A Himalaya ME Moment

by AussieHobbit

This is a true story. In 1983 I joined a small expedition to the Himalayas in Nepal. We were hoping to locate the exact position of a mythological lake of 'milk', which we anticipated would have been made white due to the minerals in the glacial water. Armed with maps and a general idea of the location of the lake we set out on foot from the town of Pokhara in Nepal. We were accompanied by a small band of porters and were headed in the general direction of the Tibetan Plateau.

The members of the expedition had only met a day before setting off from Kathmandu on the journey to Pokhara, so we knew nothing of one another and as we headed off into the Himalayan foothills, and as we were walking long and difficult days there was not much chance to get to know one another until we met up around the campfire each night. Still, we remained strangers for the most part, chatting for a little while before heading to our tents to get a good night's sleep so we could be up at dawn for another day of climbing steep ridges. For more than a week we followed well worn paths until it was time to leave the beaten track behind and head into new and adventurous territory on our search for the lake of milk. The pathways at first showed that they hadn't been walked upon for years, with plenty of vegetation growing on them, and within a day or so they became non-existent. For a few more days we walked up and down steep ridges, our eyes always searching for the glimpse of the wondrous lake, yet no lakes appeared as we topped each ridge. Always before us lay the neverending montage of ridges and monolithic snow-capped peaks which are the Himalayas. One evening, camped just below the crest of a craggy, mossy, nameless ridge, we made, as a group, two startling revelations.

The first revelation was that we had somehow missed the lake and had now passed it. The second revelation was that we were lost. While we had detailed maps and experienced guides with us, none of the ridges which we had walked for the previous few days was known to either. And also not known to any of us, was the way out. Standing on a precipice that fell away into gathering gloom, we stood in the dusk and identified the known features in the distance. The particular mountains that straddled well worn trade routes, and by firelight we 'guesstimated' the nearest mapped ridges to where we stood. Our plan was to go in as straight a line as possible from where we were to those ridges, and we would set out early in the morning.

We had arrived at our campsite as daylight was dying, so in the early morning we made hot, sweet black tea, and stood with tin mugs waiting for the morning mists to roll back and reveal to the morning sunlight the journey ahead. Stretched out before us, and between our camp and our destination, lay a vast and ancient rhododendron forest. We would enter that forest early on the same afternoon that day. And so vast was it, we would would not emerge for two weeks.

The forest was eerie and silent of the sounds of birds and wildlife. The murmering of the leaves, the occasional dripping of water, and the more occasional groaning of timber was all their was to be heard. Our little band became hushed with the reverence this ancient place demanded. No-one spoke. There was little undergrowth as it had long since vanished, leaving behind a carpet of brilliant green moss that was inches thick, and that had probably never before experienced the sensation of human feet. The trees were enormous in their girth, with gnarled, bony branches that reached out and touched the unsuspecting passerby, and with roots so enormous that you could lay a sleeping bag in them on which to rest.

By the end of that first day we found a tiny clearing, and almost fearful of some retribution, we made the tiniest possible campfire with which to warm ourselves and make a small rationed meal. All of us, strangers together, sat in silence for a very, very long time with the crackle of the fire sounding alarmingly loud, until one of my companions spoke. I did not know much about this young man. Of all that were with us he spoke the least. What I can tell you more than twenty years later, is that he was the exact image a another young man we know of as Sean Astin. Exact. And he said quietly, " We have entered Fangorn."

We all stared at him for a moment and one of the others said " Oh my GOD! I have been thinking that very thing ALL AFTERNOON and didn't want to say it because, well, I figured nobody here would get it anyway." But we got it. We GOT IT! As the evening wore on we discovered more about each other than we had discovered in two whole weeks before that. To a person, each one of us had thought we had entered Fangorn forest, because to the last one, we all KNEW what Fangorn was and what it meant....we were ALL major fans of The Lord of the Rings! Every single one of us! We knew these trees, we knew these rocks, we knew this moss....because we had READ this forest before.

The next morning, our little band awoke to something new. To friendship, forged from the bonds of ringhood. We knew not that we would be lost in that forest for two weeks. And there was never a guarantee of any sort that we would ever get out. But we had discovered that we weren't just any old group of people, we were special. We had traveled in our hearts with Frodo and Sam, and Pippin and Merry...so how could we complain? We knew that we just had to get on with it....hobbit-style. To that end we determined to make the best of the ordeal. We may be going to die here in Fangorn we figured, but we sure as heck weren't going to die without second breakfast. There were days our porters thought we were nuts, stopping for second breakfast or tiffin well before lunch time, only to open a single can of sliced peaches to share out between us all. But their confusion only delighted us more in our newfound cameraderie.

It was two weeks to the day when we emerged from 'Fangorn'. We journeyed down a grassy slope to a small river, and there we saw a pathway. A PATHWAY! How long had it been since we had seen a pathway?!? We followed the pathway up the opposite ridge and came to a small plateau. On the plateau was a large and open forest, not a Fangorn at all, but lush and thick with trees and vegetation and filled with the sounds of birds. The pathway was wide and completely straight as it entered that forest, and we walked, perhaps for six hours, being followed all the while by a troop of human sized silver monkeys with black and white faces that danced in the trees around us. It was our hope that this pathway would lead us to a village, where we could get directions back to the major arterial trails. Eventually, in the distance, we saw the sweetest little building. It was a tiny cottage to our eyes, made of rocks and with a thatched roof. From our vantage point still in the forest we could see the small cottage sat on the edge of the plateau, and behind it was a breathtaking panorama of the snow capped Himalayas. As we neared the edge of the forest we could see smoke coming from the stone chimney of the cottage, and red geraniums flowering by the door and we were filled with a sense of welcome, and then all of us, as one, stopped dead in our tracks. Nobody spoke, and I think some of us weren't even breathing. I know some of us were crying, I certainly was. For there, written in English and nailed to the front of the cottage was a sign bearing a single word. TOLKIEN.

We had emerged dirty and hungry and tired from the forest of Fangorn and arrived at the tiny, unmapped village of Tolkien, where we were welcomed with hot tea and a good meal.

There is a special bond we develop with those who have accompanied us in an adventure from which return was never certain. For those who have climbed over a cliff and risked life and limb to help a stricken friend, or struggled in heavy rain and mud to erect a tent together, knowing that a bath or shower could be weeks off, perhaps never. For those who have shared stories of elves and dwarves and orcs and wargs and wizards over a campfire under the canopies of an endless forest. Our little band eventually parted and we went on with our lives, never to meet again, except perhaps, to be drawn together to revisit the friendships we forged through the imagination of a man named Tolkien, when we at last meet again in our own version of Valinor.