What is the cost of thrill-seeking?
I leaned cautiously towards the road’s edge, which gave way to a sheer cliff, a gashed rock-face stretching towards the distant earth. At the bottom, a mere speck of yellow on the floor of rocks, lay the tiny carcass of a yellow bus – tiny from here, at least. Squinting, I could see spray-painted designs covering the bright yellow shell like psychedelic graffiti. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think some 70s hippie collective had taken an ill-fated road trip out here to the Bolivian cordillera. But I recognized it as one of the micro buses, the kind that rushed haphazard through the city of Cochabamba, tiny indigenous women crammed against their dusty windows. They lurched around corners in a blur of color, pedestrians leaping from their path, occupants swaying like the bobble-head Homer Simpsons and Catholic crosses strung from the rear-view mirrors. This micro had lurched too far. It looked like a toy, a little plastic truck thrown carelessly aside by a bored toddler. But another squint revealed rusted edges and missing doors, missing windows, the glass blown out and scattered among the rocks. These rocks, boulders I should say, were nearly the size of the bus itself, stark and bare in the dry of the Andes. Lying among them, the bus looked like a colorful fossil.
A sharp cliff and a crushed vehicle are not the sort of things one wants to see at the beginning of a mountain-biking trip.
They are especially not the sort of things one wants to see before biking down this particular mountain. The road doesn’t seem all that dangerous, its medley of names sweet and inviting: North Yungas Road, Grove’s Road, Coroico Road, Camino de las Yungas. These are the sorts of names which conjure up images of meandering paths into chirping tropical woodlands. You feel like you could saunter along these trails with binoculars in hand and a Nutri-Grain in your pocket, stopping occasionally to snap photos for your I’ve been to the Andes! slideshow. You are deceived. The truth is that this is a boulder-strewn chute plummeting 11,800 feet in half a day’s bike ride. The lucky ones start in the bone-chilling cold of the Andes, shivering through their ten sweaters and five pairs of mis-matched socks. Their fear is magnified by the adjacent precipice which, unlike their fellow travelers, stays by their side the whole way down. For several hours they descend at a near-vertical angle, passing bus memorials such as this, imagining their parents’ faces when the consulate calls to inform them that their child hurtled over the edge of one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, until they find themselves at the bottom, where they swelter in their shorts in the middle of the rainforest, thanking God to be alive.
Then there are the unlucky ones. Hundreds of people die on this road. People die when a pebble sends them sliding off a vertical cliff on the left, or smashing into a solid rock wall on the right. People die when slick water dislodges their bike wheels and sends them skipping off into the mist. People die because a dense and blinding fog unexpectedly descends upon them – or because, suddenly confronted by a mass of sharp rocks, they are audacious enough to hit the brakes (which we all know, of course, reduces wheel traction). People die taking photos, stopping to reach into their backpacks for a Cliff bar, or taking their eyes off the road to glance at the passing scenery. They meet their ends by looking over the edge after a friend has fallen, perhaps down one of the road’s 1500-foot cliffs (the antenna of the Empire State Building doesn’t reach that high). Mostly, people die in car crashes. They’ll smash into buses careening around blind corners and plummet off the edge in a screaming heap of limbs and metal. Once, a single crash sent a hundred people flying off into the abyss. That’s right: a hundred.
All this excitement has inspired many other names for the road. Most include the word “death.” If you’re an English speaker, you might call this the Highway of Death; if you’re a Spanish speaker, perhaps, El Camino de la Muerte. Or you can stick with the classic: Death Road. One of its most famous names comes from the Inter-American Development Bank. Back in 1995, having been informed of the road’s legendary perils, some sub-sub-committee of statisticians thought it would be useful to find out how many poor saps met their end on this sad mountain pass. Having discovered a new record (congratulations!), they swiftly christened it The World’s Most Dangerous Road. The name stuck. And not only did it stick, but it encouraged a whole host of macho thrill-seekers to come bike down it. Your basic granola-crunching, twenty-something, adventure-seekers unaware of their own mortality. Dopes. Like me.
So back to the crushed bus. Back to me, standing near the first of many cliffs, clutching the handles of my mountain bike and peering over the edge in an extraordinarily inadequate pretense of detached interest and composure. I had, entirely of my own free will, taken time off of my unpaid job and spent the Bolivian equivalent of two months’ salary to book this trip with a group called Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. And, knowing full well that gravity wouldn’t assist me as much as drag me forcibly down steep mountains, I woke up at 6:30am to sign my life away on liability forms (“I will not sue Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking in the likely event that I die”). And I arrived. Here, where I would catapult myself down a wobbling path of dust and ruin on a spindly scrap of shaking metal. Here to babble to myself in terror, passing over razor sharp rocks and under pelting waterfalls, on a two-way road no wider than a hatchback. And I’d be 6,000 miles away from my doctor, hoping to make it from the continent’s highest peaks to its sweltering jungle on a road named after death.
Yes, it was a fantastic idea.
Like all regrettable undertakings, this one was conceived impulsively in a bar.
The place was called Casa Blanca, and it was one of those hole-in-the-walls that was frequented by anyone with a semblance of a social life. We all had our own reasons for discovering it, but I’ll tell you why we all came back: of all the cafes and eateries in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba (a city known for its good eating) it had – by far – the best pizza.
The four-cheese was Dave’s favorite. (I have to agree). Dave, or Davíd, as his Latin name is pronounced, became a good friend of mine while I was working in Bolivia. Reserved yet easy-going, lanky yet muscular, and a fantastically awkward dancer, Dave was a 6’4” eyesore from Colorado who worked with a local organization giving loans to small Bolivian businesses. Though quiet, Dave led a spontaneous life. From bumming around as a surfer in Costa Rica (“All I could afford to eat were rice and beans!”) to bartending in Alaska (“Have I seen bar fights? You’re kidding, right?”) to ranching in Colorado (“Ranching is really just building fences and watching cows…”), Dave had seen much in his twenty-seven years. The two of us liked to make lists of the crazy adventures we wanted to thrill our lives, trying to avoid ones more likely to end them altogether. (It’s harder than it seems.) This particular evening we were talking about my upcoming travels.
“You should take a few days in La Paz,” Dave said, biting into a particularly thick slice. “Hmmm,” he said through the pizza, “you know what you should do: Death Road.”
As if this is something one does. Oh, wait. He’s serious.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve done. Hands down, you should do it.”
I eyed Dave, who was balancing his slice, the cheese draping elegantly from the sides. I couldn’t help but indulge him: “What, do you hike it or something?”
“No. No, no, no. Mountain biking.”
“Dave, I’m not a mountain biker.” Although, I thought with a flash of confidence, I do bike around campus.
“It’s all downhill,” he said matter-of-factly.
“It’s not hard? Besides, I only have one day.”
“It only takes one day.”
Hmmm. Death Road. What’s with these tourist attractions and their dramatic names?
“Go with Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. They’re the best.”
I get easily inspired by adventurous people. Unfortunately, there’s a mercilessly thin line between the thrill-loving soul with a sparkle in his eye and the hairy guy in the trailer park who’s building a paraglider out of cardboard. My mother, bless her, has always attempted to dissuade me from emulating foolish people. “If everybody were jumping off the Mill Valley overpass, would you do that too?” Ok, Mom, let’s ponder this image: I’m standing at that overpass, a bulky slab of highway concrete connecting my picturesque hometown with another California suburb, and looking over the Western wetlands of San Francisco Bay with one of my best friends. Let’s say she hops over the side, vanishing faster than I do when your friends ask if I’m applying to grad school, and I’m left gazing over the edge in a full-blown panic attack. If, minutes later, she appears next to me, smelling like a sea lion, strands of slimy brown kelp decorating her shoulders like oversized necklaces, and she says something along the lines of “Dude. That was AWESOME. You’ve got to try it!”
Guess what? I would.
“Hi honey! We’re so glad you called – we’ve been thinking all about you. Sending positive vibes your way,” she cooed from the other end of the scratchy connection. Scrunched into a tiny telephone booth at an international call center on calle Santa Cruz, I didn’t forget for a moment that we were speaking from opposite edges of the earth.
“We sent you a card! Did you get it?” came an enthusiastic query.
“Um, no.” It took me a second to get used to thinking in English again, “When’d you send it?”
“Must’ve been three weeks ago.”
I pictured the abandoned army bunker the city calls a post office. I thought about the two employees working there: one who sat at the counter stacking envelopes into elaborate structures while avoiding eye contact with anyone resembling a customer, the other marching in and out of the solo empleados door as if the back room would disappear if left unattended for two minutes. I imagined the mail of a million city residents filling that room with giant paper mountains that the staff would swim in on slow days. “Yeah, Mom, I’d give the post office another couple weeks.”
There was a long pause. I struggled between a million stories, tried to grasp something that she could picture: toothless street vendors selling buckets of oranges, mountains of flowers and home-baked cookies at the plaza festivals, boys kicking old soccer balls in abandoned basketball courts at the foot of mountains. I twisted the ivory phone cord around my finger in contemplative silence, listening to the static on the line.
“Are you traveling again?” she asked.
“Yeah, I am. I’m meeting up with Carolyn at Lake Titicaca. We’re going to see some ruins.” God, I sound like a tourist.
“That’s wonderful!” she sounded positively delighted, “How are you getting up there?”
“Um, I’m going to bus into La Paz.” Hmm, hope there aren’t blockades. Or riots.
“Are you going to explore the city?”
“No. Actually …” I shouldn’t tell her.
Don’t tell her.
Pause. “I’m going mountain biking.”
“Mountain biking? Really? You’re not much of a mountain biker.”
“Yeah. Well, this is a guided trail.”
“Oh, what’s the trail?”
“Um, it’s just a trail. It goes to this little town … Coroico,” I muffled.
“What was that sweetie? Wait, let me get my pen…”
“Actually, Mom, don’t worry about it.”
“No, I want to know.”
“It’s okay. I’ve actually got to go. I’ll talk to you later …”
At the trail-head, our bikes were lined carefully on their sides in the dirt, each rider positioned at a pair of wheels. In the silence, we fidgeted nervously with our black racing gloves. One of our guides, a peppy English-speaking Canadian with red-flamed bike shorts and blonde hair wedged back as if in a wind tunnel, paced ominously before us. It was time for our pep-talk.
“There’s a reason we’ve stopped here,” he said, pausing in his paces, “and it’s because this is the last chance you have to turn back.” He took his shades off to illustrate the ceremonious profundity of the occasion. “There is no shame in getting back on that bus.”
I glanced at the others: they gave him a tense but attentive silence.
“In that case, I want each of you to listen to every word I say. Your lives depend upon it.
You’ll see other tours where people bike along untroubled by the constant threat of death and danger. Groups where people make stupid mistakes because they don’t understand the magnitude of their peril. We don’t do that. I’m serious,” he took on a genuinely grave face, “this is serious, what we do.”
Fortified by our rapt expressions, he continued, “There are rules. First rule: always bike on the cliff side.”
The group burst out in murmurs: What?!? On the CLIFF side??
“If you want, you can bike close to the rock-wall, but when a bus comes screaming around the corner you have less than a second to react. You’re going to be squashed like a little bug. Either that or you skid out of the way and break every bone in your body on the rock face. We had a guy break both wrists, several ribs, a collarbone and lose all his front teeth that way. Had a gorgeous scar across his face,” he drew his finger above his jaw-line, “skin ripped clean off. If you want several seconds to see the bus and react, bike on the cliff side.”
“Second rule: always get off on the right side of your bike. We each go at our own pace, so to let the people in the back keep up, those in the front will be stopping from time to time. Couple years ago, there was a French woman, real nice lady, got off on the left side of her bike. Most right-handed people tend to do that. How many of you are right-handed?” He paused to survey the group. Every single person raised their hand. “Okay, listen up then. This woman gets off her bike on the left side. Now, what’s on the left side? That’s right: the cliff. So her friend takes out a camera, tells her to take a step back, and – fft! She’s gone. Blank picture.”
I sat riveted. Bike on the cliff side. Get off on the right side. Bike on the cliff side, get off on the –
“Third rule: you lose traction, especially on curves, last thing you wanna do is brake. That causes you to skid, and you’ll skid off the cliff. So whatever you do, DON’T BRAKE ON TURNS. Ride out the bumps. Keep your gears low to angle yourself and keep your inside knee high – that’s very important. Stay to the outside of the hairpins, on the left of the track since cars are coming on the right. Go straight through water, always look forward, don’t look down. Ignore what your body tells you. You have to override those signals if you don’t want to end up off the cliff. You have to listen to every single one of these rules, because you can’t trust yourself. You trust the rules. If you don’t, you’re fucked.
We stared at him dumbfounded.
“Great!” he grinned fiendishly, “Let’s get going then.”
Okay. Totally doable, right? I peered down into the shifting mist, catching glances of the sharp ridge that marked the cliff-side. I just needed to bike there, along the gravelly brink, and make sure not to brake, especially if I skid… towards the ravine where they would never find my broken body and I would die among thousands of rotting corpses! No, alright, calm down. Just remember the rules. Bike on the cliff side. Don’t brake on turns. What was the second rule again?
“You’re over-thinking it, Bergmann,” said one of the other bikers, a tanned Aussie in his mid-thirties sporting a dime-shaped goatee.
Over-thinking! I wanted to shout at him, I’m supposed to be following the rules! I gave him a look of indignation, which may or may not have disintegrated into a petrified plea for help.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, the last word pronounced foyin.
I nodded at him, still unconvinced, and he joined the end of the line of bikers. Those in front of me had already taken off, their tiny figures bouncing over the rocks, each one looking like a discombobulated Raggedy-Ann on ineffective seizure medication. Pebbles flew from their tires. When they came to the first bend, they skidded around the corner and plunged out of sight. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath and stepped on the pedal. I lurched forward, and I felt like Icarus must have felt when he realized the wax was melting from his wings.
My first instinct was to go as slow as humanly possible. I clutched onto the brakes as if I could fuse them to my hands, which didn’t slow me down as much as create a lot of turbulence. To say that I was biking would be inaccurate. Bumpy would really be an understatement. Picture a chubby, mischievous six-year-old aggressively shaking a cola bottle to make it explode with foam. I was the cola bottle.
Then there was the first corner. I realized right away that the guide was right: I couldn’t trust my own body. As the corner approached, my gut told me to brake. My rational brain stepped aside a second, took a good look at my gut and said, Look, pal, we can’t brake on this corner, because we’ll lose traction. At which point my gut looked from the brakes to the cliff, then back at my brain, and erupted in a laugh of incredulous betrayal. This complicated things. As we (my brain and gut and everything else attached to them) approached the first curve, I started to chant aloud, so that all my organs were clear about what we needed to do:
“Don’t brake, don’t brake, don’t brake…”
My fingers released their Tonga death grip and my tires flattened into the dirt, the jolts replaced by quick (but relatively smooth) undulations. Immediately I picked up speed, and as I began to fly towards the corner, my chant rose in pitch:
“Don’t brake! Don’t brake! Don’t brake!”
In a moment of curious insanity I felt the urge to close my eyes. I battled this unexpected compulsion by willing myself towards an invisible point on the other side of the turn, which I approached like a shrieking banshee:
And I didn’t.
A middle-aged Bolivian man was driving up to La Paz on El Camino de las Yungas, minutes from the end of a long journey. He’d passed dozens of cars and bikers without scratching a smidge of paint off his car, quite an accomplishment. He daydreamed of a cold beer and wondered if the watchmen at the drug check-points were on strike today. He approached the last turn, and that’s when he heard it: a crazed scream in some unidentifiable language. Before he could wonder at its cause, a tall blonde woman in racing gear hurtled around the corner in a jumble of screeching metal and exclamations. She flew past his car, skirting the edge of the cliff, her face a mess of emotional fireworks. As he craned around to gaze at her shrinking figure, he shook his head in weary puzzlement. It’s been a long day.
We stopped at a crescent-shaped lip of gravel, waiting for Cesar, the last of the guides, to bring up the end of the line. I rested my right foot on the gloriously solid ground, and peeled my reluctant fingers from their desperate handlebar clench. My eyes wandered off the jutted edge, and a wave of beauty pummeled my unprepared eyes. We stood at the edge of a ring of mountains, circling the valley like giant green countesses sitting for tea. They were blanketed with lush forests of a dozen green hues, lined with ridges sculpted into deep gullies. I peered up at the crown of my mountain, where rocks the color of rain-clouds drizzled my eyes with mist, and I saw that from the billowing mists rose a spectacular peak, a pinnacle of bare rock piercing the cloudless sky. When I lowered my eyes, I was met by the cavernous expanse of open air which sat eerily before us, curved in the belly of the circlet of mountains. It was a crystal ball of cloudless nothing, world-sized and distant. We peered into its center, mere dots along the mountain’s cracked roots of rock, like ants standing at the shoelaces of a giant. Aware of my swift breathing, of my timidly positioned feet, of every standing hair on my arms, which flexed as I grasped my bike handles again, I took one last look at the towering mountains and then took off down the road.
It became easier to breathe as we met invigoratingly warm air from the canyons below. At the next stop I shed my jacket and welcomed the rush of sultry air, warm blood and coursing adrenaline. My arms flushed red, my goggles fogged with patchy breaths, and my skin buzzed with shivering excitement. Again I greeted the road, sinking into the bike frame and trusting my tires, which hadn’t yet spun me into the abyss. I carved myself into the side of the mountain at each curve, then soared out of hairpins like a pinball released from a spring. At each moment I felt like I was both flying and grounded, relieved and expectant. This isn’t so bad, I thought.
First I heard it: a deafening crack! and metal grinding rock.
Then I felt it: the twisting bike frame violently wrenched away.
And then … freefall.
At least I was still breathing. I lay supine, staring at the unblemished sky like a kid lying in a field of grass. I didn’t feel like I was hurt. But then again, I didn’t really feel much of anything. After an indefinite number of seconds, I gingerly unbuckled my helmet. I lifted my head, which felt heavier than a cannonball, and then I felt everything: stinging cuts all along my limbs, head pounding furious discomfort. I winced away the pain and dragged myself up into a sitting position, so as to assess my final resting place.
I was still on the road, only about 20 yards from where it happened, whatever “it” was. My bike had also managed to stay on the road. Barely. It was poised at the outer edge, teasing the cliff. The back tire looked like a pack of starving lions had attacked it in a Discovery channel featurette. As I pondered the tire, I heard the skid of another, behind me, and then the crunch of feet on gravel. I craned around to see who it was, ignoring my protesting muscles.
It was Cesar.
“¿Que pasó?” he shouted as he tossed his bike aside: What happened?
Still trying to ascertain that myself, I gave him a blank stare, which he took to mean that I didn’t speak Spanish. At this he sighed, pulled down his shades to look at my shocked expression, and then silently walked over to assess the damage – on the bike, that is. I continued to sit in the dirt while he clicked his tongue at the back wheel, as if the bike were a teenager that had taken the keys to the family car without asking. While he looked at the rubber, I looked down at my limbs, which I gratefully determined weren’t disfigured.
“You need a new tire,” he said with a thick accent.
After giving him the same blank stare, I started to laugh. “Obviamente.”
This was the only time I ever saw Cesar surprised – his dark brown eyes narrowed a second – and then his face transformed. The edges of his spiky black mustache turned upwards, and though a black kerchief covered his mouth, I could tell he was smiling. He walked over and extended his hand. Grasping my pale hand in his, he pulled me up.
“I’ll just get you a new one,” he continued happily in Spanish, “The bus will bring one.”
We sat by the side of the road, waiting for the tour bus to amble down the curves behind us. I told him I didn’t particularly want a new tire, that I’d rather walk than get acquainted with the ground like that again, thank you very much. He nodded his head appreciatively, but noted that walking would take much longer than necessary. When he switched the tire, it was with an ease that revealed years of expertise. I bet he could do it blindfolded and upside-down. Perhaps I could ride on his shoulders…
As he handed me the fixed bike, I hesitated. “I’ll be right behind you,” he reassured me.
“I’m not worried about in front and behind, Cesar. It’s the up and down I’m worried about.”
He laughed jubilantly and extended the bike again. I grabbed the handle and turned back to face the road. It stretched before me in false innocence, a relatively wide stretch. I realized with a sinking feeling that had I fallen on a slimmer section, I would be permanently married to the valley floor right now. I was very lucky. I probably wouldn’t be that lucky again.
By the end I wasn’t faring well. My back was aching from leaning over my handle-bars and my fingers could barely grasp the brakes anymore, their muscles shaking from fatigue. I had a cramp in my left calf. And my right one. Clumps of hard dirt leapt from my tires as I sped down, gashing my shins; my elbows were assaulted by the sting of liberated dust and stones. This road was beating the shit out of me, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get to the end of it. I had reached that critical point where terror surrenders to exhaustion.
I’d learn later that this section of road is one of the most perilous for bikers – despite being one of the widest and flattest sections. Many who make it this far succumb to either growing fatigue or overblown cockiness, which tend to cause trouble whenever a biker is “tested” by the road. Messing up at this stage must be very disappointing. Think of all the valiant (though admittedly masochistic) road-bike warriors who have battled the steepest, rockiest, most perilous passages of the World’s Most Dangerous Road only to crash on leveling slopes mere minutes from their destination. That’s what we in California call a Major Bummer. And all it takes is one small problem: a misjudged corner, an unseen water slick, or gradually drifting towards the center of the road.
That last mistake can bring a biker forehead to bumper with an oncoming driver. This isn’t the best of situations, as Bolivian drivers can’t always be inconvenienced by silly rules such as Don’t Drink and Drive or Keep You Eyes on the Road. They’d much rather multi-task, be it by napping or sipping rum. Seriously. I once had a fascinating conversation with a Bolivian about the dangers of strapping extra tanks of gas to the hoods of cars. While he admitted that it makes minor collisions rival dynamite-embellished blockbuster crashes, he also noted that it’s helpful if one can’t find a gas station. Needless to say, I now have a near-religious awe of the ability of Bolivian drivers to be blasé. And to make things a little more interesting, drivers on the World’s Most Dangerous Road drive on the opposite side from any other road in Bolivia. At least, they’re supposed to. Apparently not everyone got that memo.
Rocketing down the road, I was struggling to gain my focus back when a massive truck swung around a corner ahead. For the record, he hadn’t got the memo. I skidded to a halt by the road’s edge, hands cramping from braking. I paused in my panicked pile of dust as the vehicle continued to bumble along, taking the entirety of the road. The driver looked a deep shade of bored. I scooted as close to the cliff as I could muster, the truck’s hood passing within inches of me. I gave an incredulous, how-rude-of-you-to-nearly-cost-me-my-life look to the driver, which he returned with an I-might-as-well-be-comatose zombie stare. The massive truck bed went past, contents strapped precariously together with ropes and blue tarp. I continued to watch agape, even after the truck passed us. As it turned the next corner, one of the wheels bumped off the edge for a moment or two, before finding its place on the brink again.
“Traffic picks up on the flats!” Cesar informed me. “Bigger cars!” I half expected him to wink at me. Oh, to hell with fatigue. I fixed a newly determined glance ahead, hoping that my concentration would last longer this time, since I seemed to be the only one who had any. But there’d be no need: I could already see our destination.
I stood, stooped under the shower head, warm water running down my back (I didn’t even know Bolivia had heated showers!), the smell of roasting meat buoyed towards me with the happy chatter of survivors. We had made it. From mists and rivulets through the waterfalls, all the way to our last river crossing and now, to warm showers. As soon as we were dressed again, we did what any group of people who have skirted death would: we feasted.
We ate platefuls of buffet food: bread, pasta, chorizo, juice. And we lounged in hammocks, listening to the chirping of the rainforest, gorged on sausage grease and relief. Afterwards, we piled back on the bus and headed to a shack down the road to buy rum and coke, which to our giddy delight came premixed in liter-sized bottles. I headed to the back of the bus with my loot: a liter of the rum-coke mixture in each arm, a giant bag of chips sitting at the crease of my right elbow. Cesar came and sat across the aisle from me, watched me uncap the first bottle. I took a lengthy swig and then passed it to him, and as he took it a knowing smirk tilted his mustache. Before the liquor even set in, I was drunk. Drunk on oxygen and carbonated soda. As the bus rolled forward, my abs tightened and my breath quickened with the realization that we were finally heading home.
I barely registered that the driver had made the U-turn, I was so engrossed in recounting the tire incident to the back three rows. When the laughter subsided, I gazed out the front window, and heads began to turn. We were now facing the World’s Most Dangerous Road from the other direction. Our giggles gave way to a somber reverence, spreading through the bus like darkness encroaching on a twilight sky. And then, much to our collective dismay, the bus set off into the maturing dusk and began the long drive up Death Road.
We wound our way up the mountain in lingering twilight, exhausted heads leaning on windowsills, watching the blur of green foliage play along the right-side windows. I tried to guess how far up we had gone by inspecting the vegetation, which thinned as we climbed. I was sitting on the mountain-side of the bus, next to a young woman who sat meditatively at our window, which was filled with the grey of passing rock. It was hard to tell if she was lost in thought or actually unconscious. I was drunk and exhausted, but couldn’t conceive of sleeping, and so I turned back to the cliff-side windows and watched Cesar watch the road.
He couldn’t have been older than thirty. I wondered if he had a wife and kids. How much did they worry when he went to work? The thought of these hypothetical family members made me anxious with worry and exasperation. Cesar, you idiot! I wanted to shout, Do you know how lucky you are to still be alive, after all the times you’ve come down this mountain?!
He must have sensed my silent tantrum because he turned around to look at me. I searched his eyes for any indication of fear, of pain, of guilt. I only saw a kind confusion, which turned my exasperation to compassion. And so I asked him.
“Oh sure, it’s dangerous,” he said matter-of-factly.
No duh, I thought. “What I mean, Cesar, is … have you seen anyone, you know…” my voice trailed off lamely as I gazed back out at the cliff.
“Oh. Yeah, it happens,” he whispered secretively, though he knew I was the only one fluent enough to understand him. After a beat, he seemed to deem me trustworthy and continued: “The worst was a couple of years ago. It was the Sixth of August, but so many people wanted to do the ride that we said, ‘Okay, we’ll work the holiday.’” A flash of regret passed his eyes, and he furrowed those characteristically sharp Bolivian brows.
This didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. For our independence day, we keep a lot of businesses running. If we didn’t, where on earth would we get all our last-minute BBQ supplies and frustratingly small fire crackers? But then again, Bolivians tend to take their holidays very seriously. (I remembered election day, when motorized transport was illegal, and you weren’t allowed to walk in groups of more than two people.)
“It was somewhat risky,” Cesar continued, “you know, because everyone takes the holiday and so there wouldn’t be a rescue team ready were something to happen to–”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “Rescue teams don’t work on holidays?”
“Well, for this road, it doesn’t really matter. It wouldn’t –”
“Rescue teams don’t work on holidays?!” I interrupted again. A couple of weary heads turned, but none registered comprehension.
“It’s not like the States, where you can have a helicopter come air-lift you out. You fall, it’s the end.” I gave him a defeated look. “Let me explain,” he said, “there are two types of cliff here. There’s the kind where you die quickly after you fall…”
I had a flash-back to those skyscraper-high precipices. My voice cracked like a fourteen-year-old boy’s when I asked about the second kind.
“Those are the ones where you die slowly.” He nodded with finality.
I would never let Dave talk me into doing anything again. Ever.
“So we took a group down. They were really excited. Everyone always is. I was guiding the back of the group – I’m always in the back with the slower ones.” He smiled at me, which probably meant I was one of the ‘slower ones.’ “There were two women at the tail end, friends, I think. We were really far behind. The others must have been down the road, waiting for us.” He sighed. “I was right behind them when it happened. They went to turn a corner, too close to each other – less than the bus length we tell you to leave between bikes – so when the micro came around the corner…” His eyes were unfocused, and I realized that he was picturing what happened: “From where I was, I could see the driver was asleep. Maybe he was drunk, or maybe he closed his eyes for a second, I don’t know. Then –” He raised his left hand in a fist, and struck it with his right palm, “the bus hit, one woman, then the other. They crumpled onto the front of the bus, which woke up the driver. He slammed on the brakes while still on the turn and the back tires skidded, swung the back of the bus over the edge … then the cabin pitched sideways and they all went over … then down … hitting trees as they went …” His eyes widened.
Oh God. “Cesar,” I said as calmly as I could. His eyes came into focus and he looked up.
“You know how I said there were two kinds of cliff?” he whispered grimly.
I nodded reluctantly.
“This was the second kind.”
I closed my eyes. I opened them when I felt Cesar’s patient gaze. He continued the story: “I got the others. We could hear survivors, but there were so many trees, we didn’t know if we could get down in time. We took machetes from the bus and started to cut towards the voices, but it took a long time. When we got there, most had gone quiet. Many were crushed underneath the bus, which we couldn’t lift, but the two women were still alive. We had to carry them up, and they were in bad condition, one had her feet ripped off at the ankles –”
He saw my hands fly to my face in horror and stopped immediately, meeting my terrified expression with a worried one. “Oh no, Sabine, I’m sorry …”
Oh my God.
“Jesus Christ, Cesar!”
It came out in English, and suddenly I felt the entire bus looking at me, choking the atmosphere with attention. As I tore my gaze away from Cesar to face the inquisitive expressions, I let the horror slide off my face like silk.
“He says he can do a double back-flip on a mountain-bike,” I huffed, raising my eyebrows skeptically.
The words settled on their drunken audience, and then the emotional charge of the moment evaporated. Within moments, everyone was involved in a fervent discussion of the physics of mountain-bike tricks. Dozing passengers woke up, and bottles were passed once again. By the time I looked back at Cesar, he was staring out the window again.
Things had started to get out of control. For one thing, the door of the bus was open, and people were leaning out of it, laughing maniacally as the gravel whooshed underneath. The bus’ drunken occupants were bouncing around the cabin with their cameras out, making faces by the windows. I felt a potent mixture of intoxication, exhilaration and concern, at least until the whole circus finally came to a halt.
We were looking across an expansive ravine at a section of road dubbed Postcard Corner: a sharp turn rimmed by a perfectly vertical drop, straight as if drawn with a ruler from its cusp, which kissed the air with tantalizing innocence.
“Get out! We’re documenting this for posterity!” yelled our Canadian drill sergeant.
One by one, people started to hop off the bus. I watched my fellow riders march out to the edge, posing for their camera shot.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” Cesar asked me, the first words he’d spoken since my lie twenty minutes earlier. Bloody hell, I thought, I’ve come this far. I handed him my camera wordlessly.
I walked out with a young woman from our group whom I had befriended with nervous chatter at 7:30 that morning. She had been with me for more emotional turmoil in the last eight hours than some of my friends of eight years. We walked out to the corner, arms clasped around each other, until we were only a couple feet from the edge. My stomach tightened as the security of the ground seemed to shrink away. I did not look down. We held our free arms out in triumph. I grinned stupidly, and the moment was gone. We were standing there for perhaps three seconds.
Gratefully, we scuttled back to the safety of the bus. I sidled in next to Cesar in the door frame, and he passed me my camera without taking his eyes off the corner. “Cesar,” I whispered, as a young Brit in blue shorts and a grey Liverpool sweatshirt strode out for his photo, “This is fucking nuts.” Cesar said nothing. He watched the kid, who was jumping up and down at the cliff edge. The bouncing made me nauseous with worry, so I turned to Cesar again.
“What were their names?” I asked, “The names of the women?”
“Try and get me mid-air!” shouted the Brit to his friend with the camera. Cesar watched stone-faced, not responding. I realized I had crossed a line, and immediately regretted the question. Shamefully, I turned away, back to watch the Brit, who had inched over and was now sitting on the ledge, dangling his feet off the thousand-foot drop. “Look!” he cackled, “Doesn’t it look like I’m about to fall?” He swung his legs.
“Sorry Sabine,” Cesar’s voice moved through the air thick and smooth, like a spoon cutting into cold whipping cream, “I can’t remember their names.”
“Look at me!” leered the kid, “I’m gonna fall!” He put the back of his hand to his forehead dramatically, “I’m gonna die!”
Sabine Bergmann grew up in Northern California and earned her B.S. degree in Earth Systems from Stanford University. She has engaged in ecological field work in Queensland, Australia and climate change capacity building in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She is preparing for a Peace Corps assignment in Latin America and currently lives and writes in Santa Cruz, California. "Death Road" won the Adventure Travel Gold Award in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.
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