How I Learned to Love Cycling Uphill
Simply Serendipitous Stockholm Syndrome
Written by Jesse
Hello, Gentle Reader.
I feel compelled to recount for you the events of the past several days of my life and will do so here. Though the events described herein are harrowing, it will depend on the temperament and constitution of the reader whether these recountings serve as a caution or an enticement.
Over the course of several drunken evenings, I was seduced by tales of the camaraderie of excellent folks and the promise of a trip to a local craft brewery which I knew to be of great quality. It turns out a party of Experienced Bush Hooligans was setting out, via pushbike, to the high country north of Australia’s foremost cultural centre, the city of Melbourne. Intrigued by the opportunity to study these noble creatures in their natural habitat, I threw caution and my total lack of experience to the wind and agreed to accompany them. I even convinced my fearless wife, Skye, to accompany me. This despite our lack of experience foraging in the wilds of the strange land in which we nowadays find ourselves.
Fortunately for us and our nigh-virginal lack of experience, Skye had attracted the attention and affection of a Ms. Caroline. Caro is a native Melbournian who, when released from the cage in which she is confined during the working days of the week, flees immediately to the most remote bushland she can find. Once there, she indulges her more primal proclivities with the wisdom of a long experience of living off easily transported scraps of foraged food and materials. With her assistance, we assembled two panniers’ worth of provisions and stuffed a backpack full of clothes. We agreed to assemble on the next Friday night in the amusingly named township of Wangaratta to begin the official event.
Due to Caroline’s formidable network of social connections, we were kindly chauffeured to the site by a new acquaintance. Gabriela, we found, had travelled across the globe from her native province of Ecuador in order to subject herself to privation in the Australian wilderness. I assume this was a form of spiritual improvement, as her demeanor and generosity proved close to sainthood as the weekend progressed. Her good nature compelled her to offer my wife and I transportation in her voluminous road-chariot. She also offered accommodation for our bicycles on the strong, steel bicycle tree growing from the back of it. Delayed only slightly by a side-quest to find a mechanic possessed of an adequately gargantuan wrench to affix the aforementioned bike tree, she whisked us off to the campsite at Wangaratta.
On arriving we encountered another member of the brave party, who called himself Simon. As an impressive counterpoint to his adventures in the more civilized portions of the world and his intellectual bent as an engineer and information technologist, he also had great experience with the riding of the primitive Rail Trails said to traverse the northern highlands in which we now found ourselves. He greeted us warmly, holding no prejudice against us regarding our lack of initiation into his tribe’s secret rituals.
I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the last two members of the party as they were a married couple like Skye and myself. I looked forward to the addition of a modicum of civility into what was shaping up to be a rowdy lot. I was, to put it delicately, bemused when their four-wheeled road fortress arrived and disgorged its two striking occupants. Vanessa was clearly of the warrior caste in her original society and her experience in the fierce battles of her homeland trailed behind her in wisps. This despite her mild occupation in the tutelage of young students. I can only hope the parents of these innocents are grateful for the strength of character no-doubt imparted through association.
Trailing behind Vanessa, a quiet shadow emerged from the vehicle. His protective gaze took in the crowd and terrain in an instant and, seeming satisfied, he assumed a relaxed posture. His doleful countenance spoke of a history of trial and tribulation the likes of which our upcoming foray could not possibly aspire to. Having already proven himself in the arenas of life, he sought neither accolade nor recognition from his companions. This “Jon”, as they called him, was a man to be relied upon.
A short time lingering around the local campfire and the sharing of the exotic liqueurs of my own homeland (never leave home without it!) seemed to satisfy the crew that we could be trusted. Surrounded by the daunting personalities of this tribe, I curled up in one of their improvised shelters, my dreams anticipating the next day’s trials.
The morning to follow featured an impressive display of the contents of a small refrigerator which emerged from the packs of my companions. Thought our packs were, I observed, of identical size, theirs seemed to be of much greater internal volume. I made notes to study this unusual magic when time allowed.
We strapped our necessities onto our trusty, two-wheeled travel machines and proceeded to roll down the trail. Happily, said trail began practically at the doorstep of our campsite. We immediately stopped for a photograph in front of a disturbingly derelict four-wheeled conveyance, enshrined for viewing in a local park. While thus engaged, my companions suddenly became agitated and began bellowing at another group of cyclists passing by on the trail. It turned out that their social network was of such vastness that it even extended to the distant lands we now traveled. They exchanged ritual greetings (something to the effect of “Bike Gang, Assemble!”) with a mountain of a man by the robust name of Rick.
Upon stopping, Rick discovered that his rear tire, critical for the operation of a bicycle, had chosen that moment to release its compliment of air. With the casual disregard of a seasoned veteran, he performed an arcane repair ritual and was back on his wheels in less than the time it’s taken me to compose the preceding two paragraphs. This impressive feat, stunning in its efficiency, gave me pause as I thought, “How would I fare in similar circumstances?”. This turned out to be an amusingly prescient bit of foreshadowing.
The rest of the morning’s ride over 20 kilometres of essentially flat sealed track proved peaceful and idyllic. My earlier misgivings regarding my lack of experience dissolved as the soothingly repetitive Victorian countryside disappeared behind me. The wind of our passage and a slightly cloudy sky put the temperature at something approximating perfection as our “bike gang” glided along.
We stopped for lunch and I was again treated to the spectacle of provisions (enough to stock a small cafe) leaping unaided from the panniers of my fellows. This impressive feat even attracted the attention of the local fauna. We were joined for lunch by a chicken whose social nature and enjoyment of comestibles drew it to meander through our small camp with the air of a longtime friend. If, that is, a chicken can be said to have true friends in this world…
At this juncture, our path split from the main trail to terminate at our night’s lodgings in the town of Beechworth. As I examined the elevation map on a nearby signpost, I could not help but notice its resemblance to a particularly optimistic graph for the growth of an investment. Compared to the peaceful grade of our previous course, this elevation appeared to ascend at an angle of 45 degrees for its entirety.
As with most of life’s difficulties, the best way out is through. This metaphor extends ideally to the trail and I will say very little of the harrowing ascent through which we next passed. I have never been described as petite and likely never will be. This makes gaining altitude a uniquely challenging event in my life. I was given further cause to admire the constitution of my companions. This including Gabriela who, like us, was attempting a lengthy bike trek for the first time. They seemed almost to float up the additional 20 kilometres of trail, stopping infrequently and mostly, I’m sure, for my benefit.
At the pinnacle of the ascent, as the trail began mercifully to flatten, we happened to pass a wooden arch leading into a vineyard. Its sign proclaimed it “Pennyweight Winery”. I had no intention of imposing my sweat-soaked self on whatever innocents made this their habitation. This reservation was clearly not shared by the tribe of accomplices I had surrounded myself with as they cheerfully piled into the tiny but thoughtfully decorated tasting room. The matron of the place batted not an eye as we (I confess I was not able to restrain myself) made a bacchanalian revel of the place – sampling each one of her vintages and varietals. To their credit, my companions also purchased several bottles of her not-cheaply-priced wines to compensate for their consumption and balance the scales. We left on surprisingly good terms and may even be welcomed back should we return someday.
The rest of the trip to Beechworth was assisted by the mental lubrication we had recently obtained and we rolled into town and up the local provision vendor. A kind resident of the township had volunteered to host our bi-wheeled warband and, as a gesture of sympathy, we procured enough ingredients to provide a memorable feast in return. We proceeded with our loot down the street on which his property was said to be located. As we passed neatly trimmed blocks of small town residences we encountered a small forest near to the location of our host’s supposed domicile. As we discussed the sight amongst ourselves, inquiring “Could this be the place?” the forest spoke, replying: “This IS the place!”. With that promising recommendation we proceeded down a thickly-forested garden path and met the owner of the voice, a local druid by the name of Simon.
Simon and his partner, a high-spirited female druid by the name of SolVega, had coaxed the home in which we found ourselves from the very elements of the earth! After travelling most of the continents of the world and learning the magic rituals common throughout, they had chosen their current site at the confluence of several promising ley-lines. On this they erected a proper grove, of which druids are quite fond. My companions were so enamored of the site and surrounds that they immediately launched into the preparations of a legendary feast. They produced from their packs the usual abundance, augmented with our locally-found provisions, a startling quantity of Delicious pesto courtesy of the resourceful Gabriela and several lemons which Ms. Caroline had foraged at the vineyard in her omnipresent quest to end food waste worldwide. This turned into a main course of pasta, sides and two substantial salads, which did much to assuage my disappointment at not patronizing the local brewery.
It is worth mentioning that prior to this frenzy of preparation certain of our party slipped off to the local swimming hole. It, in the fashion of swimming holes in Australian summer, was quite below its usual compliment of water but well stocked with leafy green reeds. My taciturn companion, Jon, quite surprised me by leaping amongst these water fronds with gusto and executing several graceful loops and dives. His exuberance even extended to draping himself ritually in several of the greens to further bond himself to his swampy environment. My worry that he intended to extend this behaviour and consume the greens on the spot proved unfounded.
Back in the earthen cave at the centre of the grove our party continued to further conviviality with the sharing of a bottle of sweet wine. This port-style variety went by the name of “Ruby” and a surprising amount of chocolates also originated from the vast stores of my companions’ panniers to accompany it. After much discussion and a demonstration of the druidic magic necessary to make an entire tent weigh nothing at all we retired gratefully to our tents to gain what energy reserves we could for the day to come.
The morning hours found my companions eagerly off to explore a local gorge said, by some whose tolerance for puns was unusually high, to be “GORGEous”. I took this opportunity to slyly convince my wife to slip away towards the civilized outpost nearby to procure some thoughtfully roasted coffee.
We reunited an hour later, assembled our gear and proceeded on what would be the final leg of the journey for those of us less accustomed to the rigors of rail trails. The remainder of the path led into an eldritch forest with the barely syllabic name of Nug Nug, said to be inhabited by fairies of capricious demeanor.
Gabriela, Skye and I took the path of discretion and directed ourselves toward the safer option of a detour at the town of Myrtleford where we had a precise appointment (prepaid!) to ride the local coach back to the location of Gabriela’s car.
This unyielding deadline added a sense of urgency to our pedaling as we pushed our way over several more kilometres of trail towards our destination. Our helpful hosts, the druids, had shared their knowledge of the local paths with us, enabling us to trim several kilometres from our journey. We had little idea then of how necessary this knowledge would come to be.
We stopped for a brief rest after 20 kilometres of flying down the steep ascent which yesterday had proved such a barrier to our attaining Beechworth. As we slowed, the staunch Ms. Caroline expressed with dismay that her tire had sprung one of the all-too-common punctures accompanying such hard riding. No sooner had I thought to myself “I’m certainly glad I’m not in her shoes, I’d have no idea what to do in such a situation!” than I heard a disconcerting hissing from my own previously-dependable conveyance. I was down to one tire! A terrifying emergency!
I tentatively signalled my distress to my fellow travellers and, without a moments thought, they leapt to my aid. Jon and Vanessa reached into the extraordinary dimensions of their storage to produce not only a puncture patching kit but an entire spare tube! Simon, with his genius for things practical, proceeded to deftly juggle my tire and insert the replacement parts into the space recently vacated by their beleaguered predecessors. While this was occurring, Gabriela and Caro thought to pass around provisions to save the need to expend time in their consumption later.
This proved to be wisdom well placed, for when we at last put our repaired equipment back on the trail, we found ourselves with 20 kilometres to travel and slightly more than an hour in which to do so. Without a thought of surrender, the brave team plunged forward in a mad race for our destination. Ascents which only yesterday would have slowed the team to a crawl were tackled with gusto. With a single momentary stop to consume enough water to avoid delirium, the party raced the advancing hands of the clock. In the final moments, the ever-reliable Jon sacrificed his own reserves to speed ahead and, if necessary, hold back the bus with physical force to ensure our timely arrival.
As we dove headlong into the peaceful hamlet of Myrtleford we were greeted with a quaint local festival celebrating, I believe, the fact that humanity had been able to establish a foothold in this inhospitable antipodean land. As we had a mere six minutes to enjoy it before the arrival of the bus and were pleased to distraction by the icy poles Jon had procured in lieu of restraining our transportation, my observance may be slightly inaccurate.
Once on the bus, our own story ends peacefully, with the stalwart Gabriela insisting on lengthening her return journey by conducting us to our very doorstep. I write these notes to you in the delirium of gratitude I find myself in after returning to hearth, home and my affectionate cat, Astor.
Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail
Total Ascending: 710m
Total Descending: 545m
Total Distance: 113km
P.S. The pseudo-mythical accounts of our companions further journey through enchanted Nug Nug I have heard only in rumours carried on the wind. I find the story of the fairies kidnapping of Vanessa, during which she was given a glimpse of ultimate truth through a monolithic, stone door on an otherwise blank plane difficult to give credence to. Her new ability to alter the shape and composition of physical matter by clapping her hands lends some credibility to the otherwise remarkable assertions. Perhaps another will elaborate these wonders in the due course of time.