A few years back, I set out with my dear friend Tom on a kind of pilgrimage, seeking clarity and a little adventure. Our destination was the source of the Ganges river in the Himalayas. We were energetic students willing to travel thousands of miles with little more than the clothes on our backs. We were looking to wash our spirits clean in the sacred waters near Gaumukh.
We boiled down our gear list to the bare essentials: backpacks, a couple of wool blankets, a bag of rice, notebooks, cookware and a small A-frame tent. We aimed to test our limits, intentionally putting ourselves through a little hardship, blissfully self-confident and unaware of how far in over our heads we might become.
Arriving just weeks before the local shepherds pack up and head for southern pastures, a Jeep dropped us off at Gangotri, the last village and we set out on foot. In these interior mountain valleys, daylight is brief and come dusk, the temperature drops.
The first night Tom got sick. We stayed close, shivering in the small tent. With each wheezing cough, I feared Tom's condition worsened and may soon become desperate. Cold easily over ran our thin, wool blankets, and in the deep icy dark, we huddled, too miserable to sleep. Early the next day, I went to get help for my ailing companion. Less than a mile from camp, I came across a goat herder. With broken Hindi, I successfully bartered for heavier blankets and hauled them back to my friend.
Feeling more relaxed with Tom resting under the shepard's thick comforter, I picked the mountain nearest our tent and went climbing. I stopped often to catch my breath in the high, thin air. A few hundred feet shy of the summit, feeling dizzy, I had to sit down. Moving carefully, I dangled my legs over the thousand foot drop. From up here, our tent looked like a small blue stone, and I could see the thin waterway twisting through the pass.
All of a sudden, a bird took flight next to me and my stomach dropped. Feeling anxious, I thought, maybe I should climb down soon. As I started to get up, I had a sudden flash of panic. I promptly sat back down and worked to calm myself. Before noticing, I had spontaneously composed a letter telling my family how much I love them.
Perched there above the clouds, I could see many mountains, like frosted tipped spears piercing the sky. With the sun on my neck, I slowly began to enjoy the view. After a few more minutes I gathered the courage to begin descending. By the time I reached camp, it was near dark. That night, we both slept better and when the sun rose the next morning, it brought a new energy. Tom's appetite returned a little but he was very tired. I departed alone to the mouth of the Ganges.
All morning until mid-afternoon, I tediously picked my way up the loose stone path. Out of nowhere, he was there -- walking next to me, an old white bearded man wearing nothing but a threadbare cloth. Without a word, this long-haired sadhu strode gracefully across the frozen landscape, nearly naked and barefoot. And at the speed in which he moved, he soon disappeared over the rise and out of sight.
Finally, after cresting a steep hill, I saw it. The cave of ice from which a violent torrent roared. Refrigerator-sized boulders that had been resting on the edge of the melting sheet unhinged and fell thunderously in the heat of the mid-day sun. I could feel mist on my face as chunks of mountain crashed into the roiling water. This raw and destructive force stunned me.
I had come all this way to baptize myself here but now, I felt my heart pounding again. The crashing boulders! But this may be my only chance. I had to go for it. Waiting for the right moment, I moved to the water's edge and dunked my head. The dip felt thick and numbingly cold. Suddenly I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned, squinting through wet eyes and hair. It was the sadhu.
He spoke with simple authority, "That's far enough, baba! Go back now." A large boulder splashed in front of us making his point clearer. I followed his command. The old man turned and climbed back up the mountainside and settled into his meditation seat. Noticing the setting sun, I headed back down the road to camp mostly elated that I had done it.
We spent a few more nights in the mountains, resting and reflecting until Tom felt strong enough to trek home. At long last we were back in the village, and I called my parents from the only pay phone in town. My mom picked up. She sounded unexpectedly worried, "I'm so glad to hear from you! We were all so worried! Are you hurt?"
"I'm okay, in fact, I'm great. I had an amazing trip!" How could she have known that I had been so near to danger?
"Why are you worried?," I responded.
"Because of the earthquake," she replied.
She told me that it was all over the news back home and that everyone was worried about me. And they were right to worry. What had been slight tremors for us had killed thousands just a few hundred miles away. I reassured her and hung up the phone.
After we said goodbye, I felt a sinking in my gut: It was a pang of guilt for being reckless with my life and with hearts of my loved ones. I was for the first time aware that, in fact, we are all connected, no matter where we are in the world. Always. Here I was climbing high altitude peaks, alone, during an earthquake, while my family reads the shocking headlines back home.
I went to the mountains seeking adventure and clarity and I guess I found it, just not in the way I expected. Naturalist and poet, John Muir, sums it up nicely: "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."