Pedaling away from the tiny mountain shop, we round yet another bend, revealing a foreboding indication of more climbing: there is another wide, sweeping curve of a switchback before us. Well, I guess that little village wasn't at the top after all. We take the slight disappointment in stride, feeling freed by the idea that we can sleep anywhere we like.
Keeping our eyes peeled for a good place to string our hammocks, we pedal on. Within minutes, our hunt for a place to sleep is over: a dirt lane leads off the main road, curving up the hillside to our right. Feeling confident this will lead us home, we climb off the bikes and push them upwards, following the path until we're in a pine forest, atop a ridge overlooking the highway.
As we lean our bikes on a pair of trees and begin to walk around, hunting for the ideal patch of land on which to settle, we find ourselves smiling and laughing, no longer achingly tired. For here we are, out in nature once more, doing one of the very things we love most about cycle touring: camping.
How dearly we have missed this!
Without a moment's hesitation, we settle into a routine we've performed hundreds of times on this journey. The act of making camp is deeply ingrained within us now, a muscle memory not so dissimilar from riding a bike. As the sun begins its descent, and the golden hour nears its end, a distinct chill hangs in the mountain air.
I think the best wild-camps are the ones where we are somewhere remote enough to make a fire. Unfortunately, we aren't exactly off the beaten track tonight; the highway is right below us. As I hang the hammocks we bought on Phú Quốc and survey the area, I start to realize just how cold it is going to be tonight without our tent. Remote or no, we're having a fire.
As Tara unpacks the cooking kit, I set about foraging for wood in the forest around us. No matter how many times I do this, I will invariably wind up smiling to myself, remembering camping trips with my Dad growing up. When he wasn't flexing and telling us to "check out these pythons" (his biceps), he was busy hacking away at firewood, being, as he described himself, The Provider!
Family in-joke or not, there really is a profound pleasure in providing a fire to keep your family warm. With Tara beside me cooking our dinner, I crouch by the clearing I've made, kindling, flint, and steel in hand. In this moment, I feel completely at peace. Without fail, when the sparks ignite my carefully constructed tinder, it makes me want to beat my chest and yell to the world, look what I have created!
I can't help but radiate excitement about our situation: we're camping again! While Tyler is busy building a fire, I get to work preparing our evening meal. Cooking is one of my favorite occupations, and I've missed it greatly during these past few months in Southeast Asia. It hasn't made sense to drag out our big metal pot, only to prepare the same food that we could purchase easily and cheaply nearly everywhere. Until tonight!
As I take stock of what we have in the cooking pannier, I reconnect with the deep satisfaction I derive from being able to cook for myself. The meditative act of slowly chopping vegetables for soup, stirring a sauce round and round until the flavors concentrate, or frying garlic until it sizzles golden brown and smells irresistible… these are all things that are deeply fulfilling to me. It is my intention that this meal will be as filling as the act of making it is, and will sustain us over what is sure to be a cold night.
I start by boiling a potful of our waterfall water with the dry noodles and a packet of ramen inside. When they're done cooking, I pour off the water, adding a little oil with which to stir-fry the result. Some sliced onions go in as well, along with a couple of eggs I scramble on the side.
With our spice bag long gone, this won't be the most flavorful meal in the world, but I manage to scrounge up some leftover dried vegetable snacks from the handlebar bag to help. Crushing these over the noodles with a pinch of salt and a ramen spice packet, we have a tasty crunchy topping.
The finishing touch comes when I unearth, from the deep recesses of the cooking pannier, a few of the peppercorns we plucked in Cambodia, now shriveled and hard like the kind that go in grinders. This simple dish, cobbled together from what few things we could find in that tiny mountain shop, is one of the most satisfying I've had in a good long while.
The feeling of contentment that comes from being outdoors with a beautiful view, the scent of woodsmoke in the air, and a warm home-cooked meal is priceless.