The Tempest in Its Fury

Features Issue 76 Jul, 2010

The day started off ordinarily enough, if you can call ‘ordinary’ the life of a  Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in the hills of Nepal. It seemed ordinary to me, at least until late afternoon that Himalayan summer day. I was trekking across Lamjung District along a route I knew well.

I anticipated the uphill, the long trek across the ridge tops, then back down into the river valley and up and over the last mountain to ‘home’, my designated posting at tiny Kunchha bazaar. In those days, Kunchha was the Lamjung District headquarters (a few years later district offices were moved to Besisahar). I had been up-district that week examining a broken bridge on the trade route to Manang. My Peace Corps buddy, Bruce, was off on a short assignment in another village and I was approaching home, alone, a day or two ahead of him.

By mid-day cumulus clouds had begun fluffing up in the distance. It was a warm day, enough so that I had to wipe the sweat off my face every few minutes. In my backpack I carried only the necessaray overnight gear, a light sleeping bag, change of clothes, water bottle, flashlight, and the like. I was alone, but not lonely. I greeted many local people along the way as they pursued village activities so typical of life in the hills—e.g., men out working in the fields, children on their way to school, small boys tending goats, women hauling bundles of firewood down from the high forest, girls cutting fodder. It was an ordinary day for me and for them, but I won’t fault anyone for thinking it exotic and extraordinary, in one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth.

It was late April 1964, the hot summer season in Nepal. Bruce and I had been living in Lamjung District since the previous October, as volunteers in rural development, working on various small-scale village improvement projects. The early 1960s was a time when Nepal was awakening from a medieval-like slumber (“catapulting headlong from the 15th into the 20th century”, as someone once rather prosaically put it). By inviting the American Peace Corps to live and work in the remote hinterlands, King Mahendra had signaled his interest in modernizing his landlocked domain.

Strolling leisurely home that day along the trail was exhilarating. The trek took me across the hills in full view of the perpetually snowcapped peaks, the Annapurnas, Lamjung Himal, and Himal Chuli. Gurung villages clung to the mountainsides like postage stamps pasted up in the bright sunlight. Hundreds of terraces cascaded down from them into the valleys below. I whistled contentedly, occasionally stopping for tea at wayside shops, admiring the scenery, chatting with farmers, and taking photographs.

When the trail dropped abruptly off the ridge into the last valley, I could see down to the river crossing and up over the last mountain before Kunchha. If I hurried, I thought, I’d be home before dark.

It was on that last knee-pounding descent that disaster struck, a sudden sharp searing pain in one knee. It happened where the trail wound down through a dark, ghostly Tolkienesque forest, the memory of which remains etched in my ‘mind’s eye’, of gnarly trees, a profusion of bright flowers and birds, the plaintive calls of a cuckoo, sign of jungle cats and bears along the path, and monkeys scampering about overhead through the forest canopy. It was late afternoon and the temperature and humidity were both rising. Those fluffy white clouds now filled the sky, billowing large and ominous, harbingers of the thunderstorm to come.

My reverie was rudely shattered by that painful attack on my knee. It was a malady that foreign trekkers occasionally suffer on hard-packed Himalayan trails. We called it ‘sahib’s knee’, because locals never seemed to get it, only we ‘sahibs’ (as they called us). It felt like someone was driving a red hot nail through the knee cap. I paused, wondering what to do. I couldn’t stop, as there was nowhere to stay on that route, now, until I reached Kunchha. I could only limp slowly on, realizing that it would be long after dark before I arrived home. I used a mountaineer’s ice axe as my walking stick, to lean on.

Sahib’s knee is nothing to scoff at. It is painful, debilitating and frustrating. Some years later I asked an orthopedist what he thought it was. “Nobody knows for sure”, he said, “though it might be the same as ‘runner’s knee’ or chondromalacia patellae, literally ‘cartilage sick kneecap’.” He prescribed a week of bed rest.

Well, yes, that would have been nice. But I still had miles to go and no bed to rest on until I got there.

An hour later, after what was normally a 10 or 15 minute descent, I reached the river crossing. It was getting late and I looked with despair up at the trail ahead. Why is it on Himalayan treks that the last stretch to your destination is inevitably uphill, when you are most worn out and, in my case, in considerable pain? After wading the river, I started up the narrow track through the scrub of what had once been a dense forest.
That’s when the thunderstorm struck. I wrote about it in my journal a day later:
Night fell just as I began to climb the last hill. My flashlight died ten minutes later. In the dark, I was engulfed in the sudden wild storm. The only time I could see the trail was when the lightning struck brightly somewhere on the ridge top above me. My ears were assailed by the thunder’s sonic booms. Then, the rain burst upon me, driven by violent gusts. Leaves and branches whirled through the air and mud splashed my legs. There was nowhere to take shelter. No cow shed. No farmhouse. Not even a big tree, though I knew better than to sit under a tree with all the pyrotechnics going on around me. (I was darned lucky not to have been struck down by lightning.)

Earthshaking. Stupendous. Violent. Scary! What other adjectives are there to describe one of the wildest and most awesome storms I’ve ever experienced? It was a storm of Himalayan proportions. It soaked me to the skin and chilled me to the bone, but I had no option other than to keep limping along on that cursed knee, through the dark, wet and cold from the downpour.

My knee hurt so badly by now that I put a stick in my mouth to bite down on. Tears of pain welled up in my eyes. The track was a running stream of mud and ankle bruising stones. A real maelstrom. And now I truly was alone. Nobody with any sense ventured out in such a storm. I met no one and saw nothing other than imaginary spooks and spirits in the shadows each time the lightning flashed.

On that classic ‘dark and stormy night’ the thunder was magnificent. I appreciate the memory of it now more than I did then. Every ear-splitting BANG! sounded like sharp canon fire, falling off to a drum roll, echoing into the distance.

I limped. I cried. I swore aloud, all the way to the top. When I finally reached home I must have looked to the locals like some apparition stumbling through the dark, in mud-splattered trekking shorts and clinging wet T-shirt, lugging my pack, tear streaks down my dirty face, leaning on the walking stick, muttering incoherently.

I spent the next seven days in our house, flat on my back. Bruce returned a day later and saw to it that I had tea to drink and meals to eat. I read a lot that week from the Peace Corps book box, the writings of such famous American authors as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain, and poets Carl Sandberg, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost.

Whitman’s ‘Proud music of the storm’ (from Leaves of Grass, 1900) caught my eye. From that long poem I jotted down these few lines apropos of my experience:

Proud music of the storm! . . .
You serenades of phantoms . . .
You undertone of rivers, roar of pouring cataracts;
You sounds from distant guns, with
galloping cavalry!. . .
Trooping tumultuous, filling the midnight late, bending me powerless,
. . . the tempest in its fury.

I recovered from sahib’s knee and have never had it since. It is a malady about which doctors have little to say and know even less. Nowadays, when I venture out along the rough mountain trails, I suffer from another trekker’s malady, one that H.W. Tilman, the great mid-20th century adventurer, called “mountaineers foot”. He described as “a reluctance to put one foot in front of the other.”

Sahib’s knee. Mountaineer’s foot. Snow peaks. Dark forest. Steep trails. Thunderous fury. I remember it all very well. I sometimes think back to that stormy night and marvel at how I took all ‘in stride’, so to speak. It was not so terribly out of the ordinary, for someone living in the Himalayas.  

Between 1962 and 2004, the American Peace Corps fielded almost 4,000 volunteers to Nepal at the invitation of the government. The author was in the second group (1963-65), assigned to rural development in Lamjung District.