The first day of the seven-day hike on Mount Kilimanjaro took James Anderson and Morgan LaVallee through Tanzania’s low-slung jungle. The second day was steep, and the third day, even steeper. The fourth day, they climbed the 850-foot Barranco Wall, slipping their feet into holds and moving steadily upward.
Day 5 was “terrible,” James said. They were thousands of feet higher than they’d ever been, James’s oxygen was low, his vision was blurry, and Morgan had a migraine.
After dinner, their guides sent them to bed. The push for the peak was to begin just after midnight on Oct. 14 — the five-year anniversary of James’s sobriety.
James said his battle with addiction began 15 years ago, when he was a teenager in Streetsboro developing a drinking habit. His first opioid was Percocet, prescribed to a neighbor’s dad who’d broken his back. Soon he was using regularly. When manufacturers created Oxycontin pills users couldn’t crush, James began using heroin.
He was sent to prison for the first time in 2008, and would go twice more. Each time, he stopped using in prison. But when he got out, he’d start drinking again and using opiates soon after.
On a 90-degree day in 2013, after three stints in prison, James was sitting in his car in a parking lot, waiting for a dealer. He was entering withdrawal — nausea, chills, sweating.
“I started thinking about prison, when I woke up healthy every morning, and I would make choices about how I was going to spend my time. But out here, I had no choices at all because everything revolved around finding ways and means to get more,” James said. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I had more freedom in there than I do out here.’ I realized there had to be a better way to live.”
James entered a treatment program on Oct. 14, 2013.
James does nothing halfheartedly. Twelve-step programs often encourage newly sober people to attend 90 meetings in 90 days; James went to 120. He began working out to fill time; within a year, he was competing in national bodybuilding contests.
But more importantly, he says, he became honest.
“As an addict, your whole life is a lie,” James said. “You lie to everyone constantly. But the (12-Step) program is based on honesty, and here I am, trying this new life where I just don’t do messed-up things and I tell the truth about things. It was freeing.”
James took a job at Bricco. Morgan, who was a graduate assistant at UA, ate at the restaurant soon after. One of her friends jokingly told the busboy to get James’ number for Morgan.
“Jackpot,” James recounted. The two have been dating since.
Fitness remains an essential part of their lives. Morgan was training for a half-marathon when they met, so James started running too; now they do Spartan races. Morgan has run several marathons. (James ran his first, alongside Morgan and her mom, the weekend they got back from Tanzania.) James left Bricco about two years ago to start a personal training business.
When they picked Kilimanjaro for James’s five-year anniversary, Morgan said she expected to tell people: “Ta-da, we did it, look how great we are!”
The push to the 19,341-foot Kilimanjaro summit was just less than 4,000 feet. They began at midnight, watching a line of hikers’ headlamps snake up the side of the mountain. James and Morgan fell behind. A guide insisted on taking James’s vitals. His face and mouth were blue and his oxygen levels dangerously low.
They turned around.
When they regained consciousness and returned to base camp, James and Morgan wrestled with a flood of emotions: Embarrassment, humility, gratitude, frustration, and deep exhaustion. They had not planned for this.
“We do believe that mindset is everything,” Morgan said. “The stories you tell yourself are the stories you live. The goal or the reward or the payoff is not always the actual thing that fulfills you. The summit is the thing –”
“That’s still the thing for me,” James cut in, smiling wryly. “That’s why we’re going back.”
James said he dealt with the early descent the best way he knew how. He made a reservation to summit on his seven-year anniversary, in 2020.
Morgan, who has a master’s degree in creative writing, has seen mountains and marathons used as metaphors countless times. That’s often how people talk about recovery, too.
But James says it’s not a climb, exactly. It’s a lengthy journey, that requires addressing each challenge as it arises. Sometimes it’s daunting. Sometimes it’s easy to get distracted.
“People look at me and think, ‘Oh, he goes to climb this mountain and then comes home and runs a marathon.’ But both of those things are one foot in front of the other. Literally, one foot in front of the other. The only thing that limits people from doing stuff like this is themselves, and their beliefs about what they can do, when all you have to do is show up and put one foot in front of the other,” he said.
He’s talking about the mountain. But one foot in front of the other isn’t far from one day at a time.