We're mentally prepared for an easy day of coasting, excited to reap the rewards of our labor. But as we cycle out of town, a freakishly steep hill looms before us, and I am caught off guard. I thought we were leaving the mountains—why are we still climbing? It must be a fluke; the hill won't be that big.
Assuming it will be over quickly, I stand up in the saddle, sprinting up the climb, breathing heavily as a fire burns in my muscles. Up and up we go, past greenhouses and shops, peach-colored homes perched in hillsides, and bright white churches gleaming in the sun.
People cheer as we pass, encouraging us onwards as I will my legs to maintain this rapid pace. But the climbing continues far too long, and my poor sprinting muscles are soon completely spent. With a flip of my downtube shifter, time screeches to a halt like a record skipping a groove. I'm slow as molasses, spinning my legs in pursuit of a peak that never seems to arrive.
Huffing and puffing, still recovering from my bout of speediness, I am confused and frustrated about the fact that we're still heading upwards. We're supposed to be going to the sea! We will be coasting at some point. Once we climb this one hill, I comfort myself, then it will be downhill all the way.
Soon, we're leaving the colorful city far behind us, looking down over Da Lat in the distance as we enter a quiet mountain landscape of immense green pines, dusty red dirt, and turquoise skies. Each switchback offers a promising but false hope: at the end of this curve, hidden now by the side of that mountain, the road will go down. It has to.
Moving at a snail's pace, we become connoisseurs of the gradient below us, keenly aware of every angle and undulation, making predictions about the future based on a fleeting glimpses of the road ahead that glimmers in the sunlight like a mirage. But around every corner, our hopes of descending are dashed; a chain of switchbacks snakes away from us as far as the eye can see.
The stream of cars leaving Da Lat slows to a trickle, and then dries up completely. Nary a bus is plying this route, and all signs of civilization disappear, save for a group of men laboring to build a what looks to be a Bahnar communal house, also called a rong.
We stop to watch the men's progress for awhile, and then continue onwards, climbing in the heat, as the smell of pine radiates from the roadsides. Though we're blessed with quiet roads and the beauty of nature, we're consumed with disbelief about the fact that we're still climbing. We must've read the elevation profile horribly wrong!
Failing to recognize the reality of our situation, we're unable to accept and be at peace with a day of climbing. Instead, we remain in a state of protestation and incredulity. With the right mental attitude, this ride would not be at all difficult, but we feel totally unprepared, caught unawares, unwilling to submit to our fate.
It will be hours before we lose our desperate optimism, convinced the end is just around the bend. Still climbing, the heat of the afternoon sun tangible on every pore of our bodies, the final scraps of hope dissolve at last, and our attitudes flip to the opposite end of the spectrum: sullen fatalism.
Let's face it, we think at last, we will be climbing all day today, and all day tomorrow, and all day every day, forever and ever until we die.
By now we've realized that we won't make it anywhere near the coastal city of Na Trang. It no longer matters to us, though. Right now, we just want this day to be over so we can start anew in the morning with a clean slate, a positive attitude, and the wherewithal to deal with whatever the road might bring.
Before we can call it quits for the evening, we need to be prepared with shelter, food, and water. There aren't any guest-houses or villages up here, so it's clear we'll be free-camping tonight. Our hammocks will do in a pinch like this, but dammit, our tent would be so much better.
As for food, we have one or two emergency ramens somewhere, no doubt crushed to smithereens at the bottom of the cooking pannier. We'll have to do better than that, though. A half a bottle of water remains, but that's no problem, as we're able to fill our empty water bottles from a small roadside waterfall.
It seems like I should have learned my lesson by now, but every time we find ourselves vulnerable to the whim of the universe like this, a nasty snarling fear gnaws at my mind: what if we don't make it? Though time and time again, experience has shown that a way always opens, and that there is nothing to fear, each time I feel that familiar worry clawing at me.
Just as Tyler is telling me not to worry, that we'll find food, and that everything is going to be fine, a huddle of wooden houses appears in the folds of the mountains. As we approach, it's obvious that the first of these dwellings is also a store, a small stock of supplies visible on the rickety shelves inside. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will never, ever, take for granted the sweet rush of relief that washes over me when I learn my fears are unfounded.
A beguiling little girl stands by the door of the shop like a fairy princess, with dark eyes, deep and soulful. We lean the bikes up against a wooden beam, and then she smiles and runs inside, dragging her family out to meet the two red-faced strangers, looking so bedraggled and so grateful they might as well have just washed up on shore.
The girl's grandmother walks slowly out to greet us, then welcomes me inside the shop with her knobby hands. Before I get through the doorway, she smiles up at me, and pats my shoulder even though it's gross and beaded with sweat and road grime.
Then she takes my hand between hers, and talks to me in Vietnamese. Though I can't really understand her, the words land like hugs in a soothing affirmation of: "ooohhh honey, you're going to be just fine." I am grateful for this second, for being relieved of responsibility for this one moment, for finding myself in the comforting hands of someone older and wiser who seems to have the utmost faith in my abilities.
Where do these women come from, these strong, reassuring matriarchs with years of experience marked in every line on their beautifully weathered faces like rings in a tree? And how do they appear just when I need them most?
Inside the shop, I survey our options for the evening. It's slim pickings, but some onions, salt, and a small bottle of cooking oil will do just fine. There are eggs, and dried noodles, and an assortment of packaged snack food, too, along with bottles of sugary juice drink and beer and water. We buy as much as we can carry.
The grandmother and her grown daughter ring up our purchases, tallying up the prices of each item on a tattered piece of cardboard. The grand total comes to a meager four dollars.
With our panniers loaded up, prepared for the night ahead, the family invites us to sit down for tea, and we do, grateful for a chance to rest our legs some more. Knowing we could free-camp anywhere puts us at ease and we're in no rush to leave, especially since we really like it here.
We feel so much more at home here in the mountains, maybe it's because of the quiet, or the scenery, or how it feels distinctly different from the sea-level cities of Vietnam. Or maybe it's these people, these quiet, friendly people who have invited us in, that restore our faith, in ourselves, and in the world.
Pedaling off with a bit more hope and a bit more energy than we had before, grateful for our tea and the kind souls who offered it, it's time to look for a place to sleep.