The enraged water buffalo charged down the narrow dirt path toward us. I ran as fast as my weary legs would carry me – so fast my feet almost slid out from underneath me – my mammoth backpack slapping me in the back of the head with each step.
Was this seriously happening? I came all the way to Nepal to get killed by a water buffalo?
“Now what?!” I shrieked at my fiancée, Brian, who trailed close behind me. “Jump in the bushes and hide!” he yelled back.
I quickly threw myself into the nearest bush, its thorny branches scratching me on the way in. Moments later Brian jumped in next to me and whispered in my ear, “act small.”
Act small? What was that supposed to mean?
Taking his advice quite literally, I huddled myself into a tight little ball.
I mean you no harm buffalo…I mean you no harm buffalo…I recited over and over again in my head.
The buffalo slowly approached the bush. I tightly closed my eyes. I could hear his grunts as he inched closer; I could feel his foul warm breath against my face. After what felt like an hour, the grunts stopped and I cautiously opened my eyes. I saw him ahead slowly walking up the mountain with his family in tow. In that moment I forgot how terrified I had been and instead marveled at his beauty. He and his family were magical, their deep chocolate coats glistened in the sun and their powerful muscles pulsed with each step they took
Once they were far off in the distance, Brian and I looked at each other; our mouths agape and our eyes wide with disbelief and burst out laughing.
We were lying on the side of a steep mountain in Nepal covered in dirt and laughing so hard we were crying.
I had never felt more alive.
Late at night a few months prior, Brian and I sat in bed in our cozy little beach cottage in Santa Monica, CA perusing the Internet for vacation deals. We were newly engaged and looking for a way to celebrate – we needed an adventure. Neither of us had ever traveled through Asia before so we quickly zeroed in on options there. Maybe Thailand? Vietnam? Cambodia? As we dug deeper we stumbled upon a deal on Travelzoo; a ten-day trek through the Himalayas with Earthbound Expeditions.
Brian’s eyes lit up with excitement, while I furrowed my brows.
“This deal is amazing, honey! A trek through the Himalayas for 799.00- it’s almost too good to be true. I’ve always wanted to do something like this.” Brian said, full of possibility.
“Huh, well….um…I guess I never really imagined myself trekking through Nepal”, I said with concern, recalling the one time I had gone camping and how much I loathed it.
“I was thinking maybe Thailand…we could visit the beaches in Phuket and explore Bangkok, or what about Singapore? Haven’t you always said you wanted to go to Singapore?” I said enthusiastically, trying to generate the same excitement that trekking through Nepal did from him.
I fancied myself an adventurous person, I’d even go as far as saying I was brave. Sure, I was relatively fit from all the yoga classes I took, but trekking through the Himalayas? That seemed way out of my league. Like something only experienced mountaineers did, not a yoga girl from LA.
“I’m just not sure trekking is for me, babe.” I said flatly
I watched as Brian’s excitement deflated and something in me said…why not, Kate? I wasn’t a girl to shy away from new experiences and what was the worst that could happen? And suddenly…”OK! Let’s do it!!!” popped out of my mouth and before I could take it back we were hitting “purchase” on a trek for two through Nepal.
Three months later, we were sitting in the lobby of a rundown hotel in the bustling Thamel district of Kathmandu waiting for our Earthbound Expedition orientation to start. I sat there tapping my leg and anxiously running through the endless questions streaming through my mind.
What if everyone is in better shape than us? What if we hate them all? What if it’s a group of serious athletes and we can’t keep up? What if? What if? What did we get ourselves into?
As our fellow trekkers trickled in I was shocked by what I saw. It was a group of ordinary people. No hardcore athletes. No mountaineers. No Sherpa’s dressed in heavy coats made of yak fur. Even more shocking, there was a couple in their late 70′s, one of which was a proud owner of a new hip. If they could trek through the Himalayas, then I could too, dammit. At this point, I still wasn’t sure if I would like any of them but I was now sure that I wouldn’t embarrass myself on the mountain and that was a good start.
The group included Randy and Karen, a retired couple from upstate New York. Lily, a gorgeous, affable and very tall young woman from Michigan who recently quit her job to go on a three-month trip around the world. Sam and Marilyn, a newly retired and constantly bickering couple from Australia. Sandy and Travis, a half-brother and sister team from Denmark on an adventure together. Maggie and Pamela, a smart, attractive and witty mother and daughter duo from New York City. May, an amiable but quiet young woman from Malaysia, traveling by herself. Donna, a middle-aged career woman from Chicago, out to find adventure in Asia and Lou, a hysterical man from Singapore. Oh and Brian and me, the newly engaged couple (yes, that became our “thing”) from Los Angeles.
Oddest group ever.
Our guide, Bishal, a handsome young Nepali man who came equipped with a very lively personality and a boyish grin warmly greeted us. I tried not to be alarmed by the fact he looked twelve. Maybe he just aged well? I’m sure he’s lead tons of people through the mountains before. After an hour-long orientation we signed a packet of release forms and boarded the hired waiting bus for the seven-hour drive to Pokhara; the town in which we would begin our trek from the next morning. Let me tell you, if you’re ever in need of a thrill…a true life and death adventure…then drive the road that connects Kathmandu and Pokhara. It’s an unpaved, narrow and windy road with a sheer drop off to one side. Buses, cars and motorcycles drive it at harrowing speeds narrowly missing pedestrians, stray dogs and each other in the process. Not only was it visually terrifying but the sounds of all the car horns was deafening.
Ten minutes into the drive I decided that I’d rather be caught off guard by my death and closed my eyes.
Seven hours later we pulled up to our hotel in Pokhara, nightfall, upon us. Knowing it was my last night in civilization, I had four things on my mind…a cold beer, a warm meal, a hot shower and the luxury of sleeping in a bed one last time.
When I woke the next morning at 6am, I sleepily dragged myself to the window and opened the curtains. As I spread the drapes, my mouth dropped and turned into a wide smile. There they were in all their grandeur, the Himalayas. They gleamed in the distance reflecting the morning sunlight. Their snowy peaks glistened against the deep blue sky.
I’m going to climb those mountains, I thought. But this time instead of being filled with trepidation, excitement swirled within me.
An adventure waited.
An hour later our group of anxious trekkers disembarked yet another bus that
dropped us off in Nayapul, the primary starting point for trekkers looking to make the Poon Hill Trek. The village mostly consisted of little roadside stalls and stands that sold snacks, fruit, bottled water and various local beers.
Brian immediately took off in search of filtered water to fill our daypacks; while I watched our porters load them selves up with our luggage. How was that humanly possible, I thought as I stared in disbelief? They were easily strapping 100 pounds of luggage to their backs, most wearing only lightly soled shoes or flip-flops. My heart sank as I looked down at my expensive new hiking boots.
Once the group was suited up, we began the six-hour trek to Tikhedhunga. It was obvious rather quickly that everyone in the group walked at vastly different paces. Bishal was stationed at the front of the group and another guide at the back to make sure nobody was left behind. Luckily, Brian and I walked at the same pace and stayed comfortably in the middle. The trail was wide, the incline was easy and it left me thinking…what’s so hard about this? We ascended through Hurong villages and wheat terraces, with a clear view of Machhapuchare Fish Tail mountain) towering above. The weather was perfect, the sun was warm and the breeze was cool. I kept putting one foot in front of the other while taking in the stunning scenery and somehow to my amazement, six hours had passed and we reached our home for the night.
It was a little teahouse nestled in the lush green mountains of Tikhedhunga, surrounded by bright yellow and orange marigolds. The façade was a faded pink, weathered by the rugged mountain environment, but it only made it look more appealing. Off to the side, there was a donkey tied up with a colorful blanket draped over him acting as our welcoming committee of one.
When we arrived, our teahouse host, an elderly Nepali woman with a gentle smile, warmly greeted us. She handed each couple the keys to their room, which we accessed by a creaky wooden veranda with a view of the emerald colored mountains. When Brian and I got to room six, we unlocked the deadbolt, opened the door and peered in with anticipation. The room was no bigger than a closet and consisted of two twin beds made out of thin plywood. Its walls seemed to be made of an even thinner wood because I could hear every sound in the rooms next to us.
But it was warm, and I was exhausted and there wasn’t anything else I needed in that moment. I was grateful.
That evening we all packed into the tiny dining room for our first meal together. We sat shoulder to shoulder as we drank Turborg beers and sipped hot ginger honey tea and stuffed our ravenous bellies with vegetarian rice and noodles. We shared stories of our lives back home. I found each of my companions interesting despite the fact I may have never crossed paths or broken bread with them normally. There was something magical about it, the way we all came together
from various parts of the world to embark on this journey together.
At that moment, sitting in that tiny teahouse in Nepal, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
The next morning we woke at 6:30 am to fill our stomachs once more with fuel we needed before embarking on the day ahead, a six-hour trek to Ghorepani. During breakfast, Bishal warned us that this day would be much harder than the last. Still feeling arrogant from easily tackling the mountain the day before, I kept eating my soggy and bland oatmeal and paid little attention to his speech, instead choosing to focus on how to operate our water purifier.
I quickly learned to always listen to Bishal because he wasn’t kidding, day two kicked my ass. Actually, I can safely say it kicked everyone’s ass, mostly because a good portion of it was spent climbing 4,000 steep and uneven rock stairs. The group’s morale was low that morning. There were times I didn’t think any of us would make it at all; while Lou broke down and rented a donkey to carry him to the top.
Brian, Lily and I moved at the same pace so we stuck together, slowly digging our trekking poles into the stair above with each step, attempting to make each other laugh as a distraction as we suffered along. When I would think I couldn’t possibly go any further I would remind myself of seven simple words from the writer, Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
And with that, I would take another step, absorb the majestic view and repeat, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
After a few hours like this we reached a plateau and broke for lunch. I stuffed my face with three plates of curry vegetable noodles; seriously, this trek could have also been entitled “The Time I Ate Carbs With Abandon”. Thankfully, after lunch the trail ascended at a gentle rate, taking us through forests of oak & rhododendron. I continued to put one foot in front of the other as I watched Bishal walk ahead of us with his walking stick adorned with colorful flowers and listened to him sing a song….
“Sometimes trekking…sometimes dating…sometimes a monkey…sometimes a donkey…sometimes dating…sometimes trekking…sometimes a donkey…sometimes a monkey.”
In my carb-induced haze this song made perfect sense and in the moment offered as an inspiration of sorts to keep me moving through the exhaustion. Listening to his cheerful voice kept me present as we meandered up the trail. There is something powerful about focusing on the moment.
After three hours, Bishal’s voice faded as Brian and I slowed down and he and a few others kept moving at a faster pace. In those three hours, Brian and I had the run in with the angry water buffalo and I was exhausted. The last few days my emotional pendulum swung big and often and currently my mood was low- very low. It was dusk and with the elevation now being at 9429ft, it was much colder than it was at the start of the day. My fingers and toes were numb. I was dreaming of a hot shower knowing that the reality of that shower was dim; it was cloudy and I knew each village’s water was solar heated.
“But…maybe, just maybe”, I fantasized as I quickened my pace.
When I arrived, I was told by the host of the teahouse that he doubted there would be any hot water. It had been cloudy all afternoon.
But…I need a shower…you don’t understand…I walked seven hours today and climbed 4,000 stairs…I was almost killed by a water buffalo… I haven’t showered in days…I can’t even handle my own stench anymore.
My lip quivered and tears began to well up in my eyes. There had to be at least a drop of warm water, I thought? And being the eternal optimist I am, I decided to brave the shower. Well, that shower gave the word “cold” a new meaning. When I got out, I was convinced that I was suffering from hyperthermia so I put back on every single piece of dirty clothing I had taken off just moments before, including my hat and gloves and climbed into my sleeping bag to thaw out.
I lay there quietly shivering, waiting for Brian to come back from cleaning up as well. It was dark and I was lying on a hard wooden plank in a tiny room. I was famished but too cold to drag myself downstairs for food.
Why had I agreed to do this? What was I trying to prove?, I thought, as I dozed off.
The next morning, I awoke to find Brian laying next to me, his hand in mine, wrapped in his shiny blue sleeping bag and wearing a yellow beanie.
Ugh…another day ahead. Can I do this? I’m not sure I can go on. I’m so miserable. Maybe if I act like I am very ill they will send me back down on a helicopter? I mean what’s the point of having all that expensive travel insurance if you never use it, right?
I wearily sat myself up in my sleeping bag.
My breath got caught in my throat as I looked out.
In front of me was a crystal clear view of some of the highest grandest peaks in the world- Fish Tail, Anapurnya I & Anapurnya II.
They weren’t in the distance anymore; they were right in front of me. I had met them.
I stared at them, in silent awe. I had tackled mountains to meet them; one uneven step at a time.
I felt a profound sense of accomplishment. One that I had never experienced before. It felt better than any accolade or compliment I had ever received in my thirty years.
I was a warrior.
I leaned back against the thin plywood wall and began to laugh…
…from a deep and joyful place and thought… “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”
Kate McClafferty is a writer, blogger, travel lover and adventure seeker living in Venice, CA with her husband, Brian, a photographer, & French Bulldog, Frank. In 2011, after years of working as a writer and television host, she started her popular blog 365 til 30, where “she turned her can’ts into cans and her dreams into plans.”
365 til 30 is represented by United Talent Agency and is being shopped as a scripted TV show and memoir.