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Some are poison and others are killers. “A toxic mushroom is indistinguishable from an edible one,” the guide says. “At least to the untrained eye. We notice the ruby-coloured mounds along our way, dotted among the fern and grass. So beautiful, they must be dangerous. The guide tells us about the cordyceps, a fungus that infects an unsuspecting caterpillar. The caterpillar eats itself to death, feeding the parasite. In the end, a mushroom appears, a potent adaptogen, hearty from the rarified air.
I glance at my husband, dubious. “I’d rather not eat them.” We are hiking and camping in Bhutan, along the Dagala Thousand Lakes trail. Our friend Kelly has been telling us we must see his country to believe its splendour and experience the divine. I’m unconvinced: talk of divinity sends me running for the hills. Still, I love a good hike.
For five days, we take in the secrets of the mountains. Kelly suggested this route after we told him we didn’t want to see other people on our journey. The government requires all hikers to travel with a qualified team. Besides a guide, there is a cook, plus two animal herders who manage 14 donkeys and horses. One donkey trots with our bags, one carries our tents and another bears two gas cylinders. Dizziness pulls at me and my hiking boots shine with yak shit and dew. I’ve never camped before, and though it’s hard to ignore this absurd menagerie, I’m grateful for the luxury. The sky is white with mist. Every day brings a new landscape. Forests, wildflowers, followed by a barren expanse as we move above the tree line.
But by day two, I am struggling to take in enough oxygen. My wrists and ankles fill with fluid. Soon, I can’t make a fist. The guidebook says I should stay hydrated and move to a lower altitude at night, to keep the water out of my heart. Our guide doesn’t heed this, and we move higher and higher. He kneels and pulls a purple flower from a low bush. My hair catches in some bramble and my knee brushes wet moss as I bend beside him. Mountain onion, he claims. I chew on the bud and notice the allium on my breath as I puff along.
That night, I can’t sleep. Noises from the animals grate on my nerves, and I curse myself for not carrying a good book. The colours of the flowers are riotous the next day. I grab my husband’s arm and exclaim at the scene before us. He smiles. “I think you’re hallucinating.” Our guide tells me I will feel better after a day or two. I nod, but begin to feel faint, sweating and shivering. Everything is spinning, and I cannot walk straight. Death seems close. I begin to wonder how I will continue if I will return.
Terror fills me. They suggest I ride on a donkey. Or a little horse. The animal herders smile and say I can select my own animal. Mortified, I look at a donkey near me. She is stocky with shaggy fur, made for the climate and altitude. There’s something maternal in her gaze. She seems to be telling me she will help me. “No,” I tell her. “Maybe I’m meant to suffer.”
My husband looks at me and the animal and shakes his head. The group moves on, oblivious to my torment. I shout after them before I realise I’m alone. Stumbling on, I reach into my backpack and pull out a small clay stupa that I carried with me from Paro. A prayer has been rolled up and baked into the middle. I try to say a prayer until I remember I don’t know any. I work my fingers against the hard surface, trying to dig out the chit. I place one foot in front of the other, feeling my body tip. I look down and see we are walking on a ridge. The fall looks endless, and clouds below me conceal the abyss. But as I continue on, the fear begins to dissipate.
By the time I reach the campsite, I’m delirious. I don’t know how I made it, and the small piece of paper is in my damp hand. The words on it are illegible to me, and my finger is raw, but I look at the hollow at the core of the stupa and remember something I read about growing bonsai: the pot is tilted so the plant will grow at an angle. The imbalance is needed to keep the centre empty, to make place for the divine to come in. Inside, I feel a visceral shift, a tilt and an opening.
Later, at dinner, the cook presents us with a dish of mushrooms, dotted with violet mountain onions. All around us, the bells around the animals’ necks chime in unison.“From the trail,” the cook says. “Ingredients I picked along the way.” We smile and thank him, and I bend over my plate to take a big bite.