Forty-five minutes later and the DR-Z’s rear wheel was completely submerged in a river, wedged securely in a deep hole of rocks. I stood alongside it, thigh-deep in the frigid water, struggling to hold the bike upright to keep it from drowning. My poor decision had paid the expected dividends.
I’d spent the previous thirty minutes patrolling the water’s edge for the best place to attempt a crossing. Like every other Mongolian river I’d encountered, this one was swollen and angry from weeks of unprecedented rainfall. I’d found a spot where the water level wasn’t prohibitively high, and I’d waded in to walk the route. It seemed feasible. The only challenge was the river bank on the far side; it was 2-3 feet high, steep, and would require no shortage of momentum in order to ascend.
Unsurprisingly, that’s exactly where my plan had fallen apart. Having successfully powerwalked the bike across the raging water, I was smugly confident about getting the bike up and over that sharp embankment. But just as the bike began its ascent, the rear tire had dropped dramatically into the river bottom. Now, the front tire sat on the edge of the river bank at a 40 degree angle above the sunken rear tire. I was on the preferred downstream side, which was the only good news of the moment, but I absolutely could not keep the bike balanced upright while also attempting to pull the rear wheel out of the hole.
I stood in the icy water and contemplated life.
Worse case scenario, I’d step away from the bike and it would fall into three feet of river. Glancing over my shoulder, I estimated the bike would drift downstream about 40 feet before a bend would probably halt its progress. It’d be drowned, I’d be able to speak authoritatively on the waterproof integrity of all my bags, and I’d likely be walking twenty miles or so back to the village. It wouldn’t be the end of the world; I’d still have my health, of course.
There was no hope that someone might chance along. The Sibirsky Extreme is the only known off-road route across the expanse of Asia; it exists, in part, to expose riders to some of the most remote, isolated regions on earth.
My mind drifted to many a pre-trip discussion with friends. I had failed, on multiple occasions, to convince them that solo adventure riding wasn’t merely about capably riding a motorcycle, but that other qualities are actually far more important.
Similarly, it’s an abundant dynamic I’d witnessed over decades of backpacking. Cross-fit gym rats who’d boast how they would smoke everyone on the trail, only to wheeze and quit at the first 12,000 foot pass. They’d tap out and fail while, more frequently, the flabby out of shape girl or guy persevered and successfully completed a four day, 30 mile trip.
Whether the route is on foot or on a motorcycle or on the course of life itself, it’s not training or skill that grants success to those who face long odds or harrowing adversity. It’s something far simpler:
Pure, unfiltered, sheer force of will.
I’d always known that a solo attempt on the 12,000 mile SibEx would put a massive strain on my resolve. Numerous times already on this trip, on this particular day no less, I’d been comprehensively vetted. But in each previous instance I’d had the opportunity to rest, regather my strength and morale, then approach the situation from different angles before giving it another go.
Not this time. I was already shattered from the day’s efforts. And now, every second I stood in the water, supporting the bike to keep it upright, I felt the coldness of the water more keenly. I felt my energy waning. I felt my hope expiring.
Bending down into the water while the bike leaned upon me, I scrounged around the back tire in an attempt to determine why it was so immovably stuck. Working blindly in the deep water, I pulled away a few large rocks from the tire and discovered the issue; there was a massive deep hole of emptiness, perhaps where a river shrub or tree had once been, that had been vacated. By bad luck, the tire had found it.
My only chance, other than the H.M.S. Suzuki option, was to fill the hole with rocks and create some traction for the rear tire. For an exhausting five minutes, I tried to rock the bike backwards, to get it even partially out of the hole, so there was enough room to slide in some rocks. Nope, the bike absolutely would not budge.
Crouched in the water, I then dug a side passage into the hole that would allow me to start pushing rocks in there. Because I was the only thing keeping the bike vertical, I was limited to whatever rocks were within arms-reach. I started out with rocks the size of apples; the hole swallowed them like a kraken consuming hapless pirates. I moved up to pineapple size, shoved a half dozen in there, but there seemed no satisfying the chasm’s voracious appetite.
I was running out of decent sized rocks. On the steep river bank, I managed to dig out a few more big ones and slide them into the hole. Finally, finally, I could feel the hole was almost filled. I’d been in the water for almost a half hour now.
With some traction now available, I realized the final act of this circus would culminate in me attempting to simultaneously rev the bike, pop the clutch, build its momentum, push with everything I had, then release my grip and launch the DR-Z all by itself, up over the edge and onto the river bank. No way I could hope to climb up the bank at the same time, it was too steep and slippery. I would have to stay behind and be an amused spectator.
First attempt and nothing doing, couldn’t build enough momentum. Second try, same thing. Third try, too much wheelspin, get another rock in the hole. Fourth try, the same. Fifth try, bike came within six inches of making it over the top hump of the river bank, but I lost balance in the mud and the bike fell on me. Quickly got it back up with a surge of adrenaline, no water ingested, but it settled right back into the hole. Exhausted and pissed. Sixth try, wheelspin again, ditto the seventh. Eighth try, no energy left, barely moved the bike at all. Re-established lean position, waited two minutes to seek oxygen here at 7800 feet. Now, forty-five minutes in the water.
I shoved a few more rocks around the rear tire and prepped for my ninth attempt. Bouncing the revs off the limiter, I popped the clutch, and with my Strength Tank on fumes, I heaved forward with full commitment and final determination, then let go of the handlebars.
Like a stallion released from a corral, the DR-Z lurched out of the hole, catapulted straight up the river bank in a spray of rocks and muddy water, before sticking a perfect Knievel landing on the soft mud of the shoreline. Time stopped as it momentarily remained upright, before the riderless bike fell over on its left side.
Brief as it was, the Flight of the Suzuki was over.
The final heave had awkwardly left me waist deep in the water while my torso and arms were splayed on the steep river bank. Muscles quivering with fatigue, I felt as if I’d just given birth to adventure riding. Like some soon-to-be extinct amphibian, I crawled on all fours up the muddy bank, thoughtfully reached over to shut off the fuel petcock, rolled onto my back, then rested my head upon the rear tire. Rain patted down upon my face as I regarded the dark gray skies, and in between exhausted breaths, I spoke to the clouds.
“Perhaps I should just find a good place to camp.”