Chasing Abbey

The trail to some sort of personal peace seemed to wend high into the Himalayas. But where it led was back to an old friend.

Doug Peacock

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Across the deepest valley in the world the monsoon clouds billow, then part, revealing immaculate snowfields falling off the western shoulder of Annapurna. Clumps of dwarf juniper cling to the mountain at treeline, and a sparse carpet of late-summer grasses covers the gentler slopes. Farther south, fresh powder has softened the rugged face of Dhaulagiri, which holds its brilliance long after the sunsets. I watch the inner flush of the mountains against the dark sky, a dull pearly luminosity that glows until the stars come out. I am here, camped in the shadow of these daunting peaks, with two friends, biologist Dennis Sizemore and British climber Alan Burgess. Our four other companions are Nepalese, whom Al has hired as guides: three Sherpas from the Makalu area, east of Everest, and a Thakali from the town of Marpha, 6,000 feet below. It’s the off-season for trekking, so we don’t expect to see any other humans as we journey to the high valleys north of Dhaulagiri. We want to explore the area for wild sheep and goats, Asiatic black bears, maybe wolves and snow leopards. Our guide Bhakti, who runs a tea house in Marpha and accompanied Al on a climb of Dhaulagiri in 1980, has seen the tracks of four different snow leopards in Hidden Valley, which lies just above us, beyond 16,500-foot Thampus Pass. Our plan is to cross the pass and thread our way a hundred miles to the uninhabited plateau country between Mustang and Dolpo. I dream of a legendary journey, a trek surpassing all others: I’ll lose the roll of belly-fat around my middle-aged gut. I’ll stand face to face with a yeti. I’ll sneak over the border to Tibet, drop my pants, moon the Chinese border guards, and then run like hell.

Al, Dennis, and I linger in the pale light of evening until long after the guides have turned in. Al, who has been climbing in the Himalayas for 20 years, regales us with stories. During one expeditionary climb of Everest in 1987, Al’s job was to ferry loads across the fearsome Khumbu Icefall, one of the most treacherous spots on the mountain. To relieve himself of the monotony, he waited to watch an attractive woman climber slowly make her way past him. Al followed close behind, one eye out for danger, the other fixed on his lovely companion. Just as they approached a ladder breaching a crevasse, an ice tower fell with the jolt of an earthquake and the crevasse collapsed, sucking the ladder into its white belly. Were it not for his sophomoric dawdling, Al would have gone down with it.

During the night I lie in my tent, nursing a mild altitude headache and a chronic cough that’s kept me awake for two months. The distant roar of an avalanche off Dhaulagiri rolls over the foothills and fades down the valley. I listen to the silence, then rummage through my backpack for two codeine tablets to suppress the cough. I smile as I remember how my old friend, the writer Edward Abbey, looked forward to his nightly codeine fix as he battled complications of acute pancreatitis during the last year of his life.

By the time Ed died at age 62, he was renowned, the author of 20 books, including Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, whose protagonist, George Washington Hayduke, was a former Green Beret medic who greatly resembled myself. Published in 1975, The Monkey Wrench Gang sold half a million copies, and the character of Hayduke became famous in a lowbrow sort of way. This was hardly an endorsement of excellence, nor was it flattery of any kind; Hayduke was a one-dimensional dolt. To the extent that I was seduced by the hype, it placed enormous strain on my friendship with Ed, which from the start carried the imbalance of paternalism.

I met Ed in the winter of 1969 at the home of a mutual friend, the writer William Eastlake; we talked about mountain lions. He was very funny, yet there was a stubborn finality to his judgments, which tended to be misanthropic toward adults and gentle toward children. Like myself, Ed had little use for religion of any variety, but he nevertheless believed there were observable guidelines for living, an accessible wisdom that resided in the land. He called the Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu — who viewed government as deadly not only to mankind but all of creation — the first anarchist.

It was the love of wild country, and the need to protect it, that brought us together and kept us together through the two bumpy decades of our friendship. Ed, who was 15 years older, became a guide in my life, introducing me to some of America’s greatest desert spots, and I tried to return the favor. After I began to closely study the biology and sociology of grizzly bears in the midseventies, Ed and I made many trips to Glacier National Park in the hope that he would spot a bear. He traveled to Alaska and the Arctic but was fated never to lay eyes on one. To the end, Ed called the silver-tipped bear “the alleged grizzly.”

Now, years after his death, I’m taking another trip in honor of Ed, my first return to Asia since the Vietnam War. I didn’t travel abroad much before Ed’s passing, but his death radically altered the declination of my compass, sending me beyond the familiar and outside my own culture. I started hesitantly, visiting the Athabascans of Alaska and the Inuit of Lancaster Sound, in the Canadian Arctic. On my meandering way to Nepal I explored the salmon rivers at the edge of Siberia and followed tiger tracks along the Sea of Japan. I wanted to see places Ed had missed in his life and to get more out of what life I myself had left. I wanted to take what Ed would call “great walks.” It was a way to pay tribute, to shed an entrenched existence for a new beginning, to get out in order to look back in.

In the morning we start up the faint, winding trail to the pass, crossing a few steep patches of snow and scree. Pemba, our head guide from Makalu, uses his knife to cut steps in the hard snow of the gullies. I gasp in the thin air, my mind fuzzy as I struggle along the path. I watch my boots and try to regulate my breathing. My pack is nearly empty; the others saw to that. I’m the oldest and the least fit of our little group, and feel old enough to be a grandfather to our youngest guide, also named Pemba, who’s merely 16.

I breathe deeply, blowing out every two seconds, trying to keep a rhythm. Eventually my head clears and I forget about the pain in my back and legs. One of the best things about walking in the backcountry is that it allows me to get in touch with my body. On my solo trips in Montana or the Arizona desert, something starts to happen on the fourth or fifth day: I lose my desire for caffeine, booze, sugar, salt. It’s as if the body’s consciousness wants me to walk off the fat, to streamline this much-abused corporeal seat of the soul.

We reach Thampus Pass at 16,500 feet and Hidden Valley comes into view, a high grassland covering the morainal debris of a U-shaped basin. A slot of blue sky hovers over this high meadow, hemmed in on all four sides by rain clouds. We take a break on a muddy bench sloping off the wide saddle of the pass. Pemba the elder uses cedar twigs carried from far below to heat water for tea. Al studies the topographic map and picks various routes out of the valley, all of which entail steep glacier travel or technical rock work. Dennis goes off by himself, picking over the bedrock and thin patches of soil. He squats and plucks a piece of quartzite from the loam. He opens his Arapaho medicine bag and adds the stone. Afterward, he tells me this is the first time he’s opened his bag in years.

A black vulture flies over, and I’m reminded of one of my early road trips with Ed. It was December 1974. At the time he and I were unattached and without families. We had just spent a sniffling, lonely Christmas Eve in a topless bar in Tucson, drinking whiskey. Thinking we could improve on that, we packed up and drove 150 miles west over Charlie Bell Pass into the Cabeza Prieta desert, hard against the Mexican border in southwestern Arizona. We sipped beer the whole way and were a tad plastered by the time we arrived. At the bottom of the pass we got out of the truck to look at the petroglyphs carved into a group of basalt boulders. There were birds and thunderstorms and curved patterns that didn’t resemble anything. Ed studied one of the birds and said that he wanted to come back as a buzzard after he died and soar above Barrier Canyon in Utah, where the greatest Indian rock art in North America is located, a place I had never been. He described life-size cliff paintings of mummylike figures with bucket-shaped heads, square shoulders, and long, tapered trunks decorated with birds and other small “spirit helpers.” Go there, he said. It’s the gateway between worlds.

We continued on for one more six-pack until we hit the Granite Mountains, where we got stuck in a ditch. We hiked for a while and found a pile of rocks, probably marking the old grave of a prospector. “A good place to end up,” Ed noted.

I sip my tea and wonder how old Ed would have fared up here in the Himalayas. He felt weak on his last trips to our beloved Cabeza Prieta. He was low on blood those last months of his life. The doctor said he had lost half of his blood volume during one weekend in early 1989 when the veins in his throat ruptured, a complication brought on by hepatic hypertension. The resulting anemia starved his brain of oxygen and produced an odd, insular humor. He knew the end was near, and he seemed relieved to be finally free of the conceits of the society he’d railed against for so long. By the time Ed died, he had the clearest eyes I’d ever seen.

The eyes still haunt me. Ed’s dying revealed that being willing to die was not the same as being prepared for death. I’d witnessed death many times over the years, and I had no fear of it. I’d survived two tours in Vietnam and later courted trouble with grizzlies. My favorite animals remain those that occasionally kill and eat humans. But I’ve never glimpsed what Ed found at his end. In a world where no one gets out alive, in a culture in which death still comes as an unexpected shock, Ed’s dying with grace was the greatest of all the gifts he gave me.

Ed died in March 1989 after four days of esophageal hemorrhaging. My Nepalese companions tell me the throat is supposed to be the seat of communication and that speech is the link between the peaceful divinities of the heart and the wrathful deities of the brain. But neither Ed nor I was ever very good at communication. Ed could be a real crank; he was the most difficult close friend I ever had. And I was a moody bastard myself. Even now, it gives me a chill remembering our last big quarrel, over a .357 Magnum pistol Ed thought about using to hasten his exit. Though Ed and I had always laughed at the frail psychology of members of our sex who spent half their lives getting over their relationships with their fathers, there was an edge to our brotherhood, elements of the macho and the authoritarian that took many years to leave behind. It’s a sad irony that this most masculine of friendships would yield to openness only at the very end. It wasn’t until four days before his death that I finally told Ed how much I’d always loved him.

We drop off Thampus Pass and scramble to the grassy bottom of Hidden Valley. I hit the ground almost running, eager to explore this wild place and see what kind of animals live here. The remote habitat is especially suitable for blue sheep, and if the sheep are here, snow leopards will be, too.

I pitch my tent on a ridge a couple hundred yards above my companions. The pass marks the highest altitude I’ve ever reached, and I feel high in spirits, too, happy that I’ve made it. I wander in a gentle breeze blowing off the mountains, the rare sunlight of the monsoon season raining down on me. A horned lark picks flies out of fresh piles of yak manure. I flip the chips over to dry in the sun; dung is the only available fuel up here. As I work, a flock of Tibetan snow finches bursts over the ridge and alights among the buttercups, asters, and ice plants that surround my camp. I think of my earliest memory of the outdoors: riding on my dad’s shoulders during World War II, when he led his Boy Scout troops into the Michigan countryside, collecting milkweed pods to fill navy life preservers.

After sunset a thick fog ebbs and flows through the valley like a diurnal tide, twice rising to a level just shy of my tent site, engulfing my friends camped below. About two in the morning I awaken to a tortured round of coughing. I take two codeine tablets and lie back down, willing myself to sleep. A few minutes later I notice a gurgling in my belly, followed by a deeper rumbling down in my bowels. I step outside and have a brief but violent bout of the runs; I’m astonished to see blood on the ground. I try to stay calm and assess the situation, but another rush of hot blood hits my stomach, and I gag.

After a few minutes the retching stops and I crawl back into my tent. I feel a trickle of blood in my throat; all that coughing must have broken a vein.

Woozy, I lie in my sleeping bag until daylight and then creep outside to check the damage. It’s hard to tell how much blood I lost, but it looks like a lot. My coughing has stopped, though, and the bleeding in my throat is now just a slow drip. I gaze down on the ghostly tents below me, barely visible through the mist. Weak and confused, I decide not to wake the others. Since I can still walk some, I dimly reason that that is what I should do.

I grab my binoculars, take another codeine tablet, and head out. The dewy grass sparkles in the early light; I can smell the sun on the wet willow leaves. I wander toward a boulder field dotted with iridescent green lichens. Under one of the boulders sprout tiny purple mycena mushrooms. Nearby are panaeolus. I squat down and mechanically pinch the base of a stalk. A blue stain will indicate the presence of psilocybin, meaning that these are “magic mushrooms.” Maybe I’ll eat a handful and see the face of God. But there is no blue stain.

Up ahead by a miniature creek I spot animal trails in the steep scree. I take two steps forward for a better look and freeze; a hundred feet away a dozen or more Himalayan blue sheep are staring at me. They’re all females and juveniles, including a single tiny lamb. I stand motionless for two or three minutes and the sheep resume grazing, nibbling on clumps of coarse, dry grass. Slowly, I drop to one knee and ease my binoculars up to my eyes. It’s the wrong move, and the sheep bound away. One ewe remains, watching me for a moment before loping away to join the herd.

A wave of dizziness shudders through my body. I stumble to the creek to splash water on my face then lie down to dry in the morning sun. I feel as if I’m outside of my body, watching my crumpled figure sprawled out along the bank. Humans are such frail, helpless creatures, I muse dreamily. A warm wetness creeps across my back; I’m probably bleeding again. I roll over and wipe myself, checking for blood, just as I did with Ed two hours before he died.

“I can’t do it myself,” Ed said.

“That’s what I’m here for,” I answered.

Maybe that’s what it comes down to, this final humility, this acceptance of service — all preparation for the big trip, all shrouded in wretched comedy.

I push myself up from the ground. Though it occurs to me that I could be bleeding to death in much the same manner as Ed, I’m too oxygen-starved to be alarmed. I feel dazed, almost giddy. I find it enough of a laugh to savor the rich irony of my situation. So this is what it’s like, I think, Ed’s dark wit coming back to get me in the end. I take a few tentative steps and sit back down with a nervous chuckle, my hypoxic cerebral circuitry joking with itself.

I dig out my notebook and scribble a short but adequate will and a note to my family. “Larry, I salute you. Laurel, Colin, I am sorry. I love you all.” I add for myself, “I am going to die and it will be OK if not wonderful.”

I pack the notebook away and stand up again. I manage to stagger back to camp, where I explain to my companions that I’m sick. I feel self-conscious and embarrassed as I tell them that I’m bleeding and that if it continues I might not make it out of the valley. Little Pemba and the other young Sherpa, Ngwang, look slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps they’re worried that I indeed will die and they’ll have to carry my large carcass off the mountain.

I lie back in the grass and rest my head on a rock. I think back to the frigid winter of 1962, when I became hypothermic during a camping trip in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. I wanted to lie down in the snow and go to sleep and never get up again. Now it is much the same. The climb back over the pass seems both unnecessary and impossible. I’m content to stay here in Hidden Valley, on this little grass-covered knoll.

But Dennis is gently pulling me to my feet, and Alan and the Sherpas are hustling to break camp. As I stare at the ground, battling faintness, I notice the white feather of an Egyptian buzzard lying on a patch of heather. I carefully bend over and pick it up, telling Dennis, “I’m going to need a bit of luck.” He takes the medicine bundle from around his neck and places it around mine without comment.

We strike off to the east, toward the steep scree below the pass, now 1,500 feet above us. I carry no pack, no extra weight, yet it’s all I can do to inch up the slope. I start to black out and squat in the rocks with my head between my knees. The wildly spinning valley below returns to a still frame.

One pitch leads to another, one slope to another, and before the sun disappears behind Dhaulagiri, I step up and see an expanse of rock, the top of the pass. I clench the white buzzard feather in my fist and make a lame joke about the tough job of burying me up here in this thin, rocky soil.

Where I get planted is important to me. I never wanted to be cremated or fed to the buzzards, Tibetan sky-burial style. I learned that for myself years ago, when one of my best friends committed suicide and was cremated and scattered before I got the news. I wanted somewhere I could go to visit him. Later, when Ed died, I was on hand to see to his burial. He’d wanted to nourish a plant, a cactus or a tree. He was buried illegally, deep in the desert, and just moments before we laid him to rest, I lay down in the grave to check out the view. There was blue sky and a faint desert breeze stirring the blossoms of a brittlebush. We should all be so blessed.

Two and a half miles above the town of Marpha, I start coughing again. I stagger, and Dennis props me up. He asks Al if they should rope me to someone, but Al says no: “If he falls, he falls.” Al has slipped into professional climber mode. It’s up to me to get myself out of here, he says.

Since there’s no way we’ll reach town by dark, Dennis and Al decide to stop for the night. I feel too far gone to make sense of anything. Somebody puts up my tent and hands me a cup of sweet tea. Dennis asks if he should stay with me, throw his sleeping bag in with mine, but I prefer to be alone. I try to think about Ed, to borrow some of his courage, but it’s hard.

It rains in the night, and Al and Dennis go out in the flailing wind to check my tent. They stay up until dawn, listening for my cough, exchanging whispers. Dennis recklessly suggests a transfusion — his blood type is compatible with mine — but of course we have no tubes or needles.

In the morning I stick my head out the tent flap to see a crystalline blue sky. Everything is white with fresh snow. Dennis, visibly relieved that I’ve made it through the night, packs up my gear, and together we head out, leaving Al and the Sherpas to break camp again. Soon the faint yak trails converge into a wider path, which after a couple of hours leads to the trail we climbed only a few days ago.

Finally, in the distance, we see the stacks of firewood that outline the rooftops of the small thatch houses of Marpha. I lurch toward them over the slippery alluvium of the trail. Dennis is suffering excruciating pain in his quadriceps, having descended 8,000 feet in a single day. I’m simply grateful to be breathing. My throat is raw, but I’ve stopped coughing and can no longer taste blood in my throat. My wound seems to have clotted over.

In town we’re greeted by the strong aroma of yaks and cooking fires. I hear a tinkle of bells and turn to watch a lively Mustang horse trot by, its saddle blanket woven with bright images of snow leopards. Beautiful.

We arrive at Bhakti’s tea house, where Al buys a bottle of brandy, distilled locally from home-grown apples. I add a tablespoon to a cup of weak tea; the sweet fragrance rises to my nostrils and I remember where I last smelled this scent: an abandoned orchard swallowed up in sumac and jack pine on a hillside in northern Michigan, just about the last place in the country where you could still buy an acre of land for $150. I discourse at length on the olfactory power of place, of bears and big cats, of brandies and wild mushrooms. My friends listen indulgently.

The next morning Dennis asks if I want to see a doctor at the army compound here in town. I say no; as long as the bleeding remains stabilized, I prefer not to be examined by a military sawbones who will likely dislodge the clot and restart the hemorrhaging. Instead, I stock up on more codeine pills and cough syrup from the small local pharmacy.
From Marpha we make it to the town of Jomsom, then on to Kathmandu. We check in at the Mustang Holiday Inn, and Dennis calls the airport. All flights are booked, and we’re on standby. It could mean several days of waiting.

We walk the streets of the city, hiring bicycle carts when we get tired. As we ride, I play a game with myself: I pick out the homeliest face I can find and try to get inside that person’s mind to see something beautiful. We pass a legless beggar and I stop our driver, climb out of the cart, and walk back to the man. He has a broad face very much like that of my friend Jim Harrison. We both smile. I bow. “Namaste,” I say.

Each evening, from the roof of the Holiday Inn, I listen to the hum of the city and watch swarms of birds descend into the trees. As they settle in for the night, giant coppery fruit bats leave their roosts and hatch across the sky. Dennis and I walk down to the temples along the Bogmati River, a tributary of the sacred Ganges. Along the bank, greasy smoke billows from a funeral pyre of eucalyptus as another Hindu is reduced to ashes and transported seaward. The fire crackles and the choking smoke floats downstream over naked children frolicking in the filthy water. I wonder if there is enough firewood to complete the job; the cadaver appears to have been a big man. A local guide tells me I may take pictures of the corpse, whose black toes now curl in the flames, but I decline the offer.

The effluvium of death sticks in my lacerated throat, a memory of the others who have gone this way before me: my comrades in Vietnam, relatives, cherished pets and lovers, Ed — all those for whom I grieve each day and haven’t quite let go of.

Far up in the sky, fork-tailed kites wheel against the thunderheads of a building monsoon. They speak their message clearly: You, Peacock, have been granted a second chance. You’ll have a bit more time to do good work, to live a good life and get ready to die a good death.

The billowing wall of clouds closes in on the vault of Asian sky. A last message floats down: “Don’t blow it, idiot.”

Four weeks later, I’m stumbling up a volcanic boulder field in southwestern Arizona, a bit weak but otherwise all right. Doctors tell me that the blood I lost in Nepal resulted from a tear in my esophagus caused by violent coughing. I could have bled to death like Ed, but unlike him I got lucky and the bleeding stopped.

The lesson is a big one, and I don’t want it to merely slide away, so I’m paying a visit to Ed’s grave in the Cabeza Prieta desert. I’ve brought along a plastic bag full of desert flower seeds to scatter over the site: Mexican poppy, larkspur, lupine, Indian paintbrush, brittlebrush. It’s not the right time of year for proper germination, but I’m not much of a farmer, so I’ll leave the sprouting of these seeds to chance.

A steady breeze cools the beads of sweat on my forehead. I pick my way over the boulder-littered ridge toward the grave, hopping from stone to stone, careful to not leave any tracks. Very few people come out here, and only a handful of friends and family know the exact location. A bureaucrat somewhere might decide he should be dug up and moved, and I don’t want old Ed disturbed.

When you write a book of change, you don’t get to choose the last chapter. It arrives on the wind, fast. A month ago I thought I was dying. I was packed for that big trip, ready to go, but then I didn’t leave. Edward Abbey figures prominently in this trip, looming larger in my life now that he is dead. I’m not sure why; perhaps something about the feral nature of our friendship back then, combined with the closeness of our families afterward. Beyond the grave, all was forgiven. Though I miss him, he taught me that there are things worth dying for, that “one’s death should mean something.” I learned that the letting go of life could be encased in utter vitality.

Indian petroglyphs decorate basaltic boulders along a rim of volcanic caprock. The country falls away to the west, huge empty desert valleys and distant mountain ranges. As far as I can see, there is not a human sign upon the land — no roads, no trails, no power lines. I take my time getting to the grave, enjoying the walking, noting little changes in vegetation since my last visit. I recall the very last time Ed smiled, when I told him where he was going to be buried. I smile, too, when I look around this place and remember the small favor, the final duty, performed for a friend: the rudimentary shovel work, the sweaty labor consummating trust. Then came the sign — seven buzzards soaring above, joined by three others, all ten banking over the volcanic rubble and gliding across the freshly dug grave.

I pull another plastic bag from my pack and kneel before a torote bush. I repair the wind chime that hangs near the site, adding thin crescents of clamshell to replace slivers of volcanic glass that have disappeared. I carefully reconnect a devil’s claw seed pod hung with bits of obsidian — an offering from Ed’s sister-in-law Susan and her husband, Steve, who helped me dig the hole. Deer and bighorn sheep have browsed the small ocotillo planted by the lead singer of Tucson’s best white band. The ground is littered with seashells, crystals, and many heart-shaped rocks placed here by children — Ed’s children, my children, our friends’ children.

For a long time I stare at one of the boulders. An inscription is roughly carved into the rock:
Edward Paul Abbey
January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989
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