Zen to Zero
A Tale of Transcendental Tribulation — Part 3
Turning back to the map, I determined I had about 10 miles of mostly descending to the roadside village of Dayuling, from which point it would only be a stone's throw to our lodgings. I took one last swig of tea and gratefully returned the driver's thermos and jacket, wishing the group a safe journey down the mountain before starting my own descent straight into a driving headwind. The biting cold immediately consumed my bare hands, and my fingers went numb. Unable to feel how much pressure I was putting on the brake levers, controlling my speed on the incredibly steep decline became tricky and I stopped to pull my arm warmers over my hands.
Though this provided some relief from the cold, it presented an entirely new problem: the inability to use my opposable thumbs for grip and handling dexterity. "What more could go wrong?" I asked out loud, laughing at how this loss of thumb function had temporarily set me back millions of years on an evolutionary timeline. "This is a bad time to be developing empathy for our early hominid ancestors," I thought.
Channeling my inner Homo habilis, I dug the base of my palms down into the drops to keep the front end obedient and used only my extended index fingers to pull on the levers. Though far from ideal, it worked well enough to get me through the downhill's scariest sections.
I was about a mile from our hotel when one of the organizer's white SAG vans passed me, carrying some of the dudes I had been riding with that morning. While the vast majority of the group had bailed during the first third of the climb, these guys had tried to make it up to Hehuan Shan and were finally swept up in increments several miles from the top to prevent them from going hypothermic.
Minutes later, I scrambled into the hotel foyer, frantic for a hot shower, only to run straight into Brian, who was already dressed in warm clothes and looking squeaky clean. "How cold was that descent?" I asked him, jogging in place to keep my blood flowing.
"I didn't do the descent," he answered, looking puzzled as to why I would have done something so utterly unpleasant. "When I got to the top, there was a vehicle waiting to bring me down to the hotel. But I've got to say, that climb was definitely one of the hardest things I've ever done on a bike."
The payoff plunge
This turned out to be a strange twist of fate for Brian—a gravity god known primarily for his descending prowess—as the downhill he skipped was only the beginning of a monumental plunge that would take us from the top of Taiwan's highest road all the way to the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean.
About an hour after Brian departed the next morning to catch his flight home, our tattered cluster of riders bundled up to bomb the longest unbroken descent that most of us had ever done. It was glorious: hour upon hour of unfettered coasting, soaking up some of the most stupefying scenery I had ever seen from the saddle. Though the initial segment was steep and sketchy—especially considering how cold and wet this high-alpine area was—the road eventually gave way to a slightly more gradual slope as we approached the Liwu River valley.
For the next few hours, we were treated to a deceptively swift descent through the mind-blowing Taroko Gorge—the namesake and main attraction of Taiwan's most diverse national park. The strikingly narrow heart of the gorge stretched for about 13 miles, hemmed in by marble walls that soar for over a thousand feet above the riverbed, often blocking out the sky.
Riding effortlessly through this timeworn testament to erosion was awe-inspiring, as we careened past crystal-clear waterfalls plunging down sheer rock faces and buzzed the ethereal canvasses of ferns swaying gracefully from hairline cracks in the cliffs. It was as if we had ridden straight into an ancient Chinese scroll painting, with water cutting fantastic formations across the marble-cake walls and lushly vegetated outcrops draped in heavy bouquets of mist.
Everyone was ecstatic. I glanced at my colleague—Bike and Paved's associate publisher, Mark Milutin—and noticed the corners of his mouth were slightly upturned into a faint smile, much like the euphoric expressions on the faces of Buddha statues depicted in various phases of enlightenment. In this moment, we were truly in a practical state of nirvana, our minds freed from trivial thoughts, calmly focused on nothing but the undiluted joy of speeding through a natural wonder. This was the pure essence of cycling. This was happiness.
The tragedy of triumph
About halfway through the gorge, we stopped to admire an elegant trio of Chinese pavilions straddling a cascade across the river. It was the Eternal Spring Shrine, a picture of perfect harmony between nature and man—and a fitting memorial to the 450-odd workers who perished while battling to build this extraordinary passage through the mountains in the late 1950s.
Originally known as the Hehuan Old Trail, it was first completed by the occupying Japanese in 1914 to exploit the area's timber and mineral resources. It remained a primitive artery until 1956, when the Nationalist army that had invaded Taiwan after being forced out of mainland China decided to revive the route. More than 5,000 former Nationalist soldiers spent nearly four years struggling against the odds—often chiseling through huge sections of rock with their hands—finally finishing the project in 1960.
I stared at the water rushing underneath the shrine, pondering the untold hardship these soldiers had endured to create this masterpiece of engineering, this monument to the strength of the human will. These indefatigable invaders had paid a grim toll—for hundreds of them, their lives—to physically pave the pathway to our fleeting glimpse of enlightenment. And we ourselves had agonized on the brutal climb up the other side of these mountains. I scoffed at the trendy, New Age notion of miraculous, mystical transcendence. Freedom and joy are merely the flip sides of pain and suffering, I thought. One cannot be realized without the other. Genuine happiness necessarily comes at a heavy price.
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.