Between Heaven and Hell (Excerpt)

In this passage from Bob Shacochis’s new adventure narrative set in the Mustang region of Nepal, the author and his band of travelers come face to face with another chasm as they seek access to a timeless world.

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  1. A third of the way up the slope, where the ravine gradually attenuates into natural staircasing, Jann climbs off her horse, shaking. The trail becomes insane, and we’re forced to dismount and lead the ponies through a steep obstacle course of boulders. Two-thirds of the way, the path flattens onto a small shelf at the base of the insurmountable cliff, and we find ourselves staring saucer-eyed up a seventy-degree chute, a cornucopia of loose, smooth, round rocks the size of grapefruits and basketballs and everything in between, a stalled tumble of rocks. Just to scale the chute on hands and feet seems like an extreme act of foolishness, given the instability of the course. Except for Mahendra and the slothful Bangkokers, we’re of a single incredulous mind concerning this approach: No fucking way. “How high is it?” I ask Ang Tsering, who has remained on horseback. “Two ropes,” he answers. Two one-hundred-meter ropes. No one’s willing to bet a hundred dollars we can ride up the chute, and even Mahendra concedes it’s impossible to ride down.

    Like the horses themselves, we’re balking. Cat wisely gets off; she’ll walk with Jann. Mahendra admonishes us to put aside our fear, because if we’re afraid, the horses will be afraid; be confident and go. Just then a wizened old traveler astride his pony comes up behind us from the ravine, acknowledges us with a gap-toothed smile, and whips his horse into the chute as if there were nothing to it. “See?” clucks Mahendra. Mike and the Captain kick their horses ahead and we wrap our fists into our ponies’ manes and advance. Every step tortures the animals. I haven’t gone fifty feet before Jamling is exhausted, panting, lurching for solid ground as his hooves slide in the loose rocks. I try to dismount, but Mahendra strongly objects; this is not the time for foreigners to quibble with Mustang’s principles of sound horsemanship, because if I throw the horse off balance he’ll fall before I can even pop my foot out of the stirrup.

    Directly above me, Mike’s horse seems about to collapse backwards and roll on top of Jamling. Above Mike, the Captain, indifferent to the purpose and function of reins, threatens to crush my wife into the side of the chute as she tries to scramble out of his way. And higher still, it has not slipped my notice that the old man has hopped off his pony to assault the chute’s final, most radical section. Mahendra yells at me. “Just hit the horse,” he urges. “Beat the horse. It will go.”

    Mike and Ang Tsering embrace this advice and strap their ponies mercilessly with their reins. “I left my guilt behind,” Mike shouts triumphantly as his horse skitters upward, and I wonder if perhaps Mike’s been in Asia too long. Myself, I kick and prod Jamling and command him forward until I imagine his lungs bursting, blood spraying from the flare of his nostrils. The rocks are too wobbly to allow him to catch his breath. He gasps and slobbers, noble eyes wild from the effort. I let go of the reins and grip his mane with both hands, my head against his sweaty neck. Rocks clatter in our wake, and finally he lunges into the opening sky and we are both, horse and rider, reborn into a world so beautiful and alive that the chute from which we emerge now seems purgatorial, a mythic passage between hell and heaven. One by one, our horsemen are released from the canyon, and we walk across the grassy pastures of the plain of Tsarang and then remount and ride joyously into the village.

    Preview more of Bob Shacochis's Between Heaven and Hell.

Originally published in Byliner, September 2012