This wasn’t Walden or Goa. Nor was this an abandoned bus in the Alaskan woods or the American Dream. This was a life that he had imagined and he was living it.
It was long into his time in the mountains when he finally realized that he hadn’t gone there to conquer anything. That would be the fool’s way, he thought, for the mountain had permanence, and as a man he would continue getting older and die, like all others, and the mountain would endure. Rather, he was there to lose something of himself, the fat off his soul. The mountain had stripped him of pride, ego, and vanity. The altitude had drained his blood of oxygen, the physical exertion focused his mind on only the most essential things; warmth, shelter, and food. His body kept in motion out of necessity. Forward – up and down, stopping for rest, for breath, and sometimes to take in the devastating view. He took a guide for direction but otherwise he was traveling alone on his own path, as he had been now for seven months.
Up there on the ridge he could see the Annapurna Range, just as he had been able to see Everest weeks before. In the rain shadow of the Himalayas there wasn’t a cloud above him and in the other direction he could see deep into Tibet. On the mountain he could see out far and clear and long into the physical space all around him. But that was when he knew it. That he had reached a point in his journey where he had lost so much of his previous self, shed so much of the life he once knew so well, that he was then at that very moment looking out and seeing nothing from the center of a place he couldn’t know. His vision of his life in the future was frosted over like a ship on a foggy sea. All he had was resolve and decisions he was yet to make. That was when he knew he was completely free. And the loneliness gushed over him like the cold river in the valley below.
Years before he had been able to see it. Everything was carefully pieced and laid out before him like it was supposed to. He and his girlfriend were finished moving into the two-bedroom apartment they rented together near the waterfront after she completed her degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. She was smart and beautiful, a natural blonde. Caring and idealistic, she wanted to do something that mattered in the world and he loved her for that. His job in hedge funds was going well and he went to an office every day with views of the San Francisco Bay. Together they hosted dinner parties for their couple friends to show off the new digs. She’d cook something healthy like turkey meatloaf with spinach and he’d open pinot noir they bought together at a vineyard in Sonoma. Their guests talked about how they got engaged or about their new jobs in private equity or pharmaceutical sales. He knew with certainty that his girlfriend wanted to be married yesterday and that the black lab she had brought into the relationship was scared of its own reflection.
Then he could see it vividly; the mortgage and house in the suburbs, the wedding invitations, the year-end bonuses, daily walks from the parking garage to his office in the early mornings, more dinner parties with wine, and coming home to feed a dog she had raised which didn’t particularly like him that much. He could see it long and far and clear. His life was being baked like that turkey meatloaf. The ingredients were set in the mold and when he realized that this was all his own doing the inertia of getting old had never felt so thick and suffocating.
But he had unalterably changed the course of his life and there he was alone on the mountain. Gone was the office with the view, finished was his relationship and the dog that was never his dog. The flat went back to the landlord and the dining table that once hosted their couple friends had its legs screwed off and was sandwiched vertically between his mattress and couch in a storage unit on the other side of a city in which he no longer lived.
Looking out from that solitary place with an infinite view he could no longer see it. But that’s when he knew why he had come to the mountain; to strip himself of the memory of his past, clear out from the thick inertia of that old life, and to stand in the center of a new place. His mind floated with the endless possibilities that lay before him as he would come down from the mountain. Without a net, he could no longer see it and it was then that he was free. Where he would go from that point on was limited only to his imagination and the choices he would inevitably have to make. He knew with certainty he would soon disappear from that place and the mountain would endure, forever.
Links to full FB photo albums:
Everest Base Camp
And some memorable quotes from the books I read while trekking for six weeks in the Nepali Himalayas at Everest Base Camp, Annapurna Circuit, and Upper Mustang:
But in the meantime all the life you have or ever will have is today, tonight, tomorrow, today, tonight, tomorrow, over and over again (I hope), he thought and so you had better take what time there is and be very thankful for it.
– For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemmingway
After all, the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.
– Catch-22, Joseph Heller
When you’re surrounded by endless possibilities, one of the hardest things you can do is pass them up.
– Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
When he has obtained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced.
Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.
– Walden, Henry David Throeau