So this is what it’s come to.
It’s shortly after noon on a Thursday, and I’m panting and sweating profusely as I mountain bike up a sharp incline on a jeep road in Vietnam’s Cuc Phuong National Park. I curse my 58-year-old lungs, legs, back and shoulders as I recall fitter days of blasting up a hill like this and thinking about how fast I’ll recover for the next peak rather than how to survive the one I’m on.
But I’m smiling.
I am smiling because I could be a 58-year-old desk jockey, a paunchy, greying specter of a corporate schmuck ensconced in an office for several hours a day. Instead, I am a 58-year-old paunchy, greying specter of a sweaty tai tai (Vietnamese for westerner) with an enormous smile on his face as he grunts his way up a hill and confronts his mortality – courtesy of a road sign that lies.
This piece of outrageous Vietnamese propaganda is actually a harmless alert for the upcoming gradient. Ten percent incline, it displays in clear graphics, inexplicably featuring a truck headed up a hill with something resembling a red lightning bolt beneath it.
As Sen. Lloyd Bentsen said to Little Danny Quayle in his historic and hysterical rebuke during the 1988 US vice presidential debate: “I’ve ridden 10% grades, and Mr. Cuc Phuong National Park, this is no 10% grade.”
I ran out of gears faster than Larry King goes through marriages. Temples throbbing, lungs scorched in the mid-day heat (and it wasn’t even hot, by Vietnamese standards), I began to imagine damning epithets aimed at the woeful jackass who created the sign. In posting it by the side of the road, he had lied to me at a most inopportune time. Going up.
I can handle 12% inclines on a bicycle, maybe even 15% for a short distance before I bag it and start to walk. But I need fair warning. And more, smaller gears. And, and, and..
Who’s kidding whom? Me blaming a road side for my physical inability (at my advancing age) to climb a hill several hundred meters long on a mountain bike is like Barack Obama blaming a website for the Affordable Healthcare Act’s pathetic launch. OK, so maybe that’s a lousy analogy, but you get my point.
The thing about climbing hills like this is, 1) they eventually plateau, leaving you either gasping for breath and praying for a dump truck to careen around the corner in the middle of the road and end your misery; 2) devastate you, your armchair warrior psyche and every oxygen-starved cell in your flabby body by forcing you to stop and walk the rest of the way; 3) delude you into thinking you can make it to the top, if you’ll just stop looking ahead and focus on the road directly in front of you. In many of these instances I have learned it’s possible to fool yourself to the crest, as long as there’s no obstruction in the breakdown lane such as an automobile or the road doesn’t suddenly end.
(NB: There’s a fourth option, one that fast, fit and well-trained athletes choose. At this point in my life I hate these people. It involves riding up the hill, dropping down a gear as you near the top and sprinting over the crest and happily onto the next challenge. I remember such moments, but only vaguely.)
I went with option 3, suppressing the craving to look up the hill to see how much more torture remained, and directing my attention straight down, just beyond the front wheel.
Gaaa! Snake! A big, brown ugly one with black markings! Death looms beneath, and there’s no time to swerve.
So I rode over it, recalling a story a guide on a mountain bike trip in Colorado once told me about a guy who rode over a rattler, only to have it coil back and take a chunk out of his calf as he pedaled past. The snake was nearly cut in half, but it had the last laugh on the poor cyclist, who wound up having to be airlifted to the nearest hospital in search of an effective antivenin.
The snake I rode over, however, had long since slithered off to Snake Heaven, if there is such a place, two sets of R14 radials having made short work of the serpent’s intent to get from one side of the road to the other.
I did a u-turn to check the thing out, approaching it as one would approach Lindsay Lohan in an LA bar. You never know when a defenseless, slimy thing will strike without warning.
It wasn’t moving but looked evil enough in death that I kept a safe distance while I completed my examination, noted the snake’s lack of movement and decided it was, in fact, dead.
I re-mounted my bike, returning to the challenge of the rest of the ride which, although made safer by the demise of one poisonous-looking snake, was still more than enough to have me grunting up yet another hill – and smiling once again.