Photo courtesy of the author.
I limp behind Adam and the kids as the first drops fall.
“Girls!” I call out. “Put on your rain ponchos!”
We are on the third day of a trek, hiking a ridge at 10,000 feet in view of the Annapurna peaks.
The Himalayan sun beat down on us a moment ago, but now the daylight turns dim yellow. I am groggy with exhaustion, so at first I think I am imagining the eerie twilight as it falls. “It's only noon," I think, “Why is it getting dark?” I look up to see the granite mountains vanish behind a wall of black clouds. Thunder booms, and streaks of lightning lick the foothills behind us.
Our guide Isur leads the way in plastic sandals and skinny jeans, as if this were a stroll in the mall. He drops his rucksack fat with trail bars, our extra clothes, and Adam’s ukulele and waits for us to catch up.
“There is a tea house an hour's walk ahead and I will sprint there with your pack,” he says.
“Okay, good to know,” I say, gasping for breath.
“Just stay on the trail,” he calls back as he takes off running.
“I'm going with him!” announces fourteen-year-old Bella, breaking into a run before I can respond. Ten-year-old Sophia is at her heels, a flash of skinny legs and blond ponytail that disappear around a bend.
“Forget about running,” I think, grimacing as I rub my seizing quads, “I'm not even sure I can walk another hour.” I take off my day pack to fish out my rain poncho, thinking Adam is beside me. When I look up, he is gone too.
“Wait,” I say, to no one. “I think we should stay together.”
Rain drips into my eyes and soaks through my sneakers. The distance between myself and my family grows with every moment I dither here, so I stumble on. Twenty minutes pass before the rain turns to thick snow. The snow lays a blanket of silence over the landscape, broken only by an occasional rumble of thunder. Rhododendron blooms sag on the trees, heavy with snowflakes. My wet feet are cold, but the rest of me sweats from exertion. My legs revolt; each step is an excruciating override of their fatigue. The world blurs into thick white flurries, and I can only see a few feet in front of me. I wonder what would happen if I wandered off the trail by mistake. I think about my daughters, running on the slippery path to an unknown destination with Isur, a man we only met two days ago.
“How could I have let the girls run ahead? What if they get lost or fall on the ice?” A herd of fearful thoughts stamp at the gate, ready to throw me into a panic. I can see the headlines now: Terrible Fate of a California Family Caught in Himalayan Blizzard. If only we had ...
“Stop that,” I tell myself firmly. “Don’t go there. Walk.”
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I pant with a mix of trepidation and the strain of not quite enough oxygen at 10,000 feet. While I catch my breath, I look this way and that, willing someone to appear and escort me to shelter. A handsome Nepali youth in a colorful wool cap would be my first choice. But a sturdy grandmother in a sari, a shepherd with his goats, anyone would do. No one comes.
I walk on. Part of me wants to feel sorry for myself. I teeter on the edge of self-pity and then get over it. Californians have little tolerance for dramatic weather, we consider sunshine our birthright. This storm came on so quickly though, blotting out mountains, sun, and sky. It is beautiful to be out in this, I decide. The clarity of my single goal — to stay on the trail — is like a meditation.
My worries drop away with every step forward.
Nothing matters but each footstep pushing into the snow. Everything else is out of my hands now. The children are with Adam and Isur; they will be safely inside a tea house long before I will. There is no one for me to take care of now but myself.
What a difference from the life I left behind, I think as I trudge along. Our American life was a juggling act, and I was constantly dropping balls. I jumped out of bed every morning, already running late, already tired, to cook breakfast, make lunches, and hustle children off to school. While the girls were in school I ran a homebirth midwifery service. I drove the county roads checking on mothers and babies, or else conducted prenatal exams in my home office. I was often sleep-deprived after being with a laboring mother all night. If I wasn’t at a birth, I drove kids to violin lessons and play rehearsals after school. Arriving home to “Mom! What’s for dinner?” I rushed to get something passable on the table. I fell into bed each night worrying about tomorrow, vowing to catch up on laundry and yard work, and to make a healthy crock pot dinner too. Adam complained that I never had time for him.
Here I have one task — walk. No schedules to keep. No to-do list. Nobody paging me or pulling at my attention.
One foot in front of the other, wiping the snow from my eyes, I revel in the simplicity, the focus. My fear of being alone dissipates, the ache in my legs melts away, and my limp becomes a jog. Soon I am galloping along the trail, feeling more alive than I have in years. Wide awake, clear headed, not just going through the motions. I yell — using my voice to pierce the silence of the muffling snow.
“I am not driving the carpool today!” I sing out over the edge of the cliff.
“I am not at my computer paying bills” I call to the trees.
“I am not trolling the grocery aisles for the millionth time, wondering what's for dinner!” I shout my utter relief into the void below.
“I am not reachable by phone!” I sob,“I am out of range!”
I jog faster. The trail descends into a valley, into a forest of towering pines. I run, run, run, stumble, run, run, run stumble. My feet have their own momentum as I pound down the mountain, A house stands tucked into the trees, and I make a beeline for the door. I am a fully realized Heroine! I am powerful, like the storm! I can take these sopping wet sneakers off!
“I MADE IT!” I shout as I burst through the door.
The room is full of people — my family, European trekkers, and an extended family of Nepalis. A fire blazes in a wood stove, wet clothes hang to dry, and bowls of soup steam on the tables. The mood in the room is calm, and everyone turns to stare at me, the woman who just came through the doorway yelling, face covered in tears. Sophia grins at me, a bowl of Maggi noodles before her. Bella glares her warning, Mom, don't be embarrassing. Adam warms his hands over the stove.
“Namaste” I say to the Nepali woman nearest me, clearing my throat and wiping the tears from my face. She looks concerned.
“I am not upset.” I mumble. “These are actually tears of joy.”
She looks at me, silently.
“Namaste," she finally replies.
Dena Moes is the author of the memoir The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal, from which this excerpt was adapted.