“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it; there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
If someday you were to visit me, got me down to talking about my ever expanding love for mountains over a cup of hot chai flavoured with just one drop of lemongrass oil, I promise, you will never leave.
The old graying bookcase at home, of which a shelf is mine, is almost entirely dedicated to travel literature especially mountain lit. You will find a Gibran and Kafka here and a Dostoevsky and Tolstoy there. But if the house was on fire and I was allowed time to take only a carton of my prized possessions before all is lost to flames, then these books would be the first to jump into the box.
Until the time I bought physical books, I always donated them once I had read them. To a school library or sometimes even sold them to a bookstore that sold/rented previously owned books at dirt cheap prices. It was quite easy to part with the rest but the books that sleep in peace in my part of the bookcase now are an extension of me, expanding me in ways only great books can.
The brown leather of George Mallory’s hiking boots and the weight of Mark V- a lighter, re-fabricated version of an oxygen tank by Sandy Irvine used on the flanks of the Northern Face of Everest in 1924 still linger on my skin. The last fall of Anatoli Boukreev into an avalanche while attempting an impossible winter ascent of Annapurna in 1997 still sends cold shivers down my spine. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman many adventures in the lonely quest to find a pathway to enter the elusive Nanda Devi’s sanctuary in the early 1920’s and Ed Viesturs monumental journey in summiting all 14 peaks over 8000 metres ending in 2005 still remain etched in the neural pathways of my heart.
And the best of them all, Peter Matthiessen’s rather insatiable search for the Snow Leopard in the Dolpo region of the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas 1973 is likely the closest to my search for the esoteric in the chaotic world I live in.
Years have gone by since I read them but standing next to that shelf those books while the sun streaks in warmly, give me a whiff of the world I might never get to see in this lifetime. And yet it’s somehow enough. They are a home away from home.
Just like the memories of this life changing trip taken years ago. Yet forever fresh as a daisy even today.
Standing on a ledge next to the huge boulders where the mysterious Saraswati river is said to have its origins and squinting over the mountains on the other side of the roaring river took me very close to my earthly paradise.
5 kms away from Badrinath is a tiny village called Mana, the last Indian Village. Across the river, up and beyond the mountains is the road to my Shangri-La.
“Wherever I live, I shall feel homesick for Tibet. I often think I can still hear the cries of wild geese and cranes and the beating of their wings as they fly over Lhasa in the clear, cold moonlight. My heartfelt wish is that my story may create some understanding for a people whose will to live in peace and freedom has won so little sympathy from an indifferent world.”
― Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet
Unlike Heinrich, who spent 7 years in Tibet, I shall always feel homesick for a land I have never even set foot in. Yet it is home. It is where my most beloved mountains live and breathe. And a third of my heart always beats for them.
As the sun grew in size and the day became intensely bright, I stood transfixed watching the river, the mountains and the road that possibly led to an adventure or two, a few friendships, some love, a soul mate or more or maybe nothing all…
But life had to go on…I had to cut short the frothy movie my mind was furiously spinning for absolutely no one in the audience except me and move my numb ass back to the bus. And onward we went. To whatever or wherever was next.
Back to harsh reality it was. Leaning over a balcony, trying to catch the network, stuck in a work call on a rainy, unbearably humid place called Srinagar. The irony of it all! I mean this is a namesake of that once idyllic heaven on Earth now battle ridden and war torn for whatchamacallit! (Yes! I’m alluding to the Srinagar in Kashmir here)
But every single cloud in the history of time has a silver lining and mine had one too. The power went kaput. There was no candle in sight. The moon hadn’t risen. BUT! With just our phone torch lights, my folks and I went out to explore what we could before darkness fell.
The roads were glittering wet. The trees were dripping, unabashedly naked after a shower. Water droplets slipped down tip-tap tip-tap from the edges of the leaves. The heat of the humidity was gone. There was just smoke everywhere. Of the evaporating steam rising up from the valley to marry the mist above. Of the grey autumn sky. Of the vapours emanating from our mouths as we exclaimed about the beauty of the place. Of the boiling tea from a makeshift tea-stall. Of the sizzling cauliflower fritters in a cast iron cauldron of piping hot oil.
An evening well spent. Where all that mattered was being together as family. Where Nature invited us to be One with her. And we did!
An early morning wake up call at 2:30 am is hard to stick to. Only if I am at home. On a trip close to the mountains, any time is exploration time. I am one of those hyper active people always buzzing like a bee. So I sometimes even manage a cold shower on a really cold day. It’s just a quirk of mine!
So I was suited and booted by the time the others stirred in their beds. I was very excited. Half of the group was going back home and these were those old boring people who lived, breathed, ate and spat out stereotypes. These women and their husbands couldn’t seem to get past my bare neck and ears. Always badgering me with questions as to why I didn’t wear jewellery! A week with me and they didn’t come to accept that a woman could hate jewellery! In fact they parted with unneeded advice that a bedecked me could indeed attract true love into my life! Yeah right! From who? Thieves, I presume?
The minute I bade goodbye to that weird bunch, I could finally relax my jaws. They had been locked into a strange mock smile for a week and God only knew how sore they were!
Now lighter in weight; bus and people, 16 of us made way to Gangotri via Uttarkashi. As we gained altitude, we left behind the humidity and made way through some of the most picture perfect expanses of land I had ever seen.
A leisurely walk after lunch took my feet on a lonely road that looked like a C shaped curve hugging the bend of a mountain. And my eyes fell on a mile marker that was bang in the middle of the C. I sat on it and looked at both blind ends of the curved road. It resembled my Life. With choices to make every day, not really knowing where they led to. Never really questioning if it would be better to take a moment and choose differently. Never wondering if I would look back someday and think and feel differently about where Life was at that present moment.
This was nice. Cozy. Warm. This was Home. Steadying my rump on the said mile marker, I leaned on to my Mom shining brightly in red, both of us holding empty water bottles.
That is a photo I often go back to. In a pair of grey frayed beyond repair Levi’s jeans, an old hand me down black tee from my bro and a pair of bright Puma sneakers that always had my footing, I look like I’m in heaven. And I was! Proof? That mile marker has even found its way into one of my best poems till date titled Where is Home…
None of the things I wore or owned back them are with me today. Even I am not the person I used to be. As is the world. But the moments shared under the light of the mountains and the movements shared in their majestic might remain engraved within me even NOW and lend a hand every time I find myself in a rut facing another of those never ending choices.
Sometimes, it’s as easy as picking the one that you know is going to be hard on you. The path could be unsteady and thorny with no roses whatsoever guaranteed. But it will get you somewhere. Not necessarily where you WANT to be. But you will be where you NEED to be. Someday. Some place new. With somebody unlikely. And suddenly the jigsaw puzzle is solved. All makes sense. All is well.
2 roads always diverge in a wood, my friend. Trust me, the journey is going to be difficult whichever road you choose to travel by. But in the end you will reach Home. And that’s all that matters.
To be continued…