Vagabonding 2016 Changed Everything
The last of the yeti meat ran out sometime in August.
I stumbled out of my Himalayan cave, tangled beard dragging through dirty snow of the same color, to find a sadhu levitating in full lotus position nearby.
Actually, not quite. But I’ve received some inquisitive emails from people both dear and strange who wondered if the lack of blog updates had anything to do with my near-miss of a snowy strikeout in the Himalayas. I mean, after 10 years of building this thing, what kind of cruel bastard stops watering just to watch it wilt?
Thank you for the concern. All is well. This wasn’t the first entanglement with nature’s temperamental moods, and hopefully it won’t be the last. But I’m just fine. The frost-deadened skin on my face is long since replaced.
In fact, as I sit here alive and well in Lexington, Kentucky, I’m kind of missing that humbling horror of fumbling for an emergency whistle with blue fingers. My biggest challenges of late are finding a parking spot at Trader Joe’s, and yes, updating this blog.
As I bounced from island to island over the last few months, the task of writing about what I was doing mutated from joyful to monumental. The monster grew uglier and the fangs longer.
It’s kind of like when you realize that your date has a sprig of broccoli stuck in her teeth. But she’s absorbed in telling a very passionate story. Yes, you should interrupt her, but instead you decide to hold off, meanwhile hoping that the forces of biology will dissolve the damned thing enough to no longer be your problem. But that doesn’t happen. The responsibility grows weightier with each dire minute that passes. Then some silent, ethereal timer expires, and suddenly it’s no longer possible to bring up the organic obscenity that’s been waving at you at all night. Time’s up. You’re a jerk.
Part of the Great Writing Famine of 2016 is that I was starting to feel too much like a travel blogger after having sat around Bangkok and Chiang Mai for longer than usual. With a few notable exceptions, I don’t even like bloggers that much. Not all of them realize that the keys on those glowing MacBook Airs click better when there’s dirt under the fingernails. I now understand why so many friends and peers finally retired their long-running blogs.
Once upon a time I cared what hours were best for posting on Twitter, or what my Google PageRank was, but now I couldn’t really give a shit.
Since January 2006, the riches of life experience have poured in. Business is good. It’s been a while since I put those affiliate links out there on my sites. I’m beginning to wonder if the promises of sponsorships, groupies, and limo rides to TBEX were all just hearsay? There may be an eBook on how to get rich blogging coming to a ClickBank near you soon.
Coming Out of the Woods
I returned to Kathmandu victorious and immediately began devouring protein, mainly in the form of burgers. I felt far less worried about being run over by a horn-blasting lunatic as I limped around the narrow streets of Thamel trying to pawn used gear. My first shower in 19 days was heavenly, despite the stinging of open blisters and small sores all over my body.
Miraculously, my laptop and personal belongings that had been at the bottom of a pile of heavy backpacks in a dodgy guesthouse luggage room for 20 days were just fine. A delightful bonus!
I threw out what was left of my tattered Merrell hiking boots. I bid them farewell in a somber ceremony and even wrote the folks at Merrell to tell them thanks. The Tiger Leaping Gorge in China, Alaska, Yellowstone, Everest National Park — they helped me stomp across innumerable trails and countries. But even good gear has its limits, and I far surpassed them. A wood chipper pedicure would have been more gentle on my feet.
Every step during the final week on the trail was total agony. I had long since finished the last of the bandages, moleskin, and blister treatments. I wrapped my feet in duct tape that had to be removed later in the shower. It was hard to tell where the duct tape stopped and skin began. But the thought of getting caught alone on the trail while sun and temperatures plummeted was motivation enough to make the next tea house each afternoon, no matter the condition of my feet.
Inexplicably, I was also trampled by helicopter-startled yaks within eyesight of Namche Bazaar. That’s the way some days go on the Road. Vagabonding injuries sometimes come when victory is within sight. There’s nothing like surviving the nearly unsurvivable just to be stomped into the trail by heavy hooves only 200 meters from a pizza place/bakery. The irony. I dragged myself to the street pharmacy and bought some codeine for $6. Problem solved.
Even getting out of the Himalayas was a challenge. Clouds and hopes hung heavily like mountain clouds as fog grounded all flights. I bummed around the chaotic airstrip in Lukla from dawn until afternoon hoping to catch a bird out.
I never craved the exhaust and stink of a capital city so much. The airport was a chaotic frenzy of angry hopefuls. When I was finally told to board a plane that had landed only minutes earlier, propellers already turning and everyone in a hurry to beat the weather, we were forced to land on a remote military airstrip just 15 minutes later because we were too heavy to clear the mountains. After offloading some weight, most of which was beer that was descended upon by the bored, beret-clad soldiers stationed there, I was airborne again.
That flight lasted for only 20 minutes before being forced to land again due to high winds. Again, we waited in the middle of nowhere. There was even the potential prospect of spending a night on whatever abandoned, unheated mountain airstrip we had used in a pinch. [Shudder]
A few days later, I teared up when that Thai Airways jumbo rolled up in Kathmandu to take me back to the warm islands. Nothing cures wounds like the magical combination of sand and saltwater.
Sawasdee khrap, Thailand. I missed you.
Back to Where I Belong
I spent the next undetermined amount of time crawling around islands like a big happy spider chasing the sun during monsoon season. I celebrated Ramadan and turned 41 in Kuala Lumpur Chinatown’s infamous Reggae Bar. I also got treated to half of the Telekom Museum. Yes, there were old phones. Birthdays are strange affairs these days.
With the help of Malaysia’s glorious food scene, I replaced the 10 pounds shivered away in Nepal and then some. I finally made my way to Malacca (a touristy UNESCO city in Malaysia) and hit up Penang again for additional gluttony.
Deciding to milk this got-too-cold-in-the-mountains thing, I spent a month on Bali, got clobbered by a wave but managed not to drown this time, and couchsurfed through my favorite city in the U.S. as soon as I got back to North America. Does this bus stop two stops back? Why, yes, good sir, it does indeed.
I am incredibly blessed. What was essentially my 11th year on the road is certainly one of the best.
But don’t think that vagabonding is all shamanic jungle trips and intertwined lovers crying out in exotic languages. Hardly. I earn my keep and lack of sleep by punctuating long periods of drudgery behind a screen with brief moments of absolute terror.
One such moment came on Bali this year, in chase after a newly met French-Canadian couple who seemed just mad enough to be good fun. They knew of a good surfing beach, so I was in pursuit on motorbike with them leading the way through a labyrinth of confusing, narrow island roads.
Somewhere outside Uluwatu, I zigged when they zagged, ended up on a dead-end road, gave the throttle a sharp twist to catch up, and unexpectedly crested a hill that had no road behind it.
What appeared as a manageable hump in the road was actually the backside of the steepest damned hill I’ve ever seen. What kind of sick, cigar-chomping madman would even pave such a thing and call it a “road”?
Unless you’re Evel Knievel, and I am not, the sound of two motorbike tires coming off of pavement unexpectedly is enough to make a grown man fill his genuine Billabong swimshorts. The engine jumps in RPMs as resistance is removed. Time literally slows just as it did when I fell during a climb in 2005.
There was ample time to ponder what my first motorbike crash was going to feel like. Movie scenes of horrific wrecks played through my head. With no legit options around, I had rented the bike from a greasy mechanic with a glass eye who would make me dig out a kidney to get my passport back. In fact, chances were good he would go medieval on me with a cutting torch and some WD-40. I played out our conversation. How would I explain returning what was left of the bike in a giant garbage bag? What seemed like minutes passed as dire thoughts processed, meanwhile I was hanging in a blue, Indonesian sky.
Even worse, it was an unused road. There were no other humans around to shovel me up after the incident. Would they simply dispatch a street-sweeping machine and be done with the whole mess?
I felt gravity disagree with the whole notion. Hair blowing, I stood up, motocross style, praying through gritted teeth to all who would listen, and somehow, inexplicably, without hope, stuck the landing with barely a tire squeak.
I accredit divine intervention; there was no skill on my part involved. On some backroad in Bali, I switched off the motor just to pant and listen to the heartbeat throbbing in my ears. The adrenaline surge made my vision lose color temporarily.
Had there been judges, they would have held up signs that read “9,” “8.5,” “9,” and so on.
I never did catch the French Canadians. But a month later, on a different island in a different country, they came randomly strolling down the beach. Perhentian Kecil will never be the same after that 48-hour bender of a reunion.
After 10 days in Ubud grinding through the crowds and residue left behind by Elizabeth Gilbert’s eating, praying, and loving, an adventure was in order. So I pointed the motorbike north and drove five hours, skirting the island’s beautiful mother volcano, to Amed — a stony little black-sand beach famous for the USS Liberty shipwreck not far offshore. The Liberty served in both world wars. Kat, of scuba fame in Koh Lanta, had just set up shop with her hard-traveled partner in Amed, so I was in good company.
Back in 2009, in an epic act of cheapness and defiance of the Inca Trail, Kat, Alex, and myself walked the railroad tracks through the Peruvian Andes to Machu Picchu. Laughing hysterically at the absurdity of running through a tunnel barely wide enough for the train — that just happened to be approaching rapidly behind us — is one of those giddy travel moments you hope to never forget.
In Amed, Kat took me on the most relaxed dives in memory. Well, the underwater part, anyway. Getting past the angry surf at the wreck without destroying my (still) broken toe or losing expensive gear was a matter of luck and perfect timing. For several minutes on an overcast morning, we stood on the beach, completely geared up, staring at the sea.
Fellow divers were get knocked and rolled by waves as they tried to wade ashore on the slippery rocks. Gear had already been swept away. It was a slaughter out there. The mission go/no-go decision was around 50/50; I could feel the adrenaline pour into my heart chambers when we both mutually agreed that the risk was manageable enough to try it.
On the second day, the price for my incredibly relaxed dive in the middle of nowhere was transporting scuba gear for two by motorbike on a bumpy road. The challenge was fun. Nothing like having a rented scuba tank balanced at your feet as you bounce along with all the heavy crap generally required to survive underwater long enough to enjoy it.
I bought us a watermelon to celebrate the Fourth of July; it was the only American thing I could come up with, and carried it lovingly like a fragile firstborn from the market back to the beach. Kat subsequently filled it with Indonesian moonshine. Slovakians.
My flights to and from Asia this year can only be described as luxurious. Even the food was good. Broken toe never had to be amputated. I managed to delay making a skin offering to the backroads of Asia yet one more year. My hair grew. My parasites honored our symbiotic contract and didn’t cause any trouble. They may have even fended off invaders as I drank up Chiang Mai moat water during my third Songkran celebration.
I repeated a lot of places but added a few new stops and remote islands. My time in the Himalayas will probably never be topped. And when I forget how uncomfortable it was, I’ll probably be dumb enough to go back and climb something else. Lessons learned don’t last long.
I had reunions with old friends, met impressive new vagabonds, and was blessed with the company of those who get it. Those mad souls who know that we’re not in the backseat of some ride snapped together by deranged carnies. Don’t just wait to fall into the weeds — we lay the tracks!
Overextension and burnout are more dangerous than Pamplona bulls. My father was turning 70. I’ve been away too much. I tried to spend fall in Kentucky last year but got tangled up in the Yucatan Experiment.
As John Denver sang, “…driving down the road, I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday…” It was time to let those country roads take me home.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by the books and plants that I missed so much over the last 11 years. Life is unbelievably good. But I’m not quitting. Yang fades into yin; a healthy cycle I know far too well, but the spark never goes out. My backpack is just as packed as it was months ago.
This is for the impunes del mundo out there who will never quit. I love you, brave souls.