The Ground Under the Dream: OZ
The Sydney Prologue:
I am opposed to the city, earnestly. In the city my staticity is dull. I am un-electric. I barely bend, I barely zap. I am as torpid as hibernation. Parrots and ibises, the high ones above the ground, my eyes flicker to their glistening wings, my scaly ears perk as if hearing a tambourine, yet all I can muster is an empty gaze. My eyes dart to the birds flittering, again; lethargic. I probably lay coiled like a venomous snake in the hot sun. My eyes flitter yet I stare blankly. I want nothing to do with you. I only rattle to warn. I will slither away and hide. This barstool over a clean sink. Yet, anthropomorphically I am probably more like a stray cat, a Sydney stray, a walking hibernation of apathy.
I sit with it, the city. I sit with it, repelling a juxtaposition when I cannot sit side by side. I don’t fit. I can’t just rub shoulders with it. I can merely sit with it. Somehow the manicured trees, plants, and flowers placate a raspy pitted gut that sees the sadness of the city that no one a part of the city feels, let alone sees. I harken a wilderness from the gutter. In that blank stare behind glittering lids I see the big red desert. I watch the rain tumble down from the dingy roofs, cascading through tin gutters, and I think a barking whisper: I can drink it. And, you can’t.
The miasma is a wave of sadness; what does everyone else see. I’ll be gone soon to the empty desert, the empty red. Until then I’ll sit in an empty bar feeling that juxtaposition of isolation and the concrete. Now, I can sit with that, or maybe I mean without it, or under it. Either way, I believe my drift is caught.
A bar can be a wilderness. This bar I am in right now playing new indie rock is my wilderness. A bar, and a wild open area share one trait: breathable space. Until then, until the big red, I feel what I once felt living in Los Angeles. Back then, indeed I established a wilderness. It just wasn’t red. I needed to go deeper but I just couldn’t, I was too afraid. Nonetheless, I feel the wilderness here, the morose of the under, the isolation, the sadness, the stark hinterland; the skyscrapers shimmer in the sun setting, the buildings seem to fall rather than rise, the shadows pressing down. This is not the Earth’s shadow. This is our own shadow. And, I am not afraid any more. It has been so long since I’ve been so, a reminder of the time when I lived in my 20s in Los Angeles.
It’s all harsh, right? A bit much? I reread this again and it feels almost a bit whiny, a bit lonely, over the top self-loathing, a wee tinge of pretentiousness because I am antsy and ready to get out to where I am feeling the pull. Certainly, this is how the city feels to me. Really, I am not bullshitting you. I just don’t want everyone else to look into themselves from my writings and see how stupid they look. Of course, that should not be the case. Nobody reads my shit and thinks ‘I am the stupid one.’ I am sure if that. The weird one, the un-relatable lone one, an un-repeatably far away voice that has no echo, my voice is empty and I am outnumbered. I know that I am different. My voice does not stick to the dead and silent air of the city. My voice, however, sticks to the emptiness of the big red. I am just hollering internally loud enough to catch my voice later on down the line in the empty big red. Or maybe I am just lonely.
Dusk has crept on in, slithering in like this buzz of three proper pints. I wobble up from my perch at the window, my narrowly squared vision into the city. I slightly push the stool back, grab the pint, and slug the rest of it. When I walk around the hood I see expansive webs, spider webs as wide as shawls that spread across couches, draped like silk curtains. I see giant bats traversing the sky that careen in between buildings seeking fruit and blossoms, the flying foxes of the urban woodland. When I walk around the hood I see a white man with a bloody eye. I glance at him and keep walking on, his glare of what-the-fuck-you-looking-at meaningless to me as my headphones pump. Blood ran down his cheek from a cut on the side of his squinting left eye, I saw that. He trudged on soberly, his shoulders wide, still pissed off. When I walk around the hood I see hordes of people, the masses, the herd, all shuffling in a distorted rhythm no one can see; everyone is marching in unison. So, I slide into another bar and find me a $10 jug of some lager called XXXX Gold, the cheap hooch to keep this human shit show going. At least I’ll be smiling like the rest of them, with my eyes too.
I leave the bar after pounding the jug, didn’t take long, 30 minutes tops. And, the rain begins to fall and I see the shit sink. I walk around the hood and I smell a heavy dank redolent of an empty sea bed, the tide rolling out, a new wilderness revealed, the tinge of city flushing away where only a steely silence remains like a Michael Mann film.
I am up early as usual. I sit up and feel the urge to pack and roll. I am not at camp though. I feel constricted from a stifling warm breeze flurrying in through a window cut into a blank wall. The city is barren with silence. I squander the early hours with some reading before heading out for some coffee. I am antsy and ready to depart the city. The city has drained me, my emptiness craving for adventure. The year I have planned is big enough, long enough, that I know this time off in Sydney is something that will reset me. I will rest and recover my legs, spirit, and the lust. This time in the city is valuable. This time in the city is replenishing my urge to move again. I am trip planning most of my days here: my itinerary, my route, my gear, my bike. With the year that I have planned, I am right in the middle of it, I need to pace it out, refuel my endurance, use the vapid and barren city to inspire my storyline. Ooh, I am ready to be cut loose.
I think I saw a dog being killed today, most likely heard. I think animal control put the dog down or at least forced it somewhere. I can’t be sure. I heard the unimaginable squeals even under my headphones. People stopped in their tracks, even headed towards the scene. I pulled a headphone out and heard the yelps echo between the buildings. I put my plug back in and walked on. Heads continued to turn. Most kept walking, I kept walking. It’s the city. Shit like this happens all the time.
A wide open window cuts open the vibrant city seen in front of me. I have a glazed look on my face, my cheeks rosy under a salt and pepper beard. I admire a woman’s ass lump up and down with each stride. I trace the outline of her breasts underneath her tank top, no bra. I fall into the beauty until a flashing neon sign breaks my gaze free. Beyond the gaze the street focuses into clarity. A Toyota Yaris squinches into the rear bumper of a purple Lamborghini. A Chinese women, attractive and slender in a short plaid skirt, sitting outside of the pinched rectangled window, takes a snap shot of her dinner for the fifth time. She eats slow and ravenous, at the same time, like a sloth eating fresh leaves. She has posted to TikTok at least three times. Her and her friends are small, ill-equipped for drinking cheap malty beer and having an iPhone.
On this perch, stowed away in the loge deck, I observe the play. I stare into the marbled grains of the steak medallions, my nose zeroes in. Suddenly, the Lamborghini screams, the rocket roaring from underground like a set of violent rapids surprising a napping rafter on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The purple rocket slides onto the street and spits tire grit back onto the Yaris and the Chinese woman and her friends’ medallions. I lose the smoky grilled scent through the exhaust. I suddenly realize the scream of the Lamborghini sounded like that dog earlier today, the one being killed or whatever. I mumble to myself, ‘This is the city, this is the wilderness.’
If I know and understand one thing it is wilderness. I reckon walking is a close second. I find my story interwoven within those wavelengths of a walking wilderness. I am borne of that place, that essence of the hinterland, where my own wilderness is a vacuum, the driving throbbings of my heart across an empty expanse. That is where I get my fill.
I wouldn’t be writing all this stuff if I did not admit to the juxtaposition of my story and being in a city. Am I the wilderness in a loathing city? I walked around the museum today. It is part of my truth and my brooding. A John Muir in Hollywood, that type of sort, mixed with Bukowski, the combination merging to an Abbey-like figure. I recognize I could never be as saluted as a national hero, let alone anyone important. I can never fall in place. Even though I am inspired by some of the faces and stories, I understand I am not that special of a human. I care about wild places more than people. I sat in one spot in the aboriginal exhibit feeling the wrinkles of those faces. I stood up and left with the big red in mind. I am a loathing wilderness in a city.
I sidled through some tall vaunted doors and slid up to a bar, order a pint, and found a varnished green framed window to observe the vapid masses. Swarming in droves, what appears as chaos lies an order underneath, the compulsion to follow along, the common denominator of the herd. What people do in the city I find no meaning. Life is not on the precipice here. Life is robotic, groomed, fucking sterile, a laboratory, a concrete maze where bells chime and snacks are set at the end of corridors.
He turns his head to the left, then to the right, his hands clasped behind his back, then he strides across the street. The man is pleasant looking, wearing a small black vest, Korean, eyes smiling. He walks softly into the street pleasantly wandering. A young tourist, probably European, scuffles along the sidewalk behind the nice Korean man, trips over her bulky luggage, hard plastic and sizeable like a water tank on a roof top just with wheels, towing a barrel she clambers across the intersection, aimless, her heading shifting from ground to the skyscrapers, her eyes looking for cracks and signs. Damn, the city is grooving, alive with a purple gelatinous glow, long lines and queues, humans of all shapes and colors, noises and clangs, movements and rhythms, debauchery and business, the fashionable and the derelicts; keep it moving, the order, the belt tightly holding the pants up, the swaying, the flailing throng, the belt a tight conveyance. Everything, everyone is fucked up yet following along. My grip on it all is watching that polite Korean man wearing a black vest striding across the street. He’s in happiness, content, doing what he is supposed to do, I slug my eighth pint, or whatever count I am on, I can go all night. And, I know this is the stage I need for preparation, my office and space for the mental schematics for what I am about to undertake. I must see the differences, the oppositions, the contradictions, the humiliation and absurdity of being human. We are not animals in the city. We are trained, non-instinctive. We are just like little mice careening down city corridors wedged between skyscrapers. I am a part of this as anyone, as any other human. I just observe things differently, a sideways slant. Ding, a bell rings, a crosswalk chimes, a food order is up, an iPhone sparkles. Ding, I shake loose. Ding, I am in my head, the big red desert of my head. Ding, I shake loose. I cannot wait for the laws of the big red. In the morning, I will walk out of my hostel and down a few kilometers to the bike shop. I will saddle up my steel horse, pack it tight, and ride into the west of the east. Ding, in two days time I should be rid of the city, rid of the stranglehold, rid of the dings.
Out of the City and into the Blues:
I felt some semblance of loneliness in Sydney, some isolation I needed to chew away from. Ironically, what I craved was solitude. I can reread the prologue and feel the depression, a desolation in the city, yet I can also see the yearning for solitude, of reconnecting with a natural place and not some man made concrete slabs and edifices. I zipped through the river trail extending west out of the city. I followed man made canals, the infrastructure placed by man to tame the city. I pedaled and pedaled away, away from it all.
I did, however, end up in a motel that night. With what I am currently undertaking this full year, I need to pace this while Australia bikepacking trip out, let the body warm up, let the new muscles get lubed up. Most importantly, I need to let my pace be that of the bike. I must transition from 3mph to somewhere near 8mph. I must feed myself differently, drink differently, pack my gear differently. I must pace my muscles out differently, take care of different areas. Mentally I must shift into a different head pace, get that rhythm my body and mind can sync up to, and all with the bike.
I wasn’t going to fight the city that first day. I used it. I stopped short of 65 miles that day in just under 7 hours. I stopped in the late afternoon and had two dinners. I started out very intent on managing my body and mind. I knew I would be out if the city proper tomorrow anyways. I fell asleep early despite the raucous bar below me, the locals out for a rollicking Friday night. I dreamt of the bike all night, situationally, through eucalyptus forests, the wind flowing up onto my face.
Certainly the conversation overheard at lunch spurred me on. A light drizzle slowly leaked from the gray skies above. A shiver took hold of me, my fingertips numb, my body shook the chill loose. I grabbed a cup of coffee to warm my hands back up. I leaned back into the wooden backrest. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly, letting the hot liquid percolate down my gullet and into my core. From the booth adjacent me, two couples noshed on what was left of their lunch. A lady squawked loudest of the bunch. She told some inane story about almost getting hit by a car as she was walking in her neighborhood. Because of having just finished hiking in New Zealand where pedestrians do not have the right of way, I thought to myself: lady, you have no fucking clue. Of course, the conversation steered to behaviors of people behind the wheel. I swallowed the rest of my coffee quickly, quickly enough to burn my esophagus. I left the cafe and went to my bike. I loaded it up with some extra food and rolled on out of that town.
I descended from the tablelands and into a wide valley. Red sandstone bluffs fell precipitously from the mesa, weathered patina striated the cliff faces with black scars, dark overhangs under-tucked in the thickly forested glens, as I cruised on through. Strange to want to hike in the thick forests at a slower pace yet feel so rid and free of the city. Just being surrounded by the forests and the cliffs brought me a chipper demeanor. At the 6 Foot Track singletrack began. Now, my bike is huge, a beast, a jeep with two wheels that turns like a bus. I wanted it this way rather than fleet and nimble because of the big water and food carries down the line in the Outback. So, negotiating a tight and narrow trail proved to be a challenge, especially only this day being day two on this rig. ‘Pick your line, and commit.’ I kept saying this aloud to myself. I was learning a crash course all over again. I lugged the rig up and over the stiles and fences. The rig is heavy and I heaved mightily the rig angled over my tight shoulder, my left hand gripping a railing and pulling my weight upwards. As much as this proved to be a challenge I welcomed it. I got to know my bike better, forming that tightness and bond of a relationship we need to have.
The intoxicating aroma of the eucalyptus forests from the recent rains tickled my nose. In some way, I was transported back to running the Santa Monica Mountains of Los Angeles. I know it’s from all the eucalyptus we have in LA. Thrust back into little league baseball memories where every city park has huge stands of eucalyptus. That sweet smell has been with me since childhood. Eventually I made it through the tough singletrack section. I even had some encouragement from the locals out on trail who couldn’t believe I had brought this rig this way. I came to the Cox River and picked my bike up above the surface of the knee high river. A man and his son watched me, the son gaze transfixed. At the camp I relaxed under an awning, the lawn area for camping crowded with tents with everyone inside their shelters. Four miles and a steep climb to the next camp, I decided to push on considering I had ample daylight left. I wanted a taste of the climbs, to understand what I was getting into tomorrow. I had to push the bike most of the way up the steeply graded road. While I definitely have a high fitness level established, I still do not have the wind and power to pedal the bike up very steep ascents. For sure there’ll be ascents all riders get off and push the bike up. I just know I have room for improvement and the gaining of pedal strength and wind.
Of course, what took me an hour and a half to go up, I coasted the same distance down in 15 minutes. Towards the top of the climb I spotted my first two kangaroos, their tiny deer like heads peering at me over the tall grass. One hopped away and I giggled out loud. I arrived at camp drenched in sweat, thoroughly from head to toe, clothes, skin and all. I hurried changed into drier clothes to begin the drying process of the sweaty clothes, but being camped in a small meadow along side a stream after a humid and misty day I knew my effort would be futile. The idea of putting on wet and sweaty clothes in the morning didn’t bother me. I’m used to that. What I really needed to dry out was my saddle sores, those raw red dimples on my ass cheeks where the cushioning of my shorts end and the rubbing begins on those areas. I hurriedly ate dinner and then set up my shelter quickly. Once inside I stripped down and turned my ass sideways. I rubbed some chamois cream with tea tree oil on the sores and closed my eyes. I could feel the light diminishing through my shelter, the tall eucalyptus forest casting a dark curtain. Some kookaburras pierced the air with their cacophonous laughter that echoed in the glens. The laughter subsided and the stream slowly rolled in, lolling blissfully along down the gully. The insects chirped loudly but in unison causing a steady background noise not loud enough to distort thought. A chill sunk inside my shelter and I fell asleep on my sleeping pad naked, my ass to the side airing out.
The heave ho push out of the Little River drainage woke me up swifter than a fist to the face or a pot of piping hot coffee. The ascent was incredibly slow going, at a hiking pace. It made sense, too, considering I was hiking and pushing the rig at the same time. Yet, I embraced the haul and enjoyed the morning light pilfer through the forests, the parrots squawking raucously as the day began. Of course, at the top the terrain leveled out. The climb had taken me 2 hours, mostly pushing the rig with my hiking strides. I sat down profusely sweating. I knew the forecast had a couple days of hot weather, so sitting there with my clothes already drenched at 930 in the morning I knew I was in for a long day.
Fortunately, I had to take a detour around Jenolan Caves due to mudslides that have damaged the road. At a road closure sign I sat in the shade and did some quick planning and re-routing. I turned back down the road, the direction I came from. It can be like this on a bike with travel potentially being so swift. I turned around without fretting too much about it, whereas with hiking the detour might have gutted my soul. I would have to thoroughly assess the situation with better scrutiny on foot than on a bike. Water becomes a life or death issue. On a bike, if the terrain is favorable, I wouldn’t even notice the detour. This detour also meant I wouldn’t have to climb out of the Jenolan Caves area, a grueling 2000ft ascent on exposed slopes in 90 degree heat. As luck would have it I ran into a Ranger who was posting up ‘no fires’ signs at a campground. I confirmed my detour with him which ensured I was making the right move. I motored through the rolling hills of the tablelands. No longer at a snail’s pace, I gobbled up the miles that mentally had me in quicksand. In fact, what mileage I thought would take me two more full days to town, I rolled into camp thinking I may be able to get to town tomorrow, some 60 miles away.
I had the Mount Werong camp to myself. I took my time in setting up where with backpacking I’m usually hiking until dusk. I had full two hours to unwind in the cooling light. Wallabies sauntered into camp to graze on the grassy lawn. Katydids trilled somewhat pleasantly their continuous chirps. A riot of kookaburra cackled in the distance, their laughter echoing through the gum forest, as if something social, festive, was really going on, as loud as that pub below me the other night. The forest around me was bustling with dusky activity.
I slowly fell asleep, drifting off as slowly as the last rays of sun set. I aired out my ass again and slept naked on my sleeping pad. I was not concerned about the open sore yet, but I was taking the precaution to prevent any infection. The wind picked up, gusting through the eucalyptus trees and blowing off some shaved pieces of bark. I could hear the wallabies hopping around, even heard some possums scratch their way down the trunks of the trees. My ears were open. I slowly fell asleep, now, more so I was on alert in a new environment. A thunderstorm rolled in through the night. I should’ve known the gusting wind was a precursor of a hot summertime evening show. Pulsing flashes striked occasionally directly overhead, roiling thunder followed that roamed the skies. The hubbub about scattered the wallabies. I could hear them scampering off, bounding away quickly. The rain poured heavily for an hour, the wind whipping up and gusting down through the skeleton forest. After the storm stampeded through, the relentless wind continued wreaking havoc on the trees, some strips of bark landing on my tarp. I heard some trees toppling over in the forest. Unknowingly lucky I had set my tarp up in the middle of the grassy area. A few strays of flaky slats I favor over any old beefy trunk tumbling down.
I crawled out my tarp to the grassy area littered with strips of eucalyptus bark. The littered lawn had not been so littered the night before. The morning look like an aftermath of a music festival where the nighttime is loud and raucous and the morning is scattered with trash and vacant. The morning was pleasant enough though. The air hung with the sweet fragrance of eucalyptus, the wind pushed a cool leafy chime through the hanging branches, and everything was dry after the stormy soaking. I packed up trying to get an early start to beat the heat of the day. After breakfast, I hopped on my saddle and pedaled off. I straddled my body atop the bike along a broad ridge and careened down the eucalyptus corridors feeling the breeze pushing through me. The wind boomed through the canopy up high, heavy gusts flung large armed branches from the gums, ripped them off, tumbled and crashed to the ground. I swiveled my head side to side and up and down. I avoided the sticks in the track with gliding swerves. I scanned the canopy for any stray snapping and cracking of the long fingered branches. The eastern light sliced through the forest and cast ribbons of shadows, long and bent, onto the track. I fought against squinting until I read the lines better. Once I could discern shadow versus branch, rut versus slat, I opened my stance and crunched my quads down.
I wiggled down a precarious sandy track carved into a steep hillside. The heat smothered me and I could feel the indentations of the rays perforate my skin cells on my forearms. Veering with the bends of the road, gliding and soaring over the valley above, I held on softly to my grips. At the bottom I washed my face off, arms and neck too. I drenched my shirt and wronged out the sweat and salt. The Wollondilly yawned wide and slow, lazily under a scorching sun. I laid in the shade for 10 minutes not letting me relish the moment too long. I made my halfway mark before lunch, nevertheless the heat would only get worse.
At the very beginning of the climb out a hazard sign spanned the road. With the road repairs above vehicles were shuttled by a pilot car alternating directions. I spoke with the bloke, the authorized traffic controller. He thought I was crazy for being there and going up, couldn’t quite wrap his head around me and the bike. He let me through and I rode on. I passed by the sealers and plowers in huge machinery with all of them cheering me on. ‘Hiya goin, mate!’ ‘Get onnit, mate!’ I pushed on like I wasn’t feeling the heat at all, my spirit swelling with encouragement. The long ascent wasn’t too bad other than temperatures reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The 8 mile ascent went smoothly enough, occasionally I pushed the bike when I felt overheated. At the top, I stopped under a large shadow of a gum tree at the side of the road. Two other traffic workers manned the post on either side of the gate. The older bloke eyed me up: ‘C’mon mate, cross the finish line!’ The younger bloke smirked at me sarcastically: ‘What took you so long, mate.’ I replied wittingly back, ‘If had known cold beer was up here I would’ve chugged harder.’ We all shared a laugh, these reactions and moments where we all recognize how silly we are.
Town felt so close now. I knew I could air out my saddle sores and get rested up. I knew I could wrap my head around this whole damn adventure. I continued on a rolling open savanna and felt stifled by the heat, stuffed full by hot breaths. I reached a final crest of a high hill and found some shade and breathed shallow the blistering air. Twenty miles away felt so far, so so far. I mustered up some will power and forged ahead. Then, suddenly, what felt suddenly, I hit a road junction and signage. The last 20km went by so fast I hardly knew it. This all seems so trivial now, especially when I will look back on it down from the end of the road. These little steps provide little strides in confidence.
‘Pick your line, and commit.’
I took a day to air out my saddle sore, all day long massaging chamois cream with tea tree oil into my sore cheek, propping the haunch up while I laid on the bed. Many different things are to be managed while on a bikepacking trip versus a hiking trip. The bike lends itself as the item needing most care. The second is your body, in particular your ass and taint. Like callouses on a hiker’s feet, I need to harden the cheeks that sit on the saddle for hours on end each day. I seriously spent the day doing nothing but resting my ass. It was important enough to do so as not to compromise the trip due to negligence on my part. I must stay on top of it, or the bottom of it, pun intended.
I left the next morning after taking my time to load up. I am developing the routine I need to have to be efficient in the mornings. I know it’ll make life easier. Just as I experienced on my first bikepacking adventure in ‘17, the packing of gear, the rigging of gear, the stowage, all of it, just seems so cluttered and un-simple, so far different than backpacking, like the rigging on an old seafaring ship. So, I take my time now to nail it down later. I am getting better, too. I feel it’s noticeable. Before I knew it, I shoved off on the Attack of the Buns Route, a bikepacking route running from the towns of Bundanoon to Bungendore, except I was tying in and branching off the route from where I was coming from and to where I will be headed. I’ll miss the paved road connections to the Buns essentially.
At Fitzroy Falls, I craned my neck over the lookout and held my sunglasses atop my visor to keep them from falling off straight down some 300ft. From the perch I could see the varnished patina smeared down the tall sandstone cliffs giving the precipices a weathered look, old and gritty, shaggy and worn. From my vantage point, I could see for miles out of undeveloped forests either sprouted atop the cliffs on the highlands or plotted thickly within the canyons below. The backbush sprawled out in front of me, my understanding of the landscape around me growing as the pace of the bike slows down internally. I couldn’t wait to get deeper. I could tell I was reading the land better.
I cranked deeper into the backbush along fire trails, isolated roads equivalent to the fire roads of the SoCal area I grew up on. The gum forests moved swiftly by, the terrain and gradient less aggressive. The eucalyptus on top of the mesas were shorter in height than the forests along the canyon slopes and drainages where an almost rainforest captured the gullies and glens and tucked them away and hid them from the world, strictly inaccessible. The fire trails fell steeply off the highlands and I held tightly onto my roller coaster ride only to hike the rig slowly up the steep road on the other side of the canyon. The weather was great, spirits were high, riding or slowly pushing my bike surrounded by pure nature, yea, I was doing alright. Before I knew it I rode into the hamlet of Kangaroo Valley and immediately spotted a food truck.
I am still always so amazed at how fast travel can be on a bike. I am sure some of it is that already I am getting stronger on the bike and my ass more hardened. Some of it is that it is hard to break the walking pace that is so wired deeply inside me. On a bike, I tend to estimate very conservatively. And, then I’m there, in like half the time. Feeling pretty good about everything I sat down under the canopy of a large tree directly out front of the food truck. A road worker showed up and ordered some food. He recognized me from the dirt road when he was edging the shoulder in his bulldozer. He came over to me and sat down the table over.
‘How ya goin? You’re movin’ mighty fast, mate.’
We shot the shit as we scarfed chicken kebab and fries into our gullets. I enjoyed his sarcastic humor, his rough-around-the-edge demeanor. I whipped back right at him, too, cracking jokes and busting chops.
‘Seen a brown snake yet? Them buggers can get 10 feet long, mate. Betta watch ya ass.’
‘I have, a couple.’
‘How ‘bout a funnel spida? Ya get bit by one of them, mate, you might as well sit down, grab ya knees, put ya head in between ‘em and kiss ya ass goodbye.’
‘That quick, huh?’
‘Mate, just watch out for them. Oh, and if a goanna comes runnin’ at ya, lay yaself on the ground. Don’t want ‘em thinkin’ ya a tree to climb up.’
We finished our lunches, shook hands and parted ways, I onto my bike rig and him into his pick up. Next thing I know I was 40 miles further on and riding into a tourist park in Nowra for the night. The wide Shoalhaven River at the foot of my camp, mackerel skies shimmering in the dusk, the bridge construction crews shutting operations down for the night, the white cockatoos squawking softly in their roosts, the salty smell, I was somewhat near the coast again. The town was noisy and rowdy, cars hooning across the river whipping up dust, as the night came on. It wasn’t the most wildest place by any means, but I laid in my shelter slammed shut by sleep from a good day. I am getting the feel and the pace down of the bike, my last fading thought of a victorious day.
Long isolated dirt road stretches characterized the next day. I kept hitting my mark, these little step by step goals of timing and pace. I got to my estimated lunch goal 2 hours ahead. The day flew on by, as did the gum forests. The shadows of the crooked eucalyptus shifted throughout the day as the sun arced across the wide blue sky. I got to my intended camp site almost 3 hours early, so I pushed on. I rode into a broadening landscape, away from the escarpments of Morton National Park and deep into the highlands. I came upon wide golden meadows gleaming in the setting sun across an expansive horizon. I worked up a greater sweat despite not putting in an over-exerting effort. I easily rolled into camp sopping wet and sticky, totaling 75 miles this day. Wog Wog, the camp’s name, sprawled out in patchy gum trees wide enough to hide the other campsites. The air hung with smoke from a nearby campfire and a light fog crept in, sinking through the crooked branches and dimming the cheery mood. I leaned the bike against a eucalypt and hurriedly put on some layers. But, I stopped. I stopped to take in my surroundings. A soft purple lilac twilight glow emanated from the west, the outline of the canopy almost eerie, the light falling away into shade of purple, a soft lavender displaying a haunting silhouette of the gum trees. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply the moist air.
‘Hi ya! Sorry to interrupt,’ he slurred. I could tell I had a drunk neighbor. ‘How ya goin, mate. What ya got goin there?’
I greeted James with a handshake and a mini tutorial on a tarp set up, the material and pitch. He wasn’t really too much into my set up as he let on but he seemed friendly enough. He invited me over to his fire for a couple of beers. I would oblige him but only after getting completely set up. He set off back to his camp and I furiously peeled off my clothes and futilely tried to hang dry them. I staggered over, my quads a bit stiff now from the cooling temperature. James hung a Victoria bitter beer into my hand wrapped tightly by a coozy. I popped the top and took a deep pull, a slug to the brain to lather the day up. He pulled up a stool for me near the fire. He stumbled around without a headlight, the stool in one hand, a pink stubby cup in the other filled with vodka. I sat down on the stool and looked up at James. He stood there swaying and knackered, smiling, absolutely content. We went into a lively conversation. Everything from racism in Australia, Aboriginal peoples and cultures, his family, life in general, my trip, to shitty beer and microbrews, to the wildlife, to war, the differences between rednecks and bogans, Aussie and Kiwi differences, you name it, we broached a broad spectrum.
James was a war veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. He sets off from Canberra, where he and his family lives, every so often to ‘just get away.’ He struggles with PTSD and getting outside to the bush helps him relieve his pain. He scrambles around the bush pretending he is a person of the land from eons ago. He told me he thinks of the Aboriginal peoples often when he is thrashing about. He wishes life was simpler, for everybody. In some way this takes him to a place of peace. I could tell he was being earnest despite his rosy drunken cheeks. He will spend a week away from home. Some days he drinks and smokes weed all day in camp and paints. Some days he wanders about looking for relics and petroglyphs. He stays as long as his food holds up. It is evident he brings more booze than food though, I could clearly tell.
I liked James. Part bogan, part family man, part loner. He leaned in from his chair looking for his drink. He had finally grabbed a head torch. He scanned the ground beneath his chair, behind the log adjacent, his car. He giggled to himself at his predicament. He had been trying to be so hospitable that he forgot where he put his drink.
‘Crikey, bloody fuckin’ hell,’ he muttered and giggled simultaneously. ‘Bah, let me fetch ya that other beer, mate.’
‘Is all the microbrews catchin’ on in the States? Hell, I don’t even know what an IPA is!’ his laughter getting raspier. ‘Just give me the piss, I say.’
He came back from the truck and handed me the other beer. I still had half a can left but I kept it anyways. It was cold enough out to keep cold. He fell back into his chair and began scanning the ground around his chair again. Suddenly—‘aho! Here it is! It was right under me elbow!’ His drink in the pink cup was right under his chair the whole time. Amused by this I busted his chops a bit. He lashed back and we went on about nothing playfully.
Forty five minutes went by and I was into my second beer. James had refilled his pink cup twice during that time. He stoked the fire with some dry eucalyptus branches and the smoke lightly billowed up, the fragrance sweetly aromatic. The fire wasn’t raging or anything like that. The fire brooded slowly, as if trying to breathe out its last lung towards a long life. The dimly lit fire flickered on the gleaming white trunks of eucalyptus. Critters came out, I could hear them climbing in the canopy. Night was upon us.
‘So, world travella. How lucky you are. You get to see all of this,’ his hands and fingers spreading out from his widening arms. ‘Allll of this,’ he said slowly, ‘This is what ya afta. This is life.’
‘But, why? Why ya doing this? What ya running from, mate?’ He bit into his bottom lip, a question more for himself, his eyes fluttering almost holding back a tear. ‘But, why…’
‘I don’t know how young or old ya are. I mean, crikey, maybe you look spry enough. But not many blokes middle aged have the balls to do what ya doin.’
I said flatly, too flattered to acknowledge his compliment, ‘One lucky dude, for sure.’
‘Did ya chickie leave ya? Family troubles?’
‘Yea, a year ago my chickie left me. Just wasn’t gonna sit around and wait for life to swallow me up. Ain’t no runnin’ away from anything, mate. I’m just curious for adventure is all. I’m too old to be runnin.’
I have been asked this particular question a few times this year while on the journey. ‘What are you running from?’ Certainly, I think about it after someone asks me. More or less, I’m perplexed by the question. I definitely do not think I put on airs about this question. I know what I am doing. Goal driven, mad, pushing like hell on this adventure I am on. I usually push the question aside. It’s a stupid one if the person asking the question really knows me. Sometimes I’ll pop off an answer of ‘I just need a break from myself.’ Thinking this will dissuade further diggings, as if most people would entertain such an idea, this answer is earnest and not in an insecure manner. I mean it. Last year I wallowed in my own self-pity, self loathing as much of myself as I could. I came out here to open myself up to the world, to eject a self indulgent ego. Yes, I had some questions about family, the meaning of family and family creation, and that answer came immediately enough into this journey. I know where my home is. Most importantly, I know who I am.
‘Took a year off to stop feelin’ sorry about myself, was sick of it,’ I blurted at him.
It’s fulfillment of the life I have dreamed of; it’s the not waiting to die, waiting for what’s next type of stagnation. I refuse to wait around and see what’s gonna happen like the rest of ‘em. I am following my dreams. The first place I ever wanted to go to, when I was a kid, was Australia. I have had this curiosity in me since I was a boy. It hasn’t left me. It’s who I am. What am I going to do, go to work every day? That’s not me. I’m not trying to solve life’s mystery. I’m simply trying to explore it. Why wait for life when I could be living life. I ain’t runnin’ when it’s adventure I crave. I wonder because I wonder, point blank.
All these thoughts ran through my head furiously, the last gulps of beer cascading down my throat. I am haunted by a dream. I burn whatever it is through these footsteps, these travels. These footsteps leave the imprint of me, who I am. I see the path I have blazed. It’s right behind me. And, the curiosity within me sees the horizon ahead compelling all that is me forward. How much impact could I have in anyone other than me is fated by this dream. And, I am living that dream. Will I ever be fulfilled? I don’t know that answer and I don’t expect to find it. I am being what is instinctive, what is borne from the inner. So, why not keep walking forever? I see the monster in me. Or, at least the monster everyone else sees. I keep coming back to this notion, this undying dream…this is what I was born to do. Fulfill my curiosity, explore, live in the moment—yea, that’s the push, the monster. And, I have it, you don’t.
This is an obsession. This is what I do. Yet I understand more than ever now that I do have a family of my own and not from a partner that I had hoped to have one with who had tan off. I am getting long in the tooth. I want a home, a family. But, I will be who I am in an utter absolute way. My ‘chickie,’ as James would say, left me yet what I craved then I still crave now. I will travel the world and my family will always be there. I will always be there for them. My mom, brother and his son. That’s it. Just took me years to realize they’ve been there since day one. As much as I have needed them to embrace me, I, in turn, needed to do the same to them. We are so much smaller now, the four of us. I must be a part of them more than ever. Yet, I can still continue my obsession and what I do. They know who I am. I have been so driven all these years, almost defiant, in pursuing my dreams, so fulfilled for all the years of walking to show my family that this is who I am, that I am so grateful to them for always accepting that, no matter how much of a pain in the ass I was, they have always been there. And while I am apologetic for never acknowledging that before I am not and never will be apologetic for who I am.
I ain’t runnin’ away from shit. Simple as that; I am a traveler, one who is exploring.
‘Bah, what do I know. I’m envious is all,’ he chimed back.
‘It’s ok. We all have our own trail to walk. Cheers.’ We clink my beer can to his pink cup.
‘You’re right, mate. We have to live now. Do you believe in god?’
‘What for when we got all of this,’ my hands and arms spread wide, the full moon rising behind me. ‘I don’t want to believe in anything collectively. We just end up killing each other.’
‘Aye, mate. That’s not what we humans should be doing to each otha. The fuck we killin’ each otha for?’ he sighs and pauses, a deeply haunting rhetorical question. Us two, there right now, understood how precious life is.
‘How many guns do ya own?’ James asks incredulously.
‘Wha?! I thought all Yanks own guns,’ he blurted out. ‘Bah, that’s what keeps ya Yanks so sensitive, church and guns. Crikey mate, our bogans here wear fanny packs!’ We both erupted in laughter.
‘Yea, I dunno if our rednecks would wear a fanny pack. They’re too busy telling people what to do and what to believe in.’ A brief silence crept in. We were both getting tired.
‘Hey, I better hit the hay. Aussies know that saying?’
‘Oh yea, mate. Just be aware of the Bushman’s alarm clock. That’ll git ya up before sunrise.’
‘What’s that, the Bushman’s alarm clock?’
‘Ah the kookaburra,’ he chortled, ‘they’ll git ya goin, all that laughter.’
James paused again, him swaying in his chair he was that drunk. His head floated side to side, a wide cheeky smile on his face. ‘How far ya think ya goin?’
‘I dunno, mate. One day at a time. I ain’t done anything until I’ve done it. Until then, I’m in the middle of it.’
I’m not sure where that came from. ‘Hey-a world travella, have a good night.’
I slept deeply that night cloaked in a damp blanket from the moist air. I would wake up and turn over and feel the moist air blow on my clammy skin chilling me. The moon arced across the sky, bright and full, a fat light beaming through my shelter. I like to think I was cloaked more by the moonlight than the moist air, but the dawn indicated otherwise. Everything was soaked. I slowly got out of my damp quilt. A fog slunk through the eucalyptus and clung to every mass. The morning rising sun tried to seep through the misty fog but just wasn’t powerful enough yet. I donned my wet cycling gear, packed my bike, and rode on over to James’s camp. He had just gotten up. He smiled that same knackered smile at me. I guess he always looks that way. Just friendly. We bade each other farewell.
Down the road the rays of sunlight permeated the forest. Long angled bands of sunlight reached through the tree canopy and touched the damp dirt. I rode on a bit nippy, my fingertips numb, my ears chilled. About an hour worth of mist ensued until the sunlight was strong enough to defeat the wetness. I had easy riding today. My ass hardened, my legs pumping, and Canberra came into sight. I let my mind clear a bit as I listened to some instrumental music, melodious, as the city traffic zipped on by. James was right…
This is what I am after.
The Hunt for the Sweet Spot:
I lingered in Canberra two full days, one of which was at an Irish pub. I didn’t leave for hours, almost putting in a work shift. I met a couple from Albury, some hours away from Canberra, who were in turn for a comedy show. We bantered back and forth, really me just asking questions about the way of life in rural Australia where they own some property on a farm. Gavin loved his tractors and had a keen sense of mechanics, which a motorcycle mechanic being his main gig. Kathy was a government lawyer who traveled all the time. They were an interesting mix: part bogan, part academic. We traveled around the world in our drunken stupor, rounds bout every 30 minutes or so. I swirled my head around the plaza observing the hordes of interesting characters whistle by. We clapped at the chess tourney finale, a young boy no older than 12 the Irish pub champion. We went on and on until the squawking cockatoos came back to roost at dusk. When it was time for their comedy show we parted ways, each of us swaying in our lilt a gleeful tilt.
I took the next day off as well. Not because I felt too foggy from the boozy shift at the pub, really I just wanted to laze around and to nothing. That’s the thing with me and this year long adventure: I’m in the middle of it, and this Australian bikepacking trip is a reset of sorts, to take some time off of my hiking feet. So, I find myself getting caught up between always trying to do hard shit and just having a good time. Usually they go hand in hand, but I feel a bigger picture must be observed, as well as the acknowledgment of my objectives. My push and inner drive instinctively guides me towards the toughest of challenges. I, normally, oblige that push naturally. The balance I need to have will come from self awareness, of being honest with myself in what I want and want to achieve. I understand now that my heart needs a bit less of a challenge and just more chilling out. My push is always there anyways, so I have altered my route a bit forgoing a sufferfest for one that is more about enjoyment, plain and simple. I know what I am capable of and I know I will achieve something big when it’s all said and done. I am all out here on my own anyways. I don’t have to be brave or exceedingly egotistical. I do not have to impress anyone, most importantly me. So, I just want to pedal and crank creating my own wind down whatever road I find myself on. I must feed the soul and not the ego. That is the point of this trip.
The dusty road undulated over the Great Dividing Range. My shins caked up with a thick layer of dirt, dusty and stained eucalyptus leaves and trunks lined the road, widespread clouds sprawled over head, and trucks and motorbikes zipped by kicking up plumes of grit. This all made the atmosphere hazy, almost gloomy, a dusty globe atop the mountains. Most of the trucks and motorbikes signaled me a thumbs up or a honk from the horn, encouraging upward. I took a long breather when I knew I was to leave the main dusty road for good.
It wasn’t long before I was angling and zigzagging my way through giant eucalyptus forests, the tallest I’ve seen so far. The trees lifted skyward with fingers out spread in the canopy. The two track crunched and crackled with the running over of the crusty bark slats and the twigs. I rolled up and over hills, powering the bike with my quads, wrenching on the handlebars with my arms to keep my momentum alive. I worked up a tremendous sweat and panted like I was running straight up a hill until finally I attained the flat highlands above. I pushed for camp as I now was well above the settling dusty haze, for the horizon ahead looked clearer.
I cherish the twilight. The light on the fading horizon maximizes the stretching tired soul. Another day has spanned from one universe to another, the memory of the day, where I have emptied everything, the heart leading the way to a place to call home for the night, the brain retreating to a sleeping recess. I cherish the twilight because the twilight symbolizes truth, an exact truth in that moment where the light is fading. ‘I have lived for today,’ the light murmurs. I feel full and empty at the same time, hopeful, full of love, opened.
I rode into the Long Plain, a long and thin meadow stretching for mikes atop the highlands. The stretching plain was silent, lonely, pristine. I found a stream and rinsed the soot off my face and the caked dust from shins. The light faded to a lavender hue softly emanating the eastern sky. The western horizon shimmered atop snow gum canopies. The cockatoos cackled as much as they could before dusk shadowed all stirring. The day was done. I crawled into my tarp and slurped up my ramen accentuated with robust green olives. The air sunk with a silence even more deafening than a desert. I understand this silence, this ringing alpine bliss. I expected it to be a cold night. I expected to see fog thinly stretching across the meadows in the morning.
Throughout the night I heard a soft mist dapple my tarp. The soft hum strung me between that lucid state of sleep and being aware. I could feel autumn closing in, the chilly air swung down from the still bright moon, and I slept for the long of the night. I slowly came to from an endless dream of sleep, right before the hullabaloo of the kookaburra. I knew what time it was and began boiling some water. I understood the vacillating journey I was on. I went to bed full and empty and woke up partially both. For some reason I know deep in my heart the cranking of the pedals each day balloons me up. So, I took my time. I tuned my bike up, slowly packed everything up, and sat on a rock watching the brumbas, the Aussie version of a wild horse, grazing in the meadow adorned with a silvery sliver of fog. The nights were getting longer, the days shorter. I’ve gone from an autumn in the Grand Canyon to a summer in New Zealand and now back to an Autumn, just one in Australia. With these seasonal shifts not being of the normal swoon, I must take kind to my vacillations.
So, I took my time. I continued watching the brumbas float across the meadow. The cockatoos sprung to life and the meadow broke its stranglehold of silence. A couple of cockatoos, white with their crowned feathers and greenish translucent wings, swooped in and around me. One fiddled with a pile of horse shit with its claw and beak, the other poked through the grass for anything mealy. Some magpies flew in and hung up in the broad canopy. They looked down on me and gazed with curiosity softly cawing their far out coo, a noise I cannot even begin to describe.
I wrapped up the coffee session and cleaned up the cup, my peaceful moment over. The morning sun rays peaked over the snow gums and the fog formed wispy clouds showing the clash of heat and cold. I rode on down to the water source and tanked up. I stared a duck and a brumba. The duck quacked and flew off, the brumba neighed and bolted. I straddled my bike and took off across the Long Plain. In the sunlight glinting in the golden meadow, a herd of brumbas strutted, then galloped off. I was in a race of sort. The brumbas didn’t seem startled of me. They seemed goaded into power. I stood up and cranked, as the lead mustang wild galloped towards me whipping its mane and stomping the dry dirt and crusty grass. I came up on him, some 100ft away, his eyes glaring wildly as big as blazing fireballs. He darted off, caught right back up to the herd, and wrangled the group and branched a break across the dirt road and onto a horse trail that led up a hill and into a squatty snow gum grove. Pfft, like that, they were gone. And, I was heading on.
My quads are the cauldron, my heart the coal, my bike the steed, my mode of conveyance that ties it all together. I am not here to suffer; I am to cook, disperse my thoughts into the open space, incinerate black emotion and rid the filth. I must refill the heart with my ears and eyes, the pumping scenery driving by, full scale soul absorption, my heart pulsing forward. Sometimes I am not sure where I am at. The smell of peppermint rings effusively through my nostrils. I am in a globe where my heart sees past the permeating wall of sight and smells. All I know is that my heart is pushing me forward. I am not here to suffer. I’ve quit that, the suffering heart.
The days go by so fast, the nights so pleasurably long. Today, I veered away from the ‘tough as nails’ route. I understood what I really wanted at the junction. Strangely enough, I filtered through my wont to suffer and my need to fulfill my heart, unusual for me to do so for I am mule headed. The days go by so fast, the nights so pleasurably long. I just wish the twilight lasted longer than all of it. Empty and full at the same time, the end of day and beginning of night, the perfect balance of tranquility and moving forward, of a full spirit and a tired reality, of rest and progress.
I ended up in a pub/hotel in Tallangatta. I finally have figured out that a ‘hotel’ is a public tavern in disguise. Sure, there’s accommodation. Indeed, there’s food. Most importantly, there’s ice cold beer, legal betting hubs, and a place where the true local hang out. I asked the pregnant barkeep if a room was available. She set up with a small room, cheap, and slid me an ice cold pint of Carlton’s. I slugged the pint to my head, a refreshing reprieve from the scorching day outside. Sweat beaded down my neck, salty, but I could feel the AC flowing in. The pipes encasing the beer lines were frozen, my pint beaded with frozen water. This is what I am after, all of this. I thought of James, of seeking the sweet spot, and I knew my twilight tonight would be spent here in the hotel pub.
‘What are ya gonna tell ya mum ya wanna be when ya grow up, boy?’ the friendly drunk told the boy sitting at the high table with him. Two other little boys chased after each other through the bar. On the betting tellies horse racing and dog racing took turns every 10 minutes or so. One big bloke kept his gaze entranced at the screens, every 5 minutes or so he placed a bet on the races. A few more road workers came in, a couple more women who were the mums of the boys running about.
‘Now ya know I wouldn’t lie to ya. Check the books,’ the big bloke spoke to the young lady who walked behind the bar to help out.
‘Are ya sure ya ain’t lyin’ to me?’ she belted out. She was thin, pretty, and wasn’t taking any lip from the ogre. A tall fella walked in with an infant in his arms, the husband of the lady who had just straddled the bar. He swayed the baby in his arms, cooing at her.
‘Tell your mum that when you grow up you want to be a gynecologist. That way you can play with your favorite toy all the time,’ the friendly drunk explained. The tall fella chuckled, his wife rolling her eyes. I delved into my fourth pint letting the cold liquid drizzle down my throat. I sat there observing life as is, as is of people I see myself in. Where is my place in this world? I fell back into the day, losing the aimless blurp into the present. I burped, looked around me, a loving semblance of family presided over this pub, an aura of community. I slurped another gulp and felt my mustache beaded up with the froth of lager. I felt my quads tense up, sore. So what if my route isn’t the toughest or the baddest. I ain’t trying to impress anyone. The hunt, the hunt is for the sweet spot.
I continued to sit at the high table. ‘Boy, what are ya gonna be when ya grow up?’
The boy giggled, knowing he was being teased and loved, ‘A gynanacologist.’ The bar laughed, even the big bloke who had become belligerent. I chuckled to myself observing the scene, the innocence of the room, the normalcy. I pulled up the pint to my mouth eyeing the depth of the lager with my eyes seeing the lights of the bar blur through the wet glass. ‘So what if my route isn’t the toughest or the baddest. The hunt, the hunt is for the sweet spot,’ I think to myself. And, I go deeper thinking I finally understood what I’ve meant when I’ve said ‘to wander with intent.’ It means to play the twangy strings of the heart, to roam with the heart as the lead horse, no red line, no line at all, just the imprints of my heart on the land, the song of a wavelength permeating from the pulsing bloody mass, a primeval sonar guiding the way, a beacon of instincts that falls off the map; to be right here in this blocky pub sucking on a pint watching the world go by, the real world go by. Take the brain out, leave the heart in; mummify this body to contain a soul forever, something that lights it afire for all of eternity…the sweet spot. I finished off my beer and ambled up the stairs to my tiny cheap room. I fell asleep instantly. ‘Where will tomorrow take me,’ I murmured softly, ‘trust the heart again.’
I’m not sure how this phrase popped into my head. Probably at a time I had the most questions about life and the direction I was going. Maybe the phrase was a synopsis of all the different readings I had done, picked apart all the musings that tied with my seedling beliefs. I believe it first came to me in Montana, then became a changed mantra in ‘13 while on the Vagabond Loop. Hell, maybe I heard it somewhere and became so consumed by it that I forgot where it came from. Shit, maybe I coined it. It feels so familiar to me, that’s all I know. It’s my phrase. I embody the essence of that phrase. The coyote, nothing is aimless. Shit, I’ve only marched to the beat of my own drum, yet maybe I hadn’t the understanding of truly what it meant to me until now.
I left the hotel early, early enough to beat the heat. I followed rail trail and stopped at an overlook at a long bridge spanning an inlet of Lake Hume. A cyclist coming in from the other direction rolled by, then stopped. The usual questions came about. Where you headed? Where you come from? Where’s all your gear? The usual. Pleasant enough, the man and I spoke politely, nothing deep or anything. But, he did give me a route idea. He mentioned the Vic Divide 500. After he left I quickly googled it since I had heard of this route before and with the mentioning realized that I possibly could be close to it. Sure enough I was. I downloaded the route and scammed it quickly. Now I was onto something. I excitedly pedaled on to connect with the route. I rolled through Yackandandah and grabbed some lunch. I noticed mountain bikers out and about, whether having lunch, scooting around town, or cars fixed with bikes on racks. Again, I was onto something. Continuing on I found junction after junction of mountain bike trails. Eagerly I pushed on with the next moment I knew I was on the roller coaster crest of a range with sprawling views to the west. I rode on in absolute glee. One moment I’d be pushing hard up a steep quick ascent, the next I’d be flying down the opposite side ripping through the dusty road, the eucalyptus trees whizzing on by. I found myself wiggling my butt side ti side as I stood in my seat. The music was hitting me good, the roller coaster exhilarating. This is the fun I had been after. I rolled into a caravan park in Myrtleford and had 60 miles by 3pm. I could rest up a bit, staying disciplined on my body’s continuing and needed recovery, the mindset of pacing the journey all the way out.
I left Myrtleford along quiet wine country roads. Trailing brush trucks hauling freshly harvested grape vines bounced and heaved down the highway, the pungent aroma wafting on by, each driver waving to me. This country, Australia, is so friendly, even more so the further into the sticks I get. Frequently I get waves, occasionally I get the toot toot of encouragement. Off-roaders will stop and ask me if I’m alright. Folks at the small town stores and shops venture over and chat me up. I rolled into Chestnut, a tiny town with a tiny General Store. I felt ‘out there,’ like Four Corners isolation. I chatted up the clerk a bit asking about her and the shop. I thought of my grandma for some reason, the stories she told me of tiny towns and shops back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. How she described the hospitality combined with the dustiness of those rural locales, I felt transported back in time. I lingered a bit in the shop inhaling the rustic beauty and serenity of small town quietude.
And then, miles later, I stumbled into remote territory. On a vehicle-less road I plunged the pedals, churning the rods with assertive might, climbing gradually through tall groves of eucalyptus. I fell into an intoxication of focus coupled with the pungently aromatic groves. I felt like a wild animal on the hunt, the tranquility of the small town feel completely dissipated. The track got steeper, and I mean holier-than-shit steeper. I had to get off the saddle and push. I dug into the compacted dirt, in between the cantaloupe sized rocks as slippery as boulders, and heaved to bike upwards. The climb went on and on, endless, 4000ft of pure aggressive exhaustion and grit. I was sweating profusely even as I climbed into cooler temperatures. I started to get a chill as I achieved the summit, nearly tumbling and skipping on the loose hardscrabble cantaloupe boulders. I leaned onto the saddle of the bike and deeply breathed. I pushed upwards continuously, nonstop for a hour and a half. Now the sun was setting and views wide up high spanning forever loomed to the west, the shimmering rays greeting me with an ephemeral warmth. I was feeling ferocious yet relaxed, thirst and hungry, tired yet awake. What had me so unmotivated in Canberra now thrilled me. I didn’t mind suffering if it was unplanned. I simply dealt with whatever came my way then. I understood then, at the summit, that maybe I just wasn’t ready before.
Part of seeking the sweet spot is granting yourself a little bit of grace. Huh, maybe this whole damn trip is about trusting my heart again, a thought I seriously had not thought of since I left Colorado for the Grand Canyon back in late September. I just knew I had to go on something big. Across miles and miles traversing the length of the Grand Canyon and spanning the length of the islands of New Zealand, after enduring the immense sadness of last year, and here I am in Australia trying so hard to figure out the sweet spot of this bikepacking trip and this isolated thought flutters into my noggin. I realized then that I don’t want to suffer, on trail, off trail, wherever, I will not choose to ever again.
I pushed on from the summit under a diminishing twilight, the fading rays of sun filtering through the snow gums. I wasn’t sure how far I was going. All I knew was that I needed to find a camp spot in a hurry. I trundled over the knobby road, my ass as weathered as a broken in catcher’s mitt, each bump feeling like an 100mph fastball straight to the palm. After a quick sandy downhill I bended a corner and found a hut, the dirt road now groomed with constant trampling. In the grassy clearing a small family, Daniel, Eliot and Willow, sat cooking and preparing dinner. The sight was a precious one: dad cooking a camp dinner for his young children as the sun was setting.
I creaked open the gate and greeted them. I leaned my bike against a wooden beam and asked if I could join them for dinner. We chatted, I got to know the kids who were so excited for dinner. Just a winding down the day type of conversation, innocent, genuine. They even offered up some fruit cake for dessert. Eliot cut me a fat slice and I wolfed it down. A diamond bright star emanated from a purple dusky sunrise. I pointed it out and we all sat silently gazing at the sparkling orb. A cold fell to the highlands, the grass getting damp, moist and sticky. We wished each other a good night and I set up my bedroll in the hut and let the darkness consume the empty space. The moon rose thinly and so the dark was getting near pitch black as my tired eyelids winched shut from a very long day.
I came to sweating, a warmer morning than expected. I had layered up too much. I looked around me groggily. I shined my head torch around the dark empty space, all around. I had to squeeze the sides of my eyes out from my wrangled sleep to spot a giant huntsman spider poised like a spread out palm, motionless and still on the beam way above me. I shivered even though I was sweating. I let my sleeping pad free of air. I had to get up. The warm breeze flew in and a lavender light shone through a square window in the dark hut. Something felt promising about the day, even though the giant spider made me quiver.
I ambled on over to the long drop. The long leaves of the snow gums flickered under the morning light and the branches oscillated with the warm breeze, back and forth, the sunrise through the snow gums, a few snags and petrified totems adorned and broke the peaceful sky, the striated silhouettes highlighted the reach for the sun, or what was left of the reach frozen in time. The purple hue of the sun rising is a very distinctive characteristic of the Australian bush sunrises, a stamp on the atmosphere, this particular place, similar to the steel blue of the Mojave sunrises. You see those colors no where else. I’ll remember this gorgeous walk to the long drop, probably the prettiest stroll to ever go take a crap.
I waved goodbye to Daniel, Willow and Eliot and pedaled on a less tumultuous road. A smoky haze highlighted the ranges to the east as the sunlight angled in through the skeleton forest. With the rising sun rose the pungent fragrance of peppermint too. I fell into a vision I have held for so many years, a dream I’ve held since I was a boy of exploring Australia.
I cruised onto the Mt. Buller area. Various land users were out and about—-overlanders, mountain bikers, dirt bikers, campers, hikers. I cruised on by amid the giant forests of eucalyptus, thick and tall, the trunks ripped on by me like pylons on a highway, the swooshing sound so constant like Steph Curry draining 3s. I careened around corners and bends, swooped on a downhill coursing from the summits to the Howqua River, a smile plaquered wife on my face. I felt like a dog with my head out the car window feeling the wind crash into my face my sweat the substitute for slobber. And then I had to start pushing, I mean pushing real hard the bike up a staircase hill. For 2 miles I pushed nonstop the 2000 vertical feet. Eventually, I reached a saddle directly under massive cliffs. I could pick the limestone bluffs through the trees. After a quick huff-and-puff I rode under the skyline of tall bluffs, Buller looming high like a proper alpine peak on the opposite side of the canyon. What took me so long to climb up I traversed along the ridge and then steeply descended a meandering about 10 miles in less time. Getting lower and lower I made it back to the Howqua River, the taller eucalyptus forests seemingly scraping the sky. It continued, the route continued to be relentless, the climbing never stopping. I had one final push up another staircase fire track. All the effort of the day was awarded with a fine cruise along a ridge line with the setting sun emanating the far western horizon, the twilight embellishing the layers of the mountains, the glow peeking up the canopy of the eucalyptus resembling broccoli florets. The dusty light created an endless vision to the western skies, warm and hazy, shadows and layers, the landscape basking in a refulgent effervescence. I slid into a sprawling campsite near the river, this one a bit more rowdy than the others, the smell of hamburgers punching me in the face. Pop rap, pop country, pop reggae, and just plain pop, all of the US, blared from various camps. Even though I fell short of my mileage goal, I had so much fun today. Now I can spend almost the whole day in the saddle. My butt is getting hardened. Hike-a-bike sections don’t intimidate me anymore. I found a quiet spot where the music lightly crescendoed through the giant eucalyptus. Fires fluttered all around, bright pockets of a warm glow. The voices muffled too. The night crept in deep smothering and diminishing the noise to distant echoes through the forest. The kookaburra began their raucous cackling so fitting for a campsite looking to party. The loudest of all, the kookaburra seemed to be having the most joyous of times. Nonetheless, the people were not far behind and the campsite danced into darkness, a celebration of the end of summer. Tired and amused, I fell asleep easily celebrating the end of summer, as well. I was content, comfortable, and smiling.
Ah, the night came tumbling down with darkness. The blank trunks of the eucalyptus shown like a canvas displaying a movie in the park. There was no moon though. But, the campfires played a movie on the white trunks and dwindled with an uneventful ending.
Oh, the morning came trundling up from the hollowed depths of a river dale. I perked up early like the kookaburra. Everybody who has partied the night before still laid about in a simple drunken bliss. I looked to the trees first, then the sky. I left camp early before anyone stirred about, my neck craned to the canopy above. Fuck, can life be as simple as this. A light drizzle dappled the dusty road as I clambered from the mountains to the countryside. One may not know the difference. The eucalyptus are everywhere, no matter the elevation here, subtle differences only an expert could decipher. I just see the smell, one and the same regardless. I rode swiftly to Jamieson, a small town with a small general store. Another small town feel like the ‘60s, I chatted up the friendly clerk who happened to be from Montana, Fort Smith to be exact. She grew up on the Crow Reservation, so close to where I lived in Montana some many years ago, in Billings, moved to Jamieson 26 years ago. We giggled when I pronounced ‘to-may-to’ rather than ‘to-mah-to.’ Then we spoke about real small town charm, most of which is truly gone in the crowded US. That’s why she loves Jamieson so much, reminds her of slower times and a slower pace of life. We just have too many damn people in the States, we concurred. All that charm has been radicalized or yuppy-ized. The goodness of us all feels so separated from what has been established. I know there’s more land than people, but, hell, it feels like the opposite most days.
After I ate 3 bacon and egg butties and drank two cups of coffee, the barista came over to talk. He was so proud to live there in Jamieson, his home for so long. He moved there from the coast 29 years prior after having met his wife whose father owned the general store back in the day. Him and his wife took over when her father died. He wanted to know about my bike trip, so we chatted about that. I asked him about Jamieson. He had been so busy when I arrived that I thought business was good. The two hour busyness snippet was no where near pre-Covid times. But, he felt busy enough. He was anticipating autumn right around the bend. He couldn’t wait fir the trees to change color. We shared a few laughs at how odd the world has changed since Covid, yet the seasons still stay the same, our inner clock still wired while our social programming majorly skewed. I enjoy these random conversations. I feel soothed by people content in life. From the party-going weekenders to the overlanders to the warrior cyclists to the small towners all living their life in contentment. This gives me hope, hope within a wandering life, hope for a wanderer ever in search of a home. Yet, I am very content as well. I’m just different. I’m not sure I can do what everyone else does. How simple is life while how complex it can be at the same time. I am doing what the heart desires, nonetheless. Maybe it’s a genuine connection with a random encounter that fills me with the most joy. Probably a common sentiment for most people of the world.
I left feeling a bit chipper, most likely the caffeine cranking me up. A cloudy day, a reprieve from the heat and the blazing sun, so when I ascended a quiet country road I didn’t suffer too much. I pretty much motored up the 2000ft climb, then careened down hill on a luge course feeling the cool breeze rocking through my sweaty shirt. The quiet roads stretched on seemingly unending. Things were uneventful. Then, Big River Road undulated with the contours of the wide canyon, in and out of ravines and gullies. I felt so far away from everything. I figured most likely folks had gone home and left the weekend behind. Big River yielded big eucalyptus trees, and I mean enormous, mind bogglingly enormous. I slowed the pace down to admire the giant canopy. So impressed I laid in a desolate campsite in a patch of grass and just looked straight up. The giant totems reached for the sky so high and branched out that with the brilliantly white massive trunks I could imagine the earth spitting up a reverse lightning strike. Mesmerized after an hour, I kept up the lonely ride up the river valley, the forest getting thicker, huge ferns under giant eucalyptus, a jungle if I could call it that. A dampness settled in and cling to my gear and skin, a moisture starting to bead up on my hair follicles. A cloud layer smothered the ridge tops and I thought differently about forging ahead. I settled in a camp in another sprawling campground, this time I the only occupant, this time only the riot of the kookaburra, the buzz of mosquitoes, and the wind soughing through the tall eucalyptus stands; dead silence resided over the glen while the music of the weekend remained absent.
The hunt for Melbourne was on my mind as I fought the wind from extinguishing my cook pot flames. Up above the leaves of the giant eucalyptus shivered heavily with dew. Eventually, I was slurping up my pot of ramen. The heart and the drive remain separate, the tension of the two separated by what my heart wants. I must keep the two separate, the boundary to remain blurry, two levers that interact and balance each other. I just don’t want to hurry.
I woke up early in a fluttering darkness. Moisture dappled my shelter from the jingling leaves above. The weight of water balanced with the wind melt a strict balance of order: not too damp enough to soak, and not too windy to chill the bones. I came out of the shelter in pre-light and boiled me some noodles with cheese. My body warmed up with the fog sifting lower and lower into the camp. Eventually, I got going and hit the top, a wide and flat saddle with a paved road intersection. The air cooled to a brisk temperature and I had to put on all my layers, as the downhill came swiftly enough. Lyrebirds, a slew of them, jumped out in front of constantly. Once I hit the valley floor I was dodging no more and hit my stride all the way into Melbourne.
From Canberra to Melbourne, I combined the routes of the Hunts 1000, a gravel route from Canberra to Melbourne that I found on the internet, and the Vic Divide 500. I rolled through small towns like Cabramurra, Corryong, Tallangatta, Myrtleford, Yackandandah, Chestnut, and Jamieson along fire trails, gravel roads, rail trails, and remote paved roads. The bike is my mode of travel, from one place to another. I sit here in Melbourne having cycled a tad over a thousand miles. I think I’ve found what I’ve been after, that sweet spot.
The Missing Piece:
The first part of living with the heart is to find the heart. I think what I have been trying to say, what I have been observing in local pubs, looking for across the country while pedaling a bike; what I have been seeking, most likely in vain, is love, a love to fill the damn heart. I am not aimless, I am just empty. For a full year, slightly longer than a year really, I have been floating in isolation. I am not bothered by being alone. I prefer that actually. Yet I have felt so far away from everyone around me. Detached and drifting away not from a choice but from a tide of sadness. This wave of sadness balloons up unexpectedly usually after bits of positivity, after surges of energy. What normally has provided me with an escape from whatever affliction I am under has not hit the mark. I experienced the depravity of it all when I traversed the length of the Grand Canyon. I wanted to leave everything there in the deepest pit in the universe. I felt so compelled to fall away from everything. Not a day goes by since that hike in last October and November that I wish I wasn’t there all over again. There, in the deepest canyon in the universe, I could truly escape from everything, everything that had gouged out my insides. There, I could not feel anything anymore.
While trekking across New Zealand I was still held under the swoon of the Grand Canyon. It was like I was numb. In Australia, I found myself in those painful bouts occasionally, drifting off again on some isolated tide of isolation. I mean, to be clear, this isolation is one I have created. This is not the solitude I crave. I mean, it came from somewhere, it came from a loss of love. Yet, I am compelled to truly seek physical isolation to combat it. I could sit in a pub and feel worlds away from everyone around me. It wouldn’t matter if I was home or away; I am in the same stagnation I was in last year at this time. Stuck, in pain, stuck in pain. Nevertheless, I can feel the pull of the physical isolation of the big red, just like the pull of emptiness the Grand Canyon provided me. I feel the pull of solitude. This type of physical isolation provides me with solace, a peaceful and calm smothering of an inflamed heart, a sobering reality of contentment. Until I am there, whenever I stop, whether for the night or a day or couple days, I truly find myself in pain. This is the condition I am in. I am having a hard time defeating it. However, I will keep going to the ends of the earth until I can fill the heart with love. That’s what I know the heart is telling me, instinctively I know.
It makes sense to me that I find myself in pubs, these family and community type of environments where the locals celebrate each other with love and cold beer. It makes sense I find myself surrounded by people living normal lives. I find a simple beauty in regularity even though it frightens me. Blast it all to hell, I found myself sitting in this pub hurting so deeply. The minute I stopped pedaling I fell away. I fell so far away with the tide coming in to swoop me off my feet and take me out to sea. I traced the great road of the southern ocean and felt the waves crashing against the tall bluffs. The coast, mangled and isolated, brought me deeper back to sadness. It seems like the ocean does this to me. Each day since leaving Melbourne I rode into a surf and coastal town to stay at a simple accommodation above a pub. Tourist families mingled with local families, surf bums danced with city dwellers, and I just felt gloomy. I know it’s the ocean, too. I know the ocean speed these gloomy feelings forth.
At the southernmost pub in Australia, Apollo Bay, an old couple sat down across from me on some plush chairs. Crowds were grouped around various television corners that displayed their favorite Australian Rules Football team. The footy fans, adults and kids alike, cheered the teams on and roared with excitement on every score. One television even had rugby on. My head moved back and forth between the games. I studied the differences. The older gentleman leaned in over the noise. ‘I heard ya came on a bike. How ya goin alone?’
‘I am. It’s all good. Nice and easy, don’t have to wait for anyone.’
‘On a push bike, yea? Prolly nice to have a motor bike, bloody hell. That’s what we got.’
I could only oblige obsequious platitudes until their meal came and they moved to a table. I sat around watching footy as the bar became really lively. A few more rounds and I felt bleary eyed from a long day riding along the coast. The coast just ate it out of me, not in the physical way, just the emotional way. I led myself upstairs to bed, lugging up the stairs with tired footsteps, the music pulsing through the floorboards, the walls pounding with the throbbing of the beat.
I took my time getting ready in the morning. I walked out to the bay and watched the sky light up. I was surprised I was the only one on the beach. Maybe the locals partied too hard, same with the tourists. The small waves lapped up onto the beach softly, the morning still, the early light emanating through the low mackerel clouds. The scene felt very uneventful. I made my way over across the street for another cup of coffee. I sat at an old wooden table and watched the sleepy town rise. Soon enough the people came out and I knew that was my signal to move on.
I got off the Great Ocean Road and ascended into the Otway Forests. As soon as I hit a dirt track amid the eucalyptus giants the fog that has been suffocating me lifted. My focus on the weaving road took over. I could see the coast intermittently through the tall forests, but I found myself gazing upward into the canopy. For a few hours this went on. A cold sweat clung to my skin and layers. I shivered even on the climb. I passed by the biggest eucalyptus I had seen so far in Australia. The misty clouds touched the canopy. Huge slats and strips of thin bark hung from the trunk and large branches above. I stopped for a minute or so but left as soon as my teeth started clacking. I found my way through the high and long ridge road and hit a coffee stand at a junction of roads. I had a third cup of the day, this time more for warmth than anything else. I knew some weather was coming in, so I figured this was the cold pushing in. I hustled on into Port Campbell but not before pulling over at the 12 Apostles, a rugged coastline with spectacular buttes and spires detached from the mainland with wild raging waves crashing into the bluffs. Tourists flooded the hiking paths leading to the vistas. I had to partake in the dramatic scenery, too. I didn’t linger too long, so I continued with my hustling to town.
I arrived in Port Campbell mid afternoon and checked in at a lovely hostel above a brewery. Music blared from the park as I rode in. The charming and friendly host set me in nicely. She told me the festivities were for Cray Fest. I hurried up enough to take a hot shower and jog on down to the park. The food vendors had closed up shop but a band still played. I could tell it was winding down, so I wandered over to the only pub in town. Shawls, drapes, thin curtains, sarongs, and various other colorful thin tapestries hung from the ceiling that had been tacked in to look billowy. Because of the puffy draperies and the rainbow of colors, the vibe of the pub instantly felt energetic, lively, even robust, full of life. I pulled up onto a stool at the bar and let the night over take me. People from the festival staggered in. Before I knew the pub was full of teetering smiling people. A bartender cranked up the tunes. Everyone swayed to the music. I bantered back and forth with a couple of bartenders.
‘Chet? Short for Chester?’
‘Nah mate. Just Chet.’
‘Ah, ain’t that a good thing. You don’t wanna be called Chester the Molester.’
The other bartenders overheard this playful banter. The rest of the night the others called Chet Chester. The mass of people swayed throughout the surf pub. A couple of surfers tapped the ground in bare feet, others looked like grizzled fishermen. Pretty girls strolled about and danced within the throng of rosy cheeks.
‘You have friendly eyes,’ she said. I looked around me not playing dumb but looking dumb. I hadn’t heard a compliment on my physical appearance in ages. The woman from Hong Kong was on her third beer. Out of the corner of my eye I had kept track. I sat in the corner against a window so I could see the floor. She sat two stools over, so it wasn’t hard for me to observe her. Ruby invited me over and bought me a pint. Friendly conversation ensued. We flirted but in a friendly manner, mingling in unison with the vibe of the bar. Suddenly, the mix was around us, the pulse of music ripping through my brain, the two of us laughing at her cats responding to her voice through the camera set in her living room. We watched the fluffy critters on video on her phone. I don’t know, it was just a simple buzzed conversation in a crowded and jovial bar. I noticed her long and slender fingers as she reached over to softly rub the back end of her hand against my beard.
‘You look young,’ Ruby said. I scoffed it off playfully knowing that she was being nice. I have way too much salt and pepper spread throughout my beard. She told me how she was named and why she came up with the substitute name of Ruby. ‘Glowing snow in spring,’ she said, ‘My mother that I looked like spring snow on top of a red tulip when I was born. So, I took Ruby.’ I bought another round for Ruby. I glanced up at the fluttered movement of the tapestries tacked to the ceiling. The pub heaved with the rhythm of the music and the people. In the pub things felt alive, the people even more so. Then, life was brilliant.
Before long I realized it was close to midnight. A thick drizzle had begun to fall outside. I had reached my limit. I wanted this night kept in this pub where laughs, music, conversation, and the beer flowed. So, unexpectedly, to me and her I think, I got up. I waved over to Chet. ‘Hey, thanks Chester!’ She finished her beer and we left the pub together. Outside in the center of the roundabout, we went in opposite directions. ‘Thank you Ruby,’ I said, ‘Goodnight.’ I wasn’t disconnected from the moment. But I knew I wanted to wake up alone. We were simply two strangers passing each other by in the strait. I wanted my heart placed in earnest. Heartbreak is love without a place to call home. I need my heart to find a home, not a bed for the night. The drizzle had turned to a steady rain. Droplets of water streamed down my face, as I walked down the dark street to my room. The next day had an all day rain forecasted. I smiled to myself. I knew I had that night full up inside me. That was enough, just a glimmer.
I got up bleary eyed, too early for the hangover. I forced myself to walk over to the bakery to get a strong cup of coffee. I then strolled over to the bay. The sea raged, the winds coming in from the southwest, spindrift blurred the morning air, a powerful mist blew into my face; I remembered last night. I swayed to the memory of music with my feet in the sand, my toes gripping for balance. I watched the tide come in from the draining ocean. I felt the wind slap my face. I threw my hood on and set back to the hostel. Inside I found a large jigsaw puzzle of the Great Ocean Road area. I grasped my head around the area, eyeballing where I had pedaled from. I sat down and killed a couple of hours before turning my hangover and focus to summer hiking plans. I bided my time on a day I knew would not be fun to pedal in. I absorbed the scene of the coast that day. I wasn’t necessarily gloomy anymore. I was drained emotionally, yes, but I was present. I knew I wouldn’t see the coast for a long time coming. I wanted my memories to be held in that warm pub. And, that’s where they sat. Perhaps I should allow my heart to race, a whispered thought drifting in with the next frothy round of waves.
The morning drizzled with rain and anxiousness. I was ready to go. I just had to wait for the coast to grant me a window. Once it did I struck up on the pavement and headed north and out from the coast. I ran into two road workers who immediately stopped me to see what the hell I was up to. Both the blokes busted my chops, teasing me in a friendly manner. I dished it right back. In a short five minutes I shared more laughs with them than anyone on the whole trip, save for the Chester moment. The older bloke reached his hand out as he motioned with his other for a big rig to stop.
‘Well, I’d like to shake ya hand, mate. Bloody damn big balls ya got.’
I reached out and squeezed his calloused palm. I shoved off with a smile wide as the whole southern coast.
‘Give it hell, mate!’ he yelled.
And, I was off into the flat plateaus of farmland, the wide open mesas of open country. The open skies shifted my mood almost instantaneously. I sliced through the clouds above me, perceptibly splitting the coastal skies into prairie skies. I was no longer smothered by the dismal coastal gloom. I could see the tiled stratus clouds steadily moving in unison. I had this image head of the coast probably spurred on by Jack Kerouac. I imagined the Dean Moriarty character standing atop a dock, leaning against a salt tarnished, in thick mist on a bleary San Francisco night, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth as he gulps a bottle of port wrapped in a brown bag, his brow furrowed with sadness, of desolation, the look of being misplaced in this world. Hell, maybe it was an image of my derelict father who roamed desolate streets for 20 years homeless. Hell, this image frightens me. Am I the one to go down a dark and distant path heading out to a foreboding sea of desolation? Most importantly, I harkened this image as an immense state of sadness. And, now I shifted the tune while these high plains wide open with massive skies sliced whatever dismal attitude I had been cavorting with. Yes, yes it was a dance with sadness. I must forge ahead and into the endless sky.
The humps of the Grambians had been in sight since yesterday as soon as I ascended to the top of the flatlands. Now, the Grambians loomed really near. I could see the bulwarks of red sandstone cliffs, a mega-escarpment shooting straight up over the plains below. The surrounding area became heavily forested and thick with bush. Dead kangaroos became a common sight, dead on the side of the road, mauled and massacred. I knew I was getting into tourist country. I chose some backroads to within a reasonable distance of Halls Gap, the station pocket of the whole park. Huge mobs of kangaroos, the size of a large elk herd, grazed out in the grassy pastures just outside the limits of Halls Gap. Emus pecked at the ground among the mob. The scene felt exotic. Little tiny kangaroo heads stared at me with tiny little black bean eyes, glassy enough to appear lamenting. Joeys hopped about or lounged in the grass. The emus moved elegantly like dancers through a crowd at a big party. I got to the eco-hostel and settled in. Then, I walked to town a kilometer away. Suddenly, I was in a thick forested area with a huge tall canopy, a creek ran by babbling softly cluttered with decaying leaves. Precipices of sandstone, immensely high and painted with the bright patina of lichen backdropped the tiny town. Cockatoos and parrots squawked uproariously flying in between the canopy, as I held my head upward trying to let my eyes follow the chaos. The abundant magpie flew from tree to tree, lawn to lawn, looking for a feeding opportunity, their psychedelic twangy song serenaded the forest. Aye, what holds it altogether for me is a sense of place, that magical philosophy where one is intimately connected to a landscape. Even just a sliver of connection has me intoxicated. I know nothing of this area, but I can feel the connection seeping through my skin cells. I was back in solitude and it felt wonderful. Whatever pain I had on the coast had subsided with the ebbing tide and now I was glommed over with a calming grounding and humility. I was grateful to be where I was in that moment. Through all my travels within wide open landscapes, I tend to find my inner sanctum. It’s the scene, the set up, the stage, the classroom, whatever you want to call it. It’s my processing, my learning style, my interpretation of the world around that feels fulfilled within a certain vastness of landscape. I am sure my gloominess brought out with the ocean is spurned on by my lack of knowledge and understanding of such a place. I get it. I also get I understand deserts and mountains more. I get it.
Both places I have to grapple with what exists inside me. That grappling is not equal, however. My mind is quiet out here, calm and clear, lucid, a blank slate. I feel like I could see forever. This is part of my journey, I get it too. I set out to endure whatever pain I have, to endure everything alone, whether in advantageous environments or in a gloomy milieu, whether in a good mood or in the desolate depths of a depression. It’s all part of it. My aim is to endure this alone using the heart as guidance. This missing piece in my navigation is the heart. This is about picking myself back out of the muck, about learning to love myself, getting back out into the wide open to reassess myself, to reconvene why I am out here.
I am here alone by choice, although I am here to absorb and feed off the world outside of me in places I am unfamiliar with. I need the outsourcing of observation and love from a world around m to fuel a world within me. I want to be inspired. Random encounters fill this aim, local pubs too. I reminded myself of this. Sometimes it’s the ocean, hopefully most of the time is either eucalyptus forests, the mountains, and the Outback. There’s a sweet spot to be found anywhere, certainly. Isolation is a gift. The absence of love is the cancer. I just know the majority of this journey will be alone, me, myself, and I; my experienced self and my fragile emotional self, my open self; my brain and my heart and my being.
I left Halls Gap under blustery skies. It was cold and rainy. I zippered up my rain coat, threw on my thicker gloves and pedaled until I got out of the foggy cloud layer. I couldn’t see anything anyways. Plus, no one was on the thoroughfare cutting through the park. I could only glance at the shimmering slabs of giant rock. I could only scan the forests. It was so cold I could only push on to keep warm. With a day like this I headed to the nearest big town some 50 miles away of Horsham. I got in early and decided to utilize this half day as a rest and chores day. I finally got to wash laundry. The innkeeper was so excited to ask me questions about my trip. I hadn’t spoke of it in length in a long while. I hadn’t spoke about myself in a long while too. I tell you what, it felt good. The innkeeper looked so amused. He did my laundry for me free of charge. The next morning he brought me a big Aussie breakfast again free of charge. I couldn’t believe it. It’s so fascinating when adventuring how things can change so fast. Certainly those changes can be life threatening or dangerous. But then you have the simple and unexpected veering offs, little things that being the most joy.
For some unknown reason, the next day I rode 115 miles in one push. I am certainly capable of such a tally, even capable enough for consistent high enough averages. Yet I have refrained but pushing too hard. I tend to organize each day by what the landscape gives me, keeping on open mind on an open road. The wind was favorably at my back, the roads so straight and so lonely that I just went for it. I found myself in the twilight, my favorite time of the day on this whole Australian adventure. The sun rays flickered through the mallee gum forests, the constant farmland becoming scant. Huge swaths of stratus clouds smeared the giant sky, the light spreading spectacularly. What an incredible sight to see. I wasn’t too sure what I would find ahead. I wasn’t positive about camp, or dinner, or the tiny little dusty town I was nearing. I just loped along in the lovely twilight. I got to a sign near the turn off: SILO FART TRAIL. The ‘F’ spray painted in, a perfect sense of humor. I chuckled and snapped a photo on my bike under the sign. I had a good feeling.
I hit the outskirts of Patchewollock, maybe two blocks from the center as small as it is. A young red headed lad rode up on a tiny bike and wanted to race. He zipped ahead to the pub, his other two buddies hanging outside. Maybe one of these turkeys sabotaged the sign. I liked them before they even said a word to me.
The portly lad with the Flash shirt on asked me, ‘Where’s the accent from?’
‘Colorado. You dudes hear of it?’
‘Yea, mate. Denver. And South Park. That’s our favorite show.’
‘Is that an e-bike?’ the scrawnier kid asked. This question comes up so much, almost as much as ‘are you a Trumper?’
‘Nah,’ I told him, ‘it’s a push bike,’ a phrase I’ve come used to calling. I asked them what was good to eat, if this place was as cool as it looked. Cheerily they added: hell yea, mate. It’s good fun.
I followed the sign with the pointing finger ‘THIS WAY FOR BEER.’ I pushed the bike around a corner and found the patio area with all the locals hovering about outside. This scrub town of Patchewollock, or Patchy for short, has a population of 133. Out here in the dry and arid Mallee scrublands this tiny town vibrates with a tough and raspy personality, light hearted but tough like a good pair of jeans. I bet every single one of these Patchy’s were at the pub. A town that used to flourish with prosperous wheat and sheep raising, now the water has gotten scarce and the locals have as many wrinkles from the sun as the land does. The sheep are still here, they still have that. But, their wheat crop doesn’t yield what it used to. Their small rural agricultural way of life has almost become instinct. The pub acted as the town hall, the community center, the bar, the hotel, the only restaurant in town, the babysitter, the park, the playground, the rest stop; this pub is everything Patchy.
I pushed through the doors. The doors swung back into the glaring sun, a worn creaking on the swiveling. The rafters reached high into an a-frame ceiling. Newer beams hung in a fresher gleam, less varnished from time. Blades from plows decorated in bunches of fours, rusting and showing what this place represents. Large splintered yokes hung up high too, dull scythes were tacked and nailed up, the leather strapping dry and torn, jerkied, sun bleached. Other agricultural tools, rusting and splintering, implements I have no idea what to call, lined the banister of the bar, the top of the bar, the walls, the beams up high, everywhere implements of the way of life decorated the interior. You could envision the wrinkled brow and calloused hands of the people. This place had the homey feel of a rural Irish pub combined with an eastern Montanan roadhouse—-part cowboy, part rancher, part farmer, part time mechanic, part time roughneck, full time boozer, full time family and community. A chattering crowd hummed as I moved to the bar, to a corner, to get to the bartender. I found her pouring whiskey straight into a Coke can.
‘Well, that gets straight to the point,’ I said loudly.
She laughed, ‘That’s how we go around here.’
She poured me a pint from the frozen tap. Everywhere I go to in Australia the tap lines are always visibly frozen, a thick layer of ice encapsulating the metal that leads to the spout. No matter how run down a place is or how new a place is, the taps are always frozen, icily cold, and appear spanking new. Every time I pull an ice cold beer to my lips I can taste the freshness, not flat, not stale, just crisp and clean and damn cold, cold enough that I have to watch how big my gulp is so I don’t get a brain freeze. There’s a matter of pride going into the working person who has earned an ice cold beer. Hard work is respected, money is hard earned. So, the beer better be damn good. These pubs aren’t just an establishment to make money. Sure, that’s an objective. But it’s not evident as the first objective. The locals come first, the community, the people. No matter where I go in the beautiful country: ice cold frozen taps. Emblazoned in ice, the bartender pours a frothy pint. The bartender slides over the pint to the patron. It’s just as good as saying I Love You.
I thirst for ice cold beer. A weary traveler ending a long day my first thought is of an ice cold pint of lager. It feels customary, a commercial in my head where a bead of sweat crawls down my temple, I raise the dewy pint up to my parched lips, I can feel the cold emanating from the glass, my grip thawing out a frozen bead of water; I pull the icy glass to my lips and take a pull. I can envision the travel of the gulp heading down my gullet and cooling off my whole system, the coolant of life in the Outback. Nonetheless, the reality of it, of sliding up to the pub and ordering a beer is to feel loved, to connect with the people. Having that first big gulp is me trying to communicate I Love You back.
The bartender set me up with my room. She led me down a corridor lining a courtyard with a tiny in-ground pool tucked in the middle, the water level on halfway. I followed her with beer in hand. I swaddled after a short ways to the room. I wouldn’t be far from the pub, stumbling distance for sure. I cleaned myself off and sat down at a table to eat at the cafe attached to the pub. The specials were a hot item: sausage schnitzel with mashers and veggies, and bolognese with meatballs. I went with the latter option, the slender kid out front told me that was what he liked the best. As I sat waiting the door to the bar swung open and a man teetered in. He had that drunk face: red cheeks and nose, puffy, bleary eyes, and a wry smile. He came directly over to me, like as if he had been waiting to get a chance to chat with me. I could tell he had sought me out.
‘How ya goin, mate? Where’d ya come from today?’
‘How ya goin,’ I said back, ‘Horsham.’
‘Bloody hell that a long way,’ his eyes bulging out, his stance swaying. We got through the chit chat and he laid a question on me, one I was waiting for.
‘So, mate…’ Here we go, I thought.
‘Are you a…’ Here it is, another damn Trump question. The indictment is happening, this must be it. I could’ve sworn I saw him mouth the word slowly: Truumpper.
‘So, what’s ya thought on the Paltrow case? Ya been following that?’ I could tell right then and there this wrinkled, tough and weathered old man was savvy. I had told him I was from Colorado. He didn’t even touch on the usual US politic bullshit. I chuckled out loud. I hadn’t paid attention to the case, only hearing this and that from news outlets.
‘Ha, no I haven’t. But I heard she’s suing back for $1.’
We both got a good laugh out of it. My buzzer went off. My food was ready. He told me to seek him out later. I nodded as I walked away.
After dinner I strolled back over to the bar. I sat down on a free stool away from the crowd. The bartender came over and handed me a pint on the house. Eagerly and grateful I gave her a giddy ‘Cheers!’ The bloke next to introduced himself. Mick was traveling around on his Harley. From Adelaide he makes occasional jaunts out to the Outback to see new sights, old relics, old railways, old mines, salt flats, whatever tickles his fancy. A retired railway engineer, Mick was well spoken, intelligent. He didn’t have the same rough-around-the-edges slang the usual rural pub-goer exhibits. We got to chatting about his travels. He even showed me pictures of the Outback, my heart thumping out from under my shirt. I slammed down the first pint, then the second. Mick ordered another Jim Beam. The bartender gave me a twist of the arm gesture with a wink.
‘You definitely don’t have to twist my arm,’ I told her, ‘Keep ‘em coming.’
She giggled at me, ‘Right’o.’
Mick continued showing me pictures of the landscape on his iPad. I was mesmerized. I was taken back to the hinterlands of barren Nevada and the red Utah. Suddenly, a bloke stood up on the brick bench wall next to the chimney. The point bloke went into pulling tickets for a raffle as an intermission. The winning raffle ticket gave away a couple of meat trays and sausage racks, all proceeds going to the pub.
‘Aye, it’s me!’ a bloke yelled out, the bar falling into an instant mad craze. The handlebar mustache bloke in the ten gallon hat nearly fell off his stool. His right arm shot up and back as if he was riding a bucking bronco.
‘Now give Allison the sausage rack she won,’ he blurted, the bar falling into a feverish laughter, the cacophonous hullabaloo echoing into the empty streets. After a few more pulls and winners the murmuring in the bar raised, a steady hum of palpable tension. The people were anxious. The ambience was as thick as the ice covering the beer taps.
‘Hey-o! Attention! Alright alright, let’s get us started,’ his drawl slurred, slow and fierce. Mick put away his iPad, I ordered a quick pint figuring the bartender’s attention would be disposed of for who knew how long. The bloke went into a slurred speech about the Patchy pub and the town of Patchy. Some blokes who sat around the bar slurringly chimed in at key points.
‘I mean the Japanese would put money into this place. They’re not bad people, but they ain’t from here,’ a sun drenched mop tussled in.
‘Aye,’ added another chiseled face painted red with booze, ‘Aye, what do we gotta pitch in to make it work?’
The point bloke went into it. A hubbub roared up into the rafters. ‘Shut it!’ ‘Calm down, one at a time!’ I watched intently, mainly eyeing the lip movement to hear what they were saying better. My ears had begun to ring with the few pints and 115 miles from the day under my belt. Couple that with a slurring Aussie accent and I had to pay attention. A steady blare hummed in the bar, the tension high. The point bloke regained his balance, his face bleary, seen some sun and seen some whiskey. He spoke up as he staggered.
‘We gotta keep it for us,’ the Aussie emphasis on ‘for.’ I could pick out the phrases from the drunken murmurs.
‘How do ya reckon?’ one added.
‘With what feckin’ money?’ another blurted.
The bloke to the right of me put his pint back down to the bar with a slap, empty. The bartender quickly filled him up. His flannel looked tattered and dapper at the same time. His giant calloused hand gripped the schooner. His beach blonde hair whipped up and with a twitch of his neck his voice boomed.
‘Get back on with it, mate!’
The pub went still, like the moments after the earthquake finally stops, the tinkling of trinkets left to sway from the shaking chaos. The point bloke still stood up on the brick bench next to the chimney. He swayed with the drunken wind borne of the pub, the intoxicating miasma of the old wood infused with booze since God knows when. He swayed and began to orate. He got into deeply, almost eloquently save for the occasional slur of a word. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The town hall meeting was happening right then and now on a Friday evening in a tiny dank and dark pub. The whole town was there, the leaders all leaned up around the bar. I could feel their passion, their love for ‘this.’ I looked around in amazement at ‘this.’ My eyes widened. All these people were salt of the earth characters. They wanted what they had and they were fighting for it right now. Mick leaned in and whispered to me.
‘They is really putting their money to their mouths. It’s put up or shut up.’
I thought I felt my eyes well up. I was touched by the scene. I could feel their connection to this place as much as I could physically see their connection to this place. In their wrinkled and squinting faces the land and the sun left an impression, each one of these people had been eroded and withered away like their once thriving industry. Yet, they were still standing, never backing down, staring the sun directly in the eye, their sun bleached hair and their squinting eyes emblematic of a blazing sun, emblematic of their place, their home. These people were the symbol of the heartland. I lifted my beer and swilled a deep gulp to hold it all together. And, then it was over, adjourned over a raise of the glass. They decided to all pitch in somehow, even if they don't have anything. Nothing was better than survival. Nothing was better than home. Nothing was better than this pub.
The chummy bloke from earlier, Gus, strolled over after the bar cleared out. He tilted in his stance, swaying with his buzz.
‘Whatdya think of that?’ Gus referred to the pub meeting.
‘I almost couldn’t believe it was happening,’ I said. ‘Tough times?’
‘Yea,’ his voice slowed, then picked up.
‘Ya fuckas got a lazy 20 grand layin’ around?’
We all laughed. Gus, Mick and I went into an array of topics. From railways and derailments, to Obama and his pregnant pauses, to my bike ride and my hardened ass; we just went where the booze took us. Mick and Gus were vastly different. Mick looked and spoke like he was from the city. He was clearly educated at a university many years ago. Gus spoke with a roughness, a quick witted and acerbic glib that made him incredibly likable. He was from the Mallee bushlands, a rancher his whole life. He was irascible in his delivery, sharp, almost mean, but with a smile. His face was as weathered as a pair of leather work gloves. He dressed like he was still in the 80s while Mick looked like a professor with a motorcycle habit. Needless to say, Gus didn’t take to Mick. They clearly grew up in the same era and grew up vastly different. Their differences were still visible, like scars. I swayed the conversations acting as the middle man, even bought everyone a round. I got us back on track and started talking about random shit. Nearing midnight the bartender came over.
‘Nearin’ midnight Gus. Want a roadie?’ she asked.
Gus looked smittened, his cheeks reddening. He guzzled the last bit of his wine and she handed him a can of Coke with whiskey in it.
‘I only got 10k’s to home.’ Gus shook our hands and left.
‘Pleasure meetin’ ya,’ he added as he turned around. Mick and I got up, too.
I woke up with a pounding headache. I clearly hadn’t hydrated enough after yesterday’s huge ride and a jaunt into the night at the pub. I made coffee and massaged my temples. Outside the sky was perfectly clear and blue. I knew I was being called to get out. A chill pervaded the desert scrubland air with a dryness that would crack the skin of working hands. I walked my bike around the hotel to the front of the pub. The streets were desolate. The wind blew in with a whistle and I expected a tumbleweed to go rolling by. I looked down the opposite end of the street. Nothing, empty. I was looking for a water spigot and then I remembered the silos. I went over about a hundred yards to the pines lining the weedy sidewalk. The two silos stood over the pines. I glimpsed a wrinkled face and a blonde mop over 100ft into the air. I leaned the bike up against a metal post and walked over to the tall silos. A giant mural of a man had been painted on the main silo. The one next to it had a Mallee eucalypt painted. The man, bleached from the sun, tarnished from years upon years of working outside in the harshness of the Mallee desert scrubland and farmland. A solemn look on his weary face represented the spirit of the people, of the hardworking souls that symbolize this landscape, the people of this land never giving up. I gazed up at the mural and the man from many different angles. He looked so familiar, like everyone in the pub the night before. Then, a memory trickled in, my mind still hazy from the hangover. Mick had said something about the man on the mural, that he was sitting a couple seats away. I looked closely into the mural. I could tell now that it was the bloke with the booming earthquake voice and the giant hands. He was tall and lanky like this mural, flanneled up and chiseled; he resembled the land. I welled up with emotion. I was touched by this place and the people. I drifted in a distant memory of a picture of my grandma’s dad, my great grandfather. He looked so similar to these people. He was from Oklahoma, an Okie in the Great Depression, flannel shirt and faded blue jeans, a constantly squinting expression as if the sun was always out, wrinkled skin everywhere, his hands calloused and big. I had only met him when I was really young, no more than two years old. But, I had a distinct memory of him somehow. I gazed back up at the silo and thought of my grandma. Oh how I missed her then. I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my mom. This is what that side of the family had come from, from a place similar to this. I had been transported back in time somehow to 1950’s America. I walked away a tad sullenly and found my water.
After witnessing last night’s town hall pub meeting, the painted silo bored weight onto me. If I had gotten here any other day the silo probably would’ve just been another boring silo to me. I didn’t though. The silo stood as a totem of a culture. To me, it represented a harsh life, a precious life, one worth fighting for. Heartbreak is love without a place to call home. And, this home was worth fighting for, this way of life. I saddled up and went on my way. I thought about nothing at all that day. There simply was nothing to think about. I just rode the bike like I was supposed to, almost numb, content, unrestricted, relaxed. The sky was a bright blue that day, the dirt road refulgent with a glaring sun. I squinted even with my dark sunglasses on. I was squinting extra hard. I wanted the carvings in my face so bad. I have always been envious of folks with wrinkles, always meant to me that one has been outside a ton, a life under the sun. Simple as that. You are wrinkled because you are outside all the time. That’s a simple endeavor to aspire to well enough.
Down the road, suddenly a boomer scuttled in the brush and bounced off. He flew through the low Mallee scrub bounding 20 feet at a time. I stood up in my saddle and cranked it. I kept up for a bit until the boomer turned his head and saw me close enough for him to spring and careen ahead in the controlled swiftness of a fighter jet pilot navigating a fighter jet careening through a tight canyon. I tried in vain to keep up. He extended his lead to a couple hundred feet. Every quarter mile or so he would stop and assess his coverage. He would spot me again and bound off in an accelerating manner. The boomer weaved through the brush and low branches. I could see the visage of trail, the network of the kangaroos. He knew the racecourse intimately. Broad shouldered and stout, tall, the boomer looked intimidating, so athletic whisking through the brush, his strides extending to 10 yards long. I kept at him until he got to a clearing in the fence, finally a chance for him to get out of the corridor. A couple seconds later I got to the clearing in the fence line perpendicular to the road. I saw the boomer bounding away in a dry wheat field rising up a small hill, then vanishing in an instant with one hop over the horizon. I pumped on feeling the rejuvenation in my legs.
I rolled into Murrayville a few hours later, the town eerily quiet. I pulled up to the roadside rest area across from the ornate hotel. Nothing, not a sign of anyone anywhere. I walked over to the hotel and peered into the windows of the pub. Some semblance of life appeared present but I did not see a physical person. I walked around to the main entrance and pushed the swinging doors. A small young Frenchman appeared from behind the bar, his diminutive stature looking so comical to me, cartoonish. Guillerme set me up with a room and a pint. I was the only one there. I threw a game of Cricket on the dart board, unwinding, clear headed. The front doors swung open and a couple of sandpaper cheeks and clunky boots rolled in.
‘Billy Gil!!’ they yelled. The parrots outside flocked in huge numbers across the street at the rest area. The sky turned that purple purple of the Outback. I ordered another pint. Guillerme set me up again. I felt the chill of the ice cold beer drizzle down my throat. He we are again…
Three days later I raced into downtown Adelaide. The open spaces were still open except now buildings were everywhere. The St. Vincent Gulf came into view, the shimmering waters still in the bright sunlight. I raced along side vehicles and felt the unrelenting pull of getting to where I needed to get to: the bike shop. I rolled into the shop and immediately met the friendly blokes. This would be my last legitimate bike shop until Alice Springs some 1400 miles away in the center of the continent.
I have been pacing out this trip strategically, even if most of the time it feels chill. I have taken my time to get to Adelaide, trying to get stronger and confident, enjoying the locals and the scenery, partaking in the rural pub culture---really, all of it has been a filling of the heart all of it has been for the next stage. Now, the Outback, the big red desert, the place I have been dreaming of since I was a boy is ahead, finally here.