Taped to the window of a small-town grocery store are dozens of papers. Each had been identical, blank but for the black outline of Australia’s coast. Now they stand bright and true, as varied as the tiny hands that covered them with every shade of imagination.
I always loved coloring contests.
Like them, my place is in the empty spaces. Across the Victoria border I fill them with pine, with dust and sap that floats between all the greens that can only be painted. A koala looks to the lazy sky and we wait, breathless and ready.
Miles are short between Nelson and Portland, Port Fairy and Warrnambool. Each town is its brochure, with delicate lawns and folks who touch their hat when they say hello. In the parks and cafes along the water, everyone fits. I don’t feel much of anything, so I go.
I turn to the Great Ocean Road, to explore something that has been in my ear for months. As the highway reaches for the turquoise coast it tumbles from cape to cove and back again. Far below, waves thunder and spray over giant rocks, as if desperate to come ashore, to speak the words I cannot find. People were right about this place and I forgive them at once for their tired praise.
At Princetown the road falls from the cliff that brought it there. At the water’s edge it turns inland, to the mountain, and aims for the top. It is my first proper climb in Australia, in years. I slowly rise, twisting my bike under the mist and cool canopy of timber that hides whatever comes next.
My legs wonder at the people who say cycling is 90 per cent mental. It’s not, at least not for me. It’s muscle and mind embracing each other and the moment. They move hypnotically, indistinguishably, until somehow they melt away and create something else entirely. To me, cycling is a dance. It’s 90 per cent rhythm. Tension takes care of the rest.
I push over the top to see a forest, a filigree, a sunset. I can go no higher. I stand with them like a child among pant legs. I notice my lungs and suddenly feel very human. I am covered in sweat and snot, with calves that screamed if I’d been near enough to listen.
Breathing slower, steadier, I let go and lean into the corners that bring me back to the sea. They come so fast that the colors blur into shades I can’t recognize. There should be sadness or even fear, but all I feel is thanks, gratitude for the moment on the other side when my heart outgrew its chest and showed me how to be free.
Back on flat ground I ride to Melbourne and decide it will be my last stop on the mainland. Six months have come and gone since I left Darwin and the chapter feels set to close.
Australia has been good to me. It’s the only country I’ve pedaled without putting its days and places to rank. I see them as I saw the colored pages stuck to the window of that nameless market. They are all perfect.