The Ridiculous Race

Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran

Holt Paperbacks

Chapter one

STEVE: What to Expect

Off the coast of Kamchatka, Siberia, bundled up and standing on the deck of a German container ship, I gripped the railing with oil-stained gloves to avoid being pitched into a heaving ocean the color of a wet gravestone. Snow was falling up, a meteorological phenomenon which I did not then and do not now understand, but which I saw with my own human eyes. "Well, " I thought, "I hope Vali is this miserable. "

VALI: A Taste of What’s to Come

I sat exhausted and disheveled, clutching my luggage in the backseat of a Checker taxicab driving north on La Brea Avenue, and wondered if Steve was already back in Los Angeles. Had he beaten me or was I the winner of the Ridiculous Race?

I looked out the window at the huge beige oil pumps and reflected on all I had experienced since I last saw them.

I smiled. I was proud of what I had done.

Did I, having circumnavigated the globe, consider myself to be some sort of better, modern-day Marco Polo? I wouldn’t say that. People who know a lot about both me and Marco Polo probably wouldn’t say that either. But some people, who know only a little bit about me and almost nothing about Marco Polo, might say that.

Those are the people I’m trying to impress.

STEVE: How It Started

This story begins on Sixth Street in Los Angeles, which can hold its own in any index of "world’s craziest places. " Sixth Street is home to the La Brea Tar Pits, pools of tar and water where woolly mammoths used to get stuck and eaten by saber toothed tigers, which would then also get stuck. Across from the still-burbling tar pits is the office of Variety, the showbiz newspaper devoted to reporting on which idiots just became millionaires. Just around the corner is the Peterson Auto Museum, where Notorious BIG got shot. Sixth Street runs past the barbecues of Koreatown, by Antonio Banderas’s house in Hancock Park, and into LA’s apocalyptically vacant downtown.

It was also home to the Sixth Street Dining Club and Magnificence Consortium, a society I’d founded. The members— myself, Vali Chandrasekaran, and our delightful young associate Leila—met weekly for the purposes of wearing preposterous suits, inventing cocktails, attempting to cook forgotten foods of the 1920s, drinking wine from the 99 Cent Store, sampling expired medicines, and proposing toasts to one another. Our meetings were held on Monday nights. This was a mistake. Members were often hungover disasters well into Thursday. But Monday was tradition, so Monday it remained.

Vali and I were Sixth Street neighbors, but we’d been friends at least since the time in college when I bailed him out of jail at five in the morning after he broke into the wrong building during an abortive prank. Five years later, he had cleaned up his act just enough to get a job writing jokes for actors playing well-intentioned rednecks to say on TV. My job was writing jokes for a cartoon alien, and, while this was incredibly fun, I sometimes wondered if I should try something more adventurous.

"See, some day all this will be over. We’ll have wives and children and dogs, and we’ll have to live responsibly. "

I said this as Vali and I were sitting in the hot tub of his apartment building in the waning hours of a Monday night. I was drinking a bottle of ninety-nine-cent wine which contained some kind of kernels, and Vali was putting bubbles on his face and pretending they were a beard. Which doesn’t sound all that funny, but he was really committing to the bit.

It’s possible that I’m misremembering all this. Vali may have been pretending the bubbles were a hat.

"I assume my wife will be fine with me getting drunk and getting in a hot tub, "Vali retorted.

"As of right now, my biography would be very boring to read, " I said.

"Yeah, I’ve been meaning to give my future biographers more material."

"We should have an adventure. " To get the last of the kernels out of the bottle of wine, I tilted my head back and pointed it at the stars.

"I’m in, " said Vali. It’s worth mentioning here that Vali was wearing boxer briefs.

"Should we become hoboes? "

"Mmm, too dangerous. I think these days hoboes are always getting stabbed. "

"Maybe we should circumnavigate the globe. "

"Maybe we should race around the globe. "

"That would be something. That would be an adventure. But we would have to not use airplanes. Otherwise it would be too easy. "

"No airplanes? Is that even possible? "

We didn’t worry about that.

Once we thought it up, there was no way we weren’t going to do it.

VALI: How It Started:

Corrections & Amendments

The preceding is not even close to the truth of how Steve and I came up with the idea for this book. I have no idea why he fabricated the story. The truth is as follows:

One night I had a dream about lifting weights with Bob Dylan. During the workout, my trainer, Abraham Lincoln, told me I should race my friend around the world without airplanes.

The next night, I had dinner with Steve. When I told him about my dream, his eyes widened with amazement and he spit out his soda. I knew something big had happened because Steve really hates to waste soda.

"I had the exact same dream last night, " he said.

Then we both knew what needed to be done.

STEVE: Circumnavigation:
Why It’s Awesome

In the next few days it became all I could think about.

It’s not the craziest adventure ever. These days any men’s magazine has an article by someone who backstroked the length of the Amazon, skateboarded the Kalahari, or Segway’d the Andes.

But 26,000 miles by sea and land is nothing to scoff at. Bear in mind that the first guy to try this, Magellan, ended up dead.

There’s an old-fashioned grandeur to the idea. It’s the kind of journey the great nineteenth-century adventurers dreamed up at the gentlemen’s club and began on a whim. It summoned up cafés in grand, decaying train stations, and the bowels of steamships, timetables, and engine whistles and half-true tales told over card games with strangers.

The route is full of names that still ring with the exotic, even in a globalized age. The Forbidden City. Ulaanbaatar. Siberia. St. Petersburg.Warsaw. Cologne. Ohio.

Ironically, it may be harder to pull off than it was in Jules Verne’s day. No one travels the oceans anymore. Long railway journeys are left to eccentrics. This trip would require stitching together transportation from the artifacts of the past and the new engines of the modern age. Vali and I were prepared to ride whatever beasts presented themselves, or to test the inventions of lunatic engineers.

Perhaps the best part would be that the "no airplanes" rule would keep us literally and figuratively close to the ground. We would see the world.We’d have to.

But to be honest, what I couldn’t stop thinking about was me, in the near future, walking up to beautiful women, and saying this:

"Hello,my name is Steve Hely. In 2007 I circumnavigated the world by boat and train. I was competing in a race against a worthy and devilish foe. The prize was a bottle of forty-year old Scotch. I won. "

Steve: The Rules

We agreed on certain details.

We would start in Los Angeles and go in opposite directions.Because I’d done slightly more thinking about this than Vali, I quickly called dibs on heading

west. My advantage would dawn on him over the course of the trip, when he lost an hour every time zone while my sleep was extended every two days.

No airplanes, helicopters, or hot air balloons. Hovercrafts were a gray area.

Both competitors would cross every line of longitude on Earth. You could do this any way you liked. If you went to the North Pole, ran around, and came back first, you’d win. But good luck getting to the North Pole without using airplanes.

The winner would be the first person back in Los Angeles. Two glasses of Scotch would be poured and left in the care of Vali’s roommate. The first man to round the Earth, arrive back from the opposite direction, and drink his Scotch would be the winner.

The schedule for network television has a two- to three month gap, usually between the middle of April and the middle of June, when shows shut down production to prepare for the coming year. As a result, Vali and I both had two months off. That’s when we’d go.

All we needed now was someone to pay for all this.

Excerpted from The Ridiculous Race by Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran.

Copyright © 2008. by Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran.

Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company,LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the publisher.