"You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…"
Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!
On the beginning of the first day on the bus, both the sky and the road were gray and unremarkable. Drab hills were as loosely slung around the road as I was tightly packed between a middle-aged doctor and a listless young man. I badly wanted to be somewhere else. I was getting there very slowly.
In a high valley one thousand km and at least two mountain passes away, five of my friends had already come together. Despite the distance, I knew I was missing the party. The bus crawled out from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, with two drivers and the 28 passengers. If the tires held, if the beleaguered engine soldiered on, if the weather stayed mild, I'd join my friends in the western Mongolian, alien-sounding province of Zavkhan sometime after noon the next day. Early April seemed to be cooperating with my impatience.
We continued at a 50km/h pace that would not be bothered and made what peace we could with the ride. I passed the first hour composing all the predictably uninspired poems about journeys on slow buses. I passed the next five minutes forgetting them as I looked out the window.
Some passengers told the driver to drive faster. Some told him to drive slower. Some took off their shoes. Some dozed in the hive-comfort of crowded bodies. After an hour of engine hum and graveled rocking, I gave up silently pleading with the speedometer for the privacy of closing my eyes in a crowd. Clapped in on either side by a stranger’s shoulder, I shuffled through memories - watching a storm turn Maine lake water to slate, walking through an abandoned resort town in off-season Czech Republic; lying on the grass in Ann Arbor– with girls I knew in sepia-toned nostalgia.
An hour out, the bus pitched forward over the end of the paved road and jerked me awake to the rocking canister full of people. I sat across from a young man named Damdinsuren. He’d taken a job as a judge in Zavkhan. He said he had no family there. He said the bus ride would take 20-some hours. He said this was all very exciting.
Damdinsuren snuggled up to the window with his feet over the handrail. Slumped against her husband, a new mother clutched an infant, swaddled into a log, against the concentric circles of dried breast-milk on her chest. The driver had opened the window and was smoking behind a partition. Inside, we were becoming cocooned. Outside, it had started to snow.
Spring weather here is called spirited. It's the same as the word for an unbroken horse. The wild whims of colts, however, don’t result in storms that engulf stray travelers and swallow entire regions of the country.
Today, however, I am reading on a stool in the sand in front of my ger, the traditional temporary home of Mongolian nomads. The sun is warm, the wind mild, and the only dust in the air is way out in the distance south of town. My neighbors, the family who takes care of me, check on me through the front windows of their house. My “little brother,” Gongor, suns himself with his heron legs sprayed over the sills and through two empty panes. My “mother” and co-worker Oyunchimeg says it's going to storm, that I should put my shirt back on and go find my cat.
Her prediction is bold, much more so than her husband’s daily forecast throughout the winter of another cold day– accurate, but hardly enlightening.
Unlikely as it is, I don't doubt Oyunchimeg. The worst storms come with no more warning than a change in the light before the first boisterous gusts. They build on the plateaus and mountains of north-central Mongolia, dump rain and camel dung-sized hail as they work south, and gasp out to die in the desert. Their dying moisture, if it comes, brings the glaze of green that keeps the animals and herders alive.
There have been too few storms in my time here. After a winter that killed 300,000 head of livestock, everyone is waiting on rain. I hope Oyunchimeg is right, and I take a jacket with me to school.
In an hour, the sky has darkened to an ominous brown like false twilight. As I pass Oyunchimeg in the hall, she gives me an I told you so shrug and says, "I guess we're not going anywhere for a while."
I grab my jacket. The dust brushes the window with a growing backbeat of sleet. I have a meeting.
The walk to the children's center is a half kilometer across the sandy school yard and, over the blacktop ring road, an empty lot. Halfway there, the air clears and distills into ice-water before filling with hail. I run. When I reach the door, the rain is blows at right angles to everything, the wind is too chaotic for proper drops.
I am on time, and a little wet. Two child-protection workers, Tsagaanaa and Nangaa, and I have to hustle along several final projects before summer sends everyone into the countryside and transforms good intentions into missed chances. I start pulling out my notes as I trail wet sand up the stairs. We have an impatient agenda.
In the meeting room, Tsagaanaa's daughter is enthroned behind her mother's computer, flip phone on her right, fruit juice on her left, and an internet fashion game splashed on the screen in front of her. She sorts clothing for her on-screen model. "It's hailing," she says.
"I know." Some of the smaller hail stones are still in my hair.
"You should eat seven of those. It's good luck."
"Thanks." It would have been better luck if the hail had held off three minutes. "Where is everyone?"
"My mom's not here." She settles a leopard print skirt on her model's hips.
"We have a meeting." This is not the meeting I had imagined.
"She said that. She's coming." She tries a pair of knee-high boots in black patent leather.
"And Nangaa?" I want to recommend something more understated. Patent leather is trashy.
"She’s coming. Do you like this?" The model looks like a colorblind extraterrestrial.
The windows are filled with the static of snow and obscured flashes of lightning. It is an impossible storm. I am glad that I am already where I need to be - two thirds of the meeting’s participants are not – but I'm not sure how badly I need to be here.
The next hour is an empty progression of tasks. I check my watch and flip through my notes. I spend ten minutes arranging my papers so that the edges are exactly parallel. I write my friends several unnecessary text messages describing the Apocalypse outside and how much fun we'll have when we meet in the city.
When the little girl stands up, I usurp her computer. After giving her model some classy flats, I check my e-mail for comments from an editor. Nothing except another wedding announcement from back in the States. I check the scores of some basketball games. Nobody's playing. I check the window. Nothing but fat drops shredding the short-lived glaze of snow. I pack my things.
At 4:00, the streets are empty of everything except the storm and a parked jeep whose wipers wave frantically as it goes nowhere. I think about how much I hate this stalling, even when there's nowhere better to go. I unpack my things.
At 4:30, the sun comes out. It is the fourth season in 90 minutes. Nangaa comes in just as the room brightens. "What a storm," she says. "Oh. We had a meeting, didn't we?"
"It was storming."
"Yes. Are you free now?"
"Uh, now Tsagaanaa and I have to register for a test." I pack my things again. We agree to meet later.
I walk over the pockmarked sand to the post office, as I'm tempted to do every day, expecting a letter full of poetry or a package full of coffee. The lady behind the counter shakes her head. "Come back tomorrow, or Monday," she says.
I walk home watching the ground in the bright sun and blue wind. I've heard so much about how the desert responds to rain. I look for brave heads of sage, but I only see the broken shards of green bottles among the rocks. The greening is still months away.
We had all stopped trying to sleep about an hour before when we realized the driver couldn't possibly see any more than we could. We could hardly see the edge of the road. Whatever remained of daylight was lost in snow and wind. The speedometer cowered from large numbers. We bounced on blindly.
Just outside the central Tov province, we started laboring up a hill covered in drifts. The driver took a hand off the wheel to light a cigarette. The tires drifted out of the narrow tracks of the cars before us and the wheels spun as we slid sideways to a stop.
The driver rattled the transmission, forward and back, and poked at the accelerator. We slid some more, made no progress. He looked sheepish and asked if the men wouldn't mind getting out in the blizzard to push the bus, its two thick axles, and the eighteen people who would stay inside.
We tumbled out in a flurry of industry and the cold slapped our faces. The assistant driver brought out a shovel and two traditional full-length coats called deels. We took turns pulling our hands out of our coats to unpack the snow from around the wheels. We spread the deels in front of the tires for traction. A small brigade of men kicking like chickens scratched a path back to the road. Several others strutted like back and forth like commandants, shouting encouragement and cigarette smoke.
After a countdown, we pushed. The dual tires on the rear axle kicked up snow. The bus jerked where the tires ground down to gravel, rocked into the ruts, and carried its own weight. We cheered and chased the bus.
The bus filled with accomplishment. A delay had been vanquished. We would now proceed uninterrupted along the clear lines of my map until we reached Zavkhan. We took off our coats and scarves. Damdinsuren gave someone a high five. The young mother looked relieved.
Halfway up the next hill, we stalled again. Again, the men got down, turned our faces from the wind, and re-arranged the snow. Another stop and we’d have to admit that we were at the start of a long pattern, rather than just past some exceptional hiccups. We kept our coats on.
Over the next five hours, we stopped eight times. The driver took it for granted that we would wrap ourselves up and get out in that thick black mess. No one settled themselves into nests to sleep or rest. We waited for the next leg in the irregular relay of being miserable. The baby cried intermittently and the young mother barked for heat or quiet. Damdinsuren nodded off with his gloves on.
Shortly after 1 am, I stopped measuring time as the hours until my destination and broke it down into the next set of minutes I had to spend in the cold. I dozed while waiting for my frozen boots and jeans to thaw.
A large hill marked the edge of a new province, Arkhangai. The driver turned to tell us so, as some sort of encouragement that we were still moving. In doing so, he lost the road. We were not alone in the drifts. A small Hyundai compact had beached on a large drift. A small lorry was turned sideways. There were men moving constantly through the tail lights, but the lights themselves were frozen.
Damdinsuren looked at me and caught some of my slow-burning indignance at all this delay. He mistook it for discomfort and cocked a bicep at me. "Just relax here. We're strong enough." I stepped off in front of him. I wasn't going to sit and wait away the widening hours. I was still not content to let time pass without my participation.
Everybody smoked. Everybody moved constantly in a crust of snow. We cleared drifts as the wind scrambled to put them back. We worked only a few meters in front of the bus, pushed until it stalled, then cleared again. Any sense of distance disappeared with our tire tracks. An hour passed on a hundred meters of that hill.
A ring of orange lights appeared out of the storm behind us. It came up fast. We broke off clearing and waved for it. Anything that moved that fast could help us move at all.
"A Hummer." Damdinsuren said it like the name of a mythical animal. It veered off the road at a mocking speed, never stopping. We spent a moment hating the rich folks in it. The wind erased the Hummer and our jealousy. We turned back to our shovel.
Damdinsuren started making jaunty poses and shouting over the wind. With no other options, the last stretch of this hill had become a game. I got to play too. "You're a writer, right?"
"Sometimes," I shouted back. We set ourselves to push. Damdinsuren set his jaw.
"Alright, then some day you should write a book about this. The snow was up to here, and there was this guy named Damdinsuren" – the tires caught and the bus crested the hill – "and he pushed and pushed" – we screamed at it to keep going, to not get caught – "and the bus drove on. Thank god, let's go."
Over the hill, we still expected to stop, expected more of Damdinsuren's games until he too ran out of enthusiasm. The next stall was palpable, but the bus kept moving. We didn't know what time it was. We didn't know how long we'd be traveling. We were suspended. One by one, we dozed off. There was nothing else to do.
Living here, cars spin off parts. Meetings dissolve in storms. We misunderstand and start over. Delay is a constant. After two years, half spent waiting, the other half scrambling, I have learned to quarantine some of my passion about the future to a place I can't even find anymore. I haven't so much run out of patience as numbed the need for it.
Still, early in May, I looked downhill to the end of the month. As I taught class, I’d take a break to daydream about seeing my friends in the capital. Waiting for meetings to materialize from their invisible or absent parts, I imagined how we'd walk around, eat food we could hardly afford, and make elaborate bets to see who would buy the next bottle of whiskey. Farther off in the fall, I thought of reunions, old friends in new cities, and more whiskey. Then, I would put the thoughts away for a while until the thirst of vague excitement overtook me again.
The waiting is almost as important as what happens. Waiting is the reason a rank of beers on Friday is infinitely better than one a night. It prepares us to metabolize expectation into pleasure, though it doesn’t do much about the beer. We're not debauched by too much, but by too often. We need to wait as much as we need to be satisfied – the reason most of us do anything is because we can't do everything now.
Spent stationary, waiting is exactly what Dr. Seuss called it – a most useless place. Waiting in motion, however, is the middle path between impossible patience - Buddhist ideals that explode into enlightenment and deserts that lie dormant until the rain – and impossible indulgence - feral cats, corrupt politicians, and dissipated Beat poets.
We wait because we insist on making choices in a natural world that has its own cycles. Choice can be maddeningly feeble, but it's about all we have to bring about a better place in which to spend the next meantime. We compromise with the natural world, the rule of crowds, and our pleasures, so we wait on rain, social change, and the slow progress of a bus in a snowstorm.
We woke up in mountains. The snow had stopped. The sun had come up gold. The young man had drooled a little on my coat, but offered to wipe it off. When the road was passable, we kept to the rails plowed over the roads by trucks hauling gasoline. We could see drifts before they caught us and we turned off onto other flat ground. A couple men would jump down and pick a path over the gravel in the valleys. We drove on at a pace of jogging feet.
If I could have recognized the landmarks, I would have seen them shambling by through the morning. Some of us switched seats. I daydreamed. The young mother breastfed. The driver smoked. The bus skirted White Lake in the early evening. I was shown a volcano. When that passed, there was a sunset that I hardly saw. We agreed it was very beautiful.
I resigned myself to another night on the bus. I would wait as we crawled into the last town before the end of the trip, Tosontsengel, to eat another meal of bland road food. I would write another text message announcing another delay. We would climb into the mountains, skirting patches of ice and engine-braking to near stops on every hill. The green hands of my watch would keep reminding me how much monotony had passed.
Long after the sun rose the next morning, we would track yet another bend in an unnamed river until it led to a cluster of buildings. We would stop at every street in town for another passenger, and I would feel each further delay like heartburn. Eventually, someone would tell that here, I should get off, and my friends would be waiting for me. All this waiting would become a story and we would eat, drink, and play football.
"Wake up, Luke! Look!" Damdinsuren was pointing and shouting another word I didn't know.
"It's beautiful on the black water." The young man leaned across me.
"There’s two of them, always together." The young mother showed me the place. A stream poured into the border of the frozen lake. Two swans, locked in each other's orbit, ignored the current and ignored us. We stared, reminded why certain images become cliché and not caring that they were.
"That's something to write about," Damdinsuren picked through my bag, found my notebook, and put it in my hands. He settled back in as we labored on. "Then you'll see your friends, and you can tell them."