Why My Wife Travels

Whenever I ask travelers why they travel, the talk is always about new cultures, marvelous views, different ways of seeing the world. But whenever I ask travelers about a specific trip, the emphasis is very different. Here’s an example.

In 1981 my wife—I didn’t know her then—went hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Annapurna region. She flew into Pokhara, Nepal, was driven a half hour out of town where she and her hiking companion, Dena, were put into the hands of six Sherpas.

She had read about such treks in a 1952 book by William O. Douglas, Associate Supreme Court Justice. The book was called Beyond the High Himalayas. His account attracted her. She picked the Nepalese big C. It was to be an eight-day c-shaped trek that skirted the bottom of the world’s highest mountain range.

The first night was miserable. By the time they reached their first campsite it had been raining yaks and dogs. Her Sherpas had chosen an open field next to a pigsty. That first night it rained so hard Nancy’s and Dena’s tent caved in. Everything was soaked. Her duffle bag with its load of once dry clothing utterly failed the waterproof test.

The second day dawned sunny. Nancy put on her wet clothes and followed the fateful C to their second campsite. It was only a four-hour walk. She lay out her clothes on the ground to dry, turned in early and prepared herself for the trek of a lifetime, the trek to Poon Hill and its view of the marvelous Himalayas.

The third day the sun shone as brightly as it had the day before. It was also the day Nancy got sick. It was a bad day to be sick. For one thing the hike was eight hours long. For another, it was not eight hours of level walking. It was down one mountainside to a river a thousand feet below and then another thousand feet back up on the other side.

Ordinarily this might not have developed into the catastrophe that it turned into. After all, she had drugs. This was something she had learned from the Douglas book. Take a hefty supply of drugs with you because the villagers you brush up against along the way will assume you are a doctor. They will come to you with headaches, leg aches, backaches, boils, and sores, an olio of ailments straight out of Job. To their everlasting consternation Nancy and Dena each thought the medical supplies were the other’s responsibility. Consequently what little they brought had been given away by the time Nancy fell ill. All that was left was one Sudafed. Not even an aspirin.

Now she had to face eight hours of relentless down and up trekking. She had a fever. Her limbs were shaking. And the tree on the other side of the valley, the one that marked their campsite for the third night, seemed to recede with each trembling step.

“This is the worst day of my life,” she thought as she fingered the lone pill in her pocket. Then she thought, “But tomorrow might be even worse. I’d better save the Sudafed until tomorrow.” In the end she left Nepal with that pill still in her pocket. She had anticipated that each subsequent day would be worse than the last.

She told me that as the morning wore on she hoped she would slip off the edge of the trail, coming to rest in a spot so remote there would be no hope of rescue. She literally felt like dying.

At the bottom of the valley they stopped for lunch. Nancy couldn’t eat what the Sherpas had prepared. In their attempts at mimicking American fare, they had managed to mingle the worst of both cuisines, American and Nepalese, pancakes that tore potholes in their stomachs.

Among Nancy’s most vibrant memories of that trip is a plate of spaghetti. It had been served to two strangers at one of the rest stops along the way. Nancy stared at it with such intensity that even today, twenty years later, she remembers wanting to kill for it. She settled for potatoes, rice and a Coca Cola. The coke, she said, was a godsend. She credits it with getting her up the other side of the mountain before she collapsed into her bedroll for the night.

When I ask about her eight-day trip in Nepal, what I get back is a litany of catastrophes, not a paean to the glories of nature. Why is that? She told me that her climb up Poon Hill to see the panorama of the Himalayas was breath-taking, but she didn’t say it with half the enthusiasm she put into climbing up out of the valley of Death with a 102ยบ fever.

At the end of the trip as she came around the last bend in the Nepalese C, suddenly she saw the Landover waiting to drive her back to Pokhara and the plane home. She raised both arms in a victory salute.

“We made it,” she cried. Perhaps that is why she travels.

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