Hartley: No light till the end of the tunnel

Todd Hartley
I’m With Stupid

Back in 1990, my junior year of college, I did a program called Semester at Sea. It’s basically a cruise ship full of college students going around the world, stopping at various ports of call in exotic locales where there is no drinking age.

You can say what you will about the value of the courses we took on the ship, and you can question how having that much fun could possibly be considered educational, but I will say this: I learned more about the world and my lucky place in it that semester than I did in all my other years of education combined.

One of the things I learned — and I know this is cliche and racist — is that people in many places in Asia didn’t take traffic safety and rules as seriously as we do here. I’m not going to say they were bad drivers, but they did take risky chances and flout laws in ways you just don’t see in the U.S.

I learned all that when the ship stopped in Taiwan and some friends and I decided to go see the supposedly world-famous Taroko Gorge National Park. I figured it couldn’t be world-famous since I’d never heard of it, but it was pretty awesome. It’s a deep, steep-walled, marble canyon with a one-lane road cut right into the rock 100 feet or so above the river.

My friends and I decided the best way to see the gorge would be on scooters, so we rented some from a guy who only knew two words of English: “No problem.” He assured us, naturally, that we didn’t need helmets, and when I pointed out that the headlight on my scooter didn’t work, he shook his head but told me it was not a problem.

So we set off, helmetless, along the busy coast highway, doing about 45 mph while all the trucks and cars whizzed by going about 80. No problem. Somehow, we made it 20 miles up the coast to the gorge without getting killed, and when we got to the gatehouse at the park, we learned something we hadn’t known. A tropical storm had ravaged the gorge a couple of days earlier, and the road was full of potholes and puddles.

However, the ranger lady told us it might still be possible to ride our scooters up the gorge as far as our hotel. Beyond that, the road had been completely washed away. But if we wanted to swerve around potholes and watch out for the buses running frequently up and down the road, it was up to us.

Of course we voted to keep going, so we headed up the canyon and soon learned something else we didn’t know: Much of the road was tunnels through the marble that were almost exactly the size and shape of the front of a bus, and many of the tunnels were long and bendy enough that they were completely dark. No problem, except for me and my busted headlight.

My only option was to get as close as I could to one of my friends and try to follow his headlight through the tunnels, and somehow it worked and we timed the buses right, and I made it to the hotel alive. Sorry I don’t have a more interesting conclusion to the story.

Yes, it was probably pretty stupid, but stupid is what I do best. And don’t think for a second that I didn’t know it was dangerous. I did; I just didn’t realize at the time how dangerous it was. I figured if a bus hit me, I might not get killed as long as the bus driver got help for me quickly enough. The truth, according to a September story from, is that since we were in Taiwan, it’s more likely that the bus driver would have driven over me a couple more times to make sure he’d killed me.

Seriously. I’m not making that up. Apparently, in some places like Taiwan and China, if you injure someone with your car you have to pay for their medical treatment for the rest of their life. But if you kill them, you only have to pay a fine and then you’re done. That’s why there’s evidently a saying in Chinese that reads like the world’s sickest fortune cookie: “It is better to hit to kill than to hit and injure.”

Actually, I take it back. Racist or not, if that’s going on in your country, I have no problem calling you a bad driver.

If Todd Hartley were 25 years younger, he’d still be stupid; he’d just be stupid with hair. To read more or leave a comment, visit