To hear Tess tell it, the time we spend organizing the contents of one large duffel is crazy. Day three and we’re still fumbling. Every item in my duffel is in a stuff sack or a zip lock bag: the sleep outfit separate from the hiking outfit, the facial wipes nowhere near the two pair of clean panties. In theory, the pack-by-category system means finding things more easily—if I remember that leggings and long underwear are in the blue bag, socks in the green and the pullover fleece in the sack with the night outfit. And don’t think for one minute that this is an aging brain issue. Tess at eighteen struggles more than I, and Matt, by his own admission, is, well, hopeless.
We spend the morning descending to the river, passing lush poinsettia, blossoms the color of Lancome lipstick and toilet huts covered in sweet potato vines.
“Go where the water would go,” Chhongba tells us. I watch his feet find the worn rock and smooth edges as if by instinct. “Watery steps,” he says. “They are best.”
We step onto a bridge strung with cable, bouncing across raging water hundreds of feet below. Prayer flags and khatas whipping in the wind send prayers through the gorge. I feel blessed to be here, grateful for every tabata class I’ve taken, every hand weight I’ve lifted, every yoga pose I’ve held, every mile I’ve walked, hiked or cycled to prepare for the journey.
Favorite things is a family ritual Matt brings to the group. Short, simple observations shared over dinner, often heartwarming, occasionally profound, sometimes so basic you’d think we were in boot camp: clean hair, sleep, off the trail at three. Tess offers up a real gem one night at dinner: “This is weird cuz it’s not exactly a favorite thing, but sort of. I’m thankful this is happening: I’m getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Whoa, that alone is worth a gap year.
Keeping germs to oneself in this environment is about as far-fetched as finding that straight-away trail we fantasize about. Sharing sleeping rooms; elbow to elbow at mealtime; blowing snot rockets on the trail without breaking stride. It isn’t just the germs: everything about this experience is intimate.
Leave the table with your personal roll of toilet tissue and everybody knows what’s up. Squat to pee at the trail’s edge. Get a status update on diarrhea, constipation and insomnia at breakfast. No one showers. The men don’t shave. Forget hiding your snoring, farting or giggling; teahouse walls are made of plywood. We have no secrets, and with that loss comes freedom. We no longer care what anyone thinks.
We step off the trail at the Sundup Lodge in Bupsa. Someone checks their watch. “Oh my god! We have an hour of sun! Lama, this place sell beer?” We carry plastic patio chairs to a grassy area in the sun. Boots come off. We stretch legs, flex feet, roll ankles. The Everest beers show up and ten minutes later, a bowl of warm popcorn doused with salt.
“Chhongba, will we get washing water?”
“Yah, we bring washing water.” Chhongba has already rinsed his socks and hangs them now on the clothesline at the edge of the grass.
“Maybe I’ll wash a pair of underwear, some socks.” Matt’s thinking out loud. “Will they have time to dry, Chhongba?”
“No,” he says definitively, and laughs. “Hang them on your backpack tomorrow. They will dry, no problem.”
“Lama, can we stop for chai?”
“You want chai? No problem, we stop at my friend’s house. Twenty minutes more, we stop.”
“Lama, is it possible to buy a beer here?”
“Nothing is impossible! How many beers you want?”
“Lama, we can’t eat gluten. We can’t eat wheat.”
“No problem. I tell Mahesh you no eat wheat. Everything is rice flour. You can eat everything, no problem.” Donuts, pancakes, Tibetan bread, all of it made with rice flour, fried in hot oil, exactly what the body craves: fat.
We drag ourselves into the Apple Garden Lodge in Junbesi at dusk, the finest teahouse yet, and spend the evening with our journals and books. Matt teaches Lynn and Tess how to play Pitch. We visit the monastery on our way out the next morning. The old man at the gate grants us permission to enter.
Mid-morning we round a bend and there they sit, decked out in snow-capped splendor: the mighty Himalayas.
We stop for the night in the private home of one of Lama’s friends, another trekking guide. He has a smile to light the night, his gold tooth gleaming in the shadows of the dining room. We slide behind the tables along the wall and settle on the padded benches, huddled in goose down and wool. I no longer remember what we ate, only that I felt like a pariah, with one nostril plugged tight as a drum and the other dripping like the faucet in the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Wanting to give Tess a special experience, Lama assigns her the family’s prayer room. “Wait!” Kathy looks at me. “You’re the one needing solitude.” More like solitary confinement. Tess concedes with a quick “no problem” and they head to the small room by the stairs, both of them relieved not to be spending the night with a germ bag. I drag my duffel to the last door on the left, take off my boots and step into a room unlike any I’ve ever seen, let alone slept in.
Wide benches covered in colorful pads and blankets line two walls of windows. Behemoth geraniums grow in pots on the deep sills, red blossoms brushing against glass. A bold and bright geometric pattern fills the ceiling, its center a swirl of blue, green and red. Butter lamps line a long, narrow ledge, unlit. Small stuffed yaks the size of beanie babies fill one shelf, miniature bells hanging from their shaggy necks.
Centered against a spectacular wall of buddha statues, painted baskets of flowers and rows and rows of cubbies filled with tightly wrapped scrolls sits a red wooden box. The sides are made of glass and on the front, a door with a small wooden knob. Inside, a flame floating in oil propels the spinning top mounted on the box, throwing off just enough light for me to locate the stuff sacks needed for the night, neatly wedged alongside one another in my well-organized duffel. I pull out the sleeping bag and spread it on top of the thick comforters piled on the platform bed. I grab the headlamp, book and journal from the backpack, take two ibuprofen and a sleeping pill, and crawl into my zero-degree bag. The Sherpas are chattering and laughing in the dining room one floor below. Pots and pans clatter in the kitchen. Tess and Kathy’s giggling travels down the hall and slips under my door, as if to say goodnight.