High in the Himalayas, you walk in your clothes as though they were chain mail, an iron dress. We trekked without a guide or a porter so packing was a rigorous, considered process: every item and inclusion was a decision we would carry on our backs for a month.
We had decided to trek up to Lukla – the official beginning of the Everest Base Camp trail – where most people fly, taking us seven days to reach the same place they breeze into in less than forty minutes. For that first week we would be walking in low-altitude midrange mountains or, I should say walking over them: from Shivalaya to Lukla, a rough trail leads you time and again, up and down and up and down, through forest and village to peak and pass and river valley and ascend again.
My dear old knees fretfully recalled different treks in other lands and knew that it was they, not I, who would bear the brunt of every ounce and chocolate bar I crammed into my pack. They were most unimpressed, then, when they saw me with a weighty copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From in my grip. “What?” I pleaded. “It’s not like there’s a lot to do on a mountain once the sun has set. Besides, don’t you know me by now? I’m Deborah. Of course I’ll be taking a book.”
They said nothing but sank into a scowl of wrinkles and furrows and piqued knobliness. I ignored them and propped myself up in bed to read a while before a pre-dawn bus ride from Kathmandu to the small settlement of Shivalaya.
How wonderful to carry Raymond Carver into the Himalayas, I thought: to take the drunks and the downtrodden, the depressed and the defeated, far far away from their small lives in their sad towns – away from the fishing cannery, away from the bar and the pool table, away from the kitchen table and the affairs and the disappointments, the insomnia, another drink and a cigarette. Oh, the romantic irony of it! The small-town son of a waitress; the hospital porter, the dictionary salesman, the petrol pump attendant from Clatskanie Oregon, now in the shadow of Everest!
I was in love with the idea. I get that way.
I suppose it’s because I can see where Carver was calling from. His writing; it’s close to home. And it meant so much to me – the small-town daughter of a bus driver (he was a bus driver then) – to find myself on my way up to the shadow of Everest.
Lying there reading, though, I started to feel so sleepy. Reading about the bars and the kitchen tables and the affairs and the drinking and the disappointments, I started to feel so tired. It was only seven o’ clock but my eyes were closing and my legs felt heavy and my shoulders felt heavy too. I started to wonder did I want to carry Raymond Carver up into the mountains with me? I started to think that maybe, after a long day hiking up and down and up and down through forest and peak and river valley, maybe I’d be too tired for drunks and divorces and dissatisfaction; that maybe they’d bring me down in spite of so much beauty all around; that maybe it was enough that I was carrying myself up into the shadow of Everest.
You can hope and you can wish things for other people, people who maybe want to get away from the kitchen table or the TV, the computer or their whole life; but you can’t carry them all with you; you only have your own knobbly knees and they’ve enough to be doing.
So I packed Carver away in the bag we were storing behind in Kathmandu and in my backpack I tucked a copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames by the hysterically funny David Sedaris. And every night when the sun had set in the mountains and there was nothing at all to do in the cold and silent Himalaya, I laughed out loud and thought about the day and where I was and where I’ve come from. And, though it was heavy to carry at altitude and my knees groaned and grumbled sometimes – for it weighed, in fact, the same as Carver and I was happy eventually to pass it on to another trekker – it was a good packing decision; it was so very much lighter.