We woke up hungover and headed for Jumolhari. The smell of wild cannibis along the road. A man teaching his three-year-old son to throw darts. The atmosphere is cool. The cloud cover is solid.
The taxi drives past Drukgyal Dzong, ruins tinted with the slight green of first undergrowth. The wheels thud along the stones. It is monsoon season and the road becomes a creek. A turn, and then we plow into a river. The wheels jam in the rocky bed. You open the door, your notebook, the white one she gave you, is being swept away. You grab it as it slips under the belly of the van.
We all push. The wheels spin. The muffler bubbles. The van moves. We empty it on the other side, turn it around. It runs into the riverbed again, settles in. We strain. There is no movement. We pull back, push it through again. We rock back and forth, the rocks give way. We pay and walk.
An army van passes by. A multiple-story behemoth, thick green iron, tree-stump tires, a beetle on the skirt of the mountain. We climb aboard, and it rolls over the heaps of rocks on the unfinished road. It runs into a hole it cannot climb out of; a Japanese man carrying a rainbow-colored umbrella strolls by. Ravi and you jump out, dig dirt and clear rocks away from the wheels. You have hands. You walk twenty meters, clear the path, heave boulders. You walk back. You mock your strength and push. The van rolls.
Past small houses, gardens, rice fields, a school. You stop at a suspension bridge, prayer flags decorating the grey steel. There is a general store cum restaurant. You buy instant noodles; they cook them. Steam evaporates, the spoon fogs, tiny saucers of oil float between chunks of onion and chili. The noodles are hot and the broth salty. There is a poached egg hidden beneath, yolk fatty and thick.
Soldiers lift a pallet into the van. A girl unconscious on it.
The path across the bridge is rocks strewn into shit-muck, snaking through rice paddies, guarded by cows. Pack horse trains occasionally pass by. There are berries along the trail, tasting of oranges and chilies. We walk into a fog, a drizzle, a rain. Your glasses are a blur, you see out below the rims. You tread through the mist.
The man at the army checkpoint says that without a permit, we cannot pass. Two monks are held behind the gates with you. In the village beyond there is a person dead four days, beginning to rot, waiting for rites. Ravi says we are teachers, not tourists, we need no permits; we are still held. Hours pass. A man from the village confirms the monks’ story. The head officer of the base arrives from rounds. He does not let you pass.
We walk back to a clearing by the river, unpack the tent. Ravi has the tarp up at the tiny bar near the base. You hike back up. The barkeep makes you noodles interspersed with tiny herbs covered in tiny green flowers. His name is Wangdi. He knows a secret route to Jumolhari. We order beers. Ravi smokes a Chinese cigarette, the smoke acrid in your eyes. Wangdi will take you for fifteen-hundred ngultrum a night, now eight-hundred ngultrum a night, six days. Someone notes you are two miles high. The glasses fill and empty. He will take you to Tibet for three-thousand. Soldiers arrive with flashlights, shine them in your eyes. They march into the room behind the living room where we sit. There is a minor ruckus.
You are drunk. The sky is covered in stars, so much that you cannot find the familiar constellations. The paths feel like the path back to your home in Grundy. The tent is set up underneath the sky.
We wake up hungover. Your shoes are soaked, a night rain. We start back towards Drukgyal. Houses and fields apparate in the sunlight. There are faceless scarecrows among the crops. The rocks beneath the holes in your shoes are bruising the bones of your feet, soft-soled child.
It is late in the afternoon when you stop for lunch. Noodles, a scrambled egg on top. Cheese cubes soaking in the heat, the taste of cream coating your tongue when bit. Jon says he will not go on; he is tired; his tendons strain; he is in pain. We convince him to go to the next campsite, to spend the night with us. He comes.
After such a day, the wood is dry. We build a fire, roast peanuts and cook dried fish and smoke chunks of cheese, hide potatoes in the ashes to bake. There are no stars, but there is a bottle of rum being passed around.
We wake up hungover. Jon turns home. We head up. Through fields where millstones are stepping stones. Following a stump-legged red dog that joined you in one of the hamlets. Up to the lakhang. A man’s voice drones from the balcony of the house, a radio. The keeper and his wife greet you. Holy water flows from a pipe entombed in the mountain. There is suja. It is the worst butter tea you have ever tasted. You pay your respects to the local deities.
You leave your packs and walk slow. Jon breathes deep behind you. Dead spines of trees killed in a forest fire rise from one of the mountain’s girding slopes like a grizzly crown. Nothing has grown up to replace the old canopy. The ferns glow fluorescent, the yellow flowers phosphorescent and liable to blur and twist in your eyes. The Buddha says all men are scarecrows. The dog has left. Your feet are unsteady. The shell and the experience are there, but there is no I. Your heart trembles. You keep moving.
A yak herder’s stone winter hut sits in a field. There is an iron pan hiding in the rubble.
You roam higher, into rock screes and burned-out rhododendron forests, the scoured limbs limbs like boneyards of antlers in the ash.
Above there are phantasmagorical fields of wildflowers: white lotus-shapes, weeping blue trumpets, wheels of rusted-iron red bulbs. Cabbages covered with spiders’ webs in a place where there are no spiders, blue poppies clothed in spines and clinging dew.
You move slow. The air is thin and you might break it. The clouds blow in. You can see the shifting mist of the borders. Your jacket rustles as you zip it fully. Your brain is wrapped in shrinking plastic. The sacred lakes are over the ridge, but you cannot see the way forward, or the way back. A patch falls out, and you scramble up past tenuous cairns. The spear of a prayer flag stabs through the white on the horizon. It is part of a mountain that the ridge you think is last never is, but this one is.
You and Ravi pause and wait for Jon. To the side there is a higher peak with another flag poking through. The haze consumes all. You walk up to the higher point. You stop, wait. Jon has not followed. You cannot see him. It is cold. You yell up to Ravi and walk down to Jon. He is where he was left. You say to stick together. He agrees.
The rain is light; it does not have far to fall. You walk up, but you cannot find the lake the prayer flags testify to. You are above every point you have ever been. The ridge slopes away from all sides. Down had been a trusted direction but now it is a spurned and treacherous lover. There are no sounds of a river to guide you.
You return to the first cluster of prayer flags. You head down the other side into rhododendron.
“I don’t remember this part of the trail up.” Jon says.
“This is the other side of the ridge.” You say.
Or maybe, “We didn’t come this way.” You say.
You walk down until you cannot see the top. Ravi wants to go on, to find the lake. You convince him not to. You drink the dewy jewel from the center of a rhododendron crown. You turn back.
The path is the same one you have already walked before, and your stomach cramps and you want to vomit. Tiny rocks tumble down before you. You all pass out inside the hut. Ravi builds a fire to warm his body and roasts peanuts on the iron pan, sprinkles salt on top. The sky is dimming. Your breath appears.
At the lakhang they make you food, hand you cucumbers. You try to refuse, but you cannot. You leave peanuts and raisins and rice cakes. In the meadow below Ravi builds a fire and Jon and you set the tent. The celebration bottle of beer is cracked. The rum passes around until it is gone. The sun sets and the coals flatten from red to black. In the fugue between consciousness and darkness a woman's voice in the dream calls you in the afternoon from the peak’s clouds: you are not safe. Again: you should not stay.
Before the sun has risen the rain begins anew. The skin of the tent is permeable. The frame has collapsed. Puddles pool beneath your feet, your legs, the shoulder of one of your arms. Your mouth is dry; you have a hangover. You leave the tent and shiver visibly, continuing without conscious control. The cloud is all around you; everything is drenched. You move, because if you do not, you do not.
An old man wearing a gho and a hardhat beneath a rainbow-colored umbrella strolls past. It is seven-thirty in the morning. You order a glass of whisky. You prepare to tell the barkeep if he asks that you did it because you knew you could.