My fingers claw into the mud and my toes balance on exposed tree roots as we make our last ascent of the day. Ascent might be too pretty of a word: it was the climb to Mordor, but instead of saving Middle Earth, we are trying to make it to camp on stable ground after our first day hiking the Pinjal Mountains in Himachal Pradesh. Why did I agree to this? I asked myself as my friends skipped ahead of me, unencumbered by gravity, like three Legolases on a casual stroll. I don’t come from a hiking and camping background. My parents grew up poor in Poland, and after coming to America it never occurred to them to voluntarily sleep on the ground and not shower for three days. We never had a lot of money, but my parents always made it a point to sleep indoors. So when my friends talked me into a 3-day hiking trip outside of Manali, I had no idea what to expect.
After the shock of the first day, I woke the next morning and resolved that I would not let anything hold me back. I powered up the mountain, focusing on my breathing and leaving my friends behind to bond with our guide, Rahul. Alone that day, I passed cows relaxing in pastures, ran my fingers through cold stream water, watched mists gathering and falling off the cliff-sides. It seems that throughout the day our guide took a liking to my friend Sarah, because he asked her to stay in Himachal Pradesh with him and get married. Sarah, of course, denied his request, which led to a series of events the next day that made me really glad to get off that mountain.
The next morning the group began splitting off. Rahul, evidently offended by Sarah’s denial the night before, left us behind. After a bone-crunching 2 hour descent, we reached a rushing stream between two waterfalls. With Rahul nowhere in sight to help us navigate the slippery boulders, my friends and I threw our packs over to the other side and spidermonkeyed across. We kept our balance and steeled our nerves against fact that any wrong move could send us down a 30 ft waterfall. We caught up to him eventually, and after I cussed him out, he explained that the next part of the journey will take us through Malana, where the villagers ascribe a religion that doesn’t let them interact with outsiders, or allow outsiders to touch anyone or anything in the village.
On the trail, we passed a Malana woman with intricate piercings on her mouth, nose, eyebrows, and ears. She eyed us with suspicion, making sure to stay as far away from us as possible on the narrow trail, somehow managing to tiptoe on an inch of ground above a cliff. When we reached the town for lunch, we were given buckets to sit on. Kolkata was foreign to me at first, but at least I wasn’t treated like a leper. After lunch, I was ready to get off the mountain. Rain began to drizzle, and I outpaced the group, determined to find a hot shower and a comfy bed. The last leg was another nearly vertical climb up to a road. As I pulled myself up and peeked over, I saw a herd of goats, and behind them, the white Jeep that had dropped us off 2 days before. As I sat on the roadside by the Jeep waiting for the group, I began liking the feeling of the hard pavement under my butt, the stillness of sitting, and the knowledge that for the next 2 hours we would be skimming down a valley road, watching the mountains move far behind us.