We were a mere 20 minutes into a trip that would take us 7,000 miles from home, when the pilot came over the intercom and announced that we were heading back to Durango. I didn’t actually hear the announcement because I was lost in my ear buds with Kendrick Lamar, but Amber quickly informed me, “we’re turning around, something about a mechanical issue,” and my heart sunk a little.
But, sure enough, 20 minutes later, there we were, deplaning and waiting to see what might happen next. The usual franticness ensued, some were patient, others rude, and we tried to stay on the patient side, while realizing we’d miss our flight out of Denver to Tokyo, and then we’d miss our flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. A couple hours went by, the issue on the plane was fixed, and we were off to Denver.
United’s customer service in Denver actually took good care of us, setting us up with a nice hotel and rebooking our flights for the next day. And then we had some time to spend in Denver, so we did what any climber would do, we Uber-ed to the climbing gym. And it was awesome!
Our next day of travel was much smoother, and after two long flights, I was farther away from home than I’d ever been, in the land of smiles: Thailand. I’d expected intense jet lag, but other than a headache from the complimentary beers on the plane I felt pretty good the next morning. We wandered some streets by our hotel, and then took a shuttle back to the airport for a short plane ride to Krabi, the southern part of the country, where most of the climbing is located.
My old college friend Greg was meeting us there. Greg and I began our international travels together, damn near 20 years ago, with a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Greg got the travel bug, and for the most part, I didn’t. He ended up marrying a Thai woman and lives and works on the Pun Pun organic farm, outside of Chiang Mai.
Greg is one of my favorite friends to talk to and hang out with. He’s a sensitive, caring soul who often internalizes the problems of the world. He’s interesting and intelligent, and has a streak for randomly meeting famous people. He tells stories that end with sentences like, “and that was the time I smoked a joint with Willie Nelson at Ram Dass’ house.”
Ever since I’ve been writing books, I’ve been telling Greg he needs to write a book, as he’s had a million more interesting experiences than I have, and he’s twice as good of a writer than I am. And I’ll keep telling him this, and someday hope to read a book of his.I only see Greg once every year or so, max, but he is a brother from another mother; time does not decrease our bond, as it can do with so many friendships.
Our first night together on a remote island called Ko Yao Noi we settled into our bungalows and then grabbed a drink to watch the sun set. The sky was filled with smoke from burning; they burn their trash and many other things in Thailand. Greg was sad at the sight of the smoke and started to tell us about some of the darker sides of his life here: the underreported genocide in nearby Myanmar; the reality of climate change’s impact; and how alone he can feel as an American so far away from his original home. It was a somber start to our trip, and the strong beer that we were sipping sent Greg to a dark place.
The first week of our trip was the complete opposite of what we were hoping for. Our bodies had a difficult time adjusting to the heat, and Amber nearly got heatstroke the second day. I was amazed by the amount of cigarette smoking and blown away that even at the yoga retreat there were ashtrays. To top it off, after we adjusted to the heat and were feeling better, we got food poisoning (from a pizza place, ironically.) In the midst of the food poising, Greg and I rallied to climb while Amber rested.
For some reason, we started climbing at high noon, and though the climbing was incredible, I felt like I was about to pass out between climbs. It was really good for Greg, who was dripping sweat but more used to the heat. He reflected on the necessity of play in life, the importance of this act of self-care that we so often take for granted in Colorado. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel great, but Greg did, and that made me happy. Greg is a self-proclaimed non-climber who climbs, and by the end of the day he was filled up with brightness and whimsically quoting Edward Abbey and the Dalai Lama.
The silver lining of feeling so bad on an island paradise is the people of this island. The three ladies who worked where we were staying were always smiling, offering help when they could. The island was a peaceful mix of Buddhists and Muslims. And the only thing friendlier than the people were the cats. When our time with Greg was up, we took a boat to Railay Beach, a climbing hub.
There amongst the tourist madness, we hit our stride. We finally adjusted a bit to the heat and woke up early to climb, resting during the day and climbing again at night. More pad thai and coconuts. We got our taste of the ideal climber experience in Thailand, and then it was time to go home. Our last morning, we climbed one of the coolest routes I’ve ever done, delicately dancing up 20 foot tufas, and then sat down for a quick breakfast.
There was a family next to us, and when the guy stood up, I noticed his shirt said Silverton on it.
“Silverton,” I said. “We’re from Durango.”
They were a husband and wife with two young kids, who were, indeed, from Silverton and traveling around Asia for seven months. We had hardly met any Americans during our trip and were surprised to meet people from home. We introduced ourselves and hoped to cross paths again.
At the end of the exchange the man turned back to me and said, “Wait are you the Luke who writes for the Telegraph?”
I basked in the coincidence, and then thought about all the things I had to write about.
This piece was originally published in the Durango Telegraph.