Peter Barlow

 
 

AT LOBUCHE

 

 In theory, this was a bucket list trip.  Sure, children and young adults the world over dream at least once of climbing Mount Everest, standing at the summit, looking out over Nepal in one direction and Tibet in the other, and saying, “I am above all of you.  I’m at the top of the world.”  With age, though, comes the fading of the dream, the realization that you aren’t fit enough or dedicated enough, or you’ve developed other priorities like starting a family or eating, and climbing mountains became something other people did.

Phil Wydra stopped next to a large boulder and took a deep breath.  It didn’t help as much as he hoped it would, but after eight days on foot and at steadily increasing altitudes he wasn’t as surprised as he was on day one.  Disappointed, yes, but not surprised.  He wasn’t sure how far above sea level he was—the sherpas only gave the numbers in meters and he’d never learned the conversion rate—but it was higher than he’d ever been.  Then again, he’d only been to Denver once and into the mountains not at all.  Dayton was less than a thousand feet above sea level and wasn’t especially known for its hilly terrain, so most of his day-to-day was spent in far less taxing terrain than this.

“Are you okay, sara?”  His sherpa had gotten ahead of him for the umpteenth time, but then he was used to the altitude.  The sherpa called him the Nepali word for “mister” out of deference; Phil tried to get him to stop and use his first name but gave up partway through the first day.

“Yes, Dhonu.  Just need a minute.”  Phil needed more than a minute and they both knew it, but time up here was something of an abstract concept, like the ability to take deep breaths.

Dhonu nodded and fidgeted with the straps on the yak he was leading.  “It is not much farther, sara.  Just the other side of this ridge.  Another fifteen minutes perhaps.”

Phil grabbed a kerchief from his breast pocket and wiped his brow.  Somehow the rag hadn’t soaked through yet despite this being the fifth time he’d used it since setting out from Dingboche that morning.  “You say that like it’s nothing.”

The sherpa frowned.  “I thought your sickness had passed.”

“It has, mostly.  But I’m not as young as you, or as fit.  Eight days walking at altitude isn’t going to overcome forty years of overindulgences.”

“True.  But you do seem to be doing better.”

Phil smiled.  He figured Dhonu was angling for a tip when they got back to Lukla.  He needn’t have bothered; one was coming anyway.  “Fifteen minutes, you say?”

Dhonu was as good as his word.  The path along and around the ridge was level, and just over fifteen minutes later they were at the edge of the village of Lobuche.  It wasn’t much to look at.  The high winds and the ever-present snow and dust made keeping a bazaar problematic, so most of the activities were inside.  A small field of tents gave way to a small spread of two- and three-story hotels that looked out of place.  Phil said as much to Dhonu.

.  Every year more and more people decide they want to try Sagarmatha.  The first of these—” he pointed at a green two-story affair just beyond the tent field “—went up five years ago.  It was filled every night.  After that came the rest of them.  Before that there were three or four inns, but they were so overcrowded they had thirty people a night sleep on their common room floors.”

Phil grimaced.  “No privacy at all.”

“The inns kept running out of coffee, and toilet paper sold for five dollars a roll.  Even with all the new places, there still is not enough room for all the trekkers, and some people do not want to pay anyway, so they stay in their tents.”

“We’re headed for the Friendly Yeti.  I made reservations before I left Kathmandu.”

The hotel was a newer three-story built into the side of one of the hills, although that description applied to another five hotels.  It was differentiated from the rest by its color, a pale blue that just about matched the sky, and on the windows were yellow shutters.  The marquee over the front door had a picture of a yeti, drawn to comic effect, giving everyone who passed by a jovial thumbs-up.  Dhonu unloaded two bags of supplies and clothing from the yak before leading it off in search of a stable.  Phil took the bags inside and found the check-in counter.

“Welcome to the Friendly Yeti,” said the man behind it.

Phil registered that the clerk wasn’t Nepali at all but very much Caucasian, and spoke with an accent that couldn’t have been more Midwestern if it tried, but he let the observation pass.  Phil also registered that it was the man he’d specifically come to Lobuche to meet, but he let that pass too for the moment.

“Reservation for two rooms.  Last name Wydra.  I have ID if it’ll help,” Phil said, gesturing toward the bags.

“Afraid I’ll have to ask.  People like stealing rooms on the trail, especially if a proper mattress is involved.”

Phil opened one of the bags and felt down just far enough to find his shaving kit.  He pulled it out and opened it.  Sitting on top was his passport.

“You keep your passport in with your shaving kit?” the innkeeper said.

“Well, if we get mugged, I don’t think they’d be coming for my aftershave.”

The innkeeper laughed.  “That’s the first sensible answer I’ve heard in a while.  A couple of weeks back I asked a man for his ID.  He unzips the front of his parka—okay, seen that before, inside pocket—nope.  Sticks his hand right down the front of his pants and plucks his passport out of his shorts.”

“Why on Earth—?”

“Said he nearly lost it the day before and wanted to keep it in a spot he wouldn’t forget.  Smelled of crotch sweat.  I wanted to put some plastic gloves on before I touched it but I figured the guy would get offended.  Okay.”  While he said all of this, the innkeeper tapped some buttons on a computer and pulled two keys from a rack.  “Second floor, rooms 212 and 214.  Simple mattress, no sheets, use your own sleeping bags, and pack out your trash.  We have a communal dinner in half an hour, and it should be getting dark not too long after that.”

Phil thanked him and stepped back outside to wait for Dhonu.  That was certainly the man he’d come here for.  He’d stared at the picture every evening since Lukla, so he recognized the face.  It wasn’t clean-shaven like in the picture, and the man was carrying a few pounds that he wasn’t before, but— that was him.  It felt too easy, Phil thought.  It felt like he should have had to try harder to find him, but his research was spot on.

 Dhonu walked up a moment later.  “Are you okay, sara?”

Phil looked at him for a moment, then handed him a key.  “We’re on the second floor.  Let’s get our stuff upstairs.”

The room was as spartan as advertised.  The carpet on the floor was short and barely padded, the mattress perched on what may as well have been a deep shelf.  Next to the bed, a small desk and a wooden chair.  Phil checked the communal bathroom down the hall:  three toilet stalls and a sink, and in a small room beyond that, two shower stalls, none of it segregated by sex, not that that mattered; the layers of intimacy up here were made up of heavy parkas more than emotion.  He returned to his room, unpacked his bedroll, and set an alarm for an hour later.

By the time Phil returned to the common room, the sun had set and taken all of the surface heat with it.  A decent size wood stove heated the room enough that he unzipped his vest jacket and took a seat at the unused end of one of the communal tables.  Across the room, Dhonu sat with other sherpas, which was fine; the two of them had nothing in common except this trip, and the conversation between them was long since exhausted.  A woman, local in appearance and attire, brought him a bowl of rice with vegetables and a long neck, and he tucked in.  He took his time, taking entire minutes between bites and drinks; there was nowhere for him to go and all night to get there, he figured, so what was the rush?  By the time he finished, the common room had cleared out.  He was so far gone in his own mental space that he hadn’t even noticed Dhonu leaving, but what did that matter?  He was brought out of his reverie by a hand on his shoulder; it was the innkeeper.  “I can take those if you’re finished.”

“Oh.  Yes, thank you.”  Phil handed his bowl off.  The man took it and moved farther down the table.

“Seemed like you were off somewhere else just now,” the man said.  “Everything okay?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” Phil said.  He looked around the room again to make sure no one else was there.  Once he was satisfied, he said, “I was just thinking about some stuff.”

The man snorted.  “Well, if you’re looking for tips on Everest, I’m not your man.  I’ve been up to Base Camp exactly twice and that’s all.  I’m no mountain climber.”

“Sure, you are,” Phil said.  “You made it all the way to Lobuche.  From sea level, you’re already something like three-quarters of the way there.”  He paused for a second, tensing himself for something bad.  “And not everyone manages to get this far away from their wife and kids, do they, Mr. McCoy?”

The man paused for a moment, then chuckled.  “I knew it.”

This was not the response Phil expected.  “You knew what?”

McCoy put down the bowls he’d been stacking.  “The thing about Everest is that it draws two types of people:  the sort of people who are athletic by nature, who train for races, marathons, and Ironmans, who push themselves because that’s just the sort of thing they do; and the people who are trying to strike something off their bucket list, who have this insane idea that, hey, I’ve got money and time on my hands, all this is is walking and climbing and anybody can do that, so why can’t I?  Lately, of course, there’s developed a third group of people.”

“Oh?”

He paused.  “Reporter?”

Phil’s jaw dropped.

“My Nepali still isn’t great, but I heard your man say you weren’t going any farther up than Lobuche.  There used to be only one reason anybody ever came here, and that’s Everest.  These days, there’s two.  So, who are you with?  Not that it matters.  You’re not leaving here with anything but a confirmation of my whereabouts.  Forgive me being interested in who would send a reporter eight days into the mountains just to track me down.”

Phil dropped his head for a moment then cleared his throat.  “Right idea, wrong profession.  I’m a private investigator.  Your wife sent me.”

McCoy pursed his lips.  “Been sleeping well?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“On the hike up here.  Been sleeping well?”

“Not especially, no.”

“That’s the altitude.  Asleep, awake, makes no difference.  The body has trouble aspirating.  Not nearly enough oxygen to go around.  Makes a person sleep longer because it takes more to restore the energy.  That’s why most climbers are in bed by seven, and I bet you’re starting to drag as it is.”

Now that he mentioned it, Phil was starting to get groggy, and his motions felt like they were happening at half speed.

“Go to bed,” McCoy said.  “You’re here for another two days.  We can talk later.”

— ◊ —

The trick to acclimatization is climbing to a point higher than the one you intend to sleep at and then go back down to that first level.  Particularly at the higher altitudes, this helps the body get used to less oxygen.  The blood’s already thicker, and blood pressure maybe two-thirds of what it would be at sea level, so doing this is important.  On long treks such as the one from Lukla to Everest Base Camp, rest days are built in specifically so the body can adjust.  Phil had had two already, one each at Namche Bazaar and Tengboche, so he knew of their importance.  Without them, the small headaches he had would be significantly worse, his movements slower, and his ability to continue severely hampered.  He’d planned staying two nights in Lobuche anyway, so this extra day he spent getting used to the altitude all over again by setting out on the path—such as it was—to Gorak Shep and Everest.  He walked out of camp for about half an hour, climbing most of the way, and stopped at a quiet bend in the path with a nice view onto some of the other mountains.  Phil set out a blanket, sat down, and pulled out the articles he’d brought about the innkeeper he’d come to find.

Until two years earlier there was absolutely nothing special about Alan McCoy.  He’d grown up the second of three children, the son of a banker and a church secretary.  His interests growing up involved sports, but beyond a couple of years playing Little League or Pop Warner football, he didn’t pursue any of them with any real vigor.  His grades were decent enough to get him into a good university, which he graduated with a slightly better than B average, enough to earn the mildest of praises and a minimum of condemnation.  He married a few years after to a woman who was equally as unspectacular, and they both took up positions in middle management at large corporations.  In due course, they had two children, one boy and one girl, who were showing signs of being every bit as unimportant to world peace and the global economy as their parents.

Alan McCoy, it could safely be said, would have finished his life in relative anonymity had he not, on an otherwise average June morning, walked out of his front door and laid down beneath the oak tree on his front lawn, two-piece suit and all.  It wasn’t a big or fancy gesture to anyone but him, it didn’t happen in front of a stadium in front of a packed crowd and broadcast for everyone and his mother to see, and nobody drove by his house and honked their horns and said, “Hey, look at that guy in a suit just lying on his lawn.  What’s up with that?”  As it happened, it was the better part of a day before anyone either noticed or said anything, and that was his wife to tell him that dinner was ready and she wasn’t bringing any out to him.  He stayed on the lawn for three days, just lying there with arms outstretched and tense, appearing to be in deep concentration.  A woman who lived two doors down was an on-location reporter for the evening news and did a story on him on the second evening.  When asked why he was out there, McCoy said, “I’m trying to stop the world.”  If he said more, it was lost to history and the cutting room floor.  The clip made its way into the world and turned up in a few scattered News of the Weird segments before fading almost completely from the collective consciousness.

Almost.

Three days after seeing the clip played on her local news, a woman on the opposite side of the country from McCoy laid on the ground too.  A little past five in the afternoon, an otherwise diffident mother of four slipped out the back door to her house while two of the four argued over a video game and the other two egged them on.  Her husband found her two hours later supine behind a row of bushes in their backyard.  Being a cliché himself, he asked her two questions:  “What are you doing?” and “What’s for dinner?”  She told him to get bent and in the morning he called for a psychiatrist to come out.  She was there for four days, one for each child; the local news covered that too.

Before she’d gotten up off the ground, two other people, separately and without consulting anyone else, started their own attempts at stopping the world.  One man, two hundred and fifty miles away from the mother, had spent north of three hours being pulled through a park by six dogs he’d been hired to walk, of which he had total control less than a third of the time, before assuming the position just outside his apartment building.  The other was a farmer out in the middle of not much of anything who’d walked his dog—the same one that had come back from Desert Shield with him—into the woods near his house, and when he got back within five paces of his porch he decided he’d had enough.  The dog walker was discovered by his live-in girlfriend a few hours later, and to her credit she brought him out dinner but eventually went back inside when her favorite show came on, leaving him there.  The farmer was found the next morning by one of his hired hands who somehow managed to see him even in the pre-dawn half-light; the farmer’s shotgun, broken, was next to him.  Neither left the ground for three days.

Experts began popping up.  Networks which devoted the simple majority of their coverage of which elected official did what with or to whom started sprinkling in coverage of the “protestors,” which was the best term anyone could come up with.  “Ja, these people are interesting,” said one psychiatrist in an indeterminate accent.  “They aren’t happy with something in their lives, probably their jobs.  It’s an elitist act, and I suspect an investigation will unearth what the connection is.”  Another psychiatrist on a different network said the same thing, replacing job dissatisfaction with governmental intrusion.  When asked if they had talked with the people lying on the ground, both noted the textbook analysis inherent in all of the cases and rapidly changed the subject without answering the question; in both cases, the journalist neither returned to the question nor spoke with the protestors themselves.

Before the end of the week, another six people, all unconnected to one another and in six different cities, lay themselves on the ground.  Over that weekend, the number rose to two dozen.  A day later it was into three digits and had spread to four continents.  After another week, the number of people on the ground worldwide was roughly equal to the population of Wyoming.  The number showed no signs of getting smaller, and attention started to drift back to where the protest had begun.  It didn’t take long for the media to remember Alan McCoy.

When McCoy went back inside his home after three days and some under the oak tree, he may as well have disappeared.  Sure, the TV interviews dried up almost at once, but even while he was outside he had nothing to say.  No, it was as if he just vanished.  He didn’t report to work, he wasn’t seen, and his wife, when the TV people turned up, said he wasn’t up to seeing anybody.  The overly insistent ones were introduced to the business end of a shotgun if they didn’t take the hint.  The next anybody saw or heard of him was in Lobuche, when an engaged couple who were climbing up Everest specifically to get married at the summit recognized him eighteen months after the initial furor died down.  His wife and kids still lived in the same house, no evidence of divorce could be found, and somehow here he was, a hotelier at the top of the world.

“Oh,” said a voice from somewhere below him.  It was Dhonu coming up the trail.  “Hello, sara.”

Phil nodded at him.  “What brings you up here?”

“One might ask the same of you.  Me, I am acclimating.”

“You still need to do that?”

“Yes.  It is very important.  Yes, we go up and down the mountain, but the human body, it does not understand this.  All it knows is to react to where it is, and it needs to be comfortable there.  It cannot do that if it moves from high places to low places and back again.”

Phil thought about that for a moment but couldn’t see how the sherpa was wrong.  “How long have you been doing this?  Being a guide, I mean.”

Dhonu thought for a moment and counted on his fingers.  “Eight years, I think.  It is easy to lose track.”

“I take it you’ve stopped everywhere you can up and down the mountain.”

“Many times.”

“What do you know about the guy who runs the Friendly Yeti?”

Dhonu thought for a moment.  “It was the year before last, I think, when he first came here.  He was out of place.  Everybody that runs a hotel up here is Nepali.  So we see this sētō vidēśī taking over the hotel.  We all thought he would not last, he would not acclimate, it was a short-term thing.  And the months went by and he stayed.”

That ties, Phil thought.  He must have come almost straight here.  “Have you talked to him?”

“A few times.  He seems like a good person.”

“Ever asked him about where he was before he came here?”

Dhonu laughed.  “And now it is before us.”

“What?”

“I do not mean to be offensive, sara, but you look even more out of place here than he does.”

Phil grimaced.  Dhonu kept laughing.

“The wonderful thing about Sagarmatha is that it is so remote.  There is not much of your Western world here.  We have your phones, yes, and sometimes your internet, but not your cars, your pollution.  We have stress, but it comes from a different place than yours.  People come here not just to climb but also to get away, perhaps to make a new life.  This is what your friend has done here, and the people that are here the most often thank him for it.  He is happy.”  Dhonu stood up and looked down at Phil.  “I have to climb a bit farther so that I can sleep tonight.  We go back tomorrow, yes?”

Phil nodded.

“He is happy,” Dhonu said.  “Leave him be.”  He walked off up the trail then, leaving Phil alone with his thoughts.

— ◊ —

The dinner that night was the same as the night before:  a stir-fry rice bowl with bits of vegetables and enough spice and broth to make you forget that all it was was rice.  Phil missed the heavy proteins, beef, and chicken, and didn’t realize how much he missed them until now.  He struggled to remember how long it had been:  Namche Bazaar, six days earlier.  It would be another five days before they got back, and now that return trip, that long walk down the Himalayas all the way back to Lukla, was all he could think about.

He stayed last in the common room again but not on purpose.  His thoughts had drifted so far back toward home that he didn’t eat for long minutes at a time.  It was dishes being clinked against each other that finally brought him back, and reentry was forceful enough that he jumped.

“Sorry,” McCoy said.  “Didn’t mean to startle you.  You looked like you were pretty out of it, though.”

“I was thinking about steak, and having one when I get back to Namche.”

“You know, that’s one of the things I miss:  steak.  Or any meat, really.  We’ll get some cured stuff every once in a while, jerky and whatnot, but that’s it.  Can’t actually get beef up here because of the lack of refrigeration, and it’d be insanely expensive if we had it.”

McCoy took a few seconds before responding.  “Thought about walking back down for one?”

“Have.  A couple of times.  There are some slack months when I can close up for a week and a half and walk back to Namche, stay there a couple of nights, eat, shop a little.”

“But not call home.”

McCoy sighed.  “I have a phone here.  Internet too.  How do you think I got your reservation?”  There was a long pause after that.  McCoy collected a few more dishes and wiped down a stretch of table.  “So,” he said after putting a wet rag back in the bucket he’d brought along, “what exactly is it she wants to know?”

“Well, two things.  She wants to know if you’re alright—”

“Fit as a fiddle and ready for love.”

“—and she wants to know when you’re coming home.”

McCoy started laughing.  It began as a chuckle and grew into a full-on belly laugh.  Phil’s brow furrowed.  After he got himself together, McCoy said, “You know, I don’t know who’s worse, you or her.”

Phil gaped for a moment.  “I don’t follow.”

McCoy pulled out the bench opposite him and sat down.  “What do you know about me?  I mean really know.  Not the surface stuff, and not the thing about laying down, although that’s important.  But the details.  What do you know about me?”

“Well, you went outside one morning and lay on the ground.  Not much extraordinary beyond that, excepting turning up here.  Middle management, wife and two kids, dogs . . . . ”

“You left out some stuff.”

“Oh?”

“It was always worst around the first of the month when all the bills were due.  And we weren’t suffering or living paycheck to paycheck, but we weren’t exactly swimming in the stuff either.  So, mortgage check goes in the mail one day, just like it always had, and all I can think is, ‘Is this it?  Is this really all there is?’”

Phil crooked his head.

“All it was was the same thing day after day.  Wake up, go to work, go home, sleep.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Can’t travel.  Can’t afford it.  We talk about it, but that’s all it ever is is talk.  So I just decided I’d had enough.  Walked out my front door one morning and made up my mind that I wasn’t going to go through the routine anymore, and if staying there meant staying in that routine I wanted no part of it.  So I laid down under that big tree in our front yard and stuck my arms out to stop the world.  I didn’t want to ride the ride anymore.  I wanted to get off.”

“It didn’t help.”

“Well, I didn’t expect the planet to stop spinning.  Little me, big planet, do the math.  But damn if it didn’t finally notice me.  First they came by, the local people, and did a thing for the nightly news, and a couple of others the day after that.  Most of the people who walked by thought I was some sort of performance art.  I went back inside a few nights later.  Extreme dehydration.  Didn’t go back to work.  They’d all seen the news, thought I’d gone on a mental break and put me on paid leave.  Just when I thought I’d gotten myself back together—after a lot of long talks with the wife and the kids and some therapist the job forced on me—that was when the media found me again.  Not just the local people but national ones, papers in other cities, websites.  Phone didn’t stop ringing.  Then they remembered where I lived and camped out on the street.  Found out where I worked and went and pestered everyone there.  Waited at my wife’s work.  Tried to get my kids at school.  And all of that, all of that attention, just made everything a hundred times worse.

“So, I ran.  Waited until two in the morning, called a cab, went to the airport and got on a plane.  I didn’t come straight here but I didn’t take long getting here either.  Figured this was as far away as I could get.  Wife would be happy, kids would be happy.  The guy who’d been running this place wanted to go back to Lukla, had family there.  Taught me everything in two days.  Now I’m just the sētō vidēśī who runs the Friendly Yeti.”

“Your wife wants you to come home.”

McCoy snorted.  “I read the news still.  That one lady, the mother of four, did her laying right after me?  She’s been here.  That farmer who took his Army dog out into the woods to die has been here too.  There’ve been five reporters up here already to do a follow-up, but the sherpas like me enough to let me know they’re coming, and they haven’t seen me yet.  They know I’m here, though.  So does she.”

“She wants to tell you—”

“She has my number.”

Phil stopped.  “I’m sorry?”

“The farmer went and visited her.  Gave her the number here.  She’s called twice.  Got the machine both times; I was up cleaning out the rooms.  Last time she tried was . . .  three months ago?  Seems right.”

Phil’s head spun a little.  He’d come all this way to deliver a message that had already reached its intended target.  The whole enterprise felt like a waste.

“Listen,” McCoy said.  “Back in the world, I wasn’t anybody.  I didn’t have the respect or love or appreciation from my family, all of the stuff you’re supposed to get.  One morning I decided I couldn’t do it anymore, so I had a little protest. Then I followed through.  Nobody ever does that.  I understand that she’s upset but I— I’m happy.  I’m happy here.  Doing this.  I feel useful.  It isn’t Earth-saving stuff, but it gives me a purpose.”

He stopped and waited for Phil to respond, but the other man had already fallen asleep.

— ◊ —

The next thing Phil knew he was in his bed.  The sun was just rising outside his window and— yes, he was still in his clothes.  He remembered being in the common room, talking to McCoy.  He heard the words “I’m happy”, or maybe he didn’t.  Somewhere in the back of his head, those words rang true.

He made his way back to the common room.  It was already half full.  Dhonu had a table to himself and waved Phil over as soon as he saw him.  “I have saved a seat for you and ordered you an egg sandwich,” Dhonu said.

Phil took the chair opposite, stared at the food for a few seconds, then looked around.  “Where’s McCoy?”

Dhonu shrugged.  “Sleeping, probably.  He has help with the mornings.”  He looked down at the plate.  “We should go soon.  Walking down is not much easier than walking up, and it is a long way to Dingboche.”

“I know.  I was hoping to get a word before we go.  We were talking last night, and I fell asleep in the middle.”

The sherpa shook his head.  “Can you not let this rest?”

Phil thought for a moment.  He could if he wanted to.  His job had been to deliver a message; he’d done that.  Returning with McCoy wasn’t part of the bargain, no matter how much the wife might want him back.  And McCoy looked content here.  Instead of answering, Phil tucked into the egg.

“Besides,” Dhonu said, “who would run the hotel?”

Can’t argue with that, Phil thought.

A few minutes later they were outside.  The gear was loaded onto their yak, and they’d checked out of their rooms.  “I have to tell you,” Phil said.  “There are some really excellent views up here.”

Dhonu tugged at a rein and led the yak south and away from the hotel and the town.  Phil followed behind.  After they passed the field of tents and just before they walked around the first hill he looked back and could have sworn he saw McCoy standing in front of the Friendly Yeti.  He blinked as the sun shone into his eyes, and when he could see again, whatever it was in front of the hotel wasn’t anything but gone.