Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In the wild

Turning off the Edelux and switching on the headlamp I'm thinking, that guy was right. The guy at the control who gave us the rundown on this final leg of Day 3.

At the same time I'm thinking, on the headlamp you have to be careful to hit the button twice. Quickly. That's how you get to Economy Mode, so the batteries don't run down. Who knows how long I''ll need them tonight? Maybe a long time.

The guy was a volunteer at the control in Whitfield, at the bottom of the hill. An ordinary-looking fellow in an orange T-shirt with extraordinary information. One of the riders asked about the hill and he proceeded to recite, in detail, the salient points. Steep for 5 km, is how it starts. (That's the part I'm on.) All told, about 14 km.

Just listening it was clear he's done the whole thing, on a bicycle. From Whitfield over the Great Dividing Range to Mansfield. So the information is good. OK, doubtful it was totally at night. No normal person would choose to depart Whitfield at 10pm. Today it's necessary; there's no other choice. Good thing I love to ride at night.

More good news.. so far, so good with the lower back. When I rolled into the control it was screaming. Didn't like pushing that front tire. Changing the flat. All that climbing yesterday. Waiting for food it got a few slow Downward Facing Dogs. This will have to do. As I tell Mark Thomas over homemade soup and grilled cheese, exhaustion means I can't take ibuprofen or its relatives. They make me sleepy and sleepy is no good.

Ahead of us is the longest climb of the day. It's 62 km to Mansfield. That's not nothing...

Behind us, on the floor of the gymnasium, a half dozen randonneurs lie flat on their backs in Corpse pose. Snoozing away. As the minutes tick by, their numbers grow. Rick Blacker is there, with an upset stomach from the heat of the day. Mark is waiting for him.

I gather my things and get on the bike, turn right out of the control, and begin climbing into utter darkness.

The last mile of the steep part I start to take in new information. Something other than my own fear, my own pain and weariness. The worry is gone, I'm going to make it. As it happens, with a massive spray of stars against a black sky, with a moon behind the hill backlighting the ridge on my left, there is more going on than me riding a bike. The bush is alive with birds, calling.

At home we have only a couple of birds who are nocturnal. I've never heard them sing. But here, here... this is Australia, home of the ancient ones. The darkness is anything but silent. I struggle to understand the language, the patterns. None of the voices are familiar. They're the natives; I'm an observer, a learner. A seeker, surrounded by noise.

One bird singing a pattern I can pick out - I try to repeat it. The pattern comes back! Call and response. I try again. It calls back. And again. It calls back. There's no way to be sure the bird is responding directly to me. But it sure feels like a conversation. I'm participating in something alive and mysterious. Something that has no analog in urban or suburban life. These creatures know how to survive. I will be lucky, tonight, to emulate them.

The guy said after the steep part, it's rolling for a while. When I reach the first downgrade, euphoria. Followed by what seems like an endless series of ups and downs. A long, long while. At some point I stop to put on arm and knee warmers. Patience, and a new rule: as long as you can see hills close around you and in front of you, even winding around, it's not the summit.

Then we start to go down. The guy said it was a gradual downhill run to Mansfield. Well, I'm sure it is. In the daylight. It's a struggle to stay focused on the road. Slow the bike down. Someone said there could be wildlife. God help me, in that case. On and on and on.

Cold air sinks, and I'm plunging down to meet it. Into the chill. Can't go slow. Try not to shiver. Don't shake the bike. Don't shake the bike.

How long? There is no end. The moon is up now, but the road is shaded by trees. I'm searching for shadows, moving across the road. I'm going too fast. Mansfield is somewhere ahead but there's nothing. Just a dark ribbon of a road lined with tall gum trees. I'm falling, basically, along its path.

Finally out in open rolling hills, a pair of headlights. An oncoming car. Make that a truck. It takes a long minute to reach me, and after it passes I can make out a lone pale streetlight up there. No sign of a town. There must be a town. Then, a red blinking light, way up ahead, on the road. There must be a way to end this thing.

Finally, there is.

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