All I know of New Zealand is that no two places are the same.
In Canterbury, the sky hung close above farms and fences that stretched on for days. What few trees there were stood naked but for crows keeping silent watch over fields ripe for snow. Cattle complained in huddled ranks, their steam disappearing in the electric wind of a season on edge. I pedaled past, bundled and smiling. It reminded me of home.
Further inland was another world entirely. The highway plunged into Rakaia Gorge and crossed its cold waters on a bridge patched with timber where its concrete had fallen away. On the other side, the road rumpled over hills divided into plantations of towering pines, past towns that weren’t towns at all.
I slept at the foot of Burkes Pass, not from exhaustion but because I was shivering and wet after riding in the rain. I used to try to be tough in those situations, as though it would somehow make me stronger. Now I know I only need to be smart. In my fuzzy green socks and trusty red hoodie I ate a hot dinner and crawled into my sleeping bag, safe and dry ahead of a climb that could wait.
The next morning I passed the twin lakes – Tekapo and Pukaki – before cutting south toward the village of Omarama. There the hills gave way to a vast arid valley and a road that ran arrow straight into the Hawkdun Range, some 40 kilometres away. I looked everywhere but in front of me, trying to keep the mountain from growing in my mind.
I needn’t have worried. The real challenge was the summit I couldn’t see. Tucked behind the smaller peaks, half hidden in the clouds, sat the St. Bathans Range and a 1,000-meter climb to the top of Lindis Pass.
I arrived at the crest smelling like a wet dog and looking twice as rough. My legs burned and my lungs were raw. When I finally slid off my saddle, I turned to find I was being given an ovation by a busload of Chinese tourists. I politely posed for snapshots, I said thank you in Mandarin, and then I got the hell off the mountain.
Scarlet cheeks never suited me anyways.