Crawling Uphill

by Travis Burke

I return to the same place in dreams. It’s the withering years, dust on dust, sand screaming out from underneath Osprey. Dawn just out, light coming in from Kandahar, glancing streamers off the Helmand. Metal, carved and curved, twisted into itself. In dreams, Massoud still clutches a halved steering wheel, face streaming blood that makes no mark in the gravel. And here, poppy shoots writhing up through mud-baked walls.

Waking, Afghanistan fades. No ghosts of dead friends walk my apartment. Morning rituals of grinding coffee and boiling water, but the light streams in through slanting blinds. Dawn rises early in Seattle, and discipline wakes me with it. I holster a backpack and head north, away from the Puget Sound metro mess as opposing cars line up toward downtown.

NPR and they are talking about the “transition.” There was no transition I saw, simply a slow about face executed in full view of the Afghans we left behind. An expert is interviewed:

“The transition is underway, moving men and women and material out of bases and back home. The Afghan National Army is gradually taking over these redoubts, working with ISAF to ensure the Taliban lack footholds in key provinces. Here, in Kabul…” I lower the volume. Is it better to listen to these experts and their assessments from wherever the war isn’t, or just ignore the chatter? My blood surges when I hear them. Years later, I cannot listen to Serial and its description of Bowe Bergdahl’s imprisonment and rescue without stopping every few minutes to try to explain something not quite on the tongue to my girlfriend. I can’t get it right, can’t fit together the world with Afghanistan.

“This colonel, he doesn’t know what he is saying,” I try.

“Okay,” she listens. “What should he say?”

“It’s not the Taliban—well, it is, but it isn’t. It’s not on them, it’s on us. But it’s everything—the PowerPoints, the poppy, the money, the Special Forces. We…we didn’t know how to win.” And then we listen to the strangeness of Bowe’s return. I finally stammer, “I’m just glad he’s home.” I feel emotional and tired and sad, not just for one lost sergeant, but for everyone whose boots were lain at a makeshift cross so far from home.

But today, today I’m heading towards the black and white and green Cascades, with no one from Kabul riding along to explain away our collective failure. I search for a pop song—Katy Perry—and memories of shouting “Firecracker” with the Marines trace my route along river and mountain pass. The sky is blue overhead, and the Skykomish rushes with snowmelt towards the Puget Sound and the Pacific. The Helmand, dull and turgid, is rolling slowly some 3,000 miles away, and they are probably walking among the poppies now, scoring the pods with little knives. Another time, another world.

Down in southern Helmand, we were the first of the blooms. From helo bay doors, we would strain to see the colored floral carpets of Afghanistan spread below. Reds and whites and purples. It should have been the national flag, some said. In a meeting, the head British civilian told us that poppy production had been effectively eliminated from the Helmand Green Zone. This was said with a straight face; everyone at said meeting had flown over the square plots blooming in the desert. It was taken for what it was worth, and we moved on to the accomplishments achieved in the last 90 days. Small ticks in absurd boxes tracked the transition—we had been told to only report the “strides” towards governance. A room without Afghans discussing the future of Afghanistan, and none of us able to whisper what we knew was coming.

The Cascades are always green, but spring wakes them. Waterfalls cracking rock, trees hungry for sun. Looming mountains outlined black teeth against the sky. Mountains are my home, the cloister of hills and rock. I am safe in the mountain passes, amongst the granite spires and towers. Afghanistan is supposed to be a nation of mountains, but Helmand lies flat against the bleaching sky. Up in Kajaki, during my second year, we would look out over the crenellations of sand and bedrock folding up toward Taliban country in northern Helmand. At night, we could sight the summit outposts of the Afghan Army as tracers lit back and forth up and down the peaks. But my memories of Helmand are the dry expanses, leaving mountains clean.

I shoulder my backpack and hike. The simple steps eat miles, slowly rising, then climbing to a white-blue still frozen alpine lake encircled with black peaks and glaciers. Snow flows downward, melting into the lake, rushing out to water the apple trees of Peshashtin and Wenatchee. I make camp on a granite bluff above the lake, and from the tent flaps I watch the sunlight slant and color the massive faces of the cirque. The names are a fairytale—Enchantment Peak, Aasgard Pass, Dragontail. I let imaginary stories of bravery and valor weave me to sleep.

In dreams, Massoud returns. He holds the small deer he kept on the Afghan side of the base. The deer is dead. Massoud is dead. We walk through the bazaar in dreamtime, and he hands candy to young children who turn away and vanish.

“You remember when you first came here?” Massoud’s voice is the same, high and soft. The voice of a young Afghan man, thrust into leadership. A district governor with a district gone.

“Yes, you introduced me to Haji Wakil, and he yelled at me for an hour, then we ate chicken wings.”

“Ha-chee, yes! He is a good cook. I miss his food.” The bazaar is empty but for some disappearing children. The stalls are open and stocked, the blacksmith’s stove still lit. We walk through the small park where roses grew in the spring. Somewhere a motorbike is buzzing, but the sounds are all echoes.

“Massoud, I wasn’t there. I couldn’t stop it. We couldn’t stop it. I—we don’t know how.”

Massoud would end meetings with proverbs, something to impress whatever visiting dignitary or military man. “An ant crawls uphill to go home.”

He reaches out for my hand, but his curled fingers are now covered with blood. The deer’s throat is slashed. The muezzin’s call crackles through the streets. Massoud is no longer holding the deer, but clutching a bent steering wheel. Blood lines his face. He turns away and walks back towards the mosque. Alone on the street, I see poppies growing through the roses.

I wake to pre-dawn twilight. Massoud is gone, Helmand gone. In front of me is a mountain. I pull on my boots, grab an ice axe, and move uphill.

The snow is frozen and the climb is steep. Midway, the sun crests the ridge, but the path stays firm. Up and up and up. The lake shrinks to a teardrop below me. I make the final footsteps over the top, and the entire Enchantment Basin is laid out before me, covered in late season snow. In Helmand, men would be boiling water for tea or praying or sleeping in the rushes along the river, waiting till night to move on. But I am in the mountains. There is no one but a lone ptarmigan molting from white to brown and grey. I could yell and scream at the peaks, demanding answers. But I don’t. The peace of this place is quiet, ephemeral.

One night in Helmand, we climbed up one of the ancient, crumbling guard towers of our mud-brick fort. In the distance, a storm was battering the desert. Lightning strikes flashed down, turning the underside of the clouds orange. The air was completely still around us, and nothing carried any sound. We watched the mute torment while the infinite stars shone around the edges. It was quiet. Later that night, we were mortared, and the explosion knocked down the sandbags I used as a wall. The sound of thunder, simply removed a few hours.

In the Enchantments, I light a pipe and smoke. The acrid smell contrasts the cold mountain air. The ptarmigan sits completely still, hoping to blend into the rock and ice. The sun warms the snow, releasing small avalanches sliding down the slopes, a whispering, inevitable sound. Is Afghanistan the bird, waiting patiently for me to leave? Is Helmand the slowly collapsing snow? Or is every metaphor cheap, comparing the silence of this place to the dry wind of somewhere we never understood? My pipe fizzles out, and the ptarmigan finally flushes when I stand up to make my way back home.

The Taliban take back southern Helmand in the fighting season of ‘16. Northern Helmand stumbles and staggers into their hands over the course of the summer. An errant Afghan Air Force strike kills another good friend, his smile gone in a flash of fire, and he joins my dreams. Now, 4,000 men and women await orders to do what 30,000 couldn’t. “An ant crawls uphill to go home,” Massoud said. I’m in the mountains carrying ghosts above tree line, toward the sky.


Travis Burke has worked in conflict and development in Afghanistan, Somalia, Ukraine and Thailand. For two years, he was part of the civilian surge into Afghanistan, and worked alongside the US Marines and British forces in Helmand Province for USAID. He mentored the Afghan government, met with tribal leaders, and advised ISAF on development and governance. “Crawling Uphill” comes from this experience. Burke writes, “In late 2011, the District Governor was killed in an IED ambush, and I used writing to attempt to understand both Massoud's death and the war writ large. When I returned to the United States, I found the wilderness to be the best answer to questions lingering from Helmand, and included these elements in my work.” Currently, Burke works in international development consulting focused on youth skills, but he is always writing. Originally from Reno, Nevada, he writes poems, stories, and essays on the outdoors and politics at https://thebigwild.net. His work has also appeared in Pedestal Magazine, Euromaidan Press, and Brushfire. He is based in Portland, Oregon.

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