My resolve was renewed after my dialogue with God, but that didn't change the fact that we still had a few more grueling miles to hike before getting back to town, where we could flag a bus to the base city.
It was almost 3:00 by now, and our pace was dragging after walking over 10 miles in over 4 hours. We had been up before 6 a.m. to catch the original bus that took more than 2 hours to get to our starting point.
I took one last look at the final village, its buildings gradually shrinking as we moved farther down the desolate dirt road toward the city. Our inability to follow the map had led us into uncharted villages like this one. I figured the detour was worth it because we had expanded our influence. Now, a few more people will have heard of the Savior. I just hoped taking on those last few villages wouldn't compromise our plan for the rest of the trip.
The prospects for getting back to base city in time to catch our 6 p.m. bus to our final destination for the night were looking pretty dim. We still weren't sure how far away the town was, and walking at this sluggish pace, it would take almost an hour to cover two miles. Our trainers had told us that if we wanted to make it back to base city in time to catch our transfer, we would need to leave this town by 3:30. To do that, we'd need a small miracle.
As I was pondering our helplessness, I heard the faint rumbling of an engine in the distance. I didn't get my hopes up. The noise could easily have been the firing of a tractor engine, and we could walk faster than those things could putter along. Even if it was a motorcycle taxi, there's no guaranteeing that it wasn't already occupied. A few had already passed us by, the passengers looking at us as if they couldn't believe someone could be stupid enough to trek through China's Death Valley on foot.
It seemed like an eternity before the driver was visible on the horizon. Sure enough, his standard red helmet peeked over the handlebars, assuring us that he was a taxi driver, not just some common farmer trying to get from A to B. As he got closer, though, we realized something: there was only one vehicle.
Now, when I talk about motorcycles in China, please don't envision a Harley. These dirtbikes were barely large and powerful enough to carry one of us with a pack. There was no way we'd both be able to hitch a ride.
But that was the beauty of the situation. Somehow, beween my limited Chinese and Steve's erratic gesturing, we communicated to the driver our plans. He would take me into town first, then come back and pick up Steve, bringing him to the same place he dropped me off. Although reluctant, he understood. Steve flashed his wad of Renminbi to assure the driver that his kind service would pay off in the end. Steve nodded toward the bike.
"Hop on," he said, "and stay put wherever he drops you. I'll be right behind you."
I nodded, straddled the seat, and tapped the driver to let him know I was ready to go.
Thank you Lord, I prayed under my breath as we left Steve in the dust. I didn't like the idea of splitting up, but this taxi may as well have been an angel chariot as far as I was concerned. I had the calm assurance that Steve and I would be reunited soon, so I took the time to relax and enjoy the ride.
I unholstered my digital camera, which had been strapped to my side all day without getting much use. I took a 15-second video of the ride, making a panorama of the horizon which was interrupted in part by the big red dome of the driver's helmet. After returning the camera to its case, I stealthily unzipped my fanny-pack. I had some unused VCD's left, and I wasn't about to waste them.
On the right side of the road, I saw a few small homes with children playing in the yard. I seized the opportunity to frisbee a few VCD's off the bike, praying they would fall into hungry hands.
A few minutes later, I dismounted on the side of a dusty, paved street lined with a variety of shops and vendors. There were people milling about everywhere, most of them minding their own business, some of them stopping to stare at me and wonder where I had come from and why. In Shanghai, seeing a white man is not a big deal, but this was smalltown China, the Mississippi of the Far East. Once again I was out of place, and this time, alone.
"My friend..." I said to the driver in Chinese, pointing back toward where we had come from. He nodded and turned his bike around. About 15 minutes later, the taxi returned, this time sagging under the weight of a smiling Steve and his hefty pack. I never thought I'd be this glad to see Steve.
"You ready to catch that bus?" he asked.
"Let's do it, Team Leader."