You are such an asshole, Aaron.
He couldn’t think of anything else. Here he was, driving through the middle of nowhere, braving dust storms, sinkholes, mountain climbing, and torrential rains for some dead son-of-a-bitch who couldn’t bother to plan a decent funeral before going off on a suicide mission.
Sean supposed suicide mission was unfair, as Aaron had been at least a somewhat good climber, but still, Mt. Everest? Why? What was the point? “It was there” doesn’t seem worth much now.
He couldn’t see the road in the pelting rain. He’d know if he drove off them though, as the terrain was unforgiving. On one side was mountain scrub, punctuated with giant chunks of granite and gypsum. On the other was the bed of a sometimes alkaline lake, usually dry. Once the water hit the dust, it turned into a grippy, quicksand-like sludge. If he left the road in either direction, he’d find out quickly enough, although it would mean camping until daylight, or the end of the storm, whichever came first.
Why did Aaron have to return here, of all places? What was it about that climb they’d taken years ago? Sean didn’t mind occasionally climbing, and the difference between a two thousand meter mountain and an eight-thousander were obvious. While Aaron was always in search of that next big rush, Sean was content to take each day one at a time. He’d had a stressful childhood of poverty and violence, and was content to avoid the sensation of bare survival whenever possible.
Years ago, just after college graduation, Aaron decided they needed to do some male bonding rituals, which with Aaron always meant something dangerous. Sean had signed on for a long drive from Reno, a long day of hiking with a small climb, and then back to the Casino Resort in time for a late night meal.
Instead, they’d spent the day with bad maps, getting repeatedly turned around on the dusty roads surrounded by mountains. Winds would kick up blinding dirt devils, and it was easy to lose their sense of direction. Even once they made it to the mountain, none of the trails made sense. As fate would have it, they made it back down the mountain safely, but Sean recognized how much danger they’d been in. Aaron, of course, loved every second of it. Aaron enjoyed living so much, he was constantly risking death, a paradox Sean had always tried to point out.
By the time they found their way back to their car, they were surrounded by blackness. Their adventure had taken far longer than expected, and it was late at night. Although their view of the stars and moon were clear, in fact, Sean couldn’t remember seeing so many stars in his life, their surroundings had little to reflect. The white dust of the Black Rock Desert glowed in the distance, but nearby patches of gypsum dust were blotted with dark scrub. The mountains around them loomed high and sucked the light out of the air.
Aaron had been driving then, and Sean wasn’t sure exactly where they’d been. He had spent much of the drive looking out the window, seeing nothing, fuming about what his idiot buddy had gotten him into this time.
Suddenly, Sean thought he might be hallucinating as he saw tiny lights in the distance. “Did you see…?” his voice trailed.
“Civilization, my friend! Ye of little faith,” Aaron laughed, and took the left off of 447.
After hours and hours of what seemed like driving on the surface of the moon, the short strip of road lined with oak trees and bushes seemed like an unreal oasis. When they finally saw the plain Folk Victorian house with a bar in the downstairs and what looked like rooms for rent upstairs, Sean started to question his sanity.
Deep Hole Hotel was painted on a wood sign across the upstairs, but the downstairs windows were painted with Base Camp Bar to attract the area’s primary source of seasonal income, hikers and mountain climbers who had lost their way. Aaron and Sean pulled into the parking lot, delimited by rainbow flags all the way around.
The front of the building was lined with an elevated wooden walk leading to the front doors. The interior looked dark and dingy, and a cross between 19th century American Settler, 18th century East Indian Trading Company, and 21st century outdoor sports gear. Behind the bar was a long wall of shelves filled with tiny jars, each labeled by hand, although some inks were more faded than others. Along the left wall was a huge, rough-hewn stone fireplace covered with food and flowers. On the right was a window looking over nearby mountain ranges. Under the window was a sign in the shape of an arrow that said, “This is it.”
Based on the gear around the bar, Base Camp had found its clientele. People of all ages sat around drinking, some waiting for word of changes in weather, and others trying to calm jitters. All said they were drinking to “acclimate and get used to potentially dehydrating conditions.” Brand new expensive crampons rested beside 19th century snow shoes.
At the bar, a cheerful young woman asked us what we wanted. Sean didn’t know. “We get that a lot around here,” she said. “People don’t always know what they’re choosing from when they first get here.” She waved at the labeled taps and the bottles behind the bar. Aaron started with whiskey, said he’d where the evening would take him. Sean hoped it was better than the day.
“So, what’s the joke?” he asked, pointing to the window with the arrow sign to my right.
“This whole area was the site of a bloody battle between natives and settlers, so they named that little bump there in honor of it.”
“Battle Ridge?” He guessed weakly.
“That there’s the Bloody Point,” she said, smiling with the ease of a regular who can still find joy in a joke told to tourists millions of times before. “Normally I get a laugh out of that.”
He began to tell her of their climb that day, while Aaron regaled the Alpinists at the other end of the bar with his feeble tales of their bad sense of direction. (They had parted ways once each getting a drink.)
AfterSean told the bartender about his harrowing adventures on trails that did exist but shouldn’t, while hunting for ones that should exist but didn’t, she started to laugh. “Oh honey, you only missed one tiny thing!”
The mountaineers at the end of the bar burst into thunderous laughter, and Sean saw Aaron looking at me across the distance, sheepishly.
“You went to Juniper Mountain instead of Juniper Peak. They’re about 30 miles apart. It happens all the time.”
In his car, now, years later, Sean could laugh. They’d actually had an amazing time in the spaces between worrying about dying. As much as Aaron always stressed Sean out, he’d definitely helped push him out of his comfort zone into trying new things.
Between the rain and his own eyes tearing up, he wasn’t sure how long he had before he drove off the road. He thought he barely made out lights in the distance. He had tried to find a listing for the hotel, a web page, anything, but hadn’t had any luck. He could only hope it was still open.
As Sean drove he started mumbling to in time to the windshield wipers, just to keep himself awake. “Khumbu cough. Khumbu cough. Kumbhu cough,” he intoned, recalling the mountaineers they met that night at Base Camp Bar. He hadn’t known how really drunk mountain climbers could get before that night.
Men who seemed to be ancient told tales of losing toes to frostbite and friends to Nanga Parbat. One told of the deep, dry, harsh cough climbers get on the Khumbu Glacier, said he knew a man who’d cracked a rib coughing. Others, young men in their prime, suffered brain in the high altitude, and told stories of hallucinations for days after returning from Himalayan climbs. As they each talked of death, Aaron’s eyes grew larger and more hungry, as though he thought he could overcome mortality with sheer will power. Had he thought of climbing Everest before then? Sean didn’t really know.
Maybe that was why Aaron had insisted that if anything happened to him climbing, Sean had to return here, and spread him in the Selemite Ridge. “Spread my ashes between Purgatory Peak and Mt. Limbo,” he’d said. Sean had thought it was a joke until Aaron’s parents pulled him aside at the service.
The rain began to let up a little, and Sean thought he saw the lights getting stronger. Finally, he made out the shape of the road, the only offshoot from the tiny highway for miles, and made the left. He looked through the strangely alien oak forest for the rainbow flags that lined the driveway leading to the parking lot, and saw them lit up with strings of tiny white lights.
When he got out of his car he noticed they weren’t the plastic rainbow pennants he’d remembered, but actually cloth squares. They had no seams, and threads along the edges had long since been torn out of the flag by weather, elements, and time.
He sat in the car, wondering if he should bring Aaron with him, or leave him there while he checked in. He’d decided traveling with an urn was too creepy, and had transferred Aaron to what he’d called The Traveling Container. Sean decided since he was storing the cremains in an old cookie tin, it would probably be fine to bring Aaron along for one last drink before bed.
When he walked into the bar, he was surprised by how packed it was. It was still dark, still dingy, but he made out dozens of shapes, even though the parking lot was practically empty and the land desolate. Everything looked pretty much the same. Even the bartender was the same.
“No outside food at the bar,” she said, gesturing to the tin.
“It’s OK, ” he said, “It’s my friend.”
She blinked at him.
“We were here before. He’s dead.”
She looked at him.
“I assume nothing for him then?”
Sean laughed and ordered two whiskeys. “If he hasn’t finished his by the time I’m done with the first one, I call dibs.”
She placed a glass in front of him, placed a glass in front of the tin, and began to address it as she poured.
“Haven’t I seen you in here before? I mean, not like this, of course, but you seem familiar.”
Sean laughed again. “Good memory. We were here about 3 years ago.” She started to fill his glass.
“Yeah, you’d run into some Juniper trouble, right? Your friend,” she gestured back to the tin, “He was the one into climbing, and you were kind of just a long for the ride, right?”
“You have a good memory.”
“What happened? Bad climb?”
Sean looked down at his whiskey, hard. He exhaled shakily, but was proud when only a small drop fell into the glass, causing the tiniest of waves. “Yeah,” he said, hoping she didn’t hear his voice crack. “Everest.”
A few people at the end of the bar, a couple men and a woman, seemed to lean in at the name.
“Chunk of ice above them broke off. Crushed him and bounced down the mountain. They said he was killed instantly.”
“At least he was doing what he loved,” she said.
“So what,” he said, perhaps in a harsher tone than he intended. “So what? He was thirty. He would have loved other things. He could have grown up and found new things to love. So what if he loved rock climbing? That doesn’t mean being crushed to death, nearly freezing to death, is worth it.”
“He wasn’t cheated,” the bartender said. He looked up and saw her smiling, welcoming hospitality face turn smooth and cold. “He got the same as anyone else. We each get one life.”
Sean looked away to avoid her gaze, and found himself looking out over the Bloody Point.
“Or so some people think,” she said, her jovial customer service attitude returning. “Other think we may have a few more tricks up our sleeve after we die than we think.”
Sean smiled at this. “Well, I guess if anyone would have run across them, it’d be Aaron.”
“You have a look at that the last time you were here?” She gestured over to the stone fireplace. He hadn’t, but Aaron had told him about it.
“It’s like a memorial right? People bring offerings to the climbers they’ve lost or something?” He had seen the floral wreaths from a distance.
“Not exactly. It’s an altar for the puja.”
“The puja. In Hindu tradition, there are different rituals and prayers. The sherpas of the Himalayas are Buddhist, and perform puja to the mountain gods to request safe passage. It is only with their blessing that a party can mount Everest. Your friend probably attended one.”
Sean didn’t respond.
“It sometimes helps people mourn to stand near it. That’s why we have it.”
“Is that why you have all the candles? Are they like votives?”
Sean was pretty drunk when the candles were explained. There was some kind of ritual, one Aaron of course launched himself into, something about chanting and then you blow out the candle, put the lid on the jar, and wrote something on the label, but Sean couldn’t remember why, and explained this to the bartender.
She went to check the wall, starting about 30 feet down the bar. It took her about 15 minutes, but eventually she came back with the small jar, almost like a baby food jar, with a tiny tea candle in it. Sean started to feel his throat close when he saw Aaron’s signature on the jar. “That one it?” she asked, and he nodded silently.
She pointed at a table near the fireplace, but a little behind it. It was a small corner booth, and looked like the place people went to be alone. “You might try that spot.”
“For what?” Sean asked. He was spreading Aaron tomorrow. He had already mourned his idiot friend at the funeral. What could dredging all of this up again solve. He would never understand it. He could never understand why Aaron would throw his life away like that, and crying in his drink wouldn’t change that. “I appreciate the idea, but I’m not sure I really need to take a time out.”
“Suit yourself,” she said, “But most climbers in here have lost someone. Everest has a 10% loss rate. There are mountains in Pakistan with a 28% death rate. You wouldn’t be the first person to spread a little ash, say a few words, and have a few drinks in the corner booth.”
Sean thought about Aaron’s love of adventure, and willingness to embrace any ritual that came his way, any crazy thing the locals did for luck. His superstition was one of the best and worst traits, Sean supposed. Aaron would want it this way.
He took his two whiskeys, candle, and his cookie tin friend to the corner booth. He pried the tight lid off the metal container, hoping not to spill. Aaron was double-bagged in those zippered freezer bags, but he was taking no chances. He opened the top glanced around, in case someone shrieked about human remains, and poured a little out on the stone mantle, before sitting to ruminate over his drinks.
“Don’t forget the candle,” the bartender said, suddenly appearing beside him with a box of matches.
Sean unscrewed the lid and smelled lavender. It was a strange scent here, in this no man’s land of dust and scrub brush. He closed his eyes, until he felt the wind rush past his face. He looked up to see a dust devil, seemingly originate on the fireplace, and fly across the room to the cookie tin. The cyclone increased in size until it was nearly 6 feet tall and filled with the white-gray dust of a human being.
Sean snapped his jaws shut, realizing it had fallen open in shock, but now fearing he might inhale or swallow a chunk of his friend. He looked around helplessly at the bar. The other patrons didn’t seem to notice anything, and the bartender seemed extremely focused on a regular on the other side of the bar.
Sean got up in terror as the ash seemed to form a humanoid shape. Hovering over the tiny votive candle, it reached almost to the ceiling. As Sean backed away in horror from the booth, the other patrons seemingly blind to his predicament, the man-shaped twister spiraled ferociously, but floated gently off the table and onto the floor. The winds blew the candle out, and the ashes settled into what seemed like a solid person made of granite. Chips and chunks of gray, black, and white formed the rough skin. Sean wondered what would happen if he touched it. Would it be hard, like the surface of a granite cliff, or would his finger push through and burst the powdery surface.
“Hello, Sean,” he heard Aaron’s voice say, as if from this thing. In shock, Sean stood paralyzed as the form reached for him, embraced him. Sean could see the ash pupil curved out on the surface of the ash eye, encircled by ash lashes. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Sean closed his eyes and pressed into his friend’s arms, careful not to inhale too deeply.
And so Sean sat up drinking with my friend until the early hours. He wasn’t worried about his climb the next day. Aaron knew the mountain gods well, he said, and had already reserved safe passage for his spreading. He would show Sean the path before he disintegrated on the evening winds tomorrow.