December 5. 2009, 1999.December 5, 2009 at 8:13 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: Annapurna circuit, Nepal, Thorung-La
On December 5, I can start my Christmas. The Rockefeller Center tree lighting always takes place the Thursday night right around December 5, and once that tree is lit, I can send out cards, play carols, and string up wreaths and lights and put up my tree. Every few years, the big televised tree-lighting actually falls right on the 5th, which was (is) my father’s birthday. My father worked in 30 Rockefeller Center. You could see the tree from his office window (I think — could we really see the tree and the rink from his window or am I making up this memory because I wanted it to be so?) So all of these events happily coincided for me when I was a child: the tree-lighting, his birthday, the beginning of the holiday season.
The 30 Rock tree, December 4, 2009 (taken by my mother)
My father would be 64 today. Ten years ago on December 5, it was a mere five months, almost to the day, after he died at what now seems the absurdly young age of 53, and I was in Nepal. Early that morning I climbed (wheezed, dragged myself) over the Thorung-La pass (17,796 ft.) on the Annapurna circuit. Though I had been hiking and acclimatizing myself in the Annapurnas for three weeks, that last climb was agonizing, due to the bitter cold and most likely exhaustion and malnourishment (the only food available was what could be trekked two weeks in from the nearest town on the backs of Nepali porters: garlic soup, ramen, lemon water, and Milky Ways — strangely ubiquitous in Nepal). It was all too easy for me to imagine my father’s ragged breathing the last weeks of his life. I remember thinking to myself, as I had to concentrate to just put one foot in front of the other, “This is nothing compared to what Dad suffered through.” Some nice Australian boys who had been part of my trekking crew (I didn’t go with a guided tour, but when you trek the Annapurnas you can only ascend so many feet per day, so you end up hiking the whole circuit with the people who happen to start the same day as you; you climb your certain number of vertical feet every day and you all stay at whatever tea huts are at that altitude) bounded back down from the pass, once they had reached it seemingly hours before me, to take my pack and encourage me on. I asked them how it was possible that the climb was so easy for them. “I think it’s the smoking,” one said. “It makes my lungs stronger.” Ironic, natch.
When I finally reached the pass, I was above the clouds, and could look out over them and the Mustang Valley below across to the mountains of Tibet. I want to say it was a spiritual experience — I was that much closer to heaven, to my dad, etc. — but, really, my knees felt like they were being hit with hammers and my nose was frost-bitten. There was a small hut at the top, where I stopped to thaw my frozen feet over a makeshift fire in a tin box that in my journal I noted seemed to be fed by plastic ramen noodle bags and alcohol. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to put my boots on again.
That trek was part of a 10-month, round-the-world journey I took in 1999-2000. I kept a very detailed journal, which I recently found when unpacking from our move. Here’s what I wrote that night:
Finally, I descended into the valley. The views are stunning — Dhalighiri, a perfect pyramid-shaped peak, towering way above, coming into sight in and out of the clouds. As I entered the village of Muktinath, women in Tibetan clothing were selling jewelry and scarves. Muktinath has a big Buddhist temple, which is a major pilgrimage site. Finally, finally, I stumbled, hurting to the North Star Hotel, where the rest of the group was already sipping some beers around a table in a cheerful, warm dining room. I took a fairly warm faucet shower to wash four days of sweat and grime off. It felt wonderful, although I deemed it not quite warm enough to wash my hair, which has basically been in braids since Manang. Then I came down to join the group — Sara and Swen, John, Gabe and Nick. They put a coal heater under the table and it is nice and toasty. I just ate dinner — delicious french fries and some fried rice. I’m feeling a little nauseous from the beer I also drank, I think. I didn’t hydrate enough.
I’m not as sad as I thought I would be about Dad. I felt happy thinking about him on such a physically exhausting, but probably rewarding, day. I’m a little sad, but in a way, I’m glad I could share his birthday with him in this way. He’d be 54 — so young! I wish I could tell you about this day — call you and tell you about it. I hope wherever you are, you know that I’m thinking about you.
Ten years later, as I put up my Christmas lights and look at my daughter who inherited your dimples, I still wish I could call and wish you a happy birthday.