85 kms (53 miles)
The dam broke in 2017. It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.
You see, I’ve always seen life as a bit like being a kid building little rock dams in creeks to hold back water. Only in life, all the rocks are people, places, resources, jobs and such – the pieces you put together to build your life. You assemble all these little rock pieces of your life within the current of the universe. And once you’ve got all the pieces together, it holds back that current for a time and creates calm waters as you tread its safe depths.
Yet, that current is always moving. It’s a force that takes pieces away but also delivers pieces to you. The water can bring you lots of resources quickly, or slowly, and it can take them away quickly or slowly, too. Erosion, or life, is not an evenly-spaced sequence of events.
The current is always picking away at your rocks. Sometimes you lose a few pieces (e.g. people, job, a house) at a time. Sometimes the pieces land not far away, and you still see them again from time to time when you’re looking downstream. And sometimes the pieces go tumbling away in turbidity, never to be seen again.
Yet that current can bring new rocks – new pieces to your life, too. Sometimes people or experiences or things just tumble right into your life. And sometimes you can sorta see things coming from upstream and grab onto the pieces you want.
It’s a continual process of loss and renewal, the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes the loss of a rock or two might even go unnoticed – or a new rock lodges right where an old one used to be. But big dam breaks are painful. It’s hard to lose a lot all at once, and then fight against the current to reassemble new pieces.
So 2017 was a tough one. I had to say goodbye to the relationship I’d hoped would always be a piece of my life. I then said goodbye to a country that I called home. I then could not find any pieces to assemble a new dam in a new, old country. I lost lots of monetary pieces trying. I then had to leave, and chip away some of the pieces of my parents’ dams in the process, to go back to where I had disassembled my previous life. And along the way, I lost a really huge base piece to any dam I might build anywhere – my health. 2017 was a very shit year. Damn. Damn. Damn.
2018 was a year of just sorta standing in the stream. Without my health, the work was slow to try to rebuild anything. I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted my life to look like. It’s foundation work, and it sorta sucks to be exposed to all that current while not putting down many pieces, but sometimes you just have to hold on and endure.
In 2019, I started gathering pieces again and reassembling some of the old rocks still within reach. I started trying to grab some of the incoming pieces that would be useful to my dam, too.
In March, I applied for a job just for the practice. I got an interview. I then got a job offer. But I turned it down. Upon examination, the pieces just weren’t right.
I also continued seeing doctors and taking medical tests, but all those pieces got discarded along the way because they were not useful and could not help me rebuild my life.
Finally, the pieces upstream started to come my way. I started grabbing all the useful ones and looking for just the right ones to build up my dam.
In September, I found a new GP that believes in me and my health issues. She wrote a letter to a specialist who agreed to take me on, even though he accepts very few new patients. My appointment with him in October was the first time in two years that someone really knew what was happening to me. His diagnosis and prognosis were not what I wanted to hear, but he helped me stack a couple rocks and told me what to look for in the water.
I got a new place to live in September that I really, really like.
I also signed up for a double diploma course that is already turning out to be very informative and useful.
And, last week, I got a new job. This new one should be challenging in a good way and gets me back to working in environmental science. I should be able to use the job to build networks (chains of rocks!), build up my savings and work with people I’ve enjoyed working with previously. It gets me out of my dead-end job at a chaotic organisation and shaves an hour off my commute time each day.
Yes, I’m finally rebuilding my little dam(n) life.
And so all of that sees me out on the bike today. Pedalling. Gently. Slowly. On very teeny grades. Here I am.
It is quite warm, but not hot. The high today is only 30C. We had our first 42C day a few days ago, so 30 feels just fine. The flies are obnoxious, but not horrific. I do not swallow any all day – a sign they are almost bearable.
The guys and I are heading up to Myrtleford for the night. It’s 42 kms with about 550 feet of climbing in total. It will all be gentle. We have a cabin booked for the night at the caravan park, so we do not have to carry much weight. Indeed, all I’ve got are the standard tools, basic toiletries, an extra off-bike pair of shorts and tshirt, my sunhat, the guys’ floaties and 3 litres of water. That’s it. Not even any snacks.
But it’s just a short 2.5 hour ride. We don’t even leave our place until 3pm. The wind is well and truly blowing by then (it’s been a very windy three weeks), but it will be a tailwind, so all is fine and good.
Why such a short, gentle, easy ride? Wouldn’t I rather be riding with tent and sleeping bag and finding new roads in the forest?
Well… of course. But that is not in the cards for some time yet. The specialist in Melbourne knew his shit. He knew exactly what was going on with me. He’s seen it in hundreds of his patients. His synopsis: about 10 percent of people who get a serious virus don’t get well. That 10 percent is probably part of the 40 percent of the population who hold a genetic predisposition to developing ME/CFS. That 10 percent gets a perfect storm of infection and other things impacting the immune system – and the immune system packs it in.
His prognosis for me isn’t good. He’s never seen anyone over 25 get significantly better in the first three years (I’m 2.5 years post WNV, 2 years from the descent into ME/CFS). Most people take 5-6 years to get better, but they never do regain their full pre-illness capacity. Some people take up to 9 years to get better. If you haven’t gotten better within 9 years, you never will.
So I’m banished from any fitness-building for another year. He said any weight-lifting should be very slow movements with light weights – not looking to build muscle but to just retain function. Cardio should be very limited. He said I can still ride, but it should be nothing more than the bicycle equivalent of a stroll in the park. He said to keep my heartrate below 120bpm at all times.
And so here we are.
We head off across all the river flats – the wind pushing us along as we pass rural properties with names like “Paradise Park” (it is a beautiful location), “Everest” (big oversell – it’s flat here and the mtns are really just glorified hills), and “Waterloo” (ashamedly, I don’t know enough history to know why you’d name your property this).
Traffic is light and I feel decent. I’m on a new medication and it’s a bit rough at the moment. But I absolutely love being on the bike, so I ignore the headache and fatigue and just enjoy the feeling of movement in my body and movement through the landscape. I am certain I was just born to be on a bike.
We pass by the free camping area on the Ovens River. It’s packed out with about 15 caravans and all manner of children and pets.
We continue on through Everton and come up to the scene of the magpie attack that saw me swooped 19 times and shat upon. Interestingly, there is a young magpie that launches out of a tree toward me, but flies up and away when I raise my arm. Sheesh! He’s in training for next spring!
We join the rail trail and just spin along. I achieve the bicycle nirvana that is riding without thinking. I’m not contemplating anything, not thinking about speed or distance or things happening in my life. I’m just out there pedaling through the warm air, escorting a dozen or so flies down the trail. You don’t know you are in this nirvana until you come to a road crossing or something else that requires attention. And then you realise you’ve been immersed in the scenery and totally outside of your head for awhile. Bliss. I so love riding a bike.
Of course, my “stroll in the park” includes the high point on the rail trail between Wangaratta and Myrtleford. I am just drawn to riding passes and gaps – even little tiny ones like this one. Actually, if the whole ride had been flat, that would have been okay… it’s just that Myrtleford looked like a “stroll in the park” distance and I could get a cheap cabin for the night. It was more about practicality than ambition.
The guys and I spin up the hill. It’s all gentle and I don’t feel my heartrate raise much at all. I do notice how little muscle I have left – particularly in my quads. But, you know, some people who contract WNV die, and some people end up partially paralysed, and some people spend a few years learning to walk again. SO I AM NOT COMPLAINING. I may be frustrated, but I am definitely grateful that things are not worse than they are. Support groups are a wonderful way to see how good you have it.
We attain the gap. The late afternoon sun gives plenty of shade as we shoot down through the trees on the downhill. I find it odd to be riding at this time. Normally, I get going early and have 130 kms done by 2 or 3pm. And today we are only riding 42kms, and we didn’t even start until 3pm. Humans are such creatures of habit that we just don’t know what to do with ourselves when things aren’t what we normally do!
I’ve only seen one person on the rail trail the whole day – a roadie heading back toward Wang. It’s been such a peaceful day. I am so glad I told myself I was doing this and booked the room earlier in the week. You can’t back out when you’ve booked something non-refundable!
I see two bikepacker guys leaving the caravan park as I go in, but they do not acknowledge me at all. It’s interesting how riders with that style of packing seem to feel ‘above’ pannier people. My mtn bike set-up will be a combination of bags and panniers – I really see benefits in both styles. And, after my mozzie experience, you will never ever see me sleeping without a tent and exposed to a night of insect bites.
Still, I wonder how the attitude developed that bikepackers are somehow better than touring cyclists? I also saw this when I rode part of the Great Divide Route in 2017. I’m out there doing the same shit, just on a different bike, but somehow I’m not as good as someone who has all their crap crammed in a seat bag? Really, I’ve never cared what other people think – I’ve always just done my own thing, but I do find it curious. Maybe it’s just a male thing anyway. I’ll let you know when I come across a female bikepacker.
I check into the cabin, take a shower and then head out to get a burger. Myrtleford is sorta how Bright used to be – a few places for the fancy people and a few places for the rest of us. There are plenty of people at the fancy pizza place where there are clusters of nicely dressed people standing around tiny tables, some people on bean bags on the lawn and others with glasses of wine at tables. Just around the corner is a takeaway pizza shop with plenty of younger people and a couple of African immigrants. Thankfully, Myrtleford has not yet gone the way of Bright where everything is boutique or gourmet and priced to match.
I head up to a burger place and take my plain burger down to the park. I share it with the guys, let them have a float in Happy Valley Creek, then head back to the cabin to rest, get my legs up (they still swell a lot), and eventually sleep. It has been a very nice ‘stroll’ today.
I leave the window open in the cabin and wake up to the faint smell of smoke and a phlegmy throat. The dry storms that came through a few days ago on the back of that 42C day ignited 30 fires in the bush. The wind yesterday was blowing it all away. The smoke smell this morning means I know before I even exit the cabin that I’ve got some sort of easterly wind to help me home.
The only other people stirring are a large motorbike group, but I get the award for first to leave. I decide to check out the bike path loop that’s been added since I last spent time in Myrtleford. It links Apex Park to Rotary Park and is a really nice few kms right along the river. It’s a great asset for the townsfolk, and indeed, there are five different individuals or couples out walking, even at 7.30 am on a Sunday.
I head back up the gap, just spinning away at 12 kph for the 6-8 kms of the climb. That smoke makes things hazy in the distance and makes my breathing a bit raspy. Still, I’m pretty sure I’m keeping the heartrate below 120bpm (I’ve figured out which heart rate monitor to buy but am hoping to get it on a Black Friday or Boxing Day special).
The coolness is pleasant and there is only one or two pesky flies to annoy me on the uphill. The wind is a southeasterly but isn’t too strong yet. It will swap to westerly later in the day – that’s a typical summer pattern in this area (it has done this every single time I’ve ridden through Tallangatta over the years).
I think about how maybe this would all be even worse to take if I had been a roadie or someone who rides just for fitness. My old boss at work likes to go out and ride hard for 20kms and feels he gets in as many benefits as if he rode longer but slower. 20 kms? I feel cheated if I don’t get out for longer than that – that’s just getting started. So at least I can keep riding with this illness, as long as I go slow and easy. And I like that better anyway. So thank goodness I wasn’t riding for fitness (it was always just a nice side benefit), because these restrictions would be even more torturous.
As we flow down off the gap, I stand and let the bike roll. It’s one of those weird grades where it actually looks like it is flat or slightly up, but yet you are coasting and maintaining speed. We just head down at 22kph. Could I pedal and go faster? Of course. Do I? Of course not.
The grasses are drying out – we’re in our second year of well below average rainfall. Nothing looks as horrible as it did between 2006 and 2009, but all of the cedar trees I pass along the way (exotics) have died. A bunch of gums have obvious dieback. So I think about climate change and the political inertia acknowledging its impacts and the dreadful lack of leadership. It’s exasperating.
My mind wanders as we head on past Everton and onto the quiet country roads (I only see two vehicles in the last 20 kms until I get into Milawa itself). I always enjoy riding through here because there are lots of beautiful red gums out in paddocks and along the roadside. I enjoy looking at the shape and girth of them and thinking about all of the history they’ve endured in their lifetimes.
I feel good today. Nothing really hurts. It’s obvious to me that I haven’t been riding much lately, but I don’t feel overly crappy or like I overdid things yesterday. It is odd to have such finite energy and have to think about how to apportion it on a daily and weekly basis – it’s not something you can explain to anyone who’s never known such limitations. Just imagine the level of fatigue you felt in the worst flu you’ve ever had – and that is what I feel all the time. It’s as if I’ve just ridden 230kms but sleep doesn’t bring any recovery.
But I’m still out here. I’m still doing as much as I can, even if it is very little. One of the big pieces in my dam(n) life is cycling. It holds up most of the other pieces of my life. Without it, I think I would just curl into a little ball and be done with it. I am so, so fortunate that I somehow got a heap of resilience genes. I do not feel depressed (just very frustrated sometimes). I do not feel hopeless. And time out on the bike is a big part of it for me. It’s a big mental re-set, even if physically, my body has lost its re-set button for energy production.
So I’m riding this weekend to solidify that big base at the bottom of my dam(n) life. I’ve been adding a lot of pieces to the dam lately, so I’m just shoring up the foundation. I’m riding – now and always – even if it is just the equivalent of a ‘stroll in the park’.