For those who understand that exploring remote and dangerous places is always an inner as well as an outer journey, Pemako, a region bordering Tibet and India that includes river gorges three times the depth of the Grand Canyon, has been called, for centuries, the supreme of all hidden-lands.
Its ecosystem ranges from the sub-tropical to the arctic, and besides a bounty of topographical splendor and horticultural diversity, among its offerings to visitors are perpetual rain, stinging nettles, poisonous snakes, and blood-sucking leeches—not to mention no easy evacuation should one break a leg, or worse.
At Pemako’s center is the Tsangpo river, which cascades with such fury, often between walls thousands of feet high, that almost none of it is navigable. Some sections of the Tsangpo are inaccessible to the degree that, very likely, they have never been visited by man. Moreover, Pemako is a source of the legend of Shangri-La, what ancient Tibetan texts call “a celestial realm on earth.” Perhaps more than a secret geographic location, this celestial realm is an experience of inner transformation enjoyed by those able to surrender their conventional perceptions in the face of what one early pilgrim called the “resplendent terror” of Pemako.
This surely was the attraction of explorer Ian Baker, who, in his 2004 memoir, “The Heart of the World: Journey to the Last Secret Place,” narrates a few of his many expeditions to Pemako.
The purpose of this essay is to share a moment of incomparable beauty during one of those expeditions.
On the trek in question, among Baker’s colleagues were the brothers Gil and Todd Gillenwater of Arizona. Also in attendance was a lama, a man of seemingly unshakable good humor. Gil Gillenwater wrote in his journal the following account:
“Today was particularly bad for me as the rain would not let up and the leeches were relentless. At one point I counted twenty-two of them sucking on me at the same time…. Sloshing along the muddy trail in the pounding rain I came upon a large, slimy log that had fallen chest high across our brush-choked path. In my agitated state I viewed the log as a menacing obstacle that was clearly separate, in my way and against me. With no way under or around I jumped, stomach first, and slid over the top. Regaining my balance on the other side, I was infuriated at the mud and decaying mush that seemed to have covered the entire front of my body. Rubbing off the crud I cursed the log and the goddamned rain. It was my brother Todd who suggested that we wait and see how the Lama would handle this formidable impediment. Surely this test would break him.
Hiding off the trail we peeked through the underbrush just in time to see him trudge up to the log. Ever smiling he took a couple of steps back and tried his jump with a running start. With not enough momentum—coupled with a portly belly—he slid back down on the same side of the log and landed on his back in a large puddle. Shaking his rain-drenched head he burst into spasms of uproarious laughter. Staggering to his feet he repeated the same maneuver—with the same result—no less than three times. With each collapse back into the puddle his laughter grew stronger and louder. On his fourth attempt he made it over the top and slid headlong into the muddy puddle on the other side. Again, the laughter was knee-slapping. Continuing to chuckle, he wiped himself off as best he could—lovingly patted the log as through it were a dear friend—and proceeded up the trail—smiling. Todd and I just stared at each other.”
Is there anything that defines our life more than the power of choice?