After our race, Young Ankit and I struck up some conversation as we sat waiting for the rest of our group to catch up with us. Ankit was working as a porter, carrying the diplomat’s pack, but I had noticed that he seemed a little different from the rest of the porters. Younger, less beat-down. He was more wide-eyed, and certainly more social. Many of the other porters didn’t even speak English. Ankit was animated, articulate, and curious about life in countries other than his own.
It turned out, this was his first-ever trek. He was 15.
It was all still an adventure to him.
[This is a chapter from my travel book. There are lots more chapters posted on the blog, but if you’d prefer to read them all at once, sign up for my e-mail newsletter and I’ll be sure to let you know when they’re available in a condensed form!]
We talked a little bit more about his family, his life. He wanted to go on to university, for tourism. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to. It looked like he might be trekking for the foreseeable future. I wasn’t sure what to say to him; so I didn’t say anything. I looked down at my feet. My cheap, Chinese-made hiking boots had handled that sprint pretty well. I even thought about bringing them home for a second. The thought didn’t last long — I had a nice pair of hiking boots at home. I didn’t need two.
I looked at Ankit’s shoes. Beat-up old tennis shoes, bereft of both tread and thread.
“What size shoe do you wear?” I asked Ankit. He told me a size that was a little smaller than my own, but not significantly.
I nodded, and didn’t say more. Anker came around the corner and put a convenient end to the conversation. “He’s too fast,” Ankit said, laughing.
“Too crazy,” Anker said. “Like that, you will die.”
We picked up our packs and resumed trekking down. We descended quickly, with little preamble or conversation. Breaks were short, as we all brimmed with motivation.
I largely trekked alone, at the front of the pack.
My mind was on Holly, and the job I was set to interview for in Austria. My past, and my future. I was not inhabiting the moment.
The staggering mountains passed by without much appreciation. My mind was in the past — a different set of mountains, a different moment.
Unlike a lot of things in life, there was a clear moment where I fell in love with Holly. Although I had felt the tension growing for months, I had resisted it. Just about everyone I knew was in love with her. Some openly, some secretly. And yet, one morning I woke up in her bed to find we had slipped up, and let sex into our friendship. Sheepishly, we said our goodbyes, thought on it for a few days, and said it could never be.
But a few weeks later, late night, the last two remaining awake after a group hangout, it all came rushing back. Holly sat down, handed me a cup of tea, and quite unexpectedly said: “I love you.”
She says the look on my face crushed her. It was a premonition of hurt. But still, my heart gave me no choice: I took her upstairs to her room, laid her down, and made love. She fell asleep in my arms, and still that was not the moment.
The moment came a week later. We snuck out on a date, still trying to find our footing without alerting our sprawling group of friends, who would surely find the whole thing scandalous. In Nepal, years later, I could still recall the night perfectly.
We sat at her kitchen table, eating a dinner she had cooked. Her roommates and a few of our friends joined us. She said she had to go meet someone, and I slyly asked her if she could give me a ride home on her way. “I don’t see why not,” she’d said with a wink, and as soon as we were out the door we were holding hands.
The movie was Frozen, and I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. We kissed, lightly, but mostly reveled in being here, together. As Holly drove me home, she asked longingly, “Does this night have to end?” No, I said, I don’t see any reason this night can’t go on forever. So she kept driving. We drove and we drove until we weren’t driving anywhere at all.
“This is where I go when I need to get away,” she said. I smiled, and my heart was glad. A gorgeous night to get away.
At midnight, deep in a mountain canyon, we finally pulled off the road and came to a stop. We climbed out of the car, despite the early-winter cold, and took in the scene. The stars twinkled down on us; two youths, lost in love. I knew the place; I had been climbing here, across the shallow river, upon which we could now see the ethereal shimmer of reflected moonlight. Hundred-foot granite walls soared all around us, creating a natural amphitheater. Climbers know this area as “The Palace.” Here all alone, looking up at the night sky with my arms wrapped around a beautiful woman, I certainly felt like royalty.
Holly told me “Can you promise me one thing? No matter how this goes, no matter what happens between us, promise me you’ll write about this night.”
I promised, and I was in love.
The scene on the way down from Annapurna was considerably grander than a quiet rock climbing crag in Colorado, but every step reminded me of Holly, all the same.
I wondered if she’d thought about that moment in the Palace, all alone, on her flight home. I wondered if it remained with her today; or if it was all vitriol and bile, anger against the way our trip had played out. Trekking towards home, I remembered the Palace. But in the back of my mind, I also remembered Chiang Mai. I remembered her telling me, stone cold fury in her eyes: I’ll never forgive you for this.
As a relationship crumbles, we often choose those certain, perfect moments to hold on to. They’re certainly better to think about than the endless nights of Netflix, the angry, jealous calls at 3 a.m., or the crushing realization that your heart doesn’t leap at the sight of the other person any more.
I had plenty of those golden moments with Holly — more than I’d ever had with anyone else. Drinking $2 pots of tea all afternoon in our favorite bookshop; Singapore: sharing a five-star hotel room at the Marina Bay Sands for her birthday, 51 floors up, the nicest place either of us had ever been. One of our first dates, at an underground jazz bar, where the bartender served us free champagne “for the beautiful couple.” The list goes on for a very long time. It would be too painful to repeat, now.
But in between those golden moments lie huge swaths of black. Fights, shut-down evenings, and long winter months spent inside our own heads.
My penultimate day on the trail passed quickly, in a quiet, shut-down stretch spent inside my own head.