How far down? I found out long ago – July 1981 to be exact – while travelling on and off around Thailand with Brooke, the general’s daughter.
We’d reconnected in the northern city of Chiang Mai where she regaled me about her wild adventures in Pattaya with an Englishman named Bruce. “He’ll be flying up in a few days.”
“Great. The more the merrier.” In the meantime there were tours to be taken.
First we saw elephants at work in a traditional mountain setting, followed by an elephant ride on a traditional saddle sofa, and a visit to a traditional silk factory. Then we toured a traditional village where they practiced traditional Thai woodcarving and made traditional lacquered umbrellas.
By the time Bruce arrived I’d had my fill, and suggested renting a car for a bit of a looksee around the Golden Triangle (at the convergence of Laos and Burma) where the hills were alive with opium production and heroin smuggling. A far cry from a package tour, it was still the traditional thing to do.
In Thailand the traffic flows to the left. Somewhat giddy about shifting and driving with the wheel on the right – a first – I hadn’t thought through the ramifications of leaving my passport with the rental agency as collateral. As if it would have mattered anyway.
The mist-shrouded mountains and water buffalo-ploughed paddies along Route 118 certainly looked authentic. And the two-lane blacktop led us all the way to Mae Sai, the most northerly point in Thailand, where a bridge crossed into Burma.
Though the border was closed we managed to lay our hands on some Burmese cheroots, which, Bruce asserted, were all the rage in the days of the Raj. Better than any stogies I ever tried.
A bright spark who wore his university education like a rugby scarf, Bruce was quite enamored of Brooke (more than she was of him, alas) and between trying to bounce one another off an old rope bridge that stretched over the Mae Kok River and downing another round of Singhais at yet another roadside establishment we all got pretty chummy.
None of us expected to tiptoe through any poppies, of course. Nor were we especially keen to meet up with any heroin smugglers.
Back on the road by dusk I was puffing like a Raja behind the wheel while Brooke and Bruce snoozed in the back seat, when a random checkpoint came into view.
A far different world from the last time this happened, the song remained the same. A soldier raised his M-16 and I hit the brakes.
Clearly expecting me to produce a passport, he wasn’t impressed with my rental agreement. Not sharing a common language didn’t help and he grew visibly irritated. Then, with the assault rifle dangling from his shoulder, he turned to my awakening friends in the back.
It was dark, they were groggy and it took some time to get oriented. Meanwhile the incensed soldier began to lean in through the window and over the seatback … while the weapon’s muzzle became firmly implanted in my throat.
“Um, Brooke, can you see what’s happening here?” I softly articulated.
“Just a minute, we’re looking for our… Holy shit!”
Now she understood. “Winslow,” she said evenly, while making sure she wasn’t in the line of fire behind me, “we’re handing over our passports now.”
But hers was American, his was British, and this only confused things further. Worlds have formed and died away in the time it took for that careless soldier to hand back those passports and remove that fucking gun from my throat.
Pointing to the back of the car he indicated for me to open the trunk. Gladly. Finally he waved us on and I relit my cheroot.
But sometimes adrenalin rushes come in tandem.
The road now passed through lush jungle, black as pitch after dark. With hours to go I watched the fuel gauge sink below the eighth of a tank mark. Casually pointing it out to the others I succumbed to the urge to accelerate.
“Winslow, I don’t think we’ll make it at any speed,” Bruce opined.
Although I preferred not to, I had to agree with him. The problem was a lack of gas stations, that and the fact that – beyond the occasional road marker for ‘118’ – none of us had a clue where we actually were.
Eventually we rolled into a tiny “settlement” (its origins undoubtedly dating back to some ancient dynasty) and located a drinking establishment. I only wish every transaction were as simple as what happened next.
The proprietor, who spoke little English but understood the word “petrol” had a quiet word with one of the patrons, who looked me in the eye and used the tip of his finger to trace ‘500’ on the bar. Then he gestured for me, but not Brooke and Bruce, to join him outside.
Out by the car I handed him a 500 baht note, somewhere around $15. And signaling for me to follow with my head lights off (!) he led the way on foot down an alleyway, past some houses, to a riverside shack where I could just make out some fuel barrels in the ambient light.
After unscrewing the gas cap he began to fill the tank by cranking an iron hand pump. How full? Who knows. This was black market stuff (in the dark no less) and three or four gallons would get me where I wanted to go.
Back at the bar/cafe Brooke and Bruce finished up a quick drink while I shook the proprietor’s hand in gratitude.
“Winslow, I think he expects a tip,” Brooke gave me a nudge. “Mind if we settle up later?”
Later worked. I palmed a couple hundred more baht and shook the man’s hand once more. This time he nodded, smiled, and we were on our merry way.
Though a little light on his lyrical ability Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac fame is a master on the guitar, keyboards, percussion, and vocals, all on display on this, the song he wrote and recorded for 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation. Assuredly, the man knows his holiday roads.
I found out long ago
It’s a long way down the holiday road
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Take a ride on the West Coast kick
I found out long ago
It’s a long way down the holiday road