For nearly two years, my wife and I lived in Lesotho, the mountain kingdom — that sovereign nation surrounded entirely by South Africa. The country is gorgeous and rugged, cut with canyons and rivers and dominated in the eastern highlands by the Maloti Mountains, where the roads can snow over and become impassable during winter.
My wife is a cultural anthropologist and her research is based in the rural hamlet of Mokhotlong, 8,000 feet into the mountains, where subsistence farming is the primary occupation. On our most recent six-month stay in Lesotho, Ellen and I took our children with us — Sam was 5 then, and Eve 3. While my wife journeyed out to rural villages to do field work, the kids and I would ramble through town, visiting old friends or trekking down to the Senqu River, which ribboned through the gorge. We passed thatch-roofed homes and greeted shepherds on donkeyback while hawks looped above us on thermal drafts.
Many days the kids and I ventured farther afield in “Wanda,” a battered Toyota RAV4 that had staggered off the assembly line sometime late in Bill Clinton’s presidency. We’d purchased Wanda with an arrangement to sell her back at the end of our stay, and she became a trusted companion, stocked with road-tripping tunes and sturdy enough to traverse the rocky terrain.
Then we ran out of gas — or I suppose it was Mokhotlong that did. The tanker truck that regularly huffed its way up the mountain one day did not appear, and then continued to not appear for several weeks, without explanation. The pump in town was dry, and so was Wanda, or nearly so — her needle hovering just outside the red. We were temporarily stranded, worried that we wouldn’t be able to make a work trip down to the lowlands, just days away.
So when a rumor found its way to Mokhotlong that a tanker truck had arrived in Mapholaneng, a town 40 minutes away, the kids and I huddled. I didn’t know if there was truth to what I’d heard, but any theoretical gas would likely be gone if we waited for confirmation. Who knew if or when we’d have another shot? I explained my plan to the children and watched the tiny cranking of their brain gears. It was a fine plan indeed, they agreed, and so the three of us hopped into Wanda, excited for a mad dash through the mountains to retrieve as much gas as we could.
Just past the edge of town, the needle dipped suddenly into the red. Wanda’s gas gauge had been skittish before, but it now appeared we had much less fuel than initially indicated. Miles of rolling valley lay between us and the town of Mapholaneng — this was the point of no return. I took stock of our situation: We had a phone, a bag of snacks, water, some coloring books and action figures, a sweet mixtape. If our gas did run out, the greatest risk was likely boredom; someone would pass eventually and give us a lift through the mountains.
As a parent, the tendency is to protect and guard — an impulse toward conservatism — understandable since life is risky. But with that impulse comes the potential of cutting yourself off from the world, finding yourself stranded.
I looked back at Sam and Eve, who were dancing in their seats, and we set out into that blue blinding day, energized and laughing nervously, the stereo up loud.
We climbed the first rise and after crossing gravity’s threshold I took the car out of gear. The three of us coasted, drifting down through the valley, waving at shepherds as we passed. When our momentum took us as far as it could, I started the engine again and launched into the next climb.
For 30 minutes we roller-coastered like this, rising and falling, thrilling to the drop, carried on waves of our own excitement. We conserved gas when we could, then urged Wanda onward as she chugged up the grades. As we crested that final rise, a Taylor Swift song came on the stereo, sax pumping, and it would be wrong to say we did not feel triumphant.
At the gas station in Mapholaneng, Wanda took her fill. Then we turned the car around and aimed ourselves for home.
Will McGrath is the author of the recently released “Everything Lost Is Found Again: Four Seasons in Lesotho.” He lives with his family in Minneapolis.