Excerpt: Tracking the Serpent by Janine Pommy Vega

from The Old Way

…Outside, we came upon a dozen Westerners walking in twos and threes. Since we’d passed no one on the road, I assumed they must have arrived by plane. Perhaps the trekking season had already begun. Into the wall of wind Arjuna and I headed down to Marpha, a town of stone walls and cobblestone streets that reminded me of Bagarchap on the Marsyangdi River side.

In the following days the weather got clearer, and we lost elevation steadily. The work for the heart and thighs was replaced by work for the knees. Daulagiri, the 26,000 foot giant to the west, and Nilgiri, 22,000 feet high to the east, stayed with us as we descended. In such illustrious company, it was hard to maintain any sense of self-importance beyond the time it took to look up.

Below Tatopani, we left the Kali Gandaki river valley and began a slow ascent. In a lush rhododendron forest we caught up with three women who looked like the matriarchal line of a family: grandmother, mother, and daughter. Dressed in colorful clothes and wearing dozens of glass bracelets that tinkled as they walked, they said they were bound for a wedding in a nearby town.

After we walked together a while, the old woman turned to Arjuna.

“How poor she must be, and how poor her husband!” She began to laugh. “Here our husbands give us gold.”

She was pointing to the red string on my marriage finger. I had found a strand of new red yarn on the path that morning, and wound it onto my conglomerate of string, making it thicker and brighter. She had a well worn marriage band, as did her daughter. The granddaughter, a beautiful woman of about fifteen, would soon wear a gold band other own, I thought.

I laughed with them. “Yes, yes. No money, my husband.”

The old woman looked shrewdly at Arjuna. “You are not her husband.”

Arjuna grinned. “No, I am not.”

“She should look for another one.”

The dialogue started to assume a larger meaning. The kindness I was trying to practice toward myself and others—was I married to the concept of honoring the spirit in that way? Yes, I was. Just as in the practice of bowing Namaste, wearing the red string reminded me of the spirit—goddess or god—in everything, even in my thoughts. . . .

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This month on the blog, in addition to our regular excerpts from recently released City Lights titles, we’re featuring excerpts from our backlist that orbit (near or far) around this theme of “journey,” observations from/about whatever worlds our authors have visited.

Tracking the Serpent: Journeys into Four Continents are the true-life adventures of a woman who ranges over four continents, endeavoring to go beyond the limits of ordinary life. Recovering from an accident, she goes to Glastonbury, where she finds energy portrayed in ancient earthworks as a snake coiled in concentric circles around a hill. To walk this spiral is called threading the maze, which means both to ascend and to go deep within. This becomes a guiding emblem of her pilgrimages to sites of female spiritual and temporal power, from the Irish countryside to the Amazon jungle to the high mountain cultures of Nepal.


Janine Pommy Vega, Beat Generation writer, performer, and musician, is the author of twelve books. For many years she has worked with Poets in the Schools, and she is a member of PEN’s Prison Writing Committee.

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