By John Calderazzo
It’s hard to remember how quickly your life can change.
The bite came out of nowhere—came when I was thinking of other things or maybe nothing at all, jet-lagged and exhausted as I was in the thin Himalayan air, chasing my breath at 10,000 feet. Maybe I was distracted by the ranks of snow peaks standing unbelievably high in the north. Or maybe, because it was my first full day in Bhutan, I’d been coaxed into a kind of trance by the sheer unreality of the place, the gorgeous mountain valleys and then this twisting mountain path crowded by giant, dusty-pink rhododendrons. At any rate, I wasn’t at all ready for the attack.
A couple of hours earlier, my wife SueEllen and some Colorado friends and I had been talking and laughing as we started up the path, climbing through blue pines to Tiger’s Nest monastery. The forest was dripping wet, luxuriant with shadows, tangy with sap. Over the years, I’d seen more than my share of ecological destruction around the world, I’d hiked through too many places that once were, so I felt thrilled to be in a country that had preserved so many of its trees, a fruitful darkness of original forest that covers 70% of its land. What other place in Asia—or anywhere on earth—can say that?
As the forest gradually began to thin out, we came to a small tower of whitewashed stones, cemented foursquare over a stream. It was a lovely thing, dappled with sunlight and standing alone, a stupa of some kind, though in travels I’d made through Thailand and the Tibetan plateau I’d never seen one that straddled tumbling water as this one did. When I drew close, I noticed a small wooden ladder designed to let someone peer through a screened window, so of course I climbed it. Inside, in dim, wet light, rumbled a barrel-shaped prayer wheel carved and painted with Sanskrit syllables. It was the kind of wheel I’d often seen monks and pilgrims turning with their hand as they walked clockwise, mumbling or chanting, around and around the outside of a temple.
But this wheel, aside from being hidden away, was mounted on a baffle powered by flowing stream water. This meant that gravity, in concert with the high, melting snows to the north, was the engine that kept everything going. The rumble was deep, and it seemed to me as if the earth itself was praying. I loved the sound of it.
The wheel, I knew, embodied a Buddhist chant of compassion for all living things. Thanks to the push of the water, the mantra was being flung out endlessly into the impermanent world of even Earth’s highest mountains. Or maybe especiallythese mountains, since the Himalayas are also the fastest growing range on the planet.
Beneath the wheel’s rumble, I began to make out something else—the tinging of a bell. When I leaned in closer, I saw that the bell was being struck by a stick, or possibly the thin leg bone of a deer, which was attached to the slowly turning wheel.
After a while, SueEllen and the others lost interest and moved on up the trail. I stayed. Closing my eyes, I stood a short distance from the stupa. The sound of the bell above the churning melt-water was beautiful and mesmerizing, the whole world breathing, and soon I was breathing with it. Though I was alone now, I didn’t really feel alone, and I began to think about people I knew who needed good thoughts. Acquaintances with cancer. My mother and her years of bone-gnarling arthritis. A recent student staggering under the blackest of depressions. A close friend whose heart was cracking from the kind of forces that tear continents apart.
Why, I wondered, couldn’t I slow down more often on my own, back in Colorado, and allow this door to compassion to open a little bit more often? I also wondered why, in some more personal matters—to gain some relief from the routine snarls of job, marriage, politics, not to mention my uncertain place in the grand scheme of things—I needed to travel so far from home to find this kind of solace? If there’s something about mountains themselves that encourage calm mindfulness, why couldn’t I find it in the Rockies, whose foothills rise, after all, right out of my own back yard?
After a while, I opened my eyes and rejoined the path to the monastery. As I zigzagged up through crumbling rhododendrons, the rice fields of the Paro Valley below me swung into and out of view. In the high, now cloud-hidden north, the snow peaks roared up and out like the expanding edge of the universe. I was sure of this even though I could no longer see them.
And then I felt a strange restlessness begin to drop over me. A sky fever, maybe, or a kind of mountain-peak virus, urging me suddenly to hike faster. This was odd, given how tranquil I had felt just minutes before, and considering my jet-lagged exhaustion. I’d been unable to catch much sleep on the plane to Asia, or nap on the metal benches of the Bangkok airport or even in the hotel the night before in Paro.
So I began to stretch out my legs and swing my arms. Step by springy step, I soon caught up to the others. I passed our cheerful guide, Pema, then SueEllen, who half-smiled and rolled her eyes at me as I shouldered by in a delirium of hurrying up the path.
Maybe I was following some bodily imperative. Six months earlier, on Thanksgiving Day, I’d attempted to summit the ice-bound Mexican volcano Pico de Orizaba, which stood almost a mile higher than most Colorado peaks. To reach that 18,500-foot level, and to keep up with my roped team of decades-younger fellow climbers, I had trained intensely for six months. But it was a joyful kind of intensity, I came to discover, because I grew to love the single-minded physical nature of the challenge, as I turned dozens of laps in a pool or charged miles uphill every other day with forty pounds of rocks in my pack, my body changing by the week. At the same time, I was being pushed by fear and a drive to avoid humiliation, to not hold back the team that was trusting me, the old guy, to stay with them on those 35- and 40-degree snow slopes.
And after an eleven-hour slog, I made it! We made it—the whole team of nine. Many of us cried as we stood on the summit and looked out over 100 miles of countryside, the curve of our beautiful planet actually visible, I could have sworn. I felt I had accomplished one of the best things in my life.
But the feeling didn’t last, and after I’d gotten safely home, I found myself suddenly thrown back into my ordinary, domestic, earthbound existence, and much to my distress, my euphoria drained. Within a month or two I felt lost, de-natured, diminished by a lack of danger in my life. I grew bored, gained weight, and though my work life of teaching and writing seemed as rich and busy as ever, I kept casting around for new things to do. When I couldn’t find them, I felt a gloom settle over me, and I drank more than I should have.
So maybe it was that now, back in mountains and bracing air that made the world feel whole and new, I was making some small attempt, in my sky fever, to recapture that almost erotic thrill.
Within an hour, gasping and far ahead of the others, I broke alone from the forest into sunlight and tremendous views, into gigantic vaults of air, a world of sheer cliffs and abysses. It was like an ancient Chinese poem come to life. Thin waterfalls dropped a thousand feet or more, and narrow steps carved into the cracked, almost vertical rock walls forced me to slow down. To grow dizzy here might be to slip and die.
From a cliff wall opposite hung our destination, Tiger’s Nest monastery, unreal and beautiful.
Its golden-roofed temples, I’d read, celebrated a monk who found his breath and a measure of peace by meditating for three months in a cave. Then he flew up here on the back of his consort, a female tiger, to conquer a local demon. He’s credited with having brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
SueEllen and the others were far behind. After another half-hour of up and down walking, sometimes hugging the mossy cliff walls where no handrails were present, I approached the outskirts of the temple complex. Just off the path was a hut where monks had hung newly-washed robes the color of blood. Because I was so tired, or because my head was swirling with stories of magic tigers, or because the views were so spectacular, I paid little mind to a dog lying on a mat in front of the hut. Up close, he looked thick-bodied but drowsy, tired, arthritic, old.
I thought I might peek around the back of the hut to catch a glimpse of monkish life. Living in the cold shadows of these mountains, at this altitude, could not be easy. But when I left the path and tried to sidestep past the dog, he lunged up at me with no sound at all. Just like that, he was standing on his hind legs right in front of me, pitching forward, his front paws flailing for balance, and then he clamped his jaws down—hard—on my up-raised forearm.
Time went a little bit crazy. Probably, his vice grip lasted no longer than a second or two before he let go and dropped back down again into a simulation of sleep. Then he sighed, as though nothing more remarkable than life itself had tried to slip by him in its cloud of want.
I didn’t feel any pain at first. I wasn’t even sure what had happened.
When I re-gathered my wits and pushed up the sleeves of my shirt and fleece top, I saw that the skin on my forearm, though reddening slightly, looked unbroken. I examined it a pore at a time, my heart pounding. Soon enough, my friends, having seen what happened from a distance, caught up and helped me check further. No skin breaks. A miracle!
But then I noticed a throbbing on my left side. So I rolled up my clothes, and somebody said, slowly, “Oh, my.” Bite or probably claw marks were already pooling red. Could a microbe of saliva, transferred from mouth to paw, have somehow traveled through my clothes?
Damn, damn, damn!
But maybe they were just pressure wounds. SueEllen helped me look for tear or puncture marks in my clothes. “Listen,”she said finally. “Nothing got through. You’re fine.”
Easy for you to say, I thought, not very generously. Because really, who could say for sure?
I’m usually a calm and undramatic person, especially when I’m outdoors. But I was aware now that my logical mind had morphed into one of the clouds drifting about these airy heightsinsubstantial and easily torn. My chest grew tight, and I noticed that my breathing had become shallow, high up in my lungs. Several times I tried to concentrate on the far-off snow peaks hidden in the clouds, but a roar I kept hearing made me think of blood rushing to my head—and rabies.
I did know that the rabies virus, if not killed off by shots taken within days, can migrate undetected through the bloodstream to the brain, and then, weeks or months later, can snarl up suddenly, sparking a strange agitation. After the agitation come seizures, a coma, and certain death. I also knew, after I riffled through my guidebook as my friends looked on, that rabies is endemic in Bhutan. But getting shots would mean flying all the way back to Thailand—now—meaning my expensive trip would be over before it had really started. It was that or take my chances.
While SueEllen daubed my wounds, my friends seemed to be studying me gravely. I had the feeling that they were already practicing their goodbyes, even as they reveled in their own good fortune. That’s what my voice of panic was whispering to me, even as I realized that I was beating up myself with worry.
Then a monk was at my side, hand on my shoulder, telling me through Pema’s translation that he’d never seen this dog act sick. Still, he promised to observe it for a week. He dug into his robes and pulled out . . . a cell phone! As Pema jotted down his number, I wanted to laugh, but couldn’t: I was deep in these mountains, deep in demons, and though the eyes of this man, who looked about my age, were very kind, I could feel my blood pushing on through my veins, and I had no tiger to fly me home.
In other words, I was already suffering from rabies of a spiritual kind.
“Alone,” I said softly, to everyone. “I’d like to sit alone for a while, if you don’t mind.”
So I moved a little bit away from the group and sat very still on a boulder, the hut and the golden-roofed temples behind me. I tried to calm myself by looking off across the heights at the gigantic, cracked-rock walls and the tracery of the carved steps below, which looked insubstantial now in the distance.
After a while, I found myself staring at a slender cascade hundreds of yards away that was breaking in mid-air into mist. God, it was pretty. With my binoculars, I watched drops of moisture spin free for a few moments in solitary glory, turning into a private diamonds of sunlight in their brief, falling life, or at least this particular life. Then, down among the boulders at the cliff bottom, the drops re-joined the others, losing their individual natures in the ongoing crush and foam of creek water.
This was my life, too, I suddenly realized. This mist, unlocked and blazing with light, floating so briefly between the before and after of tumbling stream-water . . . .
I looked down several thousand feet at the green, unbroken forest hiding the world I’d hiked up from. All those braided roots and branches and treetops, and streams gurgling through.
Compassion for all living things, I remembered, includes the self.
The self—myself, me.
I think it was then that I felt my shoulders begin to relax. My chest un-tightened. I closed my eyes, took in ordinary air, and began to breathe in rhythm with the distant, faint tinging of a bell.
A former fulltime freelance writer, John Calderazzo teaches creative writing at Colorado State University, where he has won a Best CSU Teacher and other awards. His essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in Audubon, Georgia Review, High Country News, Los Angeles Review, Orion, The Normal School, North American Review, Writer’s Digest, and many other journals and anthologies. His writing awards include The Carolina Quarterly fiction prize and a Colorado Arts Council Literary Fellowship. His books include Writing from Scratch: Freelancing, 101 Questions about Volcanoes (for children), and Rising Fire: Volcanoes & Our Inner Lives, a collection of essays about volcanoes and culture. He recently finished a book of poems, At the Night Window. He is also co-founder of an innovative climate change initiative that you can see at changingclimates.colostate.edu.