Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps it was the solitude. Or perhaps a combination of the two, but they seemed to provide me with many friends – friends in thoughts (or were they dreams?) and even in person.
Long had I been wanting to ride again from Newcastle to Canberra, some 500 kilometres. Down the coast I would go, then through Sydney and the southern highlands into the high plains and sheep farms of the Monaro Plateau.
A week offered itself, albeit a week in February, in the midst of a long and hot summer. I’ll be fine, I thought. After all, I have ridden often in hot weather. Up to 35 degrees is fine. Somewhat warm, a little discomfort, but not too much. Occasionally, one can manage a few degrees above that mark. Drink more water, rest frequently … I knew the drill.
I was simply not prepared for what was to come. The numbers: over seven days the maximum temperatures on the bicycle were 41, 33, 38, 48, 39, 40, 41. Yes, the average was 40 degrees, with the highest a staggering 48!
Needless to say, such heat can wear you down, no matter how much water you drink and how much shade you seek. Maximum distances per day decrease – at least in theory – and heat exhaustion is a risk and a reality. As I was to find.
Thoughts … or Dreams
When your legs go throughs thousands upon thousands of revolutions on the pedals, when you are on your own doing so, and when the heat is relentless, day after day, thoughts tumble and surprise you … or are they dreams? How can my brain store so much random information? How in the world did that thought get triggered? Let me give a random sample.
Example 1: When I tire, I argue with imaginary and real opponents, manifestations of the ever-changing beast on my shoulder. And I tired more often than usual on this ride. Sixty kilometres in the heat seemed to be my limit, beyond which I hit my ‘wall’. On three of the days I did indeed hit my ‘wall’, with some force. After that moment, one cannot think much, for one is focused entirely on getting through the revolutions of the pedals. The time before is another matter.
With whom did I argue?
Well, when you have been a job for a decade or so, you build long-lasting common ground with some and you find equally long-lasting lack of common ground with others. My preferred approach is to have nothing to do with the latter. A preferred approach … but hardly practicable. I prefer to forget and move on. Others prefer to hold grudges for many a long year, waiting for their moment.
Add to all this the turmoil of a wholesale restructure that made all and sundry profoundly anxious about the ensuing chaos and you have a situation ripe for the re-emergence of gripes, the origin of which had been half-forgotten in the passage of time.
So, I imagined scenarios, enacted confrontations, wondered whether my new bosses understood my idiosyncratic way of operating – or as some point out, my tendency to ‘go rogue’.
Only after the ride did my wiser half ask whether the real question is whether I need to move on, to say farewell to one job and develop another. Good question. It went right to point and identified exactly what I had been seeking for a year or two, but without being able to name it.
Being on a ride away from a place is obviously symbolic at so many levels …
Example 2: A decade is long time. Almost ten years ago I rode these roads, but in the opposite direction, from Melbourne to Newcastle. With each push of the pedal, I was saying farewell to a well-nigh forgotten phase of my life.
Back then it was another time and another departure. Then, I was on an old red tourer that did not like the loads I put on it. It thought of itself as a racehorse and I treated it like a workhorse. Now I was on a true workhorse, a Surly Long-Haul Trucker that enjoyed as much as you could load on it. A strong, uncompromising bicycle that took on any task without complaining. I wish I had used it earlier. But it was not available at that time, perhaps waiting for me to reach this phase of my life. Then, I still pushed myself to the extreme, wanting a little extra in the competition of life. Now, I am content with a gentler pace, savouring what passes and knowing my limits a little better – although I occasionally give into the temptation to bust myself even these days.
Example 3: The mysterious Lake George, a place for thoughts and dreams. Mysterious? The lake has no streams that feed into it, so the water that appears from time to time is somewhat of a puzzle. Some suggest it relies on the trans-continental aquifer for its water supply, while other suggest it has something to do with the alignment of the planets. Others have more hare-brained ideas. I prefer not to speculate, but to enjoy it as it is – with or without water. The latter is often the case … which makes one wonder why it is called a ‘lake’.
Out of Goulburn and onto the Federal Highway (which would take me to Canberra at last), the lake gave me a tailwind. For 50 kilometres along its edge I ran, using the big chain-ring on the front. But I was not so interested in skipping by the lake too quickly. Often I found an excuse to stop, for a drink of water, a feed or a piss. I lingered, looking out over the flat land, the low hills on the lake’s edge, the big sky with its few clouds towering above. A kangaroo stood under a solitary tree, seeking shade from the heat. It looked out over the lake flats, until it saw me and bounded away. Like the kangaroo, my smallness was palpable, completely lost to the rest of the world. I turned my phone off, so that no trace of my passing would be noticed. The only way to find me was by the primitive mode of sight.
Solitude … of Sorts
My only companion for most of the ride was myself. Usually, I am good company, able to keep up a lively conversation with myself. But one cannot avoid other human beings … from time to time.
At first, it was a woman or two, albeit of my own demographic. Two women sat at a café in Ourimbah on the second day. I had stopped for a rare coffee and ‘sausage’ roll. They were obviously not of these parts, having come up from the southern metropolis for the day to scope out the area. One was amazed that I was riding to Canberra, fascinated that I should be getting back on the bicycle to pedal further.
Down the road at Marulan (between Moss Vale and Goulburn), I stopped for a lunch of sardines, baby spinach and bread rolls. Before long, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her automobile and began reminiscing about the rides of her youth. She had moved to these parts anticipating a high-speed rail connection. Of course, in Australia with its woeful politics, such projects are promised from time to time during election campaigns, only to disappear in the too-hard-too-expensive basket afterwards. She had been waiting for 30 years.
More often I encountered ‘grey nomads’, old fogeys trying to make the most of retirement before the various ‘medical conditions’ took their toll. At the wonderful Campers’ Kitchen at Moss Vale, when I was still recovering from heat exhaustion, a couple laid out a tablecloth, carefully cooked a meal and sat down to eat. We talked, of journeys taken and journeys planned, of places visited and places in one’s dreams.
At Goulburn, a couple of old men arrived late, well after I had pitched the tent, eaten and had a couple of beers. Each drove his own car, each was obviously keen to get on the road, and each was intrigued by my simple gear and bicycle. Who knows: were they old mates seeking to live a dream that might soon escape them? Did they imagine other ways to travel apart from the comfort and ease of their vehicles?
As for me, I wondered why more and old fogeys found they could talk with me. Was it because I too was on the threshold of that phase of life? If so, I would continue to pedal, albeit a little more slowly and for more modest distances.