Nothing but snowy dunes and the clear blue sky lay before me as I peered up at the summit of my journey—Torung La Pass. Three weeks of walking had led me to this moment. Three weeks of tropical waterfalls, wooded pine, wild marijuana, stupas … three wonderful weeks. The air felt thin, fifty percent thinner than normal, precisely. I stopped for a moment and leaned heavily on my one good walking stick. The other had broken along the way. Cheap equipment bought in Pokhara before the journey. Everything was cheap in Nepal. Everything. Up ahead, I noticed that UK, a young Swede I had met along the way to the pass, was walking steadily toward the top. For the better part of the journey, I had joked about his brash foolhardy nature, predicting all the while that it would catch up to him. It had in the end, and his head ached from altitude sickness—a symptom of walking too fast and not breaking enough. It had nearly claimed two in our group. Yet there he was leading the charge. The other poor fellow to feel the jitters was a German man by the name of Max. He was wandering in the back somewhere, behind the five Israeli men and the German girl, Stephi. She was a fun girl, full of life, and slow as hell up a mountain. Blame it on the camera. I had begun to notice on my way that those with the SLR’s were the slowest. Every leaf, every shrub, every movement of the wind, and her eyes would glimmer, her mouth would perce in anticipation, so eager to capture a moment more valuable for her in memory than in the moment. That was my view of pictures at least. My camera was a snapshot, and the only movement it made was bashing around in my pants pocket. The lens broke on the walking stick, in case you were wondering.
I turned around and looked down the path to see if she was in sight yet along the trail, to no avail. The only person close enough to see was Noam, a short, dark-skinned Israeli man from the region north of Jerusalem. He was an emotional man, and showed his fears and his criticism as much as any actor in a romance novel, something I had gotten a dose of more and more as the days drew on. We had fought on and off over the past few days, mostly over food, namely candy bars. On the mountain, when men and beast plod along without comfort, heaving in toil, the small joys become immensely important—Hot water, warm tea, and you guessed it, candy bars. For the eight of us in the trekking party, the Marylin Monroe of candy was the wild and elusive Twix—sought after, drooled over, fought to the teeth for. In fact, in the twilit hours the night before our “summiting day,” in the unforgivingly snowy regions of the mountainside, a fight erupted over the chocolaty, crunchy, caramel wafer. It was strange and passive-aggressive to boot as well.
It all started with a staring contest and a bet. Before I start, I will say that Cabin Fever is real and deadly to new friendships. With that said, our tale begins in the cafeteria room of a jankily constructed log cabin hotel, 900 meters below the pass. It is a quarter past nine o’clock, and already eyes all around are growing heavy. Mouths are beginning to yawn in anticipation of that dreamy goodness that befits well-deserved rest. But still a few linger and laugh and play games. I sit at the head of the table, with a smile hearty and sincere to the last, as I watch Noam and Stephi stare down each other in a friendly staring contest. I notice Maxxi staring at me and shuffling in his seat to catch my attention. I look into his big grey Bavarian eyes and the game begins. We are locked. In a moment, I wane and a smatter of uncontrolled blinks rocket from my countenance. We laugh. I realize right then that I am bad at this game, and shake my head in disbelief. Schmelling, another Israeli—the ringleader of the Jews, if you will—smiles and winks at me. I am taken aback by his dashing good looks and congressionally styled hairdo. He looks like he could be an extra in Grease, standing next to a dropped ’44 Chevy, but for the black-rimmed square lens glasses covering his eyes. Like the lobbyist that he is, his eyes move about the room, seeking to entertain and envelop all. He winks at Tal, who doesn’t respond due to extreme bake-edness. He doesn’t look like he’s quite there, sitting on the other side of the table with his hat drawn down and his chin on his chest.
Noam beats Stephi and bursts out of his seat in victorious jubilation. I am stunned and surprised by his energy at so late an hour. I wonder what effects the marijuana must have had on him as he slaps his ass and gallops around the room. I still can’t help but smile at his antics, which seem to lighten the room for the moment. Then he points at me and yells, “I duel you.” One eyebrow leaps up, and then the rest of me does as I wonder at his meaning. “Let’s stare,” he spouts out. I smile and position myself before him. “But wait,” he says. “Let’s make it interesting. The loser buys a Twix.” My smile gains a foot lengthwise. The game has just become serious in a moment. My mouth waters at the chance of sugar before bedtime.
I am a cheap man too, just to throw that out there, so I must not lose. I psych myself up for the competition and ponder the stakes. Twix have inflated with every 100 metre level elevation in the Annapurna Trail, and what was once 40 Nepali rupees is now 200. (80 rp = 1 US dollar) I am on a budget, and have spent my candy ration for the day. I stretch for the fight. I blink feverishly for three seconds, hold for three, then blink feverishly for three more. I scratch the scratchy parts of my gigantic Lawrence nose and get ready. Stephi leans in and begins the count. “3,2, 1… Game on bitches.”
We are underway. Tal starts to make a face, but Shmelling slaps him in the face. “No faces, you idiot,” he says like a serpent. “Let them make the faces.” Noam clenches his big brown nose, and wavelike wrinkles appear at the corners of his eyes. It looks funny, and my eyes have to widen to catch myself. My mouth twitches, but avoids running away with the game-plan. Too close. I dash into the offensive, and shove my index finger up my nose, burying it nearly to the knuckle. All that huddle around guffaw like hill-billies caught banging a goat in the back of a barn, but Noam appears unaffected. His mouth moves. His massive, deep eyebrows furrow. His forehead creases fold and unfold. I am unaffected, however, for I have smartly locked all of my attention on a mole in the middle of his left cheek. Focus, I tell myself. Focus. Then Schmelling says, “Make a real face, Mike.” Is that a challenge, SHHHHH-mare-ling, and I pull out the big guns.
I’m talking about my penis.
That was a joke.
My right hand goes to work, and grips and pulls my nostrils up hard. My left hand, alternately, pulls the bags under my eyes down. The result is startling. I have transformed, and now have the appearance of an ogre. Noam blinks, rolls his head back, and falls over laughing. I have won the lottery.
The lights go out. The music stops. I stand alone—Achilles, with a crying Trojan under the heel of his fancy fighting sandals.
The lights turn on, and I sit down with a content smile, awaiting my prize. Noam’s laughter settles and he begins to talk to Stephi. I look at Schmelling and Maxxi and we fist bump together. Then I wait for Noam to get up. I look at Noam. He continues to talk. I look at Schmelling. I look at Max. I look at Noam. He is still talking, and not getting up.
“Teli Twix! (Give me Twix in Hebrew)” I yell ruefully at Noam. That gets his attention. Schmelling laughs and repeats it back at him. Noam turns away and continues to chatter. “Teli Twix!” I repeat. I look at Shmelling. He mouths something to me in Hebrew and urges me forward. I yell , “Ackshov! (Now)” He looks at me and throws his hands up derisively as if to say, I give up shithead, and stands up and I nod in affirmation as he scurries off to the front desk to get my winnings.
The group goes on to talk amongst themselves. I smile agreeably, but stray continually towards Noam, who slowly goes about his work. Impatience builds, as I salivate all over the table like the purple spray-painted dog in the corner. Finally he turns and walks back, holding the golden wrapper in his hands. I smile and daydream ahead a few moments. I am holding the chocolate goodness in my hand. All are cheering with envious eyes. I sink my teeth in. Oooo.
He moves over to me, and turns. Suspicion mounts instantly. My hands press against the table. He sits back down at his seat and opens the Twix. My heart gives out.
I try to fathom what is happening, what conspiracy is afoot to drag me away from the one thing on this god forsaken mountain that has any and all value. Is God mad at me? He pulls out a Twix. The gates of Hell are opening in the floorboards, and smoke is rising. He breaks a piece off and hands it to Tal. Fire erupts from within, and I am feeling the heat. Then he fucks up, and starts to pass the Twix around.
“Teli Twix!” I yell with outstretched hands. A heavy drum beats in the background. I repeat myself, but he continues to pass.
“Hold on,” he says. My head twists as harshly as a crane in a tornado.
“What is he doing?” I ask Schmelling. He looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
Max tries to hand me a piece. I look him in the eye and shake my head. “No. I’m good,” I say as obstinately as possible.
“What?” Noam asks loudly.
“I don’t want a piece man. That’s what I said.”
“What do you mean, man. Take it.”
“The bet was that the loser buys the winner a Twix.”
“No,” he retorts. “I said that the loser buys everyone a Twix.
“Hey, Schmelling,” I hearken over to his side, “Did you hear him say that?”
“No, Mike. I didn’t hear him say that,” he says spitting the words out, along with a mouthful of Twix.
Noam curses at Schmelling in Hebrew, then stares me down.
“Eat the Twix,” he demands of me.
“No, man. I’m sorry, and I don’t want to cause any problems, but I don’t want it now. It was all mine, and I’m not taking crumbs.”
“Fuck you man,” he says to me. “You’re a bitch.”
What did that motha fucka just say? I think. I catch Max in the corner of my eye staring at me awkwardly, waiting on my response. I Scratch my head and grin at Schmelling. His face is red and he has a guilty, crumb filled smile on his face. Stephi looks utterly befuddled. Tal is asleep.
“Woe Noam. That isn’t cool,” I retort like a boy scout.
Noam laughs at me. “You know what. You’re a fucking monkey. And you,” he says, pointing at Schmelling, “are an asshole.” Schmelling puts up his hands in surrender.
“Woe man. Calm down,” I say. “I just don’t want your Twix.”
“Fuck you man,” he repeats and points at me. I look away as he scoffs and sits down. I notice that the aura of the room is an awful melancholic shade of blue. I continue to stand. The air feels colder. My palms feel clammy. I feel awkward.
“This is awkward,” I say weakly. I had to leave. “I’m going to get a blanket.” I move away slowly. Max starts to talk to Stephi. Schmelling’s eyes trail off. Noam’s shoulders relax. As I go to the front desk and ask for another blanket, I cannot shrug off, much less fathom what had so quickly escalated. The only thing I can feel pulsing through me, without a doubt, is doubt, plain and simple. What the fuck just happened? I wonder. Something strange had definitely occurred. Why? It was awkward as hell. But what exactly was it? Where did it come from? Was I to blame? I notice myself then, standing alone. I look over at them. They are busy talking. Loneliness settles on me like fog on lake water in the morning. I grab the blanket, walk over, and say goodnight quickly and walk away. They look at me with puzzled faces, but utter no disagreements.
The air outside hammers my face as I step out onto the patio. I run to my room to avoid getting my socks wet, to no avail. They are soaked. I sit on my bed and my head swirls over the proceedings, and what to do to solve the feelings that are now cutting through me like a sawblade on oak. Slowly, I can feel the fever come over me, as if I am tracking it in the snow. I am an outsider. I stand up. I should leave. I should pack up and leave. Those people in there won’t care anyways. It’s over. I think for a few moments, weighing the situation. Outside the window, snow is falling heavily. No. It is the middle of the night, and I will not survive if I start walking in ten hours before sun-up. I sit back down, undress and curl into my sleeping bag.
I start to wonder at the symptoms of Cabin Fever. Most likely, feeling like an outsider is the first. Then paranoia. Then anger. I definitely felt paranoid that everyone thought I was a crazyass. I was angry at Noam for flipping out at me. Maybe I was going crazy. I buried my head and tried for the life of me to zen the fuck out and slow my heart-rate down. It was beating so fast that it felt like a hummingbird was flying around inside me, poking the inside of my chest again and again.
Twenty minutes later, a knock came at the door, and Noam, Schmelling, and Nimrod entered. Nimrod was the last Israeli. I didn’t look at them, but said faintly, “Hey,” without giving away the tension in my voice.
Noam responded. “Hey man. I just wanted to say that … well, that we’re cool, whatever happened. Ya?”
“Ya, man. For sure.” I responded back at them. A few moments later, the door shut.
A minute passed, and Stephi came in and started to undress to go to bed. Her and I were sharing the room, and it had never seemed so quiet before. Until that moment, we had talked for hours on end every night about everything. I felt betrayed by her silence at the table more than anyone. As that hum of nothingness hanged in the air, I wondered whether or not to speak. Moments passed as I deliberated. Suddenly, I realized that she hadn’t done anything. What did I expect? She just chose not to defend me. That means that I was being an ass, plain and simple. That’s all. I was an ass. And now I feel like a crazyass stuck on a mountain and won’t talk to anyone. So, lying there in my bed, I did the only thing I could. I opened my mouth and blurted out an affirmation. “That got real crazy back there, didn’t it?”
“Ya,” she replied out of the bleakness. “It did.”
“What happened to me? I was such an asshole!”
Then she let out a long gentle sigh, and said, “No, you weren’t.” Already, I could feel the worry melting away. “That just got crazy,” she continued. “We’re all acting a little nuts up here. It’s this place!”
“Ya!” I shouted. Thank God she understood. “I feel like I’m going crazy up in this goddamned place!” Jesus, had she hit the nail on the head with that statement. We both laughed.
“I know. It’s like, being up here for so long, walking for hours on end every day, for the past two or three weeks. It’s just a lot to handle.”
As the night went on, we talked and talked, as we did before, and let out everything. We talked about the mountain, our trekking party, and branched off into everything else. I told her about my background, family life… and even went so far as to explain why I had felt the need to escape the US and my family in the first place. It was like finding a hand in the darkness. That night, after we had exhausted ourselves talking, I stayed up scribbling away in my journal until my flashlight went out.
The next day, I woke up early and sought out Noam. He was eating a bagel in the main den, and greeted me warmly. I apologized profusely to him and everyone else for my behavior the night before. We hugged it out and all laughed about it. Then we ate, and set off on the trail’s grueling finale.
On the last bits of the hike, Noam and I began silently completing to see who would get up to the summit first. I saw a flash in his eyes as he looked up at me from around the bend, and I straightened myself out. I’m not giving into him on the last stretch, I told myself. So I took a deep breath and turned around to continue up the last stretch. UK and Schmelling were already way ahead of me, and gaining space every second, so I pushed off and started to tread.
The ground was icy, and the upturn was so slick that I could feel my feet slide ever so slightly. I dug in step by step and planted my stick in the soft powder to my side. The path was as narrow as my hip, and directly to my right was a shear drop for about 300 meters. I looked down and scoffed at it. Traversing landslide areas, rickety bridges that swung from side to side, and running across pebbly trails that dissolved right under your boot had prepared me for the last stretch. I smiled at the sheen coming off the mountain face and the clear horizon spreading out everywhere before my eyes, spat off the side, and soldiered on undaunted. Moments passed, and the cliff-face disappeared behind me. It was the last stretch of the hike. I could see bright red, yellow, blue, and green colors waving a hundred meters in front of me. The end. My walk turned into a gallop. The waves gave way and parted suddenly, the hike leveled off, and the pass opened up. I had climbed Cabin Fever Mountain.
Sitting along the pass was a small wooden tea house to the left and a stupa to the right. The stupa was small and made of stones, unlike the other stupas along the way that were plastered on the outside and painted with white and gold. Attached to it was a bevy of prayer flags in every color. Prayer flags for safety, for victory, for affirmation. I walked over and pulled out mine from my coat pocket. It was a grey flag I had seen lying on the trail, tattered and worn. It looked like a bad dish rag, and it was perfect. I was so happy I kissed it before I tied it on. I didn’t have to say any prayers. Everything seemed to speak for itself up there. I don’t know if it was for a lack of oxygen in the air, but I felt nothing but euphoria—beautiful, unadulterated, euphoria.
As we sat around in the heavy wind and drank tea, sang, and took picture after picture, I kept thinking that I had to be blessed. A man like me—Michael Querin—up on the mountain, looking out at Nepal. I had to be blessed.
And I was. Everything you could imagine had happened on that unforgiving mountain in the Himalayas. My crew and I had laughed, and toiled, and nearly killed each other. All the while, the one thing that kept sticking out in my mind was that life was on that mountain. All around was life, and it burst out more plainly than any other time in my life. Every moment that I breathed in the air, I could feel the spirit of the earth rushing in and out of me, invigorating my soul, enlivening my spirit. It was enchanting. I do believe that I am in love with the Annapurna Circuit.