The Foothills

Caroline answered her phone between yelling into the playroom at Nora and Danny to be quiet and shifting her youngest, Judy, to her other hip. Judy wore a silky Elsa costume she hadn’t taken off for weeks and she was chewing on a strand of Caroline’s long blonde hair. “Who’s that?” Judy cried. She flung the wet hair against Caroline’s cheek where it stuck, cold and matted.

In the playroom, four-year-old Nora and six-year-old Danny were playing house. Nora was the mom, Danny the little boy. But Danny didn’t want to be the little boy. He wanted to be the dad. “There is no dad,” objected Nora. She was making a bed for him out of a frayed pillowcase and the cushions from the living room couch. “You’re the baby.” Danny protested by flinging his plastic bacon at her, popping her right above the eye. Nora clasped her eye with both hands and started to cry. Caroline saw all this from where she stood in the kitchen, holding Judy and the phone.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Caroline said. She carried Judy into the master bedroom and closed the door. “What did you say?”

“I need your help,” said her mother. “Your father has done it again.”

Nora opened the bedroom door, still clutching her eye.

“Mommy!” she said.

“Go to the kitchen and wait for me,” said Caroline. She set Judy on the floor. “Follow your sister.”

“I’m Elsa,” said Judy, and she spun awkwardly in her teal dress.

Again, Caroline closed the door. She lay down on her king-size bed. The comforter was soft and white. Everything in the room was spare, clean, minimalistic—like it was bought straight from a Kinfolk magazine. Beside the bed, a giant fiddle-leaf fig grew in a large gray-stone pot. Above the bed frame hung a large black-and-white photograph Mark had taken of all five of them right after Judy was born. They smiled happily from the freshly varnished porch swing in front of their home in the suburbs of Raleigh. Mark was a wedding photographer, Caroline an interior decorator until recently, when she became a full time stay-at-home mom. She liked being a stay-at-home mom except on the days when she suffered from cabin fever and wished none of her children had ever been born.

“Mom, what happened?” Caroline asked.

On the other end, her mother sighed so deeply Caroline wondered if she was playing it up for dramatic effect.

“He’s gone over there again,” her mother said. “He got some bug and is in the hospital. I need someone to go get him.”

Caroline knew “over there”meant a mountain range somewhere on the other side of the planet. When she was seven, her father had quit his job as a high-level accountant and moved to Seattle to become a mountaineer, leaving Caroline and her mother behind. Shortly after, he moved to Kathmandu, working as a porter to pay his way through the Himalayas and eventually climb Mount Everest twice, once from the Nepali side and once from the improbably more strenuous Tibetan side.

Despite their history, Caroline’s parents were on good terms. Every time he went abroad, her father told her mother where he was going and when he expected to return. He’d gotten sick before—Dengue Fever, Giardia, Malaria twice—but nobody had ever called Caroline about it.

“Okay,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”

Her response came out ruder than she meant. She wanted to be rude, but she also wanted to restrain herself, to be gracious to her mother even if her mother didn’t deserve it. On the bedside table lay Mark’s scruffy copy of the Holy Bible. He was working his way through the whole thing, reading a bit of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and a Psalm every night before bed. The night before, he had read aloud to Caroline from the book of Hosea, something about birds caught in nets and leaders felled with swords. It made her uneasy. “Read to me from the Psalms,” she said, but the Psalm he read was about the wrath of God poured down the people’s throats as poisonous wine from a golden cup, punishment for their wickedness.

It was clear what her mother wanted: for Caroline to fly halfway across the world and retrieve her father. He was in a hospital in Kathmandu, sick with a fever and a rash all over his body. “They don’t know what he has,” her mother said. “But it’s bad.” She sounded frightened, and Caroline wondered why the hell her mother cared. He wasn’t her husband anymore. They hadn’t seen each other in years. Caroline herself hadn’t seen her father since she was in her mid-twenties.

Still: he was her father. And Caroline couldn’t help thinking about what her pastor at Christ Bible Church had said last Sunday morning—that loving, truly loving others the way Christ loved us required allowing the other to hurt us the way we hurt Christ with the crown of thorns laid on his head and the rusty nails dug in his palms and the sharp spear thrust in his side.

“I’m not paying for my ticket,” she said. “And you have to watch the kids.”


Mark drove Caroline to the airport early in the morning. He would drop her off, then circle around to the pick-up area where her mother was due to arrive any minute. Their children were at home with a sitter, presumably making pancakes into stars, comets, and crescent moons in a now likely destroyed kitchen.

Caroline kept apologizing to Mark for leaving. She felt bad about abandoning him with their children and, especially, her mother. She also suspected he was jealous of her escaping North Carolina in the dead of summer to visit such an exotic locale. She guessed Mark would have jumped at the opportunity to take his camera to Kathmandu.

But Caroline had not asked him if he wanted to go. It was her father who was sick, after all, and though she could not summon any real sense of responsibility for him—let alone love—she was sure she should try. Perhaps acting on a pretend sense of responsibility would create a genuine one. Anyway, Mark had two weddings to shoot that upcoming weekend. Practically speaking, she was the one to go. She did not dwell on the fact that underneath all this responsible rationalization, she wanted to go alone.

“I’m sorry about this,” Caroline said again. “I wouldn’t go if there were any other way.”

“Please,” said Mark. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”

Mark often told her not to apologize for the things she didn’t do wrong; it weakened the impact of real apologies, he said. Caroline’s therapist suggested she apologized so often to “hedge her bets” because she was secretly afraid Mark would use any excuse to leave her—just like her father had.

“Do you have everything?” Mark asked. He pulled to a stop in front of the terminal. “Passport? Wallet? Phone?”

Caroline plunged her hand into her oversized purse and felt around in the dark until she successfully identified all three.

“Supposedly the hotel has Wi-Fi,” she said. “Maybe I can Skype with the kids.”

“Don’t eat any meat,” said Mark. “And don’t drink the water. Buy bottled water and check the seal. You know in India they refill used bottles with dirty water and glue the cap back on to make it look sealed.”

“I’ll be safe, I promise.”

Mark handed her a card that said “Mommy!” on the front in red crayon.

“From the kids,” he said. “We love you.”

In the airport, Caroline bought the July/August edition of Vogue and the latest Jodi Picoult novel. She flipped through the glossy pages of androgynous, adolescent models, recalling the time before she had children when her stomach was not cellulite-dappled, her breasts still small and spry. She did not resent her children. She loved them. From the moment each child was born her body transformed ever more into unadulterated love for them. And yet. On the flight, Caroline ordered a glass of chilled white wine from the friendly flight attendant and as the wine took over, melting her arms and legs into the seat, she felt the weight of motherhood, this iron-clad yolk she carried on her shoulders, ever so slowly begin to rise.


Caroline was in a daze when she landed at last in Kathmandu, and she was shocked by the confusion that awaited her. “You look lost,” said a woman in an Australian accent who appeared unexpectedly out of the crowd. The woman seemed young and cheerful. She wore slinky black gauchos that ballooned around her thighs and synched at her ankles. Her thick, dirty blonde dreadlocks swept like a wave off her brow.

“First time to Nepal?” she asked. “I’m Rhee. You American?”

Rhee pointed at Caroline’s passport, and Caroline nodded.

“It’s all right,” she said. “Follow me. I’ve done this a million times before.” And like a lost child who’d been rescued by a sympathetic grown-up, Caroline did as she was told. Rhee led her through customs, seeing an orderly system where Caroline only saw chaos.

As they navigated, Rhee explained that she was on a trip around the world, dropping in on Nepal for a few months—or longer, depending on her fancy—to volunteer with an earthquake cleanup crew in the foothills of the Himalayas. The last time she’d been in Nepal was only months before the quake, when she’d joined a group of trekkers trying to make their way into Tibet. They never made it, she said, because a snowstorm blocked one of the high mountain passes.

When they stepped outside the airport into the clatter of traffic and dust and sunshine, Rhee hooked her thumbs around the straps of her backpack and said, “You staying at Alobar? We can share a cab.”

“Oh no,” said Caroline. “I already have a hotel. I’m supposed to meet my driver.” She felt a surge of fear at the idea of leaving the side of this competent woman.

“What hotel?” Rhee asked, loudly enough to make herself heard over the din.

“It’s called Ganesh Himal,” said Caroline.

They stopped on the curb, where taxis, motorcycles, and tuk-tuks lay in wait under the relentless sun and a shroud of smog. Upon seeing them, several men leaning against their vehicles stood and approached. But Rhee was quicker. She’d already found the hotel on her phone—“Do you have MapsMe? You have to get it.”—and waved the men away before they could offer a deal of a ride.

“It’s not far,” she said. “Look, there’s your driver.” Rhee pointed to an elderly man holding a flimsy paper sign with an elephant on it. “I’ll come visit you tonight,” she said. “I know a cheap place for curry—cheap by Nepali standards.” She turned to leave. “You’ll love it. Everyone does.”

Only yesterday Caroline had eaten breakfast in the kitchen nook of her modest suburban home, surrounded by her three sleepy-eyed, pajama-clad children. Mark had served her a hearty meal of sausage and scrambled eggs. “Who knows what you’ll eat over there,” he had said. Now, Caroline stood on a faded sequined blanket on the balcony of her hotel room in the Thamel district of Kathmandu overlooking a narrow dirt street strung with triangular tinfoil streamers that rattled and spanged in the sun. The street teemed with commerce, a conglomerate of Western trekkers with beards and backpacks preparing to hike some remote trail in the Himalayas and their Nepali counterparts ready to sell the discount, knock-off gear they would need to withstand the extremes.

Tangled power lines spilled like masses of writhing black snakes off wooden poles—a liability, thought Caroline, before realizing there may not be “liabilities” in this part of the world. Vendors called out from the fronts of their stores, which overflowed onto the street with gold singing bowls, turquoise teapots, and plastic-wrapped packets of prayer flags. “Namaste! Where are you from?” they asked the tourists who strolled past in clouds of dust kicked up by the ever-present stream of motorcycles. And: “Yes, please,” as if buying that 100 percent yak wool blanket would be a favor, not a business transaction.

As Caroline watched this commotion, she wondered whether her father had walked this very street, either on a visit years earlier or recently, maybe only a few days prior. She wondered what her father would think if he saw her now, standing in Kathmandu, of all places. Would he be proud of her for traveling all this way?

When her father unexpectedly showed up at her college graduation, Caroline had told him about her plan to bicycle across Thailand with one of her sorority sisters, expecting him to be excited and pleased. Surely Thailand was one of the many places he’d visited in East Asia; perhaps they could bond over this soon-to-be shared experience.

Instead, he had said, “Makes sense. Thailand is basically College 2.0. The islands are just one big frat party.”

Caroline did not expect Rhee to appear at the hotel to take her out for curry. She had met people like Rhee in Thailand—adventurous, energetic travelers who flew by the seats of their pants. By the time Rhee reached Alobar, she’d have forgotten all about wide-eyed Caroline and the promise to show her the cheapest curry in town.

Instead, Caroline planned to shower, eat in the hotel’s secluded courtyard, and go straight to bed. She would visit her father at the hospital in the morning because she did not relish the idea of navigating Kathmandu at night. The hotel had Wi-Fi, but it was worthless now thanks to a rolling blackout. She hoped Mark wasn’t worried about her, but she guessed he probably was.

So, when someone knocked on the door to her room, then boldly shook the handle, Caroline was for a moment bewildered and slightly frightened in her haze of sleep-deprivation. But it was only Rhee, along with two others she’d met on the way, come to fetch Caroline for dinner. How Rhee had found her room was a mystery that, when Caroline thought about it, did not particularly astonish her.

Rhee flopped onto the bed, crossed her legs at the ankles, and placed her hands behind her head. “Caroline, meet Danny and Imogen. Guys, meet Caroline,” she said.

“My son’s name is Danny,” said Caroline, and she held out her hand to shake. It was a gesture she realized too late was unnecessary. These were free-spirited voyagers; they did not shake hands. Still, Danny kindly grasped hers in both of his, and pulled her in, and kissed her courteously on both cheeks.

Danny was tall and thin, gangly really, with straggly blonde hair that hung in his eyes like a California skater boy’s, though he was entirely British. He wore dark green gauchos—Did every Westerner in Nepal wear gauchos?—and a boxy brown shirt made of woven hemp.

Imogen was shorter but equally thin, with the pale, nearly translucent skin and white-blonde hair of a Scandinavian. Her hair was cut in a short pixie that enhanced her delicate features. She wore several dainty silver rings in both ears and a triangular ring at the base of her nose—like a cow, thought Caroline, and immediately considered herself uncool for thinking it. Both Imogen and Danny looked young, at least a decade younger than Caroline.

“Oh my god,” said Danny in his lovely British accent as he peered into Caroline’s bathroom. “I can’t remember the last time I had a real shower. How much are you paying for this room?”

He turned on the faucet and squealed like a little girl when he found the hot water actually hot.

“Can we come over and use your shower?” Danny asked, and, looking into his eager, boyish face, Caroline wondered if her Danny would look like this Danny someday. She said, “Sure. But you’ll have to bring your own towel.” She didn’t know why she added the bit about the towel; the hotel had given her a stack of four.

Rhee led them through the streets of Thamel to the famous cheap curry place. Caroline gathered bits and pieces of her new companions’ lives as they walked, dodging motorcycles and mud puddles and weather-worn families frying momos on wood fires right off the road.

Imogen was on a two-year pilgrimage around the world. So far, she’d visited Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and now, Nepal. Up next: India. Then: who knew. Eventually, she wanted to visit the United States, in particular, Washington, Colorado, and New York City. She had never heard of North Carolina, but perhaps she could stay with Caroline? In Oslo, Imogen was studying to become a doctor. But it was unclear when she would settle down and get her degree. She wanted to travel while she was still young.

In Bristol, Danny had worked as a barista until he saved enough money to travel. He planned to travel until he ran out of funds. So far, his savings had taken him on a two-week Vipassana meditation retreat and another two weeks hanging out at Alobar, which Caroline discovered was the most popular hostel in the city. Danny spent his time at Alobar smoking and reading Siddhartha, his favorite book. His parents and older sister were worried about him, but he was perfectly happy. “People who haven’t been out here don’t get it,” he explained. “They don’t realize they’re missing their whole lives.”

And what about Caroline?

Caroline found herself not wanting to share about her provincial life. Mark and her children were half a world away as she threaded a dim back alley cluttered with used off-brand trekking poles and heavy-duty sleeping bags rolled in lumps tied with twine. Vendors called out to her, “Namaste!” and “Hashish?”

She did not have a story about getting lost in the high desert mountains in a snowstorm or sitting in silence for so long her vision turned purple and she could see the beating hearts of every person in the world. She’d never puked for eight hours off the side of a boat headed up the Mekong River. She’d never used all her savings to buy the cheapest one-way ticket to wherever in the spirit of wondrous adventure. She had gone on that one trip to Thailand, but truthfully, she’d spent most of that summer sipping rum and coke while sunbathing on a beach in Phuket.

She’d given birth to three children. For a few years, she’d made a lot of money as an interior decorator designing the innards of suburban McMansions. She attended a nondenominational megachurch every Sunday morning, where she and her husband served in the welcome committee. But none of that fit into the world she walked through now, a world turned gray and yellow with smog and fading sunlight, a world that smelled like fire and chai and dung. Caroline was in the wrong painting.

The four of them ate dhal bhat on a rooftop illuminated with tiny tea candles underneath gently flapping prayer flags. Rhee ordered them a round of Everest beer and smoked while they waited for their rice and curry. Meanwhile, Caroline told them about her father. Only, she didn’t tell them the part where she hadn’t spoken to him in years. She talked as if she were the devoted daughter who admired her audacious father and hoped to follow in his footsteps someday—at her age, probably already had.

She told them about his two successful Everest summits. And about the time he was caught in a snowstorm on the side of Mount Rainier. And the time a tremendous gust of wind swept him off the side of a mountain in Patagonia. “Where did he land?” asked Danny, and she said he’d skidded to the edge of a glacial lake. One more inch, and he’d have gone into the icy water. She didn’t tell them that her father was sick in a hospital down the street, and they didn’t ask where he was now or why she was there with them instead of at home with her children.

As she spoke, a pernicious question rose to the surface of her consciousness where it floated on the Everest beer. Because sitting there bathed in the buttery candlelight beside the gentle spirits of Rhee, Danny, and Imogen, Caroline felt happy, happier than she’d felt in a long time. There was no one who needed her, and the beer had sluffed away the usual bitter resentment she felt toward her father.

Her father had realized his unhappiness while working long hours at that unforgiving job, and rather than remain rooted with his feet sinking deeper in the mud, he’d sucked them free and fled to the mountains. Wasn’t this what Caroline herself wanted to do on occasion? How she wished this lovely dinner could go on forever. She would never return to Raleigh, to endless conversations with children, to the day-in, day-out, identical, unimaginative exchanges with Mark. Though, on second thought, Caroline decided she should not be so unkind toward Mark. Really, he was a wonderful husband, a caring and gentle man whom she loved very much.

Caroline stared dreamily up at the moon and stars, the beer bottle dangling casually from her hand. When Rhee asked if they were all up for another round, she agreed, woozily resting her head on her new friend’s shoulder.


When Caroline awoke the next morning, groggy and mildly hung-over, she knew she would not visit her father. At least, not today. She needed a day to adjust to the time difference. Instead, she would walk to Alobar and see what Rhee, Danny, and Imogen were up to.

She did not have to walk far. Caroline ran into Rhee on the street, bargaining with a vendor over a lustrous gold singing bowl. Imogen and Danny were inside the shop looking at hand-woven yak wool rugs and drinking complimentary chai.

“Would you buy this for 1,500 rupees?” Rhee demanded of Caroline.

Caroline pretended to evaluate the bowl with a keen eye.

“That’s a bit much,” she said because she knew it was what Rhee wanted her to say.

“You’re ripping me off,” said Rhee to the vendor.

In the end, Rhee got the bowl and a packet of prayer flags for 550 rupees. “Still more than they’re worth,” she said, “but I feel like I should let him overcharge me. He’s never been outside of Kathmandu. Can you imagine living in Nepal and never seeing the Himalayas?”

“I’ve never seen the Himalayas,” said Caroline.

Of course, it was different for her, but Rhee still insisted she at least see the foothills. As it turned out, Rhee, Danny, and Imogen had plans to take a bus to Nagarkot that afternoon. Would Caroline like to come?

Caroline went off in search of an ATM and retrieved several thousand rupees. She bought a 45-liter backpack and stowed inside it what she would need for several days, leaving her suitcase and purse with the concierge. She sent an email to Mark, telling him she’d arrived safely and was still getting her bearings, that she loved and missed him and the kiddos. Then, she met the others at Alobar.

They took a public bus to Nagarkot, and it was crowded and dusty, and one minute Caroline thought she might throw up from the twists and turns and the next she was terrified the bus would hit a bump in the dirt road and tip over the side of the cliff. She sat shoved against the window on a grimy seat she shared with Danny and Imogen, Rhee standing in the aisle smooshed together with the rest of the commuters going to and from Kathmandu. Caroline tried to relax. She told herself she wanted to see the foothills, to lie on her back and stare up at the snowy tops of the Himalayas shrouded in mist. She wanted, finally, to be happy. What was wrong with that? She closed her eyes and let the bus take her higher and higher, away from Kathmandu, away from her father, away from everything.

Had Caroline known all along that she would not make it? The distance extracted itself from the road like a taut resistance band, beginning with her father lying forsaken in some foul hospital bed and ending wrapped around Caroline’s heart. The farther away the bus took her, the tauter the band became. When they stopped briefly at some no-name village, she stumbled outside into the sun. Why couldn’t she be free and spirited like Rhee? Why was she not allowed one day to herself in the foothills of the Himalayas?

The question now was how to catch a bus back. Caroline could not imagine navigating the Nepali bus system on her own; she had never even taken a bus in Raleigh! She saw Danny looking at her through the bus window, wondering, no doubt, why she was standing in the middle of the road. Caroline did not want to tell her new friends that she could not continue with them. She felt a childish fear of being left out, but she squelched it with the greater fear of her father’s looming death. For now, she was convinced he was almost dead, and that by leaving Kathmandu she had caused his mysterious disease to worsen.

When the driver called for the passengers to return to their seats, Caroline remained standing. He looked at her blankly, then climbed on board. Rhee called to her through the open window, but Caroline only shook her head, and when Rhee saw that she did not plan to carry on, her smile only broadened.

Of course, thought Caroline. Rhee would think this abandonment perfectly normal. Something had caught Caroline’s eye, and she would stay instead of go. It was as simple as that because to Rhee, Caroline was one of them. She watched as the bus choked up the hill with her friends inside, then vanished around a corner.

What else could she do but turn and begin the laborious climb downhill? She thought, this is what I must do, and it did not matter that her back ached from the overstuffed, ill-fitting backpack and the soles of her feet throbbed because her now dust-covered, light blue Keds weren’t designed for hiking. Already, she sensed a blister forming on the back of her right heel.

Once she left the no-name town, the street became quieter. She passed homes built out of stone with corrugated tin roofs and bright blue-painted shutters. Red and pink flowers grew inside sunshine yellow window planters. Donkeys and goats stood blandly in muddy pens. Occasionally, she passed a porter carrying a basket of Everest beer, a fabric strap wrapped around his forehead to balance the load. Once, she passed an entire family, and they all said, “Namaste,” the children ogling.

Caroline did not know how long she had walked when the dusty white car pulled up from behind her and the Nepali man began speaking to her through his open window. At first, she was afraid and ignored him, pretending to be more interested in the great valley spread below. But he would not be ignored. “Hello,” he said. “Namaste. You need a ride?” When she at last turned to him, she saw on top of his tiny car a yellow sign that read Taxi.

He smiled at her. “Where are you going?”

He wanted 2,000 rupees to take her to Kathmandu, and after a moment of hesitation in which Caroline wondered whether she should really trust this man, she got in thinking he was her best option. She knew he was overcharging her, knew if Rhee were there, she would have bargained for a better deal. But Caroline’s courage could only extend so far.

“The hospital? Manmohan?” she said. She pulled the backpack onto her lap, her knees crushed against the back of the man’s seat.


An hour later, they pulled to a stop before a six-story building in central Kathmandu. Caroline paid the driver and got out. She’d been sweating the whole way down, and even with the breeze from the man’s open window, the back of her t-shirt was soaked.

The cool, quiet waiting room startled her. Several nurses in pale blue scrubs sat behind computers at the front desk, and she was about to ask for her father when suddenly, extraordinarily, there he was. He walked out of a door that must lead to the rest of the hospital, turned back momentarily to hand a clipboard to a nurse, and then walked slowly through the waiting room. Did he walk with a limp? Caroline noted the thinness of his arms, the sweep of his grey hair that looked rather like a bird had begun to build a nest on the crown of his head. He wore his usual garb: khaki hiking pants, a short sleeve, quick dry button-down, and worn leather sandals. It was the sandals and her father’s snarled toes that snapped her heart. He pushed open the main door, momentarily flooding the room with sunlight, and disappeared. He hadn’t seen Caroline standing less than ten feet away. Why would he? How astonishing it was that she was there at all.

Caroline stood still for a moment. The nurse behind the counter asked how she could help, first in Nepalese, then in English. Caroline looked down at her and thought she seemed so beautiful and young. Caroline knew she should say something, her southern manners—manners instilled in her by her mother—bubbled up in her throat, but she merely shook her head in what she hoped was a polite dismissal before turning to follow her father out the door.

The alley was crowded. Motorcycles crammed against the hospital’s exterior, searching for a way through the traffic jam of taxis, tuk-tuks, bicycles, and cars. People in face masks milled about. Dogs wove in and out of their feet. Dust from the road filtered the sunlight like a gauze. Caroline thought she saw the gray tuft of her father’s hair above the multitude as he tottered down the congested street. Until then, she’d awkwardly carried her backpack in her arms. Now, she swung it onto her shoulders and took off.

It was challenging to make her way through the throng. She kept bumping into people and apologizing. She was afraid an errant motorcycle would run over her feet. She tried to dodge mud puddles, but couldn’t. Was the street growing more crowded? The voices of Nepali vendors, the honking of horns, the barking of dogs, the revving of engines—all swarmed in on Caroline like a crushing wave that battered her now this way, now that, and all the while her father’s bobbing tuft of hair grew farther away until she was no longer sure she could see him. Yet she pushed on, determined.