The illusion that speed saves time is shattered, in the end, by death. When someone near me dies, I’m reminded that none of us has world enough, or time.
When British traveller and storyteller Colin Thubron lost his 97-year-old mother in 2006, he went for a long walk. To a Mountain in Tibet is the story of that walk, to isolated Mount Kailas, the source of four great rivers of Asia and almost as many religions.The ritual pilgrim practice involves walking around the mountain–clockwise for Buddhists, counterclockwise for Hindus–not to, or up the mountain. “Its slopes are sacrosanct,” Thubron notes, “and it has never been climbed.”
Thubron is not a believer, but the romance of that massif enthralls him, and he makes the circuit.
This is a breathtaking book, haunted by death. As Thubron walks, he remembers. Struggling to breathe in the thin mountain air, he recalls his mother’s breathlessness at the end. Musing on Buddhism and Hinduism or Himalayan botany raises memories of his father, who served with the British Raj in India. The sheer pyramidal faces of Kailas remind him of his sister’s untimely death, aged 21, in an accident in the French Alps.
Many walkers and writers try to meld memoir and travelogue; few do it well, because the way memory works on foot is not altogether as straightforward as prose. Thubron, also a novelist, dances gracefully bewteen now and then–from an exegesis of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a memory of his mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter, to her hospital bed, to describing a vertiginous high-altitude monastery. The narrative structure is more like a vernacular temple than an architectural drawing. It’s a pleasure to explore, if you read slowly.
Maybe the apparently formless scaffolding of To a Mountain in Tibet just reflects the dizzying effects of altitude sickness; but it also feels like the way my mind works on a long walk. Thubron walks and writes with integrity and honesty, and maybe that’s why he never reaches any conclusions.
You cannot walk out your grief, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own.
I am undertaking a secular pilgrimage myself, revisiting some of the haunted lands where my sister Sarah Elizabeth Statt (1959-60), my grandmother Elizabeth Wheeler (1900-1967), my mother Mary Putnam (1926-1999), and my brother John Charles Statt (1953-2007), were born and died.
In the last year, my ex-wife and my mother’s sister both died, in New Hampshire. I rented a car, filled a thermos with coffee, and jumped onto Interstate 95. New Hampshire is less than six hours away, that way. But I was responding to death. Is a fore- and afternoon on the road an adequate show of respect? It seems too fast, just as the life that has brought me from New Hampshire to Philadelphia seems too fast–even though it has taken almost 60 years.
I don’t believe I need to hike a magic mountain to remember. But walking can be an act of mourning, too, moving slowly where I might hurry–that helps.