Like a meteor shower, it arose out of the darkness without warning, invaded the beam of our headlights, and engulfed the view though the windshield of our Land Rover. It was a Yak.
Caroline was the first to see it from where she sat with me in the back seat. I saw nothing—too busy reading or writing in my journal and not fully awake yet. We had a long drive ahead of us, so we had risen hours before the sun did. On the sidewalk and under a streetlight, we ate a quick breakfast of veggie mo-mos and milk-tea, then started driving south.
We were returning to Nepal from Tibet. Kathmandu was only 80km (50 miles) away, but we were told to start early because the road in Nepal was in bad shape and it would take us all day to get there. No surprise in that. We had never seen a road in Nepal that wasn’t in bad shape, but still we thought that the gloomy projections must be an exaggeration—it just wasn’t that far. As it turned out, however, they were right.
Before we even crossed the China-Nepal border, we had to get over Guntang La pass, with an elevation of more than 17,000 feet. The mountain pass was on the Chinese side, so that portion of highway was better maintained than in Nepal, where the very idea of pavement was usually an exercise in wishful thinking. The road itself was smooth, but it undulated like a coiled snake, folding back and forth on itself in a cartoonish fashion, like we were characters driving through a picture book by Dr Seuss. We played chicken with huge trucks laboring up or careening down the steep inclines, competing for space on the thin ribbon of asphalt that separated the vertical mountain face on one side from the dark void on the other. The fog parted enough for us to see that the road had no shoulder and only an occasional token guardrail to protect us from the abyss. Into all that mix of obstacles were added free-range, wandering yaks.
Yaks are a common road hazard in Tibet. Our guide, Lobsang, tried to protect his eyes by constantly wearing sunglasses (even at meals or in the darkest monasteries) because of an injury to them he suffered as a child. What had happened was had run his motorcycle into a yak.
When the yak materialized in front of us, like an apparition, the only thing about Kelsang La that mattered were his reflexes. Carol cried, “Watch Out!”, and he immediately veered left just in time for us to pass between two large beasts as they casually lumbered across the highway, oblivious to how close they had come to annihilation. It was over almost before it started—like an avalanche—and we drove on in stunned silence.
Crossroads: Each of Us
There are moments in life when everything can pivot one direction or another. In truth, many points in life are that way, but few of mine (or the yak’s) have been as stark and dramatic as that near miss on a faraway mountainside.
Our lives are created out of these pivots, these crossroads. They are moments of truth—times when it all turns on a dime—and they determine our destiny. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere and seem beyond our control; sometimes it’s a decision point of our own making. Either way, they are branch-points where the one life we do have takes leave of all the lives we could have had. We’ll never know the exact misfortunes we’ve avoided by going down this street and not that one, nor the unbidden graces of our mistakes and brokenness. If we remember that every event, forced or chosen, make us who we are, then our lived lives don’t have to become a protracted regret for the lives we will never live.
We rarely anticipate our moments of truth and don’t plan for them. One of mine appeared out of nowhere in the form of a yak. Kelsang La steered away without ever stepping on the brake pedal—he didn’t have time. In so doing, he chose our future for us. Our location was so remote and inaccessible that any of the other potential futures could only have been catastrophic. Sometimes we see disaster looming but are helpless to do anything to stop it—like the initial moments of a bicycle wreck—and then other times, like that one, are when we are out of danger before we even knew we were in it.
The remainder of the drive was no less eventful, but in a different way. Once we crossed into Nepal, we joined a new driver and two other passengers and drove on a rickety import that matched the degraded condition of the new highway. The rugged topography and rough terrain were something out of a different era, as if we were pioneers slogging across inhospitable terrain in a covered wagon. We left any paved surface behind us in China, and in some places the earthen roadbed was canyoned with ruts so deep that it became a miniature version of the surrounding landscape of mountain ridges and gorges. It was as if we had entered a monster truck rally driving a decrepit import.
The Himalayan rain shadow happens when the monsoon weather systems from the south ride the tectonic uplift of the mountains to reach the higher elevations. The thinner atmosphere causes them to deplete themselves of moisture and dump torrential rains on the south slopes while leaving the Tibetan plateau to the north arid and devoid of vegetation.
From the Chinese border station we descended into a verdant river valley lined by towering cliffs and thick pine forests with a lush understory of ferns and flowers. The vertical, green slopes were laced with spectacular waterfalls that plunged into a raging torrent of whitewater that would have been packed with kayakers had it been in the States. Small villages clung to ridiculous locations on the terraced walls of the canyon and the leafy overgrowth was so dense and tangled that we might have been on a location for an episode of LOST.
In places the valley took on a magical, Shangri-la quality, like it was enchanted. There was mist threading through the trees and a rainbow on every corner, and the gorge was also said to be haunted by the spirit of Milarepa, a Buddhist yogi and sorcerer, whose meditation cave rested in a narrow cleft in a side canyon.
It takes a long time to cross the Himalayas in a world-weary hatchback so we had plenty of opportunity to take it all in as we watched outside the window of our vehicle. We missed Lobsang and our wide-ranging conversations. While driving in Tibet, our talks included his explanations of the sites along the way or Tibetan history, observations of the land and the creatures we encountered, discussions of current events and politics, and inquiries of the deeper meaning beneath it all. Lobsang once told us, “I don’t like all this karma stuff. It’s so harsh and lonely, with nobody to appeal to.” Lobsang was both a teacher and a student, eager for information about the world, but with little access to it from inside a repressive regime. He once told us, “It would be helpful if you would share some of your knowledge and wisdom with me”.
But I think he was the wise one. Lobsang, a nomad from the windswept steppes of the high plateau, who grew up in a tent and learned to ride a horse at the same age as he learned to walk, once said that the many monasteries in Tibet were built in places that were beautiful, but that, in truth, humans are unable to add anything to what nature and God have already created.
After ten hours and fifty grueling miles, darkness closed in and it began to rain. The lights of Kathmandu came into view and the traffic picked up exponentially. That was when our driver really came into his own.
Driving the busy streets of Nepal can be a combination of extreme sport and art form, where success and survival require great skill and raw courage. To pass or not to pass was always the burning question, and when we did, it might have been on either side—left or right—of the vehicle in front of us. Passing lanes were as make-believe as Neverland and timing was everything. We passed with abandon, our driver not deterred by curves in the highway where we couldn’t see the oncoming traffic. From a total blindspot, he abruptly darted into the other lane where, miraculously, another car was not barreling toward us. Other times, utilizing some type of sixth sense, he chose not to go for it and suddenly retreated back into position just in time to avoid a head-on collision. I never saw the truck coming towards us, but somehow he knew it was there.
We did not run out of gas. On fumes and a prayer—and against all odds—we arrived at the Yak and Yeti Hotel.
The Nepalis don’t customarily shake hands unless it’s to placate westerners. Neither do they typically say thank you, holding the belief that it’s better to express thanks through their actions and do something in return. By that time, Caroline and I were numb; any residual emotion from the grueling day had been left behind us on the road. Yet we felt genuine gratitude for our safe arrival and thanked our driver profusely. Privately, Caroline said she couldn’t decide if he deserved a medal or a traffic ticket.
Crossroads: All of Us
Crossroads are places where “what-is” and “what-might-have-been” forever part ways. Branch points happen to each of us at various times in our lives, and sometimes they occur to all of us at the same time—like during a pandemic. Last year, the whole world collided with a virus. Nothing is the same; some things never will be.
It’s too early to tell, but 2020 might rival 1941 as a year that will live in infamy. In the arenas of public health and politics, it’s as if we have crossed a threshold and there is no turning back.
We can’t always control what happens, but when change and choice converge—for both people or nations—it’s what we choose to do next that matters.
Q. How are we to treat others?
A. There are no others.
There’s a Hopi saying that “One finger cannot lift a pebble.” Usually we accomplish more if we work together. In the movie Independence Day, the nations of the world finally came together when threatened by aliens from outer space. People can unite when they are faced with a common enemy and it could have been that way for us if we had set our differences aside confront the shared threat of a rampant virus. We have seen glimpses of that, but not enough of them, I think.
Still, as I stand at this crossroad, I’m grateful for those who have put their fear and anger aside long enough to acknowledge that we’ve got a problem and that we truly are in it together, for all those who have worked hard to deal with the gravity of the situation, and for those who have stood up for science in the face of uninformed opposition.
Living with the Earth, not just on it
The serenade of the oriole or plaintive lament of the mourning dove; the discs of ice jockeying down the river like bumper cars; the Jack-in-the-Pulpit that returns each spring to the same spot that only I know; the sun’s seasonal traverse back and forth along the skyline at sunrise, like a celestial metronome; the mature oak and sycamore trees along the trail I frequent, grandparents to the other forest creatures; the blue butterflies, called azures, flitting up from their secret places, floating past me in their denim dresses, not recognizing me as anything different from the leaves on the trees, as if I belong.
With deep and deliberate attention, and from a state of wonder, I notice what is below the horizon of my usual perception and feel more rooted in the deeper reality and what is true and enduring.