A 13,000-Mile Experiment in Extreme Parenting

The Kirkby family leaving Zanskar Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Canadian adventurer Bruce Kirkby decided that his family was in a technology-driven rut, so he set up a grueling journey from British Columbia to Zanskar, a remote region in northern India. The dream was exploration and growth. The reality involved unexpected risks that made him wonder if the whole thing was an epic mistake.

The familiar roads of my neighborhood spooled out like black yarn behind the ambulance window; the lights of our family home faded in the distance. Arched atop a stretcher, I coughed up blood between shallow breaths. 

Hours earlier I’d been in perfect health, or so I believed. That morning I’d skied 20 miles on nordic trails and lifted weights ­after that. But around midnight I woke up with searing pain radiating down my left arm. I prodded my wife, who called 911.

At the hospital, doctors and nurses ­orbited my bed, running a flurry of tests: blood samples, heart ultrasound, CAT scan. By the next day, a diagnosis began to take shape.

“You have pneumonia,” a burly South Afri­can doctor said. “And a small pulmonary embolism. That’s a clot in your lung. But there is something else going on. Portions of your lung tissue look like ground glass. Have you traveled abroad recently?”

Between halting breaths, I told him about our family journey to the Indian Himalayas. The three months we spent living with a Buddhist lama, sharing an eight-by-eightfoot earthen room. The wet cough the old man developed. And the daily injections of antibiotics I gave him in the rump—required for an illness that had started five years earlier and had stripped his weight.

The doctor’s eyes widened. “I’d bet my life you have tuberculosis, son,” he said, backing out of the room. “It’s very contagious.” 

For days I lay there alone, listening to the relentless click of a wall clock. Nurses dressed like Ebola relief workers occasionally appeared to administer blood thinners and antibiotics. During those long hours, I found my thoughts returning to my young sons—Bodi, age seven, and Taj, three—who, together with my wife, Christine, and me, had lived alongside the lama, cuddled in his arms, and called him me-me (grandfather). If I had contracted tuberculosis, it was almost certain that they had as well. The possibility was too painful to contemplate.

Since the day the boys were born, we had been taking them on outdoor adventures. By the time Bodi was 16 months old, he’d spent a quarter of his life in a tent, joining us for sea kayaking in Argentina, climbing in the Bugaboos, surfing on Vancouver Island, and trekking in Patagonia. While Taj was still breast-feeding, we flew to the Republic of Georgia, bought a packhorse, and spent 60 days traversing the length of the Caucasus Mountains.

Now my world was upside down. Had the naysayers been right all along? Had my unshakable confidence that I could manage every risk been misguided? Had I just royally fucked up? 

  Photo: Robert Harkness

For decades my work as a writer and pho­tographer has taken me on long wilderness journeys. When kids arrived, it seemed natural to pack them along, too, but in doing so, Christine and I were unwittingly choosing sides in a contentious modern debate about how to gauge and manage “child appropriate” risk. In Canada, where I live, the trend toward helicopter parenting has had sobering effects. In the space of a generation, the physical radius of play for the average nine-year-old has declined by 90 percent. Today less than a quarter of our kids walk to school. Only 7 percent meet daily physical-­activity recommendations, much less set out on challenging multi-week trips.

While our boys’ safety has always been a foremost concern, causing us to ease up on our ambitions, there’s no doubt that we’ve pushed the boundaries. When Bodi was four, he and I packed goats along Utah’s Highline Trail: 100 miles, most of it above 10,000 feet. When Taj was two, our family chartered a bush plane and paddled the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan.

To those who questioned our ­choices, I trotted out standard arguments about the character benefits of facing rigorous challenges, the intrinsic value of sleeping under the stars, and even the improved immunity that comes with ingesting a bit of dirt. But in retrospect, the real reason I planned such long, challenging journeys was selfish: I yearned for the wilderness myself.

Whatever the original motive, these trips were good for our family. Unplugging from the distractions of modern life allowed us to connect with our boys in ways we could never replicate at home, where something ­always needed doing. In particular, the horse-­trekking journey across Georgia—sweltering, exhausting, and skirting a war zone—had a profound impact, probably ­because of its 
duration. For a full year after returning home, our family savored a closeness previously unimagined. 

But such glories fade, and old habits return. It was during the depths of a British Columbia winter that I sat at our kitchen ­table shoveling Cheerios into my mouth while mindlessly scrolling through Facebook posts on my phone.

“Dad!” Bodi screamed. “Did you hear what I said?”

I hadn’t heard a word of what he’d said, and he was sitting right beside me. A busy life was transforming me into exactly the type of father I swore I’d never be. 

For years, Christine and I had discussed the idea of taking the boys to live in a Himalayan monastery. It was one of those pie-in-the-sky dreams, something that might happen “someday.” 

She had studied Buddhism in Canada and was eager to learn more. Despite a reflexive resistance to organized spirituality, I was open to the idea. Over the space of a dozen Himalayan journeys—as support staff on an Everest climb, during an attempt to traverse Tibet’s Chang Tang Plateau, and as the leader of photography tours in Bhutan and Sikkim—I’d always been drawn to the world of mountain Buddhists.

Ladakh Journey 2014 Qinghai Lak
On the road in western China   Photo: Bruce Kirkby

After the Cheerios incident, living in a monastery suddenly seemed like the most anti-­modern, anti-distracted thing our family could do. Within days we decided to drop everything and go. “Someday” would be that summer.

Rather than fly to the Himalayas, we elected to go all in and travel to the other side of the planet by surface. To me it feels like cheating to cram into a plane seat, scarf down a quick dinner, doze, then wake up the next morning in Bangkok or Delhi or Kuala Lumpur—fabled cities that, just a century ago, took six weeks or more to reach. Airplanes diminish not only time and distance but everything in between. Blame it on nostalgia, but we had our eyes set on completing a long, slow trip that would take us from Canada to South Korea to China, then on to Tibet, ­Nepal, and India.

Of course, we faced the inevitable deluge of concern, doubt, and vocal criticism. Within days, attempting to find boat passage across the North ­Pacific threatened to thwart our plans. 

“There is no way you’ll get a three-year-old aboard,” we were flatly told by a New Zealand freighter agent, part of a little-known cadre of people who specialize in booking passage aboard cargo ships. “Marine insurance covers passengers between the ages of 6 and 79. No one is going to risk millions of dollars of cargo to get your baby across the ocean.”

Eventually, we found a German carrier whose insurance policy covered three-year-olds. We reserved four berths on a 66,000-ton container ship bound for South Korea.
Plenty of other worries seep into the mind of a parent planning a trip to Asia—traffic, pollution, disease—but none kept me awake at night more than altitude. The train carrying us to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa would traverse a dizzying 16,640-foot pass. Later we’d reach even higher elevations on the trek to the monastery. When I contacted a long-established American outfitter operating in Tibet, seeking assistance with permits and logistics, it flatly refused to help. 

“Tibet is no place for children,” a manager insisted. “We won’t take anyone under 12.” 

I asked why.

“Because they can’t acclimatize. Their lungs are not properly developed. Do you know who Peter Hackett is?” 

I did. I had met the Telluride, ­Colorado–based doctor, who specializes in high-altitude illness, at Everest Base Camp during the 1990s. On my desk were two papers, one of them by Hackett, on the effects of altitude on young bodies. Neither said anything about undeveloped lungs or the inability of children to acclimatize.

If I were to boil down the advice contained in those long reports, it would read something like this: Go ahead, but be sure you know what you’re doing, make conservative decisions, and always give yourself an out. 

To my mind, this was an adage that fairly reflects how all risks should be managed—kids or not. 

A few more complications to mention: the first was that a full television crew would follow our family, filming our 100-day, 13,000-mile journey, step by step. 

For years I’d been in touch with a young Australian producer, batting around ideas for an adventure-based TV series. Every six months or so we chatted by phone, but this time there was a pause when I told him I’d be out of the loop while my family traveled to Zanskar, a remote region in northern India, to live in a Buddhist monastery. 

“Hold on, mate—that’s it!” he said. “The ultimate family relocation!”

TV pitches rarely find traction, so I ­quickly forgot about the possibility and carried on with planning: clearing our calendars, vaccinating the children against every imaginable malady, packing the lightest gear. Six weeks before departure, the phone rang again. It was the Aussie.

“Better sit down, mate. Travel Channel loves the idea. We got the green light.”

Being filmed 24/7 would clearly affect our plans to disconnect, but because I’m a freelancer, I have a hard time ­turning down work. So I agreed, with one stip­ulation: we’d be left in peace upon reach­ing the monastery. I also ­suggested a single embedded camera operator, argu­ing that this method would ­allow us to move quickly and capture authentic moments.

“Sorry, but the network has a different vision,” he said. “They want something cinematic. We’ll have a crew of 16. There’s budget for helicopters.”

For the first time, I sensed we might be getting in over our heads. Which brings me to the second complication: Bodi is on the autism spectrum. 

Unless family, friends, or work have exposed you to autism, you likely know as much about it as I did before Bodi was born: nothing. In a nutshell, ASD (autism spectrum disorder) encompasses an extremely broad range of neurodevelopmental conditions, with symptoms ranging from ritualized behaviors and mild social awkwardness to being severely nonverbal. One characteristic is difficulty recognizing the thoughts and feelings of others (empathy), a crucial and reflexive skill for “neurotypical” people. In the U.S., a recent study suggested that one child in fifty is diagnosed as being on the spectrum. It’s almost certain that someone in your life is affected by ASD, and there’s an equally good chance you don’t know it.

Because early intervention can have an enormous positive impact on a child’s ­future, Christine and I decided to disclose Bodi’s diagnosis—a high-functioning form, commonly known as Asperger’s syndrome—both on television and here. It was another risk, and certainly not everyone agreed with our decision. But at the core of our thinking was a simple belief: we hide the things we’re ashamed of, and Bodi has nothing to be ashamed of. With his keen insights, razor-sharp memory, and painful honesty, he has changed how I view the world. As a parent, I learned that ASD is not something to be “cured.” Rather, the condition is both a challenge that requires support and an opportunity to encourage unique talents. Our job is to gently stretch Bodi, over and over, helping him integrate into a society that will at times struggle to make sense of his behavior.

The important point here is that Bodi’s symptoms—like those of so many kids with a mild diagnosis—include rigidity of thinking, a preference for routine, and avoidance of eye contact. And, after all, what’s a camera lens but a giant eye? 

The Australian TV crew arrived at our British Columbia home in early May. As they smoked cigarettes in our backyard, Bodi and Taj ­quickly became interested in these cool new people, with their tattoos and Chuck Taylor sneakers. Christine and I were too busy to pay much attention.

Two days later, a heavy frost covered the ground as we launched canoes on the headwaters of the nearby Columbia River. Before locking the back door, I turned off my ­mobile phone and tossed it in a kitchen drawer. Anyone sending an e-mail would receive an automated reply: Back in November. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Paddling north for five days, our family camped each night on sandbars exposed by low water, while a motorboat whisked the crew to a hotel. They would reappear before breakfast, taping microphones to our chests and hoisting heavy cameras. We did our best to pretend they weren’t there, but like dogs meeting for the first time in a park, we slowly circled and tested boundaries. 

On the third morning, the crew raced ahead to set up a shot, then dropped their bait as our canoe drifted past. “There are storm clouds on the horizon! What are you gonna do?” a producer asked.

“Uh, put on jackets and keep paddling?” Crestfallen looks made it clear that I’d let them down.

Thankfully, Bodi and Taj were mostly ­immune to the cameras, and the experience was not nearly as intrusive as I’d imagined. In many ways, it felt like we were on a gigantic college road trip—halfway around the world, with kids. 

Upon reaching the trans-Canadian rail line, we stashed the canoes and caught a train to Vancouver, where a wobbly gangplank led us aboard the cargo ship. The rigid routine of life at sea suited Bodi perfectly: a family walk around the ship’s perimeter at dawn, lunch with the captain at noon, evening meals with the Filipino crew. Seventeen days later, we made landfall at Busan, South Korea. Transitioning to more visually impressive forms of transport—trains and river­boats, ­tuk-tuks and ferries—we continued westward into China.

Taj briefly fell ill in Qinghai province, just as we began acclimatizing to higher altitudes. Taking a day’s rest, we monitored his oxygen saturation, and he quickly bounced back. By the time our train lumbered over Tanggu La, a pass into Tibet, the boys were racing up and down the aisles, dodging Chinese tourists, who—having been dragged straight from sea level in Beijing—were collapsing in pools of vomit.

The route forward took us down into ­Nepal, across India’s great northern plains, and finally into the foothills of the Himalaya Range, on a narrow-gauge railway that carried us up to misty Shimla. Eighty-eight days after we’d left home, a jeep dropped us at a lonesome police checkpoint north of Darcha, on the Leh-Manali Highway, in northern India. From there we set out by foot toward Zanskar. 

2014 Ladakh Karsha Gompa Monast
Taj in Lama Wangyal's kitchen.   Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Sitting in the rain shadow of the Hima­layas surrounded by 20,000-foot summits, the Zanskar region is defined by the union of two rivers, the Stod and the Tsarap, whose combined waters—after running through a broad, idyllic valley—carve a near impassable gorge on their journey toward the Indus.

There is no easy way in or out. Histor­i­cally, reaching Zanskar required navigating high mountain passes during summer or tiptoeing through the frozen gorge in winter. That all changed when the Indian army carved a dirt track in from the north during the 1970s. But the route remains open for just a few months each summer, and rather than suffer a jarring 60-hour bus ride, we chose to walk.

Following ancient footpaths, we crossed the spine of the Himalayas. Both boys raced happily along, brandishing their walking sticks, until they grew tired and climbed into child carriers; Bodi on my back, Taj atop a porter. At night we shoehorned ­together into a tiny tent. After five days, we entered a maze of dry gorges where even a toe-high sprig of grass was a rarity. Eventually, the valley broadened and villages sprang up, the sturdy mud-bricked homes surrounded by fields of ripening barley sustained by ­irrigation canals stretching from the glaciers above. 

It was late in the afternoon on our eighth day of trekking that we caught sight of Karsha monastery, a Buddhist compound whose warren of whitewashed temples were plastered on cliffs steeper than any black-­diamond ski run. At their base, a tall, craggy man in maroon robes waited silently.

Five years earlier, when two Canadian friends of mine were caught by a freak snowstorm here, the head lama of Karsha monastery had offered them refuge and butter tea in exchange for a week of roof shoveling.

“He’d love your family to visit,” they promised after learning of our plans. So we e-mailed the lama’s nephew, a student in a south Indian city, asking if we might visit his uncle. Maybe stay a few months? Perhaps teach English? 

Three months later came his cryptic reply: “Most generously. Problems are none.” Our journey—and the TV documentary’s big payoff—rested on that shaky foundation. 

Now Lama Wangyal stood before us, arms outstretched, drawing us into a tight hug, whispering the traditional Zanskari greet­ing: “Julley, julley, julley, julley.

Clumsily, I placed a silken kata scarf around his neck. With his shaven head and bony features, his age was difficult to guess. Perhaps he was 60? Bushy eyebrows curled downward so dramatically that they touched his cheeks below his eyes, reminding me of ram’s horns. 

“Today happy day,” he said with a gravelly voice. Then, taking our boys’ hands firmly in his, he led us toward the monastery. 

The next morning, our journey complete, the television crew took off. Tears flowed as we pressed beads of turquoise into their palms—sound technicians, camera operators, and producers who had been with us for 96 days. At the same time, it was a bloody relief to see them go. Bodi more than anyone had been challenged by requests to repeat words and redo scenes. 

Christine and I often explain our strategy for dealing with Bodi’s ASD by using a balloon analogy: We blow it up, stretching him and inevitably raising anxiety. Then we let some air out and return him to a place of comfort. When this happens over and over, his ability to deal with an uncertain world grows. But three months of filming had been one heck of a stretch, and he needed a break. Which is exactly what our time at the monastery turned out to be.

Days flowed into weeks, then months. We rose at dawn, summoned by brass horns to a darkened hall, where chanting monks sat in long rows and blue juniper smoke swirled in sunlight that cut down from cracks in the mud-and-stick roof. While Christine and I sat cross-legged, our boys played quietly with Legos. “Try closing your eyes and thinking about nothing but your breathing,” Christine whispered to me on the first day. My initial attempts proved fruitless. 

Every afternoon, in a barren classroom, we taught English and math to novice monks ranging in age from 7 to 14. Starved of affection, they piled onto our laps at communal meals and visited our bedroom every night, ostensibly to seek medical attention. Sometimes they were sick, but more often the young boys just wanted a warm hand rubbed atop their peach-fuzz heads.

Tentatively, our boys joined this feral pack, sharing their precious Lego figurines, roaming the monastery’s paths, and exploring its desiccated cliffs. Set adrift without television or computers, cut off from the junky plastic toys that clogged their bedrooms, Bodi and Taj played with sticks and discarded bottles, silverfish, and dead birds. In the process, they became better friends than they ever would have at home.

It’s easy to romanticize such a simple exis­tence—without running water or power—but we encountered depressed lamas and witnessed drunken brawls. One evening, as I brushed Taj’s teeth, Lama Wangyal burst from his home with a thin stick and began furiously whipping a young monk hidden in shadows. The sobbing boy pulled robes across his face but stood his ground. 

Oblivious to the commotion, Taj ran inside to kiss Christine goodnight before crawling into his sleeping bag. Not me. I felt ill. The boy who suffered the beating was a gentle novice who had skipped class to visit his family in a nearby village. Corporal punishment may be more culturally accepted in parts of Asia, but as I lay watching a yellow moon float up in the east, a line from Peter Matthiessen played over in my head: “The great sins, so the Sherpas say, are to pick wild flowers and to threaten children.”

2014 Ladakh Karsha Gompa Monast
Lama Wangyal.   Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Lama Wangyal took sick during the second month of our stay, a rattling cough racking his entire body. Pointing to a faded Polaroid on the wall, where his craggy form appeared skeletal, he explained, “Five years ago, me too sick. Many injections.” 

What was the illness? He didn’t know or couldn’t explain, but the treatments had cost a fortune, forcing Lama Wangyal to sell two of his yaks. He dug out a box of syringes and vials from beneath his altar. “You needle me, OK?” he requested, squatting and pulling aside his robes to present a hairless buttock.

Over the weeks ahead, the cough gradually receded, and in a land where smoldering yak-dung fires heat homes and hacking can be a constant, the fleeting malady went almost unnoticed.

We stayed three months, until the first ­October storms threatened to close the mountain routes and isolate Zanskar again. Then we set off by foot, crossing 12 high passes in 14 days, encountering no one apart from a scattering of villagers. On the final morning, we entered an eight-mile-long gorge, the vertical walls pressing together until the sky above became a memory. 

Then it was over. We rounded a bend and a concrete wall stood before us. Beyond that were cars and a road. Our porters were already on their cell phones.

2014 Ladakh Karsha Gompa Monast
Bodi at the Karsha monastery.

Four months later, when two small clots lodged themselves in the outer lobe of my left lung and the doctor backed apprehensively out of my room after scribbling “TB?” on my chart, my first thought was of my boys. A shaky feeling washed over me. 

In the study of risk management, there’s a well-documented tendency to attribute near misses—events where only blind luck averts disaster—to our own good judgment. This can lead to a false sense of being bulletproof. Which is why experienced backcountry skiers are more likely to trigger a slide on a ­familiar slope than on unknown terrain. Had years of travel caused me to overestimate my ability to protect Bodi and Taj? 

Alone in that sterile room, I replayed our footsteps over and over, plagued by a single question: If I could turn back time, would I set out on the same trip again? 

People often ask if I hope Bodi and Taj will grow up to be adventurers, but such an outcome is irrelevant to me. I only want them to be free, to live the life they were meant to live—whether they become carpenters or concert pianists, homebodies or nomads, gay or straight, city slickers or country bumpkins. And the only way I know to teach freedom is to live it myself.

I remembered a gloriously warm afternoon during our return trip, when we were descending from the 15,480-foot Hanuma La. Bodi skipped ahead of me down steep switchbacks, knock-kneed and coltish like a young caribou. Then he paused and cocked his head to one side. As a gust of dry wind lashed his hair, I could see he was staring out over the sea of ice-capped peaks leading ­toward Tibet.

As I gazed at his freckles and clear eyes, a wave of love swept across me, an immensity of feeling I suspect only a parent knows. Then, on its heels, a fleeting shadow. Fear. I’d felt it before, that inescapable reality that something bad, even tragic, could happen to my boys someday—no matter what I did. 

To love is to risk loss. One cannot exist without the other.

In the hospital, I thought of the impossibility of protecting my boys from lightning strikes and texting drivers and all the other random threats in our world. I thought of Bodi’s ASD. I thought of living in fear. And teaching my boys about freedom.

And I realized, yes, I probably would set out on the same trip again. 

Three days after I was hospitalized, a rosy ring failed to develop around the tuberculosis antigens injected under my forearm skin. Sputum samples vacuumed from the depths of my lungs confirmed I was TB-free. I was released from quarantine, and the unprovoked pulmonary embolism was written off as a fluke in an otherwise healthy middle-aged male. The prescription: three months of blood thinners, then carry on. 

Bruce Kirkby is the author of the books Sand Dance and The Dolphin's Tooth. He lives in Kimberley, British Columbia.

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