When my plane finally touched down in North America, the memories came in a flood. Staring out the window at a wet runway in Vancouver, British Columbia, those memories gathered into a single thought, that of a conversation. One that had ebbed and flowed within my head since its origin some six years earlier.
“I feel unlovable,” I recalled telling the woman who sat across from me. “I have trouble in relationships, too.” The woman encouraged me to continue. “I also have problems setting boundaries,” I added, “problems expressing anger, troubles dealing with setbacks – difficulties saying no.”
I often had shared these things with others, but this woman was different. She seemed to be listening with the entirety of her being, without expectations, agendas or judgments.
And as she took in my words and validated my perceived wounds, it felt as though I were bathing them in cool, clear water.
And so it was that I continued that conversation, meeting with this woman for an hour a week, month after month, year after year, digging deeply into the depths of my own personal history book.
Unflinchingly, I recounted the pinnacles of my joy and the depths of my failures, bravely shining the light upon the most painful internal landscapes, upturning the darkest earth unto light.
Then, one day, I came clean with it.
“Viola,” I said, “I’m think I’m crazy.”
A smile broadened across her face, her eyes aglow with warmth and confidence.
“Rick,” she replied, “the ones that are crazy in this world are the ones that insist they’re not.”
Three years passed before the bulk of my fears transformed into an incredible lightness of being. As they did, I utilized the extra energy I had gained into the actualization of a dream – my dream to ride a bicycle around the planet.
Three days before I left, I met with Viola one last time. With tears of love and respect streaming from my eyes, I thanked her from the depths of my heart, then wrapped my arms around her in a warm hug.
“Well,” I said in a quivering voice, “I guess we’ll pick up where we left off when I get back.”
She looked at me for a moment, staring intently with those deep mirrors of insight and wisdom.
“Who knows, Rick,” she smiled, “you may not feel the need.”
“Sir …” a stewardess’ voice interrupted, snapping me from my daydream. “Sir, we’ve arrived in Vancouver. It’s time to disembark.”
I grabbed my carry-on and filed off the plane.
Journal 55: The End
Dates: March 20-May 3, 2008
Mileage log: 24,285-25,760
Elevation: Sea level-2,500 feet
Locations: Canada: Vancouver, British Columbia; Washington state: Birch Bay, Anacortes, Port Townsend, Silverdale, Seattle, Crescent Lake, Forks, Kalaloch Beach, Cosmopolis; Oregon: Astoria, Oswald West State Park, Cape Lookout State Park, Devil’s Lake State Park (Lincoln City), Florence, Brookings; California: Crescent City, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, Eureka, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, McKerriker State Park, Russian Gulch State Park, Van Damme State Park, Gualala, Jenner, Bodega Bay, Freestone, Petaluma, Point Reyes Station, Olema, Mill Valley, San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge)
An hour later, after I had built my bike from a box among the empty chairs of the arrival terminal, I reluctantly rolled to the mouth of two immense glass doors and stared out for a moment at the steel-gray skies as a shuffle of passengers intermittently ushered in bone-chilling blasts of frigid air.
Then, with only $20 to my name, wearing holey clothes and a secondhand pair of gloves, I climbed atop my rig and set out one last time.
Merging into traffic with four torn bike bags, two bald tires and a cracked rear rim, I negotiated my way south of the city’s center. Then, five miles into a thousand-mile journey, my bike began wobbling treacherously.
Pulling to the curb, I looked down to discover that my third bicycle frame had snapped clean through at the rear triangle. Stranded amid the whir of Canadian traffic, I gazed at my bike’s gaping wound.
I could have very well cried. Instead, I let loose with an uncontrollable belly laugh.
How ironic was it, that I had battered this bike over 15,000 miles, over the most brutal, rock-strewn stretches on the planet – across Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tibet and Indonesia – only to have it snap on one of the smoothest roads in the Western Hemisphere?
I bent down near the break and leaned in tight. “You did all right,” I whispered to the bike like some dying horse.
I pushed it for a mile until I came to a muffler shop. Wheeling it through a large, roll-up door, I negotiated a price, then watched as a certified exhaust technician welded the repair.
“Do you think it’ll hold for a thousand miles?” I asked after he returned it to me.
“It either will or it won’t,” he offered apathetically, then turned and walked away.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the muffler man’s words were Zen. They reminded me of one of the most important lessons I had learned during my journey, such as the lesson of impermanence.
After three years cycling 25,000 miles through 33 countries, I had worn out approximately three bicycle frames, five rear rims, 15 sets of tires, three drive trains, four seats, five pairs of cycling shoes, six pairs of cycling shorts, five iPods, six cyclo-computers, 20 sets of headphones, two laptops, two cameras and five lenses.
I stopped counting the flat tires.
But more important than the equipment, it came to me, was the impermanence itself.
It encompassed everyone and everything: the weather, my moods, the people and the landscapes, the moon, the sky, the religions, the politics, the food, the dress_- the pleasure and the pain.
If there was one thing I could count on during the course of this journey, it was change. Once I made peace with that, nothing could stop me.
This latest setback was no exception.
Rolling my reincarnated rig from that muffler shop on the outskirts of Vancouver, I hopped back on it and began charging south from the dormant patchwork of farmlands in southernmost British Columbia through to America and the endless stands of pines in northern Washington state. On little more than peanut butter and jelly, and a budget of $5 per day, I continued pedaling south, alongside a 300-mile-long spread of water along the majestic beaches of the Olympic Peninsula and the rocky coastal capes of the Oregon coast.
Then I finally crossed the border into Northern California.
“I’m home,” I whispered as I entered the churchlike silence of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The organic high rise seemed to respond in kind, showering my arrival with gossamer rays of silvery light.
I finished the bulk of my ride down Highway 1, through Fort Bragg, Mendocino, Gualala and Bodega Bay.
In just a few days’ time, I would complete my journey in the loving arms of friends and family at my final destination on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
But before I did, I had one last thing I had to do.
Picking up a parcel my father had sent by mail, I backtracked to the north, to the tiny hamlet of Jenner. Turning off where the Russian River met the sea, I pedaled upstream.
Along the way, I began picking at the mad blooms of springtime flowers along the road, stuffing them copiously into a plastic bag. I collected wild rose, honeysuckle, iris, moon-flowers, mustard flower, wisteria, daffodils, daisies and poppies.
I attached the bag to my bike, then rolled to a small, quiet alcove along the river.
Tearing open the package, I came upon its contents: a jar full of dirt. Because I never had the chance to scatter my mother’s ashes, I had requested that my father send me some of the earth over which he had spread them 26 years ago.
I sat for some time with that jar and those flowers. Then, slowly, I opened the bag and floated the flowers equally upon the slow-moving waters.
Watching them float in a swirl of color, another flood of memories came to me. In one of those memories, I envisioned the same river before me: a man and a woman smiling within a kayak; their two children, splashing and squealing jubilantly upon their laps.
It was the last memory I had of my family intact. Then my mind stretched back further, back to a memory that may well have been my first.
In that memory, I was little more than an infant: naked, wriggling in my mother’s arms. I recalled how, holding my tiny body ever so cautiously, she slowly, gently, lovingly introduced me to the water.
Now, that task had come full circle. Taking one last moment to peer out over those moving waters, I opened the jar. As tears began to flow, my lips moved in a whisper.
“Well, Mom, I finally did it. I cycled around the world.
“I know your eyes were not able to see that same world, but I hoped to make you proud knowing that my eyes did.
“The truth was that I was a boy when you left and not quite ready for your departure. Now that I am a man, it is time for me to say goodbye.”
With that, I cast the earth from the jar with a sweeping arch, its powdery remnants drifting toward the sky.
When I was done, I stripped off my clothes, then slipped beneath a glimmer of emerald water.
I knew at that moment that this journey had reached its end.
I long since had looked to this moment, as if all the experiences of my journey would align and all the answers to my questions would coalesce into some neat order, revealing their deeper meanings.
What came instead was the acceptance of the mystery – how beautifully unexplainable it all was. This and a deep appreciation for what simply was.
And in that, I had seen God. Not the culturally myopic God of one region, culture or religion, but the vast god who resides within the vast man. The one who danced between the synapses, illuminating the atomic spaces; the god who sung in the shimmering leaves on the edge of the forest; the one who spoke unquestionably in the eyes of a young child.
The god whose real name is love.
As I crawled from the water and stared back over the river, I pondered what the legacy of my life would be. Soon, in perhaps 50 years or less, the river that was my life also would return to the sea.
I thought of the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., giving his description of how he wanted to be remembered after he was gone:
“I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity … that I was a drum major for justice … a drum major for peace … a drum major for righteousness. I just want to leave behind a committed life.”
Eclipsed by the magnitude of King’s vision, I smiled upon the realization that I, too, would leave behind something permanent, however small in comparison.
Not fame, fortune, glory or accomplishments – just small acts of kindness and the precious acts of love.
I would like to end this journey by deeply thanking all those who believed in me, those who contributed in one way or another, as well as recognize three of my greatest heroes: my father, Richard Gunn; Viola Nungary, MFCC; and the late Dr. Leo Buscaglia, a tireless proponent of the power of love.
It seemed a shame I wasn’t arrested that afternoon, flying through the air stark-naked off a public dock, bottle of Champagne in hand. Moments earlier, near the shores of Lake Manapori, I watched with feverish anticipation as my bicycle computer’s odometer rolled from 23,999 to 24,000 – the mileage equivalent to the circumference of the Earth. Feeling the need to celebrate, I unclipped my bike bags, unholstered two bottles of bubbly, set my camera timer, stripped to my birthday suit, then launched. As I did, I imagined the headline: “American cycle-tourist arrested wearing nothing but helmet and cleats.”
But any thoughts of incarceration that afternoon were pure delusion. This, after all, was New Zealand: two wind-scoured rocks at the ends of the Earth, inhabited by 4.1 million people – less than the Bay Area – and a staggering 40 million sheep.
During my 1,200-mile ride across the dual-island nation, I had come across exactly seven cops. From a purely numerical standpoint, my chances of being incarcerated hovered around .0058 percent. More disturbing, I thought, was the statistical likelihood that I had been seen nude by more than 3,000 sheep.
The entire folly evaporated the next day after I received an e-mail informing me that the exact circumference of the Earth actually was 24,902 miles. I still had 902 miles to go.
The e-mail had been sent by my good friend, South Shore photographer Eric Jarvis. Two days later, he followed it with another. It read: “Anyhow, I’m en route to Nelson, wherever the hell that is. Looking forward to seeing you and the adventure of a lifetime.”
A fortnight flashed before I arrived at Nelson’s tiny airport. Trying to keep it real, I showed up sporting an ear-wide grin and a cheesy stick-on moustache I had purchased at a local Chinese variety store.
“Dude,” Eric greeted me after stepping from the plane.
“Dude,” I returned excitedly, then wrapped him in a heartfelt hug.
Several seconds later, his attention finally turned to my upper lip. “What is that?” he queried after our conversational catch-up.
“It’s the Scoundrel,” I said, pulling the label from my pocket. “I bought you the Bandito,” I added, handing him his small strip of fur.
He looked at me as if I were insane, then shoved it into his pocket, never to be seen again.
It had been a year since “Jarv” and I ripped the lid off Laos. We blasted off rope swings and trekked through remote mountain villages. Basically, we were two camera nerds with an itch to travel, wreaking photographic havoc across a foreign land. New Zealand would prove no different.
New Zealand’s South Island
Dates: Feb. 1-29, 2008
Mileage log: 23,200-24,000
Elevation: Sea level-3,000 feet
Our adventure began curbside, about an hour outside of Nelson, standing with our thumbs out, lumping two oversized backpacks, a scatter of bags near our feet. In them were bread, fruit, peanut butter, pasta, a 3-liter box of wine and a Frisbee emblazoned with a flaming-orange kiwi.
Jarv was the brains of the outfit. As we waited, I could almost see his mind working, diligently evaluating the logistics of the trip. I made myself useful by doing handstands in the middle of the road.
“Where you two headed?” a driver asked after pulling to the side of the road.
“Marahau,” Jarv replied.
“Trekking?” the man asked.
“Kayaking,” we said.
“Hop in,” he said as he popped his trunk.
Winding our way over a mountain road, the man went out of his way to drop us off at our campground. The next morning, after we stowed the last of our gear into the sleek hull of a two-man sea kayak, the two of us stood beneath an impossibly blue sky on a two-mile crescent of golden sand.
Staring out at the calm, glimmering sea, we took a moment to eye our destination of Abel Tasman National Park. A forested plot of wild coastlands located on the northern tip of the South Island, Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park at 139 square miles. But as we soon would discover, good things come in small packages.
Minutes later, self-propelled across a vast, shimmering seascape, our paddles swirled rhythmically through the blue-green waters. Carving a liquid trail out of Sandy Bay, we paddled along a string of remote beaches, where sculpted granite cliffs tumbled into cerulean blue bays. Seal colonies splashed beneath towering sea spires, while a group of islands flanked us.
That afternoon, we spent our time exploring, nosing in and out of sea caves, then rotated our paddles toward our designated camping spot. After lifting rudder, we built camp within the tiny cove of Te Pukatea.
That night, as we exchanged stories above the blue-flamed hiss of our camp stoves, storm clouds stretched across the sky. Long after we tucked into our tents, the sky billowed into fists and began hammering down rain that would last for nearly two days.
The next morning, I crawled from my tent into a torrential downpour. Jarv was making tea. After watching for a minute as the raindrops bounced off his Gore-Tex, he turned and smiled, as if to say, “Rain? What rain?”
That attitude was not only brilliant, but also contagious, and it soon would pay off. An hour later, after we had muscled across a stretch of windblown chop, Eric pointed out the mouth of Bark Bay’s tidal lagoon.
“We’re in,” he said after negotiating the wicked threat of currents ripping between tidewater and slack.
It was there, upon that simple body of water, that Abel Tasman National Park unveiled its magic. Calm, protected, dancing with raindrops, we followed that interior waterway as it doglegged into forests bursting with waterfalls.
Floating, photographing, astounded by its raw beauty, we plied those placid waters until we took our fill. Building our tents that night on the edge of that lagoon, we sipped boxed wine and talked until late.
After three days of kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park, we traded our paddles for a set of wheels. Rambling across the landscape like Kerouac and Ginsberg in a late-model rental car, we pointed those wheels south down New Zealand’s wild west coast.
Blazing a ribbon of pavement from St. Arnaud to Hokatika, we continued into the heart of New Zealand’s southern Alps. This continued until the two of us stood crampon-clad, craning our necks at the immense mouth of the Franz Josef Glacier.
After a short briefing about safety and etiquette, our guide, Johnny Rutkowski, informed us about the monolithic river of ice that stood before us. Most alarming was how far it had receded in the last century. Once stretching all the way to the Tasman Sea, the Franz Josef Glacier is just one of several thousands of shrinking glaciers on the planet.
We started single-file up an eight-hour climb on what seemed like an ice-carved stairway to heaven. Ascending first upon ice, then rock and sand, Johnny explained the physics behind the glacier, how it moved an untold mass of rock from mountain to mouth, like some monstrous, geologic conveyor belt.
Several hours later, after a series of climbs and dips, our efforts delivered us beneath a blinding white icefall, where office-sized ice-blocks appeared frozen in midavalanche. It was here that I became increasingly convinced that we had entered what looked to be some sort of ice-sculpting studio of the gods.
Suddenly, we were skirting deep-chasmed crevasses and scrambling between the spires of immense towering seracs. It was like some frozen version of “Alice in Wonderland,” where all our surroundings coiled and morphed into a mind-bending array of icy shapes.
We quickly descended from the towers through a magical succession of caves, cavernous yawns of ice that glimmered in symphonic refractions of varying blue light. Four hours passed in a flash as we scrambled, snaked and ducked.
Our last adventure took place on the outskirts of Queenstown as we edged into a river like wetsuited lemmings. Wriggling into the frigid waters atop a well-worn boogie board, I ignored a direct order by my guide not to pee in my wetsuit.
Sporting fins, helmets and extremely dorky looks, Jarv and I flutter-kicked into an explosion of Class III rapids. For an hour, we practiced drowning, one set of rapids at a time, using our faces to brake against waves.
When we were done, I was ready to empty the fish from my head when we were shown our reward: a 70-foot cliff, where we were gently encouraged each other to huck ourselves off like a pair of crash-test dummies, so we did – again and again.
One of our last nights of the trip was spent atop a rocky bluff capturing photos of Curio Bay, a dramatic coastal landscape near the southernmost tip of New Zealand. After the last light bled from the sky, we turned to pack our gear.
As we sat that night and ate a simple meal, it occurred to me that our journey was nearing an end. It came to me that I had connected with Eric on many levels – and how lucky I was to call him my friend. A silence soon filled a natural pause in the conversation, and as it did, my vision was captured by a strange glow in the distance. It was a transcendent, show-stopping full moon. Rising, widening, shimmering, glowing, it crept above the horizon like some mad, ethereal headlight.
“Dude!” I shouted to Jarv before we grabbed our camera gear and ran back to the bluff. Smiling with satisfaction after a series of photos, Jarv turned and said, “A perfect night with one of my best friends.”
With that, I left Eric to his craft, then meandered to a cliffside perch, where I silently took a seat. Listening to the contemplative crashing of the waves, I strained my vision toward the southernmost horizon.
Beyond my vision stood the icy shores of Antarctica, a mere 1,000 miles to the south. I had reached the ends of the Earth. With that, a smile grew within, radiating outward through every cell of my body.
After 2 1/2 years and more than 24,000 miles of cycling through 32 countries, I finally was heading home. My next stop was the United States of America.
Alone and naked, I stood in the rain.
Engulfed by the solitude of the surrounding forest, the river before me flowed like translucent tea. Entranced by the rain that danced upon its surface, the patterns it formed mimicked life itself – concentric circles arising, myriad forms, radiating outward, dissolving downstream.
A teardrop fell – water into water – unifying with source.
This before I bent, drew my breath and plunged. Alive and awakened beneath these cool, silent waters, I arced through the depths in suspended animation. Here, I recalled the events surrounding my arrival to New Zealand.
My mind harkened back to a tiny, makeshift office, the roar of the ocean, a cottage beside the sea. In the other room were my hosts, Bob and Karen Ostrow, two seventysomething-year-olds, heroes of mine whom I knew from back home.
The two long since had traded their winters for endless summers, traveling between their two small homes in Lake Tahoe and Whaihi Beach on New Zealand’s North Island. Transforming their retirement into something of an art form, they are artists, athletes, intellectuals – gently-aged gypsies.
With sweaty palms, I picked up their phone and nervously dialed a number. As I waited for an answer, I studied the whirl of color of the surrounding decor – red, yellow, blue, green – Picasso vs. Dali in a paint fight to the death.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice finally answered.
“Oh, hello,” I said sitting upright in the chair, “is this Mrs. Hillary?”
“Yes,” the woman replied. “May I ask whom I’m speaking with?”
“My name is Rick Gunn; I believe the local paper just phoned to inform you that I’d be calling.”
“Are you the one riding the bicycle around the world?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, somewhat relieved. “Yes, I am. New Zealand is the last of 32 countries for me,” I said, “and I was hoping to end the journey with a brief visit with your husband.”
Suddenly, there was silence. This followed by a tone of increased seriousness. “I’m sorry, that will not be possible,” she said. “Sir Edmund is simply out of circulation now.”
Another, more awkward silence passed. Instinctively, I knew I had only one chance at this. “I understand, Mrs. Hillary,” I continued, “but I could come to the house there in Auckland – it would only be for the briefest moment.”
The tone in her voice assumed that of a tigress, ferociously protective of the one she loved most. “I’m sorry,” she returned adamantly, “that is just not possible.”
“I see,” I said, defeated. “Please give your husband my regards; he has always been one of my heroes,” I said in a sinking tone, adding, “I wish the two of you all the best.”
“Thank you, I will,” she replied, then abruptly hung up the phone. Still holding the receiver in my hand, I gazed out the window at the falling rain. A voice welled from within. It whispered, “You were not worthy …”
* * * * *
A week later, as rain fell in sheets, I had left Whaihi and cycled halfway around a loop of the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula. Hydroplaning across the landscape with hydraulic halos orbiting my tires, I slashed like a madman through a dazzle of forested coastal hamlets.
Just after Whangapoua, the road climbed just short of a nosebleed. Tipping over the top, I ripped down the other side, blasting down the pavement into the happenin’ town of Coromandel.
Eclectic, green, cool and funky, Coromandel had just about everything a cycle-tourist could want: a pleasant campground, freshly smoked seafood, an organic vegetable market, a bakery, pottery and art galleries, good coffee, extra-crunchy peanut butter and one sweet outdoor lap pool.
It was here I met Glen Whittington, a cycle-tourist from Sussex, England. Glen’s bicycle tour of New Zealand had ended abruptly after he had been run off the road by a careless driver; his bike broke in half after landing in a ditch.
Dates: Dec. 1, 2007-Jan. 30, 2008
Mileage log: 22,200-23,200
Elevation: Sea level-4,000 feet
Visited: New Zealand’s North Island – Hamilton, Waihi Beach, Whangamata, Tairua, Hahei Beach, Whangapoua, Coramandel, Mackaytown, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo Lake, Rangipo, Taihape, Bulls, Paekakariki, Wellington
This is when I came to recognize one of New Zealand’s weak spots: drivers. Make no mistake, when it comes to hospitality, the Kiwis are tops. Almost everywhere I went they were welcoming, polite – spectacularly friendly. But when they stepped behind the wheel, they drove like James Brown on a bender.
In fact, in the short time I was there, motorists had killed two cyclists, broke another’s spine – even plowed into an 80-year-old woman in an electric wheelchair. Personally, I was swerved at, sworn at, then pelted – twice – with bottles.
After Glen and I discussed the subject for a bit, we decided to venture into town for a brew at the nearby Star and Garter Hotel. We had scarcely taken a seat in the pub, when a young woman walked up, eyed us up and down, then asked, “Where you two from?”
“California,” I said.
“England,” Glen followed.
The woman smiled. After we conversed for few moments, our attention turned to a woman with one leg in a long dress, flowing from table to table on a pair of black spray-painted crutches.
“That’s my mom,” the young woman informed us with a smile. “She’s flirting for free drinks.”
“So what are you two doing here?” she asked, turning her attention back toward the two of us.
“Were both cyclists,” Glen replied. The young woman’s eyes widened.
Just then, her mother hobbled up. “Mom … guess what these guys are?” the young woman said.
The one-legged woman shrugged. “I’ll give you a hint: It’s something we hate,” her daughter added.
“Germans?” the mother replied.
“Worse. They’re cyclists!”
Mom’s face wrenched. “We hate cyclists,” she hissed with disgust, before the two of them walked away.
Glen and I looked at each other for a moment, then burst into laughter. No sooner had our laughter stopped when a large shadow loomed across the table.
It was cast by a plus-sized Maori woman who wobbled up, then plopped down in the seat in front of us. As she looked at us, her eyes seemed to rattle in her head like one of those kitty-cat wall clocks.
“Heeni,” she said, extending her sizable hand.
Speaking in a series of vowel movements, Heeni blurted out sentence fragments like McDonald’s produced hamburgers; swaying back and forth all the while, as if on a boat in high seas. Every once in a while, her eyes would roll from the back of her head, into focus – then uncomfortably transfix on me. I felt like a giant doughnut.
“Heeni,” she’d say, introducing herself again, only this time fluttering her eyelashes.
Hours went by as Glen and I watched Heeni throw back drinks, drop her cigarettes, her wallet … her train of thought. All the while, she spoke in a strange tongue.
“I don’t understand Maori,” I repeated to her time and again.
“That’s not Maori,” a man walking by interjected. “She’s just drunk.”
Sometime around the end of the evening, after Glen had slipped away to use the toilet, Heeni leaned in close, her head wobbling like a poorly spinning planet. “Am I ever going to see you again?” she asked.
I paused for a moment, then asked her the more obvious question: “Can you see me right now …?”
* * * * *
By the next afternoon, I had completed my loop around the Coromandel. From there, I cycled southwest; over the central foothills, to the geothermal hot spots, and traditional Maori enclaves of Rotorua and Lake Taupo.
Through it all came the wind and the rain, until everything I owned – my tent, my clothes, my socks, my shoes – became wet. Though intuitively I sensed the beauty that surrounded me, most of it remained hidden to my eyes behind rainclouds and mist. I tried my best to remain positive, but after nearly 29 days of continual rain, my disposition began to sag like wet cardboard.
Then, one morning, there was something new and amazing: the sun.
Crawling from my tent after a long night of rain, I slipped on my shoes and jumped to my feet. There, beneath a bright, blue sky, beyond the tussock grass and pine forests of the Great Desert Road, soared two crystalline peaks: Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu. It was here, in 1935, on a school trip to Mount Ruapehu, that young Edmund Hillary first was introduced to the mountains.
His childhood had been difficult. His father, I had learned, had been badly wounded after returning from the battle of Gallipoli. In a series of interviews, Hillary would reveal a pattern of abuse, stating that as a boy, he constantly was hauled out to the woodshed for a good “thrashing,” often for the smallest offenses.
His words conjured my own childhood suffering: my own small offenses; my own painful memories of my mother standing over me; the sting of a wire coat hanger being whipped across my face. Though I once looked upon these memories as something of a curse, I now looked upon them for what they truly are: another chance at release; another chance to forgive – another chance to truly live.
A lonely boy with few friends, young Edmund suffered in school. During another interview, he recalled that a bullying grammar-school gym teacher “was very, very critical of me, saying just about everything was wrong with me that was possible.” During that same interview, some 50 years after the fact, Hillary admitted, “I still have that same feeling.”
But mountaineering had liberated him, freed him momentarily from his loneliness, torment and self-doubt.
* * * * *
Two weeks later, after I had finished my tour of the North Island, I was well into my ride of the South Island when I stopped at a small roadside pub to fill my water bottles. There, an image on a television caught my attention.
It was an image of a large, elderly man, his face vaguely familiar. I watched as he moved slowly, his skin looking frail as tissue paper. Then the image flashed to that of a younger man, lanky and smiling, standing tall and confident in the heart of the Himalaya. Just below the image, text scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
It read: “Sir Edmund Hillary has passed away at the age of 88.”
Almost instantly came a familiar sense – the recognition of something deeply lost, something deeply gained. The tears that followed came quickly, sincerely.
News of Hillary’s death echoed in headlines around the world. Their words described a life fully lived. Words like courage, strength, humility, compassion, inspiration.
From Nepal came the news that the Sherpa people had gathered en masse to prepare a ceremony – not so much to celebrate the first man to have climbed their highest mountain, but to show their love for the man whose Himalayan Trust had built them countless schools, hospitals and clinics.
Back in New Zealand, thousands turned out around the country, gathering in public places to celebrate the life of their most cherished citizen. In Auckland’s Hillary Square, Sir Edmund’s bronze statue was said to be draped with flowers and garlands. At its base were placed hundreds of condolence cards.
The Sunday Times Star described one of those cards written by two small children. It read: “To Sir Ed, you were a good man who did good things for New Zealand and other people. Now is your time to rest, goodbye.”
Those words brought the end of a memory, and my emergence from the surface of a tea-colored river. Climbing from that river, I stood at its banks, the drops of rain drawing me in again.
In my mind’s eye, I imagined Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, the two of them smiling atop the summit of Mount Everest – their lives arising, myriad forms, radiating outward, dissolving downstream.
Dates: Nov. 10-29, 2007
Mileage log: 21,600-22,200
Elevation: Sea level-4,000 feet
Visited: Devonport, Deloraine, Mienna, Ouze, Mount Field National Park, New Norfolk, Hobart, Dunalley, Eagle-Hawk Neck, Orford, Dolphin Sands (Coles Bay), Bicheno, St. Helens, Scottsdale, Launceston
I was halfway across Tasmania’s Western Highlands when I came across the beast – a dark, lifeless shape slumped on the side of the road. As I approached, I recognized what it was: a Tasmanian Devil.
I set down my bike to get a closer look. Half biologist, half morbid voyeur, I crouched over the dead animal and studied its form. After my eyes were done journeying over its rippled musculature, it occurred to me just how wrong the cartoonist had gotten it: the brown fur, the bushy gray eyebrows, the thin arms and legs – all wrong.
The devil was black – jet-black – with a V-stripe dashed across its chest like fresh white spray paint. Its brawny body was not much larger than that of an oversized housecat. Just above its shoulders, where the head met the body, all feline similarities ended. The devil’s head was large, disproportionately large, like that of a pitbull. Its anvil-shaped jaw appeared entirely capable of snapping through cold steel.
Leaning in close, I noticed no wounds, no blood, no signs of trauma. Perhaps, I thought, it was merely asleep.
Then, in my mind’s eye, came an image of the beast’s jaws shearing through the sinew of my lower leg. Reflexively, I jumped back. I shook my head and rode away.
Two days later, I had happened upon a pair of devils as they were meant to be: crashing through the brush at high-speeds, alive, wild – free.
I had arrived in Tasmania the previous week.
Following the shimmering waters of the Mersey River from the Devonport Harbor, I pedaled through a tangle of farm roads, over a small bridge, through the tiny town of DeLoraine, then up a curvy ribbon of blacktop, where the road twisted and stepladdered 3,000 vertical feet over Tasmania’s Great Western Tier.
Intermittently engulfed by a thick blanket of eucalyptus forest, I slipped into a peaceful cadence, taking in the blue-green puffs of foliage, their repeating pastel trunks looking like single, zenlike brushstrokes.
The road lifted and dipped over the saddle of a rocky crest until the pavement slimmed, then disappeared altogether. Rolling over a lonely rattle of washboard, I crossed a dozen single-lane bridges – stopping at each, peering for a moment into the trout-filled streams, tracing their paths as they braided and branched in silvery strands across Tasmania’s remote Central Plateau.
For six hours, I pedaled within those isolated environs, existing as a singular stirring of dust upon the horizon. It was exactly these kinds of empty landscapes that spurred endless sandstorms of thought. And although, in the midst of this thought, I was entirely capable of launching fleets of tall ships, building castles – creating and destroying entire civilizations – that afternoon, I returned to the thoughts of the day before, and the day before. A reoccurring thought that reflected infinity, like the image of a mirror within a mirror.
And once again, a feeling surged. One that welled up from my heart to my head. The one that reminded me just how long I had been alone; how long I had stuffed away, avoided or otherwise denied that most basic human need to be close to another.
Inevitably came the memory of a girl. The one back home with the kryptonite eyes – her handful of careless words: “I care about you … I want to see you.” She had written some time ago. Secretly, almost compulsively, I carried those words. Carried them through the hours, the days, the months. Carried them until they were replaced by another set of words. The ones that stated: “I’ve thought of you, too, but I have a boyfriend now. … I’m in relationship.”
Collecting those thoughts like shards of broken glass, I stuffed them all back inside, only to be brought back out again tomorrow. Then I did what I do best: dropped my head, turned my cranks and pedaled through it all.
Near dusk, the Great Lakes road delivered me to a desolate expanse of scrub, the Tasmanian equivalent to the middle of nowhere. I turned at a fork, then coasted into the town of Miena. Slowly, I rolled through the abandoned fishing village, my fading shadow casting a dim outline against a half-dozen tumbledown shacks, an empty gas station, then a backwoods bar.
Desperately in need of supplies, I parked my bike and made for the tavern door. As I entered, all heads turned. Scattered around the room sat a handful of flannel-clad, hard-smoking, hard-drinking hunter types. Surrounding them were the predictable icons of redneck decor: pine-paneled walls, taxidermied trout, six-point deer heads and beer posters adorned with scantily-clad women.
Ignoring their hostile eyes, I made my way to an area that held a small variety of staples, where I began checking prices. A can of beans was $5, a small carton of milk, $4; a bottle of beer, $7. I decided to do without. Still, I needed water. I approached the bar, smiled at the bartender and said hello. The man scowled.
“Uh … any chance you could fill these up?” I asked, setting my water bottles down on the bar.
The question seemed to dumbfound the man. He stood silent for a moment, then shot me an evil glare. During that silence, I studied a photo hanging behind the bar. It was a photo of the same man that stood before me, standing in the exact same spot, with the exact same scowl – only he was shirtless, wearing a bra and spiked dog collar.
He filled the bottles, set them back on the bar, then said, “That’ll be $3 each.”
“Really?” I replied sheepishly.
The man guffawed, then tilted his head back and let loose with a toothless, opened-mouthed belly laugh. This seemed to set off the entire room of Tasmanian hillbillies. Soon, they all joined in the open-mouthed laughter – with not an entire set of teeth among the group of them.
Grabbing my bottles and making quickly for the door, I felt as though I had somehow landed myself in a remake of the film “The Hills Have Eyes,” casted entirely by rejects from a Michigan hunting club.
Bouncing along a decline of loose dirt, I pedaled on, braking hard down a succession of backcountry farm roads. Picking up speed, I railed past the verdant-green blur of cattle pastures, paddocks and sheep fields, back onto the pavement of the southern lowlands, then through the gates of Mount Field National Park. Parking my bike, I quickly set afoot on the Russell Falls Trail.
Moments later, I was enshrouded in the cathedral-like silence of a temperate forest as I wandered contemplatively through a temple of greenery. Traipsing along carpets of extravagant mosses, I peered up at the skyscraping Swamp Gums, the myrtle trees and the giant ferns soaring 18 feet into the air.
Thriving within that wooded silence was a unique variety of Tasmanian wildlife that included the Tasmanian Devil, the long-tailed mouse, the ring-tailed possum and the spotted-tailed quoll. Bird life included the black currawong, the green rosella, the olive whistler and the grey goshawk. Joining those creatures were the Tasmanian tree frog, tiger snakes and the Macleay’s swallowtail butterfly – all these species protected within the boundaries of the park.
But just down the road, in the heart of the Styx Forest, many of these same creatures were not as lucky.
I soon learned that one of Tasmania’s largest logging companies (ironically, named Gunn’s Ltd.) was getting ready to cut down one of the last remaining stands of unprotected eucalyptus regnan. It’s the world’s tallest hardwood tree, second only in size to the world-famous Californian redwoods. If the company has its way, this 450-year-old stand of eucalyptus regnans will be clear-cut, then ground into low-value woodchips.
A report by Ecologist magazine describes the process as follows: “When the loggers have done their bit, the helicopters will come. From above the forest, they will drop incendiary chemicals, similar to napalm, on the myrtles, the eucalypts, the cockatoos, the whipbirds, the banners, the tree ferns. … The remains of the forest will burn for days. When the fire stops, (the forest) will be a charred mass of blackened stumps and white, ashen ground. Finally, the loggers will return. They will lace the area with carrots, implanted with a nerve-attacking poison known as 1080. Everything that eats it – wombats, possums, wallabies, bandicoots – will die. Cleared of potentially destructive wildlife, the area will then be planted with lines of fast-growing, non-native trees, which will provide the loggers with a means of producing woodchips in a way which is much more economically efficient than the old-growth forests of the Styx valley ever were.”
Greenpeace adds that of the wood logged in Tasmania, 90 percent is converted into woodchips for the Asian paper industry and sold at around $15 per ton. In 2000, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that 5.5 million tons were converted to woodchips.
“Importers should source woodchips from plantations, not ancient forests,” Australia Campaigns Manager Danny Kennedy recently informed the press.
His words echoed in my head until I reached the city of Hobart.
Rarely comfortable of late in the heart of a major city, I sought out a quiet cafe, where I nervously drank coffee. Picking up a copy of the local paper, I learned that one of my favorite books had been made into a film.
“Into the Wild,” based on the best-selling book by author Jon Krakauer, tells the true story of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young man who cut all ties with his dysfunctional family after graduating from college. After giving away his $20,000 savings to charity, McCandless sets off for the Alaskan wilderness.
Eventually, however, McCandless is found dead – starved to death – inside an abandoned bus after a failed attempt to live his dream of living off the land.
Near the bottom of the paper was a review of the film by Roger Ebert. It read: “For those who have read Thoreau’s Walden, there comes a time, maybe only lasting a few hours or a day, when the notion of living alone in a tiny cabin beside a pond and planting some beans seems strangely seductive. (To) certain young men, of which I was one … such a life of purity and denial makes perfect sense. Christopher McCandless did not outgrow this phase.”
I sat in that cafe that morning and contemplated Ebert’s word’s for some time, then studied the host of long faces that surrounded me until my mind spilled over in thought.
I began to think of all those I had come across in this lifetime who had attained all they needed but somehow wanted more. I thought of those who went to work each day, not out of love for what they do nor to improve the world, but to compete – to beat someone out – for power or resources, upper-management positions, traffic lanes and parking spaces.
I thought of all those I had met who had attempted to buy themselves into a life of eternal comfort. Those who had long since traded their lives, their souls, their gods, for things: immense boxes of sheet rock, expensive metal machines, extravagant meals, rare stones, endless rows of glittering fabric.
As if through the attainment of these things, they would liberate themselves – free themselves somehow from their inevitable return to the earth, the trees and the wind. As if through these things they would somehow sever themselves once and for all from that inseparable something “wild” that resides within us all.
Like McCandless, I decided long ago that I would rather live a thousand deaths of starvation within abandoned Alaskan buses than a single soul-starved, material-bound life of dreamless inaction. Moreover, that the most important thing in this life was not what I could get, but what I could give.
I spent the last of my days in Tasmania among the forests and surf, the clouds and the rain – and as I did, I felt as if I, too, was growing wild.
Even the food I caught or collected was wild: fresh oysters, flathead fish, mussels and scallops, all saut
The sun rose before me with the glow of an oven coil, a red disc that crept from the horizon. The heat that followed nearly set the landscape on fire. A kangaroo sprang from the bush, kicking up puffs of dust. Stopping for a moment to watch its tracks, I traced it over the rocks, through the trees, until it disappeared into the distance – flat, sparse, bare.
“You don’t wanna ride a bicycle out there,” warned an elderly bushman in an outfitter’s shop just outside Darwin. “There’s nothing out there but spinifex and gum trees,” he said as he set my supplies upon the counter. “There’s no food, no water, no people at all.”
I had tried to explain to him that that was exactly what I was after – a quiet place to decompress – after cycling through the madness of Asia.
The man did not listen. Instead, he turned his attention back out over the bush, staring into the void. “There’s nothing out there,” he repeated somberly, before he turned and walked away.
“Exactly,” I replied, then left to pack my things.
Two days later, loaded with 10 days’ worth of food, 8 liters of water and two large containers of rehydration powder, I stood over my bike and watched as heat waves formed over the strip of tarmac before me. At just less than 2,000 miles, it was one of the longest continuous roads on the planet: the great Stuart Highway.
It was named in 1862 after founding explorer John McDouall Stuart, a Scotsman who had been the first to blaze a route across Australia’s harsh desert Outback. Using every ounce of life force to cross 6,400 kilometers of hostile terrain, Stuart accomplished his task – only to collapse on the far shore. On the return trip to Adelaide, Stuart had to be carried on a stretcher. Irrevocably plagued by the punishments of his journey, Stuart then went on a four-year decline into death due to scurvy.
“Now, that’s the route for me,” I said, slipping a copy of his journal into my bike bags. I mounted my bike, then set about my way.
* * *
That first morning of pedaling, superheated winds blew at temperatures of 102. Hot and tired, I achieved only 50 measly miles before coming upon a smallish river – beautifully deep, emerald and wild.
But just as I descended to go for a dip, I intuitively looked upon the banks, as if I’d seen them before – perhaps in slow motion – on a segment of Animal Planet. Just then, a road worker passed and slammed on his brakes. Running his gaze over my bike, he rolled his eyes, then shot me an evil glare.
“Afternoon,” I said as he rolled down the window, “I was just thinking of a …”
“For God’s sake, mate!” he interrupted. “Did you not see the sign?”
“What sign?” I asked innocently.
“The sign, mate, that has the picture of the man doing this,” he shouted, before he began moving his limbs arm over arm. “Or this,” he added, joining his palms and snapping his arched fingers together.
“Salties, mate! Crocs! Whatever you do … do not swim here!” he exclaimed with disgust.
Growing up to 27 feet in length, the saltwater crocodile is the largest living reptile on the planet. Easily capable of building habitats 50 miles inland, these prehistoric carnivores have a nasty reputation of snapping up humans like cocktail weenies.
“Just down the road,” the man said after he had calmed down a bit, “a Swiss man was taken by a mother croc after he tried to ‘pet’ its baby.”
“And make sure you have plenty of water,” he added, as he rolled up his window. “They found a another dead Swiss laying near his bike after he’d been missing for TWO YEARS!”
As I watched the truck fade into the distance, several questions arose within my mind: The first about crocodile etiquette, and the second about water availability. These were soon replaced by the more obvious question: “What’s up with all these dead Swiss dudes?” I thought as I climbed on my bike and continued along my way.
Travel dates: Sept. 3-Oct. 15, 2007
Mileage log: 18,840 to 20,737
Elevation: Sea level to 300 feet
Visited: Darwin, Batchelor, Pine Creek, Katherine, Larimah, Daly Waters, Newcastle Wells, Renner Springs, Tennant Creek, Wauchope, Barrow Creek, Aileron, Alice Springs, Uluru National Park (Ayres Rock), Erldunda, Kulgera, Marla, Coober Pedy, Glendambo, Woomera, Port Augusta
* * *
As it turned out, Crocodylus porosus was the least of my worries. In fact, the species that would become my archnemesis across the Outback was smaller. Much smaller. It was Australophlebotomus mackerrasi, more commonly known as the phlebotomine sand fly.
These small, plentiful, incredibly persistent sand flies seemed irresistibly drawn to the human head – tripling in number the moment you began to sweat. Using your face as an insectile landing strip, they dove into your eyes, buzzed your ears or rocketed up your nose. They were easily sucked to the back of the mouth during inhalation, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to swallow two or three flies a day.
Stuart’s expedition party were no strangers to these insects. After the expedition, one of the men recalled: “… the sandflies, the common flies, and the mosquitoes … were terrible. Our hands, wrists, necks and feet were all blistered with their bites, and many earnest inquiries were made as to who could explain their use in this world. One of the party thought they were sent to teach a man how to swear fluently.”
And swear I did at these creatures, right up until I reached an outdoor shop on the main streets of Katherine. As I walked in, the man behind the counter read the look on my face. “Let me guess,” he said, “you’re here looking for a head net …”
Proudly sporting my new accessory, I set off the next morning to Katherine Gorge National Park. There, I traded my pedals for paddles. Floating like a popsicle stick between two perpendicular rock walls, I glided lazily over sheets of liquid glass.
Reassured by rangers that the freshwater crocs didn’t bite, I plunged into waters that were bursting with wildlife. There were darters and kookaburra birds, swallowlike Fairy-Martins, snake-necked turtles and the infamous barramundi fish. There were lizards and snakes, frogs and bats, too. At lunchtime, I was preparing a feast of peanut butter and jelly when a kangaroo walked up and snatched my only loaf of bread, then ate the whole thing just inches from my leg.
When I returned to my camping spot late that night, I once again stumbled on yet another form of wildlife: the great Australian camper. Vivacious, hospitable and heavily armed with steak and beer, the Australian took his “caravaning” very seriously. And at any given campground on any given night – usually after a couple of beers – I would find myself deep within mutually incomprehensible conversations of American and Australian slang.
* * *
Waking up early one morning, I rode 85 miles against furnacelike headwinds. Stumbling and mumbling into the tiny town of Three Ways, I wobbled into the campground looking as though I’d spent the last month trapped inside a cement mixer. After using every last bit of energy to set up camp, I lay in my tent browsing excerpts from Stuart’s journals.
I came upon one of Stuart’s encounters with a group of Aboriginals. An entry for March 1861 read: “We saw natives at the upper end at a brush fence in the water; they appeared to be fishing, and did not see us until I called to them. The female was the first who left the water; she ran to the bank, took up her child and made for a tree, up which she climbed, pushing her young one up before her. … The man … ascended the bank and had a look at us; he then addressed us in his own language and seemed to work himself up into a great passion, stopping every now and then and spitting fiercely at us like an old tiger.”
Two days later – some 140 years after Stuart’s first indigenous encounters – I cycled into the Aboriginal community of Tennant Creek. There, I came upon large groups of indigenous men and women. They were drunk and squabbling, staggering in front of a liquor store, waiting for it to open.
As I looked upon the group, my mind began to churn with the terms of recent Aboriginal history: extermination, detribalization, denigration, loss of land, loss of cultural structure, exploitation, alcoholism, domestic violence, underrepresentation in the political system and overrepresentation in prison populations.
“G’day,” one of the elderly Aboriginal men said as he approached. He smiled and looked at me through gentle, opaque eyes. Though he glanced at me for only a moment, I recognized something powerful – something deep within those eyes.
What I saw were stories: Stories of a different land, a different people, in a different time, with a different way of being. For these people, these stories lead the way. Without them, they were lost. They were the cairns and waymarkers for a culture that went back 43,000 years.
I knew I needed to find these stories. Or, moreover, I needed to find those who maintained these stories. For they were the ones holding the torch, leading their people back to their heritage – blazing the path of courage, light and hope. I found these storykeepers and more in Alice Springs.
* * *
I entered Alice Springs – bustling, hot, modern and sprawling – beneath the looming McDonnell Range. I parked my bike near the center of town and entered the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). For 24 years, CAAMA has produced indigenous music, radio, film and television programs that reach more than 1 million people in a variety of Aboriginal languages.
It was here that I found emerging Aboriginal filmmaker Dena Curtis. The 26-year-old had earned a scholarship to attend the Sydney Film School as well as sponsorships from the indigenous branch of the Australian Film Commission. Among her four short films, her 10-minute documentary “Cheeky Dog,” about a young Aboriginal boy in Tennant Creek who suffers from MS, went to the Sydney Film Festival in June. After that, it aired on ABC Australia.
When I asked her why she had picked film as a medium to tell these Aboriginal stories, her answer was clear. “I think the most rewarding thing about making these films is that indigenous people get to see black faces and black stories in their own language … like they’re a part of something positive. Otherwise, the only other times when they’d see a black face on TV is when it’s negative.”
A couple of days later, I was introduced to Mitjili Gibson, an internationally acclaimed Aboriginal artist and expert naturalist. Born in the wilds of Western Australia, Mitjili is not only a painter, but also a vital source of esoteric knowledge for biologists, ethnobiologists, ethnobotanists, scientists and naturalists, as well as those working with endangered species. Over the past 20 years, Mitjili has been featured in countless magazines, books, and television and radio programs.
“She’s pre-European contact,” her son-in-law, Peter Bartlett, explained as we watched her paint in a downtown studio.
“She’s what?” I asked.
“She was born in the West Australian Bush before the arrival of the white man there,” he clarified.
Mitjili smiled, then spoke in her native Pintupi dialect. It rolled from her tongue like thick liquid velvet.
Peter translated. “Her mother and father were speared to death,” he informed me. “A tribe had killed the two of them after her father had cleared a water hole. She was an infant at the time, and the only reason she survived was because her brother carried her across the desert. He’d kept her alive feeding her from the breast of a lactating feral cat.”
Peter watched me studying the colorful concentric circles that formed the basis of Mitjili’s paintings.
“Her paintings are like diaries,” he said, “they are memories of her life. Some of the circles represent the small islands that surrounded the edge of a salt lake where she’d grown up. Others represent the holes they dug to sleep in at night – holes that sheltered them from the wind and cold.”
“I’ve always wondered how these people survived in this desert,” I asked him. “What did they eat?”
“To us, it looks like a desert,” he replied. “To them, it was a paradise. They had all the things they needed. They ate a variety of bush foods, Bush banana, bush tomatoes, bush raisins and grass seed that they combined to make a simple unleavened bread. They were also nicknamed the ‘Lizard Eaters,’ because the area where they lived has the highest density of snakes and lizards in the world.”
“They also ate these,” Peter announced, opening a small paint can that sat near Mitjili’s feet.
On the Web
To learn more about CAAMA Productions, visit www.caama.com.au. To see works of art by Mitijili Gibson, visit www.gallerygondwana.com.au/Mitjili/mitjili.htm.
When I looked inside, I spied piles of wriggling insects, their abdomens bulging with a clear-golden liquid.
“What are they?” I asked.
“They’re honey ants,” he said. “Try one.”
I picked one up by the head, then chomped off its body. As I did, it released the tastes of toffee and honey. The insect was delicious.
The last group of indigenous people I met were Peter Williams Sr., Charlene Williams, Peter Williams Jr. and Nathan Eldridge, from New South Wales. The four of them formed the traditional Aboriginal dance group Thinkga. There, among the hills just outside Alice Springs, I watched as they twirled and leapt.
“I didn’t grow up with the culture,” Peter Williams Sr. told me, “but it’s nice for me to get back to my roots.”
Satisfied with my time meeting these story keepers, I cycled out of Alice Springs the following day. Thirteen days later, I finished my journey across the Stuart Highway near the city limits sign outside Port Augusta. A spectacular show of stars filled the sky during my last night in the Outback, sparkling across the heavens from horizon to horizon. As I laid on my back to watch them shimmer, I thought of my journey, then that of John McDouall Stuart.
I couldn’t help but think of his elation as he accomplished his task and reached the far shore. For a moment, I imagined him smiling over the ocean, repeating the same words I’d uttered earlier that day: “I did it … I actually did it.”
Later that night, after crawling into my tent, I opened a book and came upon this Aboriginal proverb: “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love … and then we return home.”