How to Reach Enlightenment With the Help of a Jack Russell
It’s six females lined up like ducks along the brim of a rice-paddy. Squatting in a row with eyes screwed shut and milk-white bums bared at the Himalayas. No one is game enough to break the silence and everyone is laughing over our military style piss procession, and how it feels to have frost snatch at your arse.
The rice-paddy flags the base of the Annapurna circuit in Nepal, where a group of sprightly solo hikers and three local guides are standing ankle-deep in mud. For up to 20 days, the circuit will twist and climb through mountains, rural farmlands, and glacial waterways. Either you or the mountain will give in.
It’s fondly branded as the “apple pie circuit” for all the baked goods offered to hikers along the way. Not so sugar-coated is the circuit’s disturbing fatality rate. The sweet side of this mountain conceals beneath dusted snowcaps the bodies of many who have frozen to death in snowstorms and avalanches.
In 2014, 384 hikers were rescued during an avalanche that left 39 dead and many survivors with frostbite and amputated limbs. One year later, the Gorkha earthquake struck, triggering another avalanche that left a further 21 hikers dead and 250 missing.
It’s now November 2015. My best friend and would-be-hiking-partner has bailed on our mollycoddled dream of backpacking through India and Nepal in lieu of the earthquake and so I, 18 years old and hotheaded with stubbornness, take the passive-aggressive trail and go alone.
I’ve justified my choice with many insulating layers of inflexibility, arrogance, and subtle touches of resentment.
- The airfare is non-refundable.
- The Nepalese economy surely pleads for my small injection of money now more than ever. I’ll be a real asshole not to go.
- The trail, only being reopened a few months ago, will either be entirely serene or entirely dystopian.
- I’ve read in a PDF hiking brochure that Tendai Buddhists achieve enlightenment through an ascetic practice called Kaihōgyō (“circling the mountain”). This involves mountain trekking for a thousand days. I have therefore concluded I can also get closer to enlightenment through physical endurance. Note, my religious practice will be efficiently streamlined from a thousand days to five.
- The crux of it is, I’m freshly 18 and have just read four of Jack Keourac’s novels in a row. You can therefore sympathise with how unfortunately pigheaded I have become in trying to be the adolescent, white-privileged embodiment of the modern dharma bum.
- I’m sorry Mum, but I’m hiking the fucking Annapurna.
The first kilometre is giddy with the thrill of how this will be the modern retreat from society my young, constricted self has been yearning for. I focus on this instead of the sprinkled line of trash along the trail from past hikers. Biscuit wrappers, the Nepalese version of Cadbury chocolate (looks like Cadbury, spelled like Cadbury, tastes like Cardboard), and plastic bottles planted along the path like local flowers.
The wildlife is just as exquisite; a pack of mangy stray dogs dressed in scabs, patchy fur, and yellowing teeth. They’re extremely fascinated by our backpacks, which probably stink to them of fresh biscuits and Nepalese Cadbury chocolate.
Rabies and spiritual enlightenment are now both looking equally as achievable.
They take turns to bark, bite and brawl through the league of marching legs. I realise I’m sucking my tailbone in as if I have a tail to put between my legs in a polite deference to the 2015 Alpine Canine Territorial battle I seem to be walking straight through. After a few kilometres and well-aimed kicks from the local guides, they slink back into the higher farmlands like foiled cowboys.
One sheila remains: skinny, dishevelled, and honey-blonde. Her ears flop in opposite directions and her eyes (one blue, one brown) are filled with yellow gunk and cataracts. She may be filthy, but the girl has poise, leaving the wrappers for dead to hustle back and forth between us like we are her herd of cattle. The ankles of any passing Nepalese men and porter donkeys get dished out a hearty protective nip as they pass our group. The blindness and infection in her eyes make me question whether this is a learned hostility to steel-capped boots or a polite assumption of the role of trek leader.
To the offence of Suchi, the human trek leader, I name her Dobby.
“It starting with the name!” Suchi argues, her voice pitching up an octave from having her authority called into question by a Jack Russell. “You giving it a name, then you giving it some food, then it sitting at the table, then it sleeping on your pillow…” she sucks in another exasperated breath “…then it giving you rabies! You don’t name the dog!”
We confidently disregard her advice. Once realising we have neither food nor pats to dispense, the small scrounger will surely scamper away and indoctrinate a more generous group of hikers.
An hour later, and Dobby is now attacking any passerby with a trekking stick and hanging on by her fangs with a level of fury that means, in the process of being dislodged, she can be conveniently swung around like a small, furry helicopter.
I find her devotion extremely touching. After a week of walking through Kathmandu being undressed by the leering eyes of numerous Nepalese men, knowing full well that, “Eyes off, dickwad!” is something I can only scream internally as I continue to walk in silence, watching Dobby beeline predominantly for the Nepalese men in front of me feels like I have been handed down a feminist god from the highlands.
By midday, we have hiked to the edge of a glacial river crossing. An extremely minimalist bridge design; it consists of frayed rope and sparsely laid rotting planks, sturdy enough to hold the weight of only two people at a time. In a shrieking beeline, we each scuttle across with jaws and buttcheeks clenched only to realise Dobby is steadfastly going nowhere on the other side. Too afraid to cross, pacing up and down in agitation, she is well aware her paws will be plunging it straight through the planks into the hostile white foam churning below.
Without a word of discussion, the bravest of us scoots back on tiptoes and scoops her under one arm. She scampers back across the bridge to us hooting and cheering; our trek guides stare at us silently with jaws hanging wide like a collection of opened clams.
The day ends after we have ascended the equivalent of a 12-kilometre staircase. We stumbled over farmlands, thundering waterfalls and thick forests in exhaustion. I watched the landscape of my boots for seven hours as they hit stair after stair. At the 27,000th stair stands a whitewash brick villa, smoky in the afternoon mist of a mountaintop entrenched in the clouds.
The rooms – cold, white, and bare.
The blankets – one enormous, scratchy, woolen beast per hiker that is too heavy to lift, and damp with what I hope is condensation or, at the very least, an inoffensive strain of mould.
The shower – by small miracle, will apparently be hot. Each morning I’ve watched kilometre-long lines snake through the city of Kathmandu as people line up on motorbikes to buy fuel canisters for their homes, all left without electricity or hot water after the Gorkha earthquake. Following India’s timely decision to blockade fuel exports into Nepal as a result of political discrepancies, this resulted in almost every household being without any source of power. The hotels I was staying at could scrape electricity for only a few hours a day. Hot water was by this point an in-joke amongst hotel clerks when we were using torches to see our beds at night.
Small miracle still confidently ahead of me, I strip naked in minus four degrees and fang the tap on high. In-joke continuing nationwide amongst hotel clerks, the hot water is, as usual, completely arctic.
I scream loudly as it stings my chest. I feel hideously, rawly alive. Like there are a thousand days worth of mountains pricking my fucking scalp.
By dinner, as forecasted by our tour leader, Dobby is sitting politely on the chair next to me on a crimson pouf. Far from scrounging, she simply sits and stares with doleful, gunky eyes. Every few minutes she lets out a deep, meditative huff.
By morning, I am taking Dobby’s head in my hands and cleaning her eyes with wads of tissue and tickling the underside of her chin.
By afternoon, she is entertaining herself by stealing our socks hung up to dry and slapping them against the ground like hunted fish.
By dusk, she is curled up in a shudder of snores in my stinking heap of hiking clothes aside the bed.
When I climb into bed at night, she is wrapped up like a small warm doughnut on my pillow.
By the end of the trek, Dobby has been following us for six days. She has trotted almost a hundred kilometers of alpine terrain in freezing conditions. Every day, she laps back and forth between us, tirelessly conducting her rigorous headcounts. Running to the last straggler for company and encouragement. Snarling at any foreign boot or hoof that is not of her own flock. Donkeys seven times her size will squawk in astonishment at her violent ambush. Locals shout at Suchi to control our dog. Suchi eventually grows tired of shouting back at the locals and accepts that this is our dog.
Our dog until we tumble out, unexpectedly, onto a main highway at the foot of the trail. A van is waiting for us on the side of the road. The hike is done. Porters are heaving our bags into the back and everyone is beginning to pile in and Dobby is waiting in line.
Suchi aims a boot at Dobby’s attempted plunge into the van and, as Dobby gears herself up for another jump, she swings the door shut.
I’m told she’ll have a better life in the Himalayan villages than in the decrepit, bustling city of Kathmandu, where almost 23,000 stray dogs are fighting to survive and half that number will be poisoned by the government in a year.
We take off. I twist around and stare out the window. Dobby is sprinting, legs flying, down the middle of the highway. Weaving through and under roaring trucks that blast their horn at her, she tears after our van as fast as her paws can take her.
I watch her almost collide with truck after truck. Eventually, my tears blur the sight of her tiny, streaking figure.
I turn around. I will never see her again.
Dobby’s lasting legacy to me has been in the form of a stomach parasite (commonly transmitted by dogs) that I contracted a few days later and which has left me with lifelong intestinal problems. I’m strangely touched.