Cycling With Tigers in Northern India

True life travel stories where I lived to tell the tale. And the art that came from it.

 Tiger photo by Jessica Weiller

Tiger photo by Jessica Weiller

We were, just the 2 of us, half way into our 3 days of bicycling through the tiger reserve better known as Jim Corbett National Park in northwest India. Jim Corbett was the author of the book The Man-Eating Tigers of the Kumaon Hills, and was a reformed big cat hunter turned preservationist. This vast tiger reserve was established in his name to protect the majestic beasts from encroachment and poaching.

At the time, there were known to be 100+ tigers in residence in the reserve, roaming freely. But after cycling for 6 months on busy crowded roads, we were desperate to detour away from the pollution and maniacal drivers. The locals warned against us entering the park without protection, but taking that risk, it was a relief to finally be in nature, despite the effort of spinning our wheels through sandy dirt tracks most of the way.

 Between Rishikesh and Haldwani, at the foothills of the Himalaya - our bicycle route took us for 3 days through this beautiful national park and active tiger reserve.

Between Rishikesh and Haldwani, at the foothills of the Himalaya - our bicycle route took us for 3 days through this beautiful national park and active tiger reserve.

But tensions were mounting from the fatigue of our trip, and after a spat with my boyfriend/traveling partner, I suddenly found myself alone, teetering on a fallen log across a deep dry ravine, my bicycle balanced heavily on my shoulder.

The sounds of the jungle were partly familiar by now, my ears sharpened to the noisy natural world - monkeys, peacocks, jungle fowl, and even the vibratory rumblings of wild boar - a potentially bigger threat than the tigers themselves. I scanned my immediate surroundings - and fantasized about how I would THROW my bicycle at any charging tiger! As if that would save me from the massive head, teeth and claws from the perfectly evolved canine predators - sheesh.

 “Praise it” Acrylic, mixed media on panel 2003 24” x 24” x 2” Sold. ©Amy Guion Clay

“Praise it” Acrylic, mixed media on panel 2003 24” x 24” x 2” Sold. ©Amy Guion Clay

Just 6 months before, in the mid months of 1988, we had left the shores of Dover, crossing the English Channel with our brand new early-generation Specialized mountain bikes to begin an epic year-long bike trip wherever the road would take us. Starting in northern France, we would meander our way east through Europe, then on to India, and finally southeast Asia.

 Cycling through the Kumaon Hills in the Lower Himalaya, India, Oct 1988. No spandex or helmets here (don’t try this at home)!

Cycling through the Kumaon Hills in the Lower Himalaya, India, Oct 1988. No spandex or helmets here (don’t try this at home)!

We had both cashed out of our urban lives - he in advertising in London, me as a fashion designer in NYC. Disillusioned with the world as such, we made a vow to “just cycle” - no ambition, no identity, nothing but the present to guide us. Back then, there was no dropping out to have a BRAND on instagram or Youtube for everyone to follow. When you went on walkabout, you were gone. We had neither the desire nor the funds to keep in touch with our lives back home, and that was just fine.

But I knew well that I could easily die somewhere along the way and the news might not reach my family for many months. This reality suddenly ran through my head as I balanced on the log in the middle of that tiger reserve - trembling, exposed, vulnerable.

 Bengal tiger on the prowl.

Bengal tiger on the prowl.

That I am writing this now is indication that we were not devoured by man-eating tigers. My beau and I found each other again and made our way safely to the other side, having never actually seen a tiger (weirdly disappointed!). I suspect, with their perfect camouflage, that they were eyeing US, however. Maybe we were spared from the menu because, after many months of eating street food in India (and not to mention more than one stomach bug), we had little flesh left on our bones and would have been scrawny slim pickings.

Fast forward a decade and a half, by then settled with a family living in the Rocky Mountains, I began a series of paintings using found images. Tigers suddenly appeared, being the beauties that they are, and made their way into my paintings. I had long banked my memories of the tigers of the Kumaon Hills, and now was reunited with them, albeit safely in my studio.

 “Praise it 2” Acrylic, mixed media on panel 2003 12” x 12” x 2” Sold. ©Amy Guion Clay

“Praise it 2” Acrylic, mixed media on panel 2003 12” x 12” x 2” Sold. ©Amy Guion Clay

Our lives are multitudinous layers of experiences and memories, and as visual artists we get to revisit the images of our present, past and future - reconstructing, rewriting new narratives, resurrecting memories that were long buried. When we allow the impulses in our creative process to bubble up from the deeper recesses, and then act on them in the moment without fear, we make a space for those invisible memories to be visible in new ways, and hopefully glory in the gift.

Sometimes our fears are legitimate foes. But more often than not, especially in the studio, they can be disarmed and declawed by simply going IN.

Take the risk, chances are you won’t get eaten by tigers :-)