Cycling as an activity can be filled with emotions. From the first push of the pedal to the last on any given day on the bike there can be any number of emotions that run through me, around me, and over me. Some days it is a cascade of differing feelings while others are peaceful and simple days with a single sensation sweeping across it’s entirety. These are the easiest days, the peaceful ones. They are the ones where a century (a 100 km+ ride) feels so easy and is completed so fast as to imbue this rider with a sense of being superhuman. Superman Days. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Taking a firm hold of nature and wresting it from it’s exalted places and wresting it to the ground to be trod under foot. Or rode under wheel, as the case may be. But these days are in the minority. It is the days that offer a wide variety of emotions that are more the norm for me. And such was the day I set out for a two day jaunt from A Luoi destined for Da Nang. The first day would take me from A Luoi to Prau. A 105 kilometer trek along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the longest and most difficult mountain climbs of my cycling life.
The overriding emotions of the early post dawn morn were those of thankfulness, relief, and joy. Thankful for the cool and overcast morning that was such a comforting contrast to the blistering heat of the previous 5 days. Relief was for the said same reason, and joy was for the ease and speed at which I traveled over the rolling hills of the central plateau. I rapidly wheeled my way through the line of small villages that littered the roadside. Even under flat grey skies the scenery that stood as a backdrop to these clusters of simple buildings was tremendously beautiful. I couldn’t help but be struck by the slow pace and simplicity of life here. The majority of people in rural Vietnam live a subsistence lifestyle, possessing little beyond the essentials that sustain them. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they seem to have a contentment that escapes so many in western society who have so much more. I have never seen people smile so readily.
The easy and rapid kilometers of the morning ride was not to last, however, and by mid-morning I was riding ever closer to the great long mountain pass that would take up the next few hours of my day.
On the apron of the mountains in the last settlement that I would see until the mountain was well conquered I made a stop to replenish my fuel and then began my assault. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip since it began, because every post that I read by travelers that had come this way suggested that this stretch of alpine riding would be some of the best, if not the best, scenery in all the trip. I will have to take their word for it. I never saw shit.
I was barely on the mountain when heavy rains and fog moved in. Sometimes when the rain eased the fog would become so dense that I could barely see past the edge of the road. The center of the isolated and lonely highway was marked by 2-meter-long white lines that were about 8 meters apart from one another. At times I could not see from one line to the next. When the rains fell heavily they pushed the mists back just far enough that veiled trees lurched into partial view from the sides of the road like gnarled and warped grotesqueries. At the best of times visibility cleared enough to tease me and nothing more.
As I climbed higher and higher into the shrouded highlands the trail became less and less traveled and I was more and more alone. At times I went ages without hearing any sound other than my own breathing. The air was still and silent. Soon I had intense feelings of isolation like I had never felt before. They were soon to be surpassed as out of the mists loomed some sort of man made structure. Due to the denseness of the fog, I was initially unsure what it was. I thought that it was a gas station or a toll booth. But as I moved slowly forward I began to realize what it truly was. It was a tunnel. I had no idea there was a tunnel.
The tunnel was lightless. Staring into it’s pitch black and gaping maw was like looking into the infinite dark of the nothing. In the still and disquieting air there was no sound but the faint exhale from the throat of the tunnel of a breath of wind carrying plumes of the dense fog with it like the last frosty, hollow breath of a dying man. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Welcome to Creepy-ville.
I had a snack and prepared to penetrate the great dark beyond. I had all the misgivings of Frodo Baggins as he entered the tunnel at the top of the Morgul Pass. I did feel very confident that I wasn’t about to encounter a giant spider that would paralyze me with her stinger and wrap me in a web to tenderize me until I was ready to be a good meal, but I did have nightmarish visions of slamming face first into the business end of a buffalo. I reached into my bags and pulled out my Samsung tablet and phone, both of which are equipped with reading lights. I turned them on and pinched them between fingers over the handle bars and set off through the tunnel with my weak and pitiful light sources barely leading the way.
It turned out that the tunnel wasn’t especially long. Soon I could see the light at it’s end. The dense fog on the other end gave the light a nebulous otherworldly appearance. It was as if the last of the dark of the tunnel was being eaten by the penetrating mists and the amorphous edges made it impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. I kept expecting to hear a voice tell me to “Come to the light, boy. Come to the light.” The closer I got to it the stranger and more eerie it looked, as if the world beyond the tunnel had somehow been taken away or eaten, leaving behind only a funeral pall sky. It was without a doubt one of the more peculiar sensations I have ever experienced.
I exited the tunnel and was delighted to discover that the world had not in fact been eaten. A short while later I came to a second tunnel of similar length that filled me with all of the same strange sensations of the first. Almost immediately after exiting this second and, it turned out, final cave, I began a long and twisty descent. The fog was now denser than ever and visibility was next to nothing. It made for an uncertain descent, but I eventually dropped below the mists, got off the mountain, and was back to racing over rolling hills as I charged toward Prau under clearing skies in what was turning into a gorgeous afternoon. And then something completely unexpected and cool happened.
As I made my way through the first small villages that I had seen in some hours, the kids were all getting out of school. There were dozens and dozens of them lining the streets of each successive little town that I passed. I had become accustomed to being barraged by hello’s everywhere that I had gone so far, so I was bracing myself for what would certainly be an onslaught of greetings. But they didn’t say hello. Not a one. Instead, they cheered. They actually cheered! And clapped their hands! It would begin with just a few small voices and would grow into a steady, prolonged group cheer. I was speeding through small gaps that separated the children lining both sides of the road. Some would run as fast as they could in a futile attempt to keep up with me, cheering and clapping all the while, while others would reach out a little hand for a high five that I did my best to deliver. And it happened in town after town after town. I felt like a racer in the Tour de France. It was surreal! And it is without a doubt, one of the single coolest things that I have ever experienced in my life. Thank you Vietnam for yet another memory that I will treasure forever.
The last kilometers from the mountains were pretty straightforward and easy with the exception of a couple of short but extremely steep climbs. I arrived in Prau and sought out the same guesthouse I stayed in when I passed through here 3 years ago. I washed, changed into fresh clothes, and had a fabulous meal of rice, vegetables, beef, and deer. The second to last day of my tour was complete. There was only 85 kilometers to go to Da Nang. With the sun setting on a challenging but great day of cycling I began to feel a little retrospective, but I felt it wasn’t the right time for that yet. That would come tomorrow.
And sure enough, almost from the moment I first touched the pedals in the morning of that last day I was heavily retrospective and filled with a vast array of emotions. The riding was largely free and easy with the worst of the climbs being only moderate in both length and difficulty. I wheeled up and down rolling hills on small narrow roads in tight farming valleys lined almost every step of the way with small villages composed largely of ramshackle buildings of rudimentary construction. The children must have been in school because the roadsides were almost morbidly quiet compared to the raucous cheering of yesterday afternoon. And with little to distract me, I thought. And I thought about a great many different things.
I thought a great deal about how privileged I felt to have had the great opportunity to ride a 600 kilometer journey through this beautiful country. And I thought of all the beautiful and friendly people I had been blessed to meet along the way. I also spent considerable time wondering if it would be feasible to move here and if so when? Questions that as of yet remain largely unanswered.
But mostly, I just thought about riding and how much I love seeing the world in this way. I thought about how I feel like I am a much better and more dynamic person when I am riding the highways of the world, and how sadness and depression are emotions that never seem to travel with me, as if the act of riding itself were a tonic of light into which no dark can penetrate. Riding is that which casts off shadows of woe and self doubt. It is the breaker of chains, chains that I sometimes feel are clasped tight to my wrists and ankles and threaten to hold me tight to a world and lifestyle in which I may be horribly ill equipped to find any lasting contentment. And there it is. The greatest thing I feel, my truest and purest emotion. Contentment. It is that simple yet so often elusive quality that I find so easily when I ride. All of life is filled with a vast array of emotions and feelings, and cycling is no different. But it is when I ride that I feel the better ones more readily, as if I own them instead of merely borrowing.
Thanks for riding along. Until next time.