There was little conflict when I finally pushed my way up the winding hill that made Lorinna disappear. I didn’t want to go – plain and simple.
That valley was good to me. For four months it gave me the space and solitude to rest, to think about my day and not my bicycle, to sort the pieces of this journey that hadn’t made much sense. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a place that mended something you never knew was torn.
But I had to go, and in my heart I knew it was time. There are a hundred things I want to do with my life that have nothing to do with the road, yet still standing upon them all is a compulsion to explore, to be pulled like a moth to whatever shines around the corner.
I rode to the northern Tasmanian coast with none of the awkwardness that usually comes after a long break from the bike. Farm work is tough and I left Lorinna in better shape than when I arrived. In just a few hours I cruised past Devonport, Penguin and Burnie, following the cold grey shores that would steer me west.
Rain hammered down from the moment I woke the next day, and there was nothing to do but button my collar and lower my head for a long, wet ride. And yet it wasn’t. I caught myself grinning when two farm kids ran to their gate to wave me on, and the feeling carried me all the way to Marrawah in the far northwest.
I hadn’t been in the local pub two minutes before I was handed a cold beer and made to sit by a glowing fire. Most of the patrons had seen me on the road that day, and though the consensus was that I was “bloody insane,” everyone seemed pleased that I’d arrived in one piece. As my shoulders slowly lowered, I figured I’d do well to ask about the highway ahead.
Earlier I had passed a half dozen signs saying a landslide had closed the track from Marrawah to Zeehan, a small mining town 120 km to the south. I’d continued on because I figured I could muscle my way over pretty much anything. Now I wasn’t so sure.
What I needed were bar-stool prophets, that brotherhood of farmers and haulers and builders who can somehow see the future by aligning their heads between the jukebox and a bottle of whiskey. What they don’t know, they find out – and fast.
I explained myself, dripping and a little tipsy. Gravely, they faced the bar, considering the problem in low whispers. A plate of spring rolls came and went. Finally they turned as one and delivered their verdict.
“Nah, she be right, mate.”
Good enough for me.
The next morning I shook off the fog of ten-too-many cocktails and gingerly slid through the gate barring vehicles from the damaged road. From then on, there was no one to be seen. The wilderness – with its iron-red rivers and mountains punched from the earth – was mine alone.
It’s those places that keep me going, those gaps in the map where towns never were. Out there I’ve no need to wonder or worry. There’s just my bike and my breath, and suddenly the road is all so simple. I know no word for it, but I found that feeling in the Arctic and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
And just as then, what I wanted couldn’t last. Twenty kilometres from the far gate of the closed highway, a truck slid across the gravel in front of me and an unhappy foreman climbed from the cab. He was trying to frighten me, and I stood there smiling like a damned fool.
I figure if you’re going to break the law, do it with such enthusiasm that people forget what exactly you were doing wrong in the first place.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he scowled.
“I reckon it’s too beautiful to be anywhere else.”
“Yeah . . . but . . . there will be big trucks up and down the road all day.”
“What time are they done?”
“No problem. I’ll wait here until four o’clock.”
“That’s a six-hour wait . . . ”
“With a six-hour view.”
He shook his head and laughed, and I had him. Instead of punting me back to where I’d started, he offered to load my bicycle onto the back of his truck and drive me over the landslide.
On the way he pointed to where the river crashed into a cliff and made whitecaps, where Tasmanian devils came by night, where next year’s mine would leave a scar. At the gate he shook my hand and told me his name was Dale.
The challenge was over – ahead the highway was just a highway. I descended to Corinna, crossed the Pieman River on a ten-dollar barge and arrived in Zeehan as the sun was leaving – not that it mattered. There was nothing to see but an old man outside a peeling hotel. He leaned back on two legs of his chair, chewing something awful and brown in the corner of his mouth, and I decided to sleep anywhere else.
By morning Strahan was behind me, then Queenstown and one hell of a climb to point my bike east. On the plateau I rose further still, to King William Range and its peaks that flashed like the fins of a monster returning to the depths of the earth.
And that’s when I found them. Lying in the muddy ditch beside me were two faded $50 bills. I did the jig I do whenever I find money (five-cent pieces included) and decided I finally understand what Australians mean when they use the word “chuffed.”
I rode to Derwent Bridge, considering aloud all I could do with my new-found riches. I might be responsible and put it in the bank. I might be practical and buy food for 10 days. Or I might be myself and get spectacularly drunk with people who want to dance.
Fortunately, the call wasn’t mine to make. Outside the Derwent Bridge pub I met Jon and Emilie, a young couple who were waiting for a chartered helicopter to fly them over Cradle Mountain. Jon looked at my bike, at my torn clothes, and something flickered across his face.
“You know . . . the chopper has four seats.”
“There’s the two of us and the pilot . . . ”
“Do you wanna come?”
“Chip in if you can, but if you can’t . . . ”
“I found $100. You can have it. Does that work?”
He smiled. “Yup.”
And there was nothing left to say. Two hours later we were soaring over some of the most stunning scenery in the world, past mountain lakes and summits that see more snow than boots. High above all that green and grey the sky curved as though it could go on forever, and I was in awe.
Nothing on the ride to Hobart would top that experience, and that’s okay. It’s enough that every moment was mine to spend as I wanted, that I could turn whichever way I chose and never wonder what-if. Sometimes I forget that not everyone is so lucky.
In New Norfolk, I met someone who reminded me.
Richard had twine for a belt and an agonizing stutter. His eyes were clouded with age but they sparkled when we talked about the weather, and the hills, and the weather on the hills. Hobart was 24 miles away he said, and said again, pointing to the roadside and a stone marker that had long outlived its use. Then he took my hand, with skin that felt like the bark of a tree, and offered the only words he wouldn’t stumble over.
“Just enjoy every day.”