Until a couple of weeks ago, I was all gung ho and adventure prep was full steam ahead. Work wasn’t a source of joy but that just gave me more jaded energy to focus on my grand escape. Then I hit the wall.
It happened a little in slow motion: like you’re coming into a corner and then the line doesn’t start to open up where you expect, and you realise that you’re coming in too hot; so you lean into it a bit more and drop the elbow and the knee and pray to the gods of traction, but you know you’re still coming in too fast; now you’re thinking you’re heading for a lowside and you’re waiting to feel it let go and wondering if you paid your insurance premium this month; and then the wall or the tree appears and you just have to surrender to whatever’s going to happen next.
Much to my delight, the only wall I hit was figurative, but there’s a lesson in it – that moment of surrender where you really just have to roll over and admit, I’m not in control of everything.
The first loss of traction was with work – or more precisely, my capacity to keep pouring an endless stream of mental, physical and emotional energy into something I was now struggling to believe in. Not that I ever believed in fighting for the commercial legal interests of multinational corporations in a profoundly moral sense – but I’ve always believed in doing my job with a high degree of excellence in the interests of professionalism, my own self respect, and hell, my own financial security.
However, I’ll now admit that over time, the the personal cost exacted by the particular role, in the particular time and place, simply became too high.
So I took some leave from work, to think things through, and my immune system promptly threw in the towel as well. My doctor’s been telling me for months to get a new job because this one seems to be killing me – and as I was lying in bed with a raging infection, too weak to get up and too sick to sleep, I sort of started to agree with him.
The conceit of will
Maybe it’s a particularly Western conceit, developed somewhere between individualistic liberal philosophies of personhood and access to excellent healthcare, but you start to think that everything in your life comes down to an exercise of free will. Yes, some days are more of a struggle than others; but you come to internalise this idea that the application of more willpower is all that is really needed to overcome minor obstacles such as lack of time, lack of health, lack of rest or energy or sleep.
That is, of course, bollocks. And every now and then reality drops by and knocks you off your perch – as a gentle reminder.
You end up totally helpless and realise that you need to chill the fuck out. And you have to accept that you’re a weak, little human animal trying to do ridiculous metaphysical things from inside a delicate little contraption of flesh and bone.
But some of us are slow learners.
Here’s how my little learning process played out. You might want to make a cup of tea, because as I said, some of us are slow learners.
Ill, Week One: I’m fine! Let’s ride into the polar vortex!
So I go on leave, get sick, and proceed to let myself get sicker and sicker for a good week before I finally cave and go to the doctor. Nasty infection, she says! Antibiotics, she says! Fine. The pharmacist sends me home with a glorious pink “cherry” flavoured suspension, which I obediently self administer. I’ll be feeling better by lunchtime, I think. No need to put off my plan to go visit the parents, I think. Yes, they do live in a mountain range kind of adjacent to the Snowy Mountains, and yes, it is the middle of winter and it has been snowing up there; but I have heated handgrips on the KTM now and am, obviously, totally hardcore. What could possibly go wrong.
Well, the first thing that could possibly go wrong is that you get distracted on your way of town, and don’t end up heading out of Sydney until it’s 4pm with the sun starting to go down over the afternoon gridlock on the M5. No worries, though. I can lane filter like a ninja. Only about 340km to the mountains.
So you get to Pheasant’s Nest, the servo that really marks the end of Sydney and the start of the boring slog down the Hume Highway towards Canberra. It’s dark, and it’s cold, and you haven’t even started climbing the Great Dividing Range yet.
You stop and scull a $1 service station coffee and make sure your scarf is wrapped inside your helmet up to your eyelashes.
You keep going and ignore the steady cold drip from your nose that runs down your top lip under the layers of moist wool. Ignore the pain in your throat, your sinuses, your inner ears and your lungs. It’ll be fine. You’ll have a hot of cup tea when you arrive. Only 280km to go.
By the time you climb the range up to Sutton Forrest, you can’t feel your feet. But who needs to be able to feel their feet when you’re cruising on the highway in top gear anyway? You stop and walk around the McDonald’s carpark three times in the name of circulation. Continue.
You get to Goulbourn and the air temperature’s about freezing, but it feels a little fresher at 110km/h. You deliberately pull off the highway at the first exit – the inconvenient exit that entails a detour – because you know that the old-school roadhouse on this side of town has an open fire in their restaurant. You’ll fuel up there and defrost your face before continuing on.
You arrive at the roadhouse, fill up with fuel. Your finger tips are so numb you have difficulty turning off the fuel line between the safari tank and the main fuel tank before you start. Darkness shrouds what should have been a beacon of warmth and light: the restaurant is closed, there is no open fire. The servo attendant tells you that ‘riding around on that bike’ is a poor life choice and lets you huddle over his electric bar heater for fifteen minutes.
The road flattens out and you know that you must be skirting around the rim of Lake George, but the grassy waterless depression out to your left is mostly invisible in weak moonlight. The heated handgrips are cranked to 50 degrees but you can’t feel any warmth. The only way you know they’re on is because your hands feel only ordinarily chilled, except for the fingertips, which don’t quite touch the heated grips and so ache sharply with cold.
You swear a bit. It helps.
In Queanbeyan, you stop at McDonald’s to defrost. You email the parents to say you’re heading out. You’d ring them, but the phone line is down and there’s no mobile reception out there. Maybe they’ll have the satellite internet on.
The frost is falling as you head of town and so is the temperature. It’s about minus five by the time you get in the blackness of the countryside, but that’s the least of your problems, because it seems like every large kangaroo in NSW is chilling by the roadside tonight. Not the small ones; they must be somewhere else. All these roos are big ones, solid and over five feet, undecided about whether to jump into you or away from you.
That’s alright, you grew up out here. You know what to expect. You also know that there’s absolutely nothing you can do if one decides to jump directly into the side of the bike, which does happen, as the side panels of every farm ute can attest; but for the ones that come from slightly in front of you, you’re ready for them. You slow to 50km/h and react to every dun flicker in your peripheral vision. Mob after mob of kangaroos grazing by the roadside; you see at least 120, and have to brake viciously ten or eleven times when they jump at the front spokes.
Did I mention, also, how very shit are the stock headlights on a 2012 KTM 690 Enduro? There’s me surrounded by kangaroos on both sides… I can barely see them. Suboptimal all round.
By the time you get to the dirt road, it’s worse. There’s a moment when you’re hemmed in by a mob of fifteen or twenty kangaroos and they’re hopping down the road with you, around you, in front of you, on both sides. You’re just doing 20km/h and trying not to startle any of them into a sudden change of direction.
Good work, Grace, you think. More excellent life choices.
When you get to the front gate, you’re so cold you’re shaking. You look at the bouquet of padlocks and hope the parents haven’t moved the key and forgotten to tell you where. That happens sometimes. It’s only 2km to the house but there’s no way you’re up to dragging a 690 Enduro under the fence tonight. At least not without warming up. (Body seizing up; can no longer swallow; pain in ears; again, suboptimal.) You decide that if you can’t find the key straight away, you’re just going to light a bonfire at the front gate and warm the fuck up before you deal with the next problem.
You poke the padlocks with your numb fingers and one of them falls open; it’s not locked. Small mercies.
Just a few ninja wombats to avoid on the driveway, then the dog’s barking and you’re pulling into the shed. Mum comes out in her dressing gown and slippers, and your breath is clouding the air.
‘It’s a bit cold,’ she says. ‘Would have been a few kangaroos on the road.’
Ill, Week Two: Endless moaning
Unsurprisingly enough, I didn’t suddenly get better after my frosty night ride. I got sicker and sicker. Each day I would drag myself out of bed and up to the shed in order to attempt to do something to the KTM – I had this idea that I was going to install my Kouba lowering link – but it’s amazing how little you can get done when you can’t eat, drink, stand up or think straight.
Right, I thought, I’ll do some visa planning for the trip. Cue wordless drooling in front of laptop.
Eventually I just had to give up and surrender to it: couch, fire, dog warming the feet. Sometimes it’s the best you can do.
Ill, Week Three: Defeated
After a week of antibiotics and moaning, I still wasn’t any better. I thought I might need to see a doctor again. Ever tried to make a doctor’s appointment without a telephone? Not impossible, but definitely a pain in your arse. For a moment there, I thought I was on a winner with the satellite internet and the online booking form… until I had to enter an SMS verification code to confirm my booking. No mobile reception out here. Eventually I emailed someone in Sydney and asked them to telephone a doctor in Queanbeyan to make me an appointment.
The phone line had been down for about eight days by that stage; we’d asked Telstra to fix it but they weren’t in any hurry. They offered to divert our landline, which did not work, to a mobile, which wouldn’t work out there either. Thanks Telstra.
The final moment of vulnerability came when I realised that I was too sick to ride into town for my doctor’s appointment, and I had to ask my mum to drive me to town. I haven’t had to ask for something like that for… eleven years? That’s when I realised that no amount of being fiercely independent was going to fix the fact that right now, I was totally helpless.
Sometimes, you just get knocked on your ass.
Ill, Week Four: Recovery
I started to mend and even managed to get out in that lovely mountain air for some Vitamin D and fresh air. It might be frosty up there on Winter nights, but in the middle of the day you have these moments of blue-skyed delight. Sunny, 19 degrees, and everything’s washed clean and bright down by the river.
Eventually, I managed to drag my sorry self back to Sydney. I even managed to drag said sorry self to the odd job interview, and develop a plan on the work front which should see me heading off next year with a little more money and a little less insanity.
Now I just need to eat, drink and get my strength back.
I’m back to planning the adventure. There’s a lot to do. But I’m also trying to be a little more forgiving to myself, because we can’t all be ninjas all the time.