Church of Wanderlust

For decades I thought I wasn’t religious. Until I realized: my religion is Wanderlust.

The temples of my faith are scattered all over the world. They are Babylonian airports and abandoned landing strips overgrown with weeds; bustling city squares and sleepy fishing villages; mountain-top castles and back-alley dive bars, awash in neon lights, lingering smoke and that tingling feeling of déjà vu.

The scriptures of my religion come with blank pages. You fill them up yourself, with all the secret words you find along the way. Passwords you earn by showing up and taking it all in. Like the Japanese «kikubari», the Spanish «duende», the Tibetan «lungta» and the Finnish «kalsarikännit».

There are millions of us Believers, and we have our own sacred rituals: swapping road stories (that time you crossed the Tibetan-Nepalese border on foot), travel tips (never join a Great Wall of China tour) and anecdotes picked up around the world, like the one about popular Austrian T-shirts with «No kangaroos here» – because of how many foreigners allegedly confuse it with Australia.

Our altars are invisible and intangible, built of memories and scars: the first time you inhaled the air of India, that time your flight landed safely – but not the one right behind yours, that time you drank with a real Viking, that day you got to ride an untamed Mongolian horse and almost got killed in the process, that beautiful stranger on the opposite side of the planet who became the lover you’ll always carry in your heart – but will never see again.

Our priests are grandmas the world over who feed every stray soul that comes through their door before they even ask your name or where you’re from. Our angels are people finding creative ways to give you directions when you don’t share a single language in common. Our prophets are those who have traded security for discovery; achievement for contentment; retirement money for frequent flyer miles.

We are everywhere, and eventually, we will take over the world. We won’t need bombs or economic schemes. We’ll just blend the borders by blending our families. We’ll continue to spread our ideology through street foods, ethnic tattoos and cultural holidays. We’ll quietly convert everyone by making them fall in love with people in our stories – until each and everyone on the planet becomes us, the Wanderlusters.

And that’s the only thing I religiously believe in.

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The Thar

Inspired by an old man and his deep-sea marlin. Based on a true story.

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Trophy hunting is all about scoring high: the more rare the species, the harder the hunt, the better-looking the trophy – everything counts.

Deep-pocket hunters love to go to New Zealand. First off, it’s God knows where, which makes for a great subject to bring up at dinner parties. And second, in addition to very impressive deer and irresistible kiddie-size wallabies, they got Himalayan mountain goat here, imported and thriving in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Himalayan mountain goat – stage name “Thar” – is a magnificent creature. For starters, it wears a thick cappuccino-colored coat that looks richer than a floor-length mink on a 90-year-old Manhattan socialite. Because of its mane, a Himalayan goat trophy is never butchered just for antlers, like deer, or cut at the shoulders, like antelope, but mounted whole, standing proud on a rock pedestal, a perfect conversation piece for its accomplished owner.

Himal-Thar2

The elusive species is also known for its love of solitude, living primarily on rock-bare mountain tops. Harvesting this son-of-a-bitch is an ultimate challenge: a Thar never runs straight, instead zig-zagging like crazy towards the razor-sharp edge of the mountain, leaping over it and plunging straight down, defying all laws of physics and leaving a hunter empty-handed, out of breath and schooled. Sometimes it takes several attempts even for an experienced hunter to get one, making it a very special trophy. Watching a Thar hunting scene from a helicopter above is an ultimate reality show.

I have respect for the Himalayan mountain goat. He’s a die-hard.

Roger was nothing like the other hunters. He stood out in this five-star exclusive lodge, teeming with Texan oil tycoons and their well-trained wives in diamonds and camouflage. He came alone. He wasn’t rich. He hadn’t been to Africa or Kazakhstan. It took him several years to save up for a very special dream: a Himalayan goat trophy. He came to this ultra-exclusive hunting lodge, famous for top American hunters harvesting numerous Himalayan goats, and he came wound tight, his best guns in tow.

Every night around the dinner table the others would boast about a prize buck they had just harvested, the fun they had slaying down the pest wallabies, and how many tries it took them to finally bring down a Himalayan goat. Roger’s face expressed nothing, aside from his jaw muscles slowly churning under the skin. His smile was nothing beyond polite, his body stiff, his gaze non-connecting. He wasn’t there to socialize. He wasn’t there to make friends. He was there for the Thar, and it was clearly his only chance for one.

On a Tuesday afternoon, the helicopter dropped Roger and a hunting guide on the mountain top. They spotted a Thar twice, but the goat was too fast for Roger’s aim. At dinner, Roger’s guide shared the news of the day in his most positive voice, and everyone at the table took turns cheering Roger up: a Himalayan Goat is not an easy trophy for anyone. Surely he was going to get one tomorrow. Roger responded with silence, his gaze fixed on his gourmet dinner plate.

On Wednesday, they came back empty-handed again – Roger had taken two shots and missed both times, the goat vanishing before he could take aim again. That night Roger finished dinner early, turned down desert and went straight to his room, skipping all the small talk. His hunting guide and the lodge owner exchanged glances and stepped outside, speaking in hushed voices for a minute before returning to the table.

On Thursday morning the weather turned finicky, with the unruly air currents and promises of rain later in a day. The helicopter pilot, a seasoned hunter himself, said he’d manage if they left immediately. The best hunting guide in the country, the owner took one look at Roger’s face and said he’d go out with Roger himself. Roger put down the unfinished cup of coffee and rushed to get ready. The owner’s face slowly turned from the usual warm friendliness to stern determination. The lodge was a second-generation family-run business. A guest was more than just a client. Nobody had ever left here unhappy. In just a few minutes, all three loaded up into the helicopter and took off into the grey sky.

Because of the weather change, it was a long and gloomy day back at the lodge. Lunch time came and went, the wives declined to go out to shop or visit a spa, staying in their luxury suites, lethargic. The dogs spent the day dozing off outside the butcher shed. A small rain came over the valley, sprinkling the grounds and moving on. In the distance, the clouds were hanging low over the mountain top, and everybody was thinking of Roger. As daylight began dissolving, the hunters came back one by one with the usual: some got just the trophy deer they needed to beat their local record, some had a good day scouting for tomorrow, all got wet and tired and couldn’t wait for a hot dinner and the usual scotch-and-storytelling around the fire place. Roger and the owner were still out.

At the sound of helicopter approaching at dusk everyone at the lodge poured outside, hoping Roger had scored. He had. When the chopper dropped down a lifeless cloud of fur and landed, Roger climbed out and walked over to the body slowly, like a sheriff who had finally got a prized fugitive.

The house dogs went insane, barking up the storm. The owners’ kids, age 6 and 8 – training to take over the family business – started kicking the body to assess its size. It was getting dark, and the owner turned on his flashlight to illuminate the trophy. The excited crowd drew a tighter circle.

That’s when everybody saw the goat was missing one horn. Roger’s smile weakened. The trophy wasn’t perfect. The owner quickly regained his composure. “Roger got him really high up. Great shot. It was almost 300 yards up away. Tumbled all the way down, the horn must have broken off on the way. No worries, Roger – we got plenty of spares to put on him, it’ll look better than his own!” Roger managed a stoic smile. As a Himalayan goat trophy is displayed whole, it was important. Luckily, the lodge had a butcher shed full of spare antlers, skulls and skins for every species harvested here. The helicopter pilot started telling everyone how incredible the hunt was from his view point – the goat was just about to make it over the edge of the cliff when Roger laid him down by the third shot. Roger turned to the silver-haired man to thank him for taking the flight in less than perfect weather.

“Whoa!” – shrieked one of the kids playing with the goat’s eyelids. The whole crowd was now staring at the ghostly blue cataract completely covering the goat’s right eye. The guides exchanged quick glances. The beast had clearly been half-blind. Roger blinked and said nothing, his face dropping ever so slightly. “Listen”, said the owner, carefully putting his hand around Roger’s shoulder. “You saw how he ran. Full speed, good as any. He was a trooper, but so are you. That was an excellent kill!” The news was met with silence. Sensing the change of mood, the dogs quietly dissolved into the dark air. Kids stopped fidgeting and wrapped themselves around their father’s legs. Roger stood there motionless.

That’s when one of the guides let out a surprised whistle. Before he could catch himself, all eyes were on another surprise: goat’s mouth was agape, with none but a single yellow crooked tooth sticking out at the edge of its lower jaw. The dams looked deserted and worn out. Clearly, the goat hadn’t eaten in a very long while. The guide rushed to close the invalid’s mouth, but it was too late.

It took two whole minutes of complete silence before the owner spoke up again. “Listen, Roger. These goats are crazy. When a male gets too old to breed, the young goats gang up and drive him off a cliff till he jumps to death. This one must have been escaping them for a while, but they would catch up with him soon. You gave him a chance to battle for his honor.” The words lingered. Everyone wanted to believe. The crowd solidified around the pale-faced, measured-breathing Roger and his one-horn, half-blind, toothless goat.

Unlike the usual, the dinner was a dignified, almost somber affair, all low-voiced and soft-spoken. No hunting stories, no trophy talk, no loud cheers, no crude jokes. The owner sent the kids to bed early, took the seat next to Roger and stayed for the whole dinner, talking weather, sports and politics. Roger kept silent until desserts came out. Standing up, glass in hand, he toasted everyone at the table one by one, thoroughly thanking the owner, the pilot, the hunting guides and the lodge staff for giving him an incredible opportunity to make his life-long dream come true, and wishing the rest of the hunters the best of luck. He had the time of his life, he said, and he would fondly remember everyone back here. Before anybody could respond, Roger excused himself to go packing for an early flight home and left the room.

Hours later the lodge finally went silent, but Roger was still lying on the bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling. In a cold shed less than 40 yards away laid a cold body of a veteran Himalayan mountain goat.

The sun was slowly rising over the Southern Alps.