Relay: On the Road to Manali

In front of us, on a curve in the narrow lane that had somehow been carved into the mountainside, a “goods carrier” sat immobilized

    “Word has been received from Mr. and Mrs. D.W. Johns, who are touring the world. They were in India and write that they think and speak of Amagansett every day.” So reported The Star on this day in 1914.

    Ninety-five years later, facing certain death on the road to Manali, I thought of Montauk and mumbled a prayer to Sri Krishna that I might swim in the mighty North Atlantic again.

    “Dead,” the Tibetan driver said, so matter-of-factly I was sure I’d misheard him.

    “Huh?”

    “Dead. The child died of exposure.”

    It was then, around 6 a.m., some three hours after the jeep had stopped cold in its snowy tracks, that I became concerned.

    Moments earlier, a distraught woman had carried what looked to be a child, wrapped in a blanket, past the jeep in which I huddled. A man followed, a whimpering child, maybe 10 years old, on his back, arms wrapped feebly around the man’s neck.

    We’d arranged for a vehicle to take us to Manali — said to be an 18-hour drive — to spend a half-day there before going on to Dharamsala.

    Two hours in, the trip was, to my amazement, proceeding swimmingly, despite the roads often turning to rock and mud and, later, snow and ice, enormous icicles shooting down the mountainside toward the single-lane road, beyond which was a steep drop of a hundred feet, at least.

    Of course, it was not to last. In front of us, on a curve in the narrow lane that had somehow been carved into the mountainside, a “goods carrier” sat immobilized, its front axle so badly broken as to perfectly prevent anything from passing in either direction. The army had been notified and dispatched to tow it, we were told. They would come in 12 hours, perhaps, or 24. Or 72. So there we sat, in subfreezing temperatures, in the darkness, and then in the delicate light of dawn.

    At 7:30, I took a handful of butter cookies and a juice box and, delirium taking hold, stepped out of the jeep for perhaps the fourth time. “Well [expletive] me,” I yelled, through a mouthful of cookies, to no one, “for thinking one could make an overland trip in this country without a complete [expletive] disaster ensuing.”

    Around 8 a.m., some five hours after the expedition had been halted and seven hours since we’d departed Choglamsar, I prevailed upon the party to turn back. But the vehicle would have to make a 180-degree turn, a near impossibility on this single-lane road blanketed in snow and ice, the hundred-foot drop looming. There was literally no room for error.

    I’d seen a driver do it just two hours earlier, when a vehicle was commandeered from some unfortunate travelers to transport the young corpse, the sick-but-still-breathing child, and the grieving parents back to civilization.

    But as a passenger in a vehicle attempting the feat, it was terrifying. During the scariest moment, the jeep perpendicular to the road, the driver still needing to accelerate before he could reverse, inches from catastrophe, I had the brief but certain notion that “this is how I die,” never to know that blue ocean again.

    But by Sri Krishna’s grace, I did not die.

    I awoke, much later, in Paris, and was soon slicing through green, rolling hills on a high-speed train to Lyon, destined for fine seafood in St. Etienne and jazz at Vienne, copious Rhone wines and crates of beer.

    And then I was back in Brooklyn, despondent and craving adventure. Old D.W. and his wife know what I’m talking about.


    Christopher Walsh is a reporter at The Star.