Horizon, heat, and headwind

Horizon, heat, and headwind

August 4th, 2019

After a brief period of getting my sea legs on, the Caspian Sea cargo ship’s doors opened and out rolled a strange mix of overland travelers. Semi-truck drivers from all over Asia poured out alongside Westerners using all forms of transportation to traverse the landscapes to come: car, jeep, motorcycle, and hitchhike. Following closely behind were me and three other cyclists, smirking as we rolled on by the vehicle-drivers who were bound to be stuck at customs inspections for the rest of the day. This smirk was reciprocated as they sped past us hours later, waving a hearty "Good luck!". To them, this next section of the journey was only to take a few days—just a small blip on their maps. To us cyclists, this section would become our lives for the next few weeks.

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Leaving the Kazakhstan seaport, I took in my first views of the desert. To my left: an expanse of sand and cracked earth dotted by the occasional spiked desert shrubbery, camel, or horse. To my right: all the same. I stared in wonderment at the vastness of this expanse—stretching for tens, likely hundreds, of miles. Flat, open, emptiness. I turned my head forward and saw an arrow-straight, empty road being swallowed by the horizon. The sun and heat radiated off the tarmac, blurring the view ahead and reminding me why I was already covered in sweat. It was quite daunting; all around there was nothing. How could there be anything at the end of this road? There was only one way to find out.

As we all differed in cycling speeds, I split up with the group of cyclists by the beginning of the second day. Though it was comforting to experience company for a brief period, I welcomed this parting. Solitude was important for me on this journey. I knew the desert would constantly deal out struggle after struggle, and I needed to overcome these struggles on my own. The personal growth that I so longed for could only be achieved by my own hand. So I pushed on by myself, with only the desert wildlife and traffic speeding by to keep me company.

My first day of solo cycling was plagued by an unlucky encounter with multiple tire punctures. Normally, a puncture is little more than a brief annoyance, sucking some time and energy from your day. However, in the midday desert heat, tire punctures are much more of a problem. As I heard the air draining from my back inner tube, I reluctantly rolled to a stop. I took my sunglasses off to inspect the damage, and my eyes winced in pain. The sun above me shined brighter than I ever knew was possible, as if it was angry at me. To add to this, I no longer had a slight breeze from the movement to cool me off. 

A white film covered my pants and shirts. I took a risky taste of the white substance, and, as I suspected, I discovered a layer of salt had developed from the mass amounts of sweat rolling down my arms and legs. I looked around for some sanctuary from this deadly laser in the sky. The desert gave me nothing. No plants stood tall enough to form shade, and no camel would sit still long enough for me to rest in its shadow. There was nothing else to be done but to suffer through the heat and patch the punctures.

I’d like to say that this was the fastest tire puncture fix that I’ve done, but the sun did well to sap any remaining energy I had left. I moved as if I had a 50lb weight vest on: unloading my bike, taking the tube out, waiting the agonizing 5 minutes for the patch adhesive to dry, putting the tube back, and loading everything back on the bike. I finally moved on, welcoming the slight breeze that just barely cooled me down. However, I could tell the heat was taking its toll on my body. I moved much slower than before, and I could feel my heart racing faster than its usual rate; I was overheating. As the sun drew lower and lower, I saw scraps of shade begin to form in the ridges of some hills ahead of me. I raced on to the hills and collapsed in the sand and dirt, instantly passing out from the exhaustion. As I woke to a setting sun, my mouth was drier than the desert air around me. I squeezed the life out of my water bottle and noticed my water supply dangerously low. I genuinely didn’t think it was possible for a human being to drink more than 10L of water in a single day, but here I was, alone in the desert without any water. The nearest settlement was still 40km away, and I became desperate. I ran out to the road waving my water bottle in the air—hoping, pleading. The first passing driver stopped and gifted me a large bottle of cold water. What a sight it must have been for him to see this foreigner covered in dirt manically running out of the desert shouting for water.

This first desert day was quite a lesson for me. Planning my days no longer revolved around what sights I would see or how many hill climbs I could avoid. Planning my days were now about survival. I wish I could say that I learned my lesson on survival right away, but it was inevitable that there was some variable or circumstance that I hadn’t accounted for. I applied an offshoot of Hofstadter’s Law to my frequent bouts of underpreparedness: “It will always take longer than you expect (and you will always need more food and water than you expect), even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”. (I don’t think that Hofstadter ever envisioned his law being used in such a manner, but I think that he and I could both agree that navigating the Kyzylkum desert by bicycle was of sufficient complexity to warrant such an application.) Despite the hopelessness of situations to come, I always figured out a solution, ticking off another W for the day (or L depending on how you looked at it). Besides, hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion are great motivators to get those legs moving and kilometers knocked down.

If the desert ever proved too much for me, I always had the option to take a train across it or hitch a lift from a passing driver. Most cyclists—who are much saner than me—would see the forecasted 120°F+ (49°C+) temperatures and long distances between civilization and opt for either of these options. However, I quickly developed a masochistic allure to riding through the desert. It’s not that I was particularly enjoying myself; honestly, I was quite miserable the majority of the time. But, being in the desert was such a novel and rewarding experience for me. Every day I was faced with a new set of challenges to overcome. By overcoming these daily challenges, I was filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment that I never knew. If I were to take a train or hitch a lift, I would be robbing myself of this. I needed to endure every mile of the road.

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Days went on, each looking more and more like the last. I could not recall what day of the week or month it was, or even how long I had been riding. I only knew that I was ever so farther on the endless road ahead of me. Time was lost in the depths of the sand around me.

The sun was my ruler, and I paid close attention to its location in the sky. An average day went a little like this:

Wake up as the rising sun turned my tent into a furnace and clumsily roll around the sand as I pack up camp. Then, ride. Ride until the sun was high in the sky and the heat proved too much to bear. Curse the sun as it had boiled my water supply to a hot-to-touch temperature. Find shelter somewhere to eat lunch: an abandoned building, a nearby settlement, a drainage tunnel under the road. Wait until I built up enough courage to face the sun, then, you guessed it, ride again. Tire of music, switch to podcasts. Tire of podcasts, switch to camel gazing. Ponder the meaning of life. Continue until the sun set and the day drew to a close. Set up camp, cook dinner, go to bed, and do it all over again. More sand, more sun, more sweat, more desert.

I could only think ahead in short bursts: the next city, the next place to get food and water, the next stretch of road. Thinking of the end was impossible. The thought that I still had more than 1000km until I reached the end of the desert was just depressing. On the other hand, the thought that I only had 20km until I reached the next place to drink cold water was much more inspiring.

The desert did have its moments, though. Every day, the sun subsided into the horizon and cooler air filled the space around me. As I set up camp, the sky melted in colors from its normal bright blue, to orange and red, then to shades of purple, and finally to pitch black. One after another, stars poked through the sky and illuminated the night around me. The wind died down in unison with the last moan from a camel and buzz from a car engine fading off into the distance. I listened to the night and heard only silence. I glanced around me and saw nothing but the majestic spectacle above me. Taking a deep breath in, I was at peace in the emptiness.

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After three weeks of riding, I had now entered Uzbekistan and was nearing the end of the desert. One final section lay in between me and Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Days blurred together, and I grew more and more tired and agitated. I remained motivated by the thought of simple amenities to come: wifi, air-conditioning, and cold drinks. Honestly, though, all I really wanted was just an hour where I wasn’t dripping in sweat.

This final stretch would end up being the true test of my perseverance. By now, the heat drained the life from me, but I grew used to it. The potholed road wore on my bicycle (and my ass), but I grew faster at navigating it. The wind whipped me around the road and slowed me to a third of my normal speed, but sometimes it blew the opposite way. In the past, these three desert enemies came and went separately in short bouts. But, this final stretch brewed a perfect storm where all three joined in at once to consistently beat me down. Add in a dash of sleep deprivation caused by sweaty nights laying awake in paranoia of the desert animals lurking about, and I began to slowly lose my mind.

The heat, road, and wind continued to chip away at my progress. One more day until the finish line turned into two more days until the finish line and then into three. When I rested, I lie staring blankly, too exhausted to muster up a mere thought in my mind. When night came around, I dreamed of family and friends. Waking up inside my tent shattered these dreams. I didn’t want to come back to reality; I wanted to be back home. But, outside the heat grew more intense and the wind revved its engine. There was no time to wallow in self-pity.

Riding on, my tactic of listening to a podcast to drown out the outside world wasn’t working. I could no longer ignore the aches, the heat, and the wind, and I pulled over off the road. I sat stood still as the wind howled around me and the sun beat down heavy on my dirt covered skin. I couldn’t take it anymore. I let out a brief but stern yell. Then, another, and another. Louder and longer until I was screaming into the void of the desert. The desert answered my screams by unleashing a gust of wind that knocked my bike to the ground. I cursed and kicked my bike (Why!? It wasn’t his fault!) and continued screaming.

Then, something clicked in my brain. I was able to disassociate myself from the situation and peer down at myself with a bird’s eye view. What I saw was a sweaty, shirtless, lunatic man in the middle of nowhere throwing a temper tantrum. I couldn’t help but laugh. Though the laughter probably added to my maniacal appearance, it also brought me relief. I was able to see with logic again. What was I doing!? Get your shit together, Lucas!

And so, I did the only thing that I could do—the only thing that mattered: I rode on.

“This too shall pass”

In the distance, I spotted a lonely tree, and a nostalgic scent filled the air. More and more nature revealed itself until the desert faded into a rich green land drawing life from a nearby river. Had I not been so zombie-like, I would have cried; it was beautiful.

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One month in the desert beat me and broke me down, but every day I got back up to pedal on. The desert pushed me to my absolute limits, but not passed them.

I can’t say that I enjoyed it, and I can’t say that I didn’t fail. Every day was another failure after another failure. But, I wouldn’t change a second of it. It was from these failures that I grew ever more confident in myself.

Sitting on that cargo ship peering over maps of the desert, I genuinely didn’t know whether or not I had it in me to make it through. I thought for sure I’d cheat at some point. I’m thankful that I realized early on how important it was for me to see this through to its entirety.

Now, as I sit here in a cozy hotel in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, safe from the heat of the desert, I find myself again looking on to the horizon. This time, however, the horizon is lined by the jagged peaks of mountains. Tajikistan is beckoning me on. New horizons, new challenges, new failures. I gladly welcome them all.