Finding Nemo

Monday, January 7, 2013

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 14

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, 1112, or 13

The Longest Day

After some sweat I managed to retie the broken girth. Barely. I had re-tied it so many times that all the extra length was now gone. I took everything off, put it back on, re-cinched, and wondered what to do next. Riding any further would be a huge gamble. If the girth snapped again, I would be hard-pressed to even walk back because of the difficulty in keeping the saddle on top of Rocky. On the other hand, I didn’t have an unlimited amount of food. I had to get back before too long.

I should've bought the traditional boots. Not only more comfortable, but way better for the disco. (Photo by MykReeve)
For now, I took the cautious route and decided to hoof it. My boots-o-torture had long ago begun to rip apart my feet. I sucked it up and took off down the trail. Ka-lump, ka-lump. This was the sound of my heel hitting the dirt, then my foot sliding forward into the toe of my over-sized boot. Ka-lump, ka-lump. Ka-lump, ka-lump. And on and on. After covering no more than a half-mile, I collapsed in a pile. My feet were the burning hells. I removed my boots to find blisters bigger than I realized were possible on a human foot. The largest of these was on my left heel, wrapping upwards around my Achilles and down into the arch of my foot. It measured about 2 inches in diameter. I pressed it in fascination, watching the outer skin ripple like a waterbed. I took out my camera and took some photos which I planned to show my doctor friend back home, hoping he would co-sponser it as an entry in Guinness World Records. Sadly, this photo is gone. It is a loss not just for you, loyal readers, but for Science.

I couldn’t walk, not with Mongol death-boots at any rate. Then a spark o’ genius appeared. Rummaging around in the backpack revealed my worn, comfortable flip-flops. Heaven! I began to wince forward on the flops, slowly. The sun continued plodding across the sky without any regard. My goal was, at a minimum, to reach my old friends at Happy Ger Camp. The taste of those tangy fresh-picked berries! Real tea! Voices in English! I resolved to make it.

After rounding a corner I saw a slightly downhill stretch of firm ground. This was a chance. The boots were thrown back on, the flops stashed under a piece of rope, and “Choooo!!!!” off we went. The misery of the day quickly vanished as we galloped along, the wind in my face. So good to be riding again! The miles began to fly by.

Suddenly I noticed a strange sound. Or actually, an absence of it. At first there had been a flap-flap as we galloped, but it vanished. I hurriedly stopped, turned in my saddle, and realized the flip-flops were missing. The most important rule of horse-trekking is that everything must be tied down securely. EVERYTHING. And in my hurry to ride, I had simply stuffed the flops under a rope like an imbecile. Now they were gone.

Chacos aren't chacos without an anklet
It is hard to explain the emotion I felt at this loss. When you are back-packing for an extended time, you become very attached to your flip-flops. There are a couple reasons for this. First, footwear is of utmost importance. You are constantly on your feet, hiking or exploring cities or running to catch a bus, all day every day. The right flip-flop that doesn’t kill your feet is critical. Yes, I know many a backpacker who prefer Chacos or some other sophisticated strappy open air shoe, but let’s face it--nothing beats the simple on-off ease of a flop.

The air-cushion sole is a wise choice
Now, most knowledgeable Californians will agree that the greatest flip-flop on the planet is made by Reef. Reef is found in good surf stores, which stock flip-flops vastly superior to anything you can find in a department store or mall. They are high quality, and some of the better Reef versions feature good arch support and thick air- or gel-cushioned soles. When you lose them, as is inevitable when you are tramping through poor countries with small mobs of street urchins, it is not just depressing. There is also the realization that your comfortable high-tech flip-flops are irreplaceable in a 3rd-world country. The only thing you can buy are plastic pieces of crap which cut into your skin and are about the thickness of a piece of cardboard. Each time I lost them, I searched diligently in foreign shopping malls for something, anything, that looked like it wasn’t slapped together with glue and straws. My last pair was discovered in a high-end mall in Beijing. It didn’t matter that they looked like something that might be worn by the pink Power Ranger. They were comfortable, and I was happy.
Snoopy flops are sweet but no match for Reef

So, you can start to understand why, upon realizing the flops had vanished, I yelled aloud and slapped my forehead as hard as I could. Which I instantly regretted, because now I had a headache as well.

They could be anywhere.

I removed my boots and began limping back the way I had just come in such a hurry.

Barefoot and pissed.

After only a few hundred yards, I found the first flop, lying right on the trail. Heaven. The second flop couldn’t be far. I searched the area carefully, but there was no trace. Perhaps it had fallen a bit further up the trail. I kept walking and scanning, pulling Rocky along. I looked and looked and looked some more. But it was not to be. The other flop had been plucked out of this dimension by Mister Mxyzpltk.

I realized this was not the first time, or the last time, that this sort of thing happens to us humans. It is one of the great laws of Murphy that when a person requires a pair of items, invariably that person will lose one, and only one, of said pair. Thus rendering the remaining half of the pair not only useless, but a cursed relic which mercilessly taunts the person: “Look at me!!" says the flop. "I'm so useful looking, and yet so worthless! Bwah ha ha ha!!!”

In a spate of hopeful madness, I even put the single flop on my foot. Thus, I limped, flopped, and cursed back up the trail.

After a few miles, or perhaps more, it is actually a blur in my memory, I stopped and simply sat down. My mind was darkness. I took a few breaths, and as the air was exhaled, atom by atom, the storm inside was also exhaled. And then, it was calm. Blank. The only thing in my mind was that I was tired. I looked to the east, and there was the river, and near it was the lush green grass of Mongolia.

Without conscious thought or motive, I rose and moved towards the water. The river was broken into many streamlets. Across the first of these lay a small island filled with lush grass. As we crossed the slippery stones, my blistered bare feet were soothed by the cold water. Rocky set right to work. Huge juicy mouthfuls disappeared into his mouth. I lay my sore back on this delicious bed. Soft. Above, pure blue. A few cream-filled clouds wandered about, in no particular hurry to be anywhere.

"What's your rush?" they asked.

The trees rustled in agreement. Rocky seemed to nod at this wisdom as well. He munched on, delighted at this unexpected buffet.  After a moment, all the grass within Rocky’s lead was shorn. Instead of getting up to head back to the road, I simply moved ourselves to a fresh patch and lay back down. Perhaps that ambling cloud was right. What was there to worry about, after all? I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with no food or water, was I? I was just going slower than expected. And to be honest, even if I had to walk, it was no more than 2 days to get back. I would be fine.

I sat up and considered my situation. As much as I had needed and enjoyed this little moment of Zen, there was the little matter of figuring out where I would sleep. I looked a bit more around the little island, realizing that it provided water, grass, and the small brush would hide my tent from any baddies. But as I crawled around, I quickly realized that the brush was too thick. A breeze began to stir, and a thick band of dark clouds began nosing their way across the hills. It was rain. The grass was wet, in fact, too wet. Rain would flood this spot and I would wake up in the middle of the night floating down the river.

Reluctantly, we headed back to the road and began walking once again. Despite the blisters and the imminent soaking, I suddenly felt light-hearted and free. It was a bizarre unexpected feeling. It was all so very perfect, this bit of suffering! Why had I traveled all this way after all?! Wasn’t it to have a little adventure? And so here I was, finally having one.

Channeling Gene Autry
With that, I began tramping forward, bare feet on the earth, dark skies above, and broke out with a tuneless rendition of “Home on the Range.” Happy.

The rain began to fall, but it was only a light mist really, nothing my deel couldn’t handle. As the evening deepened, we passed the spot where Rocky had freaked out at the ox pulling the cart, and then the place where I had been angrily chased away by the old witch and her dog-zilla. Down and down we traveled, over the hills, through the valleys of yak and cow and sheep, across boulder-strewn riverbeds, until finally, in the dark twilight, it appeared.

Happy Ger Camp.

This time I didn’t hesitate. A quick knock on the door and in moments I was once again happily in the sumptuous warm ger, surrounded by what felt like old friends. But this time it was late and after my fill of delicious tea, berries, curd, and sweet biscuits, I took my leave. They allowed me to set up my tent inside their fence for protection, for which I was grateful. I brought Rocky across the river to a nice patch of grass on an island. The patch was surrounded by trees and Rocky would be safely out of sight.

After my tent was sorted in the rain, I crawled inside and prepared to tuck into some cold peanut butter and jelly. But then I heard a “Hello!” from a women’s voice outside. Surprised, I opened my tent and peered out to see the doctor’s wife holding a steaming pot of water. “Hot!” she said and then motioned eating. She had not only re-stoked the fire and heated up water for me, but then come outside in the dark and rain to my tent to offer it. It was one of those selfless acts of human kindness that catch a person off-guard. I just stared back dumb-founded for a moment before managing a smile and nodding a “Bayarlaa. Bayarlaa.” She smiled back and vanished in the dark.

Minutes later I was sucking down a hot bowl of spicy noodles, letting the delicious heat spread out from my belly. A few hours before I was literally at the end of my horse-hair rope. And now ... I was home. I curled up in my cocoon, the rain pitter-pattering on the tent. It was the white noise of the womb. My eyes closed, the world disintegrated. And an old dream returned.

Once again, I was in Tokyo watching Pam-zilla smash apart the city with her massive chest-mounted wrecking balls.

Bumbles at Midnight

I bolted upright in my tent. Something was wrong, but I was too bleary to figure out quite what. After a moment, I heard it. Rocky was neighing. It was still raining, it was the deepest hours of the night, but none of this mattered. A kid had to be looked after, and I was the parent.

I struggled into my deel and boots, grabbed my headlight, and peered out of the tent across to the island. No eyeball reflected back. This was not good. I jumped out of the tent and hurried across the water. More neighing, this time to my right. It came from the trees. I looked over, and beheld a sight of comedy that I will never forget.

I had attached his rope to a tree at the edge of a large clearing. This clearing had been full of nice grass for Rocky to chew on, and I didn’t worry much more about it as I went off to bed. I now examined the rope. It went from the original tree to another, around it, and through a magic trick that impresses me to this day, went over a large branch that came up to my head, then down around a third tree. Rocky had then managed to wrap the rope around all 4 legs in what looked like a passable figure-8 knot. The fact that the poor horse had managed to hog-tie himself and yet stay standing was more unbelievable than watching UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon attempt Psy's gangnam style dance.

Nice moves
Rocky had a frantic expression on his long face, trying to move but nearly falling over with each attempt. He gave up, looked at me, and gave a soft hopeless neigh. I burst out laughing, feeling guilty at the same time. This was, of course, all my fault. I should never have tied him up next to a thicket of trees. Of course he ate everything in his reach. Of course he saw the tasty grass still in the forest and went after it.

I carefully untied him, and re-staked him down in the middle of the clearing, away from obstacles. “Sorry old pal. I promise, I’ll never do this again.” He replied by blowing air out of his nose. Hmmph.

 This is why I’m never having kids. I would make a horrible parent.

1 comment:

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