Last week I told you how Lolly and I had forded the fabled Indus River in my Jeep on our way to see an archaeological dig. We had climbed a low range of mountains, reached part of the road that curved around a mountain, with a drop of 50 feet on our left, and one of 2,000 feet on our right. Suddenly, just as we topped a low rise at 35 miles per hour, we came upon an old man strolling down the middle of the narrow road with a 7-foot-long lathi, or quarterstaff, stuck under his arms — and no way to get around him.
And unbeknownst to me I had a worse problem.
I couldn’t stop.
With perhaps 200 feet between us and the Pakistani, I stepped on the brakes. What happened next was the worst shock I have ever had in my life. Instantly, the Jeep swerved off the road and headed straight for the 2,000-foot-deep abyss on our right. I yanked the wheel hard, but knew — knew! — that we were dead. The Jeep had tilted so far I was afraid Lolly would fly out its open side. I knew better than to turn the wheel farther because the rear wheels would lose traction and over we would go backwards. We hung there speeding along the edge of disaster, tilting, tilting ...
And then, almost as if it had been placed there for that purpose, my right front wheel hit a small, tilted, half-buried stone that decided the issue. We bounced back onto the road, careening toward the other side.
Realizing that the water crossing had wet my brakes, and that they had dried unevenly and could not be used, I kept my foot off them, managing to control the swerving Jeep with the steering wheel, my eyes on the old man.
He hadn’t heard a thing! He was still just strolling along. Had I been able to blow my horn I could have warned him, but I had no horn. They were illegal in Pakistan. Mine had been taken off, as had those on all the Jeeps. There was no way to stop in time, but — how it occurred to me to do this I’ll never know — I hit the clutch and revved the engine up so high it sounded ready to explode.
That, he heard! He darted to the left. We zoomed past, the Jeep hitting one end of his lathi. In my mirror I caught a glimpse of him spinning around near the edge of the drop as he passed out of sight.
Twenty minutes later we were back. We had stopped by letting the engine slow us down and using the hand brake. It was safe to use because it worked on a drum on the drive shaft. It was weaker than usual, but it did not cause us to swerve as the foot brakes did. Having found a place to turn around — very cautiously! — we drove back to look for the poor man we had almost run down.
With nowhere to go, he was nevertheless gone.
We peered over the edge of the stomach-churning drop. The longer we looked, the worse we felt. We could see that something had recently tumbled down the slope. What else? The old man? Then Lolly frowned and turned, looking uphill across the road. The old man, unmistakable because of his lathi, was just crossing the skyline at the top of a narrow trail.
A hug, another hug, a kiss, another kiss, and two great sighs of relief later we walked hand in hand a few feet farther down the road, where I intended to kiss a certain small stone.
It wasn’t there. It was the stone that had made the mark of something tumbling down the slope. We breathed more sighs of relief, wished the stone the best of luck, and thanked it for saving our lives.
We still do.
I eyed the road. “Which way?” I asked my beloved, thinking she might say homeward.
She smiled the same little knowing smile I had seen the first night we met, the night we fell in love — forever.
“We came to see a dig,” she told me.
Later that afternoon we passed a stretch of pure sand desert so hot that even protected by the canvas Jeep top it felt like we were being fried from above, below, and either side. I asked Lolly what the thermometer read.
“It’s broken,” she told me. “The top popped off.” She laughed. “When we tell this story everybody will say it broke when we hit that rock.”
“Do you care?”
She smiled that smile of hers again.
We drove home, this time keeping the brakes on lightly as we forded the Indus. The brakes didn’t get wet so they gave us no trouble.
Remember how this conversation got started? We were talking about learning by doing, and I said it was OK, but only if only if someone told you what NOT to do — like hitting wet brakes.
You know something, Johnny?
I’ll stick with that answer.