What's on your bucket list?
Michele Mattingly became fascinated by giraffes at the age of three when she was given a small toy giraffe that she named Gooby. When her older sister showed her photos of the animals roaming the African savanna, her fascination grew.
Her father took Michele to the zoo for the first time when she was five years old. She remembers, perhaps imperfectly, that the giraffes followed her as she circled their enclosure.
Soon Gooby was joined by other giraffes as Michele built a collection. She created Kenya in her backyard and fed imaginary giraffes out of her hand.
But why giraffes? What she knew instinctively as a child she articulated as an adult: “Giraffes are the embodiment of overcoming obstacles. Their long necks and gangly bodies make even getting a drink of water difficult,” she says. "They work within the limitations of their own physicality and they succeed.”
Her toys were put aside for the distractions of adolescence, but her fascination with Africa never waned.
In fact, Michele was mesmerized by “Africa,” the 1982 hit by Toto that remains a rock classic. Only…she didn’t hear the lyrics correctly. When the band sang “Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus,” Michele heard “Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like an Empress.”
The idea of the Empress took hold and her path to Tanzania became a little more certain. Along the way she married, had children, and enjoyed many years as a high school teacher. Thirty years of emotional, financial and physical struggles were the catalyst for taking bold action.
At age 58, Michele planned a trip to Africa to take on the challenge of a lifetime: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. “I had hoped to develop some new friendships on the climb. Few things bond people as well as a shared trauma, and mountain climbing is definitely a trauma—especially at 19,000 feet. But the Empress had other plans.”
While most guided climbs are done in small groups, no one else signed on for Michele’s journey. “I ‘heard’ the Empress on my first morning in Tanzania and she stayed with me throughout my trek. If there had been other travelers, I most likely would not have heard her at all.”
In the tradition of Eat, Pray, Love and Wild, Before the Empress: Messages from Mount Kilimanjaro chronicles one woman’s journey up a mountain and into her soul.
What she learned on the mountain forever changed her.