If a tree falls in a forest, with no one around, does it make a sound? Well it depends. Sound is a vibration that is perceived by a mind and goes through a Byzantium maze of circuitry in your head before the mind says ‘that’s a sound’; sound is a consequence of the vibration. However an event creates those vibrations that the mind perceives, without that there would be no consequence, no sound. Thus, the question really is in the meaning, (only the meaningful is worth discussing) is pure vibration meaningful, the event, or is consequence where meaning is found?
I finally did it, with surprising profundity I did something I never really thought I would- I put on a backpack and bought a ticket to South America. Accompanied by my two friends, Benjamin and Marc, I embarked on a 70 day trip around the continent. This story finds me in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia (well to be precise La Paz exists as something like the cultural capital of Bolivia and the seat of the government, whilst a city to the South, Sucre, inhabits that role in a political sense since the Supreme Court is located there. Both seem to be referred to as the capital). I’ll begin with an explanation-I am not a daredevil so to speak, I like adventure but adventure of the subtle nature, nothing too overt and explicit. Besides those shenanigans get their power in their rarity, however I did something that I suppose would, to the external viewer, the man with his hands cupped around his eyes peering into this window, be classed as quite daredevil-esque (some going as far as to denounce the activity as ‘foolhardy’ and ‘ridiculous’); my friends and I decided to mountain bike down the 61 kilometre piece of land known as Yungas Road, but to the average Gringo, and perhaps the average reader, this road was also known as Death Road. One of those roads that some agency in some part of the world, somewhere somewhen, dubbed ‘The Most Dangerous Road in The World’. Such monikers rarely have much influence over me. A roller coaster or a trapeze act may be called ‘death-defying’ but what really is in that name? An accurate description? Or is it more likely to be a tool used to exploit our fiendish addiction to be thrilled and terrified, to be amazed and awestruck and most importantly to be the spenders we are, buying tickets, voting with our currency and shouting ‘we want more! We want more!’ I think it’s a bit of both, but asymmetrically more of the latter and less of the former.
When one visualises a road one tends to conceive a lateral type of thing, no depth, but Death Road gets its infamy from the great heights on which it overlooks the valley. The road ascends to heights over 15,000ft above a wild and beautiful rainforest; It is best visualised not as a road, but as a natural marvel. The greatest ship can travel along the seas but the real beauty is that of the ocean itself. The width of the road can’t be any wider than a single vehicle-perfect for a train of bicycles. There I was in the agent’s office with my friends.
‘Thomas, what do you think? The….’ Benji pauses to read from the computer screen. ‘…High-End 10 Gear Kona?’
‘Yes. It seems like the best one, it’s definitely the most expensive, a lot of fanfare about its safety etc. Let’s just get three of those. ‘
We looked at each other in agreement and handed over our Bolivianos in exchange for three Kona Mountain Bikes.
I feel the handlebars pressing against my palms as if the bike itself is also holding on to me for safety. I’ve never really felt trust so resolutely in an object like the trust I had in my bike that day. The structure of the ride is as follows: we all cycle in a single file formation with one rider from the company at the head of the train and one at the tail, Yungas Road is very long and as they day progresses and people ride at their own comfortable paces and the train of riders elongates; it stretches further and further, which is fine albeit for the fact that one can quite easily find themselves alone. Too slow for the rider immediately in front and too quick for the ones leisurely riding behind. That was me. I was the rider in the middle, the lonely place of not being fast enough but faster than some, I always thought there would be more people occupying the middle, when did life in the middle become so lonely? That was the beauty of my experience riding Death Road, all the physical space around me was translated to a mental equivalent. Space in my mind to think on the small and the grand alike, I entered into a flow state. The distant rainforest down in the valley was a beautiful green ocean that would randomly summon a flock of birds like a wave from time to time but apart from that, the ocean of trees was still and the stillness was captivating. It’s as if nothing was happening, nothing at all, for miles around just nothing. Marc and Benji had hurried off ahead, they were more experienced riders than i; but I had no problem with that. Solitude is an important thinking tool. As much as I was enjoying my time alone I still remained vigilant, after all I was on a cliff about 1,500 meters up with nothing to resemble a guard rail; we were issued with these five-point helmets that, whilst safe, restricted the field of vision making it difficult to pay absolute attention to the road and even more difficult to take in all my grand surroundings. This was particularly important when I reached a part of the road (for ‘road’ read ‘dirt track’) that was littered with gravel, gravel meant that my feeling of control was slightly less than what it had previously been. I tried to ignore that dip from a feeling of great control to a knowledge that it was now slightly less but up there, above the rainforest, it was hard to disregard. I made the decision to get off my bike, I was tired from cycling on this winding road and I thought it safer to walk for a moment-at least till I cleared this area of numerous twists and turns and found ground worthy of calling road and not just dirt.
In the mind time is simply a construct, it is the glue that coheres our understanding of the world but the mind is not an absolute. It is a fluid thing, a changing thing; a dream can feel like years while in actuality you’ve been asleep for a handful of hours. We don’t seem to take that seriously enough. Time helps us form a world-view with regularity, predictability and helps situate your life in the past, present and future but in a dream the confines of reality break down, things that shouldn’t make sense do, the impossible becomes routine and therefore time isn’t as useful as it normally is. This experience was a dream, the impossible became routine and nothing made sense, time broke down and all I really had for a moment, however long or short, was my mind. The time it takes to take a step is something I never think about, it’s like the heartbeat or a the swinging of a pendulum, in a way the step, the swing of the pendulum, the heartbeat, they all get meaning from the simple fact that they will be followed by another. It signifies movement and progression and it is so ingrained that unless purposefully directed we assume there is another beat coming up. As I took that step near the edge, invariably assuming it was the first step of many, the ground beneath my feet quite literally gave way. What I thought was solid ground peppered with small stones was actually just layers and layers of gravel, layers that slowly started to give way as my weight shifted. It took only a second to interrupt the regularity of life, that step wasn’t followed by another and it was at this moment that I entered a type of dream state and time didn’t just slow, I’m not too sure what it did, it just didn’t matter anymore. Death Road isn’t a sheer drop at most locations, it more resembles a steep hill and the steepness varies at different locations and where I slipped was very steep. Everything that I describe next only took about a minute, in all likelihood probably less than that, but my thoughts seemed to age and mature, they seemed to grow with grace and take their time to reveal themselves. My thoughts existed in a world where my fall didn’t take a minute or two, they existed in a world outside that. As I started to slip down I didn’t panic, for a moment I was still upright and with all of the foliage and branches, I believed that I just needed to grab something and I would be fine. I continued to slip down.
I just need to grab something.
In retrospect I suspect that my foot caught something because I fell from my upright position onto my side. Rolling down a hill that only gets steeper with every rotation and rolling faster and faster.
I just need to grab something and I’ll be fine.
I make the intention in my mind to move my arms and grab a branch or anything that will ease my momentum, it is then that I realize that I can’t move any of my limbs. I can’t even feel them. I remain calm. The realization that I can’t feel my limbs comes more like a gently placed, albeit heavy, weight than a mental blow. The weight made all the heavier when I try to make sense of what I can see. I wanted to grab a branch but my vision produced useless flurries of browns and greens and blues, swirling around as I tumble. Blue for sky when I face the heavens and green/brown for when my head is in the dirt.
Blue. I can’t see a thing
Brown. What’s happening? I…
Blue. I feel weightless.
Brown. I think this…
Blue. I think this is it. I…I can’t think of…I’ve lost control. I’m falling.
Green. The end of experience. Now? I won’t be able to do…
Brown. Green. Blue. I’m…becoming a ‘was’
Brown My family. Love. Happiness. My friends. I’m alone. I feel so tired. So much I needed to do.
At that moment I gave up, I conceded to the overwhelming force of the situation. It needn’t be a battle and I didn’t want to make it one. A sound is an observation and it isn’t the same as a vibration. It’s a consequence, and when there’s no observer the event is inconsequential; I remember that vivid feeling of a lack of consequence. How could there be one when there I, the observer and observation, was no longer present? If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? No, it does not.
I unwrapped my cheese sandwich, it was between the cheese and the tomato. I’m still confused as to why there wasn’t an option that simply had both, I suppose you can make more splitting the ingredients and save money too. Makes sense. Marc had a face on that seemed to confirm that his sandwich definitely had done the job of satisfying him, I, on the other hand, was concerned that this wouldn’t come close to satiating me. We sat on a bench resting our tremulous legs, in between a bite I wondered where Thomas was.
‘He’s not very quick on two wheels, is he?’ I asked.
‘I think we were particularly fast if I’m honest. You were quick, naturally you weren’t quick enough though’
I was growing tired of this situation, the competition between Marc and I was relentless. Everywhere we went we found new and different things to argue and ultimately wager on. A bike ride had the exact effect one would think it would have on us.
‘It’s been a while. I’m not sure how many of us there were to begin with’
Marc replied ‘Exactly, more people are cycling down into the valley every five minutes.’
At that moment someone did ride into the clearing, it was the leader of our troupe. He took off his helmet, then his gloves and finally his jacket; he motioned for all of us to gather around.
‘Listo, ven aqui. Aqui todos’ Alright, come here. Here everybody. ‘Bien hecho para completar el viaje’ Well done for finishing the ride.
He started to rub his stomach.
‘Wow, tengo hambre. Todos hambre? Todos esta aqui, vamonos’ I’m hungry. You guys hungry? Everyone is here, let’s go.
‘What is he saying?’ I ask a fellow cyclist.
‘He wants us all to go for lunch since everyone is back’
I don’t like miscommunication and misunderstandings, I try to limit them as much as possible but here I was experiencing a definite miscommunication.
‘Hablas Ingles?’ I ask
‘Si. Yes I do’
‘My friend isn’t here, he was one of the people cycling with all of us. Tom? Thomas Pearl?
He looked perplexed and walked over to his colleague from the company. They conversed and after an exchange of shrugs and confused but measured gazes, the leader came over to our group. He reminded everyone that it’s a long road and that Tom would be down any minute, he also informed us that there was a lack of reception in the valley so communications were strained. Strained communications leads to miscommunication. I looked at Benji and I could see in his eyes that he was asking the same question. Tom, where are you?
Moments passed, just more and more moments. A moment isn’t a unit of time, it’s simply the acknowledgement that some time has passed. I couldn’t feel time I could only see it, the sun moved in the sky like an eraser wiping away the day, hours must have passed. Three or four hours passed and then a cyclist came rushing down, he looked like an employee from another cycling company, he rushed over to the men in charge of us. Marc and I were within earshot of what he said.
‘Hector, Creo que alguien cayó’*
I didn’t need to understand Spanish to know what he said, I felt like I understood him the way most animals understand each other, I could see it. I just knew what was being conveyed, it’s the same in every language. Panic, fear and most of all, uncertainty.
*’Hector, I think someone fell.’