Asher: “How was your night?” I replied that it was good, but did not receive a response.
According to my maps, I needed to follow the riverbed where I had slept, then take a hard left up a steep valley toward a high peak called Jbel Kouaouch. After I had climbed to about eight thousand feet, I would start to pick my way along an escarpment, eventually descending plateaus and valleys to a plain, where I’d spend the night. The day’s walk was about nine miles.
The first hour was hard. I run most days when I’m at home, but there’s a difference between running and hauling weight. Loose rocks on the ground often gave way, particularly on steep grades. Navigating posed its own challenges. The G.P.S. kept me pointed in the correct general direction, but it was sometimes fiendish to pick out the precise path that I was supposed to take. Asher had encouraged me to follow goat droppings or boot marks. Sometimes I found them, but for nearly two hours I frequently found myself off course, scrabbling up and down steep banks to relocate a path. After a while, I became better at spotting the slightly different shade of the zigzagging trail.
I stopped to catch my breath, and looked behind me. Across the valley, perhaps a mile away, I could see the white Toyota. My eyesight wasn’t good enough to discern any people, but I imagined Asher and Imerhane watching me with binoculars as I ascended Jbel Kouaouch. I waved, but couldn’t see if anyone returned the gesture.
After about an hour, I reached a view so stunning as to be almost comical. In front of me was a deep valley, gouged as if from clay by a potter’s thumb, with reddish mountains beyond. I stopped for a few minutes and took a long drink. My shirt was wet with perspiration, and the wind was cool enough to cause me to shiver. I pressed on.
A rhythm set in. I’d walk for about fifty minutes, then rest for ten. At one stopping point, I noticed some men with mules at the bottom of a nearby valley, headed roughly in the same direction. The previous day, Imerhane had pointed out some nomads making their way from the mountains to the desert as the temperatures cooled, telling me that the range was one of the last places in Morocco where traditional nomads still lived. I wondered if the men I was watching were also nomads. I was jealous of their pack animals: they were progressing much faster than I was.
Usually, I’d look out and see nothing moving in the landscape. Some rocky expanses reminded me of footage from the Mars Rover. I also thought about Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, with its hardy teen-age heroes crossing the American West. Those books were the first adult novels I truly loved, and a friend had read a passage from “All the Pretty Horses” at my wedding. Some of McCarthy’s lines came back to me as I walked: “Things separate from their stories have no meaning,” and “Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.” There was a great bit about courage that I couldn’t quite locate. It was irritating not to be able to check it. In my twenties, I could recall whole poems and passages from novels, and sometimes say on what page of a book the lines fell. No more. I thought about how much of my memory I had outsourced to Google. (I found the McCarthy quotation when I got home: “All courage was a form of constancy. . . . It was always himself that the coward abandoned first.”)
The sun remained hidden behind thin clouds all morning, and the temperature was about perfect for walking. I finally spotted some living creatures: small birds with yellow bellies, flitting from bush to bush. I didn’t know what they were called. Every time I rounded a corner, I’d encounter a sublime new gorge or escarpment. In the haze, the horizons of distant peaks braided together. The nature writer Robert MacFarlane observes, in his book “Landmarks,” that a Scottish painter once described this phenomenon to him as landskein. “Skein” can mean either a coil of yarn or a flock of birds flying in a V formation. Landskein, a neologism, uses both, knitting the V’s of mountaintops together. Each time I saw the jagged, braided horizon, I thought about how happy I was to know the word.
Now and then, I’d hear something scurry beneath a bush as I walked past—Asher’s warnings about scorpions and snakes kept rattling in my head. At other times, I’d half turn at the sound of a distant rockfall whose provenance I could not place.
At around lunchtime, I was on a sharp descent when I noticed some mules tethered in a clearing to my right, and a tent from which men’s voices could be heard. It was the group I had seen earlier in the day. I put my head in the entranceway and said hello. The men were making Berber tea, which is the color of rust. They seemed delighted to see a stranger, and came out to greet me. Their grooved, hard faces confirmed a lifetime spent outdoors. Next to them, I looked like a newborn. They gave me bread, a tin of sardines, and a glass of the tea, which was as sweet as a candy cane. I happily devoured all of it.
A couple of the men spoke French. As far as I could understand them, they were indeed from an itinerant local group, but a French hiking tour had employed them as porters, to carry luggage in advance and to establish camps. I never saw the hikers—who, unlike me, had a guide—but one of the men gestured toward a pile of heavy bags. I wanted to ask the men more questions about their lives, but they had questions of their own. What had I brought to eat? Where had I slept the night before? Why didn’t I have a tent? And they were astonished that I was alone. “Vous êtes seulement . . . un?” one of them asked.
“Oui,” I replied.
A silence ensued.
“Je suis anglais,” I said, as if that explained everything.
It was time to go. I needed to arrive at my camp with enough time to set up for the night. Before I left, one of the men insisted on checking my maps. I pointed to the spot where I planned to sleep, which was perhaps three miles away. I said, “Pas trop loin”—“Not too far.”
I was impersonating a brave solitary explorer, but I would have been elated to stay in their camp until the next morning. This mountain range was their home turf: they weren’t on some ersatz vision quest. They also seemed to have plenty of food, and would probably cook some for me. Their tent looked comfortable and watertight. They already had a fire going.
I made myself leave. The rules of my expedition demanded that I reach a certain point on the map by a certain time. It wasn’t lost on me how perverse it was to break off an authentic and unusual experience—a chance exchange between mutually interested parties—in order to hew to an arbitrary timetable, on a trip supposedly designed to reconnect me to authentic modes of living. Nevertheless, after snapping a selfie with two of the men, I put on my backpack, consulted the G.P.S., and began to walk down from the clearing. I didn’t turn around. I wasn’t sure that I could stand to see their doubtful looks.
As the elevation decreased, I saw more signs of human activity: the occasional mud-walled farmhouse, an enclosed and irrigated field that seemed like a marvel of engineering in this dusty landscape. My ignorance gnawed at me. I wondered what crops these people grew, and how they survived the winters here. A couple waved at me from the door of their home. A farmer’s dog chased me for a few hundred yards, barking, and then got bored. It was early afternoon, and hot. I was still an hour from camp. My legs were beginning to quiver with the effort of the day. I decided that I needed some sugar.
I removed my pack, and hunted for a bar of Kendal Mint Cake, which I had bought in Manchester specifically for such a moment. Kendal Mint Cake, a chewy and calorific peppermint bar, is made in the Lake District town that bears its name, and has been beloved of British mountaineers and explorers for a century. Ernest Shackleton took Kendal Mint Cake on his Antarctic expeditions. I had last eaten it twenty-eight years ago, when I was thirteen, on the island of Ru’a Fiola, off the west coast of Scotland.
Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I visited Ru’a Fiola three times, to attend a summer camp run by an exuberant, posh man named Torquil Johnson-Ferguson, who had children about my age. Everything about the trip was an adventure. At least twice, I travelled to the camp on my own. My mother put me on a train from London to Glasgow Central, a journey of five hours. I had coins in my bag to call home from a pay phone when I arrived in Glasgow. I walked half a mile from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street station to catch another train, to Oban, on the Scottish west coast. I called home again from Oban. I also had a ten-pound note to spend on a meal. I went both times to a chip shop in Oban, and ordered a “sausage supper”: battered sausage, chips, salt, vinegar. After dinner, I’d meet up with an employee of the camp, who took me and other children out to Ru’a Fiola. It seems impossible now to imagine that my mother sent a preteen alone on this journey. But she was a widow working two jobs, and there didn’t seem another way for me to get there.
My memories of the camp itself are golden. The kids bunked in the main house on the island. The days were full of abseiling, rock climbing, sea fishing, and expeditions to other parts of the Hebrides, where we’d stay in caves. I remember lying flat on my belly with some other children at the edge of a cliff, watching an eagle slalom through the air below us. At night, we’d tell ghost stories by a fire. Johnson-Ferguson told a terrifying one about a local “madwoman” who, long after her suicide, still lit a candle in the window for her husband, who had abandoned her.
At the end of the camp, the children were divided into pairs for an exercise called Survival. You spent a night or two in a deserted patch of a nearby island. You weren’t allowed to take food, but you were given instructions on what you might be able to find to eat—say, rock-pool cockles to boil over a fire. Every few hours, an instructor motored past you on a boat to check that you were all right. There was a distress signal for emergencies, although I can’t remember what it entailed. In any event, Survival didn’t feel dangerous; it felt liberating. In my final year at Ru’a Fiola, I completed the challenge alone. It struck me, while I was muddling my way through the Atlas range, that Get Lost had attracted me because it echoed those early, happy experiences, in which I first felt independence—or a convincing illusion of it.
Time had both burnished and tarnished these memories. I looked online recently to see if there was still a summer camp at Ru’a Fiola. There was not. In 2015, Johnson-Ferguson was jailed for sexually abusing three boys who had attended the island camp in the eighties. The victims, now men, had come forward after some thirty years; they had wept in court while recounting their stories. Two of the incidents of abuse had taken place in caves, presumably during one of the expeditions I had so loved.
I was chilled to learn that I had been exposed to a predator, and felt terrible for the victims. Was it wrong, then, that I remained grateful for my own experiences on the islands? I had been shaped by those summers at Ru’a Fiola. They had encouraged me to be self-sufficient. I wondered whether my children—with their phones, and my ability to digitally track them—would ever feel as free as I did, or whether they should. In Morocco, I was being tracked, yet I was nonetheless enjoying prelapsarian sensations of daring and solitude. It was a strange gift to have nothing to think about but where to take my next step.
I walked into a gully at the edge of a vast plain that abutted a string of hills. In the middle of the plain, thin columns of sandy-colored rock rose to a bulbous overhang. The outcrop looked uncannily like a group of elephants whose trunks were hanging down. The formation was bewitching; I couldn’t stop staring at it. The curves of the elephants’ heads were as clean and smooth as a Barbara Hepworth sculpture.
This was the spot indicated on my map for my camp that night. When I arrived, I discovered that there was no cache of water or firewood, which worried me a little. I had only a litre of water remaining in my pack, and no wood. But there was a dirt road nearby, and, I concluded, someone would surely drive over with supplies. It didn’t seem like Asher to break an agreement, and Black Tomato wasn’t about to let a client die of thirst.
In any event, I had made good time: it was barely 3 p.m. There were four remaining hours of daylight in which I could set up camp and explore my surroundings. If the water and the wood arrived, I’d make a meal on a fire. If not, I’d have more Kendal Mint Cake, and some energy bars.
All day, the clouds had been turning from wispy white to gray. It was a night for the tarp. I was just getting the ropes tied when Imerhane appeared from the direction of the road, with a box of wood and water, and some extra food pouches. We exchanged salaams, and agreed that it might rain. Then he left. Watching him walk out of sight, I felt a pang. Imerhane was such a cheerful man—it would have been fun to sit and get to know him a little better.
I decided to make my meal early, so that I’d have enough time to enjoy the sunset, and then get a good night’s sleep. I was tired, and I needed to be alert the next day. My G.P.S. had run through one set of batteries and would likely need my last remaining pair the following morning. It was possible that I’d have to navigate the final miles of my journey using my map and compass alone. Having looked at the route, I felt reasonably comfortable with the idea of losing my electronic guide. The last section of my trek appeared to follow a dry riverbed. All I had to do was keep walking west. Still, I was liable to make a stupid mistake if I was exhausted.
The main part of my meal—“Veg Chilli and Rice”—was surprisingly edible, and the only thing missing from the sunset was a cinematographer: the whole plain glowed red. The view made me ecstatic but also a little blue, because there was nobody to share it with. I fell asleep in no time, waking only to the sound of rain on my tarpaulin, and a clap of thunder at around 11 p.m. As the eye of the storm grew closer, lightning illuminated the plain, and the raindrops grew heavier. I wondered for a few anxious minutes how much rain would have to fall to send a flash flood down the gully I was in. My conclusion: a hell of a lot. I went back to sleep.
It was still dark when I woke. I was dry, and so was my firewood, but—with a lack of foresight for which I cursed myself—I had left my tinder exposed to the rainstorm. To start my breakfast fire, I resorted to a cheat that Asher had shown me: using distressed cotton wool and lip salve, I made an accelerant. The blaze started instantly, as if I were using a gas cooker. I was pleased, but it made me consider how contrived the rules of this experiment were. If I was in possession of exactly the right items to start a fire, I might as well have brought a stove. Yet, had I not accepted Asher’s terms, I would not have mastered any new skills. Oddly, the expedition’s most artificial boundaries helped generate its most satisfying moments.
On the second day’s walk, the views were even more arresting, and I stopped frequently to take pictures. The sun was also brighter, and the temperature soon reached a hundred degrees, making the hike commensurately tougher. My head pounded, and my pee turned the color of Berber tea. I had tried to drink plenty of water the previous day, but clearly it had not been enough. (I concluded, too, that an insufficiently rehydrated dessert I’d eaten the previous evening—an egg-custard imitation—had sucked some moisture out of me.) I resolved to stop more often and drink more. Given my G.P.S.’s unreliable battery supply, I also used the rests to pay attention to my paper maps. It was pleasing to reacquaint myself with analog navigation, and my compass replaced my G.P.S. around my neck.
The final stretch of the journey was along a dry riverbed that widened as it descended. There were a few houses, and occasionally I exchanged greetings with residents. All of them offered me tea or water, but I had plenty to drink, and I wanted to reach my destination before the heat became unbearable. I smiled, declined, shared pleasantries, and moved on. The riverbed was now fringed by palm trees, and flanked by vertical slabs of rock that threw shade into the valley.
I could see from my maps that I had only a few hundred yards to walk. Suddenly, I did not want the experience to end. I slowed down, to revel in my last minutes of simplicity. Eventually, I rounded a bend, and saw Asher perched on one of the escarpments overlooking the valley. In front of me was a tiny village called Ichazzoun. After another hundred paces, I saw the Toyota. Asher scurried down from his vantage point to meet me.
“Damn good effort,” he said. “You should be very proud.”
Childishly, I was.
The itineraries of Get Lost packages suggest that rich clients will accept privation as long as it is followed by luxury. After my expedition, I spent two nights at a chic hotel called Dar Ahlam. It’s situated at the edge of the desert, in a two-hundred-year-old casbah surrounded by palm and almond trees. The hotel has fourteen rooms and about a hundred staff members.
For many people, Dar Ahlam is Heaven: every guest I saw wore a beatific smile. The staff could not have been more accommodating. Nothing was too much trouble for them—the moment you thought about a drink, it was in your hand. The food was a thousand times better than “Burger and Beans.” The pool was exactly the right temperature. I had a massage. But I didn’t relish my time there. The hotel was full of Western couples who were either on their honeymoon or taking the trip of a lifetime. I was seulement un.
There was no restaurant at the hotel. Instead, at mealtimes, individual tables were scattered throughout the grounds. I always dined alone, out of sight of other guests. I was also encouraged to leave the hotel for lunch, and for a sunset drink. Both trips required a drive to a picturesque location, where staff waited on me as I sat by myself. I felt mortified at the effort that had gone into pouring me a glass of wine in the desert. I longed for a cheap, noisy bar, and the chance to swap stories with strangers. Dar Ahlam was as serene as a monastery.
My adventure in the mountains had ended more ebulliently. On the afternoon that I arrived in Ichazzoun, there was a wedding in the village. Four musicians performing at the ceremony had heard about my trek, and they all came to greet me, in matching white-and-green outfits. They sang and clapped, and formed an honor guard for me to walk past, as a finish line. Imerhane joined in with the clapping, a broad smile on his face. It was a surreal, embarrassing, joyous moment.
When the music stopped, Asher told me that he had been tracking me the entire way on foot—at a distance of about five hundred yards. He had even slept outdoors with Imerhane on the second night. Realizing that Asher looked as dirty as me, I laughed. I had never realized that I was being followed. (Later, I wondered whether some of the sounds that I had occasionally heard on the trek had been Asher displacing rocks.) He said that the text I sent on the first evening, about my unexpected nighttime visit, had prompted a string of phone calls between Imerhane and people in the village nearby. Imerhane had been told that my visitors were only worried about my well-being: they were not accustomed to lone hikers sleeping outside. I wondered why Asher had not sent some words back to reassure me. He said that he didn’t want such messages to become a “crutch.” The only time Asher was actually concerned about me was when his G.P.S. showed me veering off course during the middle of the first day. There were some cliffs near that part of the route. When Asher reached a vantage point, he saw me having tea with the local men, and his anxiety faded.
My experience had been both real and extremely theatrical. The mountains and the rocks were solid enough to have broken my bones. But I was able to travel as I did only because a group of experts had prepared a route customized for my level of fitness, and had monitored my every move so that I could feel danger without actually being endangered. There was a touch of “Westworld” to Get Lost. And I hadn’t been truly disconnected; rather, I had been given the luxury of living for a short while under the illusion that I was. The adventure was every bit as confected as my hotel stay.
Nevertheless, my hike in the mountains was deeply gratifying. Asher and I had formed a bond, even though I did not see him during my two days alone. In my giddy debriefing, we talked about the route, the overnight thunderstorm, and the noisy dog, which had also chased him. I detected no insincerity when he remarked, “You and me are the same tribe.”
All of us were invited to the wedding. I was as filthy as a chimney sweep, but nobody seemed to mind. Beside a single-story mud house, about fifty men were sitting in the shade, some of them dressed in formal clothes. There were no women outside, but we could hear a group of high voices indoors, singing to the newlyweds. We were invited to take off our shoes, and to sit in the shade. Asher and I sat with our backs against a cool wall. Everyone looked happy to see us. A group of kids came near to take a closer look at the foreigners who had just walked out of the mountains. I made faces at them and they giggled. A steaming dish of lamb couscous emerged at a low table in front of us, along with glasses of tea. We ate like starvelings.
“My God, that’s delicious,” Asher said, and he was right. ♦