Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chapter Three – the Trek to Baharia

I mentioned in my previous chapter that the route from Siwa to Baharia would carry me over 400 miles of sand dunes, but this ended up being an optimistic projection. After an arduous afternoon on my first day, I would not have believed that there could be any surface more difficult to ride across than sand, but on the following day I would discover to my disappointment that I was wrong.

I finished my first day’s travel as the sun was sinking low. The small handlebar device I’d bought to track my mileage had quit working sometime earlier that day, so I wasn’t sure how far I’d traveled, but I knew it wasn’t far enough to make Baharia within the eight days of food and water I was carrying. I resolved to get a good night’s sleep and make up for lost time on the next day.

That night though, the wind dedicated itself to prying at the corners of my tent, and lifting all but the part directly beneath my body from the ground. The flapping of the material was almost deafening, but not quite loud enough to drown out the ghostly singing of the tent shrouds as they vibrated in the gale. I was grateful that I had buried the tent pegs deeply; I am certain that was the only reason the tent did not collapse around my ears. Such was the din and the cold that I was certain to have had no sleep, were it not for a parting gift from my friend the Berber linguist. As we parted, he pressed three airline bottles of bourbon into my hands as a farewell gesture. With one of them warming me from the inside, I still shivered violently in my sleeping bag, but I did eventually drift off into a restless sleep.

The next morning I crawled achingly from my tent and unwrapped the bicycle from its tarp. Whether or not the cover served any purpose was open to debate; it might have kept the blowing sand from blasting the paint off the frame, but it did nothing to keep it from drifting into my chain and gears, which had been my primary concern. I spent at least an hour getting the grit out of the moving parts and then had a bit of breakfast, which consisted of some oranges, some bread and cheese, and a can of tuna fish. By the time I was packed and ready to resume my trip, the sun had doubled its diameter above the horizon, and shadows were beginning to shorten.

It took a few miles for me to warm up, and while the bourbon might have helped me sleep, I don’t think it did me any favors on that morning ride. I felt like the bike was not the only thing with sand in its moving parts, and my head hurt. I rode for about two hours and drank a couple bottles of water before I began feeling like myself again. That was about the point at which I crested a small rise, and saw the field of rocks.

The field stretched out before me as far as I could see. For some reason, I recalled that the formula for calculating the distance to the visible horizon is roughly 1.17 times the square root of one’s eye height, which meant that, for at least the next three nautical miles, I would be traversing a surface comprised of rounded rocks, roughly the size of loaves of bread – too large and uneven to ride over with a heavily laden bike, and no picnic to push the bike over, either.

I hoped that just beyond my line of sight, the field would end, and I could get back to riding on sand. It didn’t.

The bicycle is the most efficient means ever devised for transporting oneself from place to place. All those efficiencies disappear, however, if you’re pushing the thing, instead of riding it, and the worst thing about pushing the bike over those miserable rocks was that I couldn’t get into a rhythm. Every rock was just large enough or small enough or at a just different-enough angle that it comprised its own independent challenge. I wasn’t crossing a field, so much as climbing thousands of tiny obstacles, one at a time. My neck ached from bending forward. My feet hurt from the uneven surface of the rocks. My shoulders ached from pushing. I was glad that the weight of my food, water, tent, clothing, and sleeping bag was rolling on wheels, instead of strapped to my back, but I hated the contorted position I had to assume in order to keep those wheels turning.

I kept them turning for two hours before I looked behind me. The sun was high overhead now, and hot. The tops of the rocks burned dull ochre, lighter on the tops where they had been burnished by blowing sand. I saw nothing behind me but rocks. Before me, I saw nothing but rocks. I lowered the bike gently onto its side and drank deeply of my warm water. I looked behind me again. I thought about the futility of trying to sleep on this unforgiving surface. I wondered how far ahead of me the rocks continued, and I briefly considered the possibility that, if I pushed hard enough, I could turn around and make it back to the sand before the sun went down. I hated the thought of turning back though, even more than the thought of going forward into uncertainty, so I picked the bike back up and slogged ahead.

The sun was on the horizon by the time I followed a gravelly wash up out of the rocks and back into the sand. I wrapped up the bicycle, set up the tent, and climbed inside to eat. I was far too tired to brush my teeth or even enjoy an almost windless night. I lay in my tent, thinking for a moment about going outside to look at the sky, but before I could even decide not to, I had fallen asleep.

I awoke abruptly at about three in the morning because something had crawled into my right ear. It was a spider, but I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that something was moving in my ear canal, and the sensation of those eight hairy legs making their way deeper into my head made me instantaneously dizzy and sick to my stomach. Then I did something stupid. I stuck my little finger in my ear, as if anything good could possibly come from that. Nothing good did. The unknown creature burrowed even deeper, and for the only time in my life, I knew what complete, absolute panic felt like. I knelt on the floor of my tent, trying desperately not to vomit, and trying even harder to cling to my sanity. I wanted to run screaming into the desert. I wanted to find something long and sharp and stick it in my ear. I wanted to be home, wherever that was.

I did none of those things, although I came perilously close to the screaming in the desert thing. Instead, I knelt there jerking my head violently to the side, as if I were a swimmer, trying to dislodge a drop of water. This yielded only limited success. The offending critter slid downward encouragingly every time I lurched, but then, as I straightened back up, it ran back up my ear canal, with an excruciating, infuriating scratching and prickling that I heard/felt throughout my entire head. Every time I moved, it moved correspondingly, doing its utmost to stake a permanent claim to the snug, warm tunnel it had found.

This obviously wasn’t going to work. Worse yet, with its every movement over the sensitive surface of my inner ear, the invader was driving me closer to madness. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but it’s absolutely true. I had to marshal every shred of self control in order to force myself to remain calm. I stopped the water-drop routine and crouched there, forcing myself to think. There had to be a way to remedy this situation, preferably one that did not involve a serious risk of self lobotomization. Thankfully, as long as I kept my head from moving, the spider remained still, and I was able to think. I carefully reached for a water bottle, fighting the inclination to tilt my head, or turn it toward that corner of the tent. My trembling fingers closed around the bottle. I opened the nozzle and directed a cold blast of water into my ear. The shock of the cold, thankfully, overwhelmed the sensation of the moving spider as I tilted my head to the side to hold the water in. Almost immediately, I felt the creature crawling across my outer ear, then, across my face. I nearly brained myself, clubbing it with my water bottle, but I didn’t care. It was dead, and I was free.

There was no chance of sleeping after that. I tried tearing a page out of my journal and stuffing my ears with writing paper, but it was uncomfortable and noisy. I opened my second bottle of bourbon and dabbed it into the entrances of my ears with a fingertip, hoping it would keep out unwelcome tenants, but even so, I was done sleeping for the night. I climbed out of the tent and sat on a sand dune. Above me, the sky was brilliant with stars – so many stars I found it difficult to find familiar constellations. They wheeled above me in silent majesty, and I felt very much alone.

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