It’s only an e-mail," I reminded myself on the road to Vietnam, "just a handful of words typed on a computer screen.
Though I’d received it months ago, it was still renting space in my head. "Forget about terrorists," it warned. "Fear this!"
Attached was an article by the New York Times. It read, "Researchers link long-distance cycling with impotence."
This affected me.
As I crossed the 14,000-mile mark, the words from that e-mail sparked a conversation in my head.
"Fourteen thousand miles?" I wondered to myself, "I wonder if they’d consider that long distance?"
"Denial is not a river in Africa," a wiser voice replied.
My thoughts were interrupted when I came upon a group of U.S. military types clustered under tents. They were looking at maps in the parking lot of a nearby hotel.
As I tried to enter, a Laos security guard stepped in front of me and raised a vertical palm.
"Not allow," he said in broken English.
"But are those American soldiers in there?" I asked. "I’m American, can’t I just …"
"Not allow," he re-confirmed before flashing a bat-like smile.
"Could you just tell me what they are doing here then?" I asked before turning to leave.
"They’re digging for spoons," he replied in a poor translation.
"Spoons?" I returned. "What the hell would the U.S. military be doing in the Laos jungle looking for antiques?"
"Bones," a man corrected from behind. "We are looking for remains."
The man was an Australian helicopter pilot who was assisting in the search for more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers still classified as missing in action.
I was only 5 years old during the height of the Vietnam war.
Now, some 38 years later, I stood on a roadside in Laos and watched as America was still bringing home its dead.
With that thought weighing heavy on my mind, I crossed the border into Vietnam.
From its origins at the border, Highway 9 brought a steady climb, followed by a steep mountainous descent to the Ben Hai River. There, I cycled in a state of ignorant bliss through a dotting of peaceful riverside villages.
Only later would I discover that Highway 9, and the Ben Hai River, were the exact demarcation line of the the 17th parallel, the de-militarized zone (DMZ), that separated the former North and South Vietnam. It was a place where tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives during the brutal battles of Khe Sahn and Hamburger Hill.
By late afternoon, my ride along Highway 9 had confluenced into Highway 1, Vietnam’s main north-south thoroughfare. It was here I’d spend the next month cycling south. My first stop was the central city of Hu