We all learn by doing. In fact, many leading authorities believe it is the best way to learn. As someone who taught for quite a while, I would agree — with just one teeny, tiny caveat.
Only if someone tells you what not to do.
One day a few weeks ago the folks who chat on the “I’m Listening” forum on the online Roundup were discussing the hottest places they’d ever seen. I started to mention one, but realized the tale was too long for the forum. I’ll tell it here.
Every time I drove my Jeep out to the military airfield in Pakistan the image of a hot desert filled my mind. The same thing happened every time I and my beloved wife — my fiancee at the time — drove the same road to one of the beaches lining the Arabian Sea. It was impossible to miss seeing the masses of pure white sand pouring over the mountain passes up ahead. Curious how sand could find its way over mountains, I asked and was told they were sun-bleached desert sands driven by howling monsoon winds.
Early one morning a week or so before our June wedding, Lolly and I packed food and water into the Jeep and set out on an adventure, determined to cross those mountains and see an archaeological dig from the time of Alexander the Great, desert or no desert. Sometime past noon, running on a paved road built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, we came to the fabled Indus River, a river I had long dreamt of seeing. Into the water the road went, and out again on its far side.
“That’s fine,” I thought, eying the silt-laden flow, “but how deep is it?”
A truck came to our rescue by showing up on the other side and plowing slowly across, the water rising only to the hubs of its wheels. No ordinary passenger vehicle could have made it through water of that depth, but my Jeep was specially equipped. There were only two routes to the military airfield where I handled USAF aircraft, and one of them was sometimes closed, so my Jeep was specially fitted to ford a stream on the alternate route. The engine was sealed, the cables and spark plugs specially adapted to work underwater, the body set high to present less surface area to running water, and the tail pipe extended roof high.
As the truck passed us I looked at Lolly. “Game to try it?”
“If you are.”
I explained about the Jeep’s special features and said, “It shouldn’t be a problem. But a lot of things that shouldn’t be problems are problems anyway.”
She laughed. “Well, it’s a nice day for a swim.”
So off we went. I took it slowly, and we made it without a hitch, but the Indus is a very wide river and the only positive thought in my mind as we crossed it was that if we got stuck we could hook up to a truck get hauled out.
Breathing easier as the Jeep rose out of the water and shook itself as though it forded the fabled Indus every day, we started the climb into the mountains. As we drove up the still paved, but now narrower road, the air grew hotter and hotter. A blowtorch monsoonal blast swept over the pass above. Breezing along at 35 we were sweating.
We had brought a thermometer. “What’s the temperature?” I asked Lolly.
“One hundred twenty-seven.”
The hottest I had seen it so far there in Pakistan was 118. I felt a small touch of guilt at the thought of delivering my beloved into the arms of a desert known as a man-killer.
“Want to keep on going?” I asked her.
She eyed the dash. “Is the Jeep OK?”
“Running cool as a cucumber.”
“Well, hot is what we expected,” she said.
Not much later we topped the pass and reached a place where the road was cut into the curving side of a mountain. To the right of the narrow strip of hot asphalt lay a sheer drop of some 2,000 feet. The left side wasn’t much better; a rock-strewn, 50-foot-deep ditch had been bulldozed into the mountain to protect the road from runoff.
It was sizzling hot. I started to ask Lolly how hot it was, but never got the chance. As I topped a low rise there was an old Pakistani, strolling down the middle of the highway with a 7-foot-long lathi, or quarterstaff, stuck under his arms. And to make life interesting, I was totally ignorant of the fact that my brakes were not working.
Well, we’re alive, Lolly and I, so it must have turned out all right.
But it was close, Johnny; the nearest I have ever been to instant death.