— aka Biting The Bullet IV (12.5 hrs) —
(continued from “Giardia Was The Case That They Gave Me” and “Biting The Bullet III: Upping The Ante“)
It was the best of days, it was the worst of days, it was the age of anal whizdom, it was the age of foolish and inexperienced motorcycle riding, and it was all sorts of other mind-blowing contradictions, too. Basically, for Devon and Steve it was a day of superlative extremes, terrific for one while simultaneously terrible for the other, yet ordained by some unknowable divinity’s grotesque sense of both humor and equipoise to utterly and inconceivably, well, flip-flop.
This was Steve and Devon’s Dual Day.
Devon was the first to rise. Unlike Steve he had a nice day to look forward to. Riding the rented Royal Enfield Bullet over 17, 585-foot Chang La, the Third-Highest Pass on Planet Earth, and down to the remote, tremendous, otherwordly, border-straddling lake Pangong Tso. Unflapped by the forever it took to start the beat-up old beast,
he motored to the petrol pump, filled the 14-litre tank and the crucial extra 5-litre can and sped off toward the pass. By 8am he was twisting up the trafficless, hairpin-studded road to Chang La, stopping only to show the worthless military checkpoint guards his Inner Line Permit and, briefly, to shit in a filthy, animal-strewn garbage dump.
Meanwhile, Steve too was shitting, as his intestines had been stricken for the past five days with a serious case of the leakies. Dehydrated and fatigued from waking every 45 minutes in the night to visit the toilet, he was also extremely delirious. In his head, he was being led to the bathroom throughout the night by a sort of poo-oriented Spirit Guide, wise in the arts of constant bowel drainage. His water bottle, filled with a rancid and rapidly diminishing dehydration formula, was held for him by an old woman who scolded him for not drinking enough. At various points of the morning he actually vocally responded to these characters. By 9, he was approaching a point of intestinally-induced insanity.
By 9 Devon was approaching the summit. The route had long since turned to shit, but now the snowbanked edges were chunked off across the chewed-up road, forming an obstacle course of loose rocks, vast puddles and ice. In one unavoidable stretch, he got the bike stuck. In the time it took him to wrestle it free, a giant dumptruck packed to the brim with roadworkers passed him by, squeezing narrowly between the bike and the icy wall. But at last Devon was back in the saddle, blazing onward, soon passing the truck. Seeing him, the work crew exploded into a glorious ovation, cheering and waving Devon on with palpable encouragement for his effort, accomplishment and choice of ways to spend his day.
There was no fanfare or feeling of goodwill back at the guesthouse, where Steve’s interactions all morning were solely awkward, half-dazed “morning”s to the attractive Israeli girls in the guesthouse as he passed them on his way to the toilet. After a sour-scented, green, slimy stool exploded from him onto the floor of the local toilet, he was soundly and unmistakably awake. Neither his poo Spirit Guide nor the Rehydration crone could be reached for advice; he was on his own. For the next hour, he mused over several possible plans of escaping India to receive proper medical treatment for whatever ungodly thing was happening to him.
Thinking more realistically and rationally for a moment, he thought about going to the hospital as soon as possible, but about this choice he was hesitant because earlier that morning he’d already promised Devon that if he were to go to the hospital, he’d let Devon drive him there on the motorcycle. After a few minutes of considering the possible disappointment Devon might express, he finally came to the mature decision to take himself to the hospital. He struggled to think of a lower point in his life.
Parking the Bullet 7,000 feet higher than the place whence he’d ridden — nearly three-and-a-half miles above sea level — Devon pumped his fists and celebrated conquering his planet’s Paso Numero Tres. But in his grand moment he was not alone. Taking a seat in the nearby quonset hut, Devon found himself laughing and joking with several Indian Army men who served him free chai and took turns taking and being in photos with this valiant American motorcyclist.
Satiated, validated, invigorated, Devon braved the terrifying seven kilometers of loose switchbacks to the next army camp, forded through a small, trickle of a stream, hit pavement, upshifted and began the serpentine flight down the mighty mountain’s backside, blasting through endless river valleys, totally alone on the incredible roads, not a straight stretch of asphalt in sight, leaning and careening the bike with an intuitive sense of oneness he hadn’t thought attainable — 3 hours of the most profoundly felt fun he’d ever had.
It was only his fourth day on a motorcycle, yet he already knew it would remain the best one for as long as he lived.
Squirming uncomfortably in his seat at the local Internet cafe, slyly googling “green slimy stool + treatment?”, Steve prepared a mental list of likely suspect pathogens in his stomach. Of the multitude of awful things to infect him in the world, it seemed most likely that he either had Giardia, very violent diarrhea, or Salmonella. Unfortunately, the only sites that helped were weird homeopathic and Ayurvedic ones that relied upon anthropomorphizing and and assigning different ‘personalities’ to different types of diarrhea. So, they didn’t help at all. He ate some overpriced toast and bananas at a restaurant and started off for hospital.
At the last military checkpoint before the final shot to Pangong, Devon returned to the bike and noticed the rear-left rack conspicuously empty; his gas can was gone. “SonuvaBITCH!” he yelled. “What kind of ASShole would steal a gas can, hours from the next petrol pump!” A more desperate one than himself, he guessed. Although flummoxed, nary a half-hour from his goal, Devon would not back down, would not be turned around.
When he reached the shore of Pangong Tso, a ceaseless opal set starkly against the barren, monolithic peaks that stood guiding this narrow turquoise finger 85 miles east into Tibet, he knew his camera would be useless. Motoring past the tea shops and beaches swelling with chartered jeeps and Indian tourists, he found an empty patch of shoreline beyond the sight of any other living creature, rode the bike down until the earth grew deep, dismounted, lay down in the grey lunar sand and simply stared for as long a time as it would take to burn this beautiful image in his brain forever.
Steve stood frozen in the middle of the hospital lobby. A squalid, cold building at the grimy base of town, the hospital was chaotic, and certain bepuddled corners of it smelled a little like the terrifying stool he’d had earlier. Dozens of squat, underdeveloped local men with skin afflictions, and phlegm-hocking misery-exuding grandmothers spent the next five minutes cutting in front of him in the Patient Registry line. Exasperated, and feeling like he was betraying Devon, Steve slipped out of line and tried to use the English map to find a shortcut to a gastroenterologist. “Labor room… injection room… X-ray room – nope. Fuck.”
Though earlier he had been considering fleeing India on account of his tummy troubles, now faced with the horrors of Indian hospital lines, he thought he would wait another day before returning. He paused before the granite bust of the hospital’s benefactor, encased in glass and surrounded with gaudy Christmas lights. It reminded him of the fortune telling machine in ‘Big‘. Instead of asking it a question, he weaseled his way into the janitors’ break room and quickly, painfully utilized the toilet he found within.
Suddenly he remembered the pharmacy where he’d mistakenly bought more Ciprofloxacin to treat himself (read HERE) – as he’d entered, the pharmacist had asked him, “are you here to see the doctor?”… The doctor… at a pharmacy? The doctor was at a pharmacy – the doctor worked at a pharmacy! That was it. He’d go to a private doctor instead! After a half-hearted attempt to clean up the bathroom he’d just soiled, he made his way out into the filthy streets of Leh.
Finally breaking his trance to check the time, Devon took one last long look and hopped back on the Bullet, determined to be home and off the road before dark. At the first of many dirt switchbacks to go, he discovered he was not the only one on this schedule. Before him crawled several jeeps, kicking up a column of dust and smog and clogging the narrow chute of a road, maintaining just enough speed to keep him from passing, but little enough to keep him kicking between first and second gear, slowing him considerably.
Twenty long minutes later, the column suddenly halted, a large Indian lady emerging from the lead jeep for a Kodak moment. Seeing his chance, Devon revved up and weaseled past the parade, upshifted and shot off into the great wide open. But then, out of nowhere, the same nature that earlier had so impressed him now let him oh-so-deeply down. Pulled off onto the foot-wide shoulder, his interminable urine stream visible to every passenger, the jeeps sped past him yet again. Later, when a large oncoming truck stopped their progress, he thanked the local gods for his second chance and flew back into the lead, but only until he misread a curve and wound up on the straight-ahead jeep track, the bike’s power lost in the deep sand. While struggling to push it out, the procession rocketed past, clouds of dust enveloping his effort. He would not get another chance.
This heretofore spectacular ride, he admitted to himself, was beginning to fucking suck.
“You don’t speak English do you? Well this fucking sucks…” Eager to antibioticize himself, Steve had walked into the first pharmacy he encountered and was directed to a pimply, mid-30’s Tibetan woman. In the cramped shop covered with boxes of powerful, FDA-banned pills, he began to publicly disclose the details of his bowel movements before an audience of several locals. When he was done, he got the diagnosis: “You ah… you have-ah sore stomach?”
His confidence in this non-doctor shattered, he bought more bananas to fortify his gut and returned to the pharmacy from the day before. Again, he publicly described his problems to an unqualified pharmacist, and was told to return at 4:30 to speak to the actual doctor. He noticed on the shop’s sign as he was leaving that the doctor he would eventually confess his colon quandaries to was a “gold medalist”. A mental note was made to prepare some Olympic-themed jokes before returning. His spirits were beginning to climb. He also had to poo again.
Some slow hours later, reaching the long heel of Chang La, Devon had left the river valley behind him and began to really, really climb. The curves from the sweeping descent felt much more sinister on the way back up. And as the altitude grew less fathomable, the air grew colder. Fatigue was unquestionably setting in.
And then it happened: the motorcycle sputtered, coughed and then died. The gas-gaugeless bike was now on it’s reserve tank. At least 75 kilometers and one third-highest-pass-on-Earth away from the next petrol pump. If he ever found out who’d stolen his extra gas can, Devon vowed, he would dump out all five litres over his head, suddenly take up smoking and toss a big lit cigar at that thieving dickhead’s crotch.
Laying once again in the darkened, pungent guesthouse room, Steve stared at the cell phone screen and made a vow of his own. 36 lines in 3 minutes of Tetris: Ultra. He was going to beat it. His skills appeared to have been sharpened by his fatigue, and the lack of body fat throughout his body had made his thumb skinnier, and thus less likely to plod all over the keypad. He nursed his rehydration formula, took a deep breath and anxiously pressed ‘Play’.
Nursing his fuel as best he could, Devon anxiously climbed the mountain, hoping to borrow a couple litres at the army camp just before the final ascent. At the camp he announced his predicament to the cluster of taskless army men who’d watched him pull up. Nothing doin’. He pulled off the cap, saw a few fingers of fluid sloshing around and calculated his plan. If he had enough fuel to make it to the summit, then he could just coast down the other side; it was all downhill to Karu. If he didn’t, or if the Karu station had no gas, well… then he was fucked.
The oxygen getting thinner, the bike was harder pressed to start up. When it did, Devon rolled but thirty feet and braked hard; in the bright late-afternoon sun, that little trickle of a stream from the descent had exploded into wide and raging bastard of a river. The depth was unfathomable. (Well, one could literally fathom it, but Devon lacked both a sounding line or any shred of interest.) Standing over the bike, he looked back to the soldiers, for what sort of clue he did not know. There they stood, now fanned out across the road, craning their necks to see what this stupid American on the Bullet was going to do.
Would he make it, Devon wondered. Could he make it without dumping this rented bike and getting swept over the waterfall the road’s edge had formed? He looked at the rushing river, then at the sinking sun, then behind him one more time. Then he realized there was nothing else to do.
Fuck it. Blaze of glory, baby.
Revving whatever strained oxygen-less power the cosmos would grant to the engine, keeping the wheels spinning at all costs, not too slow, not too fast, keeping his weight heavy on the footpegs, careful not to lose balance, he plowed into the torrent and in the longest handful of seconds of his life, broke on through to the other side.
Sat on a bench in the pharmacy’s waiting room, Steve felt balls of gas plowing around his stomach, threatening to break on through into the communal airspace. He excused himself from his seat and farted noisily in a side alley. Returning to his seat, he looked around. More squat local men with blemishes, more elderly women with hatred-etched faces. His bowels quivered as he looked to his right at the European lesbian couple sharing his bench. “Oh,” he ventured, looking at some pills the woman closest to him pulled from a bag, “Cipro? We may have the same thing!” “You have altitude sickness?” she responded. For some reason, he went along with this and lied to the couple about his affliction, saying that he had indeed been a little under the weather due to the altitude and that its possible effects (death) really scared him.
After forty minutes of waiting and being cut by an old man who needed an injection, he was allowed to see the doctor. In a struggle to overpower the otherworldly noises emanating from his stomach, he loudly he listed off everything he had gone through in the past week to the gold medalist before him. A stethoscope was procured and placed all over his swollen, gurgling midsection, and the verdict was soon in: “You may have giardia.”
A five-day course of antibiotics was prescribed, about $1.10 was exchanged, European lesbian eyebrows – now clearly in the know about Steve’s problems – were raised, and then for no reason the doctor’s office, now inhabited by a Ladakhi woman on the verge of vomiting, was burst into: “Does this mean I can drink soda again, like a coke? Sorry to interrupt… Can I drink coke with this or no?” It turned out that he could.
Steve trotted quickly back to the toilet of the guesthouse, victorious.
Devon’s own victory was short-lived. At the very first of the innumerable switchbacks, he realized this terrible afternoon melting phenomenon wasn’t confined to that one water hazard. Gazing up, the next 7 kilometers were a snowy, icy, watery, rocky, muddy goddamn mess. Every ounce of previously innocuous standing water was now a ton of flowing danger.
Slogging slowly upwards in that frigid slop, the thin air sapping him and the engine both of their strength, it wasn’t long before he found himself stuck, dismounting and pushing the heaviest motorbike model in India uphill, stretching his bad shoulder to extremis, feet unanchorable in the muck, unrutting the wheels only to then struggle with starting the fuel-deprived air-choked machine, his body temperature dropping with that of the atmosphere and the water soaking through his socks and jeans.
Again. And again. And again. In a blur of frustrating physical and emotional exhaustion immeasurable by human notions of time.
It was only his fourth day on a motorcycle, yet he already knew it would remain the worst, most awful one for as long as he lived.
Meanwhile, Steve played Tetris, beat his high score, and when the phone’s battery died he took a nap.
By some sluggish miracle, Devon reached the summit. He parked, returned to the chai hut, greeted the same soldiers and spilled out far more angry English words than they could make out. Seeing his sodden lower half, one soldier found a portable gas burner, instructed Devon to remove his socks and shoes and slid it underneath his raised feet. He produced his camera to document the moment, removed the lens cap and spilled hundreds of tiny glass shards that was his UV filter all over himself, the chair and the floor. As a soldier rushed to clean it up, he donned his socks and shoes, downed his chai, apologized profusely, parried requests to stay and get warm, returned to the bike and started back.
The other side was better, but not by much. Conserving every millilitre of fuel, he coasted in gear, hitting the throttle only to power through rivers and mud, all the way back down the pass. He stopped only once, reluctantly, when he hit the pavement, to squeeze ungodly amounts of water out of his socks and jam his feet beneath a slightly sunny dirt patch until he’d wiggled the tactile sensation back into his frozen toes. Having betrayed him, he banished and bungeed his fancy moisture-wicking hiking socks to the gear rack.
Beat-up, hungry, probably dehydrated and addled from the ordeal, some exterior force now seized control of the coasting bike, silently steering it around the hairpins ever downward. Thus, Devon’s mind was free to wander.
“Hmm. This bike needs a name. Bullet. That’s kind of like Bullitt. And it looks like an old Triumph. Steve McQueen… Steve… wonder what Steve Kaye’s up to? Good thing he didn’t come. Probably would’ve been the end of that friendship. Miss the guy, though… poor sick bastard. Well that’s it then! Steve. In honor of those good Steves… Steve the Bike…”
Hours later, in this deteriorating state, Devon coasted into Karu.
Now awake and his intestines miraculously quiet for the first time in almost a week, Steve was coasting through Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, for the first time since he opened the book in an upper division European history course. The parasite in his stomach, apart from enhancing his cell phone simulated-square-stacking skills, had clearly endowed him with a new clarity and understanding of heady 1960’s social critical theory. “Maybe this whole giardia thing won’t be so bad after all,” he mused, “Oop, gotta shit!”
Devon stopped the bike at the intersection with Karu, setting his foot on the first flat ground in hours. Spotting a scrawny Tibetan man pushing a small motorbike, he called out “So that must be the way to the petrol pump!” The man turned. “Petrol pump? No, other way. One kilometer. You are going? I come with you.” Without thinking, Devon motioned with his head and shouted. “Hop on!” Revving the engine and slurping up whatever leftover gas there was, they shot off and went for broke. A kilometer later, the coasting had paid off.
Capping the fuel tank Devon noticed the man hadn’t brought a gas can to fill. “You don’t have a can, man.” “No. Motorbike is broken.” “Uh-huh. Well then, you need me to drop you back in Karu?” “Uh… whatever you… you are going to Leh?” “I am.” “I can ride with you to Leh?” Devon paused a moment. “Listen, man. I just came from Pangong. After coming from Leh this morning. It was terrible. I’m not… I’m sort of messed up right now. And I’ve been on the bike four days. I’m not a very good driver.” The case was laid. The man nodded. “I can ride with you to Leh?” Devon started the bike. “Yeah, fuck it, let’s go.”
Whatever the man hadn’t understood in words he soon realized in action. For he clung so tightly — his fingers clasped around Devon’s abdomen — that Devon was forced forward on the seat, sitting square on his balls, his usually empty asscrack now feeling almost occupied. His mind still divorced from his hands and feet, Devon raced the bike across the desert, blowing through towns and around corners, seldom dropping below third-gear, flying like a true Indian around every car, truck, bus or cow, on whichever side of the road looked clear, squeezing through traffic jams and dodging cross-traffic, slowing only when the setting sun stabbed straight into his eyeballs. The man yelled his advice, “Put visor down!” “Nah, I don’t like it,” Devon called back and throttled them on.
Everything whizzed past in a blur: mountains, monasteries, towns, a young Ladakhi boy pulling his pants down and spanking his ass at Devon, everything. Perhaps to take his mind off the terror, the man hollered a running historical commentary of the passing sights, his broken English mostly lost to the wind. “Yeah! Nice! Good! Alright!” Devon half-acknowledged.
The road that had taken nearly sixty minutes that morning this time took just over thirty. Finally, they had to brake at the roundabout below Leh town. Somehow, as if in one last attempt to terrify his passenger, Devon forgot this until the last minute, stopping the bike in front of a moving truck and blocking traffic. Revving up and getting nowhere, Devon slowly realized he was still in neutral, shifted down and shot them around the circle, horns blasting from all sides. He stopped at the main market and the man got off.
“Uh… thank… thank you,” he stammered. “I… I’m sorry, sir… I cannot pay you…” Devon had forgotten about this paid hitching custom until this moment. He shook his head, stuck out his hand and chortled, “No way! Don’t worry about it, buddy! This one’s courtesy of the Red White and Blue!” He’d forgotten about the Bullet’s no-idling policy; immediately, the engine died. The man accepted Devon’s hand, shook it meekly, then stood there awkwardly for the 45 seconds or so it took him to get Steve started again and watched him careen wildly off without looking into horrendous Indian traffic.
Back at the guesthouse Devon found the real Steve stretched out on their filthy bed and collapsed opposite him. There they shared their respective tales, their words punctuated by Devon’s dry coughs and Steve’s long farts, each incredulous at the other’s ordeal. The sun went down, the sour scent of cow piss wafted in through the windows, their bellies growled, but neither found the energy to move.
Literally and metaphorically, these boys were pooped.
Thus, instead of set off to sup at some shitty Israeli traveler cafe, they napped.
And this, they agreed, was a far, far better thing that they did, than they had ever done; it was a far, far better rest that they went to, than than they had ever known.
To find out how Steve and Devon concluded their affair with this whole stupid rented motorcycle business, see Biting The Bullet V: Topping It All Off.
And here are some quick links to the previous Biting The Bullet articles, although we hope you’ve been reading this saga in order:
- Biting The Bullet: Motorcycling Ladakh
- Biting The Bullet II: Theory Into Practice
- Biting The Bullet III: Upping The Ante
- You Are Here
- Biting The Bullet V: Topping It All Off