April 2010

“Oh, here’s my favorite one,” my mom squealed excitedly as we rounded a sharp turn in the winding Virginia road. “The Leopard-print App.” In the wire fenced pasture to our right stood a small black-spotted Appaloosa horse, a baby yet, at most two years. “I bet he’s a bad horse,” Mom said playfully; she’d been watching him grow up since she and dad relocated to the secluded Indian Valley region of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains roughly two years earlier. “It doesn’t look like anybody really pays attention to him,” she said. The horse, who had his butt turned toward us, switched his tail quickly from side to side. “I call him Mr. Spot.”

Mr. Spot

We continued driving, the tires of my Volkswagon Golf winding their way through the tight turns and steep inclines of the mountains, and around nearly every corner, Mom had another group of horses to point out. “There’s a white donkey around a corner near the farm, Dad and I call him a white ass. When it was real cold in the winter we would laughlingly say ‘I wonder how that little white ass is doing.’ It made the cold a little easier to take,” she said, alluding to the fact that the past winter had been one of the most wintery, frigid and snowy that this area had seen in years. The car swooped down a steep hill and mom pointed out, “Look, look, there he is!”

“That is a cute white ass!” I remarked, feeling only a slightly crass. We both burst into laughter, “Oh yeah,” she replied, “it’s a real cute ass.” The scraggly little white ass was a accompanied by a gray ass. They stood together beside a barkless tree, hanging their heads peacefully in the sleepy southern sun. We drove on, now climbing a steep hill lined with a small patch of hardy rhododendrons.

“Oh, and those pretty horses with a real light colored mane and tail, what are they called?” Mom asked. I scanned my memory, the years of horse knowledge tucked neatly behind college textbooks and traveling experiences had since I’d stopped riding full time. “Gosh, I don’t remember,” I replied. The horses came into view, two stocky Palomino colored horses with bright blond, nearly ivory colored manes and tails. They bowed their heads into the rich spring grass, one slightly larger than the other, both looking more like carriage horses than the riding type. “Maybe blond Percherons?” I guessed.

“I thought maybe Haflingers,” mom replied, “is that what they’re called?”

“Oh, Haflingers, I think they’re smaller, but gosh, I really don’t remember.” I could see the open page of my horse breed manual and the picture of the exact horse in front of me then but the name still alluded me. “Huh, I’d have to look it up.”

For the first 20 years of my life we’d had horses: big horses, small horses, trained horses, wild horses, show horses, old horses, baby horses, ponies, Purebred Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, cross breeds, mutts, pretty much anything except for miniature horses. My sister and I trained other peoples’ horses, operated a boarding business right there on our 64 acre farm in Pennsylvania. During the summers I showed my horses in jumping competitions, traveling throughout PA, New Jersey and Maryland to go where the ribbons were. There were only a couple of years in our lives that we didn’t have horses and those occurred once I’d left for school and no longer had the time or money to afford their care and training.

Since she was a young girl growing up in Huntington Valley, PA, mom had always dreamed of having a horse. In the hot summer days, she would walk to the nearest stable and watch the horse shows, judging the horses herself, picking out the best performers based on her own liking to the animals. By when she and Dad gave my brother, sister and I our first horses when we were babies, they were not only making dreams a reality for us, Mom was also doing so for herself.

But, eventually the kids grew up and moved on to Australia, Colorado, the Appalachian Trail, the horses were sold, the farm soon after. Mom and Dad resettled in the Virginia hills on a farm no less beautiful than the last, though it needed a little TLC. One thing it didn’t–and still doesn’t–have is horses. Mom and Dad talk about getting a couple someday, the real mellow type that do what they’re supposed to. A constant supply of free or cheap problem horses over the years satisfied our needs for a bucking bronco thrill; we were all now more in the easy trail riding mindset. I think Mom really wants to have Mr. Spot, she’d give him all the attention he needed to be sure. They’ve also talked about miniature horses. Just today Mom drove Gabe and I past a field dotted with stubby minis. We cooed over their adorable figures while mom casually mentioned, “You know, I heard it takes a mini an entire month to work through one bale of hay. That’s pretty low maintenance…”

Until then, though, we drive the Virginia roads admiring other peoples’ horses, all the while thinking that hopefully someday we’ll again have horses of our own.

Franklin Kids on Horses, Pennsylvania

I once embarked on a seven-week game of Rummy. It began on the blue carpeted floor of the San Francisco International Airport, my travel companion Andy and I crouched over our fresh deck of colorful, cartoon flower adorned San Francisco playing cards that slapped together stiffly as we tried to shuffle them. The playful flowers reminded me of Dolores Park, a memory of a sunset spent sitting in the grass there that would return to me nearly every time we shuffled the deck during our seven week journey through Nepal. In those hours before our flight left for Kathmandu, an epic card game was born that would not only test our minds and skills but also provide distraction, resolve and sometimes even comfort, particularly as we ascended in altitude.

I can’t remember now which of us had the initial idea for the game; I don’t think we’d ever played together before that afternoon in the airport. Like most great ideas, though, once it was born it grew legs, took on a whole life of its own. Before long we were playing while sipping Everest beers in Thamel, dueling on the sun-drenched patio of Kathmandu’s Hotel Malla, killing time in the mess tent on the Annapurna trek while the cook crew prepared dinner. Andy got in the habit of constantly keeping the deck at hand so at any moment we were ready to duke it out again, to add to the running score he kept track of in his pocket-sized green journal. We invited our trek companions Mark, Peggy and Carolyn to join. At first they resisted but when Mark and Peggy decided to give it a try, the stakes grew with our increased numbers and soon we were all irresistibly hooked. The challenge became who could get the highest score at the highest altitude–we had our sights set on the 17,868 foot summit of the Thorong La, but would settle for 16,000 foot base camp if we were too loopy at the top. It turns out we were too cold–who knew the wind could whip so cold and so fierce above 17,000 feet?!

The game provided a distraction on those chilly, thin-aired evenings when at 7 p.m. it was too early to go to sleep after we finished dinner, but conversation was as thin as the air outside and we needed something to keep us awake a little longer so as to avoid waking at 3 a.m., ready to start walking. In the dim candlelight of the shadowy mess tent we’d pass around the chia (tea) and tato dudh (hot milk), and, if we were lucky and it was on the table, the Borne Vita, India’s version of Ovaltine. Round after round we played, passing the shuffle and deal to the left, tallying scores that extended far beyond 500. I learned the strategies of my companions, knew to watch Peggy’s pick ups and discards (she was a shark that always seemed to go out when we all least expected), kept track of the cards around the table, could almost determine who had what and which of my cards was consequently safe to discard. Rummy became more than a game during those later days on the Annapurna, it was an art, a dance to be gracefully, tactfully practiced. We had our final performance in the village of Dhampus, the striking angled summit of the Fish Tailed peak, Macchapucchare, fading into dusky evening as our last cards hit the table and scores were tallied. The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the score. Maybe Peggy won, she among us was the most likely to have done so, but the scores were simply a fun addition to the game, hardly a reason for playing.

Andy and I continued our game–now four weeks strong–as we headed into the Khumbu region, setting our sights to the great and almighty Everest–Base Camp, that is, no serious mountaineering expeditions for us aside from our Imje Tse (Island Peak, 20,300 feet) aspirations (which failed). From the start we insisted our new trek companion, Casey, was welcome to play, but Andy and I were too deep in the groove of our month-old endeavor for a newcomer to jump in, and so the game truly became a game of two. And it was harder. With fewer cards out at any given time, I couldn’t really be sure of Andy’s hand. My playing grew sloppy and I blamed the altitude which increased steadily as we ascended the valley toward Everest. I remember one particular afternoon in Pheriche, a lunar landscaped village set well above tree line at 13,900 feet. Andy and I split a can of Everest beer, a can mind you, and got a buzz on while we worked our card skills. Two days later on arrival at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Everest Base Camp, we played a couple of rounds and I was pleasantly surprised at my general level of brain function at that altitude. The pleasant feeling was short-lived, was hastily replaced by the very unpleasant effects of altitude that set in deeply that evening and stayed for several days beyond. Few rummy games were played during those rough days of stomach aches, head aches and general malaise, those nights of patchy, shallow breathed sleep that sometimes left me gasping for air.

Eventually, our time in the Khumbu ended, stomach aches ceased, sleep returned, heads cleared and Andy and I found ourselves back in the bustling, friendly chaos of Kathmandu. We were then nearing Week 7 of play, our highest altitude being nearly 17,000 feet at Gorak Shep. Though Kathmandu sits at a mere 4,500 feet, our highest altitude game awaited us still, this time on the legendary summit of Rum Doodle, 40,000 1/2 feet above the sea.

There was no high altitude approach to this peak, no break in tree line, no drop in temperature or increase in wind speed. We stumbled upon the base of Rum Doodle after winding our way down a crooked Thamel alleyway. An easy climb up worn wooden stairs brought us to what could be the most domesticated summit on earth: wooden tables, soft music, a roaring fireplace and a full bar. Well then, forget Everest beer! How about a rum and coke? One of our final games ensued that evening as Andy pulled out the deck and I shuffled the cards, now soft and giving from so much play. I smiled at the flowers and San Francisco emblem printed on the back of each card. San Francisco–I’d soon be there, and for a moment, I was. But then my shuffle and bridge lent themselves to a stack which I dealt and the game was on again, just as it had been for weeks. From the beginning of one journey to the end, the cards kept playing.

To this day, I still don’t remember the score.

A journal entry from one particularly long night on the Annapurna trail when we were treated to some unexpected evening entertainment.

Barking dogs formed the symphony of the Himalaya last night as we attempted to sleep in a chicken yard in Ghasa, a village along the west side of the Annapurna circuit. First a dog on the path outside our yard started up with a few insistent barks at some unknown intruder, which then set off a dog across the river. The echoes from that dog’s howl carried farther up the valley to where another dog lay awake and pretty soon he joined the chorus only to be joined by innumerable others. It was an exponential progression that reached its great crescendo some time around 1am. Just as the barks were tapering off, one of the porters sleeping upstairs in the lodge had to use the toilet, which is in a shack in the chicken yard. Well, the door to the toilet shack squeaks, and apparently when the first porter woke to go pee, he woke a second porter, who woke a third and so on and so forth until the squeaky bathroom shack was a constant revolving door as one after the other after the other fulfilled his midnight quest for relief.

At last the dogs were settled, the porters had all peed and only the gently rushing waterfall draping down the opposite wall of the valley filled the night air. Really though, it may as well have been broad morning daylight; I was awake as could be  (as I’d been since the first dog started on hours before). So I laid for a while and stared at my dark tent ceiling, letting my mind wheels turn as the water fell down the hillside. I picked up my worn copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and nearly finished its pages (which I hoped to stretch for five more days), plugged in my earphones for a little while and listened to Iron and Wine croon. I thought about sleep and thought about life and all of those things but they all alluded me, especially sleep. So I laid, and I waited.

I didn’t need to wait long before the dog outside caught whiff of a scent it didn’t like and the symphony began again. I was a sleeping bag and tent zipper away from stepping out and throwing my boot right in the barking dog’s face but I didn’t think that a very Buddhist thing to do and as we are passing through mostly Buddhist villages where my foreign status already feels a bit intrusive, I decided it wise to wait things out. So I thought a little more. I tried sleeping on my left side, rolled over to my right side, spent a few brief minutes on my stomach and settled on my back. Just as sleep was sinking in and I lost my awareness that it was, the first light of morning sun crested the valley ridge. There was no more sleep for me, the porters started peeing and hacking and carrying on, the kitchen boys fired up their kerosene stoves and put their pots of water to boil, the roosters started screaming the news: the sun is rising! Then, of course, I had to pee and it was really all over, which wasn’t so awful considering that I had gone to sleep when the sun fell around 8:30, but still it was a long night spent waiting around for something that left as soon as it arrived.

The air outside my tent flaps was cool and brisk. I watched sunlight creep down the green valley wall and shivered at the dew that wet my bare toes as I stepped onto the grass. Another breathtaking morning in Nepal, who could be so lucky? I sighed and glanced around as I headed toward the bathroom. There was not a dog in sight.

I bet they were sleeping.

Tea in the chicken yard before the dogs began barking