Evan’s legs, their movements all mechanical by this point, come to a halt. Since the last village it’s been absence and silence save for the reassuring footsteps behind him, the dull clank of a cooking pot against a water bottle in another backpack. Now, the silence is total.
“Don’t tell me you want to stop now,” he grumbles.
“You gave me the heavy pack again. What do you think I am, a goddamn Sherpa?”
“You really need to be more sensitive to the local people.”
“Their own damn fault for playing into that stereotype.” Evan sighs and stakes out the tent, while Mark slumps into a rocky seat with a groan and nurses his aching knee, wrestles off his hiking boots and rubs his fingers over his blossoming blisters. He only joined Evan here three days ago, and yet this lifelong athlete has never felt so physically drained. He sucks down some thin Himalayan air, toys with the fake jade Buddha trinket he’d bought at a market in Kathmandu. He’s never had much use for gods or faith since he’d first learned of his ever-so-pious parents’ affairs back in middle school, but now, as darkness falls and they hurry to make camp on a cleft in the side of a ridge, he could use some otherworldly strength, or at the very least some indifference to pain.
“Sorry I’m out of your favorite medicine,” says Evan as he assembles tent poles with deliberate smoothness.
Mark grumbles as sits back up. “I brought ya something. Knew your stock would be gone by now, so…” He perks up and produces a bottle of bourbon from deep inside his pack.
“Now if you’d just mentioned you had that, I never would’ve given you shit about stopping.” Evan uncorks the bottle, throws back his head, and takes a deep swig. He sinks next to his friend on a barren patch of grass. After a month of trekking, he melts right into the rock, immune to any discomfort.
“You look like a straight-up mountain man,” Mark laughs. “What’s Bridget gonna say when she sees that beard?”
“I probably should shave it as soon as we’re back in civilization…or, at least, before we go up to her parents’ cabin next Saturday. When we get back to Kathmandu, well…I’m buying a ring.”
“Took you long enough.” Mark’s wide smile belies his sarcasm. “You’ve only been dating her since before we even met. I’d say she’s a saint for sticking with you for all these years, but nah, I know how much effort you’ve made to get all the little things right.”
“Not that I haven’t wavered some, done some stupid shit…”
“Shut it. You’re as steady as they come. Wish I had your discipline, instead of just being this fuckboy that I am.”
Evan snorts. “If that’s really what you want to call scoring some of the hottest chicks in the Ivy League…”
Mark shrugs, concedes the point. “Great times, don’t get me wrong. But even if you made a mistake or two, you knew what you had to do to get her back. You weren’t going to lose her, not for all the lamas in Lhasa.”
“Hah. Or what’s left of them once the Chinese have had their way, anyway.”
“You always were a little bit of a hippie, and now you’re starting to look like one, too.”
“Sorry I care about people getting their culture totally bulldozed.”
“We’re all Nietzscheans now.”
“Easy there, Yale.”
“Nice try pretending you’re not a nerd, too.”
“Fine, explain it.”
“Means we can’t go two seconds without thinking about the politics of something. Without thinking of the power relations between us all and how it affects everything, oppressors and oppressed. No gods, no tradition…unless we can use them for power.”
“You’re good, even if you are just a chunk of raw red meat.”
“Just trying to save the world from all you self-obsessed lefties.”
“Says the kid who follows his lefty bud to the end of the earth.”
Mark peels off into laughter, too delirious for a deeper discourse on Ubermenschen. Evan grins and starts up his camp stove. He could go on if he wished, lecture Mark on the troubles in Tibet, but Mark probably knows all of this already, simply trolls him for his own pleasure. And why shouldn’t he? They’re two college grads on their final night on a Himalayan trek, all alone and powerless up here, and whether it’s conscious or not, he knows what Mark is driving at. Here, even the weightiest of world affairs seem small.
“When did you decide to buy the ring?” Mark asks. “All those monks droning about suffering make you want to give marriage a try?”
“Something like that. I’ve always known it was coming. And, corny, I know, but when I looked up and saw Everest, I just knew it was time. I’ve been building to that for years.”
“Ugh. But, I’m proud of you, I really am. Gonna have to take you and her to dinner once we’re back in Duluth.”
“You’ll have a couple weeks back home before you head back east, right?”
“I will,” Mark says. “Last time I’ll call it home, at least for a little while.”
“Any grand plans?”
“Nothing really…just hang with you and anyone else who’s in town. And visit my dad, I think. He’s getting a lot less mobile.”
“Still living in his lonely palace on top of that hill up the shore?”
“Of course.” Mark laughs as he pats the wall of his tent and sweeps his gaze across a valley touched by the last lingering tinges of dusk. “Lonely palace atop a hill, single after a life of sleeping around…I’m my father’s son, alright.”
“Father’s son,” Evan muses, reminding Mark why his friend took this trip in the first place. Evan’s father died before Mark ever met Evan, and his friends had pulled him through that adolescent grief. This trip was to be a long-delayed memorial for Evan’s late father, his chance to reckon with it all on his own, at least before Mark showed up at the end to lead him home.
Evan, however, has failed in his task. The ashes are still with him, and while he’s been a good Buddhist student throughout the trek, he feels no closer to nirvana than before. As he’s plodded along, his mind has spent far more time on wedding planning and the potential of the future than lingering in the past, least of all on a stolid Minnesota hockey dad who’d probably never recognize his scruffy globetrotting son, wouldn’t have known the first thing about finding noble truths or eightfold paths.
Evan has worried all along this journey was just a flight of vanity, and Mark has been all too willing to judge him for it. He’s a cultural tourist, and he knows it. Part of him begrudges Mark for clouding his spiritual seeking, but he’s needed someone to keep him grounded. And, by and large, Mark is right: he’ll head home refreshed and full of stories, but fundamentally unchanged. He’s been in these Nepalese passes for three weeks longer than Mark now, yet aside from his scruffy hair and beard, he’s displayed his singular talent for making a Himalayan trek no less stressful than a meander up the beach. If only the rest of the world knew the work it took to maintain this flawless act: simply Evan in his equanimity, ever the model that leaves even Mark slightly jealous.
It is a marvel, Mark thinks, how little of that there’s been since he moved to Minnesota nine years earlier. It survived all those seasons of agony and ecstasy as hockey teammates, four years as they went to college a thousand miles apart, two cross-country road trips, and a summer of hostel-hopping across Europe. Not that Evan hasn’t been on the receiving end of some of Mark’s more hotheaded lashes, and even Evan lapsed into bitter frustration after Mark lost their passports in Prague. Each has acknowledged his debt to the other before, but only here, clean on the opposite side of the globe, can Mark truly appreciate how lucky they are to have found each other. At times he’d worried Evan would dither too much and never buy his girlfriend that ring, but now that he’s declared his plans, a small part of him feels a pang: he won’t be his alone anymore.
“Yak steak?” Evan asks as he flips a slab of meat on his tiny griddle.
“I’ll pass,” Mark sighs, reaching for the trail mix and the bourbon at once.
“You should eat more than that.”
“Call it a simple diet. A purge. Getting in touch with those parts of your mind you don’t normally find. Your Buddhists would appreciate that, right?”
“Hardly, I’d think,” Evan frowns. “Just as long as you don’t push yourself to puke the way you did in practice sometimes. I’m not cleaning up your shit up here.”
Yes, Mark admits, he’s being reckless; perhaps it’s the thin air, or perhaps it’s all of these adult life questions weighing on his mind. But he’s no stranger to pushing the limits of his body. He’s undertaken so many brutal workouts that they all blur together, though one rears up in his mind now: that high school death march up and down the ridges of Lake Superior’s North Shore. Ostensibly he’d done it whip an old hockey teammate into shape, to turn around that big defenseman’s life before he wasted all his talent. He’d done it as a senior captain, acting the sage veteran who knew a thing or two. But in reality that thirty-mile trek was just as much for him, and he stayed far enough ahead of his charge to have his breakdown atop a rocky knob all alone, Lake Superior lost in the fog beneath him and his mind equally lost in that fog. That purge carried him through for a while, not that there weren’t peaks and valleys nearly every day, and now he’s joined Evan here at the tail end of his journey to the roof of the world, here where the towering peaks make laughingstocks of those old shoreline bluffs he knows so well. Their wildness seems intimate when set against these infinite heights, heights he’s delighted in conquering but that will never be home.
“You know what I’ve missed the most, being out here? The water. I need the water,” says Mark.
“You always say you need all these things, man. I’m not really Buddhist, but if I can take something away from all these monasteries, it’s that ability to release yourself, achieve that indifferent state.”
“Easy for you to say, you’ve got it all lined up so smoothly. I’m just…drifting.”
“The kid who says he needs the water is drifting. Maybe what you’re looking for is right beneath you.”
“Or maybe I’m just doomed to wander.”
“You sound dark, Marky.”
“Look up, look around you, Evs…it’s all darkness. And us, just looking for little moments of light here in the middle of it all.”
“There you go again.”
“I’ve always been a bit…haunted. Not that you haven’t, I guess. But some things linger.”
Evan nods, but turns away from his old friend and searches the gathering darkness for an adequate response. It doesn’t come. Through all their time together he’s always looked up to Mark as the more brilliant half of the pair, the restless achiever who’d gone to Yale, always an object of mild awe. But some part of him has always known he’s the more stable one, and this point of pride now seems like something he’s failed to share, some secret he could have imparted. But he has no such power, and that makes him somehow inadequate. Mark’s demons play out every time he goes home, while his had the convenience, the closure of a death that made the what ifs far more speculative.
“I came to join you to try to find that glimmer,” says Mark. “And I did, when I tracked you down up at Tengboche, and I’m getting there tonight…but it seems like it gets harder and harder every year.”
“We’re not kids anymore,” Evan shrugs. “We don’t get that rush every time we do something new now. We’ve settled on our vices”—he hoists up the bourbon bottle—“and we know we can’t do too much else. I don’t know that it’s a loss. You focus in on what really does make you happy…nah, not what makes you happy, not exactly. What make you live in line with the life you believe in. That slow, satisfied burn instead of the occasional rush.”
“Guess those monks taught you something useful.” Mark takes a long slug from the bottle and grits his teeth in relish. “Just as long as I can still get those rushes sometimes Wouldn’t trade those for the world.”
“Course,” says Evan. “There are times when it only makes sense to grab them. Just don’t force it when it’s not there.”
“Fair enough.” Mark hands Evan the bourbon and moves from one rocky seat to another in a hopeless search for comfort. “Just need to figure out when those moments are…it’s stupid. I’ve put in all this time and effort, Yale degree, did everything the way we’re supposed to…and I don’t regret any of it, it’s set me up better than any other way could have. But in the end, it just comes down to instincts. Knowing when to make a move.”
Evan stops mid-drink, and a dawning look plays across his face. “Right. Yeah.” He stares into the darkness at nothing, and Mark tracks his gaze intently. Evan pitches the bottle back to Mark, reaches into his pack, and pulls out a small bag. He wanders over to the edge of the cliff, opens it, takes a handful of ashes, and sticks his closed fist out over the chasm before him. He’s come to this point four times on this trip already, and each time he’s pulled his hand back. Is it really right, to scatter his father so far from anything he knew, to leave what little trace he has left in some unnamed gorge he’ll never see again?
“Do it,” Mark orders him. “Let go.”
Evan turns his hand over and slowly lets the ashes sift out from between his fingers. When half his burden is gone, he throws his hand open and casts the rest down into the abyss. It is done. He’s not sure he feels any better for completing the task; maybe he doesn’t completely believe what he just told Mark, that this lack of feeling is in some way natural. But it is done now, and for the first time on his journey, he feels tired. He slinks back to his friend’s side and blinks away the gathering tears.
“Nah…not now. Just water.”
Mark smiles. “Always the water.” He fishes a bottle out of his pack. “Wash it down, clear it out, whatever you need to do. You’ve got needs, too.”
“Glad I’ve got you and Bridget in my life to remind me of that.”
“How does it feel? You get what you wanted?”
Evan shrugs. “I was hoping for closure. But now I realize that it never really happens. And that’s okay.”