Nan province has these amazing swooping hills, and amazing washed out single track which threatens to yeet you over the side. Don’t get me wrong, I love some good swooping hills, but I prefer not to be the one doing the swooping.

* * *

There was a time in my life when I imagined that I didn’t need to be able to do a pivot turn. That I could always do some other laborious maneuvre, like a twenty-five point turn or swinging the bike around on its sidestand. But life is a great teacher. Sooner or later she will send you a rock and a hard place, wedge you between the two, and laugh while you sweat.

Accordingly, it’s a beautiful sunny day within a stone’s throw of the Laotian border, and my hands are shaking with adrenaline. To my left looms the hillside, cut deeply to allow the thinnest of single track. To my right, the kind of gradient which promises that you won’t stop sliding until you hit the valley floor. In between the two, the single track is one big rut, a series of deep holes strung together in steps which seem perfectly designed to trap a rear tyre.

Somehow, I have ended up in the lead. Behind me are my two friends on two stroke enduro bikes, equipped with actual skills. Here I am, blocking the way on the near-vintage KTM 250, way out of my depth.

Because here’s the thing: the only way to overcome the deep washed-out holes is to rock the bike backwards then nail the gas, shoving and throttling hard at the same time. I know this. But I also fear that my balance and clutch control are going to fail me at the next crucial moment – you know, the moment when you’ve got the bike out of the hole, but no longer wish to continue gassing it into the abyss.

There’s sweat in my eyes and it’s hot up here. My friends are cool as cucumbers. They ride trials; they know how to pivot on a knife edge. None of this scares them. They can go forward, or they can turn and go back, no worries; they know how to control the power of their fiesty two-strokes. They are balanced.

I think back to Indonesia and Vietnam, and some of the wild maneauvres I pulled off on my fully loaded 690 Enduro when alone in the wilderness. Things that I knew I couldn’t do; things I had to do anyway, because there was no-one there to help.

The truth is, I do have some clutch control. I do have some degree of balance. But I also have anxiety and self doubt, especially when it comes to riding aggressively. Today, the latter would have to be quiet for a moment, because the only thing stronger than my self doubt is my stubbornness.

And so I do it. I grind and shove and throttle and clutch that bike up through that endless stepped rut. When I feel it getting off balance I throw in all my strength to pull it back, favouring the uphill side of the trail.

“Come on, bitch!” I yell, half at the old Kato, half at myself. And then suddenly the gradient is flattening, I am railing through loose rocks and crest the hill.

Goddamn. “You did good, sweetheart,” I say. One foot propped on a log, I collapse over the handlebars and suck on my camelback. Electrolytes, electrolytes, electrolytes.

My friends cruise up behind me and ask if I am okay. Yes, I say, just fine, breathing like an asthmatic yak.

I am, in fact, better than fine. I have proved to myself, again, that I can do it. That I’m not too weak or too lacking in natural talent; that I am at least good enough to be out here on the mountain learning the skills I need. I, too, am good enough to be here. Good enough to try.

Fall seven, get up eight.

* * *

We are camped near the old salt mines of Bo Kleua, the sole occupants of a misty valley campsite complete with hot shower. Every night my friends cook a feast over the barbecue and we drink beer after beer.

Thai society is not big on gender equality when it comes to household chores, but I marvel at how all my friends can cook so well. P’Lah just laughs: it’s not that all your friends like to cook, he tells me, it’s just that all your friends are drunks. When you are hungry and drunk at midnight and your girlfriend is sick of your shit and has gone to bed long ago – that’s when Thai men learn to cook.

If I hadn’t already been lying down on a picnic rug, I would have fallen over laughing.

We eat well that night, and every other night too.

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7 thoughts on “Face the Abyss

  1. i_wanna_moto says:

    Captivating post ????

  2. Geoff says:

    Perfect day!

    Just back form the same, first weekend out of lock-down in Melbourne. On bikes and into the Dandenongs and to the high country.
    Where did my bike fitness goooo??

    1. Oh I love the high country. I miss it just a little. 😉

  3. Bob Boonstra says:

    Good for you.
    The description tells of challenging conditions.
    Having requisite advanced skills makes a huge difference.
    I have not dared to attempt a pivot turn to date and if I try it – it will be on my small motorcycle that might not eat me alive.
    Take care… have fun as I know you will.
    Cheers..

    1. Cheers my friend. Yes, pivot turns remain on my to-learn list!

  4. geoffkeys says:

    Another great story Grace. I know all of the feelings you descibe, for all the same reasons. Fortunately India is not so much of a challenge. But there’s other places with other rides yet to be tackled.
    Meanwhile, you inspire us all.

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