Yosmite’s Leaning Tower, California.
A 1,100 foot high wall of shear rock. And tethered at its top by a single nylon rope is Rick Kessler, 29, adventure journalist, unfinished novelist, divorced father, future alcoholic-with-a-deathwish, and soon-to-be plummeting projectile.
The bungee jump to end all bungee jumps — without a bungee rope — is about to — And there he goes, screaming like a banshee, wind shrieking past, razor sharp rock hurtling upward, rope, pulleys and anchors slamming tight — Rick halted and yanked back at (literally) break-neck speed, then dangling a mere 150 feet from a hard rock grave. He laughs out loud, “What a rush!”
An airplane high above the Mojave Desert.
Standing in the cabin with two other parachutists is Sarah Allistir, 30, tough and smart. A triathlete and one of the best adventure photographers in the world.
She signals to the two others and falls backwards out the open door, taping as she goes. The two perform various stunts and acrobatics, all three opening their chutes, when an unexpected wind shear twists Sarah’s chute into a knot, Sarah careening toward the rapidly approaching earth. Panicked, she tosses her camera away and struggles to release the chute, finally unclamping it and opening her reserve chute at the very last second. Sailing down, all she can think about is the expense of a lost camera.
In his three room toxic waste dump of an apartment, Rick nose dives into the couch, exhausted by life, harassed by irate magazine editors and bill collectors, oblivious to the three unfinished Great American Novels in his zip drive, forgetting his ten year old son’s and eight year old daughter’s birthdays yet again. And still haunted by the ghost of his famous adventurer father.
“Outside” magazine’s headquarters, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Feature Story Editor, David Hurley, 31, is seated on his very nice couch in his very nice office speaking to the very nice-looking Sarah Allister. She is also being offered a job, when Rick Kessler knocks and enters. “You two know each other, I believe,” David says. “Don’t tell me what I think you’re going to tell me,’ Rick pleads to David, ”cause I still have time to catch the plane back.”
The Job: “I want the two of you, and whoever else you need, to track down Malcolm Denton and get me his story. Last anyone heard he was somewhere in Peru. And that was eight years ago.”
Just as Sarah is about to accept and Rick decline, into the office barges Rick’s journalistic arch-rival, J.C. Tabor. 35, and an extreme sports dilettante with an ego to match his luck, J.C. wants to know why he’s not a part of the team, since he met Malcolm at a party once ten years ago and “We were really simpatico.” Rick signs on just to piss J.C. off.
Sarah is packing her camera equipment, her sculptor boyfriend, Jim, 35, watching as he has a hundred times before. “I think I’ve become the Mrs. Minniver in this relationship, always watching my man fly off to war,” he says, and not happily. She laughs. He laughs. And all the while she’s thinking, ‘what am I doing?’
“Outside” magazine offices, Santa Fe, New Mexico. J.C. is ‘romancing’ David Hurley’s secretary, and finding out Rick and Sarah’s itineraries.
Malcolm Denton, 62, is the last of the great world explorers: the man who walked across the Arctic with a backpack; who climbed K2 freestyle at age 50; who discovered a supposedly extinct species of leopard in China and a pharaoh’s tomb in Egypt; who has drunk and whored his way through every continent on the planet. Malcolm Denton, the legend, who mysteriously disappeared eight years ago, and who is currently passed-out, doing a face-plant in the bottom of a dugout canoe anchored to an small, Indian village dock, a goat chewing on his pant’s cuff.
Sobered up, eating a plate of rice and beans at the Amazon version of Spago, Denton is approached by the strange Indian shaman, Carlos, 45, who’s been studying Denton for the last ten minutes. “For you,” Carlos says, placing a filthy oil cloth on the table, hiding something within. Bored and hungover, staring at the Indian, Malcolm unrolls the cloth revealing an extraordinary jewel within. Malcolm picks it up, examining it closely: It is a large, carved diamond and within it is a carved ruby; a glowing, jeweled heart in a center of fractured light. And it is absolutely impossible.
Malcolm tosses it back, “A trick. Junk.” Carlos smiles, “Look again.” Malcolm does and with great disinterest. “It was milled in a place far from here, a place that no longer exists. Called Shamballa.” Malcolm looks up, Carlos smiling, “Yes. A myth. Forgotten. You will take me there.” Denton laughs, tossing it back, “Some other time.” Carlos smiles again, leaving the jewel on the table, “You will find me if you want to.” And the Indian shaman exits the cafe leaving a suddenly uncertain Denton to stare at the jewel before him.
Miami International Airport.
Sarah is impatiently waiting for Rick to get off his plane. When he doesn’t, she grabs up her cell phone, suddenly seeing him laughing and drinking with several women in the airport bar. “What the hell is going on! she screams at him, yanking him from the bar, a tiny umbrella falling out of his hair, ‘I’ve been waiting for over three hours for you!” He grins, extending his Margarita to her, “Have a drink! Loosen up!” She takes his Margarita and pours it over his head, then shakes out her shoulders. She smiles, “Thanks. I feel much looser now.” And she leaves.
In the air heading toward South America.
Having washed his hair, Rick exits the bathroom of the full plane. He sits beside her. He grabs up a magazine, “You should try having a little fun.” “I do,’ she says, reading, ‘they’re called vacations, and as far away from you as possible.” “Still living with that pottery guy?” “He’s a sculptor.” “Yeah, and so is anybody with a spoon and ice cream,” Rick adds. Sarah slams the magazine down, grabs up the headphones, plugs in, turns on and drops the seat back, shutting her eyes. And they only have six hours of air time left.
The jeweler is examining the jewel for the fifth time, an almost-clean shaven Malcolm waiting impatiently. “I don’t see how it’s done,’ the jeweler says lifting his eyes from the microscope, ‘it’s seamless. Unless it somehow magically grew this way, it is not possible for the one to be inside the other.” Malcolm takes the jewel back. The jeweler smiles, “I can arrange to buy it from you for…well, quite a lot.” As the door slams behind the rapidly exiting Denton, the jeweler quickly makes a phone call.
The Hilton Hotel, Lima, Peru.
A bellhop struggles through the crowded lobby with both Rick’s and Sarah’s baggage as they check in. There’s a problem. There’s only one room for the two of them, Rick grinning, Sarah seeing her life flash before her eyes. “That’s not possible,” Sarah says to the clerk, holding her temper. The clerk explains that they had two rooms, but their colleague arrived earlier and already checked in — — When a smiling J.C., dressed for an African safari, crosses the lobby, coming up to them. He welcomes them to Peru and explains that he’s decided to find Malcolm Denton first, and that he talked “Outside” magazine’s chief competitor, “Adventure” to foot the bill. “They seemed to really go for the idea of a little competition, especially since ol’ Rick here never finished his last assignment for them, and never returned their advance,” J.C. grins. And off he goes with a wave.
In their room, Sarah is angrily pacing as Rick talks to David on the phone, wanting out of the whole deal. But David actually likes the idea of a competition, and suddenly triples their fees. Rick and Sarah suddenly warm to the idea themselves. Rick glances to the bed. Sarah throws his bag on the couch.
The library, Lima.
Malcolm is studying the screen of a computer as he scrolls through Internet listings for “Shamballa”. His eyes scan the story of a magnificent kingdom in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a sanctuary for all the ascended Masters and enlightened spiritual beings who once walked the planet. Past archaeological digs have all turned up nothing but sand. It’s just a myth.
“It is there,’ Carlos says, Malcolm turning in his chair to the shaman standing behind him, ‘deep in the desert, where no one has ever looked before. I’ve been following you.”
Malcolm stares at the Indian, “I go on an expedition like this, I go by myself. I don’t put my life in another’s hands.” “You will never find it without me.” “The jungle’s full of crazy, half-assed medicine men, why should I trust you to know anything?” Carlos smiles again, “The jeweler didn’t tell you what you expected to hear, did he?” Denton stares at him again. “It will be the adventure of your lifetime, Malcolm Denton. Better than dying drunk in a canoe on the Amazon.”
Sarah is seated at a table in the hotel dining room when Rick enters and sits across from her, telling her he’s got some information from two guides he knows in Lima on possible whereabouts of Denton, neither having actually seen the man in ten years. She’s gotten back messages from her own sources, she says, adding that one of them had already been contacted by J.C. “Don’t worry about J.C.,’ Rick says, ordering a drink for them both, ‘he couldn’t find himself in a small, well-lighted room.”
Sarah says she’s heard about Rick’s freejumps off higher and higher mountains with only a nylon rope.
“Jumping in front of a oncoming train would be faster and cheaper,” she adds. He drinks and laughs, “It’s just something to do,” he says. “So is dying,” she says seriously. “Worried about me?” He asks with a sly smile. “Will it get you to stop?” She asks. Rick changes the subject to Sarah’s life with the “potter”, Sarah changing the subject to Rick’s children, Rick suddenly growing quiet and ordering another drink. He changes the subject to the healed scar on her forearm, apologizing, “It really was an accident,” he says. She looks him straight in the eyes, “Eight feet more and your speedboat would have been in the grand stand and could have killed a dozen people.” She stands, “I happen to like my life even if you don’t like yours. You screw up on this job and I’ll kill you myself.” And she leaves, Rick staring at his glass in silence.
Malcolm is standing at a crowded Lima bar in a decidedly less-than-affluent neighborhood, knocking back shots of whiskey, and laughing to himself each time. A native prostitute who’s seen better decades slinks up beside him, recognizing him from a ‘date’ a year before. When three extremely sinister-looking Peruvian tough guys enter, zeroing in on Malcolm. Malcolm’s seen this scene in every western ever made; and evidently, so has everyone in the bar. The bartender makes a dash for the local constabulary, the prostitute backing away. It is made clear to Malcolm that they’d like him to gratefully give the jewel over to their safe keeping.
And Malcolm, who even as a child dreamed of dying in a bar fight, decides he’d rather keep it himself. Guns are drawn, knives are drawn, bottles are broken, tables are overturned, mirrors are shattered, gentlemen are placed in compromising positions, bullets fly, and regrettably, someone is wounded, just not Malcolm, who, having had a wonderful time, exits as quickly as possible.
In their hotel room, Rick is still dressed, passed out on the couch, Sarah asleep in the bed. A phone call comes in and Sarah grabs up the receiver. Rick grunts and turns over. Malcolm Denton’s been spotted in Lima. Sarah jumps out of bed, dresses and tries to wake Rick to no avail. She dumps the melted contents of the ice bucket over his head. That works. “There was a bar fight. And guess what? Malcolm was there.”
Based on the bartender’s recollection, late the next day Sarah and Rick are still hunting for the prostitute who seemed to know the “gringo.” They find the prostitute in a horribly depressing and extremely dangerous-looking Lima slum. She wants $100.00. Rick hesitates, a heartbroken Sarah grabbing the money and giving it to her. She tells them she met Denton in a village outside of Iquitos on the headwaters of the Amazon — When the prostitute’s brother and a friend show up interested in some cash transactions of their own.
The locals gather around eager for a show. Rick and Sarah back up, just two more stupid American tourists. Well, not quite. Sarah pulls out a can of Mace and sprays the brother, Rick kicking out and slamming the friend in the stomach, kicking out again and sending the man reeling into the dust. “Only thing of value my old man ever taught me,” Rick calls out to Sarah as they both decide that now it’s time to run.
Over the headwaters of the Amazon in a flying museum relic, Rick and Sarah watch the incredible, beautiful jungle below, the plane landing on a dirt strip outside of Iquitos.
They climb from the plane just as one of its wheels falls off, the plane suddenly listing to starboard. The pilot frowns, “That is not a good sign.”
Sarah hires a local boy to help with their bags as Rick shows a photo of Malcolm to various Indians with no response. Rick does, however, find out that another American has also been showing the same photo around and that he was last seen hiring a boat at the docks. At the docks, Rick finds the company that rented the boat to J.C., Rick renting another boat to follow downriver.
“Next time I’ll do the renting,” Sarah says to Rick as their captain and guide, the toothless Mr. Delogoes, welcomes them onboard. Sweating and panting for breath in the steaming jungle air, Rick and Sarah watch the Amazon River flowing underneath them and the lush rainforest surrounding them. Screaming monkeys, crying birds and trilling insects echo around them. Alligators and massive snakes slip silently into the muddy water.
Notepad in hand, Rick watches Sarah as she takes pictures, Sarah glancing at him and managing a brief smile. Rick smiles back, then looks off into the river, into the murky currents of his own thoughts.
They approach a bend in the river revealing a clearing on the shore, where a forlorn-looking J.C. and all his gear are sitting on the sand. Mr. Delogoes laughs, pointing, “I warned him not to take up with Rameriz! A pirate!”
A hopeful J.C. stands, waving for help. He suddenly realizes who his rescuers are, and his arm drops. Sarah takes a picture she will treasure forever. Rick calls out happily, “I’ve heard the alligators here find American journalists a bit tough to swallow!” J.C. tries to graciously accept his defeat as their boat pulls into the shore. “The s.o.b. wanted to double his fee right in the middle of the river!” J.C. whines. “I’d have accepted,” Delogoes laughs.
The village of Quimos.
In a thatched roof hut, Malcolm Denton is packing up his belongings, when an Indian child runs in and points outside, speaking excitedly in his native dialect. Malcolm exits into the scorching sunlight as Rick, Sarah, and J.C. enter the village, villagers gathering around them. “Malcolm Denton, I presume?” Rick asks. Malcolm stares at them, grunts dismissively, and returns into his hut, dropping an oil cloth over the entrance. So much for the Big Moment.
That night the village holds a celebration in honor of their visitors, and the loss of their friend, Malcolm.
Outside, Rick, Sarah, J.C. and Denton are seated at a long table surrounded by village elders as a several open pit fires blaze, meats roasting on spits. Drums, flutes, rattles and a guitar are being played, children dancing to one side, most wearing clothing with Nike and Coke-Cola logos on them. “I’m just moving on,’ Malcolm hisses,’ and evidently just in time. So now you can go home.” J.C. mentions to Malcolm that whatever “Outside” offers for his story, his magazine will double. Before Rick can protest, Malcolm asks J.C., “How much?” “$20,000.” Rick stands, “That’s bull — !” Malcolm stands, “Done. You got one hour.” And J.C. follows Malcolm into his hut.
Late night. The village is asleep. Rick is standing on the end of the dock watching the half-moon reflected on the river. Sarah joins him. “What’re you thinking about?” she asks. He turns and smiles then turns back, “How to make J.C.’s death appear accidental.” Sarah laughs, looking out over the flowing water. “It’s beautiful. I sure never thought as a little girl in Wisconsin that one day I’d be standing in places like this.” Rick smiles to himself. “Being dragged all over the world by my dad, there were times when all I wanted was to live more than eight months in a place like Wisconsin.” She looks at him. “You never really talk about him.” He shrugs. “What’s to talk about? He got himself famous for going farther and higher and faster than anyone else. When he wasn’t drunk. When he wasn’t beating up on us.” “What happened?” Sarah asks gently. There is a long moment as he looks off into the black jungle beyond, the night alive with sounds. “Nothing.”
They both become aware of someone behind them, turning to face Carlos. He introduces himself as a local shaman, and then extends to both Sarah and Rick two jewels identical to Malcolm’s. Rick takes out a pocket flashlight, examining them. Carlos tells them where they’re from. “Shamballa?” Sarah asks, adding, “It’s just a myth. Like Oz.” Carlos smiles, “All history began as myth.” And then: “Tomorrow Mr. Denton and myself will begin our journey there. I am inviting you to join us.” “Why us?” Sarah asks. “Because you came,” Carlos smiles gently. “Why would Malcolm agree?” Carlos laughs, “Because tonight Mr. Denton will have the most extraordinary dream of his life in which you will both save his life.” Carlos laughs again, “I am a shaman, after all. We do our best work in dreams. Meet us at number 8 Pudhar in Delhi, India on Saturday morning.”
And he turns and walks off the dock into the surrounding jungle. Both Rick and Sarah look at each other, then to the jewels in their hands, neither sure how to respond.
And neither aware of J.C. crouching at the end of the dock in the dark, listening.
A terrified Malcolm finds himself suspended by a nylon rope, dangling over a seemingly bottomless ice crevasse, Rick and Sarah dug into the glacier above, holding onto his rope with all their might — Malcolm waking up in bed, sweat pouring off him, his heart racing.
Rick and Sarah awake the next morning to find Malcolm, Carlos, — and J.C. — gone.
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
David is on the phone with Rick. “India?” and then: “Shamballa?” And then: “Are you crazy?” And then again: “What jewels?” And then yet again, “…Malcolm Denton’s going to find a place that doesn’t exist? …Now that sounds interesting…A last great expedition…Like hunting for the real Shangra La…I like it — I knew pairing you and Sarah again would bring me luck — and I want receipts.”
New Delhi, India.
Sarah and Rick are careening through the unbelievably crowded streets of the city, two white faces in a sea of brown, begging children and adults clamoring after them.
They arrive at number 8 Pudhar, a ramshackle storage building. “What the hell are you two doing here?!” Malcolm bellows from inside the room filled with expedition gear. “We never got our interview,” Sarah says assertively. “So you followed me to India!? And how the hell’d you find me?!” As Rick is about to chime in, Carlos enters with coils of climbing rope, “I invited them.” “Who’s expedition is this?! Malcolm bellows. “Actually, as I am paying for this, I believe it could be considered mine,” Carlos answers.
“Where’s an Amazon shaman come up with enough money to mount an expedition?” Rick asks. “I sold a similar jewel to Mr. Denton’s greedy jeweler in Lima.” “I’m the one risking my ass to get you to wherever the hell you want to go; you’re using my experience and expertise so that puts me in charge or I go back right now!” Malcolm declares. And he exits. Carlos smiles at Sarah and Rick, pleased, “You see? No problems.” Rick and Sarah exchange dubious glances. Outside, J.C. watches from across the street as Malcolm storms out of the building and into the crowd.
That night in Malcolm’s hotel room, Sarah, Rick, Carlos and Denton are hunched over a table covered with several geographic and topographic maps. “How are you going to cross the border into Chinese disputed Tibet, and from there into China? It takes months just to work out the papers, if they let you in at all,” Rick says.
Malcolm stares at Carlos, Carlos becoming serious, “There is a way. My father and grandfather were manservants of a Chinese Naval officer. When I was born they snuck me into a monastery in Tibet for safety. I was raised there. When my father died, I left for my ancestor’s home in South America. The monastery will help us.” Malcolm looks from Carlos to the others, “Still want to go?” Sarah looks at Rick. They both nod. “I’ll have my editor Air Express all our equipment to Kathmandu,” Rick says. Malcolm looks each one directly in the eyes, “Then let’s go find Oz.”
Rick and Sarah are standing at the railing of a rooftop garden/restaurant overlooking the teeming city of New Delhi beyond. Both have cleaned up for the occasion, a hot summer breeze blowing past them. “Looks like this will be our last civilized meal for some time,” Rick says. Sarah smiles, “So what do you think of our Mr. Denton?” Rick shakes his head with great distaste, “Reminds me of my father. There are times when I wish Ernest Hemmingway had taken up accounting instead.”
A battered turbo-prop from the 60’s is carrying Rick and Malcolm, Sarah and Carlos, among several other tourists, over the snow-covered mountains of Northern India into Nepal. To one side the silent, staggering power of Everest and K2 dominate the horizon. There is nothing else as far as the eye can see but jagged peaks tucked between billowing clouds, all against an endless ice blue sky.
The small, dilapidated hotel is jammed with tourists and mountain climbers from all over the world, dressed in coats against the summer chill and breathing heavily from the thin atmosphere. Thick smoke fills the air. Malcolm comes stomping into the bar, grabbing both Rick and Sarah, “Our bloody trucks and sherpas have been bought out from under us by your bloody cohort!” When J.C. casually enters the room, smiling confidently. He comes between Rick and Sarah explaining most sincerely that with all the sudden influx of climbers, prices were rising and supplies were dwindling, “So I thought it best to secure everything I could find before you got here, just to be safe. “Malcolm grabs J.C. by the collar and plants him firmly against the bar, the crowd moving back. “You’ll turn over to us what we ordered right now or you’ll be in quite a bit of pain.”
A suddenly frightened J.C. explains that his editor has bought up all the trucks, sherpas and equipment and that there’d have to be a really ugly lawsuit to get it resolved. Malcolm hoists him higher, pulling his fist back, J.C. shutting his eyes and cringing. “Oh, it’s going to get ugly all right!” Sarah tries to get Malcolm to stop, Malcolm pushing her away. Rick pulls Malcolm back and slugs Malcolm hard in the face, painfully grabbing for his hand. Malcolm drops J.C. who runs for cover and grabs up Rick, slamming his fist into Rick’s stomach. Rick bends over gasping for breath as Sarah runs and jumps onto Malcolm’s back, hitting his head with her fists, Malcolm spinning about trying to get her off, the crowd laughing and cheering.
The owner of the establishment, an old Nepalese woman, strides determinedly into the bar area with a bottle in her hand which she promptly smashes against the side of Malcolm’s head. Sarah jumps off as Malcolm drops like a sack of sherpas to the floor, unconscious. Muttering colorful Nepalese obscenities, the old woman strides back out of the bar. The crowd applauds.
Later, Malcolm is holding a compress to the side of his head. He is seated at a table with Rick, Sarah, Carlos and J.C. “Whatever’s happened in the past, the cold facts are that I have what you need. So I suggest we combine our efforts,” J.C. says, eyeing Malcolm carefully, and from a safe distance. Malcolm grumbles. J.C. looks at Sarah and Rick, “You did, afterall, try to save my life.” “Just so I could kill you myself,” Rick says. J.C. smiles the smile of a poker player with all the cards, “So, where is it exactly that we’re off to?”
Rick and Sarah are inspecting their equipment which was delivered by air freight to a large shed near the air strip. Malcolm and Carlos are counting their food, water and oxygen supplies. J.C. is inspecting the two Chinese-made trucks with the head sherpa, Lomha, three other sherpas standing nearby.
The two trucks are rattling and groaning up the winding mud road passing through beautiful mountain valleys, abundant green grass and wildflowers peaking up through scattered patches of snow and ice.
In the cab of the first truck, Rick and Sarah are trying to not be thrown to the ceiling as Lomha drives, happily singing a top-40 Nepalese tune. “Join in! Sing! We are alive this day!” Troopers Rick and Sarah try. In the second bouncing truck cab, all is silent as a stonefaced Malcolm drives, Carlos meditating blissfully, J.C. trying unsuccessfully to jot down notes on a computer palm pad.
A goat herder and his flock watch passively as the first truck tries to pull the second truck from a deep muddy ditch on the edge of the narrow road, when the second truck’s back tire suddenly skids off the road, and over the edge of a deadly thousand foot drop. J.C. opens his door to see, only to tumble out, grabbing hold of the door handle for dear life — and dangling in thin air. As J.C. screams, Malcolm slams on the gas. Lomha shifts gears on the first truck, and slams on his gas, Sarah and Rick looking back fearfully as J.C. swings back and forth over the mountainside. The first truck finally pulls the second back onto the narrow road. J.C. drops to the road, lying as flat as humanly possible and kissing the ground. Lohma sings out, “We are alive again this day!” And the goat herder moves on to more interesting matters.
Early the next morning the trucks pull into the small mountain town of Kodari, Nepal. The exhausted trekkers spill out of the trucks and into the large mud and thatch home of Lomha’s brother, Tiki, to fall asleep on the matted floor where they drop. Tiki’s wife and two children cover them with blankets.
As they have slept, Rick and Sarah have moved close together, waking up looking into each other’s eyes. They smile, Sarah closing her eyes contentedly, then quickly opening them and disengaging herself, Rick pulling away as well. J.C. laughs from the table where he is drinking a cup of the local coffee. “Ah, young mountain love.”
They both stand, embarrassed, stretching self-consciously as Malcolm enters from outside breathing in deeply and pounding his chest, grinning. “What a glorious day! This air makes me feel like a god! All I want is to eat and get drunk and screw, climb a mountain and die!” Carlos and Lomha face the others. “As you know, the Xixabanga Mountains are before us, an extremely difficult journey. But as I promised, there is a way. The monastery where I was protected is nearby. Underneath it is a natural passageway hundreds of miles long. It is holy ground. We will be allowed to use it to pass underneath the mountains.”
Everyone exchanges glances. “I’ve climbed in this area for years and never once heard of such a thing,” Malcolm says derisively. “You must tell no one of its existence for the rest of your lives. It must not be written about.” J.C. and Rick both protest, “Writing about this is why we’re here!” For the first time Carlos’ demeanor changes to icy granite. “Without your solemn word, we will go no farther. From this point on, this is no longer about magazines or photos or careers or even adventure. From this point on our journey is a sacred one. From this point on we leave the world as you know it behind. The decision must be yours.”
There is silence, resentment fading to gradual agreement, Carlos focusing all his attention on J.C. who eventually nods his head.
The monastery is a beautiful sculpted stone edifice tucked into the side of a glacial mountain. Hundreds of brilliantly colored prayer flags snap in the cold breeze. Monks in saffron robes chant prayers and turn musical prayer wheels. A profound sense of serenity pervades the air.
The expedition is escorted into the main hall by a silent monk. Carlos bows down respectfully as the Master approaches with a gentle smile and extended hands. He and Carlos embrace, tears flowing from Carlos’ eyes. Sarah and Rick are moved as well, Malcolm staring about himself uncomfortably. An indifferent J.C. stands back with Lomha. “Welcome home,’ the Master says to Carlos, ‘you have been gone too long.”
He then welcomes the others, each bowing respectfully. They are seated on the floor at a round table, food and tea before them as the Master speaks. “The passageway has been used for centuries to move religious and political asylum seekers. But it is more than a natural rock formation. It is an initiation. It will test your fear and your courage and your faith.” Malcolm is becoming more interested by the moment; Rick, Sarah and J.C. more concerned. “It will take you where you do not want to go, but with your mind always in your heart,’ and the Master raises one of the jewels, the red within the diamond, ‘it will bring you home.”
Backpacks on, they are taken down a narrow, twisting corridor illuminated by burning lanterns, the rock walls worn smooth by centuries of use. They arrive at a natural archway surrounded by thousands of parchment prayers attached to the surrounding walls. Nothing but darkness is beyond. “You must remove your boots; place them around your necks,” the Master says. Each hesitates then complies.
“Each one of you takes one candle only,’ The Master says as he points to a wooden barrel filled with homemade candles, ‘one candle by itself will not last the journey.” He bows to them, his hands clasp together, “Journey in peace.” And he turns and exits. Carlos takes a candle, lighting it from a lantern as the others take their candles, J.C. grabbing a handful, “What nonsense,” he says. Carlos stops him, forcing him to put the others back. Tethered together, Carlos says, “I’ll go first,” as he hands his burning candle to Malcolm. “One must go first into the dark, protecting the single flame from the cave drafts ahead. The others must follow the light.”
And he steps into the dark, Malcolm next, then Sarah and Rick, J.C. taking up the end. Socked feet are gingerly placed on cold, hard, rock; hands are protectively placed on the narrow, damp rock walls surrounding them. Malcolm’s candle flame flickers madly in the dark air, Carlos’ back shielding it, the flame throwing ghostly orange shadows against the blackness. Feet and hands are cut and gouged, foreheads are banged painfully as Carlos calls out ahead as to what is coming next.
The passageway becomes narrower, the ceiling closing in until then are all stooped over, their backs cramping. Until they are crawling on their knees; until they are pulling themselves on their stomachs, pushing their backpacks ahead of them.
Hours upon hours gruellingly pass as they contort through the rock labyrinth, ever downward, ever onward. One candle is used up, and then another, and then another. Each pair of eyes is wild with fear and pain. Only Malcolm seems to enjoy the torture. “What am I doing here?” Sarah cries out softly at one particularly bad point. Rick consoles her as best he can, fighting back his own fears. J.C. is whimpering like a baby, trying to catch up. When: Malcolm has a flash in his mind of hovering over his own graveside funeral service, no one mourning his passing. J.C.’s mind flashes to a party, the party-goers painfully ridiculing J.C.’s self-impressed importance. Sarah has a flash of Jim saying he loves her, Sarah unable to respond. A flash comes over Rick’s mind of Rick painfully watching his children from his parked car as they play in an opposite park.
Carlos comes to an opening in the rock floor, dropping his pack and then himself down into it. “We’re down to the last candle,” Malcolm says, following. Each drops their packs and then themselves into the hole. Sara becomes stuck near the bottom and panicks, her breathing racing, “I can’t move!’ and then to herself in a frightened whisper, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let me die here like this.” Water trickles onto her face increasing her panic. Rick tries to pull her up but she cries out in pain.
Malcolm tries to pull her down but she cries out again. Carlos’ gentle voice echoes up from the black telling her to relax, to calm her breathing, to focus on her body, to release her fears which are only trapping her tighter. She tries, crying out again, Rick reaching down and gently stroking her cheek, “I’m here. I won’t leave you.” Carlos tells her again to release her fears, to listen to her breathing and with each breath feel herself relaxing and becoming smaller and smaller.
Sarah tries again, concentrating, calming, breathing, relaxing…until she slips gently down the rock and out. She laughs, then cries, Rick pressing beside her and holding her tightly. Continuing on, the air is becoming warmer and warmer until each is shedding their jackets, tying them around their waists. And the candle light becomes fainter and fainter…until the last flame dies out.
“What do we do now?” a terrified J.C. cries out. “Move on, damn-it!” Malcolm shouts back. And they do, inching along in the black. They come to a wider area, Carlos stopping them, the sound of an underground river flowing somewhere ahead. “There is one last difficult passage,” Carlos says, everyone tense with anticipation, “And the most dangerous. It is a smooth, natural rock bridge over the river you hear. The river is a hundred feet below. The bridge is thirty feet long. And only two feet wide. I suggest we move on our stomachs. I will go first and then pull our packs after.”
From the crevasse walls far below, the faintest of bluish light from mineral phosphorescence helps illuminate the bridge, but just barely. The roar of the river becomes deafening as Carlos lays down and slowly pulls himself over the wet, slippery bridge, the sides of his body hanging over. Across, he stands and pulls the secured packs to him.
Sarah is next as she lays against the cold rock and pulls herself, her cheek pressed against the bridge. Her fingers feel for the sides of the rock ahead of her, her feet struggle to stay on the bridge, pushing her forward. She makes it. Rick is next, pressing himself down and slithering like a snake, his feet slipping off the rock, his heart pounding. He makes it. J.C. forces himself to lay flat and inches himself forward, his eyes shut tight in fevered prayer, his hands searching for the rock ahead to pull against. He makes it. He laughs. Malcolm, the largest of them all, lays down and begins to pull himself, his elbows and knees slipping over the sides. He reaches ahead and grabs for a handhold, when his legs slip and he tumbles over the side, Rick screaming out for everyone to grab their ropes. Malcolm is swung by his tether and slammed into the opposite rock wall, suspended in bluish blackness a hundred feet above a surging underground river.
The others are pressed back, holding his weight. “I can’t see anything!” Malcolm calls out. He grabs for the rope above him, his wet hands slipping down it. He grabs for it again and twists the rope around his forearm and pulls, trying to find a foothold on the slippery rock face. Everyone is yanked by Malcolm’s body weight. Rick wraps his rope around a nearby rock and inches himself to the rock ledge over Malcolm, his hand extended downward. “I’m here!” Rick calls down. Malcolm strains and pulls himself up, Rick grabbing another rock for support, Malcolm reaching up and grabbing Rick’s hand. Rick pulls with all his strength as the others pull on the rope, Malcolm slipping his way up the rock wall, and over the ledge. Safe.
Rested. They gradually become aware of the faintest yellow glow around them, becoming bright and brighter the farther they move forward. They drop down another hole and into a massive rock chamber aglow with phosphorescent minerals. Brilliantly colored, glowing stalactites and stalagmites surround them in a stunning cathedral of rock. Sarah and Rick and J.C. laugh out loud at the beauty, Sarah hugging Rick tightly. “Magnificent!” Malcolm shouts out, his voice echoing off the distant cavern walls. “We will sleep here,” Carlos says. From here it is easier. And we can put our boots back on.” “Did we pass the initiations?” Sarah asks happily.
Rick, Sarah and Malcolm wash the blood off their feet and hands in a pool of warm water, steam vapor rising off it. They bandage their wounds. Malcolm sits back, looking about himself, “This is why I do it! The poor s.o.b.’s in their offices, damn-it! This is life!” “No family?” Sarah asks. Malcolm waves dismissively, “Oh, somewhere. They kicked me out years ago. Better off without me.” Rick looks at him contemptuously, then stands and walks back to Carlos and J.C. “What’s with him?” Malcolm asks, adding, “He’s sure not like his old man.” “You knew each other?” Sarah asks. “Hell, who didn’t know Jack Kessler?! Our paths crossed lots of times. He wanted us to do a climb together once, but I’m a solo act.” “What happened to him?” “Hell, got drunk, killed his wife and Rick there’s little sister in a car accident.” Stunned, Sarah looks at Rick across the cavern, sitting by himself.
That night, all asleep on the cavern floor, the largest, strangest and meanest-looking insect ever seen crawls out of a steam vent crevasse nearby. Part scorpion, part crab, it creeps over to the camp, hesitating at J.C.’s neck. It climbs over J.C.’s back and onto Rick’s exposed arm and under his loose shirt sleeve. Rick twitches in his sleep — Then bolts up, screaming out, slamming his hand to his arm in agony, killing the insect, its insides seeping through the cloth. The others awake as Rick stands, reeling about and tearing off his shirt, “Jesus! Something bit me! It hurts like hell!” Sarah holds him, J.C. and Carlos examining the wound, Malcolm looking at the insect remains, “Never seen anything like it.” As Rick’s legs give out from under him and he goes into shock.
Carlos and Sarah quickly administer to Rick, Carlos tying off the wound, Sarah giving him an injection of antibiotic, when he stops breathing, Carlos beginning mouth-to-mouth and C.P.R. The others await anxiously, when Rick begins breathing again, and they relax. Moments later Rick quickly develops a fever and chills. He begins to hallucinate. He calms and then lapses into unconsciousness. Sarah cries out.
Realizing they’d never make it back the way they came, they decide to move on and jerryrig a small litter out of internal backpack supports. They continue into the eerie light, Malcolm and Carlos carrying Rick between them, J.C. leading the way, Sarah beside Rick. Up and down, through the winding tunnel, over ledges and crevasses and past steaming heat vents they continue, exhausted from carrying the still unconscious Rick. Another day and night pass as they sleep on a ledge over another massive cavern, a beautiful waterfall spilling into one end from far above. “Where am I?” Rick asks on the third day, having regained enough strength to walk, shouldering himself against Carlos. Sarah cries happily.
When ahead they see a shaft of golden sunlight streaming down, Sarah running toward it. And they step out of the cave, its entrance shrouded in flower petals and prayer parchments.
They stare at an extraordinary sight: Below them is the narrowest of valleys, shear mountain walls on either side rising to an opening sliver of blue sky above. A thick, lush forest surrounds them, jungle flowers and palms intermixed in a contradictory exotic setting. Steam jets from hot mineral springs, ghostly plums rising to the clouds far above. “…My God,” Rick says, stunned by the beauty. The others stand in awed silence. “…Never in my life…” Malcolm begins.
Carlos steps forward pointing to another monastery tucked into the foliage below. “Is this…Shamballa?” Sarah hesitates to ask. Carlos smiles, “No. This was my other home as a child. What you see around you is an accident of nature. Volcanic steam heating a 25,000 foot high valley, all but invisible from the air above. Undiscovered by the outside world.” Suddenly, a noisy parade of brightly clothed, Asian-featured children run to them from the forest and surround them, laughing as they pull them toward the monastery.
A feast is held that night. Glorious food and wonderful music and joyous dancing fill the air as the monks honor their guests. Rick’s wound is treated, and beautiful robes are given to each. Rick places his arm around Sarah, Sarah smiling happily and pulling herself into him. Even Malcolm is having a grand time, dancing with the monks. Each is shown to a simple but very comfortable room. Rick knocks on Sarah’s door, Sarah opening it. He extends an orchid to her. She draws him in and closes the door behind. And a warm, floral breeze laced with the tones of wind chimes passes over their naked bodies.
The next morning the expedition is served breakfast on a patio overlooking the valley. Carlos stands, “Tomorrow they will give us a boat and we will sail down the river to Lanzhou where we will catch a train to Hohhot, Mongolia. From there we will barter for camels and horses to takes us to our destination.” Sarah smiles, “What if we don’t want to leave?” Everyone laughs. “Not to ruin the party,’ Malcolm says, ‘But we happen to be in Communist China illegally. Anyone thought about that?”
A silence falls over the table. Carlos smiles yet again, “As I’ve said, these monks have hidden and moved asylum-seekers for centuries.” And a monk enters with several governmental papers which he hands to Carlos, smiles, bows and backs out of the patio. “Aside from their exquisite calligraphy, they are excellent forgers.”
A tributary of the Brahamputra River snaking through the Tangula Shan Mountains.
The expedition is gently sailing downriver in a sampan through breathtaking, lush, unpopulated valleys. Rick holds Sarah as they stand at the bow, facing into the breeze, Rick pointing to a flock of cranes gracefully taking off from the marshland.
Malcolm is at the pilot’s wheel as J.C. tries unsuccessfully to fish off the back end.
That night, below deck, under a full moon, Sarah and Rick are lying in bed in each other’s arms. “What are we doing?” Sarah asks. “Resting,” Rick says with a smile. “This. Us. I think we’ve been here before and it turned into a mess.” Rick looks at her, brushing hair from her forehead, “When you were trapped in that rock…I suddenly couldn’t breathe at the thought that I might lose you.” Tears in her eyes, Sarah reaches up and kisses him.
J.C. is in his cabin, secretively writing up his notes under lantern light, glancing nervously toward the door.
Malcolm is still at the wheel, watching the moonlight flash off of the waves. Carlos joins him. “Why me?” Malcolm asks; “You don’t need me. You could have hired anybody to follow you on this trip.” “Why does it have to mean anything?’ Carlos asks, ‘You’re here, can’t that be enough?” “I’m an explorer. I live my life to know what’s on the other side of a thing.” “And when you get to the other side, what do you feel?” Malcolm glances to him then back to the river in silence.
Carlos looks out over the flowing, black water and tells a story of a great Egyptian pharaoh who discovered great lands and conquered magnificent peoples, reaping fortune upon fortune. And when he died he arrived at the gates to his heaven surrounded by his fortune to please his gods. But no gods showed up, only a single sheep herder asking only of the pharaoh: who had he loved, who had he cared for, who had he sacrificed for? For the pharaoh had arrived finally at the last, truly undiscovered land where jewels were so much dust, and the well-loved heart the only treasure. Carlos turns and walks away, leaving Malcolm alone.
A busy, crowded city of farmers and merchants, the expedition members standing out starkly, locals grinning curious toothless grins and pointing at them. Children laugh and grab at their packs. Seemingly ancient patriarchs smoking long pipes nod to them politely.
“Where’s J.C.?” Rick asks, everyone turning around realizing he’s gone. J.C. has found the local wire service and is trying to wire his notes to his editor in America, arousing the suspicion of a local policeman who asks to see his papers and permits. Rolling his eyes, J.C. pulls out his papers, the policeman taking them, pulling out his gun, and escorting a protesting J.C. to the local police station. Sarah turns to a commotion in the crowd behind them, and sees J.C. being directed down a street. “Oh no.” And the others turn. “Leave him,’ Rick says ‘he’s been nothing but trouble from the beginning. He’ll spend a few weeks in jail and the embassy will get him home. Or not.” Malcolm pushes past, handing his pack to Carlos, “Get to the train station. Now! We’ll meet you in Hohhot.” And he’s gone into the crowd.
J.C. is being interrogated by the police chief in a regional Chinese dialect, J.C. white with fear as he tries to explain the unexplainable. Before he knows it, he’s in an ancient, filthy jail cell with an extremely sinister-looking man. The man grins at J.C. and somehow J.C. doesn’t feel that warm, fuzzy glow.
A worried Rick, Sarah and Carlos are walking quickly through the crowded train, looking for their compartment, finding it and entering, closing the door behind, as the train starts up, each watching the station pass by with no sign of Malcolm or J.C.
Late that night J.C. is still standing, pressed against the crumbling cell wall as he has been all night, trying not to look at the large man who has not taken his eyes off of J.C. And for the first time in his life, J.C. prays sincerely, when the police run from the station to a fire down the street — and the bars in the cell window are yanked out — J.C. jumping onto a bench and seeing Malcolm astride a powerful horse, the bars dragging behind.
J.C. hoists himself through the window just as the large man grabs him, J.C. turning and slugging him right in the face, the man recoiling in pain. J.C. pulls himself through the window.”Jump!” Malcolm shouts. And J.C. does, falling painfully onto the back on the horse behind Malcolm, grabbing hold, and they’re off into the dark.
The next day the train pulls into the one-horse hamlet of Hohhot, Mongolia, Rick, Sarah and Carlos actually seeing the one horse, and Malcolm and J.C. standing beside it.
Being the only white faces around and therefore easily detected by the police, Carlos suggests they move quickly.
At the edge of the Gobi Desert.
And at this far edge of the world, in the center of remote Mongolia, they discover a crazy rancher from Australia, Arnie Bobbit, with a Mongol wife and family, a satellite dish, and emergency cases of Foster’s beer. “Holy Mother Mary,’ Bobbit exclaims at the door to his mud, thatch and tin ranch house, ‘Where the hell’d you come from and what in the Glory are you doing out here? You do know you’re in Mongolia, don’t ya?” The shy Mrs. throws together a meal, the kids peaking out from the inner rooms, Bobbit turning off “Dallas” on the t.v. “Shamballa, you say? Never heard of it. ‘Course nobody goes out in the desert ‘cept the nomads and they’re crazy as hell, far as I can tell.”
The next morning, Bobbit shows them his horses and camels which he’ll rent for a fair price, “fair” being open to interpretation. But one of Carlos’ jewels goes a long way toward good will. “You sure you want to ride out into the desert? You ever been in the Gobi Desert? Freeze your ass at night, scald your balls in the day — sorry, ma’am,” Bobbit apologizes to Sarah. “I don’t hear from you in two weeks, I’ll send out a search party.”
Resupplied with food and water, their gear checked, camels readied, Carlos in the lead, they all wave to Bobbit and the family, and ride off into the vast, surreal emptiness which is the largely uncharted Gobi Desert.
Unlike any other desert on the planet, the Gobi is a vast, almost eternal-looking alien landscape. Nothing about the Gobi looks familiar, not its sand, not its brush, not its color. It is an eerie, haunting emptiness. Slowed by blistering heat, the expedition continues on, Malcolm and Carlos consulting their compass and maps.
Exhausted and thirsty, J.C. has dropped back, fighting off sleep. Rick and Sarah as well are fighting off the extreme elements and losing. Their camels simply plod along as their ancestors have done for eons. Time has ceased. That night they camp under a cold sky so startlingly bright with stars that the expedition could be lying on the moon; the sky an ocean of light, swirling galaxies as clear as clouds. Even the sounds of the hidden animals and insects are alien, Sarah and Rick sleeping closer together, alone in all the universe.
The next day is much the same, five camels, four humans moving slowly into the very soul of nowhere. When a sudden hot breeze blows up and a black cloud appears on the horizon, a wall of sand a hundred feet high and moving toward them.
“Get the camels down!” Malcolm shouts. “And dig yourself into them! Cover your head and hands completely!” And the storm comes, blotting out the sun, the temperature plummeting, a deafening roar screaming out as if the wind were an enraged animal. The sand blasts everything and everyone in its path, the camels crying out, Sarah screaming, Rick struggling to get to her.
And so it continues for six hours. Brutalized, but still alive, they dig each other out of the sand, their camels struggling to upright themselves. Blistered and raw, the expedition collapses into tearful exhaustion, unaware that their backup water supply has been destroyed. “What do we do?” Rick asks upon the morning’s discovery. “We each have only our own water bottles. It’s not enough. We’ll have to go back,” Malcolm says. “How much farther to Shamballa?” Sarah asks Carlos. “Another two days,” Carlos says. “If we even find the ruins, there won’t be any water there,” J.C. says incredulously. Sarah looks at Carlos, “What do you say?” “What the hell is she even talking about?!” J.C. cries out. “I will continue on,” Carlos says.
Carlos then looks at Sarah, “All life comes down to faith, whether in yourself, your life, or your god.” “This is insanity,” J.C. says. “You go, I’m heading back. I’ve had it with this whole insane project.” Sarah stares deeply into Carlos’ soft eyes, a warmth seeming to grow deep within her. “I’ll go,” Sarah says. J.C. gasps in disbelief. And then: “I’ll go with you,” Rick says, staring into Sarah’s eyes. “We all die someday,’ Malcolm adds, then looks at Carlos, ‘And it’s better than dying drunk in a canoe.” Carlos smiles. Malcolm tosses his backup map and compass to J.C. And they head off, leaving a stunned J.C. behind.
Until: “Wait — Wait for me!” he suddenly cries out, climbing onto his camel and trying futilely to get the animal to speed up.
On the last day carrion birds begin to circle as the expedition slows to a halt, unable to go farther under the broiling sun. Seeking shade under their camels, they pass the last water bottle among themselves, sharing the last drops. Slowly dying, Sarah manages to curl into Rick’s arms, “…You know something? I’m happy.” Rick kisses Sarah’s forehead gently, then says,
“…I’ve been angry at so much in my life; angry at my father, angry at myself. Nothing else mattered. Until now. And now all the anger’s finally gone.” And they kiss one last time.
Malcolm and J.C. are sitting to one side, watching Sarah and Rick. “…I’ve wasted my life,’ J.C. admits softly, ‘For all the excitement, the women, the sheer speed of it all, I’ll die here in the desert with no one to care one way or the other. And if that’s the case, what was it all for?” Malcolm looks directly at J.C. “You will not die in this desert alone and no one caring.” And he extends his hand to J.C., J.C. looking at it emotionally, then taking it in his hand tightly.
Near death himself, Carlos looks at them all fondly, then struggles painfully to his feet, and staggers off into the desert, becoming lost in the searing, wavering heat.
And hours later, they have all collapsed, unconscious, into the sand.
When one shadow, then another, then another passes over their bodies, their heads lifted by brown hands, water sprinkled on their cracked lips. Slowly, gradually, their eyes open. “Thank God,” Arnie Bobbit says as Rick and Sarah begin to revive, followed by J.C.
Malcolm is dead.
Arnie’s four Mongol friends continue to administer to Rick, Sarah, J.C. and their camels. “…Where’s Carlos?” Rick asks. Arnie shakes his head, “We’ve looked everywhere he could have gone. They all exchange glances. Sarah looks off into the desert. She manages a frail smile, “I hope he found it.”
They then bury Malcolm in the desert, J.C. staying at Malcolm’s grave the longest. “Let’s get you all home,” Arnie says. On their camels, they head back the direction they came. Arnie and the others continue ahead, dropping over a hill, Rick, Sarah and J.C. lagging behind with their private thoughts.
When suddenly they see a figure moving toward them from out of the heat and sand. It’s Carlos! But there’s something strangely different about him…There seems to be a light coming from within him…He smiles as they halt their camels. “Carlos!” Sarah cries out happily.
He holds up his hand, mysteriously stopping them from climbing off their camels to great him. “I came to thank you for bringing me home. And for bringing yourselves home. You began as people apart from each other. You leave as something greater. And for that you deserve a gift.” A sudden, unexpected, cool breeze blows past them. The gentle sounds of wind chimes are heard.
Then the sweet smells of jasmine and rose pass over their heads. They each look from Carlos to each other curiously, then slowly turn, their eyes growing wide. “…Do you see what I’m seeing?” Sarah asks hesitantly, her heart racing. Rick and J.C. can only nod.
Behind them, in the middle of the desert, stands an impossible city of towering light and color, its majesty and grandeur twisting the limitations of the human mind. Sarah, Rick and J.C. all have tears of joy running down their faces at the soul-stirring sight.
And from within the glowing, golden-blue light of the main gate of Shamballa steps Malcolm. And he smiles the smile of a man who has, indeed, come home.
And just as suddenly the city of Shamballa returns to its sanctuary, hidden in the illusion of the desert.
Carlos has disappeared as well.
There is a silent moment.
And then Rick, Sarah and J.C. all laugh with giddy happiness, wiping away their tears, their camels impatiently wanting to continue on.
And so they do.
c.2010 All Rights