A golden sun is sinking fast behind the mountains, urging us onwards in our futile attempt to reach the highway before dark. At the crossroads we're looking for, where dirt meets pavement, there is sure to be a guest-house. But the road ahead is long and twisted and rutted, and our slowness is no match for the fading light. The truth is, we've gone too slowly; we aren't going to make it, and none of us are willing to ply this increasingly rough track by night.
We're left with two options: free-camp, or try to pay a villager to take us in. We know that spending a night in these mountains will be cold, and we have neither tents, nor sleeping bags, nor hammocks to protect us. With no other plan to speak of, we stop in many of the villages we pass, asking if we can stay the night.
Unfortunately, though we attract plenty of attention, and we're using the universal sign for sleep (hands folded together under a tilted cheek) no one seems to understand us. Our only option is to push on, but just to be on the safe side, I buy some ramen from a tiny local grocer, and top up our water supplies so we'll be able to make it through the night if need be.
When dusk arrives, free-camping becomes an inevitability; it's only a question of where to rest our heads for the night. When we pass what looks to be an abandoned market, we stop, knowing we've struck the wild-camp jackpot: we'll have shelter from the wind, and we'll be raised off the cold ground. Satisfied, we pull off the road to call it a night.
As soon as we're off the bikes, all reservations we might have held about free-camping dissipate. This dirt track and the tiny villages it runs through boasts some of the most beautiful scenery we've ever seen. We're actually relived to be stopped; it turns out all four of us were silently thinking that we shouldn't be rushing through this.
As we fall into the well-worn rhythm of making camp and finding firewood, we are brimming over with happiness. It is such a pleasure to share this with our friends, safe in the knowledge that they are tough, hearty and capable—Natasha and Pete have been avid hikers and campers for years!
Finding oneself homeless in remote, mountainous Laos could be terrifying for some, but the adventure is natural for all of us; having the experience with friends makes it even better.
When camp is made and the fire is blazing, Pete and Natasha go for a quick walk to buy whatever food they can find in the nearest village. They return with beer, coconut crackers, and what looks to be a shrink-wrapped liver. The drinks and snacks complement our uninspiring dry-ramen dinner nicely. No one eats the liver.
Then, just as we have for the last six hundred odd days, we pull out the laptop to edit our photos; Natasha & Pete do the same. For the next two hours, we chat about photography, oohing and ahhing over the scenes from the day.
With our day's work behind us, we all gather round the fire to talk and share in that deep-seated, primal urge to stare at the hypnotic dancing flames of a campfire.
We find ourselves riveted by Pete's tales of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and soon we're dreaming of hiking it ourselves. We love the idea of traveling even slower than bicycles, going somewhere far away from roads and cars and people, where we could enjoy the quiet of nature and free-camp every day.
Letting the fire die down, we steel ourselves for the cold night ahead, donning every item of clothing we have with us. Then, we sleepily head to bed, making our home in a rickety bamboo shelter. Natasha and Pete generously let us use their pack-towels as blankets, while they snuggle up underneath a pair of sarongs. Still warm from the heat of the fire, we're comfortable and happy, pleasantly tired after an incredible introducion to motorcycling in Laos.