Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Day 39:More Than We Bargained For

Sunday, August 2, 2009
Summary: Biked 50km (31 miles) from Takayama to the top of Amo Pass, over 2 mountains. Hardest climbs on the trip so far, with many hours on 10% grade.

Sho and I spent the morning touring Takayama, known as "Sho Kyoto" (Little Kyoto), because of the town's grid layout and concentration of temples to the east of a river cutting through the town. It was another rainy day, and we wore ponchos as we explored the town. Sho enjoyed the traditional puppet show at Shishi Kaikan, where the performers gave us a piece of parchment with the word "peace" in English and Japanese written by a large mechanical puppet. I was amazed at the ability of the hidden puppeteer to write the words so clearly.
We finally got going at 1pm, planning to bike 80km (50 miles) to the World Heritage Site Shirakawa Go. Having learned a lesson from our failed attempt to make it to Takayama from Narai in one day, I stocked up on food. We would have plenty of calories on board in case we got stuck in the mountains again. And, sure enough, we did!
A steady rain soaked us, and strong winds slammed against us, as we left the last signs of civilization and headed back into the mountains. Route 75 looked like a major road on the map, but in reality was a deserted, narrow mountain lane dotted with potholes and sometimes squeezing to a single car's width. Perhaps 5 cars passed us throughout the 2 1/2 hours we rode on it. We passed a few tiny farming communities, but otherwise rode alone up and down a mountain, the heavy rain thumping against the surrounding forest's thick canopy.
Sho said that he actually missed being passed by cars and playfully listed out the various reasons that "Route 75 sucks": too narrow, too steep, too wet, too many pot holes, no stores with food, and no one to hear us yell for help! Unlike Sho, I enjoyed the quiet route with its challenging climbs through a beautiful forest, the sounds of a mountain river mixing with various animals calling out.
Route 75 ended in a T junction at Route 360. Since 360 led directly to Shirakawa Go, a well-known tourist destination, I expected some fairly heavy traffic and a few rest stops with food. However, the town at the junction was spookily empty, as if everyone had fled all at once. We biked past a few shops, all of which were shuttered. Images from the movies "Omega Man" and "28 Days Later" came unhelpfully to mind, and I imagined that a zombie might emerge from behind one of the darkened buildings.
Amo Pass lay between us and Shirakawa Go. It was already 5pm, and I knew that we were unlikely to make it over the mountain before nightfall. The rain had tapered off, and we were enjoying a cloudy, pleasant 68 degrees, perfect weather for biking up a mountain.
"We just might be able to make it," I said to Sho optimistically, as we pedaled away from the eery ghost town and up yet another mountain. The road was steep, narrow, full of switch backs and 10% grade climbs. Our legs were pretty wiped out from 4 hours of hilly riding, including a 1 1/2 hour climb over an earlier mountain, and - I never thought I'd write these words - my sumo wrestling injuries were acting up.
Sho and I struggled to keep our heavily-laden bikes moving up the ridiculously steep mountain road. My hands were numb from gripping the handlebars so tightly, legs burning from exhaustion, a sheer drop off to certain death on our left serving to concentrate the mind, and the elusive mountain pass taunting us from somewhere above.
We passed through one small village on the way up, and I saw a young teenage girl hanging up clothes by an open window.
"Excuse me," I interrupted her. "Do you know of any campsites or other places to stay between here and the top of the mountain?"
She retreated quickly and returned with her mother, who told us, "There is absolutely no place to stay from here and over the top."
"Hmm. That's a problem," I answered. "I'm not sure if my son and I can make it over the mountain and all the way to Shirakawa Go before it gets too dark to ride." Hint, hint. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to ask bluntly if we could sleep in their yard. There wasn't an obvious place to set up a tent, and I could tell that she wasn't particularly interested in hosting a bearded weirdo who was dragging his poor son on a bicycle up into a mountain at dusk. Also, a certain hubris had taken hold, making me think that we might actually be able to make it all the way in time.
"I'm sorry," she said, and waited politely for us to move on.
Sho and I did not see another person, house or passing car for the rest of the day. As the sun began to drop behind the mountain, and shadows began to consume the light around us, we pushed our weary legs harder and harder up into the craggy heights. The road was so narrow, and the drop off so intimidating, that Sho pleaded with me to ride all the way to the right, next to the sheer mountain side. It meant riding in the oncoming traffic lane, but since there was absolutely no traffic, why not?
As the light began to fade, and the mountain pass stayed frustratingly out of reach, I recognized that we were going to have to sleep exposed on the mountain tonight. The only options were small sections of road created as turn-outs for cars. Not my idea of a good sleeping spot, but that was it. We kept our spirits up by complementing our progress and saying, "not too much further" and "look how close the summit is!" I didn't say it out loud, but the summit seemed like it was still far away. After a while, Sho was completely spent and could no longer pedal. He had been a tremendous help for the first hour and a half of steep climbing, but had used up all of his reserves in the extreme effort. He munched on snacks and asked to walk for a bit, as I biked along slowly beside him. We were running out of daylight, and finally, he climbed back on his bike. I used whatever energy I had left to propel us up toward the elusive summit. After 2 hours of chugging straight up this mountain and 4 hours of hard riding before that, I could hardly manage to keep turning over the pedals. Sho sat exhausted on his bike, apologizing for not being able to help anymore.
"Don't worry, buckaroo. You got us so close to the top, and I'm going to get us through this last little bit."
As the final glow of daylight began to fade, I had to acknowledge that we weren't going to reach the summit today. I wondered if there were bears in the area and worried that a car might use the turnout where we would set up our tent. Then, as we rounded a brutally steep switch back, we spied a a small shack with a large orange A-frame roof, peeking through the trees. As we approached it, we realized that it was sitting at the summit near a sign announcing our arrival at Amo Pass!
The shack was unlocked and obviously intended to be used by anyone in need. It had a bed for two built into one wall, a table, and even a few hangers to dry off our sweat-soaked clothes. Sho and I jumped up and down, whooping and hollaring at this fantastic discovery. We moved our gear into the hut, now needing flashlights to see, and spread out our provisions on the table. Wolfing down our well-stocked rations inside the comfortable hut, we happily recounted the day's adventures and congratulated ourselves on completing our toughest ride yet.
My leg muscles twitched from exhaustion, as I laid on the hard wooden bed, Sho snuggled up close, an arm draped across my chest and contented smile on his face. We both drifted off to sleep amid the sounds of the mountain softly whispering outside.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I got exhausted just reading about your climbing experience. That was a really tough day you had. Hopefully you won't have any more of those, since you already conquered the Japan Alps a while ago and there won't be any other mountain range of that kind. Hope you can get to Shikoku soon!