To summit the cosmos

With every stretch of trudging up, up, up, my hands stiffened, becoming one with the bike. The air particles stabbed my body like pin-sized icicles parachuting at 80 kph from sky to skin. I was a statue tilted forward on my lazy scooter, pulling full-throttle on the gas handle. I couldn’t feel my face. If I licked my lips, they’d freeze shut and I’d never speak again.

After over 3 hours of whipping through open-air, signs promised we were moments away from the summit of Doi Inthanon — the Roof of Thailand.

SNAP. Smoke saturated the pavement as my bike started rolling backwards. The engine revved but the wheels gave up like a fat kid passed out on the sidelines of PE class. I instinctually glided to the side of the road and jumped off the steaming machine.

Shit. Fuck. Motherfucking fuck. My internal dialog was blasting off profanities as I was too cold to curse out loud. Brad raced back to rescue his secretly vulgar damsel in distress. We both started and restarted the engine. No movement. Everything was seemingly functional, but the wheels were as frozen as my face.

We were mere meters away from the highest peak in Thailand, bike or no bike, this wasn’t going to stop us from invading the summit — Kiwi and American, ready to mark our momentary territory at the top. The two of us squeezed on to the remaining functional scooter, a 110cc that struggled fervently to outdo its dead brother, sluggishly inching up the final mountain stretch.

To our surprise, the summit was as disappointing as most things. There was no viewpoint to prove the extravagant claim “Highest spot in Thailand”, written on the stupid, shaded summit sign that was tucked beneath trees and brush and other green monstrosities blocking the horizon. We wanted evidence — even a small goddamn clearing to look down on the world, or at least on Thailand, would’ve sufficed.

Brad and I were bewildered, minds erupting by the sheer stupidity of this supposed Roof of Thailand. Our 3-hour journey through speedy traffic-heavy highways, narrow village dirt paths, the steepest mountain road in all of Thailand, with 90 degree turns every 100 meters, was all to see some ugly sign and ugly unenthused tourists taking mandatory selfies.

*This is not a photo of Brad and me.* It’s from the Internet.

Within 5 minutes, we were back on the bike. Just a few kilometers down the mountain were two famous Chedis — Buddhist monuments that hold sacred relics. We had shallow hopes this sight would redeem our disappointment and condone destroying a perfectly healthy scooter in effort to stand on top of Thailand.

We also knew this may be the only place we could find someone to help us remove the body left abandoned on the side of the road. We had less than 30 minutes before sunset, and no one likes handling a corpse after dark. The mission was set: 1. Explore the Chedis. 2. Seek help.

Every beed of disappointment shed from our long faces as an escalator lifted us into a Buddha Disney Land on acid. The Chedis were covered in thousands of shiny, pale purple and copper mosaic tiles. The whole structure glimmered like iridescent stardust only seen in outer space. At the tip of both stupas were matching gold spires in the shape of two teardrops — one small drop made up of hallowed circles that balanced on top of a larger, more organically wilting shape.

The temples rested in colorful gardens with a pronounced aesthetic of royalty. The bushes were flawlessly trimmed and the flowers were grouped by hue. From a distance, the flowers were pools of white, pink, or red, peacefully floating on a green surface. A thin stream, with adjacent stone pathways, spiraled through the gardens. There was a single arched bridge, positioned directly in the center of the stream, as if to connect visitors from one fairy-tail to the next.

The most breathtaking sight of this fantasy land rested just beyond the gardens. The Himalayan mountain range was laid out in front of us like a life-size oil painting. The scene was flat, possessing it’s own mystical dimension. I wanted to dive into it and come out on the other side — a parallel universe where nothing matters but everything’s beautiful.

Mist coated the mountains like a film of sugar I could taste. All of my senses were moving to the tip of my throat, as if the only way to express myself would be to scream or projectile vomit. Maybe this sensation was caused by the view, or by the heightened altitude draining my oxygen. This was the clearing I had hoped for at the summit, the panorama I’ve been seeking for over two and a half decades.

The sun was rapidly moving into the horizon, and we had yet to accomplish goal number two: Seek help. Brad and I removed ourselves from our transcendental Chedi-mountain-haven, and set out on our mission.

Back in the parking lot, we noticed the crowds had almost entirely vanished. It was too cold and too late for tourists. We circled the area, searching for cab drivers or people who might speak English. Eventually we spotted a group of park rangers, their matching army-patterned uniforms and orange hats indicated they must be natural born saviors. There were 6 of them, yet still, none spoke a word of English. The sun had officially set, and we were beginning to accept all hope was lost.

Out of nowhere, a group of Thai university students joined into our conversation. Two of these gracious souls could speak English, and began voluntarily translating our dilemma to the rangers. Brad and I silently observed lengthy back and forth discussion in Thai, until finally a solution arose. Brad would drive his motorbike behind the group of Thai students to the nearest mechanic, and I would join the rangers and the student who spoke the most English, Pen, in the back of their pickup truck. I would guide them to retrieve the lifeless bike, and we’d all move down the mountain to meet Brad and the others at the mechanic.

I hesitantly parted ways with Brad and seated myself in the bed of the truck. The air went from cold to hypothermic, and my warmest item of clothing was a thin sweatshirt paired with an even thinner sarong. I gave Pen my sarong because he too was unprepared for the weather and series of events that led him to helping a helpless American with her deceased scooter.

As we rolled back up the mountain, Pen and I talked between shivers about a recent trip he took to New York, his studies in university, and prospects for our future selves. We were both inquisitive, peeling off layers of preconceived differences, discovering the purist form of shared humanity between two strangers from opposite sides of the world. I was so grateful for Pen; he offered his comfort and time to help complete strangers. All I could give in return was conversation, a chance for him to practice English. He seemed to appreciate this as much as I appreciated his heroism.

The truck eventually made it to the scentless carcass, and with a group effort, the rangers hoisted the remains into the back of the pickup. Me, Pen, and three of the rangers squeezed in with the bike and prepared ourselves for a numbing excursion down the mountain.

Despite the stress of losing my mode of transportation and feeling as though my entire body could shatter from the cold, I felt at peace. This is what makes life beautiful — the unexpected, whether it be death or human connection or doubt or triumph. There’s no such thing as a summit; the concept of making it, of reaching the top, is an illusive notion. No peak will bring you closer to the sky because the sky is limitless. I could be an astronaut staring down at the glowing, blue-green glob we’ve named earth, and I’d be no closer to summiting the cosmos.

I felt a heavy sense of gratitude for my uncomfortable seat in the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of superhuman Thai guys. I’m alive and living as far away from normalcy as most could manage, taking in each experience as it happens. This rescue-mission ride down the tallest mountain in Thailand was just another reminder that there are no set directions for where, how, or why we move — they’re ever changing, adapting to our pace and to the chaos of our surroundings. Everyday we’re still breathing is another chance to move without direction, to be fascinated by the mundane, the arduous, the extravagant, the anything and everything, the infinite space of what could be.