Adventurer Jon Turk tells us how to find that hidden and evanescent wormhole that can reduce a barrier to a speed bump on the long, strange trip.
The Bicycle Thief
The young man sat in the classic prisoner’s pose: feet apart, elbows on knees, forehead buried in upturned palms, staring straight down at the space between his shoes. I stopped, peered through the bars, and lamely said, “здороваться (Hello).” He looked up, slowly, met my eyes, acknowledged me with a wan smile, then looked back down at that interesting spot on the floor. The police officer poked me gently in the kidney to indicate I should keep moving.
We entered a hollow, echoey room arranged in the classic style of Stalinist interrogators: tables set in a T, with a hierarchy of chairs, from a padded throne with armrests for the police chief, to rickety stools for Noey, our interpreter, and me.
The chief entered, sat down, placed his hands on the table, waited for the silence to settle, and then said, “We have apprehended the criminal and retrieved your stolen bike.”
I nodded and said nothing, but thought, “Yeah, all that is obvious, so what’s with all the drama?”
“The young man who stole your bicycle is not a criminal, really. He’s just a poor, local farm boy. But the temptation was too great. He would never in his life be able to afford such a bike. With… what do you call them? Those spring things so the front wheel rolls smoothly over bumps and rocks. Do you understand? Temptation. He’s not a bad person. But the law is the law, and, if convicted, as I’m sure he will be, he must endure 15 years in a hard, Kazakh prison.”
I started to speak but he held me with his open palm. “Do not say anything. You are a foreigner. This is our country. Our law. We don’t need or want your opinion. This young man must spend the best years of his life in prison.”
“Do not say anything. You are a foreigner. This is our country. Our law. We don’t need or want your opinion. This young man must spend the best years of his life in prison.”
Then he continued, “As I told you, we have your bicycle. But…”
I knew the ‘but word’ was coming. Every two-bit, small-town, would-be dictator, local police chief and bureaucrat throughout the world has a dozen ‘but’ words stored up his (and it’s always a male) butt.
“We cannot return the bicycle to you. Not now. Later. After the trial. We must hold the bike for material evidence. You understand.”
I nodded again, careful not to surrender to a careless, emotional response or outburst. “And…”
Oh, shit. What comes after the ‘and’?
“We must hold you as well. We have no legal case without witnesses. So, you must stay in this town until the court date.”
Another fucking ‘and’.
“The next court date is in the middle of December.”
He shuffled through some papers.
“Let’s see. Hmmm. It is now mid-August. The court date will be scheduled for December 12, at 10:00 a.m. to be precise. For the next four months, you are free to travel within this village. But you will be under constant police surveillance to be certain you do not leave town. Not for any reason. Do you understand?”
Busted, down on Bourbon Street
Set up, like a bowlin’ pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin
They just won’t let you be.*
I have traveled for years in Russia and the ex-Soviet states and had been through this before. Not this exact situation, but there have been a great many analogues. Too many, I knew the game.
I smiled. “I understand, of course. Thank you. Thank you for retrieving the bicycle. That was excellent detective work, and very fast. You are an excellent police chief with an excellent and efficient police department.”
Speed Bumps or Insurmountable Barriers?
As you might have guessed, we didn’t spend four months in that village and the young man didn’t rot in prison for 15 years. But the details of our negotiations and eventual escape are unimportant. Today, just past midway through 2020, I am thinking about bumps and barriers. More specifically, how do bumps in the road of life become insurmountable barriers? Or the converse, how do we reduce seemingly insurmountable barriers into mere speed bumps that may slow us down, but don’t hold up the show?
Let me illustrate with another example: In 2011, Erik Boomer and I were trapped off the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic by moving ice. My dear friend, Paul Attalla texted, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Trapped by Moving Ice
The barrier we faced wasn’t some legal mumbo-jumbo or the whim of a cop in a nicely pressed uniform who can be complimented, cajoled, bribed, or threatened. Instead, we were stopped in our tracks by an ocean of ice, the position of the continents, heat of the sun, spin of the Earth, and the movement of the heavens.
I texted back, “Thanks Paul. It would be stupid to kayak out into the ice and be crushed to death. And equally stupid to stay here until winter waiting to starve and freeze to death.”
Paul replied, “If the barrier in front of you is too formidable, never try beat your head against it, or worse yet, never try to climb over it. You must tunnel under it, find a wormhole through it… or ignore it, assume that it doesn’t exist.”
When I was in kindergarten, I learned, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” If something is in your way, be strong, diligent, forceful, resolute. Climb over it, like Marines in boot camp, or rent a bulldozer and bowl it over. But sorry, as Paul says, the real world doesn’t work that way.
Real barriers, the big ones that matter, aren’t susceptible to brute force—and one paddler in a flimsy 65-pound kayak is not tougher than the Arctic icecap.
The ice doesn’t respond to human desires, reason, wishes, or demands. It can’t be bulldozed aside, nor can it be cajoled, bribed, or threatened. The ice isn’t a sentient and merciful deity that rewards good behavior and happy thoughts on one hand and karmically punishes you if you’re not groovy enough on the other. No. No. A thousand times: NO.
One foreign tourist in a remote mountain village cannot climb over a tough old Kazakh police chief, whose ancestors fought with Genghis Khan and who cut his teeth in the Soviet KGB.
Reaction and Response
But in essence, the internment in Kazakhstan and the internment on the coast of Ellesmere, as different as they are, were formidable barriers requiring the identical emotional reaction and response.
Stop. Calm down. Centre. Don’t make the situation worse by showing or feeling anger or resentment—neither externally nor internally. This is what it is.
Thank you, officer. Thank you. Excellent police work.
If you are centered and aware, if your brain is calm and unfettered, if you accept the vulnerability in front of you, you just might have a decent chance of finding, seeing, or sensing that hidden and evanescent wormhole that reduces the seemingly insurmountable barrier to an insignificant speed bump.
Thank you, ice. I came here to experience the power of the planet and the wonder of nature. Thank you for sharing with me the essential soul of the Arctic. I will carry this moment inside me, as a soft, furry friend, for the rest of my life—however long or short that may be.
Then, if you are centered and aware, if your brain is calm and unfettered, if you accept the vulnerability in front of you, you just might have a decent chance of finding, seeing, or sensing that hidden and evanescent wormhole that reduces the seemingly insurmountable barrier to an insignificant speed bump.
In the situation in Kazakhstan, you might guess that we bribed our way to freedom. But that strategy wasn’t going to work this time. It was the smile that opened the doors to human kindness, hidden behind the uniform, but near the surface nevertheless, so that, in the end, the villagers sent us on our way with a feast and the young man walked out of jail, with a good scare, but nothing more.
In the situation in Ellesmere, the wormhole was an eddy swirl in the cosmic chaos, opening a fleeting lead for a late-night paddle through the gauntlet, with ducks flying low over a flat, reflective sea, and the first skim of the new winter’s ice crinkling like silver bells in front of our bows.
Ah, that word again….
I have cherry-picked my examples. Cheated, as writers are wont to do. I picked scary adventures that turned out hunky-dory. In real life there are no guarantees that will happen—some scary adventures end the opposite of hunky-dory. If, or should I say when, you encounter that situation where there is no wormhole through the barrier, I imagine it’s better to die with a smile on your face than anger in your heart.
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me
Other times, I can barely see
Lately, it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been.*
*Lyrics from “Truckin'” by The Grateful Dead