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Photo by Kendall Marianacci, Nepal Semester.

The Beat of the Mountains

Growing up in San Francisco I have always considered the city a core part of my identity, never able to imagine myself anywhere else. So much so, in fact, that I told my college counselor I would only seriously consider urban schools. Somehow I could not imagine a life without the array of museums I don’t go to, hundreds of restaurant options of which I frequent the few in a 5 block radius of my house, and thousands of people from all over the world, though my social circle is mainly limited to the 3 schools I’ve attended. For the past 18 years of my life I’ve been a city boy who balked at the idea of camping for more than a weekend and laughed at my efforts failed efforts to grow flowers in a planter outside my window.

This spring I made a choice I never expected to make–I turned down the opportunity to study in one of the most exciting cities in the country for a school in a much smaller city which many of my friends and family deemed “rural” by comparison (though that description is mislead). The truth was that for the first time in my life the city had overwhelmed me. Everyone and everything seemed to be moving so fast around me that the world became a blur. I felt that if I tried to keep up I would trip and fall in the blur. I did not take this discovery as a fault within myself. Instead, I questioned the identity I had clung to my entire life. Perhaps, I thought, my internal drum beats a bit slower. Slower, but still steady. I realized I could try to speed up the beat to match the pace of my environment, but eventually I would get tired and it would falter. I realized that I could make the choice to choose to match my own beat to the life I choose, or choose a life that matches my beat.

Just one year ago I would have dreaded going on a trek. That mindset alone probably would have been enough to shape my experience for the worse. I had convinced myself that the outdoors just weren’t for me, and without ever having committed myself to immersion in nature had resigned myself to a life spent surrounded by pavement, cars, and skyscrapers, the landscape occasionally broken by a lone, sad tree of a perfectly planned park used as a homeless camp. I signed up for this course hoping I would enjoy it in spite of the trekking component, but never because of it.

I had the luck to stumble into a blessing in disguise. It came in the form of a 3 week long backpacking trip organized by some friends. Two months before they were supposed to leave one member dropped out. Knowing I was taking a gap year, my friend asked me to take the fourth spot in the group. Hesitant but excited by the adventure and spontaneity of the offer, I accepted. Two months later, after countless trips to REI and approximately one and a half training hikes, we set off on the John Muir Trail.

Although I had no previous backpacking experience I found my feet quickly fell into a steady rhythm and my mind was constantly turning. Surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of the trek from Yosemite to the top of Mt. Whitney I wondered what I had against this. I learned to love the burn of my legs on the ascent and nights after 13 and 15 mile days spent singing campfire songs. As I climbed into the car on the 21st day, filthy and exhausted, I was excited to return home but also incredibly sad. My internal drum, it turns out, matches incredibly well to the beat of the wilderness which you can hear in the rustle of the trees, trickle of streams, and crunch of rocks.

It was with a new sort of love that I embarked on the Helambu trek here in Nepal. Although the beautiful mountains of California had been my first, I longed to again feel the rhythm of the mountains. On the first day, as we ascended flight after flight of stairs I started to feel the familiar burn in my legs and sweat on my brow. To return to the simplicity of trekking was to clear my mind–trekking, after all, is a mostly physical experience–and it sent me once again into days of self reflection, contemplating the role of nature in my life as well as my life in general.

During the trek we were constantly surrounded by the most surreal landscapes as we followed the mountains upward into the mist. We walked along cliffsides covered in moss and around white and golden stupas. We trekked through small villages with houses scattered across the hillsides and spent many afternoons and evenings in warm tea houses sipping hot chiya. It was a different experience than the one I’d had before, but just as magical. It cemented the belief in my mind that the mountains will indeed play a role in my life moving forward. Although I didn’t come to too many revelations, that one gave me an incredible sense of comfort.

For the past two weeks I have been reevaluating what I consider most important to me. Before we left on the six day trek we spent three nights at the Three Trees permaculture farm in a town outside Kathmandu owned by a Dragons instructor and his wife. There we learned about sustainable farming and the idea that we depend on so many outside sources for our own survival. They are trying to live by the idea that they can grow and cultivate for themselves as much as what they need to live as they can.

I have always lived as if my mind is the most important. I have spent most of my life in classrooms and reading books. I have always put this sort of intellectualism first, always allowing myself to negate interactions with nature and physical activity. I ignored the biological sciences for the arts and humanities, convinced that those subjects were more important and relevant to me. But, as we have discussed extensively during this course thus far, it is OK to change your mind.

I have changed my mind about many things, even just in the two weeks we have spent in Nepal so far. Though my hope to spend more time in nature and test the physical limits of my body may seem inconsequential to conversations we have had and will continue to have about development, poverty, and rebuilding, I know that my life has already taken a different path than what I may have anticipated. All of a sudden life on a farm far away from the city doesn’t seem so foreign. I want to know what it means to live alongside nature as a friend and a resource instead of space to be developed or taken advantage of for some purpose or another.

But, like most things in life, the city and nature exist on a spectrum. As I prepare for the next three weeks in Patan I am excited to return to the environment of a city. Although Patan operates at a much more intense pace than my hometown, I feel that my time spent in the mountains has given me a newfound confidence in my own internal beat. Moving forward I know that  I will be able to bring together the two parts of my life which so far I have allowed to exist in a binary: the city and nature. Perhaps I can bring a little bit of the arts and culture I seek out in every city to the mountains, and a little piece of the mountains back home.