There is Mercy


We had walked 5 hours already that day; most of it under the sweltering sun on the dusty, uninspiring road that has ben steadily built around much of the Annapurna Circuit the last several years. We were beginning to wonder if we should have heeded the advice to trek the Everest region instead.

Our legs, hips, back and shoulders ached, not yet used to the weight of our packs. “Maybe we’ve gone far enough today,” we thought.

We sipped our tea, debating whether to pick out a guesthouse in Chamje with a waterfall view or carry on to further villages. We knew this much:

1) Chamje to Sattale would take us about 1.5 hours.
2) There is one guesthouse in Sattale.
3) Tal is another 2 hours, a steep incline on rocks, better done (according to our guidebook) in the early morning rather than the heat of the day.

As the sugary tea did its work refreshing us, we set our sights for Sattale, even as we heard thunder rumbling in the distance. We refilled our water, hoisted our packs onto our throbbing shoulders, tightened the straps around our bruised waists and stepped back onto the road.

Soon after the trail departed from the road, leading onto a small path, descending briefly before leading to a metal suspension bridge spanning the Marsyangdi river. I stepped onto the bridge, glancing left, right, and through the cracks below me where clear water crashed against rocks, and rushed on to lower heights. Before me stood a large cliff with red, yellow, white and blue prayer flags draped across the rock face. “Beautiful,” I thought.

I smiled as I crossed the bridge – usually a task that slightly unnerves me – and let my surroundings sink in. Suddenly my pack felt lighter, my shoulders didn’t hurt and my feet forgot that they’d been walking for three days. I felt good.

I waited for Kim and Becca as they followed the path to the bridge and crossed behind me. They were both smiling. Apparently they shared my feelings.

“I’m starting to think that maybe this will be worth it,” remarked Kim as she joined me on solid ground. I laughed at her emphasis on starting to and maybe.

Either that tea was spiked with local marijuana plants, or our gratitude to be off the road and onto a lovely shaded path gave us renewed strength and the way to Sattale would be a breeze. We greeted three Australian blokes cheerfully as they passed us from behind and continued on our way.

Sometime up the trail Becca exclaimed, “I think I understand what it means that the joy of The Lord is my strength!” It was part tongue in cheek (when you grow up in the Evangelical subculture like us, you tend to shy away from Christianese like this), but mostly serious – we were basking in Creation, soaking up the reality of walking in the Himalaya of Nepal and embracing the joy of it. We walked on feeling that 3 weeks of this might just be doable.

Thunder continued to rumble occasionally. I thought of the Australian guys, and those we passed heading the opposite direction, encouraged that we weren’t the only ones who decided to keep hiking with possible lightning approaching.

As we neared Sattale, I walked ahead – as was becoming habit – to negotiate prices at the guesthouse. Clouds continued to move toward us and small drops of rain pattered on my bare arms and hands.

I reached the one guesthouse of Sattale, looked up at the dark windows and wondered if anyone was home.

“Hello?” I said, stepping into the kitchen of the adjacent building. A girl of about 16 appeared. “There are three of us,” I told her in Nepali, “can we get a room for the night?”

“There are no rooms left,” she said bluntly. I stared at her a bit dumbfounded, pressing that surely there was room. But no, she persisted, there was not. At that moment a white man with a bare chest, holding soap and a towel in his hands came from the dark building. It was one of the three Australians who had passed us on the way. Of course. For some reason, I knew this would happen.

I walked back down the path to meet Becca and Kim. “I hope you’re still feeling the joy of The Lord,” I shouted.

“I thought you were coming to tell us there were no rooms left,” Becca said as she reached me.

“That’s exactly what I came to tell you.”

“I had a feeling this would happen,” she said.

By this time the rain was thickening and we walked back to the guesthouse with no rooms. We relieved our bladders, split a Cliff Bar three ways, put on our pack covers and rain jackets, and pulled out our second trekking pole, thinking of the difficult climb to Tal – the climb we intended to do in the cool morning – as the sprinkling rain quickly turned into a downpour.

The winds swept in and the rain pelted us as we began our 2 hour ascent. We soon emerged from the shaded path onto an open hill without any shelter from the rain or wind. I walked slowly, and turned around in time to see Kim’s hat blown off her head by the whipping wind. As she turned to grab it she lost her balance and the wind knocked her off her feet and onto the ground. Becca, behind Kim, scurried to grab the hat.

“Please don’t run, please don’t run, please don’t run,” I pleaded mentally as the hat – and Becca – moved closer to the cliff’s edge. I walked back swiftly as Becca safely retrieved the hat and helped Kim onto her feet.

Onward we walked in the pouring rain with thunder occasionally rumbling in the distance. The trail did not stay on the open hillside long, but brought us up against a rock face looming high above, giving us – at times – relief from the direct pelt of the cold rain.

Occasionally along the rock face there would be a jutting in of the rock by the path, not a cave, but a shelter big enough for three people. Every time I would think – and sometimes say in all seriousness – if worse comes to worst, we could stay warm and dry in there for the night. But onward we walked.

Finally the trail led us away from the rock face and back into the open, and to the real ascent – the one we had been warned about as being particularly difficult.

My trekking poles moved with my body, the rubber caps slamming the large, slippery-when-wet rocks with each step up. By now we were wet. We were cold. We were tired. With the increasing thunder, we were a little nervous.

But there was only one way to go, and that was up.

Step. Pole. Step. Pole.

Up. Forward. Onward. Pole.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. The mantra entered my head and continued with each stab of my pole.

Left pole. Lord have mercy.

Right pole. Christ have mercy.

Left pole. Lord have mercy.

I thought of all those sinners and saints who, through the centuries, repeated these words in supplication to the risen Lord. And with each step  I continued the mantra out loud, quietly.

Right step. Lord have mercy.

Left step. Christ have mercy.

Right step. Lord have mercy.

I’m not one to ever confidently say, “God spoke to me.” But these words, whatever their source, came into my head:

Enough of all that. Your constant request for mercy is unnecessary. Don’t you know that mercy has already been given? There is mercy in every drop of rain falling on you and around you. There is mercy in every rock on which you place your feet. There is mercy in the shrubs, the weeds, and the marijuana plants lining this trail. From your breath they find life, from their life you find breath. So no more pleas for mercy now. Simply breathe in. Breathe out. Kiss the life around you with your breath, feel the ground beneath your feet, let the water replenish the earth. There is mercy in the rocks, the rain, the leaves. There is mercy. There is grace. There is life. You don’t need to plead for mercy. For mercy has already been given.

I stopped with the pleas and supplications and followed the instructions of that voice, receiving with gratitude the mercy of life, feeling every raindrop on my bare hands, noting every rock with each present, intentional step, breathing in, breathing out, breathing in, breathing out.

TalClimbing, breathing, stepping, we reached a sign of hope – a literal sign informing us we were 20 minutes from Tal; maybe, for us, more like 30. By this time the rain was subsiding and the clouds beginning to clear.

(The thing about climbing mountains is that you don’t always know when you will reach the top. You see it levels off up ahead, but when you arrive there, you are depressed to find the trail sloping upwards once again. This was true of our climb to Tal. Finally, though, we reached the true peak of our day.)

“Oh no they didn’t!” shouted Kim as she stepped on top of the ridge.
Large smiles crept onto our faces as the scene opened up before us.

Below us was a wide, flat trail between two hills, with the river floating smoothly and quietly past the village of Tal. Rising up between those hills, past the village, was our first, striking view of the overwhelming, breathtaking majesty that are the himalayan mountains, not only green foothills, but huge monstrosities of snow, ice and rock.

We followed the short descent to the valley and walked alongside the river filled with joy, gratitude, and the thought that yes, maybe, this would all be worth it.

We took a pilgrimage, not to a church or shrine or temple but to the mountains. For 23 days we walked in the presence of some of the world’s most breath-taking scenery in the Annapurna region of Nepal, completing the full Annapurna Circuit and a few side-treks. These are a few reflections written along the way, after hours and days of walking and breathing and sometimes contemplating.


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