Fifteen thousand feet up in a remote corner of the Nepali Himalayas, I stared into the worried face of my porter, Prem Bahadur, and shouted through the cold and persistent wind, “Do you have any idea where we are?”

Prem shook his head and cast a desperate look up into the swirling snowstorm that had swept down upon us out of a lapis lazuli blue sky. We were traveling up a narrow valley surrounded by mountains that towered to 24,000 ft. It was difficult to predict the weather since large storms could build just out of sight and then engulf unsuspecting trekkers without warning.

I had been on the trail for three weeks of what would turn out to be a forty-five day trek. Many challenges had made the expedition quite difficult but this seemed to be the worst so far. I assessed our situation: We’re caught in a sudden blizzard, it will be dark in a couple of hours and we can hear avalanches cutting loose on the mountainsides above us — but at least we’re lost! I could feel panic closing in with the storm.

“Tapaico bichaar, kun baato?” I asked. Which way do you think it might be best to go?

This time the shake of Prem’s head was accompanied by a shrug of his shoulders and much fresh snow tumbled off his small but sturdy frame.

“I do not know. It is my first time in this area. Don’t you have a map?”

I was reminded that Prem was hired as a porter and not as a guide. This was my trek, and I was the one who was responsible for getting us out of this mess.

I took out my tattered map that had been scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin a month earlier by an eccentric, Buddhist scholar friend in a Kathmandu restaurant. Now so close to the mysterious hidden monastery for which I was searching, the map disintegrated in my hands. I was left with ink smeared remnants of the napkin that had faithfully led me through my pilgrimage to one of the seven “Hidden Lands” that lie far up in the high snowy reaches of Nepal.

The idea of the “Hidden Lands” is that they are generally hidden and not easily found by those not actively searching them out. It seemed that they could even remain quite “hidden” to those like myself who were searching them out. The Hidden Lands always lay tucked away somewhere in difficult to find locations, concealed by deceptive canyon walls, residing in obscure Shangri-La like valleys or whose entrances are to be found behind cascading waterfalls. Hollywood has been imagining stories about just these sorts of places since celluloid was born. Now here I was on the threshold of my own Shangri-La, and things were looking desperate. In fact desperation seemed to be the theme of this journey and I was almost getting used to it.

Three weeks earlier and just three hours into my trek, I was descending a steep trail out of Ghorka where the road from Kathmandu had ended and the trail had begun. I was with Binod, the first of four porters I would come to know during my journey. It was a warm, sunny day and the valley below was green with vibrant fields of mustard, lentils and rice. The Dundi Kola River cut through the middle of the wide fertile valley, its glacial waters the color of daiquiri ice.

“Tapaico khuttaa, dukhchaa?” Binod asked. Do your legs hurt?

They did and I told him so with enthusiasm. I was alive with the feeling of freedom that accompanies the start of any adventure, and felt proud to have my legs feeling the stress of a difficult trail. I was embarking on a journey where anything could happen and was excited with the possibilities that lay ahead.

“So do mine,” he responded. Binod gazed out over the river and while massaging the muscles in his thighs he shook his head pensively, “In fact, I don’t think I’ll be able to do this job.”

Quite suddenly all likelihood of reaching my goal of the Hidden Lands came to a mind-numbing halt.

“But Binod,” I stammered, “I told you when I hired you in Kathmandu that we would be out on the trail for at least a month and that at times it would be difficult. I showed you maps. I thought you knew what to expect.”

Binod continued to stare with apprehension up the river valley into the cloud shrouded mountains. Apparently he was not driven by the same goal of adventure and exploration as was I.

I smiled reassuringly. “Binod”, I crooned, “You said you loved to trek.”

He answered cautiously. “I think maybe your Nepali is not as good as you think, what I said is that `I’ve always wanted to trek.’ This is actually my first time, and it is much harder than I thought.”

I had hastily hired Binod back in Kathmandu because he was a Gurung and was originally from this area and might know some of the local dialects.

“If you have never trekked, why did you agree to be my porter?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and turned to look at me. “Normally I work as a waiter in Kathmandu, but it is the slow season, I needed the money.”

I persuaded Binod to stay with me for another five days until we reached the town of Burbik. In a small village along the way I found another porter by the name of Osman. Osman was certainly likable enough but at the same time he seemed a bit reserved. Possibly Binod had told him of the mad glint the crazy American would get in his eye while speaking of difficult journeys and staring up into the mountains with dreams of hidden monasteries.

I said good-bye to Binod with a small ceremony in my tent of cold beer and the sharing of small gifts. To Binod I gave the wool socks that I had loaned him for the trek. Binod presented me with a small mani stone that he had bought somewhere along the trail in the last week. The stone was hand carved with prayers of prosperity and good fortune. Obviously he felt that I needed all the help I could get. He was probably right and I very much appreciated his gift.

PART TWO

With my new porter, Osman, I continued the journey up into the mountains and as we worked our way further and further from the “civilized” world I worked Binod’s mani stone over and over in my hand. I was starting to feel desperate for the the prayer stone’s healing powers. Since the third day of the trek my left knee had developed a sharp pain that I had never before experienced in all my years of arduous hiking. Like a hot knife driven into my knee with every step, the pain had now developed into pure agony and torment. Often after ascending and descending thousands of vertical feet in a day, I would stagger into a village completely unable to bend my leg and be forced to rest for a day before I could continue. And then, within hours of resumed trekking, the pain would begin its evil debilitation once again.

Was I not meant to reach the Hidden Lands? Thoughts of not being worthy to enter such sacred grounds filled my head. It seemed that many barriers were being put in my way as I continued deeper into the mountains.

The solitude of traveling the trail alone was almost as debilitating as the pain in my leg. Many nights while lying in my tent, I would have visions of friends back in Kathmandu relaxing on thick Tibetan carpets in warm, incense scented rooms, sipping wine, listening to pleasant music and sharing stories by candlelight. Often I wanted to turn back or abandon my original goal for the peace of mind of an easier route. Were the lessons to be learned on such a pilgrimage simply that I cherished my family and friends more than I thought, that I should really appreciate what I have and that I now had a better appreciation and empathy for the loneliness that one can feel? Could I content myself with these simple revelations and return to the warmth, comfort and security of Kathmandu?

Always when these questions and desires filled my mind with doubt I would try to remember the key ingredient that makes any adventure or exploration a success: The absolute and dedicated commitment to the journey and a willingness to overcome all adversities to realize the completion of it.

Over the years I had learned from various heroes and mentors that the road to true success is habitually difficult and uncertain. If I turned from every difficulty and pursued only the easy course, then I would forever be missing the rewards that always lie on the other side of a great challenge. I knew deep down that if a direction held fear and uncertainty, then that was the direction towards which I must move in order to expand my horizons and increase the possibilities for adventure. This was the belief that would be put to the test many times before reaching my goal. Never was it put to the test so clearly as when one morning my porter, Osman, disappeared.

Osman had been with me for a week, and by this time we had moved far up into the mountains and entered into an officially closed area of Nepal. The Nepali have closed some of their more remote areas that share a border with Tibet. They don’t want any trouble with the often harsh Chinese government when over zealous adventurers who have little respect for the rules and regulations of a government that has systematically destroyed the Tibetan culture, cross into Tibet without Chinese permission. I admit that I have never been much of one for rules and regulations and when I heard that the area I wanted to trek in was closed I knew I had to go.

I got a trekking permit to the town of Jirgit which was as far as I was legally allowed to travel. I then bought a carton of American cigarettes which are as good as gold in the far reaching checkposts where all but banished officials might overlook a badly forged permit for a chance to be the Marlboro Man. The creative writing that I did on my trekking permit didn’t even look too bad after I crumpled and soaked the document sufficiently. If asked, I planned to claim an exceptionally arduous few weeks on the trail complete with a few life threatening dunks in the river. The man at the checkpost carefully looked over my permit in the sunlight that filtered through the stone roof of the dark office.

He looked at me with a doubtful eye and through a cloud of Marlboro smoke said, “I’m sorry, my English is not so good. Just what does this permit say?”

And so, I told him just what the permit, in its present form, did indeed say, and within minutes Osman and I were entering a far off region of northern Nepal where very few Westerners had ever set foot before.

Closing in on the “X” that marked the spot on the decaying cocktail napkin map, Osman and I set off from the town of Silim where I had rested my renegade leg for a few days. The morning was bright and clear. High snowy mountains loomed above us and as the sides of the canyon grew more precipitous the trail became more precarious . Thin veils of water fell from high up the canyon walls and down to the now constricted and raging river. Our spirits were high and the rest in Silim amongst warm hearted villagers and well-cooked daal bhaat (the traditional Nepali meal of rice and lentils) had renewed my faith in my quest. As I carried the lighter pack, I usually took the lead on the trail and waited for Osman at crucial junctures or villages where we would take our meals. Since I would often stop along the way to indulge in my photography he was never far behind.

I followed the trail down to the river and crossed a small wooden bridge to a flat area of rocks in the sun where I could wait for Osman. I could see a ways back down the trail as it traversed the side of the canyon above the river. I could not spot Osman, but the sun was in my eyes, and there were many twists and turns in the trail.

After about a half an hour I thought I heard a call from somewhere down the trail. The roar of the river was in my ears and I could have just as easily been hearing goats up in the hills. Again I thought I heard something. I took out my binoculars and scanned the trail as best I could against the glare of the sun. I could have missed a fork in the trail and Osman was possibly calling down from some ridge to the foolish westerner who had missed the turn, again? I had taken the wrong trail once before and separated myself from Osman for half a day.

Then one of the cries in the distance struck a nerve. The call sounded like one of distress — panic — desperation. My mind played out different scenarios; scenarios whose main players were steep cliffs, loose rocks and bad endings. I crossed back over the bridge and made my way up the trail. I reached a family of Tibetans sitting in the trail eating their morning meal and I asked if they had seen Osman. They said that he had followed just minutes behind me when we had passed them earlier. I inquired about the possibility of another trail. I was assured that I was on the only trail there was. One trail, Osman was on it when he passed the Tibetans, yet he never reached the bridge. I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the river far below. I saw only water and rocks, no flashes of a blue backpack or a red tent, no floating bodies, nobody clinging to rocks panicked and cold.

The Tibetans finished their meal and headed towards the bridge. I followed, keeping my eye on ravines, hillsides and riverbanks below me. One of the Tibetan women started shouting and pointed down the hill toward the river.

“Your friend, your friend, he is here!”

Osman had taken a nasty fall and was desperately clinging to small clumps of grass about fifty feet down a steep hillside. Another fifty feet below him lay my pack on the rocks and halfway in the river. Using a narrow goat path the Tibetans and I helped Osman back up to the main trail. His knee had taken a hard whack and was already the size of a large grapefruit. We sent for help, and within a few hours two large men arrived and, taking turns hoisting Osman onto their backs, they carried him back to Silim.

PART THREE

The men of the village gathered around us and conferred amongst themselves as to the best action for Osman and me to take. The conversation was fast and difficult to follow.

One of the men turned to me and said, “You will go to Kathmandu tomorrow and live amongst the chickens and the gods. Do you have any chewing gum?”

Since it was clear that I didn’t understand, another man translated for me.

“Tomorrow you will take your friend to Ghorka. This could take six to eight days. Then you will take him to the hospital in Kathmandu. Do you have any chewing gum?”

Was this the final indication that I should end my trek here and return to Kathmandu? I knew that Osman did not really have to go all the way to Kathmandu to have a doctor look at his knee and I questioned – to what degree was my fate now completely linked to Osman’s? Whoaaaa!

Osman was hurt and required help but certainly I was not the only one who could or would offer such help? At what point did the responsibility fall to his family, friends and society? I decided to help financially to have him taken to a doctor in Ghorka but was hesitant to succumb to the seemingly deep pocket mentality of my caring for Osman until he made a full recovery. From Ghorka word would be sent to his village to elicit help and support. After giving Osman an extra two weeks pay and enough rupees to cover a number of doctor’s visits, I decide to continue with my trek.

I hired two men to carry Osman to Ghorka and designed a large load carrying basket called a doko in which he could sit facing backwards on a man’s back with his leg splinted out in front of him. Namascars were said, Osman was hoisted into position and began what turned out to be an eight day journey down to the nearest village that had a doctor. With the village cheering Osman’s kingly descent down the trail, my new porter, Prem Bahadur, and I turned back towards the mountains and continued the journey.

Now, a week later and fifteen thousand feet up in a remote corner of the Nepali Himalayas, I stared into the worried face of my porter, Prem Bahadur, and shouted through the cold and persistent wind, “Do you have any idea where we are?”

Prem shook his head and cast a desperate look up into the swirling snowstorm that had swept down upon us out of a lapis lazuli blue sky. Prem was the third porter of my journey. He had taken over for Osman and was turning out to be a very fine companion. He spoke the local dialect and was much more handy in camp than either Binod or Osman. But even with his experience as a rugged Himalayan local, this storm had us both thoroughly confused.

I took out my tattered map. Now so close to the mysterious hidden monastery for which I was searching, the map disintegrated in my hands.

With the light failing and the snow falling hard, Prem and I had to make a decision. I remembered that the map had mentioned a “crazy little bridge” that we had to cross before we would reach the monastery that was the centerpiece of this particular Hidden Land. I started looking for some sort of clue as to which direction we should head. I entered a grove of trees and found what I felt must surely be our salvation. I called to Prem. When he saw what I was staring at, his look of concern turned to panic.

He pointed to the tracks in the snow. “Chituwaa!” he hissed. Snow leopard!

Our identifications of the tracks were the same. Our conclusions as to what we should do about them were as distinctly different as our cultures. I took the tracks to be a sign of good fortune. Prem was already hurrying off in the exact opposite direction. Somehow my enthusiasm overrode his logic, and I convinced him that our only chance was to follow the tracks. We resumed our trek through the mounting snow. I hoped that I had made the right decision. My knee was in full blown agony.

The snow leopard tracks led to what seemed like a trail through the trees. As is expected with the Hidden Lands, the terrain was confusing. The river that flowed far down in the valley seemed to suddenly disappear. When it seemed as if we should be going up we were going down and vice versa. The chituwaa tracks and the indiscriminate trail led us through a maze of thick patches of forest and steep barren hillsides.

As we trudged through the storm, I felt a growing sense of clarity that this was the true lesson that I had made this pilgrimage to learn. When all else fails and the dishaa has really hit the fan there is but one thing left to the weary traveler and that is an unwavering faith in the journey and that which initially brought the traveler to the threshold of the challenge. Ultimately there was nothing to do but trust in the path I had set myself upon, even if that meant following snow leopard tracks through a blizzard while lost in the Himalayas with a reluctant porter on a questionable trail that held no guarantees. I took a deep breath and continued toward a possible Shangri-La.

PART FOUR

Prem and I emerged from a particularly thick patch of trees and found ourselves teetering on the edge of a narrow ravine whose steep sides descended 1,500 feet to the river below. Now acutely aware of the slippery snow beneath our feet we quickly scrambled back a few yards. The chituwaa tracks led to a “crazy little bridge” that spanned the yawning chasm.

The word “crazy” turned out to be an understatement for the bridge that separated us from the Hidden Land I had been seeking. Tilted at a severe angle from side to side it had large lengthwise gaps between its primary timbers. The sides of the bridge, pieced together from brittle bits of shrubbery, came only to mid thigh and the snow that had fallen upon it was blown and frozen into a patchwork of thick ice. Far below ran a mighty river that from such a height seemed more like a tiny stream.

The snow leopard tracks crossed the bridge and disappeared into the bushes. We never did see the rare and elusive cat but now faced with this seriously questionable bridge, we both praised it and cursed it at the same time.

Prem turned to me and with his chest swelled with heroism and a look of courage etched upon his face, he gestured toward the bridge, “You go first.”

The crossing was slow and harrowing but we both survived and any sense of machismo we might have had left was cast to the depths below.

We made it to the monastery by nightfall and were welcomed by Lama Chomling and the other monks in residence with hot food and tea. Besides my friend who had drawn the map, the monastery residents had seen no western visitors for many years and were anxious to hear of my journey. Our communication was difficult since I did not speak the local dialect of this remote region of the Himalayas. Prem translated the Lamas words into Nepali for me, and my poor Nepali back into the lamas native tongue. Much was lost in the translation and our conversations were often reduced to much smiling, laughing, exaggerated charades and many offerings of tea. I set up my tent in a large meadow littered with ancient prayer stones and quickly fell asleep to the roar of not so distant avalanches.

I spent seven days at Simalgi Monastery. Each morning I awoke to herds of Nepali bighorn sheep called Jharal or Thar roaming around my tent. The days were clear and warm and I spent them with the ten winter residents of Simalgi attending the daily meditations in the monastery or helping where I could with the work of transforming raw yak hair into fine blankets and rugs.

The monastery itself was a true vision of grace and beauty. Set amongst an ancient grove of cypress trees, surrounded on three sides by tremendous mountains of sheer snow and rock and bordered on the fourth side by only a 1,500 foot chasm and a “crazy little bridge”, this jewel of Buddhist devotion was truly isolated in a pure and powerful Hidden Land.

There is very little that needs to be said about my stay at Simalgi Monastery. A true indication that indeed it is the journey and not the destination that is most important. My time was marked with a profound feeling of peace and clarity. For seven days there was nothing to do but bask in deep contentment and play charades with people who loved to laugh, work and practice their profound devotion. As the many events of the past three weeks on the trail slowly settled in I was able to gain a fresh and clear perspective of the life I led on the other side of the world. Clearly it was the pilgrimage to this Shangri-La that had truly changed my life forever.

My return to Kathmandu was blissfully uneventful. Even my knee never gave the slightest hint of pain. Prem stayed in his village of Silim and another porter, Tsom Tsering, joined me for the trip back to Ghorka.

Upon my return to Kathmandu, I contacted with the scholarly friend who had started me on my journey, and we discussed the difficult time I had in getting to Simalgi Monastery.

He explained, “The history of those attempting to reach the Hidden Lands is filled with stories of terrible dreams that persuade travelers to turn back. If the dreams are not heeded then often physical hardship befalls them, and many times members of the party are seriously hurt or even killed by the furies of mother nature.”

I asked him if the fact that I had encountered so many barriers meant that I should not have continued on my trek?

He considered what I had faced and the fact that I did eventually find the Hidden Land and explained further, “As is always the case with a pilgrimage, you are made worthy of your goal by the essence of the journey. When you left Kathmandu you were not yet worthy to enter such sacred land. As you surmounted each challenge you encountered and did not turn away, you were made capable of facing the next challenge ahead. Through the process of the journey you were transformed and only when you were ready, did you enter the Hidden Land. Had you not proved worthy, the snow leopard would never have come or the bridge would not have been so kind and you may not be here talking with me today”

That evening I sat on the roof of my hotel and instead of the sound of avalanches I listened to the sounds of a small but bustling city settling in for the night. I missed the peace of Simalgi Monastery and the excitement and challenge of the trail, yet I was also yearning to return to the place I called home. Perhaps equally as important a part of a pilgrimage as going out to explore, is the ability to return home and put into practice that which one has learned. I sat on the roof and looked up at the stars that in another fourteen hours would be shining over my home in San Diego. I could think of no reason why every day of my life could not be as peaceful or exciting or challenging as it had been for the past two months. It would be difficult amidst the hustle and bustle of things so familiar to keep my perspective fresh and alive. But with the alternatives looking grim I thought perhaps I’d follow Lama Chomling’s example of a life dedicated to much laughter, creative work and deep devotion. I mean really, what else is there to do?