“Are you sure we’re headed the right direction? Looks like this road is meant to be closed.”
“According to the GPS we just head straight up this road and we’ll hit the lake in 10 kilometers. It’s a shortcut. Trust me.”
I’d heard those words before. Trust me. Famous last words before we plunged into disputed tribal territory in Kenya, set off into Egypt’s empty Sahara desert and rode into a violent summer storm in New Zealand. My trust reserves had been just about depleted. But, hey, it’s Japan—what can go wrong in the world’s safest and most orderly country?
Well, for starters, we could always collide with a bear. This was, after all, Hokkaido. A few days back we’d made the acquaintance of an honest to goodness bear hunter! 44 creatures had met their demise at the end of this man’s shotgun.
Hailing from Montana, I nurture a healthy respect for these animals. Sure, I realize we humans are not a bear’s top choice when it comes to supper, but when berries are scarce I’m sure a couple of aromatic cyclists (we hadn’t had a serious wash in several days) would do.
My mind began to race through other potential risks. Bandits: highly unlikely. This was not the Guatemalan highlands, after all. Death by dehydration: impossible—the trail appeared to follow a meandering stream and we were boy-scout prepared with our First Need XL Water Purifier. Death by starvation: again, I gauged this one as near impossible. Our bright red panniers were stuffed with more provisions than an average Japanese family of four consumes in an entire month.
Well, then, the only real risk was bears. And perhaps hunters. Those foreboding signs on the gate were obviously cautioning would-be trespassers of some imminent risk. Perhaps the sign translated into: Deer Hunters at Large: Enter at your own risk! Or worse yet, NO ENTRY: Military Exercises in Progress.
There was simply no way to know. The alternative was to backtrack to the highway. And that would mean tunnels most likely. After two months in Japan, I consider myself something of a tunnel tackling virtuoso. I’d jam down on the pedals and fly through the short ones, thus reducing the chance of being caught inside slammed against the tunnel walls when two trucks hammering along in opposite directions attempted to squeeze by. Unless traffic was particularly heavy, I’d normally make it through without confrontation.
Longer tunnels (over a kilometer) required tougher tactics. I’d set a steady pace, hugging the tunnels edge and vigilantly tracking the traffic . When a large vehicle appeared in my rearview mirror, I’d boldly take my place in the center of the lane hogging up so much space only the most lunatic of drivers would dare to pass.
I had no intention of becoming Hokkaido road kill. I’d wave my right arm wildly in a backwards “stay the hell where you are” motion. When I deemed overtaking safe, I’d nudge over to the right again and wave oversized vehicles past. This system worked reasonably well. But now and again some hot head in a hurry driving a 20 ton truck would over take on a blind curve. I’d witnessed more than one near miss. These always left me a good deal shaken up. Life was tenuous on Hokkaido’s tunnel laced highways.
I’ve yet to have the experience of being charged by a ravenous bear but conjuring up images of terror in the tunnel came surprisingly easy. The choice was clear; we gently slid the bikes under the barrier and pedaled merrily on our way.
The forest was humming to the sound of cicadas, almost drowning out the gurgle of the fast-flowing stream. We biked along at a brisk pace, knowing nightfall was on its way. The incline was gentle and we were making good time. Gradually the road became bumpier and my nearly bald tires struggled on the rough surface. After awhile the road took on the air of a dry river bed and pushing became more practical than pedaling.
“Are you sure the lake’s this way? We haven’t seen a soul and I’m afraid this trail will soon peter out into nothing.”
“Trust me. We’re on the right track. Another 10 k’s or so and we’ll be at the lake.”
“But you said we’d be there in 10 k’s two hours back.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it’s little longer than I thought.”
“Well just check than damn GPS and make sure we aren’t lost.”
“Uh, yeah, the uh batteries seem to be dead.”