I’ve been shooting portraits for 20 years. Two decades of doing the same thing has a tendency to give one perspective: A forced pause to stop and take note of all that has changed (and not). In this case most notably the subjects.
We should have hired a guide. A year earlier we hiked through The Enchantments, a cluster of glacier fed granite lakes high in the Cascade Mountains. On that particular trip we’d overcome some challenges that left us with a heightened level of misguided confidence. This overconfidence led us to Nepal.
Arriving at the trailhead for the Annapurna Circuit was arduous and we had already trekked about 10 hours that first day. Our packs were excessive which further exemplified our inexperience. Locals celebrated the new road, which hikers viewed as a scar on the otherwise untouched landscape. We wanted to see Nepal not the road, and by that afternoon we’d decided not to listen to the well-intentioned residents who steered us from the scenic yet difficult path. At 4:30pm we came to a sign at the head of a suspended cable bridge which read: "Hikers don't miss this trail! The natural hot springs, the incredible village of Bahundanda and the breathtaking vista of Besi Sahar!" A man spotted us about to cross the bridge and tried to talk us out of it. He drew a map in the sand with one of our trekking poles and explained that if we stuck to the road we’d be at the village of Jagat in two hours, whereas the other way would take an entire day. The third option however, the village of Bahundanda, was only 45 minutes, but a very steep climb.
The sun was lowering and the road seemed quiet. The closest towns behind and ahead of us on that road were two hours away. The town across the bridge a mere 45 minutes, but straight up. He watched from afar as we ignored his advice and crossed the bridge anyway. We turned left at the fork with arrogant confidence and followed the river which ended at the hot springs. Beyond the hot springs we saw another narrow, steep trail that began with rock hewn stairs leading straight up the side of a mountain. At the crown of this steep trail we knew must be Bahundanda. Despite the lowering sun, temptation was overwhelming and we threw off our clothes and lowered our bodies into the steamy, inviting water.
At dusk we dressed ourselves and began the steep climb upward, armed with the headlamps my father had given us only two days prior. The trail continued to narrow along a sheer drop on our right side. Soon there was a sheer drop on our left side as well. The darkness increased and fruit bats the size of small children flew uncomfortably close to us. Night fell as we crested the mountain and the dangerous, narrow trail faded. We descended slightly and assumed the village lay in the valley below. An hour passed and in the darkness we lost our trail, but not the uncomfortable awareness that sheer drops were all around us. "I didn't come here to die" I relayed in a less than pleasant tone to my partner (now husband). "Especially on our first day". It was a teahouse trek and not planning to camp we hadn’t brought camping gear with us. Nevertheless it seemed preferable to spend the night on the mountain, amidst large insects, than to continue stepping blindly on this dangerous trail in the dark. The trail reappeared however, so we cautiously resumed our descent. At points the path was a mere two feet and the drop at it's edge a black abyss. Our bodies ached. We thought we had trained. We were self-proclaimed adventure travelers and our first world imprudence was painful. We were foolish.
We continued downward and another hour passed. The lights and hope were beginning to wither when the path opened up and we actually reached bottom. We just stood staring, and all was silent. Facing us were the hot springs. We were where we began.
The sun came up early and silhouetted the mountains next to river, under the rocks which served as our beds the night before. Birds were everywhere and we were humbled by splendor. Oh… and the hot springs were still there. We bathed again before starting out.
*The sound clip below is what we awakened to the following morning, and was aired on KUOW's 'The Record' as their "sound of the day". - 12:00pm P.S.T. 6/10/2014.
In September of 2000 I traveled alone to Jerusalem, just prior to the second Intifada. My plan was to stay in The Old City, rent a car and take day excursions throughout Israel and Palestine. I’d read that if I rented from a Palestinian agency I wouldn’t be able to drive freely through Israel. I’d also read that if I rented from an Israeli agency I might have rocks pelted at my car in parts of the West Bank. I decided to rent from an Arab-Israeli company, which seemed fairly neutral.
I stayed in an old Armenian hospital that had been converted into a small hotel, just inside the Damascus Gate. I took day excursions as far south as Masada and as far North as The Golan Heights, stopping everywhere in between. Driving was lively and I lost my way on every trip, usually ending up where I’d planned, often where I didn’t. At one point on my drive north I took a wrong turn and ended up on a dirt road that bordered Syria. There were yellow triangle signs with writing and exclamation points, but I couldn’t read Hebrew. When I finally realized the magnitude of my error the road was too narrow to turn around, and I didn’t want to drive off of it for fear of land mines. I drove in reverse for about a mile. When I made it back onto the highway I was stopped by a military vehicle and told that I needed to leave the area immediately, with which I earnestly agreed. Upon returning to Jerusalem and parking my car I wandered through the Old City and lost my way again, only this time on foot. The only tourists who seemed more lost than I were the endless lines of Christian cross-bearing pilgrims, following what they believed to be the route that Jesus had walked to Golgotha. The correct route I had been told was actually through the butchers market on the other side of the city.
I’m not religious and can’t explain why I chose this specific destination. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just fascinated by the region itself, and the extreme and seemingly surreal intensity that surrounds it. What I did find was that profound experience while traveling alone is still profound, but can also be lonely. I honestly thought it would be good for me to go away and miss my family. In the end it was and I did. On my next adventure however, I brought them along.