Exactly a year ago, my boss at the time sent me on a weeklong road trip across America to photograph historic Route 66 for our ad agency's automotive client, Honda. We traveled from downtown Chicago all the way back home to Santa Monica, California, documenting every notable landmark along the way. Just like in the Disney movie Cars, the journey was defined by some of our country's best examples of Americana. Unfortunately, so many of the small towns we passed through have been completely forgotten since the completion of Interstate 40.
Now I find myself journeying through a similarly forgotten land, only this time I’m on the other side of the world and traveling on foot. In the last six days, my friend Daniel Bruce Lee and I hiked more than 60 miles through the mountains and jungle from Jiri, Nepal to the town of Lukla, retracing the first footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic Everest climb in 1953.
Each year, tens of thousands of tourists (called "trekkers") journey into Nepal's Sagarmāthā National Park, making their way up to witness the madhouse that is Everest Base Camp. Most of those tourists fly into Lukla, lovingly known as "the most dangerous airport in the world." From Lukla, it's just a few days' hike into the Himalayas along a path that has been neatly cultivated to facilitate the hordes of visitors. It's Disneyland.
I realize that to a certain degree, we fall into the same category as the tourists. Daniel and I are foreigners in this far-off land and we’ve come to witness the greatest mountains in the world. However, we don't just want to see the mountains (or climb one, as we will in a few days) — we want to know the people. We want to understand their culture. So we chose to start our journey in the small town of Jiri, miles and miles away from the highest mountain in the world.
Of the tens of thousands of people that travel into Sagarmāthā every year, mere hundreds do so by way of the adjoining Gaurishankar Conservation Area where our journey began. We hiked through 60-plus miles from Jiri to Lukla, the climate changing along with the elevation. The area down low reminded me of the Costa Rican jungle — vegetation was lush and green and turquoise rivers raged through every valley. Up high reminded me of the areas I used to explore in California, where massive rock faces were littered with pine trees. In between, farmland was beautifully carved into the hillsides; small villages were dotted throughout. Every so often, we were reminded of where we were heading when the Himalayas would peek out from behind our immediate view. I had never seen so much ecological variety in such a short time; the landscape literally changed by the hour.
Despite the area's low traffic, a full trekking infrastructure was in place. Each village that we passed through had a handful of lodges and restaurants to choose from, but we rarely had neighbors while sleeping. Oftentimes, we dined with local porters or donkey wranglers. Most of our conversations were with Nepali people; we picked up a few words and phrases along the way. The local children loved sweets so we shared chocolate wherever we stopped. At one point, a small boy and his older sister guided us for several miles to the next town. Daniel and I both have our fair share of facial hair (Daniel has a zunga, or mustache, in Nepali; I have daddi, a beard) so when we passed a couple of Buddhist monks with daddi themselves, we quickly bonded and took a selfie to commemorate the moment.
My favorite moment from the journey was on our last day before we reached Lukla. After hiking up a massive hill, I stopped to rest at the top near a Buddhist temple, where a group of children gathered around to say hi. Most of them left, but a small boy, probably five years old, stuck around. He had a paper airplane, so I showed him the paper airplane tattooed on the inside of my arm. As he matched his to mine, I could see the amazement in his eyes. Before long, he was pointing at my tattoos, asking what each of them was. Then he plucked a leaf from the ground, licked it, and stuck it to my leg, as if to give me a tattoo himself. Daniel arrived shortly after and we continued on our way, but I'll never forget that moment. It’s the kind of thing you don't get to experience while waiting in line to see an empty base camp.