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October 11, 1987|VIRGINIA BARTON | Barton is an Inverness, Calif., free-lance writer. and

LUMLE, Nepal — At 62, the American woman was a novelty on the Nepalese trails up to 12,000 feet, because she trekked alone, hired her own porters, and her companions were all under 30. She had to exchange money for muscle, and stay in charge. Her reward was exquisite euphoria at top of the world

On a steep rise near Lumle a Nepali woman passed me, a doko basket loaded with twigs straining against her forehead. She reached out, grabbed both my hands in hers,and cried, " Namaste , mother!"

When I arrived in Nepal I thought namaste meant hello, but it's a blessing--more, I am told, like, "I salute the divine within you!"--and always delivered eye to eye with the hands uplifted as in prayer.

My Nepali sister prayed that I would make it up the hill. Dismayed, I sucked in my stomach and tried to look strong. Soon I realized that, at 62, I was a novelty traveling alone up the Kali Gandaki River gorge with my banner of white hair.

Some quick research on my fellow travelers (the Western ones) led me to discover that they were from many countries, with an age range from 18 to 30. Half were on college break while the other half had just ditched their first careers to reappraise their futures in an affordable Third World place. I was the only one with blue rinse in my duffel.

If this had been the route to the Everest Base Camp a dearth of seasoned citizens would have been no surprise, but this was a moderate trek, mostly under 10,000 feet, hardly a thin-air ordeal.

It's about 60 miles from Pokhara to Jomosom, another 15 to the medieval border town of Kogbeni (9,200 feet) and east up to Muktinath at 12,475 feet.

My plan was to go as far as I could, but I had serious doubts about that last, steep climb. I knew that at Jomosom there's an airstrip and a choice of flying out instead of returning by the same route.

The Pokhara to Jomosom trail follows an ancient trade route where there have always been inns for the traveler in almost every town. Reservations (unless you're with a group) are unnecessary. So is hauling in a tent, a camp stove or dehydrated noodles. This trail is, in fact, the classic choice for what has come to be called Teahouse Trekking, or sometimes Soft Trekking. It is the trail known for the spectacular variety of its people and its landscape.

The Katmandu Valley, where all the international flights land, is an emerald bowl rimmed on the north and the east by the Himalayas. There's enough history and art here to keep a curious visitor busy for months. But the city, with its cars and hotels, hawkers and tourists, has been flirting with progress since Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest in 1953 and brought the world in after him.

If you want to find the old ways now, you have to go to the end of the road and walk up into the mountains. Anyone who enjoys walking a few miles a day can do it, anyone, that is, who is willing to accept the sudden turn of the weather in the mountains and the jolt of another culture.

Crucial for wimps and the unconditioned, however, is the porter system. Let's face it: Plenty of people, at any age, never consider the idea of trekking because the sight of a backpack gives them a headache. They don't want to carry an ounce, the body being enough of a cumbersome burden, especially climbing uphill.

The porter system solves all that. In the gateway towns of Katmandu and Pokhara young men on every corner fight to carry your load. At first I worried about exploiting them (the rate was less than $5 a day); then I felt guilty because I could use only one at a time.

My first porter found me at Lake Phewa at Pokhara, and I found my second, his replacement, in the lodge at Ghorepani, five days on the road. Both were soft, foothill Hindus of the Chetri caste, not as prepared as they thought for the high country.

Purna, 28 and married, with good English, had much charm but got homesick. Five days from the lake was like five years to him, and the great festival of Dessai was coming up. He wanted to be home to receive the red tika on his forehead from his uncle and eat the goat especially slaughtered to pacify the terrifying goddess Durga. When he developed a stubborn cough, we agreed he should go home.

Ram Chandra, 21 and unattached, was waiting in the wings. He was thrilled to travel north and practice his English; but he didn't tell me that the shorts and sandals he had on were his only clothes, till we got to 9,000 feet and the goose-bumps appeared.

To both I was mother, an antique of uncertain durability who had to be protected. Purna liked to walk ahead and call back, "Watch out for that loose stone!" and Ram got me over the trembling log bridges by pulling me across with both hands, while I walked forward and he walked backward.

When they needed money they came to me (I bought the long pants), and when I needed muscle I went to them. When we had simultaneous blisters, we split the moleskin. It was an arrangement I'm familiar with.

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