I should have known the jig was up when the lady started laughing at me. It was early morning and I was just beginning the ascent of a challenging but manageable hill. She looked almost mad with her hair splayed off in all directions, her blackened teeth bared, and her eyes wild as hells flames. She briefly spoke at me in Thai, and then burst into the cackling laugh of some one mad. Without understanding what she said I somehow sensed that it was my path that she was laughing at. I thought her crazed and wished her an early sleep to rest her feeble mind. It turned out that she was the only sane one of the two of us.
The trip began 4 days earlier in Chiang Mai. The plan was to ride to Doi Ithanon National Park and then beyond the park to Mae Hong Son and Pai and then back to Chiang Mai before heading north to Chiang Rai and beyond.
The first 2 days of riding ranged between the pedestrian and ascents the likes of which cycling nightmares are made of. I rode through saccharin sweet countryside with ladies selling pineapple and noodle soup and disconsolate lands as unforgiving as the forces which cast them so. I sweat and I swore, rejoiced and cried, hated and loved. But holding tight to the hope and belief that things would get better, I kept going.
Eventually, and with the help of a new friend, Li No, who carried me in his pickup through 5 kilometers of some of the most difficult ascents the trail had to offer, I made it to the heart of Doi Ithanon Park.
I rested here 1 day and 2 nights before I headed off to the west. The road to Mae Chaem was a panoply of twists and turns and dark shadows upon a road oft veiled in mists. It was an orgasm of rapid downhills. Pleasure in rushes. Pedals went unturned for ages and lungs that were so starved in previous days fed at the trough of plenty. 30 kilometers were put under heel by lunch time. The day ended in Mae Na Chon. And there my ultimate demise began.
On the morning in question, not long after my encounter with the crazy lady, I came to the first big ascent of the day. I wasn’t far into the climb when the walking began. Those hills are just too steep. It is a land not fit for a bicycle. In the end, it turns out that very few people cycle here. People don’t even like riding here on small motorbikes if it can be avoided. I saw more than one in low gear labouring up hills like a weary, over burdened voyageur, or overworked and ill kept work camp nag on it’s last proverbial legs. I guess I shouldn’t feel bad that I had to walk them. And I don’t.
It soon became apparent that there was to be no enjoyment on this route. Immediately after one precipitous ascent and speedy descent it was back up another spirit breaking hill. There was no break in between. There was nowhere to ride. It was either pushing the bike up the hill in sweltering high 30’s heat or careening down the backside of it. Usually I love a good downhill. It offers a respite from climbing. It also offers a chance for a good breeze to cool you down. But in this environment, I learned to fear and hate the downhills because I knew that I was going to have to go back up right away. There was no real respite. There was no joy. It was just hard work and misery. I love a good challenge but it’s still a vacation. I want to enjoy it, too.
Early afternoon I was offered a ride by Singh who took me down the road as far as he was going. I stopped in the town just a kilometer up the road and ate. Then it was back to the sickening task of endless ascent and descent.
A little after mid afternoon I was offered another ride. This time it was by Boat and Ban, a young Thai man and his father from Bangkok. Initially I was confused by their route. They came from behind me when they stopped and offered me a ride, but they were talking about being on their way to Chiang Mai. To me they were really going the long way to go to Chiang Mai when they were just coming from a place that was a lot nearer to Chiang Mai than the way they were now going.
After we talked a little while they told me that the route I was taking was only going to get worse ahead and not better. It was then that I decided I wanted out. And it was then that I realized that they had already been where I was heading and that they had been going the shortest most direct route to Chiang Mai. They had turned around and were going the opposite direction of their plan to help me! I was astounded and deeply touched by this incredibly generous act. Once I realized that their plan was to first help me and then to go directly to Chiang Mai and not the multi day route that I thought they were going, I very quickly and humbly asked if I could ride to Chiang Mai with them. Without hesitation, they said yes and we turned around and made haste for the city. I don’t know the last time I felt so relieved.
So, we headed to Chiang Mai. I had never been so happy to be off a bike in my life. As I said, I like a challenge but it must be reasonable and there must be some chance of enjoyment. This route completely lacked that balance and so escape became necessary.
So, I got my ass kicked by a bike route. That sort of thing is bound to happen when you continuously head off in whatever direction appeals to you. And while it was a humbling experience I can also take a little pride in that I made is as far as I did in what most local people tell me is impossible on a bike. I guess that explains why I was getting so many thumbs up while I was there.
In the end, I have no regrets. I got to see some beautiful countryside, ate some fantastic food, and made some great new friends. That reward alone makes the journey worth while. But I also learned some lessons. I learned that it is possible to stop without losing when there is really no way to win in the first place. And most importantly I learned that if you ever encounter a crazed looking lady that yells and laughs at you then you might want to take moment to reconsider what you are about to do. I wish I had. It may have been my ascent into wisdom.