Somewhere in no man’s land between Nathon Pier and Bang Po village stands a hill. The two lane road that snakes around the coast line of Samui becomes a four lane highway as it approaches our hill. Runners and cyclists come all the way to the beginning of the incline, look up and turn around. For, though it looks unassuming sitting in the middle of the road, it is a big hill. It commands respect from all those who stand in front of it.
As hills go on the island of Koh Samui, it is neither tall nor small, if you are in a powered vehicle. But if you are on your feet or pedaling a bike, the steep incline is a challenge. Eight hundred meters straight up before you reach the summit. Black paved road, with no divider for pedestrian traffic. Just a storm water drain that ends after the first few minutes of running. Then it is you head first into oncoming traffic.
If you can get over it, the viewpoint at the hill’s crest is your ultimate reward. The light summer breeze at the top, balmy, humid and warm, catches you by surprise. As does the dog, guarding the shack by the view point. You can see beaches on both side of the island. The emerald green blue waters extending all the way into the Gulf of Thailand. If you are not in a rush, you could turn your back on the road and the sun, turn towards the seas and the waves, sit down and let your mind’s eye do the wandering.
The old man first went over the hill in a rented van on his way to his hotel. He had noticed it during his morning walks but hadn’t thought about climbing it. Teak wood shop on the left, a street food dhaba on the right, views of the waters in the distance, tall coconut trees everywhere.
The young van driver down shifted to the lowest gear, the ten seater commuter van groaned and strained, the powerful engine growling as the van drove up the hill. He finally understood why he had been hearing motor bikes and car rev up for the last two days from his room. Why the runners and cyclists bowed their heads and turned back as they approached the hill. If this giant van is struggling with the incline imagine how ones legs would feel, he thought.
“It’s a big hill”, a voice inside him whispered. “The van is not the way of the worthy. You should try it on your own”. “Maybe we should”, said his heart. “Are you mad?”, said his legs. “Act your age, you are not nineteen anymore. There is nothing left to prove”, said reason, dignity and sanity, together.
“What does that even mean?” the old man asked.
The next morning, he woke up early. “Let’s go see the hill. I just want to see how tough it would be to walk to the crest”, he spoke to the crowd of voices inside his head.
He walked up slowly, turning around often to take in the view. When he finally reached the top he turned around and ran downhill. This would be fun he thought but not today, I will come back tomorrow.
When the sun rose the next day and tomorrow became today the old man walked back to the hill. “I will give it a try but first I must prove myself worthy of the hill. I must pay my dues before my attempt so that the hill doesn’t think me arrogant.”
The old man ran for as long as he could in the other direction and then ran back and let his momentum carry him to the crest. But it wasn’t enough. He had to stop just short of the summit because he had nothing left to give. Out of breath and exhausted he looked around the curve of the road and saw that he had missed it by only a few hundred meters.
“Only a few hundred meters. Doesn’t sound like much,” he thought, “for all those still on the road or driving up in their cars and vans and bikes. Yet, despite being so close, it is out of my reach. I cannot find it within me to walk, let alone run anymore”.
“We told you so”, said the voices. “But you like to play the fool”. The old man heard the chorus but wasn’t swayed or disheartened. He had been hearing the voices all his life. Yet, his spirit was as strong as his heart. “I have one more day before we leave the island. I will come back again when the sun rises tomorrow”. He said to the hill.
The next day the hill and the voices were waiting for the old man as the sun broke through the clouds hovering over the blue waters of Samui.
“I am here to try again but first I must prove myself worthy”. Once again the old man ran as far away as he could, farther than yesterday and then when he could run no more he turned around towards the hill. On his way he passed others out on their own journeys and voyages. A cleaning lady in yellow who kept the path to the hill clean, three brown listless dogs trying to beat the heat by moving as little as possible, runners and cyclists heading in the same direction, children heading to school, a van filled with morning laborers heading to work, and motor bike riders revving up engines for the incline waiting for them at the end of the curving road.
He could feel the fear build up as he approached the hill; the chorus of voices getting louder, “you have left it too late, you have given too much, too soon, this is going to kill your pace, the hill will win, you will lose.”
While he had run farther and faster today he gave in to the fear. The old man was blessed with a runners’ heart and spirit, but the voices were strong today and his legs and lungs were weary. They gave out much before the crest. He slowed down just a few steps into the incline.
As he struggled to catch his breath and find his gait, he stopped running and switched off his pace and heart rate tracker. Hands on his side, his body folded double he gasped for breath. Then he straightened up turned around and looked downhill. The voices snickered. He turned around and looked uphill.
“This afternoon I leave, but not like this, for I don’t know when or if our paths will cross again”, he said to the hill.
He took his first hesitant step uphill. “So what if I can’t run.” He said to the voices, “You may have won but there are many ways to the top and they are all worthy. My worth is not measured by my pace, but by my spirit”. The voices laughed but then grew silent as steps followed one after another, growing steadier and stronger, slowly working through the distance to the summit. “If I can’t run up the hill, I will walk. If I can’t walk, I will crawl. Let the hill be the judge, for you have no power over me.”
“For two days I have tried. For two days I have fallen short. What matters is that I have tried, despite age, reason and sanity. In the end I will win because I did. For the real test was not the hill but the will to climb it.”
The voices didn’t speak again. The old man reached the summit. He savored the breeze and the view. There were no clouds today and the sun was strong as he beheld the white foam of the waves below from the two faces of the hill. It would have been nicer if he had been able to run uphill, but he was grateful for what he had. “Thank you for all this. Someday I will come back and try once more.” He said to the hill as he took a lingering last look and turned back.
As he walked down toward his hotel room, the hill noticed a change. There was this little extra bounce in the old man’s steps, his head held a little higher, his back a little more straight. He looked a little younger, the strength of his stride belying his years, the grey in his hair giving away the game.
Easy to miss if you hadn’t seen him struggle with the ascent for the last two days. She waited in silence as she had for decades before the old man showed up on her foot steps. She knew he would come back again.