The Road Ungraveled


I like being spontaneous, and acting without forethought. Plans bore me. So after a delightful afternoon drive through the mountains to Somoeng, a town an hour and a half from Mae Rim, I thought, “what the heck, let’s continue onward to Pai. There’s a back road that I hear is mostly passable, and we can probably be halfway there before dark.”

We hadn’t packed, not even a toothbrush, and I didn’t have a map with me, but since everything had gone so well already. Bidding “so long” to our traveling companions who returned to Chiang Mai, we set off on the back road to Pai. We left about an hour and a half before sunset. I imagined a cute little guesthouse on the way, a good meal, hitting the hay early and driving the remaining two or three hours the next morning.

At first the road was excellent. Then it turned to cobbled cement blocks, but then became excellent again. I was already imagining describing the road in the blog I would write. “Mostly nothing to be afraid of. Don’t know why nobody goes this way.” We were up high enough for pine trees. Crimson light lit them and the peaks of the eastern range. How beautiful! But night was falling, and we were in a hurry and in no mood for scenery. Then darkness fell, the stars came out, and it got cold. Very cold. Since I hadn’t known I was leaving on this trip, I hadn’t packed any warm clothes. My pants were the sheerest cotton, my shoes, flip flops.

At about the time the last glow faded behind the ridge of mountains to the west, the road turned to dirt. Not just dirt, but deeply rutted dirt, with gullies big enough to swallow the motor scooter. All I could see illuminated by my headlight were these never-ending furrows that reminded me of those images sent from the Martian probes. There was no traffic to speak of, either behind us or oncoming. Every once in a while we would pass a hovel with some people sitting around a fire in front of it, but then those stopped appearing as well. The stars were so beautiful, the night was so clear, and we were so…cold.

The only extra clothing I had in the box beneath the seat was an orange plastic raincoat. I stopped and put it on. The pants I was wearing were also orange, Thai fisherman pants, made for hot weather, so I must have looked like a fluorescent orange traffic cone as we motored along. We were now making scant progress, maybe an average speed of 8 miles per hour. We saw a sign saying the next city was in forty miles. Surely the good road would come back. Surely a town would come in sight.

Truth is, I was getting scared. The colder I got, the stiffer I got, and my arms and legs were uncovered. At each new gully I had to stop to plan an approach, for I could not afford to slide and fall. So then, of course, I did.

The dust proved as cold as the air. Wipa was unhurt, I scratched my knee, the motor scooter was still running, so I switched it off. It got very quiet. The stars above grew insanely bright, mocking us. Then after a minute or so we saw headlights, as a truck lumbered around the corner in front of us. Fortunately, the driver saw us and stopped.

He was a young man, and pulled the scooter off me, then had to help me stand, as I was too stiff to easily do so on my own. He asked Wipa if I was a monk. I guess in his headlights, my orange outfit looked like monks robes. She said I wasn’t. Then he asked me if I were drunk. No, I replied I’m just old. And tired.

He left, wishing us “good luck,” which is what people here say a lot. After they opened up a new underpass in the road from Mae Rim to Chiang Mai even the highway department used its new electronic sign to wish drivers good luck in the new year. To my Western ears, having a government agency in charge of public safety wish you “good luck” seems odd, but here they put a lot of stock in karma, which is why there is no drivers education to speak of, and Thailand enjoys one of the highest rates of traffic mortality in the world. They put great stock in luck.

I wish I could say that there was a cute little guesthouse just a mile or so down the road, but no, about an hour later we came to a settlement of about twenty houses, and I stopped at the biggest one. I presented my case. If you don’t help me we will die. Turns out he was the town mayor, and he arranged for us to rent a room used for migrant workers a few yards away. It was unheated, and the blankets thin, but we slept that night knowing we weren’t going to die. In the morning I heard a pig grunting under the floor, and baby chicks peeping as they ran about. I laughed as I threw open the shutters.

The next morning everything had a luminous quality. We were still alive! The motor scooter wasn’t even damaged! Just dusty! There was a coffee shop in town. Like George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I saw everyone as beautiful, charming, clever. Thanking them too profusely, we drove off in the morning light to continue another three hours to Pai. By the time we arrived I was warm enough so my teeth were no longer chattering.

road less graveled

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here is a link to a sound recording of the author reading this piece.

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