THE LAST MILE

Pia Saengswang

14 December 2014

11 Comments

            

6:47am.  I can’t hear anything but my own breathing and the soft crunch-slide of my skins against the groomed corduroy snow.   My breath crystallizes in the cold morning air – with every step I’m climbing through a veil of moonlit fog.   I’ve been skinning up Baldy for the past hour.  The stars and moon are beginning to give way to a peachy-red glimmer on the horizon.  It’s dawn in Sun Valley, Idaho and I’m finally home after 3 ½ months on the motorcycle in Asia.

Re-entry is always tough, but every fall – the minute I set foot on Baldy’s snow and breathe that cold, clear air – Asia immediately evaporates off me.  So these days I fight jet lag the only way I know how….busting my ass up the mountain before sunrise.  My quads are on fire and I’m sweating like a pig.  A few more days of pre-dawn mountain marching and I’ll be ready for another winter of Idaho backcountry powder skiing and guiding.  The familiarity of home and friends, enjoying the happy rhythm of daily life again with Pia and Finn, settling into the holiday season…after being on the road for so long – it all makes me appreciate the blessings in my life.

It’s strange to say that the Roof of the World expedition is over.  108 days in the field; 4,000 miles overlanding the length of the Himalayas from Ladakh to Bhutan; motorcycling, trekking, and kayaking.It was quite a journey.  I probably passed a thousand faces along my way.  Now that I’m safely home, I can finally allow myself to relax and acknowledge that we successfully accomplished our mission.

This was an ambitious project for us – and a particularly personal one for me.  Despite all of the expeditions I’ve done, this is the first major expedition I’ve put together completely on my own steam – for my own reasons.  ROTW was a risky labor-of-love.  It’s the opening move for me in my “Third Act” of life.  It originally grew out of a 50th birthday wish to go on an old-fashioned solo adventure and reflect on life, change and hope.

Chalk it up to age or experience – either way, my perspective has evolved over time.  I recognize I’m no longer driven by adrenaline, ego, or an ambition to “conquer” some piece of Mother Nature.  I’m more in love with Mother Nature than ever, but my relationship with her has shifted and become more mindful – more appreciative…sadly, in large part because I’ve grown less sure about our future together given the many environmental pressures and changes in the world.

I originally debated the necessity of going solo.  The potential risks of being alone in the places I wanted to go, doing the things I wanted to do, were not trivial.  Although I’ve spent a lifetime expeditioning – whether it’s a film shoot, a first descent of a river, guiding clients on an adventure, or climbing Everest – most of these experiences are with other people.  I knew I was long overdue on challenging myself physically and emotionally without the responsibility of filtering the experience for clients or crew.  In the end, I decided going solo (with the exception of a cameraman for certain overland portions) was the only way for me to capture a story that was unscripted, authentic, and hopefully interesting.

 

So – what did it all amount to in the end?  Adventures are rarely just the sum total of daily experiences.  If you’ve followed along on our blog, you’ve had a glimpse of the journey.

My intense 180- mile solo of the Tsarap Chu/Zanskar in the midst of some of the most severe weather to hit the region in decades; the challenges of motorcycling high mountain passes and crazy India traffic; the surprising truth about development pressures in Rishikesh; trekking Annapurna during the avalanche disaster; meeting social entrepreneurs in Nepal; and our compassionate acknowledgement of Bhutan’s unpredictable future – despite its Gross National Happiness marketing campaign. The blogs – and maybe even the film itself – can never completely capture the whole experience.

At the simplest personal level, the expedition reminded me that the comfort of a campfire and the sanctity of a warm sleeping bag can’t be underestimated.  Several days into the Grand Canyon of the Zanskar on the Tibetan plateau – alone for countless miles under the stars, sleeping on the banks of a mighty Himalayan river, feeling the grateful exhaustion of a worked body and the satisfaction of self-sufficient solitude – I was deeply aware of how intimately my physical and spiritual paths have always intersected.

I recognized how much I depend on my connection with Nature to make sense of life.  As I moved further into the remote sandstone landscape surrounding the Tsarap Chu, I was deeply conscious of how grateful I am for the natural resources that have given me a lifetime of adventure, fun, and livelihood.

 

In villages and cities across India, Nepal, and Bhutan, I met with dozens upon dozens of local citizens and travelers from every walk of life.  Prominent business owners, international athletes, activists, government officials, taxi drivers, tour guides, and homeless people.   Important people known by all and unimportant people known by just a few. We had formal interviews, sat on street benches, walked together, trekked together, kayaked together, met on purpose and met by accident.  Basically, we just talked.

 

We talked about their opinions on the government, the elections, the roads, the jobs (or lack thereof), the cost of living, the trash, the toilets, the airports, the “young people”, the “old people”, drugs, American music, and misogyny.  We talked about how everything is changing.

At a higher level, Roof of the World offered me incontrovertible proof of our interconnected destiny on this planet.   Despite the outward differences in circumstance, context, or place – whether in Leh, Rishikesh, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Paro, Punakha, Delhi or Sun Valley Idaho – I was shown time and again how common our desires are as humans.  How common are our passions, dreams, hopes, and happiness.

I was also shown how common are our shortcomings – our fears, greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness, and ignorance.  Our short-sightedness.  Our ability to somehow hold the sacred and the profane in equal measure, never mind the hypocrisy.  It helped me to understand how the Ganges can be simultaneously the most holy river in India…and the most polluted.  It became clear to me that our actions – mindful or thoughtless, intentional or accidental – really do all add up at the end of the day, whether we admit it or not.   I’ve enjoyed 32 years of working and living in the Himalayas, but I now feel acutely aware of my part in the demise of this once-pristine playground… and the responsibility I have to help change things for the better.

At an existential level, Roof of the World illuminated for me the importance of “owning” the painstaking process of change (whether it be the personal kind or the geo-political kind).  I know how difficult it is to change myself.  In meeting with inspirational social entrepreneurs throughout the expedition, I was struck by how similar the fight is to drive change in communities.  It takes a tenacity of commitment and willpower to move forward- no matter what change you seek.  Whether it’s trying to protect the environment or battling addiction… in the midst of change – the outcomes are never clear.  From personal experience, I appreciate the courage required to let go and just drop your proverbial kayak over the horizon line, with faith that you’re going in the right direction.

After 4,000 miles, I finally said goodbye to my Royal Enfield in the parking lot of the Menjong Hotel at the Bhutanese-India border town of Samdrup Jonjkar.  Looking back, I realize that it was probably an inauspicious farewell to such a trusted partner – but after a lot of thought, we decided that the Royal Enfield was best left in Asia.  The old bike was just a little too big, a little too heavy, a little too slow, and a little too antiquated to fit in at home on smooth, easy-to-drive Western tarmac.  It would have been a shame to take the bike out of its element – where it was admired, respected and perfectly suited – to become a momentary spectacle here at home, but ultimately relegated to gathering dust without use or purpose in the garage.  I know I’ll never forget the deep “thump-thump-thump” of my Enfield’s engine…loaded to the gills…as I forged rivers, cruised through remote villages, climbed ridiculously treacherous mountain passes and wove through equally treacherous city traffic jams.

 

I like imagining that bike is still thumping along the winding roads and high passes of the Himalaya – where it belongs.

I’ve now been home 2 weeks.  With the Himalayas temporarily in the rear view mirror, I can definitely admit that mounting a major expedition is exciting…but filming the expedition adds an entirely different set of stressful challenges.

 

Many little things went wrong, but fortunately for us – many big things went right.  It’s a huge relief to be safely home with over 50 hours of spectacular footage in the can.  Though the dust is still settling, the prospect of rolling into post-production now is both exciting and somewhat daunting.   It’s the first of many projects that Pia and I have planned through Thunder Dragon Media combining authentic expeditions and inspirational social change.  If all goes well, in another 5 to 6 months we’ll have our first film to share with the world.  I hope you’ll tune in next year to see the rest of the story.

 

It’s been quite a journey.  An old-fashioned adventure we planned, but couldn’t predict.  I’m grateful for every mile and I’ll never forget it.

We’d like to send a special thank you to our friends and sponsors – without their financial and moral support, Roof of the World would still be just an idea:  Michael and Esther Ochsman, Charles McKinney, Amos Galpin, Kurt Eggers, Keith Cockrum, John and Linda Thornson, Roger Crist, Andrea and Ellen Nasi, Ugyen Dorji / Xplore Bhutan, Sharada Dhakal/Himalayan RST Expeditions, Royal Robbins, Kokatat, Smith Optics, Werner Paddles, and Smartwool.  A special thank you to Men’s Journal – they will be featuring Roof of the World in their May 2015 Adventure Issue.

 

We’re incredibly thankful you’ve come along so far for the ride and we hope you join us for the next one.

 

Happy Holidays!  Gerry and Pia

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