The Sacred Way – Part 2

In May this year, a bunch of Scottish Scouts took on their own Quest 79 challenge, crossing Scotland via the Great Glen Way. The cycled and canoed 79 miles over four days through sun, rain and midges. “What was the hardest bit?” I asked.
“The big hill! It went on and on and it was so steep.”
“And the best bit?”
“Errrr. It’s weird but maybe the best bit was going uphill too” they declared. “Because we didn’t think we could do it, and then we discovered we were stronger than we thought.”

The Himalayan hills are behind us now, but whilst they were hard, we are missing them as we cycle on the plains of the Ganges. A piece of our hearts is left in the drama of the scenery we have passed through, in the unexpected terrain, with the turquoise Ganga tumbling beside us, with the resilient spirits and gentle smiles of mountain people.

Our challenges are different now. We cycle by monkeys and road signs for elephants. We are grateful for the sacred cows that bimble all over the roads, slowing the onslaught of traffic to a safer pace. We dodge between rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tuktuks, battered old cars, trucks and buses, mules and donkeys, carts, dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys, people, puddles, potholes, bumps and lumps.

“One Selfie!” all the motorbikes call to us, anything from one to five passengers squeezed on a single seat, hands full of mobile phones pointing at us whilst shouting “What your country?!”

When we pause for a break, crowds gather within seconds, motorbikes abandoned in the middle of the road for videos and selfies with us, overladen buses veering around, sometimes with a small crowd sat on top or someone on the roof-rack playing a drum.

In this land of motorbikes and selfies, noise is relentless. After a few days we manage to zone out from the blaring horns, rumbling engines, squeals of monkeys and calls to prayer. The heat is oppressive, thirst impossible to quench. We seek sanctuary in our overnight abodes, a screen of concrete and glass between us and the chaos, a waft of cool from a fan that looks ready to propel itself from a misfitting hole in a crumbling ceiling. Kevin dreamt last night of a fan spinning from the ceiling into the giant bed and mincing us all up. Maybe he is wanting a get-out from the sticky hard work or the incessant overload on the senses.

Christine is a changed woman. “We’ll get another day out of these cycling jerseys” she suggests on day four of ten hours on the road. It is a polar opposite to her usual habit of putting every last scrap of clothing in a washing machine after a half-hour cycle that raises no sweat. I am a changed woman too, saturated with grime and years of dirty adventures, eager to rinse our jerseys in a bucket.

“I love all these bruises and scrapes on my legs. Some of them are spectacular!” Christine adds, “I’m a real adventurer now”. Meanwhile, the seasoned adventurer in me is scrubbing myself clean, cleaning my feet with tea tree and seeking the moisturiser. There has been an exchange between us somewhere along the way. Christine has downed her standards (even happy to eat some day-old pizza crawling with ants), and I have upped mine.

We are exhausted with ‘our public’ but appreciative of Christine bringing up the rear and acting as our relationship manager with the motorbikes chasing us down from behind. They have heard we are on the road and are out to investigate. “Namaste! Gangotri to Varanasi” she calls out like a broken record, and intermittently we hear “Very well thank you!” In desperation to escape a growing crowd and a gang of bikes in the town of Bijnor, we flee.

10km out of town, our newly acquired Indian SIM card not working, I briefly turn my data roaming on to check we are on the right road. We are going totally the wrong direction. Back on track and my phone full of texts from Three informing me that the 90 seconds online has cost me more than £1 a second (seriously Three?!), we decide to cut our day short and find a riverside Ashram. We are hoping for some peace and a spiritual experience on our “Sacred Way”.

We leave the tarmac and follow a dusty lane towards the Ganges, temporarily lost amongst donkey poo and inquisitive villagers. Kevin’s data roaming, at a much more reasonable rate, navigates us to the Ashram gates. A friendly crowd starts to gather and lifts us and our bikes up the flight of steps, and through a gateway that has an air of temple about it. Before entering inside, we are spoiled with hot chai, snacks and a bunch more selfies. Ready for some rest and maybe a lesson in meditation, we begin heading inside, asking where there is a room we can lie down. Instead we are guided outside again, back down the steps, up the dusty street and toward the ‘the old house’. I imagine an ancient temple, maybe a bit dilapidated, excited for our first Ashram.
We are shown to a room, Kevin reporting that an old man had been fast asleep on the bed until a few seconds before.
“This old Ashram?” I ask Kum Kum in my new Indian English. She seems to be in charge.
“Old home,” she says, “I manager”.

A few hours later, tucking into daal and chapatis with a bunch of old men in their 90’s, we realise that the Ashram is actually an old people’s home, and we are booked in for the night.
Never a dull moment in India.


The Sacred Way – Part 1

The rickety village of Gangotri is the end of the road and the start of our journey. We are 3500m high, buried in a Himalayan valley. A few short rows of tumbledown houses line the upper Ganges, a smattering of colour etched across golden towers of rock. Massive blocks of mountain are suspended precariously above us, ready to fall from contorted walls that stretch to the sky. Towards the heavens, rugged peaks crown the valley like meringue, and from their heart flows Ma Ganga. The crystal water of the worlds most sacred river is the reason we are here. Today we throw a feather in the river. Tomorrow we will begin chasing it downstream. In the next three weeks we will cycle 1500km from these dizzy heights to the winding streets of Varanasi and its two-thousand temples. The pristine scene before us is a stark contrast to what awaits us downstream. Here the water is pure enough to drink but by the end of our journey the river will be awash with rubbish and the remains of burned bodies. Varanasi is the fourth most polluted city in the world.

Tushi-shy is our new best friend, our Nepali Sherpa adopted for the day. A slight man, he magically makes the village wheelchair friendly, deftly navigating us up steps and along riverside paths, hauling two heavy bike boxes on his head with the strength of the mightiest Hindu God. He guides us to Ganga Aarti, evening worship of the banks of the river, and then to the temple for sunset. We share daal and chapatis and in broken English, exchange snippets of our radically different lives. We would like to stay a while, trek to the glacier and absorb more mountain energy, but our bikes are beckoning for action. Our journey must begin.

Downstream we go. The river goes down, down, down, but we go up and down. The valley sides plummet into the Ganges gorge so that ridges of mountain force us upwards. Our loads wobble and our legs and arms shake at the effort of each hill. On day three the mountains hit us like a wall, 60 km of climb. Our average speed slows to 6km an hour and we set in for a long hard day. Christine makes noises like she is giving birth, but she digs in, bend by bend, bite-size chunks her mantra. After 35km of climb, clinging to the mountainside and aghast at how high we are, she upgrades her and Kevin from ordinary human beings to extraordinary. A few bends later they are honorary superhumans, ”for one day only” she emphasises, barely able to believe where we are and how high we have climbed.
“It’s two years ago since we started the couch to 50km British Cycling training programme” she reflects ”and I thought the hill from the Dores Tesco was too much then. It’s not even a hill!”
“And now look where you are. Never mind 50 km, this is couch to Himalayas in 2 years!” I remind her.

We chase darkness to the top of the hill, and just 2 km from the hilltop village of Chamba, Christine cracks. “I can’t go on!” she wails in a brief moment of despair, but some Harry Krishna pilgrims from Russia and Kazakhstan abandon their motorbikes to help push her bike around a particularly gruesome steep bend. We are nearly there – just a few more km to the top of Christines Everest and a bed in the village of Chamba.

Storms, landslides and mud took us back to the lowlands, to our Glow on the Ganges location in Rishikesh. It feels hot, steamy and busy. We intended to visit an Ashram for a few moments of meditative peace but instead we choose a few hours of reprieve in our hostel bedroom. The assault on the senses is non-stop. The horns and throb of India can wait  for tomorrow.

We lie on beds that in India would likely sleep a whole family in each. The sheets have a grey tinge, probably washed in Ganges water. Brown dirty fans whir above us, vaguely stirring the hot sticky air. Damp stains the yellow walls and a metal grid over the window separates us from the bustle and chaos outside. Beyond the hostel wall, people are sleeping in shacks and tents amongst rubbish and moo (=mud + poo). We have monetary abundance compared to most around here, but the blessings, ceremonies, sacred rituals, smiles and hearts of the people we meet tell of spiritual richness. Who is better off I wonder?


Quest 79 One Year Anniversary

Whilst in the Nevada desert about to attempt the Human Powered Speed Championships land-speed record for armpower, I reflect on the year that has gone since we officially launched the Quest 79 project. It’s all about encouraging people to challenge themselves, try something new, and hopefully find their ‘inner gold’ – that is, to discover something new, surprising and positive about themselves.
My personal Quest is to ride 7 continents, 9 rides (one on each continent, and 2 Paralympic Games). It has been a moving and special year to see people taking on their own projects and gathering their stories. Rowan at age 10, began his challenge to climb 79 peaks in 79 weeks and is about two-thirds of the way through already! Mark Pitcher decided to ask 79 people to donate blood, to help support a child in his family with a rare disease requiring blood platelets. When 79 people donate, he will run his first marathon. Groups of children have been taking to their bikes to do 7.9km rides, and Anne cycled 79 miles for her 79 years. The Moray Scouts took on a 79 mile trek to cross Scotland’s Great Glen by mountain bike and kayak. I asked a couple of the younger scouts about what was the hardest bit, and they said “The long hill that we had up on the second day”. When I asked them what was the best bit, they said “It was the long hill as well! Because we didn’t think we could do it and we did. We realised we were stronger than we thought”.
That sums it up to me. Life throws things at us, and sometimes nearly breaks us. But if we discover in advance that we have hidden strengths, through overcoming things we didn’t think we could, it gives us the resilience to deal with life so much better. Look out for the short films that are coming out about some of the Quest79 projects, and watch the trailer at
Meanwhile I am preparing to embark on the next of the Quest79 rides, the ‘The Sacred Way’. It is the fifth of nine rides. Our route will begin high in the Himalaya at 3100m by the source of the River Ganges, and follow the river to its sacred centre in Varanasi. During the journey we are holding a special event, GLOW ON THE GANGES, raising funds towards the £79k target I have pledged to raise for the Spinal Injuries Association. I hope it will be a unique spectacle, as we set alight a flotilla of candles and send them down the river. Each candle will be dedicated to a person, memory, dream or aspiration – special things that you dedicate a candle to. It would be amazing if you could join this journey by sponsoring a candle and offering your support. or follow us on twitter @kdarke or Facebook @karenquest79
THANK YOU! Have a fabulous autumn, and if you are looking for a new challenge, why not consider inventing your own Quest 79 project and tell us about it! Maybe you can help with our fundraising target for the Spinal Injuries Association.
And in case you missed the facebook post, here is a short piece to give you a flavour of the World Human Speed Championships in Nevada…

I’m in the Nevada desert. The burning sun and dusty yawns of the landscape are otherworldly, far removed from the early autumn hues and dipping temperatures of my home in northern Scotland. Each year, the second week of September, a collection of teams come together in this desert town of Battle Mountain, for the World Human Speed Championships.
As you drive the dusty highway into town, a tall sign announces ‘Battle Mountain: Are you tough enough?’, as if the town slogan has been designed especially for this event. There is nothing for miles but dust and desert scenery, but the town this week is packed to the brim, every motel room full. The iconic arches of McDonalds loom like a cathedral tower, an emblem of America. We try hard to find some healthy sustenance, but choice is slim.
I’m with a team of engineering students from the University of Liverpool. They have spent two years designing and building a special bike. It doesn’t look like a bike though, more resemblent of an egg on wheels. I am the female pilot. Each day this week, I will climb into the capsule with the sunrise and the sunset. The lid will go down, and I’ll be taped and sealed in. I will take the pedals in my hands, push hard on the giant gear to get the pod rolling, then have a five mile strip of tar across a stretch of desert to crank the machine up to speed. There is no window in the egg. I’ll have an X-box view of the desert highway, a tiny camera on top of the shell feeding to a screen the size of a mobile phone. The mission? To break the land speed record for an arm-powered vehicle. I am the female rider, Ken Talbot the male rider. Can we do the student work justice and break the current records? We’ll soon find out. Today is ‘test’ day. I’ve only sat in the bike once – last week on a strip of old runway near Manchester. I’m eager to climb in before it gets too hot. Fully sealed in there, oxygen is short and temperatures soar, especially when its 30 plus degrees outside. Previous bike designs have had an air supply. I believe Graham Obree had a snorkel! We have a very cosy snug capsule, head an knuckles just a few mm from the shell. I hope the air supply will last long enough for the 5 mile run. How long it will take isn’t clear. 5 minutes would be fast. 10 minutes would be slow….
As Gladiators might say, ‘”Let the battles begin…”☺ ☺


The Water Way – Part 3

The end of the river
Over the past three weeks we have journeyed alongside the meandering 2520km of river and finally to the mouth, where it disappears into the surf of the Southern Ocean. My pace has slowed – it’s hard not to when you share a journey with a river that moves at 1km/hr. That means that the bubbling stream water we began with is still many kilometres upstream. Our slow pace is still rapid compared to that of nature, and it makes me feel more than ever that our lives are just a blip in the passage of time.

In our final week, the flat dry plains have fallen away to slightly more rolling terrain. We could follow the river more tightly, quiet back roads instead of desert highway. There were hills to descend and climb, down and up the escarpments sculpted by the river, even greenery and trees sprung from the floodplain. It felt cooler, the sun on our backs instead of burning on our faces since the river turned south. We rode through sunsets and into stars, moonlight riding a new found pleasure after our desert nighttime odyssey. Arriving late into the village of Walker Flat, thankful for the all night ferry across the river, we didn’t realise we were camped on ‘Sprinkler Drive’. Our peaceful breakfast tent scene was sprayed by sprinklers too powerful to warrant their name, more like jets of water that drenched us through.

But soon we lost the river, its guts spilled into Lake Alexandrina, a giant lake more like sea. Without the river I felt a little lost. Our focus had dispersed. We had choices of routes to follow, different roads and trails that might lead us to the official end, where the river flow meets the waves. Winery Road, abundant in vineyards and labels familiar from supermarket shelves, led us to the small town of Goolwa, the end of our ride.

The only way to the very end was by boat, from the lake, through a lock across a barrage, and into the special landscape of the Coorong – a fragile wetland ecosystem threatened by salinity. At the river mouth, I listened to the drone of small boats dredging sand to keep the connection open between the ocean and the lakes, a project that has already cost 40 billion. It seems somewhat futile, a few tiny boats and a stream of dollars attempting to control Mother Nature. As if we can.
The flow of people with hearts as full as the vines are in grapes, has never stopped. Our penultimate village, Clayton Bay, led us to Hal, Luci, John and Barbara, locals and ‘grey nomads’ with collections of trikes, boats, utes and trailers, more hospitality, beds and lifts to the airport. The people of Australia continue to astound. But the lovely twist in the story was the discovery through Hal of the ‘Inland Rivers National Marathon Register’ a register that began somewhat accidentally when a legendary man, Frank Tuckwell, now 84, bumped into a canoeist on the banks of the lake many years ago. He had paddled the Murray and asked Frank where he could register his effort. There was no such register but Frank made one up there and then, and has curated it ever since!

We are proud to be the first cyclists on the register, and to share it with a woman I have never met, but who inspired me to take this journey. Tammy Van Wisse swam the whole length of the river in 2001. We are numbers 350 and 351 on the register of people who have travelled the Murray’s course. I love that the world has plenty of crazies in it. If we aren’t a little crazy, how can we cope in this world that has gone mad?!

Thanks to the Murray River and the special people we have met, to the Royal Geographical Society and to BBC Radio 4, for the experience of making a radio documentary (to be aired later this year). The insights, perspectives and connections I’ve been lucky to experience have truly made this a Journey of a Lifetime. It has reconnected me with nature , with people and with myself. I’m sincerely grateful.

And a huge thank you to BBraun U.K. and Adidas UK for your support of me as an athlete and adventurer.
Also to Gerald Simonds for a fantastic pressure relieving bike seat, & to Tiso Outdoors, Alpine Bikes, Calico UK and Odlo for support of the Quest79 project.


The Water Way – Part 2

Lines of tar, as straight as straight can be, hundreds of kilometres with nothing but crops and bush. ‘It was a lake out there once upon a time. Flat as can be, salt flats to the south, and nothing much before Adelaide’ the lovely Ian Lockhart explained. We thought we might be better and safer skipping the long dull ride, trading it for more time by the river, but the realisation dawned that there are only two buses a week – we just missed one, and they don’t take bikes anyway. And nobody wants to give a ride to our circus of bikes, trailers and luggage. So, from Sunraysia to Riverland, we have had some epic days cycling the very section of our route that we had decided not to cycle.
Weirdly though, it was unexpectedly magical. Where else can you ride hundreds of kilometres of desert highway, lines of bitumen leading to infinity, where double-trailer trucks hurtle crops out from the ‘food bowl’ of Australia?! Our oasis across the desert were the amazing artists Liz and Clint Frankel, , with warm hearts, a well-stocked larder of stories and food, and a spectacular studio at the end of a dusty track overlooking the river. ‘It’s not Australia’s food bowl’ they passionately explained, ‘it’s an international export bowl run by multinationals: a vine, wine and almond bowl, all about profit.’ The startling fact that a litre of water costs more than a litre of wine here sums things up.

Without the Mighty Murray River and manipulation of its waters, nobody would live here. It is arid country, where droughts, floods and bush fires are constant threats. It is not cycle touring country. ‘Are we mad?’ I wondered, as hours into the night, starlight and truck lights illuminating our passage across the desert, I ran over a chunky lump of road kill, thankful it was smaller than a kangaroo. The stench of rotting flesh permeated the night air, but I was happy to be riding. It was twenty degrees cooler than the burning daytime sun, and we could ride on the skin smooth surface of the carriageway instead of the rubbly shoulder, dodging in when we saw the juggernaut lights bearing down.

Water is a hot topic for everyone living here. In the millennium drought, eighteen years of water shortage that ended with a flood in 2010, livlihoods were seriously affected. Small farms had to close, rich multinationals moved in, and they care nothing for the health of a river basin on the other side of the world, as long as profits are being reaped. They bottle more wine than can be sold, to the point where the supply of water to the vines is so jeopardised and so expensive, that it costs more than the wine. In this land, water is a highly sought after commodity. We’ve been dependent on bottled water as many places are empty of drinkable tap water.
Water is liquid gold. It keeps us alive cycling through the wheat and vine desert. It gives life to everyone and everything here. It is vital, and yet it is a tradeable asset…wars will no doubt be fought over it.

It’s been some journey so far, the spirit and kindness of the people we’ve met along our way something quite extraordinary. Tough times are normal around here, from drought to flood to bush fires to general survival, and I wonder if the traumas have made people more resilient, more connected with the environment and each other, important aspects of being human. Survival here means water, strength of spirit, and community connection. The Mighty Murray and its region highlights some raw fundamentals about life. We are privileged to be having this experience. I’ll never think the same again when drinking water or wine.
And now we have the final section downstream to look forward to, and arriving at the great Southern Ocean…


The Water Way – Part 1

The Murray River, from its source high in the Australian Alps to the Southern Ocean near Adelaide, is a near-3000 km long ribbon of water, the longest river in Australia. On April 10th, a few days after racing in the Commonwealth Games, I began ‘riding the river’. There hasn’t been rain here for months, the region arid and threatened by wildfire, and even with a complex system of water management, the amount of water that flows down the Murray in a year is similar to the volume flowing down the Amazon in a single day. But we have brought a little bit of Scotland with us – day 1 at the source of the river, we woke to the pattering of rain on the tent, and just a few days in, the rain hammered down like a power shower. ‘We haven’t seen rain like this in at least 12 months’ our savior of the day, John, announced as we sheltered in his truck.
Certainly this is a different journey to any I have taken before. After a gruelling first day climbing Alpine-style passes through pungent Eucalyptus forest, kangaroos bouncing around with their Joey’s, we descended. High mountain forest gave way to rolling hills, and regular wafts of dead wombat. We’ve only seen one ‘live’ version of the waddling, fluffy creatures, the rest with their four-legs pointing skyward, upside-down carcasses at the side of the road. There have been a few snake skins dotted around too, though luckily no sign of a live snake in camp yet, but sleeping bag checks are routine, as are shoe checks for spiders! On a bike, the uphill always feels longer and more significant than the down, but we have certainly left the hills behind and arrived on the river plains. The fields of wheat, canola, and orchards of fruit stretch in all directions, the roads long and straight, the scenery as if it’s been ironed, the horizon far and flat.

The arid climate and over-irrigation of the river basin that feeds Austraila means the river struggles to stay healthy. Salinity and bacterial blooms are ever-threatening. It sounds a bit like my body in the past few years. The demands I place on it to train so hard means my vital energy sometimes struggles to flow. My body fights the acid by-products of hard training. I’ve had my own version of algal blooms – recurring abscesses full of infection, bacteria running riot. I LOVE to ride my bike, but the lifestyle of being an athlete sometimes leaves my soul feeing parched to the point where it can’t absorb the vital nutrients of life anymore – fun, friendship and the joys of life have sometimes run over me as I’ve been too tired, or too occupied with thinking of the next training session to be able to absorb them. Like the floodwater running off the land here.

So this journey feels special. It’s a big change in frequency, coming straight from high competition of the Commonwealth Games to a slower pace. I want to learn from the ‘Mighty Murray’, learn from the people here. I want to learn about balance again.
The ride from source to sea in the time we have requires 80 to 100km of riding a day, similar to the big ride from Canada to Mexico last year. However, with luggage and a touring pace, that means there is no time to experience the place or meet the people, beyond brief roadside or car park conversations. This journey needs to be different. I am here to learn, and to tell a story, to explore the river and take time to reflect. I want to learn how to keep flowing, but stay healthy.
Yesterday we met Robby and Fraser of the ‘Paddlesteamer Cumberoona’, floating on Lake Mulwala. Their eyes lit up telling us stories of the river history, of navigating downstream in the beautiful refurbished steamer we sat on board. The wood creaked, and the smell of oil was strong even with the blasting wind outside. We too could sense the history. The river runs strong in them, as does their passion for the water, the environment and the steamers. ‘We’re all about the water’ the campsite owner tells us too. The river connects people around here. It is the thread, the passion and the life of the region.

I think about the flat weeks of riding ahead. The Murray drops only 200m in 2000km now, it’s waters feeding the grains, vines and cotton along the way. It’s not my usual environment. I am drawn to mountains, not to plains, to the beauty in the drama of the summits and valleys – maybe they are a metaphor for life, never a dull moment, constant ups and downs, highs and lows, moments where I feel to be stood on top of the world, others like being lost in dark valley forests.


Mexico and ‘What Next?’

It’s been my intention to write the last blog about the Canada to Mexico ride for the last…errrr…well, it’s long overdue. Yesterday a journalist asked me “By the way, did you get to Mexico?” The final days were long, hot and sweaty in an unusually hot Californian autumn, but we made it to Mexico on the 29th October, 41 days after leaving Vancouver, 3000km and 38 days of riding. I’ve just calculated that is an average of 79km a day…WEIRD…it wasn’t planned that way to fit with Quest 79, but the mysterious magic of the number seems to have been at work!
The border was an unexpected and moving experience. We followed a dusty trail that became dirt, alongside the imposing grid of the border fence. We’d heard there was a park at the border – Friendship Park. I’m not sure how a park located between double fences is a symbol of friendship, nor how the hundred square metre patch of dirt we found can be called a park. In border-land, the greenest things are the turquoise of the ocean that the fences extend into, and the uniforms of the military guys stationed to intervene with any swimmers or tunnel diggers attempting to cross from Mexico.

A young guy stood at the fence, immersed in its shadows with his head bowed, hands in his pockets, being with his loved one through the dense trellis. My eyes welled, imagining the separation and the tough choices made for dreams of a better life. It’s easy to question why you’d leave family and loved ones when we have more than we need to survive in our ‘western’ world, but then most of us have never experienced real poverty. It felt indulgent to have time and resources to spend 41 days cycling, to a border where I felt like a voyeur of heartbreak.

Later that day, we crossed into Mexico. It was a turnstile gate, impassable in my handbike, so Niall had to persuade US border guards to find their key, accompanied by grumbles of “You don’t want to go to that smelly country”. I found Trumpism shocking throughout the journey, and yes, we really did want to go to Mexico, with all its exotic smells, colour, smiles and kindness. We were waved through the Mexican nationals channel by their border control, with not so much as a glance at our passports. Our short time there was special. After explaining where we’d cycled from, local shopkeepers rallied together and produced a giant Mexican flag as a gift. The border queue back into the US was a different experience – very long and somewhat militant, but a Japanese tourist guide took it upon herself to accelerate our crossing – a little embarrassing, but we passed through in about an hour instead of five!


The Express Way – Part 4

Tyre Tackling.
”What do you mean by telling me to ‘get a life’ Rich?” Niall asked in a belligerent tone as a tyre lever snapped on him.
“Forget it mate.” Rich responded, and I felt myself cringe inside, tired of the tension.
It was a hot afternoon on the shoulder of a busy freeway, yet another puncture on Niall’s rear wheel and too many kilometres still beckoning. In Southern California, the dusk doesn’t linger. We’ve rolled into camp in the dark a lot lately. I tried to stay calm, thinking how we may snap at each other on a journey like this, but we rely on each other to be there as team mates, regardless of our mood or tiredness.
Team dynamics is always interesting, and this trip has been no exception. I feel like the glue between two very different personalities. Living and journeying together for six weeks, we have explored our nooks and crannies, our perks and quirks, and different facets and insecurities of ourselves and one another. We each have parts of us we don’t like and ways of escaping… maybe its to cider, a sweet treat, a chai latte or to just keep riding to the end of the universe. We are driven differently, by lack of life purpose, a desire for change, and I am aware that I’m always pushing with some inner clock that wants to squeeze more and more just in case life runs out soon. In our colourful dynamic I have wondered if and when our delicate threesome might fall apart, but it wasn’t until a few days later that I realised we have bonded not broken.
A few nights later we slept bare to the stars, dehydrated and restless in the burning Santa Anna winds after a day riding in crazy heat, 45 Celsius and sandblasting headwind. We rose in the night for a dawn ride through Malibu and onto Santa Monica, early morning joggers and surfers sharing the beach with us. We took a sidetrip into Hollywood, and all agreed that following bike paths across the beaches was a nicer way to spend the day. But beach trails ran into urban sprawl and we were forced to traverse central Los Angeles in the glow of evening sun, navigating a maze of busy streets and three-lane highways. Niall punctured twice on the rear, and suddenly we had miles of LA to negotiate in the dark. A guy inexplicably spinning himself in circles with a heavy bag took a swing at Niall as we rode by, an explosion cracked the night air – gunshot or maybe just a firework – and sirens screamed in the distance. But we felt untouchable, riding the night, flying towards Long Beach, chasing to Mexico. Invisible potholes and street debris caused two more punctures and a broken spoke, but we were slick and calm, way more oiled than our chains. Much later we rolled into Long Beach, and the magic was palpable. The lights of cruise liners and Ferris wheel twinkled, the moonlight silhouetted palm trees, families and couples strolled in the hot night air.
They say a team goes through different stages… forming, storming, norming, performing. The three of us do all of these things in micro cycles every day, but last night we definitely performed. And in our six weeks on the road, we are travelling those micro cycles within ourselves too, on a journey much greater than the physical one from Canada to Mexico. Niall has shed kilos in a Godzilla effort towing a trailer and wheelchair, getting lighter in spirit as he does in weight. He powers up hills that would previously have daunted him. Rich is a soldier at heart, and has reflected on life’s wars and wounds. He knows ways of healing, and maybe this journey will take him closer to that. Me? Well, I like myself more when I feel fit and healthy, and so I ride and try not to overdo it, or the chai. I am not restless or running. Its just that my DNA is wired to leave no stone unturned. I will always want to discover what is around the next corner… be that in the road ahead, in myself or those I journey with.
With just a few days left to Mexico, I feel proud of the team we have become. The number of tyres we have tackled for punctures is like a metaphor for how we have adapted to our ways and differences. We have almost accomplished what we set out to. We are kind of perfect in our imperfection.


The Express Way – Part 3

The past nine days have been a kaleidoscope, the wetter more gruelling experience of the north transformed by the vibrant colours, sounds and smells of the south. Our senses have been infused with the aromas and energy of things we’ve ridden through: the mystical Giant Redwood forests, the heavy wafts from hidden plantations of cannabis, the salty kelp piled in by the Pacific rollers and the smog of wildfire that has tinted the sky and filtered the sunlight. Add to that the endorphins running through my blood from long days and the physical intensity of tackling the rollercoaster ribbon of route 1 as it hugs the wild coastline. It is no wonder my dreams have been vivid. Sleep has been restless. Muscles were aching the closer we got to San Francisco and our rest day.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge I felt a surge of emotion, happiness we’d made it so far, appreciation for Niall, Rich, and new friends, Swann from France and Natalie from northeastern USA. They are both on long solo bike adventures, both kind and happy spirits who we were fortunate to share our journey with. We split a chocolate brownie in the centre of the bridge to celebrate and snapped photo after photo of the iconic entrance to San Francisco.
After soaking up the modern vibe of the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ in the hippy streets of Haight-Ashbury, I find myself introspective on life and love. I think about the reasons I seek adventures like this, so filled to the brim with physical, mental and emotional challenges. I value my independence so much yet I eagerly trade chunks of it on a trip like this. The tunnel of experiences, people, uncertainty, interdependence and learning it provides is too compelling for me to decline. I sense acutely my dependence on my team mates and the cocktail of reliance and thankfulness it generates in me, and wonder what it creates in them – Niall towing my wheelchair etc., Rich eager to help me whenever he can. In this circus of give and take, it is clear to me what I receive, but I wonder what I give. I have to hope and trust there is something so as not to wound my soul. Instead of worrying too much, I take pictures of pumpkin fields and giggle at the road sign of a bicycle and the words ‘share the road’ that have been edited to ‘share the love’. Yep, we’re in California.
The hypnotic effect of riding for hours keeps me musing. I realise I am comfortable out of my comfort zone and more restless when in monotonous routine. Perhaps I am eager to fill my days in case there aren’t many more, countering a fear of death, an inevitability that I have come close to far too often. Or maybe it is just my nature to crave the marrow of life, endlessly hungry for the nutrition it gives. Feelings of vulnerability, connection, challenge, compassion and love seem more intense in the laboratory of an adventure, a mega-dose of essential vitamins that make me feel better. Occasionally I am envious of those who are peaceful in the cradle of routine. I know I will be able to appreciate it again soon too, after this latest kaleidoscope.
For now though, each day is a new adventure, nothing certain except the moment, that waves break rhythmically onto the shore beside us, and that the road ahead is blocked with a giant landslide! Navigating the Big Sur will be interesting. I look forward to the next chapter in the sunshine state.
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The Express Way – Part 2

As we sun-and dream-chase southward on our bikes, the smell of warm pine and layers of rolling forest stir childhood memories. I grasp at them tight, shutting out the roar of RV’s and juggernauts whose backdraft sucks us along or throws us into dangerous wobbles. I try to block out thoughts of being inches from death, and focus on the forest, or on the waves that roll in loudly from the gape of the Pacific. I think of being ten years old, of the year I lived in Oregon with my family, and try to be that same wide-eyed experience-soaking sponge.
The Oregon coastline gets great reports. “It’s so quiet and wild over here” a couple of tourists from New York enthuse. We seek out that quiet, the State Parks dotted along the shore, the viewpoints where the ocean yawns, the harbours, the occasional village with wooden and trinket charm. Otherwise, we try our best to embrace the tinnitus of ambient America, the towns of fast food, overhead wires, hanging traffic lights and four lane roads when really, two would suffice. I am infused with a mild sense of fear. We have been lucky to meet some warm-hearted, welcoming people but in-between I feel a cold desolation. An old lady’s t-shirt pronounces ‘Karma takes too long. I will smack you in the face now’ and that seems to sum things up in this land of mega-consumption, everything from engines to burgers in giant proportions. Grab it now because it may not be there tomorrow? At times I feel a little sick.
Yesterday we rode past the state-line cannabis shop and into California. It felt instantly softer and warmer, deciduous trees and agricultural land in the glow of a setting sun. It was another dusky end to a days riding, we have found a rhythm, rising with the sun and resting with the moon, lunch at marts or roadside diners, pedalling to America’s beat.
Its funny how 80 to 100 km a day can feel so intimidating but then become so normal. Our bodies barely complain considering what we are asking of them. Towing the bulk of the load, Niall is shredding kilos and gaining strength, stalwart as the Giant Redwoods we’re about to ride through. I am scattered, toothache taking me out of the zone and on a U.S dental tour, but when the painkillers take effect I am present, enjoying the ride into the unknown. Rich, last minute to join our small pedalling tribe, rallies like a cheerleader and has become our local cider specialist. We are an eclectic mix: different perspectives and various vices, but that’s part of what makes it interesting. A quest.
From the Redwood Gate to the Golden Gate the next episode awaits us. It’s hard to believe that we will be riding into San Francisco in eight days time.
Follow my quest Here