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The Poon Hill Incident


JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS, I was writing about a journey that Mimi and I had taken in Nepal. To refresh your memory, Mimi was three months pregnant with our son Max. Our daughter, Mia, was three years old, and was spending time with Mimi‘s parents while we trekked around the 26,000 foot Annapurna Circuit…. We were a little over halfway through our 110 mile loop around the great mountain and were feeling great. We had not seen many other trekkers at this point and had gotten into our groove. Our being there in January had given us spectacular views due to the crisp blue skies. This part of the story is about our next upcoming challenge. One of the main reasons we chose this route was to climb Nepal’s highest mountain pass. We would wake up early and ascend the eight hour path to high camp and then on to the 17,000 foot Thorung La pass. The view from this pass was of the Kali Gandaki Valley and many peaks in the 26,000 to 27,000 foot range. We stayed up there for as long as we could take it. The winds were strong and the temps were very cold. At first, making it up there was so exhilarating and the view was so stunning that the cold didn’t creep in for a while. Once we began to cool down, though, we knew it was time to move on, after taking many photos of the tattered, wind whipped prayer flags with the white mountains and the blue skies for a backdrop. We still had to make it down some steep paths to Muktinaath. This was a place that we were excited to see.

AT THE FOOT of the pass is a holy place for both Hindus and Buddhists. It is one of the highest temples in Nepal, and at around 10,000 feet, the temple blended right into rocky mountainside since it was made of stone. There were some friendly monks present who were happy to show us around the crazy labyrinth of passages and rooms lit with kerosene lanterns that were seemingly under ground but were actually carved into the mountain. We sat down for a while and had some tea and few laughs while motioning to them that Mimi was pregnant. They began to fuss over her and started bringing blankets and building a fire. They were preparing a place for us to sleep. That was not why we went in there. We were anxious to see what this temple looked like on the inside, but we couldn’t pass on their kind offer for rest after the eight or ten hour day we had just endured. Our legs were tired. The buzz of the energy that we were feeling from the monks was totally revitalizing and fun. Later that night, someone showed up with a hot vegetable broth and noodle bowl that knocked us out under our warm yak hair blankets. Someone tended to a fire all night to keep us warm. I still remember that being one of the deepest sleeps I have ever experienced.

THE NEXT TWO DAYS we were still in open country that was dry and windy with breathtaking views in every direction. We crossed many suspension bridges and began a downhill path through riverbeds towards the apple capital of Nepal. Once we got there, we saw a few apple trees, but the apples were very small and tart. There must have been a lot more trees growing on mountain side terraces somewhere nearby, but we didn’t see them. The village is famous for its apple brandy and apple gardens. I guess being the only place with apples makes this place the apple capital of Nepal. We were following a path now that was one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen. We were surrounded by 200-year-old rhododendron forests. We had seen lots of rhododendrons growing on the Appalachian trail hikes but never had we seen anything like this. Rhododendron in Nepal is known as Gurans; it is indigenous to the high Himalaya and is also the national flower of Nepal. Here, in Mississippi, they are known as azaleas. The blooms look very much like our beloved azaleas but the leaves are very different. There are 32 species of rhododendron in Nepal, and ten of those species were in the area that we were hiking through. They are native in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Tibet. We were not there for the full bloom that happens in March, but there were some sporadic blooms on some of the 200-year-old trees. We couldn’t imagine what the paths must look like when in full bloom with Himalayan backdrop. We vowed to make it back there one day to see it. That trip will have to happen after our garden center days are behind us, because we will never be able to travel in March or April, as long as we are busy at our garden center. The name rhododendron is derived from the Greek words Rodas (meaning rose) and dendron (meaning tree). There are bushy species and some tree species that can be 100 feet tall. Some species take 20 years to bloom. Some tree species take 50 years to bloom. We noticed that the rhododendron at lower altitude were showing vibrant red blooms. However, as altitude increased, the colors began shifting to pink, and as we got even higher, to around 10,000 feet, they gradually became pure white. We hope to see the full bloom one day. We would love to do that whole trek again at a much slower pace. There has been a lot of work done on rhododendrons by nursery people to make it into a landscape plant. Because of their beautiful flowers, cultivators have created 28,000 cultivars of rhododendrons for ornamental use. There is rumor that there is a heat tolerant rhododendron that will take the Mississippi heat. It hasn’t hit the market yet, which makes me doubt its success, but we can’t complain. We have our azaleas down here, and they are hard to beat.

WE ARE HEADING into our last few days of the trek. We are mostly staying below 10,000 feet and passing through villages more frequently than before. I tend to get hung up in the villages because I stop in attempt to communicate with anyone who will try. I love to observe how a culture runs in a tiny village where there are no roads, no electricity, and no signs of communication with the outside world. I look around at what the structures are built with, and I have to wonder how some of the things got there. Someone had to carry corrugated tin for the roofs and supplies that definitely didn’t grow there. The walls are mostly built of stone from the mountains that surround them. I get that, but the wood used as braces and joists have to be hewn on the spot that the tree is felled. We couldn’t walk past an area where the wood was being hewn for someone’s house without stopping to watch the process for a bit. It was incredible to see the perfect work that the Nepalese people could do with the same tools they must’ve been using for thousands of years. Most of the wood being hewn was cedar and the smell was amazing. They didn’t mind our sitting down to watch them work. They were just as intrigued with us as we were with them. Everyone had their part in the process. The men were moving the big stuff, while the younger men and women shaved the wood to perfection, while someone else oversaw and taught them the trade. The little children were in charge of keeping the fire going and keeping the tea kettle hot while chasing each other around the sticks. I imagine the scene was one that has looked very similar for a very long time. It was a family affair with lots of hard work and lots of playful laughter. We always had a hard time getting up and leaving a woodworking team because we knew it could be the last time we’d ever see anything quite like it. I suppose it goes on still today. Whenever I smell fresh cut cedar I go into a daze remembering those beautiful family collaborations.

BY THIS TIME we were on day 15, and we were getting weary. We were still energized by the scenery and the wonderful spirit of the place, but our muscles were beginning to remind us that we would need to rest soon. We had one more big push to go, one that we still talk about today, whenever I get carried away in my pace. We call it the great Poon Hill incident. Mimi and I have taken a lot of hikes together, and like anyone, we have our own paces. We don’t always walk together…usually, somewhat within view of each other, but not always within earshot. Sometimes, one of us gets an adrenaline rush and takes off pretty fast. When that happens, the other one doesn’t expect the other to slow down, and the one with the sudden burst of energy doesn’t expect the other to keep up. It’s just a phenomenon that happens to runners, bikers and hikers. I get that rush even during a workday sometimes, and I don’t fight it. I love it when it happens, because it feels very spiritual and liberating. We know to stop, eventually, and wait on the other one and rest up for a while. Well…I didn’t do the waiting up part on this particular day, and I will be sorry until my last breath. Poon Hill is a well-known climb in this area that offers magnificent views as the final days of the trek are upon us. We arrived at the base camp of Poon Hill in the early afternoon. Our muscles were screaming after the intense, insanely steep climb we had just finished… and the previous 15 days of ascending and descending. But as soon as we approached our stopping place for the day, someone yelled out to us that if we dropped our stuff and scrambled, we would be able to catch the breathtaking view from the top of Poon Hill and get back before dark. We looked at each other trying to read the other to see if we had it in us to do another steep climb, then the harder part, the descent. Against our better judgment we decided to go for it, both with doubt in our minds. Having doubts is a terrible way to start a climb, but off we went. We were moving at a pretty good pace when I got one of those adrenaline rushes and took off. Before I knew it, I had reached to top of Poon Hill. The sun had not set and Mimi had not risen. The problem is that I didn’t do that part that we normally expect each other to do. I was so amped up that I forgot to stop and wait for Mimi. At about the same moment that I realized what I had done, an English girl that had made it up there soon after me walked over to ask me if I was with a pregnant girl. I already knew I was in trouble when I said that I was. The girl told me that Mimi was sitting on a rock crying and having some trouble. Before she finished her sentence, I was already headed back down Poon Hill to take my punishment. When I came across Mimi, she had already gotten back on her feet and was seething her way towards me. I have, to this day, never seen her so mad at me. There were no words that would cool the situation. I was in big trouble. We made it back to the top, and I eventually stopped trying to make things better, because everything I said was making things worse. I had broken the unwritten rule. We were fatigued, and she was pregnant. I do know when it’s time to stop talking, and this was one of those times. We rested and whiled away some quiet time up there with the prayer flags flapping and the eagle soaring overhead with the Himalaya gleaming white for as far as the eye could see. Mimi wanted to be alone to take it all in, and quite frankly, that sounded better than my being thrown over a cliff, so I granted her that wish. We got our act back together before the descent, but to this day, it still comes up from time to time. We laugh about it now, but I’m always careful not to laugh too loud or too long… still a tender subject.

WE MANAGED to make that entire trek without any injuries or stomach bugs, which amazed me. We were certain that we would get some sort of bug along the way, no matter how careful we were. We made it until the last day. We made it all the way back to Kathmandu and went out the night before our long flight home to get something to eat. Mimi, very apparently, had not managed to dodge sickness. She wretched in the sink in our room all night long and on the taxi to the airport and in the airport. It followed her on our 40 hour journey back home. Those stomach bugs, unfortunately, are a part of traveling to developing countries. She was most grateful, though, that if she had to catch one that it was not in the middle of the trip, which would’ve caused us to have to stop to recover. Had this happened, it would have been impossible for us to have made it to the end of the trek in time for our flight home. We will always cherish the memories we made on that adventure, and we eagerly await a time that we can go for another otherworldly adventure.

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