October 10, 2016

Egg-Venture: HILLtribe Driving

Our weekend adventures in Northern Thailand are rarely dull, especially the Egg-ventures.

Egg the cat causes quite a stir when he walks on his leash with us in national parks and near Buddhist temples. As if a couple of foreigners weren’t being weird enough already, here they come with a cat on a leash.

Egg missed out on Saturday’s adventure because we couldn’t find him when it was time to leave, but he got quite an adventure on Sunday.

Our goal was fairly simple, Chiang Rai beach, which is a sandy spot at the edge of the Maekok River just outside of the city center. We had been there before. However, we saw some intriguing signs for a forest park and waterfall, so we decided to pass on the beach and explore a little deeper. The winding roads led us up into the hilly backcountry inhabited by Thais and members of various Hilltribes. These areas are rural and quite poor. The shoulderless roads are made of concrete, no more than about 12 feet wide, with about a 12 inch drop on either side into a drainage ditch to keep the rain under control. The densely forested hills require the already treacherous roads to be set at incredibly steep grades (30% maybe) with blind corners.

Ever the queasy stomach, I was hoping we would give up on the waterfall search after struggling up a steep hill, but we kept going, edging over the crest onto an even steeper downhill. To our right, thick bamboo and forest grew on the hill’s angle, while to our left, an ominous forest slope continued downward to the bottom of the valley. Egg was asleep in his cat carrier, a.k.a. “safety box” while I struggled to manage my nausea and the tight grip of my engaged seatbelt. About halfway down the hill, we stopped, realizing that the further we went, the further we’d have to claw our way back up in our 220,000 km manual transmission Isuzu truck. The emergency brake wasn’t even enough to keep us still on that gradient, so Alan found a tiny cut out of jungle that looked big enough to get turned around. He got us backed into the cut out, but the back wheels couldn’t get enough traction on the slippery forest floor to push the heavy front end. The intense whirr of spinning tires is always a stressful sound, and it reminded me instantly of long winters in Nebraska, getting stuck spinning on ice at the corner of 84th and Leighton. Or sliding through an intersection on Highway 2. Or a Sisyphean climb and slide to the bottom of the hill on Yaqui drive in Flagstaff.

The difference this time was that it was about 95 degrees and we were several miles from civilization in a country where neither of really speak the language (especially not the Hilltribe languages) on the steepest slope I’ve ever been on in a vehicle, with our cat now awake and worried.

I’ve seen Alan do some of the most amazing driving, especially in bad weather, tough roads, in traffic, and with a manual, but this was no easy task. But after a few unsuccessful tries to get the truck going, I could see he was worried.

Maybe I could help us get more traction. Some rocks perhaps. I got out of the truck. With no rocks in sight, I carefully unearthed a fallen bamboo branch and lodged it in front of the left rear tire. Trucks are rear-wheel drive apparently. Things you should know about your car before driving it...

With a surprisingly loud crack, the truck smashed the bamboo and rolled forward, but with so little road to work with in front of the truck due to the steep drop on the other side, the truck rolled back to its perpendicular predicament before it could make any useful progress. Stuck. Half on the concrete, half in the jungle mud.

While we were stopped there, a man on an old and rickety motorbike chugged by, with a load of freshly-cut green onion strapped to the back of his bike. He seemed unmoved by the farang in the truck. Putt putt putt up the hill with his onions.

Although I often have nightmares about having to drive backwards, I suggested to Alan that rather than fight with gravity in a manual trying to get turned around at this ridiculous point in the road, why not just do the hill in reverse?

Had I been alone in the car or if I were the one who had to get out of the situation, I might have just either (a) kept going on the hill and try to turn around at some point when the ground flattened out and hope that my first gear would be enough to get up the hill, or (b) thrown in the towel and taken up residence with the local hilltribe.

Alan though, a tough native Utah guy with lots of experience driving in the mountains, took the challenge. Egg and I clutched each other, eyes closed as Alan used incredible coordination to get us moving backward on a narrow road with little margin for error on either side. Despite the precarious road, we had to get speed to keep the engine from stalling. Each time we slowed too much, the kunk kunk kunk of the engine jerked the entire vehicle and Alan pressed hard on the brake to keep us from losing ground. Letting up the brake and flooring the gas as the he carefully let out the clutch, the diesel engine roared. Due to the incline, the view out the back of the truck was pretty much only sky, so Alan had to rely on side mirrors and expert coordination of which way to turn the wheel, lest we careen off the road into the jungly cliffs. Knowing that my anxiety would not be helpful, I held Egg tightly and thought about making it safely, trying to ignore Alan’s flip-flop wearing feet, just hoping they’d do the right thing at the right time. The idyllic lush green forest and late afternoon sunshine betrayed the very stressful situation we faced just to get us back to the crest of the hill, where a mercifully reasonable place to turn around awaited us. It took five laborious minutes of stalling and restarting to get about 300 meters.

Amazingly, we made it. Driving forward again seemed like a hard-won privilege, and we were all shaken up. Egg buried his face in my hands and clung to my lap. I think he wished he had taken Saturday’s adventure trip instead.

In the backcountry of Northern Thailand, adventure awaits on every concrete road, around every corner, and (midway) down every hill. I feel really lucky that, at least for now, I get to experience an adventurer’s life in such a beautiful place with my two favorite boys.