Zen to Zero
A Tale of Transcendental Tribulation — Part 2
Of ice and men
I hastily rode away, telling myself that Flyin’ Brian must have slipped by the surveyors with the surgical precision of his paradigmatic four-cross performances. He must be charging ahead up the mountain, with the same steely determination that had earned him more World Cup titles than any male mountain biker in the sport’s history. Even so, I found solace in the fact that Brian was still a mortal, just like me, and was thusly engaged in the exact same endgame against the elements. He too would be tired, cold and desperate to reach the top.
As I climbed higher up the increasingly narrow road, the temperature plummeted and the steady drizzle quickly hardened into sleet. A hostage to the thousands of tiny ice pellets pooling on the uneven tarmac, I started to pay for my out-of-the-saddle body position as my unweighted rear tire began to slip. On one maddeningly steep incline, I spun out and was forced to hop off and push. My mind wandered to the last time I had been on this road, some six years earlier, while bagging area peaks as part of my research for a first-edition guidebook to Taiwan. It was late summer, and a buddy and I had managed to hitch a series of rides between villages en route to a trailhead in the adjoining Taroko National Park.
That day was blessedly warm and dry, and an unblemished sky yielded staggering views of Hehuan Shan and a jagged, saw-toothed protrusion known as the Cilai Ridge. In the valleys far below to the east, the vast canopy of deciduous forest was already adorned in its autumnal array of reds, oranges and yellows. Soaking up all this scenery from the seat of a motorized vehicle, my first crossing of this road had seemed effortless, the convenience of the combustion engine skewing my sense of space and time.
Today, however, was an altogether different story. There was no view—only low-hanging clouds that wept frosty beads onto my exposed skin, sending chills through my core and causing my teeth to chatter uncontrollably. The dull pain of lactic acid burned deep in my quads, and my head ached from altitude and dehydration. My willpower was in danger of being trumped by a mounting list of physical impediments. I lowered my head and attacked another lung-busting climb, gasping to extract as much oxygen as possible from the increasingly thin air.
Suddenly the road began to level out, its steepness supplanted by a stiff wind sweeping across what appeared to be a giant alpine meadow. Though I couldn’t see Hehuan Shan or Cilai Ridge, it was clear from the clouds racing by that I had crested the pass. I had done it. I had ridden my bike up one of the world’s toughest paved roads.
Hot tea and humanity
But there was no time to bask in my achievement. I knew I still had to descend a fair distance to the rustic hotel where we would stay that night, and I was worried that the wind whipping against my wet body could send my core temperature spiraling down to dangerous levels. I needed to quickly get my bearings and make a beeline for lower elevation.
I pedaled over to a signboard displaying a glass-covered map, just as a minivan full of Taiwanese pulled in from the other side of the pass. They excitedly spilled out of the vehicle, shocked to see a quivering, blue-lipped foreigner on a bicycle. The driver rushed up to me and threw his jacket over my shoulders, thrusting a tiny thermos filled with hot green tea into my hands. As the comforting, fragrant liquid hit my throat, I was overcome by an upwelling of emotion—a profound sense of gratitude, a recognition of unconditional human kindness.
These people were complete strangers, yet they didn’t think twice about standing in the middle of a sleet storm to help me warm up. They huddled around me to break the wind, handing me tiny chocolate bars and politely asking why I thought it was a good idea to ride a bike up the island’s highest road, by myself, in such horrible weather. They were genuinely concerned about my well-being. Though I was moved, I wasn’t at all surprised; I had experienced such graciousness countless times before in Taiwan, and I already knew this to be a place where humanity and compassion eclipse the collective ills of modern, technology-driven society.
Zen to Zero first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Paved. We’ll deliver the remainder of this feature article over the course of the next few days right here on pavedmag.com, but should you wish to see this story in its original format—or simply want gratification of a more immediate kind—the entire issue is available for download on the Apple Newsstand.