Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Will tramped up the steep incline, eyes lifted to his destination: the distant snow capped peaks, and the pass at Thorong-La. He was hiking solo, though earlier had stopped in a small village, taking a short break with a group of German trekkers who were going in the opposite direction, heading back down to earth after breathing the rarefied air three miles above sea level.
He had chosen early December for a reason—less people, still fairly good weather—and after a heated discussion, he’d managed to travel without the guide the Nepal Tourism Board had tried to foist on him. Solitude was crucial for this pilgrimage; his sanity was at stake as he struggled in a seemingly endless quest for his raison d’etre. He was weary, his spirit languishing, fading like a tiny firefly captured in a Mason jar.
Instead of meditating, as he usually did while hiking, he let his mind chatter, drift, travel where it wished as his long legs easily climbed the mountain path.
Years, so many years on the road. Searching…for what? Enlightenment, understanding? After the accident—No. He stopped on the trail, forcing his mind away from that pain, those memories. His hand gripped the walking stick with a grim, white-knuckled resolve as sweat beaded on his brow. Dropping his head, he took a long, deep breath, stomach tightening, knotting, until the carvings on the stick caught his attention.
They were intricate, symbolic, laden with significance, ensorcelled with protective charms. The shaman of the small African tribe in Kenya where he’d stayed for several months had become a friend; had worried over him, given him the walking stick to aid him on his journey, real and spiritual. Will had carried it for over ten years now, an extension of his arm, an integral part of his life. He smiled, ran his hand down the swirls and glyphs, each one charged with purpose, thankful he’d had such a friend to give him this treasured gift.
Calm now, composed, he shifted the pack on his back, straightened his spine and continued his ascent.
Getting into the zone, one foot following the other, his thoughts again wandered, taking him to India and the small orphanage where he’d helped with the children, their awe at his size, long hair and low, deep voice that mesmerized. Japan, and the ancient Buddhist monks, welcoming a giant into their midst, then smiling shyly behind their hands when he insisted on cooking, too polite to mention his rice was sticky and half raw. Spain, traveling with the Basque in their colorful caravans, dancing wild in the moonlight around roaring fires. Harvesting grapes in France, olives and lemons in Italy, herding reindeer in Iceland, farming salmon in Norway. He’d been around the world, lived in ashrams, communes, monasteries, tribal villages, igloos and huts. Yet still he searched, still he remained a nomad. Homeless. Alone.
When a sharp, cold breath of wind slapped his hair into his eyes, he looked up from the trail and realized as he’d been steadily climbing, the weather had changed, growing dark with clouds though it was just early afternoon. He increased his pace, knowing from a conversation with one of the German hikers that there would be a shelter coming up, a natural cleft in the rock, big enough for his one-man tent where he could light a fire and spend the night off the trail.
Rounding a bend, he was surprised to see a figure ahead of him, buffeted by the force of the wind. The person was slight, possibly a native woman judging by her colorful dress and jacket. Then he frowned, narrowing his eyes to get a clearer picture. Local women didn’t wear western jeans under their dresses. He took a deep breath to shout out his presence when a strong gust slammed into the woman, tipping her off balance. He watched, stunned, as she toppled off the trail and disappeared over the edge.
“Oh shit,” he barked, racing to the spot where she’d dropped from sight, certain he would see her shattered body lying in the ravine far, far below the mountain path. His mouth fell open in astonishment when he peered over the brink to see the woman, several feet below him, legs dangling over the side of an outcropping barely wide enough to hold her slim upper body. Her fingers were white, the bones nearly coming out of her skin as she gripped the crumbling edge of the stone with every ounce of strength she had, her breath rasping in short, hard bursts of terror.
“Hold on! I’m coming!” Will yelled, ripping open a Velcro strap on his backpack that held a mountaineering rope.
She jerked in surprise to hear his voice, nearly letting go of her precarious hold. Scrabbling to maintain her purchase, she cried out, “Oh, god, please hurry!”
Quickly securing the rope to a large boulder, he made a loop with the other end, wrapping it around his waist, preparing to rappel down to the woman. “Okay,” he said evenly, though anxiety was laced through his voice, “here I come.”
He carefully edged over the rim, the wind briefly knocking him off track, but his correction was immediate and he swiftly dropped the short distance, angling behind her. Wrapping a strong arm around her hips, he tried to pull her upright into his body, but she wouldn’t budge. “Let go now,” he said in her ear. She shook her head. He gave her body a hard tug, breaking her grip. Before she could reattach herself to the stone, he swung them both onto the outcropping, pressing her into the rock face as they knelt to catch their breath.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, his large frame tucked over hers, sheltering her from the worst of the wind, her heart hammering through her body into his chest.
“On so many levels, it just doesn’t bear thinking about,” she sighed, her voice muffled as she rested her head against the rock.
Will blinked. What? “How about this,” he said, “are you hurt from your fall?”
“No, just some scrapes.”
“Okay, let’s get off this rock and back on the trail, then I can look at your scrapes.” He carefully stood, bringing her up with him, the path level with the top of his head. It would be quick work to get them off this ledge.
Shifting his stance, he adjusted his arms to boost her up, but she turned, giving him his first clear look at her face. As their eyes met, his world suddenly tilted, his inner axis throwing him so far off balance he felt his knees begin to buckle, his heartbeats a deafening roar in his ears, drowning out the strengthening howl of the wind.