Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I am sent a few Angels

April 15th

I am sent a few Angels.

Anthony and Dave arrived at 11 the night before, and we stayed up till around one catching up in the cold underneath the heat lamps that the bartender was kind enough to leave on for us. I am still amazed at how cold Canberra can be, even though I know from the browning leaves of imported deciduous trees that it must be some time in the fall. Our lodgings were, with the exception of white crown-molding, quite unadorned. Fortunately this sterility seemed to also extend to the rooms, sheets and bathrooms. A short six hours later, Dave, Anthony and I were up. 15 min later they were already out the door heading back towards Sydney and midterm exams. A wave of depression hit me as I pulled up his bike back into the hostel and began re-packing my bags. Something about being so close to finishing made this 299 km seem longer than it should have been. I was alone, and for the first time since the start of the trip, it troubled me. I think that perhaps it was the juxtaposition of solitary cycling and intense socializing that had characterized my riding since Adelaide. But, once again, throwing myself to the task at hand proved a ready salve. Despite my melancholic disposition, I felt better with my hands back on my gear.

A girl in modest sleepwear (pink shirt and penguin dotted pajama bottoms), walked out of her room with bread and canned spaghetti. I am not a picky eater in the least, but the white bread/ chef boy-r-d brekki combo was the least appetizing thing I could think of. She was cute; an olive complexion with short, bobbed black hair. We exchanged polite smiles, but were both focused on our tasks at hand, and this precluded any polite chitchat. I gave her no other thoughts before a shudder of the door and some English accented swearing brought me to attention.

"I locked myself out of my room." She stated, staring at me blankly. This was clearly aimed at me because I was the only other person in the hallway. I starred blankly back at her waiting for a little bit more information.
"I have to get to work by nine." She stated in a hopelessly pleading voice.
"I’m sure this happens all the time, just give them a call."
"My phones in my room."
"You can use mine."
"I don't have their number, it's in my phone." The crutch of technology crumbles once again through a human error.
"There has got to be a phone book close by."
She looked at her clothing, again, quite unrevealing, but most certainly sleep clothes.
"I can’t go out in my pajamas."
I took a deep breath and threw on my beanie.
"There has got to be a news agent close by, they will have a phone book. What am I looking up?"
"The National Zoo and Aquarium."

This piqued my interest. I had assumed she was doing some backpacker job, one of which could not be worth stressing about. I assured her I would be back in less than ten minutes and stomped down stairs and out to the cold pavement of a Tuesday morning in Canberra. Not surprisingly, the sleepy city was still waking up at 7:30, even in the CBD, traffic seemed terrifically light. After walking five hundred meters into the CBD, I found that none the newsagents were open, but I suspected (correctly) that the coffee shop I passed would no doubt have a phone book. With six hours of sleep, the idea of coffee seemed like top idea. I also reckoned that it would be rude to ask for a phone book and not get coffee. I continued this line of reckoning - that if I showed up with a phone number and just a cup of coffee for myself that it, well, just might not have seemed as nice as it could have been, so I got pajama girl one as well.

No one was at the zoo yet and she left a message. I planned on riding into Sydney between 2 and 4 am on Friday morning, and thus had some time to kill. Having a cup with this girl seemed a good way to kill time. It seemed like we were both in need of some company. I felt suprisingly relaxed and asked her questions to get her mind off the fact she was late for work. Turns out her name was Charlotte, she was 20 years old, from England, and was here on her own steam doing an internship for the National Zoo an Aquarium. It was a $15 cab ride for the nine miles between her room above the pub and the Zoo. I tried to convince her that nine miles was a pretty easy ride, even out of shape. Then again I was looking through a slightly different lens. Charlotte impressed me. She had a serious relationship back in England, and had told him that she had to go out and do this on her own terms. Not that 20 is particularly young, but this seemed to be an act that took a bit of gumption and self-confidence. We ended up killing time until 10am when the bar staff showed up to prepare lunch. It was only when we exchangd a hurried goodbye that I realized that the simple act of company and conversing kindly with a stranger had done a great deal to lift my mood.

I had to run various errands around town; I was in no particular rush and ended up leaving around 2pm. I felt much more confident and at home with a bike between my legs. Traffic was light and I was quite glad I had a roughly 1000 meters of altitude to drop on my way into Sydney. I was making good time when a vast golden field opened up before me. After my weeks in the high country with its hills and mountains, this golden monochromatic flatness before me was breathtaking. This was Lake George, or what was left of it. I was going fast. Less dead weight, slight downhill and comfortable wind conditions helped me eat up the kilometers. Up ahead of me in the at a rest area, a small white haired man was waving what appeared to be a high performance cycling rim in one hand and what I assumed were power bars in another. I wondered if there was some sort of race or charity ride going on, but no, this gentleman was stopping just for me.

"You’re moving at a good rate mate. I saw you five km back and you haven’t kept me waiting."
The words flew out of his mouth as he shoved five large generic brand apple power bars in my hand.

"Where did you start?"
"I’m heading Perth to Sydney."
"Why are you doing it?"
"This ones just for kicks; thank you for the bars. I'm Jordan Hanssen." I thrust out my hand in introduction.
"My names Ray English." He took my hand firmly. "You wouldn’t know it by my accent, but I’m a naturalized American. My name gets confusing when I’m at hotels when they ask me for my name. I say 'English', and they look at me like I’m taken the piss."
I judged from the unused racing rim in his hand and new VW van with dealer stickers on it that he must deal in bikes and that at this juncture in his life, he must now live in Australia.
"How did you end up in Australia?"
"Spent some time as a GI in Vietnam and married and Aussie girl… I've been around."
This seemed an understatement.
"Where you headed tonight – Goulburn – would you like a ride?"
"Probably Goulburn or thereabouts. I'll have to decline the ride. I have made it this far without a ride." I never liked to admit to strangers that I sleep on the side of the road.
"I won’t keep you, you mustn’t get cold. Good to meet you. Perhaps I will see you in Goulburn."
He turned, and I called out thanks and followed his orders. The exchange took perhaps less than a minute. Only moments before, this ride was pretty damn boring and with the addition of a random, kindly Pom-Yank-Aussie, it had given me 5 energy bars, restored my faith in mankind and threw a huge grin on my face. Just as important was that now I did not need to stop for dinner. That night I would make a decent meal of power bars and avoid riding the highway in the dark on the way to Goulburn.

My patch of grass was in a thicket of densely-packed trees that reminded me of Aspens. They certainly did not look native, as their leaves were rather round and all quite yellow in the late fall cold. It was the dense cover that is easy to hide in, and in the same breath, always gives me the impression that a dead body will be hiding in it. I like to think this is an encounter I will avoid, but I always try to mentally prepare myself for such an unpleasant contingency... just in case. This has to be the tour cycling equivalent of checking the closet for monsters. I read some of my Icelandic Sagas, alone, but after today, not particularly lonely. I slept soundly.

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