To fully empathize with my situation—panting under a hot January sun some 10,000 feet up a trail in the highlands of Ethiopia, my appreciation of the majestic Simien Mountains obstructed by my brother Dan’s exasperating chants of “Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps!” as he attempts to set a pace—you’ll find some background useful. I need to tell you a little about the gelada, a rare species of Old World monkey that lives in the Ethiopian highlands and no place else on earth. I find them thrilling, and I am on this rocky path, in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, to find them. I also need to tell you about my family and why Dan is monitoring my steps with an authority that alternately makes me cherish him and want to whack him in the knees with my trekking poles. Thrilling doesn’t quite apply to the family part of the story, so let’s substitute pretty stable as a mark of admiration; as families go, pretty stable is pretty impressive.
To visit with the geladas, I have flown to Addis Ababa and north to the historic city of Gondar. Then I have bounced along a pocked road in a minivan for two and a half hours to arrive at the sharp-elbowed frontier town of Debark. From there, at the gateway to Simien Mountains National Park, I have hiked for two hours, breathing hard. And there’s a lot farther to go.
Why have I come this far? My family nucleus includes redoubtable parents, 90 and 87 years old and living in the same 1950s-era ranch-style house for more than half a century; two younger brothers, married, with two kids each; and me, unregretfully, adventurously single and ridiculously lucky to have sustained a successful career as a movie critic for over two decades. I’m fortunate, too, that I have never felt any family pressure to live other than the way I have chosen. (Thank you, obliging brothers who have produced grandchildren!) But in the past year or two, a succession of tremors has destabilized the ground on which our little clan stands. First, my aged parents suffered serious flood damage when a hurricane barreled through in 2012. The prospect of replacing what was destroyed forced a confrontation with mortality: Should they invest in repair and stay put, or uproot and downsize to one last address?
Then, in February of 2013, I took a buyout from my magazine. After a lifetime of salaried security, I must now reconfigure the last third of my life, not quite retired and quite on my own.
Most seismically, after nearly 25 years together and with their two daughters grown, Dan and his wife have amicably decided that their marriage has run its course. It is the first divorce in our cautious, tradition-minded tribe. And the rift is particularly hard...on me. Dan is my closest blood ally—psychologically my big brother, and not just because he provides reliable tech support in times of Internet crisis. His own reliable family and home had always been my refuge, the place where I was not quite so single: During the great Northeast power blackout of 2003, I made my way up a darkened stairwell to snuggle with my nieces; come the Great Disaster for which the Department of Homeland Security urges everyone to have a plan, my plan is to meet up with Dan.
Cue the monkeys. Theropithecus gelada are sometimes called bleeding-heart baboons on account of the bright-red patch on their chests. Baboon is a misnomer. Geladas (pronounced with a soft g, like the Italian ice cream) perch on their own odd branch of the primate tree, and they are awesome for many reasons. They live in large, socially fluid groups of up to 1,000, and they are vegetarians, thus spending most of their time scooting around on their thickened butts, picking at grasses. And their vocalization is extraordinarily sophisticated (the male’s vocal agility is greater than that of any other nonhuman primate).