BY BRITANY ROBINSON
When tens of thousands of miles on the Mongol Rally become monotonous, mother nature steps in.
I propped my feet into the crook of the passenger seat and my rear window, inviting the wind to cool my sweaty legs.
They were a slight shade darker than the sprawling dead grass that whizzed by our car in the middle of Kazakhstan, but of the same golden brown hue. I’d been wearing my one pair of flip-flops everyday for weeks. Now bare, my feet revealed a tan lined V, cross hatching the dirty blue veins that snaked towards tiny patches of red nail polish, still clinging to my toes.
It is amazing how a little shrinking island of red toe nail polish can demand your attention when you’ve been in a car all day -- day after day.
Brent sat in front of me, his arm draped over the windowsill, his hand caressing and curling with the gusts. I watched his five fingers play with the wind like someone might watch an unusual bird, fascinated by the dipping and diving -– the way it toyed with the strength of the air.
After three weeks on the Mongol Rally, a 10,000-mile drive from London to Mongolia, I'd hate to admit I was bored. But these periods of lulled interest in the passing scenery and the intricacies of our experience were slowly giving way to clock watching.
It was 4:00 p.m. And thankfully, it was my turn to drive.
Hilton pulled over at a deserted petrol station to switch seats and we all stretched our limbs and dusted off our shirts, shaking them against our sticky skin.
We had no air conditioner in our little Fiat Panda. With a 1.2 liter or smaller engine requirement, it was like sitting in a toaster oven. We had imprinted sweat stains on all three useable seats and had completely given up on keeping the inside clean, as waves of dirt would inevitably crash through the open windows. It was impossible to keep them shut without baking our organs.
“Here ya go!” Hilton tossed me the keys and I plopped into the damp driver’s seat.
We had covered a pitiful 500 kilometers in the past two days and they had been the most difficult so far. The road had looked more like the surface of the moon than a highway and our six or so inches of clearance had screeched and scraped against potholes the size of our car as we veered and bounded around nerve-wracking obstacles.
But this afternoon had offered a relatively clean stretch of new road, and I was reenergized by the opportunity to drive it. I started off, still hunched over the steering wheel with the awareness that any second, a hole could open up, or the road could just end.
Roads do that in Kazakhstan.
Soon I relaxed enough to look around, toy with the music selection, and snack on nuts and dried fruit, eating the little pieces one by one in an effort to make them last.
After what had to have been a couple albums playing through, I looked at the clock again.
Time was, indeed, starting to drag.
Somewhere between selecting new music and looking at the clock another five times, I noticed the color of our surrounding landscape had changed drastically. Browns and yellows had been shifting to green for some time, but the tall grass had abruptly taken on a sickly, bluish tint.
The sky in front of us was darkening, but sunlight still bore down on the road just ahead. Slowly, the shadow of cloud cover was closing in. In the distance, I could see the blues and greens folding together into what suddenly resembled a tornado.
“Check out the sky,” I alerted the boys, who were both drifting off. “That looks like a funnel out there.”
“Shit.” Hilton rubbed his eyes and blinked like it might disappear.
“It can’t be a tornado,” offered Brent, with little conviction.
Watching it intently as we cruised along, I wasn’t convinced.
Uncounted minutes ticked by with my eyes glued to the point at which the horizon ended at a thick, gray haze. And then, it hit us.
We frantically cranked our manual windows as rain pelted our Panda with a force that shook the car. The wind pushed and pulled us away from our straight line on the road ahead, and visibility shrunk to a few shallow feet.
I thought of Andy and Dave, the team we had convoyed with since the Kazakhstan border, and looked back to see nothing but two tiny lights, fighting through the downpour.
Brown water poured down the windshield as the wipers struggled to keep up, washing away the dirt of the previous miles.
My shoulders were creeping ever closer to my ears when the SHHHHH of the rain turned into a roar of something solid.
Hail the size of golf balls was hitting our windows now with a rumbling sound I could feel in the pit of my stomach.
Nervous laughter shifted to quiet expressions of concern as Brent and Hilton each stretched their shirts across their arms and held them against the window in a pitiful attempt to soften the impact. No one spoke -- we couldn’t hear each other if we tried. The windows vibrated as if they’d shatter at any moment.
My back and my arms ached with tension as I learned even further over the steering wheel, fighting through the thick white streaks of ice to see the road ahead.
“Guys, what do we do??” I was starting to panic.
“Just keep driving, nice and slow!” Brent shouted, trying and failing to sound calm. “We’ll be out of this soon!”
We passed a truck, pulled over on the opposite side of the road and without thinking about it, I slowed to a stop as the 18-wheeler’s body softened the roar of raining ice.
Andy and Dave pulled up alongside us.
Dave and I waved at each other with fear and amusement dancing across our faces. I motioned for him to roll down his window so that we could talk. He allowed a crack of space before quickly changing his mind as hail pelted his face.
We were both laughing when he looked up again, his face red and wet. I shrugged and pointed forward.
We continued on.
My eyes never faltered from the road directly in front of us, until they briefly followed a herd of wild horses, huddled together for protection. The stout ponies with their long manes dancing in the wind, stood with their butts to the hail. I winced at the sound of it hitting our car, imagining what that noise would feel like on skin.
As my sympathies lingered with the horses, the hail began to shrink and turned back to rain. Just as quickly as the wall of darkness had engulfed our cars, the sun broke through, illuminating the layer of glittering white balls, splayed harmlessly now across the black asphalt.
We pulled over and jumped out, everyone staring wide-eyed at the vicious sky that had nearly shattered our cars.
It looked deviously bright now, with dark clouds crawling further and further away.
We snapped pictures and took turns recalling the experience as if we all hadn’t just been there, minutes earlier.
The well-traveled filth of our car, layers from eleven countries so far, had been washed off – the side panels now rippled with dents. I ran my hand over a door, feeling our new badge of honor.
Once our nerves had settled, and the damage assessment revealed nothing more than welts that we’d later share with fellow rally drivers as evidence of surviving what may have been the outskirts of a tornado, we climbed back into a much cooler car, and continued on our way.
I didn’t look at the clock again that day.
Britany Robinson is a Portland-based writer and the journey editor of Limbo.