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Dodging Monsters

The road south from Niigata’s capital was a line of green. Pine trees slanted from the strength of winter gales welcomed us like an honour guard that stretched as far as the eye could see. We made good use of the pine cones that littered the ground by inventing a game of pine cone soccer that successfully managed to occupy us for the best part of each morning. For the next few days, we dribbled our way through small coastal towns all boarded up and deserted now that the summer season had officially ended. As pine forests were replaced with our old companion, the Japan Sea, we survived a buffeting from a summer storm, stole a few hours sleep in the dugout of a local baseball field during a night of rain and paid the princely sum of $45 for a campsite in the soggy pits of an empty campground that seemed to be continually in the shade. But while we suffered on the rainy days, we basked in the warmth of the sunny ones, reinvigorating tired muscles and ourselves with quick dips in the ocean whenever the heat got too much.

On our 78th day as we left Kashiwazaki, home to Niigata’s largest nuclear power facility, we were stopped by an elderly local whose mouth sparkled in the sun from the glint of a dozen gold crowns. Despite our stilts and our message board, his attention was focused on our packs and as he cast a wary eye over us, his attention soon turned to our accommodations. For some reason, it was always the next question people asked after learning of our challenge and for some reason, hearing it always filled us with a slight sense of dread, especially when we had used a park the night before. While our feelings were fuelled more by our own consciences than by any official breaches, the question nevertheless caused our hearts to flutter and our faces to flush when asked, especially by gruff old men with mouthfuls of gold.
‘We usually stay in ryokans or campsites. Sometimes we have to camp in a park where there is nowhere else, but we’ve only had to do that once or twice since the start,’ we lied as the sweat trickled from our brows.
‘That’s good’, he said as he took a drag from his cigarette, “we have lots of problems with campers who leave the parks a mess.” His words flowed out through a heavy cloud of smoke as he flicked his ash to the ground.
“All these campers dirty our parks and our beaches. These young people today don’t have any respect for nature. They aren’t responsible for anything!” he growled as he flicked his glowing butt into the crystal clear stream running beside us.
To him there seemed no connection between what he had just said and what he had just done, but it jolted us like an electric shock. Our lives over the past two months had become almost in tune with the environment in which we found ourselves each day. The weather dictated our progress; the scenery dictated our moods; the rhythms of each day were now beginning to match our own. The more we walked, the more we were becoming attached to the very thing we were walking in, which made his seemingly small action so disheartening. Before we could react, he had turned and was walking off, his gaze lost in the swells of a sea he had grown up beside. In his eyes, there was an obvious love for what spread out before him, but time had since uncovered the Earth’s limits for the rest of us. The hill that stood in front of us now looked much more imposing than it had a minute ago and as we climbed we were left to contemplate what had just happened in our own ways.

A municipal campsite, our first of the trip, was our destination for the day and with the sun still high in the sky we were looking forward to getting there and setting up an early camp. However, there was just one, large and rather unexpected hurdle to cross, literally. Before us stood an imposing bridge that spanned a massive gorge at least 300metres wide. All until now had been blessed with wide footpaths on which cyclists, pedestrians and the occasional stilter could cross in complete safety. The road that loomed ahead however was very different. Not only did it lack any safe place for us to walk, but as a national byroad, it was completely congested with trucks that hurtled past at a nerve wrecking pace. The thought alone of what lay in front was enough to send our hearts into our throats, but as our only alternative was a small coastal road whose turn off lay 10km behind us, crossing such a monster became our only option.

As the bridge curved around to the right, we decided to walk with the flow of traffic, hoping that the unhampered sight of us might give drivers ample time to slow down and give us a wide berth. For the most part this tactic had worked in the past, but it wasn’t foolproof.

As we stood to the side of the bridge’s entrance waiting for a lull in the traffic, we smiled at each other, hoping to erase the fear that was obvious in both of our eyes. For a second it seemed to work, but we were soon brought crashing back by the roar of a line of semi trailers whose shear mass almost whipped the hats from our heads. What on earth were we about to do?

As a gap emerged in the flow, we grabbed up our stilts and with one last look back to check that it was clear, took off as fast as our legs could take us with our full packs. With Miki in the front, we ran single file chancing the occasional look back over our shoulders for the inevitable return of those mammoth trucks. As we ran I suddenly realized how vulnerable we were. With no shoulder to work with, Miki’s fully laden pack seemed to bulge frighteningly far out into the lane. If hers protruded that much, then mine, with my sleeping mat attached to the side was doing so more. Any truck that didn’t make an allowance for us was sure to connect. Thoughts of a 10km diversion now seemed much rosier, but it was too late to turn back. The trucks were coming, and by the sound of them, they were big. At that moment, the bridge began to shake as if we were caught in an earthquake, taking us completely by surprise. In order to keep from toppling into the lane, both of us instinctively stepped out, but as we did, the first of the semis roared past missing both of us by inches. We stopped only long enough to see a procession of massive trucks gathering speed behind us. One, two, three, four, five trucks, each bigger than the one before were now bearing down right upon us.
“Miki, keep going girl. Keep going!” I yelled above the roar of the engines, too afraid now to look behind.
The first of the trucks passed to our right giving us a fraction of room, but at a speed that was truly terrifying at such close proximity.
“Just keep going!”
As we rounded the curve we could now see the end of the bridge, some two hundred metres ahead, but by rounding the curve, we were now putting ourselves in a most precarious position. Trucks now only had a few seconds between seeing us and reaching us. The second truck steamed past, much closer than the first, its last minute swerve into the other lane testimony to the lack of any reaction time. As the gap closed to 150metres, I noticed for the first time another long procession of trucks, this time coming from the other direction! My face turned white at the thought. Whatever was coming up behind no longer had any room with which to maneuver away from us. We were soon to be the sardines in a semi sandwich 100metres above the ground.

Unable to run blind any longer, I glanced back over my shoulder in time to see the thing I had been fearing the most. The last three trucks were roaring up toward us, however only the first driver had a clear view of what lay in front. The other two, each one foolishly tailgating the one in front would have little time to react as we came into their view.

If I was going to die, then I wanted to look death in the face, or perhaps I hoped that the sight of my petrified features might be just the thing to convince each driver to slow down and escort us the last 150metres, but it was never to be. The first of the drivers had seen us and was able to swerve around us but with the oncoming traffic now level, the distance between us and his wheels was much closer than our blood pressure could cope with. His action however revealed the disaster that was waiting to happen behind. The second driver, whose view had until then been entirely of the truck in front, now had an unobstructed view of us a mere five metres ahead. The only problem however was that he wasn’t looking at us! His thoughts were lost in the conversation he was having on his mobile phone as his eyes gazed at some point out to sea. As his truck continued on its line straight toward us, I saw in the grime of its front grill the end of our challenge and of us. We had nowhere to go. Still looking up at his face, my feet stopped running as I braced for the impact that was seconds away. “At least Miki is up ahead”, I thought as I began to wonder what the force of three tonnes of steel would feel like. At that moment, the driver picked up our forms in the corner of his windscreen and with his free hand, lurched the truck out and away from where we were tucked in against the bridge wall. The expression of surprise in his eyes was the last thing I remember seeing as the rest of the trucks followed his evasive maneuver away from us.

As we emerged on the other side of the bridge, we collapsed in a heap on top of our bags and just lay in silence. For the next few minutes all we could do was contemplate what might have been as curious motorists sped past, completely unaware of the lucky hand fate had just dealt us. It was our first such experience with a bridge of this sort and as we regained our feet and walked the last few hundred metres to our campsite, we hoped that it would be our last.

posted by Mick and Miki Tan @ 3:32 AM,


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