I stare up at the green tent, glowing in the morning light. My body wants to escape its restrictive cocoon. I step outside and find the sun opening its eye over the mountains. Beside the unzipped door sits an aluminum cup filled with chai tea. Hot 20 minutes ago, it is now cold. I sip its sweet, spiced flavor as I prepare my means of transportation - my feet. I struggle to find my first-aid kit in the mess of three girls’ backpacks, then notice some kids staring at my straw-colored hair. I smile and continue searching. The kids were there last night, too. I find the last moleskin and cut a piece just large enough to cover my latest blister. I pull on my boots, and with trailing laces, shuffle to the food tent.
The sunlight kisses my fair skin and the mountains of northernmost India sing a sweet song to me. They call me, plead for me to come. In their valleys I discover villages and people who in America exist only in photos. These extraordinary mountain-dwellers traverse tall peaks to deliver expired Coca-Cola on donkeys and reuse the bottles until they break. I find amazing children who know how to work a field and tend sheep, but remain uninterested in jump ropes and toys. These people have stares that look past your eyes and into your being, especially the elders. It reminds me of war stories in which men would return home with a “look” in their eyes. It is as if they’re trapped, trapped in their soul by some unimaginable force.
It was this same force I felt in the Buddhist monastery. Religion is not a fad here. I remember the paintings in the chant room. Blue gods with gold embellishments danced on the wall, while I tried not to trip over the uneven floor boards. I saw pictures of the gods and spirits I had read about. The images were no longer in a book or a museum but real, tangible. In the mornings I hear the chants of a nearby monastery. The songs of monks ring in my head as I begin my day at five. We walk through these places where we feel religion in the air. I sing in my head and keep walking.
The thin air makes every breath demanding. I feel every ounce of my backpack’s weight. Inside my boots, blisters rub and chafe. I cringe. The pain is numbing but I continue and divert my attention to keep from screaming. The only way to go is up, and the mountains tease. There is little perspective and the distance drags on and on. This desolate back country has no trees, only weeds and an occasional ugly shrub. I distract myself by watching rocks or the boots of a fellow trekker. Soon my thoughts wander from the paths and glaciers back to my sore feet.
It is the tenth day that I have conquered these mountains. I have punished my body by taking thousands of steps on their surface. Yesterday, the hardest so far, I almost broke down. I realize this will probably be the most physically demanding experience I’ll ever have, and to succeed will be a mental victory. Today we walked nine and a half hours to get to the village where we camped. I fell behind when I felt like I would vomit.
There was an old woman walking on our highest pass yesterday morning with long braids and Buddhist adornments that revealed her age. She walked a hundred feet and then sat to rest. Her pace was noticeably slow, and as I approached her, she, once again, took a seat next to the trail. I sat beside her, feeling tired too, but not so much tired as wanting to jump off the mountain and have God take me to heaven. As she looked me over, her piercing eyes became fresh, like a little girl, and she spoke to me in Ladakhi. I smiled, and together we ate my dried apricots. Moments later I trekked on, leaving her the bag and knowing its resealable feature would be used until its demise. I forgot how dirty I was feeling and how ready to leave I was. I told no one about my experience with her.
Later that night I got lost with two other team members. We went over the last pass, lost the footprints, and wandered around a valley for two hours before we found camp. Along the way, I found a small, pink-petaled flower. I flattened it in my journal, thinking nothing more about it. Today, as I opened my journal, the blossom fell onto my lap. I carefully picked up its fragile body that somehow grew at 16,000 feet. It grew for no one’s benefit but its own. It is beautiful, and strong because it lived in a place where no one could imagine it would survive.
I think of how quickly I arrived here, one of the most desolate countries in the world, a place where I am foreign because light skin is scarce. A world I briefly live in. I pass by. Tomorrow I will once again be plucked from this place to hike to the next. I avoid thinking of home and the blister. Contentment lingers around my tent and surrounds my thoughts, but never stays. I recognize I am here to survive, for myself if for no one else. Contentment would deprive me of my strength to continue.
Next week I will plant myself back into Iowan soil, but for now I sleep in a bag that suffocates me and attempt to wash in a glacier stream. My hair is matted, dirt is embedded in my pores. Everything is dusty; the nice boots that break my skin and shorten my nerves, and my pack that once was blue. My right calf aches every time my foot hits the earth. I can’t find my fingernail clippers. Here I am stripped of my makeup, which hides my face. Here I am stripped of everything. I walk the Himalayas, glowing in my nakedness.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.