Chaos greeted them at the airport in Nepal. Baggage was thrown haphazardly into a pile and entire families waited for their loved ones outside customs. Handwritten signs were everywhere, held by expectant drivers crammed in between mothers and fathers and husbands and aunts and cousins and siblings, all waiting for travelers to arrive.

The roads were a free-for-all. The lack of streetlights and stop signs led to a glut of cars and motorbikes, everything jammed together, weaving in and out, moving fast.

Kathmandu was nothing like they expected it would be — full of air pollution, cars, trash, and friendly people — different, but special in a way that’s difficult to put into words.

A terrifying seven-hour bus ride on the side of a cliff took them from Kathmandu to the small mountain town of Pokhara where they would meet their Sherpa (trekking guide), Kamala. She took them to a shop in town where they could rent a few things they’d need for the trek — sleeping bags & warmer coats— then drove an hour into the mountains and started leading the way.

They had assumed there would be a lot of people trekking, but not as many as they found once they were on the trail. Big groups with music playing from speakers hidden in backpacks took over some of the trails, and everyone was headed to Base Camp.

On the third day, they veered off course, choosing to take a less-popular path over the typical Annapurna Base Camp trek.  Their trail wound uphill for two days — a challenging hike with equally beautiful views as Annapurna, but considerably less people.

The days consisted of getting from one place to the next, moving between teahouses and slowly climbing higher into the mountains. The nights were spent talking to other hikers at the teahouses, eating the typical meal of noodles or rice, and playing a round or two of cards before bed.

Kamala led the way, always walking slightly ahead to give them space. If she wanted to point something out — an animal they might see, a plant in the area, or the mountains themselves — she’d turn around. They always hoped she would tell them more about her life, but she didn’t like talking about herself.

The air got thinner as Kate, Kyle, and Kamala climbed higher.

Kate thought about the things she’d seen — men carrying heavy loads of food and supplies up the mountains, someone killing a cow for dinner that night, five month old babies drinking warm milk out of coffee mugs instead of bottles, the trash thoughtlessly thrown on the ground because of the lack of an organized waste system. It was a glimpse into a whole other way of life; a lifestyle lived on the mountains.

After a day of nonstop climbing, they finally reached the top. The only teahouse was run by two men — one 25 years old, the other maybe 12 — and there was a single, solitary fire. It was freezing, but they sat around the flames late into the night. A radio played static in the background, an oddly comforting soundtrack to the night.

When they woke, there were icicles forming on their pillows. A wall of mountains greeted them, huge and far away, but seemingly close enough to touch.

They wanted to laugh and cry from exhaustion, disbelief, and pride. Just then, everything — all the individual elements of their time in Nepal — came together. Zen was there to be found, though not in the way they’d expected. It wasn’t a place or specific location, but the collection of moments that made up the journey.

This wasn’t a place you could just go; you had to work really hard to get there.

Kate is a Texan who now considers San Francisco home. She is happiest when hiking among pine trees, exploring new places, trying local food, and doing anything that can be described as “cozy.” She is currently traveling internationally with her husband and uses her blog as a creative outlet: follow their journey on Instagram or Life on Pine.