Yesterday morning Jennifer’s parents, Morris and Cynde, departed for Delhi and then to the U. S. of A. We had a great two weeks with them. One day we went to 5,000-year-old Fort Kangra, a fort that Alexander the Great made it to, which once again suggests that there must have been much cross-fertilization of ideas between East and West three centuries before the time of Jesus. Another day we hiked down to the Bhagsu River, and on another to our favorite little town, Dharamkhot for lunch. We visited the Dalai Lama’s temple and saw the Dalai Lama, himself. We had great days at home playing hearts and chess and crosswords and one day Morris and Cynde watched the boys while Jennifer and I had an afternoon date in town. The two of us had coffee at the Moon Peak café, visited a bookstore and several Tibetan shops, walked around town, and had dessert and coffee at Nick’s.
But our favorite outing (other than seeing the Dalai Lama, of course) was taking horses into the high Himalayas. We had planned a trek of eight-hours, climbing to “Triund,” which as best as we could tell was a town up in the mountains, a climb of some 5,000 feet in four hours, a steep rise to over ten thousand feet.
Every morning, I’ve been doing my morning meditations on the terrace of the cottage, looking up at the mountains. High in the distance, a green pass, a yoke or saddle, dips down between two higher green ridges. Beyond that yoke, rises the great Himalayan peak, Hanumanji Ka Tiba, or “white mountain,” a snowy cone, shimmering and usually cloud shrouded. Hanuman, the Lord of the Monkey armies in the epic, The Ramayana, rested there on his way back to the battles of southern India, after he came north to fetch a sacred herb needed to heal the hero Ram’s younger brother who had been wounded in battle. Sometimes, it seems you can feel the cold air pouring down from the mountain’s glaciers to cool McLeod Ganj far below.
It wasn’t until we were on our way up the mountain on our horses that I learned that that high green pass was Triund.
I was excited about the day, because our boys love animals so much and I hoped they would love the ride. Aidan, Kellen, and I are basically crazy about animals. Jennifer likes them pretty well. In Dharamsala, the boys have adopted one of the neighborhood dogs, a sweet, black-and-brown one with thick fur they’ve named “Woof-woof.” Two others they’ve named “Bark-bark” and “Ruff-ruff.” Woof-woof has taken a special liking to us. Almost every afternoon she comes to our back door and whines, and while we don’t let her in, the boys and I go out to rub her tummy. She spends her afternoons sleeping at the top landing of the outdoor steps that lead to the second floor of our cottage. (Why you have to go outside to reach the steps to the second floor has been a subject of much speculation in our cottage, especially on rainy nights.)
The morning of the ride arrived, and we gathered at the dirt road that rises steeply out of town up into the forested mountains. We were led to our horses by a small, wiry rugged, middle-aged man who looked like someone who had spent his life around mountain horses. I liked him immediately. He could have been a Spaniard, a Basque. We found the horses in a little grassy area off the road. There were a couple young guys there, who said they’d be accompanying us. We had heard that guides would be leading the boys’ horses. This was good to hear, as there were no helmets lying anywhere around.
Morris and I were concerned that the horses seemed pretty small. Morris called them “mountain ponies.” The guides assured us that they were big enough for us. So, we mounted up. Aidan and Kellen both got the horses they wanted, Kellen a white one and Aidan a larger brown one. I got a white one, and Jennifer a very pretty gray one speckled with white. They all had bells around their necks.
Once on the trail, I asked our guides their names. Kellen had “Nehlu,” which means “Blue.” Aidan, “Sairu,” which is also the real name of our friend, “Bark-bark.” My horse was “Valdo,” which means “Cloud.” I liked my guide, Vikal, a twenty-year old guy with frizzy hair and an easy smile, who carried on a conversation with Cloud the entire ride, sometimes in English:
“You’re a good horse. Strong horse! Good! Let’s go! Up! Up!”
Aidan and Kellen thought the guys were too rough on the horses. They yelled, “Loh!” frequently, which must have meant, “Let’s go!” They carried small switches that they used on the horses rumps. Not very hard I thought, but the boys didn’t like it. Aidan said one of them kicked one of the horses. The boys felt the same way about a shepherd we had seen one day “coaxing” his goats up the hills above Dharamkhot.
I never got over feeling that my horse was too small for me, so I hiked essentially all the way up the mountain. I loved walking beside my Cloud, holding her reins, talking to her. It felt more intimate than being on her back. Of course I smiled at the irony of paying many rupees to hike up the mountain beside my horse.
Aidan and Kellen rode well, but still I worried. An eight-hour ride would be more than anything they had done before. We climbed through deodar cedars, sacred to the Hindu god, Shiva. It was refreshing to be in the mountain forest, above of the noise, traffic, crowds, litter, and fumes of the crazy town.
After an hour or so, we came to a pass where the road ended and our first rest-stop, tea-stall canteen awaited us, a little shack, named, “Rest-A-While,” which Aidan got a photo of. We had snacks and water and a rest, and the horses had water and sampled the leafy things around, especially the mint.
From the tea stall, the trial really headed up into the mountains, becoming rockier, steeper, narrow. I wasn’t going to ride sweet Cloud now. We rounded rocky ledges where the ground fell away into bright green emptinesses below. The guides walked on the outside of the trail as the horses went around them. The mountain flanks were covered with laurel and rhododendron. The day was becoming clearer, the sky bluer, the mountains taking on an almost fluorescent green.
In a few flat places that traversed across ridges, I rode for a while, but got off again when the rock of the trail became stacked in high gray steps or the horses hooves started to slide off the rock into clefts and holes.
After two hours, we reached a second tea stall, a well-deserved canteen, dramatically perched on the side of the cliff like a bird nest. My shirt was drenched in sweat. Two dogs lay about, which Aidan and Kellen immediately sat down with. The horses found a steep grassy area, and I enjoyed watching the young Westerners lounging about, dressed like hermits and yogis, shirtless Rastafarians, sadhus, wayfarers, castaways, gypsies, Bedouins, fakirs, and random homeless hippies. A few ultra-athletes stretched in tights and trail running shoes. Lots of languages going on.
We had a nice rest. I downed a bottle of water and bought another. Aidan and I munched mint leaves with the horses. We passed around chocolate, almonds and raisins. Morris shared stories with a young French woman who had somehow become part of our company, tales about being in Paris in 1968 in the middle of, well, “Paris, 1968.”
But all rest stops have to end. And not long on the trial everyone had to dismount when it became too rough. Around one bend, we met a shepherd who our guide said was heading so Manali, a distant Himalayan town. His journey would take over a month. As we rounded ridges, the slopes of the mountains became more and more vertical, lime green, with great slabs of gray rock cliff cut sheer by glaciers. The sky a brilliant lapis blue. Big white clouds floated by, not far above us.
All along the way, I worried about altitude sickness. Fifteen year ago in Peru, we were hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, and I came down some kind of dysentery, we think, from our guides’ cooking and possibly mixed with some altitude sickness. We had traversed 14,000 feet crossing the Andes. In our tent on the third night, the night before we would hike down to Macchu Picchu, I thought I was dying. I had a blinding headache, vertigo and a sense of the world closing in on me. I lay there and asked my beloved atheist, Jennifer, to pray for me. The next day, I made it down to Macchu Picchu, but while the rest of the company ecstatically explored the ruins, I slumped against a wall trying not to throw up or spin off the mountain in dizzy delirium. On this trail we’d only reach 10,000, the same elevation as mountains back home, but still I worried.
Near the end of hour four, we could see above us the top of the ridge, Triund. When we made the crest, I had the feeling I have hiking in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. You hike all day under the towering forests, your range of vision close and focused on details of the trail. Then, at last you come out onto a summit where in one exhilarating moment the landscape flies out in all directions to far-off horizons and an endless sky. Triund lay before us, an early summer alpine meadow, wet and green with rills and ponds, soft like a blanket thrown over the saddle of the ridge. Straight ahead the meadow rolled away and down—down, down, down—into a deep valley where a river roared and out of which Hanuman Ka Tiba, the White Mountain I see when I open my eyes every morning from meditation, stood before us. It seemed to shoot up out of the valley into its cloud-shrouded cone of rock and snow, and my mind shot up with it. I felt I understood the origin of the architecture of all the shrines and churches and temples of the world.
Triund was not a town. It was a crossroads in a green paradise with a canteen for the weary. We bought water and chips and cookies and chocolate to eat with our lunch of cheese and bread, apples and carrots. Tents were scattered about, goats, and horses roamed. With their saddles off, our own horses lay down and rubbed their backs in the cool grass, crazy legs pawing at the sky. I thought, how fun it would be to camp here.
We located a secluded spot and settled down for lunch, when Aidan stood up with wide eyes. “Look!” Over the top of the hill a chestnut colt came tearing down across the meadow chased by a great black mare. They were coming right at us. At the last minute they veered off, galloping up and across the green, the mare blowing and snorting in anger or joy, I couldn’t tell which. But I remembered the feeling of chasing our runaway two-year-olds down sidewalks and through airports with a sort of desperate rage and joy that corresponded well with that mare’s loud snorts. I wish I had gotten them on video!
After lunch, Jennifer, Aidan and Kellen went exploring. They came back and said there was a shepherd over the hill shearing his sheep. We went over and found an old man with a colorful round hat above a little stone house sitting with a sheep in his lap, its four hooves tied together, the man shearing away with some kind of primitive scissors. We watched him a long while. The boys wanted to see the sheep after it was completely shaved.
For two hours, we lingered at the pass, Jennifer lying in the sun, her favorite activity, especially after a long hike to a mountain top.
On the way down, I walked again, worried about my weight on Cloud downhill over rocky terrain. The guides said we all needed to walk the first mile. As we came around a vertical ridge and down into a deep cleft, we found ourselves face to face with the shepherd on his way to Manali and all his goats and sheep, easily a hundred, right on the trail. It was a tight corner of the mountain. After a moment’s hesitation, I told Aidan and Kellen we could walk right into them and they would part like a river. We plunged in but stopped when we saw the babies. Our boys are crazy about baby animals.
One came walking up, so tiny and furry and white that Aidan just had to pick it up and hold it. He held it and Kellen petted it. I’d used up my camera batteries taking videos on the meadow, but Morris got a shot of him holding the lamb.
Once we reached decent trail, Aidan, Kellen, and Jennifer rode their horses. At the second canteen, Kellen decided to walk with me, and we walked the last two hours together. We passed areas where the mountain laurel covered the trail like a tunnel. Kellen talked non-stop about whether books or movies of books are better, about Minecraft, about the guinea pig that he wants to get. He’s read books about caring for them. He knows everything about them. Their favorite foods are fresh vegetables, but some, like St. John’s Wort, are poisonous to them. Jennifer, after years of saying we would NEVER get another animal—since our big nutty dog and two cats are already too much for us—has relented and said Aidan can get a kitten for his birthday when we return from India. Maybe she’ll let Kellen get a guinea pig. I’m all for it, of course.
Aidan and Kellen have told us that the thing they will miss most about India and the main reason they want to come back to our same cottage is Woof-woof. Once at Grand Island, Nebraska, three years ago, when they were 7 and 5, we visited their great-uncle Keith and his wife Jolene. The last morning before we left the next-door neighbor brought out kittens that her cat had just had. Five little black ones and a couple of white-and-black ones. We played with them on the grass, and our boys cried their hearts out when we had to leave, all the way down the highway, begging us to go back, even though they had only seen the kittens for half an hour. They may cry like that again when they say goodbye to Woof-woof.
At home, Aidan has a little beta fish, his first pet, named “Rainbow.” Betas are supposed to live one to two years. This fall it will be two years old.
Buddhism emphasizes the reality of “impermanence.” Everything is changing every day, every minute. Nothing is permanent. When we cling to fleeting things—and all things are fleeting—we suffer. At first, it would seem that adopting the opposite response, the antidote of “non-attachment,” would be a kind of sterile alternative. To be non-attached would be uncaring or unfeeling. We would no longer love the people and things around us. We would stoically face their demise.
But true non-attachment moves in the opposite direction, toward a greater, deeper, vaster love. From the practice of meditation, it arises naturally, a love that does not cling, for it is not seeking for itself. A shift occurs, and we find that we are starting to meet the world with a greater sense of caring, no longer focused on what we can get from the world, but on what we can give to it. Our love becomes selfless. We become non-attached because we become free of wanting or needing something from what we love.
And eventually we discover that that love, itself, is our refuge. Our only refuge. All else passes. In what Buddhists call Bodhichitta—“the awakened heart”—or Christians call “the peace that passeth all understanding,” we enter into a love that holds and nourishes and informs all things. We discover that that love is in fact who we are. And that can never be lost.
As human beings we still grieve the loss of persons and things we love. We honor our feelings. We go through them, feeling them fully, sometimes crying our hearts out, as Aidan and Kellen did about those kittens. Practicing non-attachment does not mean denying feelings. But even in the midst of grieving, we have the sense that we rest in something indestructible, vast, and eternal. Like Hanuman Ka Tiba, the peak above Triund (though it too is impermanent).
Aidan holds the baby sheep. Then he has to put it down.
Kellen says he is ready for his first pet.
When the trek is over and we reach the grassy area where we began, I caress Cloud for the last time, and Kellen says goodbye to Blue. Aidan tears up because he can’t say goodbye to Sairu. At the last tea stall, Aidan mounted Jennifer’s gray, as Sairu’s owner was taking him home. We told Aidan that it was a gift he gave to Sairu, letting him go home early.
On the way down the mountain, for a while Jennifer and I got to hike together, just the two of us. I thought, “How many trails we have hiked together.” Our first in Glacier National Park, so many in Michigan where we were in school, and then in Utah, Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, California, Peru, Ecuador, Italy, Spain, and now India. What a journey we have had together. And now we share it with our boys. We discovered coming down the trail that we had both had the thought that we would likely never see this trail again, never see Triund, or the black mare chasing its colt down the green meadow. Every moment priceless, unique, fleeting, unforgettable.