It was 1990 when I took perhaps the biggest gamble of my life.
That year I arrived into Islamabad, Pakistan with little more than a bicycle, a dream, and a man I didn’t know.
I had met John through a magazine and spent a grand total of one hour chatting over a Coke at Dairy Queen before committing myself to riding a bicycle around Asia – through some of the toughest bicycling conditions known to mankind – with this man that I didn’t even know.
We had spent six weeks cycling around Pakistan so far, and had had many adventures. We had met some wonderful people – people who invited us in for a hot meal, great conversation and, perhaps, a safe place to sleep.
But we had also met some people who… I hesitate to say they weren’t wonderful… misguided is maybe a better word. Very little of American culture was exported to Pakistan in those days; the only thing that was was American TV. And so it should come as no surprise that many Pakistani men had the erroneous idea that American women were only too happy to jump in bed with any ol’ man they met.
I had dealt with quite a few groping gremlins during those six weeks. One man had actually followed us for a week. Over a 13,000-foot pass. And then he… I don’t want to use the word assault because I know that he didn’t see it that way… But he assaulted me right in our hotel room. With John only 20 feet from my side. Fortunately, John backed me up when I threw the man out of our room, but I shudder to think what might have happened if I had been alone.
And so it was that John and I embarked on a 300-mile journey from Chitral to Gilgit. On a dirt road. Through the Himalayas. Over a 14,000-foot pass. Picture Pakistan as a big, long, skinny rectangle if you will, sandwiched between Afghanistan to the west, China to the north, and India to the east. We were way up in the northwest corner, and needed to get way over to the other corner.
We jostled and jiggled over the road, some days spending ten painful hours manhandling our bikes over boulders the size of basketballs, avoiding gullies so deep they would eat a bike wheel lickety split. It was beautiful, there’s no question about that – with snow-capped peaks surrounding us and crystal clear rivers rushing through the valleys.
But it was hard. We slowly inched our way up to the top of Shandur Pass, then plunged down the other side on a road that very few of us would even call a road. Day after day after day we pounded the pedals along the road through a massive valley. Sometimes we cycled right next to the roaring, crashing river; other times we followed a precarious path carved into the mountainside thousands of feet above the water.
Day after day, I pushed my body to the max, becoming more tired each day. The road, the poor food, the rotten sleeping conditions all worked together to wear me down until the day I could go no longer.
I hurt. Every bone in my body hurt. My hands hurt from gripping my handlebars. My tush hurt from the abuse my saddle gave it. My legs were like jello. My neck, shoulders, feet, and elbows had taken more of a beating than they could stand. They cried out with each boulder I bounced over. “We’re done!” they shouted. I had no choice but to listen.
“I’m done,” I told John when I caught up to him on the road. “I can’t go on. I’m going to hitch a ride into town.”
“Be reasonable, Nancy,” he countered. “You’ve seen there’s no way for you to hitch a ride. Maybe three cars a day pass by us – and they’re packed. How do you expect to get yourself and your bike into one?”
I had no answer, but knew I had no choice. John pedaled away without me, and I was left to my own devices to get myself into town.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t long before a tractor approached. A tractor pulling – get this – an EMPTY trailer. I flagged them down and, in my nearly-non-existent Erdu explained that I needed a ride to Gilgit. They, in their completely non-existent English – explained they would take me. I happily loaded my bike into the trailer, and headed off to Gilgit just as pleased as punch.
Soon, we passed John and I grinned as I waved to him. A while later, we stopped for tea, and John passed us. An hour later, we passed him on the road again. All day, we played leapfrog – we passed John, then stopped for lunch or tea and John passed us. We passed him… he passed us…
Late in the afternoon when the sky was ablaze with magnificent color and the sun was making its final approach to the horizon, my chauffeurs stopped by a river, grabbed some shovels, and began scooping sand into the trailer. I watched, horrified, as they filled the trailer.
Their idea was to simply put my bike on top of the sand and take me to Gilgit. I knew, unfortunately, that if I put my bike on that sand, the tiny grains would get impossibly embedded in my derailleurs and freewheel. My bike would be little more than an expensive piece of trash if that happened.
Reluctantly, I grabbed my bike and headed for the road. I wasn’t sure how much farther I had to go, but I knew I would have to get there under my own power. I jumped on my pedals and pumped furiously, knowing time was not on my side.
Sure enough, the sun set all too soon and the road was plunged into darkness. After I came crashing to the ground three times after crashing into invisible boulders, I accepted that I could no longer ride and got off to push my bike along the road.
The road, by this point, was only a faint ribbon of gray, flanked on both sides by pitch black forest. With each step I took, I reached out tentatively with my foot, trying to figure out if I was still on the road, or if I had veered off into the forest.
Panic began to gnaw at my heart. I had no idea how far away Gilgit was. John was ahead of me. I was alone on a remote Pakistani road. In the dark. With no way to get help.
I began pleading for John to stop. “Please!” I begged as though somehow the gods would communicate my message. “Please stop and wait for me!”
And yet I knew he wouldn’t get my message. I knew he wouldn’t stop. I was behind him and, for all he knew, I was still with the tractor drivers. He would continue on to town.
With tears streaming down my face, I stumbled on in the night. “Please stop!” I shouted into the blackness. “Please! Somebody help me!” I was desperate. I knew I needed help. Confusion reigned unchecked in my mind. I needed a knight in shining armor to come around a corner and rescue me from my distress.
But where, exactly, does one find a knight when you’re in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Pakistan?
And then… I saw the light. The single headlight of a tractor way off in the distance behind me. A tractor. Salvation.
Or was it?
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I had ever needed help, now was the time. I had never needed help so badly in my entire life.
But could I safely ask for it? Could I safely fling myself upon the man driving that tractor? What would happen if I did? Was I setting myself up for rape? Or worse?
In the pitch black darkness I stood there on the side of the road watching that tractor draw closer. Do I flag him down and hope for the best? Or do I simply continue walking along the side of the road, figuring the driver would think I was just some silly foreign man out there on that remote road?
It was a gamble, but where was the safe route? Wasn’t there supposed to be a way to play it safe in a gamble? Here I was damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.
I had seconds to make my decision, and still I waffled. Do I fling myself on that hapless man? Or continue walking? What to do? What to do?
In the end, just as the tractor passed by, I raised my arms and waved furiously. “Please help me!” I called out through my tears. “I need help!”
The tractor stopped, and an elderly gentleman with a bright orange beard climbed off. He gently took my bike and lifted it into his trailer and nestled it down on top of bags of potatoes, next to a few goats. I climbed in the back and situated myself in the middle of the dozen men crowded in there.
And the groping started. First one man put his arm around my shoulders. Then another reached out and fondled my breast. Tears continued their flood from my eyes.
It didn’t take long before the tractor once again ground to a halt. The old man climbed down and walked back to the trailer, motioning to me to get out. He helped me into the seat next to him, then guarded me as we made our way into town and pulled up in front of the hotel where I had agreed to meet John.
Ignoring all cultural traditions dictating that men and women don’t touch in public, I threw myself on John and clung to him as though my life depended on it. I had made it to Gilgit. I had made it to safety.
And, I realized, I had made it back to the man I had grown to love.
John and I have now been married for 23 years and we’ve continued to travel. We’ve lived and traveled in dozens of countries. We’ve biked many thousands of miles through something like 35 countries, 15 of them with our twin boys.
I took a gamble with a man I didn’t know. Not once, but twice. And it paid off both times.