In a long list of dumb ideas, this was right up there with the worst of them. I could tell you that it wasn’t my fault, and in a way, that would be the truth. You see, when it happened I was just a bystander, an innocent man floundering in a raging confluence of beer, boredom and bullshit. All of the danger signs were there, signs that I was about to be engulfed by a perfect storm of stupidity. But, at the time, I honestly hadn’t seen it coming.
It was the tail end of the Horizon’s Unlimited meeting, way up in the north of Thailand, and I was sitting in a bar with a group of fellow travellers. We were stragglers with nowhere to go, and in no great hurry to get there, travellers without a purpose. There were four or five us, possibly even six, I really can’t remember. We were just killing time, drinking cold beer and chewing the overland fat. I can tell you, when bikers have finished biking for the day, they can really chew that fat with a beer or two. Beer seems to have played an important role in most of my bad decisions, but I’m not going to blame alcohol, not this time at least. The beer’s just the catalyst, the shit that fertilizes the dormant seed, the seed that grows into a fertile garden of stupidity. I don’t mind telling you, for two hours we’d been killing each other with kindness. We’d blown so much sunshine up each other’s arses that if we’d farted in unison, I swear, we could’ve melted most of Siberia. Then, having discussed who’d travelled where riding what, and established beyond all reasonable doubt that all of us were amazingly brave and incredible individuals, the conversation had moved onto more mundane matters. Jesus Christ, it was like a game of Top Trumps for Round the World Travellers, and once we’d got passed mileage, I was losing every hand we’d played. One man’s mundane is another man’s porn, but honestly, BMW Adventures, Touratech Trinkets and Garmin Gizmos really don’t do it for me.
At that point, I’d kind of switched-off from the conversation. Over in the corner, some guy in a bad tuxedo was murdering Jason Mraz on the microphone. He wasn’t very good, but his enthusiasm was killing me, in a good way. I like that sort of thing, and I think you know what I mean. When someone’s enthusiastically bad at something and really couldn’t give-a-shit about what anybody else might think of them. That was the guy in the cheap tuxedo, and I liked him for it. Anyway, that’s when I heard it, the thing that got me thinking. It might have been the German guy who brought it up, the guy who’d sent me to sleep an hour earlier with his extensive knowledge of ‘Geocaching’. Well, even if it wasn’t the German guy, somebody damn well said it – “Iron Butt”.
At first they’d all laughed, but after a while, they’d kind of realised that I was serious. Damn, my horse was really high that night. So, they’d all stopped laughing and started arguing down my latest bad idea. An Iron Butt in Thailand would be impossible. One thousand miles in twenty-four hours, riding on Thai roads? If there was a word bigger than impossible, then that’s the word they’d been looking for. Then I’d told them straight, I wasn’t totally stupid - a Metric Iron Butt – not a thousand miles but a thousand kilometres. That’d softened them a little, but what I’d told them next, well, that almost bloody killed them. No, that wasn’t my BMW GS parked outside on the pavement. No it certainly wasn’t, I don’t do BMW’s. I’d pointed to my bike, the cute little scooter hiding behind the big Bavarian brute, the red and white Honda Super Cub C90. Yes, the one with the bamboo shopping baskets. I should’ve told them straight, told them that it wasn’t a Honda Super Cub C90 but a Thai built copy, the Tiger Retro 110. But I didn’t tell them, and anyway, it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t think it would’ve lessened their laughter.
The sun rose early, too early for the guest house porter who’d locked the gate and trapped my scooter inside of his yard. I woke him up, and the yappy dogs, but I tell you, none of them were happy to see me. I really didn’t care, because all I wanted to do was to start riding home, that’s all that was on my mind. Taking the scenic route, Bangkok was about 800km to the south, maybe a little more, or a little less, so I’d have to take a detour. North would be good. I really liked the look of north. When the sun’s low, I kind of like to chase my shadow. I don’t know why, it just makes me feel good doing it. What I don’t like are big hills, but North was full of them. I used to love hills, but that love affair ended when I bought the Tiger Retro 110. When you’ve only got five brake horsepower, you’ve got to work pretty damn hard to defy gravity. Going down hills is a blast, but climbing them, well, that’s a bummer. But, I headed north anyway.
It was so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing. The sun was low behind me and my shadow stretched halfway to tomorrow. With a skinny scooter and a big crash helmet, it reminded me of the cocks that I used to draw on everything when I was a goofy little kid at school. I don’t know why, it just did, but it was funny all the same. Maybe I’m still a goofy kid at heart? Anyway, by eleven o’clock I’d seen enough hills to last me a lifetime, I was as hungry as hell and back to roughly where I’d started the challenge in Chang Mai. I’d been up towards the Myanmar border, and it had been a really sweet ride. I’d seen more trees and water buffalo than people, and I like that. It’s not that I don’t like people, because I do, sometimes, I just prefer water buffalo, that’s all. Anyway, I bought a plastic bowl of chicken and rice soup at the side of the road, kow dtom gai, and drank a million gallons of iced tea. Man, it was a hot day for riding slowly. I’d already used two full tanks of gas. That’s about three hundred kilometres because it’s only got a three litre fuel tank - less weight. I was feeling good, the new seat that I’d bought in Bangkok was a peach and my butt was almost as happy as my belly. I really like Thai food, and the kow dtom gai tasted especially good. Boy, I was killing this Iron Butt thing.
Heading south, Highway 1 was a bastard. I preferred the hills to the north, but I needed to pick up the pace and keep riding south. 75kph with the throttle hard against the stop, or 80kph downhill, Tiger Retro’s aren’t too fast. And boy was it busy? The traffic was damn near crushing me. Huge trucks loaded with sugarcane, or something like that, passing within an inch of my bamboo panniers and blowing me halfway to hell and back. Speeding taxis, lots of folks in a really big hurry and everything passing me at a million miles an hour. Highway 1 was a moody kind of road, the sort of road where nobody ever waves or smiles at you.
Flutt .... Flutt ... Flutt.. Flutt Flutt Flutt Flutt. Jesus Christ, I hated that sound. A puncture in the rear tyre. Spoked wheels meant inner-tubes and inner-tubes were bitches to replace or repair. I like tubeless tyres, they’re easy to plug when they go flat on you, but Tiger Retro’s have spoked wheels and my smile had disappeared. I didn’t have to wobble too far, it was my lucky day. A good sign, a red and white painted tractor tyre at the side of the road, a tyre fitter was close by. The old tyre-fitter wasn’t big on talking, so I handed him some money and he went off in search of a new inner-tube. The only available shade was under two banana trees, but I didn’t choose to sit there. Instead, I hunkered down and had a smoke on the gravel path beneath the burning sun. I like banana trees with their huge green leaves, but I don’t like the things that live around them. Spiders and snakes. It’s not just the traffic that tries to kill you in Thailand, it’s everything.
The old tyre fitter eventually wobbled back with a new inner-tube and a bottle of rice whiskey. I probably paid for both, I’m really not sure. The funny thing was, for a tyre fitter I mean, was that he only had one tyre lever. Two hands and only one tyre lever? I really should’ve carried on wobbling down the road and found a guy with the right equipment, but I didn’t. I mean, did he struggle? And you know what, he was such a stubborn old bastard that he wouldn’t even let me help him. I just smoked more cigarettes and watched him struggle away. At one point I thought he’d given up, because he’d thrown down his tyre iron and stormed off to his house. He hadn’t though, because a few minutes later he came back, with a spoon. A spoon for Christ’s sake, what proper tyre fitter uses a bloody spoon? It took almost an hour, an hour that I couldn’t spare, and when he’d finally finished he couldn’t find the security bolt that fits onto the torque arm. I think the torque arm is the thing that stops the whole inner hub from spinning with the wheel, or something like that. Anyway, he couldn’t find it and he seemed to blame one of his dogs for eating the damn thing. I didn’t care, I just wanted to keep on riding and get the hell away from him. He really was a miserable old bastard, and that’s unusual for Thailand.
Flutt .... Flutt ... Flutt.. Flutt Flutt Flutt Flutt. Not again? I’d only ridden a kilometre and the back tube was flat again. Just then, four young kids on a scooter came by with big smiles and a little advice. They were fun kids, probably on their way home from school, it really was that late in the day and I really was falling that far behind my schedule. Thankfully, they knew a good guy with two tyre levers and he wasn’t too much further down the road. I found him no problem, and when he removed the flat tyre do you know what he found? He found the bloody security bolt that the miserable old bastard has lost just a few minutes earlier. Yes, he’d found the security bolt trapped inside the rear tyre, and it had totally shredded the new inner-tube. What a bastard. I’d wanted to ride back down the road and do some damage, but I didn’t. I’m not really that sort of person, I just get a little angry at times. Anyway, the young guy fitted another tube and fixed it up real good. He even wiped his oily finger prints off the chrome work. I liked that, it was a little touch of class and it showed that he really cared.
Highway 1 didn’t improve, so I pulled off onto a smaller, slightly quieter road for a time. You remember my long list of stupid ideas? Well, that’s when it got a little bit longer. The road surface soon changed to shit, and then it turned out to not be a road at all, at least not a road that would take me anywhere. An hour lost, an hour that I’d never get back, and it was already getting dark. Do you remember the bamboo basket that I’d told you about? The one on the front of the scooter that the BMW guys had laughed at? Well, maybe they’d been right to laugh. The Tiger Retro’s tiny headlight shone right into that basket and reflected straight back onto the tiny windshield. Honestly, I couldn’t see shit. I should’ve stopped and taken that basket off the scooter, or removed the windshield. But I didn’t. That old tyre fitter, the one with a tyre lever and a spoon, well, he’d got to me. I was trying to out-stubborn the old bastard, so I’d ploughed on regardless.
Another thing, I’d forgotten to bring my goggles. I had my fake Ray Ban’s, but sunglasses at night aren’t a good idea. Even I know that. The night air was full of flies, mosquitoes and moths, and I had to squint, to close my eyes and keep on riding like a lunatic. I can tell you, I really wasn’t comfortable doing that. It was probably dangerous too, but I had another three hundred kilometres to cover and I didn’t want to fail the challenge.
Midnight came and went, I’d ridden into tomorrow and tomorrow was colder than a witch’s tit. I stopped and unpacked my luggage. I wasn’t carrying a lot, you really can’t carry much on a Tiger Retro, but I pulled on every piece of clothing that I’d had with me. It’d felt better, but I still wasn’t warm. I’d wanted to find a hotel, to give up the madness and admit defeat, but, I’d still wanted to out-stubborn the old tyre fitter and prove the BMW riders wrong. Gas stations were closing, but thankfully, a Tiger Retro will run forever on a full tank of fuel. Well, at least with a top speed of 75kph, it certainly feels like forever. Every time I stopped for a smoke, and I was stopping often, I didn’t even bother to get off the scooter. There hadn’t been any point. Even when I’d climbed off, my body had been frozen in the rigid riding position. I’d probably looked like a madman, loitering by the side of the road, smoking a cigarette, shivering like a bastard and standing like a guy who’s straining to take a dump with his pants still on. Honestly, by that time, I didn’t feel good at all, but at least there’d been nobody around to see me. At that time of the morning I’d had the road to myself, nobody else had wanted to share it, probably because most other people weren’t quite as insane.
Someone had been teasing me, I swear it’s true. They’d altered the signposts and moved the mile-markers an awful lot further apart. I hate it when people do that sort of thing, it’s just not fun when you’re heading home after a long day in the saddle. I couldn’t even manage to change gear anymore, so I’d just left it in fourth and hoped that I didn’t need to stop. Ang Thong, two hours from home, Ayutthaya, one hour from home. The Tiger Retro would make it, a thousand kilometres in twenty hours or so, but I’ll tell you, by that time I wasn’t sure if I’d make it. I was empty, a crumpled mass of flesh and bone, a broken man dreaming of Corbin seats and BMW ergonomics, a victim of his own stupidity.
Then, after nineteen hours and too many minutes of riding, I’d crossed the canal and arrived at my destination, the invisible finish-line on the outskirts of Bangkok. I’d pulled to a halt, killed the Tiger’s tortured engine, and immediately burst into tears. I’d ridden 1,027 km, most of it at full throttle and some of it on sand, but the diminutive Tiger Retro hadn’t missed a single beat. Inside our apartment block I’d waited for the elevator, the longest wait in history, then hobbled to the door to our apartment. She must’ve woken as I’d turned the key in the lock and she’d looked sleepy and startled as I’d entered. She’d also looked amazingly beautiful, but not at all tempting, not after a thousand kilometres on the saddle of a scooter. “You actually did it? ... You’re a crazy bastard”. And this time, she wasn’t wrong.