Part 4: The Dog in the Clouds

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While I was at the table peering at the one-inch photograph of the little house on the contact sheet and trying to remember why I took that picture all those years ago, Orville was lying in the crabgrass just outside the open french doors. The doors faced the mountains, and the room began to darken when the sun met the ridgeline. I put the contact sheet on the table with the hundreds of other photographs of Orville and went to him and sat down on the grass beside him and said, “My poor old bear, feeling so bad.” I picked his head up to cradle it in my crossed legs and leaned close to whisper in his ear for a while, telling him he was going to be all right. His head was heavy and he kept gazing at the mountains. I put my hand on his chest. The polar bear-colored fur had been thinned by chemo drugs to a puppy-like featheriness.

It got darker and I said, “Don’t you think we should go inside now, Orv?” He broke his gaze from the mountains and turned his head up to look at me and he looked at me for a long time, his eyes as dark as night sea. The day before we had gone for a walk on his favorite trail. He chased sticks into the muddy pond and tugged them the way he liked to before relinquishing them for another throw. When we got back to the car, he turned to face the valley, and he sat and took in the view. He looked at it the way he would look at the mountains the next day and the way he was looking at me now.

“I love you up and down, Orv,” I told him.

He had some trouble getting up, and I helped him roll from his side. On his feet, he positioned himself for a shake, but gave up on the idea with a brief look at me, as if to say, ‘maybe not,’ and turned to pad slowly towards the french doors. I stayed behind, buying a few seconds to try to put on a better face. He stopped to look back at me to make sure I was coming, the way a good dog always does, the way he had looked back at me on thousands of walks from the alleyways of Kathmandu to his swimming hole in Boulder. His head was hanging low, but the old smile still came to him and he swung his tail once, and in the last of the light, the pink and gold of the Rockies in the spring, made his eyes shine. There is no one better than a dog.

I said, “I’m coming, Orv,” and turned back towards the house to follow him.

We had only been living in that house for a week or two, and I had never used the yard. It was rough and there was nowhere to sit, and so I wasn’t used to seeing the house from that angle. As I turned to it now, the whole setting — the house and the RV and implement storage yard behind it — came into view. I was at the bottom of a breath and what I saw stopped me from inhaling. I suppose that’s just some puny human way to try to stop time. A rash of bad goosebumps came up on the backs of my arms in the warm evening air. 

This house was the house in the little picture on the contact sheet. The french doors had been added in the six years since I took the picture and some bushes had grown out. Maybe that was what kept me from recognizing it. Maybe it was something else. But it was this house. On some long-ago drive, when puppy Orville would have been in the passenger seat beside me, something made me pull over and take the kind of picture I never took. A picture of a house. A picture that hadn't even been worth printing. A house that, until now, had no meaning.

The first picture of Orville, the dog in the clouds, heralded his coming to me two years before he was born. This one mapped the place where he would die.

 

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  A few days before.

A few days before.

For the six months that Orville’s cancer ran its course, I had been favoring the good news from his veterinary oncologists. I wonder now if it was to the point of not hearing bad news. What I heard was that he was doing as well as any dog with lymphoma ever did, and though he was beginning to slow down, and the disease was progressing, nothing in his tests raised the alarm that he was on the brink of dying. He was still happy and active, still hiking — if not as much — still chasing sticks thrown in the water, still insisting on playing the games he always wanted to play after he ate his dinner. Maybe he did some of that out of his dogly sense of duty, out of not wanting to disappoint me, but I hope not. On this late May evening, even when he was ill to the point of wanting to be by himself, I had still been hopeful. He had had a chemo treatment a day or two before, and though most of them hardly put a dent in him, there had been one that made him sick for two days. I suppose I believed what I wanted to be true, but until this moment I was still thinking that this round of sickness would pass. 

Recognizing the house in the photograph changed that. I understand how silly that may be. The skeptically-minded will always laugh things like that off as uninteresting coincidence, and they might be right. But when I recognized the house, just as he was walking through the doors that weren’t in the picture and into the shadows, I knew I was going to lose him. I stopped believing in the miracle the vets had told me not to expect.

I helped Orville up onto the bed and lay beside him. Usually he would wait for me to lie down so he could nestle accordingly, but tonight it was enough for him just to get on the bed. I took a pillow and lay diagonally with him, positioned in the way he liked most for the rest of the night, my arm bent with a hand under my head and his face on that forearm, the top of his skull under my chin. There was no one out in the night but the cicadas and coyotes and the slow train when it rumbled past on the way to the gravel plant. Orville snored occasionally, but it was thin and labored and if I had been a dog, my ears would have been up all night, listening the way I was, because I wasn’t sure it only a snore. I kept thinking that something inside him was rattling.

 

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I stopped telling people a long time ago about what happened when I was killed in an accident. All it does is open you up to being told you couldn’t have been dead any more than you might have been abducted by aliens. But if there’s one thing people who have died share, it’s that they don’t reduce it to a matter of opinion. It is a clear and convincing experience, and it happens to you, you know that death is not the end. Not that there was much afterward. I was up fifteen feet or so in the cool Himalayan air, looking down on the scene after the accident, and the sight of me in a blood puddle with a press of villagers surrounding me as my girlfriend fended off the men trying to steal my boots while she yelled at me to wake up meant nothing more than the gravel on the road.

Both my tibia — the shinbones — had been compressed with enough force to blast six inches of each of them to powder and crumbs. The radius of my left arm was snapped. Broken bones aren’t too bad, though. They heal. 

The more subtle injury was to my head. Even though no bones in my skull were broken, it had been ricocheted from front to back on steel and granite, opening deep gashes and breaking, in a last dab of indignity, a front tooth. For years, before they faded to numbness, the nerves that had been torn in my face and scalp made me feel like I was wearing a tight hat. The bad injury was to the brain. For some weeks, my short-term memory didn’t work correctly. Some people liken a brain to a hard drive. I have a feeling it is more like millions of hard drives, each assigned to specific types of data or emotion or instinct or the subroutines for processing them, the whole vast network cross-wired with as many connections as there are stars in the universe. These memory problems only occurred with certain types of information. I might ask, for example, “What are we having for dinner?” and be answered, “Spaghetti,” only to ask, “What are we having for dinner?” and be told, “Spaghetti,” and ask, “What are we having for dinner?” and be told, “Spaghetti,” and repeat this until the patience of the person I was asking understandably ran out. The odd thing was that even though I couldn’t remember asking the question or it’s having being answered, I could remember all the questions and answers as an entire sequence afterward. Eventually, the connections found their way back to each other and this condition straightened itself out. But what did not return, and never would, was a normal ability to sleep, or, when I did, to dream anything but nightmares. 

During all of Orville’s life, this nightmare was always the same. I was flying, low, over towns and between buildings, while someone — I never saw who it was, I just knew they were there — chased me. I flew by dog-paddling the air with my hands cupped. As a pilot, I had the disadvantage of understanding how inefficient this was aerodynamically, but it worked in the nightmare, as long as I managed to scoop enough air as I paddled to stay aloft. I just had to paddle hard. I knew that if I let up at all, I would drop to the ground. Between knowing that and the relentlessness of the pursuer gaining on me, I was never paddling hard enough. I had to paddle harder. There was no hope, though, of keeping a pace that feverish up, and I knew it. It would have been too much for anyone, let alone a spindly weakling. At the first sign of losing altitude, I would clench my fingers into stiffer, tighter cups to keep air from slipping though my fingers, but was just desperation. It didn’t work. Eventually my strength would flag and I would lose my grip on the air and snap out of controlled flight and into a long plummet to the ground at the loud, rushing speed of a nightmare. 

Over time I began to enjoy these nightmares. When I went to bed, I hoped one would come on, though they only came once in a while. They gave me the opportunity to practice my dog-paddling flying technique. My airspeeds and endurance improved. My maneuvers became sharper and smoother. And though I knew I would always fall, instead of fearing it, I began to look forward to the thrill of the dive. 

When he was still a young dog, Orville seemed to understand that something troubled my sleep, and he made his mind up to take on the job of trying to protect it. He thought I should go to bed at a more reasonable hour and would come out of the bedroom and sit right in front of me and sigh and grunt with disapproval and a look of disappointment if I stayed up too late. The way he kept it up until I gave in and agreed to go to bed was annoying. And, once I was in bed, Orville would never take a chance on waking me up. Never. In the morning, no matter how long before me he might have woken up, he would not move until I did. Overnight, nothing could trigger him to bark. If he were dying of thirst he wouldn’t risk creeping to the water bowl beside the bed. He had appointed himself my guardian in this, and he was as uncompromising as a samurai. 

Sometime in the night after I recognized the house in the photograph and spent the night beside Orville as he rested so uneasily with his head on my arm, I fell asleep. It couldn’t have been long before the sun came up. What woke me was the sound of Orville panting. He was standing beside me, looking at me, his eyes as wide as the eye of someone that sick and weakened can get, waiting for me to wake up. He was in a new kind of bad shape and needed help, but still, he would not wake me.

I scrambled off the bed and held him and he leaned against me. I said, “Oh, Orv, why didn’t you wake me up?” even though I knew the answer, which is that he, as a dog, could never let me down. It was unthinkable.

“Do you want to go to the doctor, Orv?” I said.

Since his early puppyhood, when questions were about playing stick or being hungry or going to the park, Orville always acknowledged that he understood or wanted something by licking me once on the nose. Now he could only manage a move in the direction of a lick, but it was enough. I pulled some jeans on on and helped him into the car. Whatever was hurting him was too painful for him to lie down in the back seat for the 15-minute drive. In the rearview mirror I could see him panting and squinting as he stood leaning against the seat and I was glad he wasn’t looking back at me.

 

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His vet — a fine, loving, devoted vet — could find no immediate cause for Orville’s pain. He had to lie down for part of the examination, and that hurt him, until I found that by helping roll onto his chest instead of his side he would be relieved instantly and able to close his eyes. He was exhausted, but his brief periods of rest were fitful. We positioned some weighted pillows around him to help him maintain his position comfortably, but the slightest relaxation that made him move to the side shot him through with pain. And, just like the day before when he lay alone in the crabgrass and looked at the mountains, he seemed to want to be alone. Either he wanted to be alone or was, in some deep sense a dog understands, already alone. He waited until I was out of the room to die. 

 

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I brought Orville’s body home on a borrowed stretcher. I swept the photographs of him from the table and placed the stretcher on the table so that he would not be on the floor overnight. I wrapped his body in the finest thing I had, a 15-foot long tapestry of soft white yak wool that had been made for the Himalayan queen who gave it to me as a present. I left his head out and put his collar on, a collar of great dignity, hand-wrought of polished steel by a village blacksmith in those stormy mountains when Orville roamed them as puppy and young dog, never on a leash. I sat with him until the crematorium, a brick oven in a wildflower yard, opened in the morning, and after I put him in and arranged him in his yak wool wrap and the steel door closed, I sat and waited while he burned to ashes.

 

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The last time I I had gone to India was on that old motorcycle with a broken frame that I rode back to Kathmandu on the day I saw the dog in the clouds. Motorcycling was the most dangerous thing I ever did, not because of the dense, hectic traffic, but because Indian truckers killed motorcyclists for sport. That ride wasn’t long. Doing a longer one would be a game of Russian Roulette. If I were to ride long enough, or far enough, a loaded chamber would have to come under the hammer. Psychologists have written millions of words about the strange patterns of repetitive self-destructive behaviors. Gasoline drinkers who keep at it until they go blind, or snakebite victims who couldn’t resist sticking their arms into rocks where rattlers live. After I was crushed in Nepal, I never quite let go of the idea that I had to finish that job. Maybe it was the same sort of thing. Maybe that was why I returned over and over again to the Himalaya.

I ordered a motorcycle from a shop in Bombay and arrived there a few months after Orville died. The problem with this brand-new motorcycle was that the engine was built with primitive metals and to poor tolerances, making internal parts of the engine scrape away at each other. To get around that, it was necessary to break it in gently, by limiting the speed to about 15 miles per hour for the first 1250 miles. Of course I was impatient to get to higher speeds than that and pushed it up to 30 after droning around Bombay for the first hundred miles, but, as expected, the engine failed and had to be completely overhauled. In the next hundred miles it failed and had to be overhauled a second time. Daytime traffic in Bombay was insane, so I rode the break-in at night, south from Juhu along the coast on the Bandra road to Colaba with a long line of hazy moonlight on the Arabian Sea, which always seemed to be calm. Sometimes a friend of mine would ride with me, generously holding his speed back to match mine. He had a favorite stray dog, who was pregnant and lived under a pier, and we bought  milk for her from a vendor’s cart until one night she was gone.

When the bike began to work more reliably, I left Bombay in the middle of the night, with no destination in mind. The first truck attack came just north of town. It was a thing of terrifying beauty, a coordinated effort by two trucks. They were both orange Tatas, the usual kind with sides of wooden boards painted with garish images of Hindu gods and Bollywood movie stars, and tinsel garlands adorning the windshields.

The trucks were going faster than I was as they came up on either side of me. Indian truckers, a sooty lot, always travel with a minimum of one assistant — younger men so grimy that their bones would burn black — and leaning overboard from the window of each truck, these assistants monitored my position and shouted the range to the drivers as they edged in to sandwich me. While two drivers might independently decide at the same time to murder the same motorcycle, combining for a two-truck attack is almost unheard of, and so they knew I wouldn’t be expecting it. 

When they got alongside, they swerved abruptly to within a foot of my handlebars. I didn’t have time to brake and drop behind them, or maybe I would have, but lost the nerve in-between the pitching orange hulks, and anyway, they kept me from going anywhere by surgically closing the rest of the distance, which the assistants were calling out with the precision of radar altimeters. My left handlebar came into contact with the orange wood of the truck on my left no more than a second before the one on the right, and I felt the handlebar stiffen unnaturally as the trucks pinned it between them and took control. If one driver hit the gas or the brakes, it would have acted like a snap of the fingers to twist my handlebars and flip the bike under their wheels. All I could do was hold on. Once they were satisfied that their track was dialed in, the assistants called, “Tikeh — Hoooooah, hooooooooah,” and then a go-ahead to accelerate, which they did in formation, pulling the bike, and me, forward with them. I tried to accelerate to keep the bike from resisting, but the rotating throttle handle was pinned against the side of the truck and the bike groaned. Maybe they were only whetting their appetites or maybe a killing this close to the city would risk the cops, but they only held it for five or six seconds until the assistants simultaneously ended the Hooooooah-ing with hard slaps on their respective doors, like referees calling a man out on the mat, and the drivers peeled away from me. While I braked to get behind them — the bike was capable of nowhere near the power necessary to get ahead of them, and, in any event, they would have considered that a taunt requiring a firm response — I heard hilarious laughter and hooting break out in the truck cabs over the diesel engines and cloud of black exhaust smoke. If I had been carrying a rocket propelled grenade, I’m not sure I would have been able to use it against men of such skill, though I wouldn't have minded having the option.

That first attack was the most dramatic of the 6000 miles I rode. The rest were all run-of-the-mill — oncoming trucks drifting into my lane to try to clip me with a touch of the bumper or overtaking trucks sideswiping. According to the ethic of the professional Indian trucker, motorcyclists had no one but themselves to blame for being maimed or killed in a successful attack. They were merely nature’s agents, thinning weaklings and cowards from the herd in a process as natural as any involving a tiger and a warthog. I never went more than a few miles without seeing the twisted frames of a wrecked motorcycle, and countless more had been scavenged by scrap metal pickers. In some of the places where they were out of easy reach — in ravines too steep or rapids to violent to enter — they formed piles.

This form of battle was strangely energizing, even though I knew that I would, at some point lose. Maybe the last holdout shooting through a parapet in the face of an advancing army feels the same way. In the meantime, after years of mediocre motorcycle handling, I was becoming proficient. I could lean the bike over at high speeds on tight curves until the pegs scraped the dirt and thread needles through a morass of carts and bikes and rickshaws and trucks and cows like an Indian.

When the temperature reached 110 degrees the asphalt softened. At 119 the bike sounded like it was splashing through puddles. One evening, while eating the same thing I usually did to avoid food poisoning in the dives I wound up in — a plate of boiled tomatoes and potatoes — I realized that I had drunk 13 liters of water that day without having to urinate. All the water must have evaporated through my skin in the dry air. 

Heat drove me northwards towards higher ground, through the Rajasthani desert, where big grey monkeys waited by the side of the road to cross in front of me at the last second. Why the damned monkeys insisted on this game of chicken, I have no idea, but they were as bad as the truckers. In the blinding sunlight of the moments after a storm of red dust passed, what looked like a flying green and gold kimono caught by the wind rose from the side of the road beside me and flattened on my visor. I shook my head to my head to unstick it and saw it pull its wings in and land in the sand as a peacock who looked back at me as if I had insulted him. I checked the map sometimes, the compass more often. The main goal was to get into the hills in northern India. I didn’t care where. I was stuck for a couple of days when one of the thousand things that broke on the motorbike broke in Ahmedabad, where I witnessed a dog killing so cruel that it inspired in me a hatred for that whole city that will never fade. At night I would stay in a cinderblock guest house if there was one or on one of the wooden cots strung with oily rope that were laid out in rows outside the restaurant benches in the dirt yards of truck stops. There, I mingled with the enemy. Without the armor of their trucks they were ordinary men. Some of them didn’t even look like murderers. Often they would insist on buying me, as a foreigner, a glass of tea, taking pride in the fact that their stature meant that it would be made with milk that had not yet soured and when it came, we pretended it wasn’t.

On higher ground in Dharamsala I rented a room from a retired Indian Air Force wing commander. Like many of the higher ranking Indian officers, he was a creature of the colonial past, an officer as much in the tradition of Sandhurst as that of Delhi. His English was peppered with Britishisms. We got to talking about airplanes and from that to motorcycles. I brought up the truck attacks.

“Oh, my dear fellow,” he said, “you're not carrying the right caliber of rock.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not carrying a rock at all.”

“That’s your trouble in a nutshell,” he said.

He explained that the only way to prevent truck attacks was to display to any potential attacker, a rock the size of a baseball. The size was important, because it had to be small enough to look like it could be lofted eight feet up, but big enough to smash a windshield. Every trucker was on the lookout for the caliber of the enemy’s artillery. All a motorcyclist had to do was carry a rock or two on top of the bike’s gas tank, where they would be easy to reach. On the first suspicion of an attack, the rock is hefted, with the motorcyclist positioned in a way that left no doubt that he was timing a toss straight up in the air so that it would reach its apex just above the windshield and come back down to smash it. This was the only trick that worked because truck companies docked the pay of truckers for  windshields damaged by rock attacks, since it was assumed that any time a truck’s windshield was smashed with a rock it was the result of a defensive countermeasure, which the trucker could have avoided by not initiating an attack in the first place. Rocks were kryptonite to truckers. As soon as they saw it they abandoned their plans, slowing and passing respectfully. It wasn’t a panacea, but the wave of truck attacks went down, and there was pleasure in owning a personal force field.

I had heard about a difficult road, reputed to reach the highest motorable mountain pass in the world, north of Kashmir and over the western Himalaya to the Tibetan Plateau at Ladakh. It seemed like a good idea, especially now that the truckers had been tamed and things started to feel a bit too safe. 

George W. Bush was president, and though bombing Afghanistan had been considered justifiable by just about everyone, including much of the Muslim minority in India, when the Iraq war began, Muslims all over south Asia began to hate Americans. Al-Queda was enjoying record recruitment by the novel means of advertising beheadings on YouTube. To get to the high pass, I would have to ride through Kashmir, a Muslim state that was disputed in frequent skirmishes and occasional wars with Pakistan. It was not a good time to go to Kashmir.

I went to see a Kashmiri acquaintance of mine at whose rice shop I ate sometimes. He was taping a sheet of paper to the wall outside his shop when I went to ask him what he thought about trying the ride. The paper he was taping up was the same being put up on all the local Muslim-owned shops. It read: “NO AMERICANS.”

“Please, not to include you, my brother,” he said. “You are always welcome.”

“Thank you, my brother,” I said. We ate together and he advised against Kashmir. A very bad idea, he said. As an American I would be a target. I would have my head sawed off with a dull pocketknife.

“What do you put the odds of that at?” I asked him.

“Fifty-fifty,” he said. “No more.”

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I had no trouble with al-Qaeda until I got to the outskirts of Srinagar, and that was only a case of mistaken identity. A terrorist happened to have just then thrown a grenade into a bazaar nearby and while I waited at a red light, my face and clothes blackened with soot from the diesel fumes of a five-mile-long column of Indian Army trucks I passed, a teenage cop fantastically assumed I must have thrown the bomb. He tackled me off the motorcycle from behind and pinned me on the pavement until his sergeant came over and recognized me as a foreigner.

“What is your country, sir?” he said.

“America,” I said.

“Ah, Amrika,” he said and yelled at the kid to let me go and ordered him to pick the bike up, but I stopped him, preferring to do it myself.

The road to the pass at Khardung-la began north of Leh, where it was recommended to stay for a few days at 11,000 feet to acclimate to the altitude. South Pollu, the checkpoint, was a tent encampment at around 15,000 feet. Because the switchback road over the mountains was nothing more than a mud and gravel track carved into the mountains, and was narrowed any time a boulder dropped or mud slid, it was closed for nine months of the year and during the summer three impassable in bad weather. Now, at South Pollu, snow and wet sleet were coming down, and the Army, which was in charge of it, ordered the pass closed. A hundred trucks and jeeps were gathered and everyone loitered at the tea stalls, waiting for it to open. It could take days. With mountain weather you could never tell. One could either drive the short distance back to Leh or wait it out and spend the night in a white canvas tent for a few rupees. The Khardung-la would not open until the army command post received a radio message with the all-clear from the garrison at the top.

I had always found Indian military personnel — some of the toughest fighters on Earth — to be not only hospitable, but able to bend rules in ways that few western officers would consider. I rode the bike over to the Army headquarters and saw that a colonel was standing at the raised entrance with his entourage of aides-de-camp. When I presumed to walk up the stone steps, his men prevented me from approaching him, but he took the swagger stick he had tucked under the arm of his bomber jacket and motioned with it to let me come. He was handsome and fit man in his 40s with a stupendous black mustache. He tucked his stick back under his arm and I introduced myself and we shook hands.

“And how may I assist you, sir?” the colonel said.

“Well, sir, by granting me permission to go over the pass now. I’m just on a motorcycle, after all. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Why not? It’s your neck. As long as you understand that no one can come and look for you,” he said. 

“Understood,” I said. 

He snapped his fingers at an aide with a clipboard behind him and a permit appeared for him to sign.

He handed it to me and said, “Bon voyage. The mountain is yours.”

It was not a long ride, but it was harder than I anticipated. The track was pitted, rocky mud at best, with deep ruts hidden beneath freezing sleet. Some of the ruts went to the edge, the last signs of life of departed trucks that had slid into the 3000-foot ravine. Anywhere I stopped to look I saw them far below, crushed after their long falls in the rocks. Any time my front wheel was caught in a rut that was camouflaged by freezing sleet, it would slide, sometimes to the edge, so I had to keep my feet down and walk the bike through bad spots. The engine, capable of no more than 50, possibly 60 miles per hour at sea level, lost most of its power with altitude, though it astonished me by developing any at all. The engines of many light aircraft can’t climb to half that altitude. Dirty orange-amber marmots watched me from the rocks and took advantage of my creeping progress to roll stones down on me, but though their goal might have been admirable, their aim was pathetic and they never got closer than a few feet.

“Hah! That all you got, you little orange monster? You’re lucky my dog isn’t here! He’d come up there and tear the whole gang of you in half,” I called up to them when they tried it, even though Orville would have done no such thing. He loved all animals. He lived his whole short life without ever planting his teeth in anyone. When attacked, an inevitability for a dog who traveled to remote places, he had a way of wrestling even large dogs onto their backs and clamping their necks in his jaws to give them an opportunity to reconsider. As soon as they did, he let them go and looked at me with a smile.

At the top, at the pass itself, to the side of the rough track, was an old corrugated tin army shack for the handful of soldiers stationed there and a brick temple room that had been dedicated to all religions. It was filled with images of saints and gods from Hanuman to Mohammad, Jesus to the Dalai Lama. The soldiers were surprised to see me, but glad for the company, and one of them ordered another to bring tea. It took a hell of a long time to boil at that altitude, but it was good stuff and they were generous with the sugar and we stood around drinking it beside the yellow stone slab that had, “Kahrdung-la — Highest Motorable Pass in the World — 18,360 Feet” painted on it in red. They took turns taking pictures of each other on the bike.

The actual peak of this mountain was up another 30 feet on the other side of the track. It was covered with tattered, windblown Tibetan prayer flags and patches of snow. It was steep and I asked the soldiers if it was possible to go up there, and one of them said, “No problem,” and nodded at one of the guys to show me how. In a few seconds he scaled it and came back down.

“You see? No problem. So easy.” This must have been a running joke with them. It took me 20 minutes of struggling with the frozen mud and rocks coming loose in wet snow and running out of breath with every step to climb the first 20 feet. The soldiers laughed the whole time and kept hollering to point better footholds out, but it was all I could do to claw my way up the best I could. I had to stop frequently and cling to the rocks in the mud and snow. There was so little oxygen in the high air that deep breaths weren’t working in the usual way, and with what little I got I laughed with the soldiers, because the joke was a good one.

“You see? No problem!” one of them called in a punchline.

It flattened out in the snow near the top, and I was out of sight of the soldiers and alone when I made it. There was nothing up there but a waving sea of Tibetan prayer flags radiating from a square chorten, a monument to some revered spirit made of stone with niches of whitewashed wood on each of its cardinal sides.

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I was in the cloud that had been enveloping the summit and dropping the sleet and snow that had closed the pass, and, as the colonel said, making the mountain mine, and though the inside of a cloud just looks like fog, there is something deeper and richer about high mountain fog. Being in it is like being underwater without drowning. But clouds move fast in the mountaintops, and this one turned to wisps and blew away. The grey opened up to the deep azure of the sky at that altitude. I put my sunglasses on and watched as the last shreds of the cloud disappeared like steam.

Before going back down the hill to thank the soldiers and insist on leaving a few rupees for tea, which I knew they would refuse once and I would have to insist on once in the accepted ritual before they accepted, I took a last look at the mountains. I had never been higher and knew I would never be again. All around me, these peaks of the western Himalaya were covered in blinding snow all the way to the horizon. 

I came to India with a tiny brown glass bottle filled with a tablespoon or two of Orville’s ashes that I always had in my pocket. This seemed like a good place to leave some of them. Anyone who has scattered the ashes of someone they love knows how it feels to let them go, but I would only leave a few. I went around the chorten to choose the best direction and noticed that the niches of the chorten were all empty. There was no sign of whoever the chorten was meant to honor, none of the the usual offerings or of grains of rice or statues or amulets or bits of red string. I tipped a pinch of the ashes into my hand and then into one of the niches and put the top back on the bottle.

“There you go, Orv,” I said. “I love you up and down.”

A strong feeling came over me in the form of a question that went something like, Isn’t it time to stop this now? Or, Don't you think we should inside now? And in answer I thought, Yes. 

I opened the bottle again and put the rest of Orville’s ashes into the four niches. The winds of the mountains would come to take them. When I had tapped the last of the ashes out I stuffed the bottle full of the snow on the chorten and capped it tightly. I tore an old purple prayer flag from a string of them to take in exchange and folded it and wrapped it around the bottle and knotted it and put it back in my pocket. Later, to smooth out any question of transgression, I would confess all of this to an old monk and he would laugh and put his hands on my shoulders and tell me it was just as it should have been.

I rode down the other side of the pass and into the Nubra Valley. It is the most beautiful place on Earth.

 

*                    *                    *

 

Fifteen years now bridge the span from the little farmhouse in Hygiene, Colorado to the one Roo and I were now going to see in Virginia. 

This was a haggard place. It was in a gated yard at the edge of a cow pasture, but the gate was open and had been for so long that it had settled into the dirt. The gate wasn’t necessary anyway, because the cows knew something that kept them out voluntarily. 

Whoever had left this place last had been at the tail end of their own decline. There were hints of crystal meth as part of the undoing — scars on the door jam from being jimmied and broken windows and siding damaged in what were signs of the range of unnatural new angers pervading America. Through the window it looked like a fireplace had been chiseled from the wall and replaced with a piece of warped plywood. A rotted chicken shack on the property had descended into a state too pitiable even for chickens and was now the repository of gooseneck gasoline cans rusted to parchment and a scattering of rags so soiled that removing them had been the point at which whoever had tried to clean the place out drew the line. At the side of the house facing the pasture that Roo was checking for mouses was a tin dog house, a cruel one, set on steep ground, its sheet metal peeled and bent to razors that would have cut the skin of any dog driven insane from living at the end of the short length of heavy old thresher chain beside it.

I didn’t bother to go in the house. I stood on that leeward side and watched Roo run around for a few minutes. The wind was cold and dry and it blew her golden fur into a blaze among the dead grass as she looked back at me. The cold black cows, driven to lie down in the wind, kept an eye on her, wondering why she wasn’t at the end of that dog chain and suspecting her of getting ready to charge them and make them have to get up and run. They were just paranoid. Roo intended to do no such thing. The wind came up more, more than I could take because I had reached my limit of cold weeks before, and I called to Roo to come to the car. 

I never asked her the question I asked Orville at the other farmhouse, whether she would like to live there. All I said was, “What do you say we get out of here, Bearface?”

In the car Roo sat in the passenger seat. After we had driven a mile or two she started batting me with her paw for attention and I smoothed her face the way she likes and said, “Do you know whose daddy loves his little fat bear up and down?”

She looked at me with her ears back and her head held high and batted me again.

“That’s right,” I said. “Yours. I love you up and down.”

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