Zerky in the Great Sand Desert of Iran

Map of Iran

November 24, 1967
Zahedan, Southeast Iran

Dear Zerky, ever since Yazd we have been skirting the southern edge of the Dasht–e-Lut, Iran’s Great Sand Desert, most of which is virtually uninhabited except for the oasis towns of Kerman and Bam. We are enjoying the desert immensely. Camping alone at night has turned out to be a wonderful experience. All day long, we look forward to the coolness and peacefulness that comes with the setting sun, bringing relief from the relentless dust boiling up from beneath our tires, and seeping into everything.

Beyond the city of Kerman, in the middle of southern Iran, the Anatolian Plain begins to fall off gradually, and by the time we had reached Bam we had dropped more than four thousand feet. We soon entered the Iranian province of Baluchistan, where the desert begins to assert itself with ever-increasing grandeur. Often we drive for an hour or more without seeing anyone, and sometimes the road is little more than a path through the desert marked by small mounds of earth on each side, pushed up by the road grader at the time of construction. In truth, there was little to construct. The desert is flat and often hard enough to drive on without benefit of a road. The problem we have been fighting however is corrugation or, as we call it in the U.S., “wash boarding.”

As we drive through the desert, a drama has been playing itself out beneath our wheels as our rear tires perform a dance of death in accordance with the laws of physics. I shall call this whimsical little drama

Act 1 – Where the Rubber Meets the Road

As one of our rear tires begins its ascent of a low-lying pebble, its revolutions slow in response to the increased demand put on the engine by the additional horsepower needed to lift the car vertically to the top of a pebble. Once up on top, however, the tire’s rotation quickly accelerates because the engine has suddenly been released from the load that gravity had previously imposed upon it during its near instantaneous climb to the top of the pebble.

Act 2 – Poof! A Lesson in Hubris.

As our fast spinning rear tires falls from its momentary state of grace atop the pebble, it collides with a roadbed whose only desire is to remain forever flat. At the precise moment of impact our now excessively rotating rear tire has a tire tantrum as gravity forcibly engages it once again with the surface of the road. In a fit of pique, the now angry rear releases its excess energy by spitting a puff of sand backwards. Adding insult to injury, many thousands of grains of displaced sand are now landing without warning on top the hapless pebble as our now decelerated and re-engaged rear tire races madly away with nary a thought to the destructive process it has just unleashed upon the road. A few inches in front of the pebble, where our overly exuberant rear tire has landed, there is now a slight depression exactly in the same place as where those poor little ejected grains of sand had once called home. How often is it as we speed through life that we go back to examine all the damage we have done?

Act 3 – Malignancy Marches Sideways

Our alternately decelerating-accelerating tire has now created a tiny height differential between the level of the sand it kicked backwards and the bottom of the newly formed depression where it landed. This will prove fatal to the road. A second motor vehicle approaches even though the little pebble who once stood so proud has never given any thought to its eminent demise and burial underneath multiple puffs of sand. The rear tires of the on-coming pickup truck are wise in the ways of the road. Like trained ski jumpers, they their rear tires off the top of many hapless pebbles, on an upwards trajectory into the shy, before crashing to earth again on that very same spot as their predecessors. Once again, a burst of energy is released creating a mound a little higher and a corresponding depression a little deeper.

Enter stage left an immense diesel truck barreling along, screeching and squealing, its huge dual rear tires accelerating and decelerating, spinning and spitting at frightful speed, as the truck careens madly down the gravel road like all the other crazy trucks in Iran. This behemoth is barely lifted before coming down hard on our poor pebble, squashing it into a growing mound of sand and driving it ever downwards into the road. This was not a useless sacrifice however because, upon landing, that poor little pebble deposited on the road a small mound of sand that will continue to grow and grow until it becomes a transverse ridge running at right angles across the road from one side to the other. But whereas the Great Diesel gained only a tiny amount of lift upon take-off, when those great dual tires came crashing down onto the same spot as their predecessors, they spit backwards mighty blasts of sand and gravel that are now significantly increasing the height of our growing mound of sand. Should an uneducated eye have peered intently downwards into that ever-deepening depression in front of the mound, it would have been able to discern the unmistakable beginnings of a pothole! In the future, each oncoming vehicle will try to dodge that miserable little pothole but shall increasingly fail. From now on, every single set of tires that accidentally runs over the edge of our poor little pothole will cause its width to widen and widen and widen until that same uneducated eye will at last discern the unmistakable beginnings of a trench. Hammered by tire after tire, this one time small time pothole will continue to expand sideways until it runs from one side of the road to the other. Marching along with it in lock step will be the trench’s loyal traveling companion, a parallel ridge being built out of the trench’s expelled debris. In years to come, hundreds and thousands of cars and trucks and VW hippie buses, and even some nearly new beatnik Volkswagen buses will launch themselves in turn off this mound busily growing into a ridge, and their rear tires, too, will be spinning and spitting, gradually carving a parallel series of ridges and trenches into this once-upon-a-time-but-never-again smooth graded road.

Act 4 – Malignancy Marches Forward (AKA the Vietnam War Domino Effect)

As all those ridges and trenches continue to widen and widen and widen, the cumulative effect propels the entire process forward, as each newly-made ridge and trench in turn become a series of multiple launching pads for each and every oncoming set of rear tires. Now once again, as each of them lands in turn, the ridge and trench system is added to, cumulatively and relentlessly, as ridge by ridge, trench by trench, mile by mile, the once upon a time flat roadbed is eaten alive by that runaway phenomenon known by physicists as The Cancer of the Corrugated Road!
When you drive too fast in the Great Sand Desert, you can run into this cancer. It can knock your front end alignment silly, or even break your axle. These corrugated roads rattle your teeth, destroy your shock absorbers and force even the most red-blooded motorist to slow down to a humiliating crawl.

Coda – The Cancer Spreads to the Desert Floor

Inevitably, an enterprising corrugation wise driver sees another shuddering ordeal in store for him and wonders why he should drive on such an awful road when the surface of the desert is so much smoother. What the hell, give try. The next driver sees his tracks and he too opts for the newer and smoother route through the Great Sand Desert of Iran. Before long, because the road to Zahedan was never compacted by road building equipment, it will become corrugated much faster than did its predecessor. Thus is born the need for a third, a fourth and a fifth road. Before long, nearly everyone on their way to Zahedan ended up getting themselves involved in a sort of do your own thing free style do-it-yourself road building project. Which, by the way, really is fun. The feeling of power and freedom you get when you are unshackled from the road is addictive and, should you ever drive to Zahedan, you will find many such expressions of human creativity that diverge and converge, in bewildering combinations. Sometimes there are so many unsigned tracks heading off into the desert that drivers who are not familiar with this particular road can only guess at which track to choose. Sometimes we found ourselves intentionally zigzagging across all of them at right angles, in order to compare them with each other and to find the one true path to deliverance residing between those two parallel mounds of sand that were long ago pushed up by the god of the desert, the Road Grader. Sometimes you truly do need to travel on faith, and the test of that faith comes when it suddenly occurs to you that the maker of any particular set of tracks might not necessarily have been going to Zahedan. After all, not everyone goes to Zahedan.

Oh ye of little faith, when driving at right angles, you need to always pay attention because eventually you too might cross that last road to Zahedan. And if you do, like yours truly, you will not know that that road is the correct road to Zahedan. At that point in your travels, you will discover—to your great shock and dismay—that there is no road at all in sight, other than the marks your tires just recently made in the sand. It is like being lost upon the ocean so you need to turn around carefully lest you get stuck. Now you need to follow your own tracks back to where you came from. Should you sense your vehicle beginning to bog down, do not slow down because what you need to do is to gin it before your car’s wheels don’t dig too deeply into the sand. Once they do, your goose is cooked, because the wheels are going to try to dig themselves in, deeper and deeper. Otherwise, you are going to discover that your car’s axel is resting itself on the sand and that you are going nowhere. In my case, however, I still had that collapsible shovel I had bought in Munich, which set me free from being locked up in the sand.

Our rough and occasionally nearly indiscernible road through the desert is often more visible on the map than on the desert floor. We are now on the southernmost of the two east-west running roads through Iran linking Europe with the Indian sub-continent. The northern route goes through the city of Mashad, in northeastern Iran, and then directly into Afghanistan. That is the more direct route of the two, and is the one most people take. But we have been hearing bad things about the Iranian border officials near Mashad and our hippie sources have told us that Mashad is a center of Islamic fervor, and that some of the officials there are making it rough on westerners. This is probably an exaggeration—our experience tells us that this kind of talk usually is—but then again how do you ever know for sure? So we have decided to confuse the enemy by outflanking him and taking the southern route into Afghanistan via the city of Quetta in the far southeastern corner of Iran near Kandahar in Afghanistan. That way we should be able to enjoy more wonderful desert and less cold interior plateau.

Lately we have been seeing our first sand dunes. They have got us to talking about becoming Bedouins and perhaps trading in our bus for a camel and a tent. About fifty miles before Zahedan, near the West Pakistan border, we suffered our first casualty, a broken shock absorber. I cannot blame the shock absorber, Zerky, because we all have our limits. All four of our shock absorbers have been taking a terrible beating ever since we left the asphalt North of Shiraz. Slowly we have managed to limp our way into Zahedan at five to ten miles per hour. As we entered the city, a vision appeared before us, an authorized Volkswagen garage. Once again, Allah be praised, I told you there was magic in Persia, Zerky.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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