Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Prelude to the Great North Road
I first learned about the call half way through a forest in Ocala a couple years back. I was on a mountain bike, following my homie through some of the worst terrain I could imagine at the time. Around every turn I would fall. I lacked the strength to ride up most of its hills. And I was overcome with fear when it came time to descend. I left the bicycle course bruised and upset. It wasn’t even fun. But when it came time to decide if I would ride it again, for real this time, I chose to do so. I rode that hellish course again, more than once even. Yeah, I pedaled this madness because of the call. There are many times in life when one feels the call of a path. It is most often figurative, like a particular choice in life or some such. But for me and many others, the call to the path is more literal. I experience a deep need to travel this road. For I do not want to do it. There is something in this. The vulgar masculinity that drives me to want to conquer. The humanity that drives me to endure. The thirst for adventure, perhaps. But believe that it is a need. When I was out there on the mountain bike course, the path taunted me. When I am out on the R1, the road invites me. And here in Africa… Well, I cannot tell which. Perhaps it is something much deeper.
The Great North Road to Atiak made quite an impression o n me when I first traveled it as a passenger. I remembered thinking that, if not for the dedication of the people with whom I was traveling, I would not be here, on this trip, prepared to document what was coming. . This thought was a quiet expression of frustration with the road itself. Fifty miles of dirt road, traveled in two hours. And this dirt is not packed. Rainwater had long ago carried off many parts of the road, leaving massive ridges and craters all over. They do not let up. There are no moments of peace; at every moment you are jarred within the cabin of your vehicle. There is no significant stretch in which you are in a high gear exclusively. No, the Great North Road is great only because of its overall length, for it stretches from Cape Town to Cairo. But this stretch is no fun at all. Not even a little bit. On this journey one passes many people. Women returning from the fields. Children returning from school. Workers and nurses headed to Sudan. The mud huts that comprise IDP camp. There are hitchhikers. There are cars and Boda Bodas honking from behind trying to get by. And along the side of the road are just a few cars that did not have the power to complete their journeys. Some lay on their sides, wrecked. Others simply sit on the side of the road broken down. This road, I thought, was the roughest I had ever seen. So when I had the chance to drive it myself, I took it without hesitation. Looking back, perhaps this was a bad idea.