The Wylder Journal
When I arrived in Livingstone, Zambia to join African Spokes, organizer and veteran of the 70-day bike trip, Jen Gurecki, gleefully warned that I should be prepared to become “the most disgusting version of myself.”
Each morning started like every other day in camp; shuffling into cycling clothes in the dark, breaking down heavy canvas tents by headlamp, and packing up while stuffing in calories and water to be ready for first light. When the sun started over the horizon we were off, covering 90km on a short day and up to 214km one special day, aiming to cover as much ground in the early post dawn desert to avoid the intense heat to come.
Days and miles of road blurred together, bug bites intermingled with scratches from the vicious finger length acacia thorn, and huge bruises from the bike seats merged with blisters that cracked open. It was better not to look at them. At the most challenging of times, when even sitting on the bike seat was too unbearable and miles were covered alternating butt cheeks or standing every third stroke, we ladies handed around “the Trifecta,” a series of three different ointments to be applied to the seat area when in the most duress. Asking for the Trifecta was a nuanced way of making a statement about one's situation "downstairs." There were a few double chamois days, but no consensus on whether this actually helped or made things worse.
Greasy bite marks from gear rings stubbornly stuck on legs like tattoos, and laundry not immediately washed upon arrival in camp didn’t dry in time for departure the next day, taking on that lovely au de damp when stuffed back into duffles wet. Hair grew in as nature intended, the dirt on our feet and under nails became permanent. The all-purpose soap turned my hair straw stiff and deodorant went unused, as did my hairbrush. If we smelled, we all smelled together, so we didn’t really notice. Wet wipes were saved for imperatives such as hand-washing and bathroom hygiene. We were often bush camping, so keeping the kitchen end of life separate from the other end was imperative, although someone failed to do so in western Botswana, taking down much of the camp with him in a violent and debilitating stomach experience. This was made all the more notable by the continuous need to move camp daily to stay on schedule regardless of how many were sick. We were all the “the most disgusting versions of ourselves” together, and energy had to be channeled toward the things that truly mattered.
The daily choice was misery or humor, and when mileage passed 90 km at 90’F it was a real challenge, but no one likes a whiner, so the wise among us chose to see the comedy of it all. I had to remind myself often that I chose to be there, and somehow this brought back the awesomeness of it all.
I had distinct moments when I thought I ought to make an effort or care how I looked, but then reconsidered my goals in the day ahead. I would aim for essential hygiene and comfort, and let the rest be whatever nature made it. With limited hours of daylight, so many of which were spent on the bicycle and much else spent in physically demanding necessities, life was stripped to clear elements: sleep, eat, drink water (so much water), stay mentally and physically well. These were our entire focus, along with maintaining our bikes and camp.
What we did each day mattered only in mileage covered or not. Can your body complete the tasks of the day? Can you support your peers? Can you keep a sense of humor under challenging circumstances? These were the essential questions. Embracing the mess that came with the adventure was simply sensible. And it was eminently clear that neither excuses nor looks would help us bike hundreds of miles in aggressive Kalahari heat.
Our days were counted by elephants and warthogs, the latter tails high in retreat. Dozens of types of antelope leapt out of our path and extraordinary birds and bugs which we could rarely identify. Sleeping bags were checked for scorpions and stars pierced the sky like nothing I have ever seen before. Camping under a Baobab tree, believed to be an old spirit, we were all moved by the power of the place and our privilege to move across it so intimately. We were warned of lions by passing trucks and rest stops signage, but never saw them, something I think we both regretted and were grateful for. More than anything, our long days in the saddle were spent forging deep friendships as we exchanged stories; silly, inappropriate, and distracting, to pass monotonous challenging hours between animals sightings under the hot sun.
Through that 1000 mile ride of Leg 4, I gained an extraordinary personal re-set, letting go of so many expectations, thoughts, and emotions which carried weight. I had never realized how heavy some of these beliefs were as they accumulated over my life, literally heavy in my body, until I chose to ride what seemed impossible distances. I can recall the levity of it all even now; the powerful moments of realizing I had so much more mileage in me if I let go of meaningless BS. The weight wafted off my back and over the Makagadikadi Salt Pans. Knowing that I chose to be there, riding only for myself and no one else, was absolutely freeing.
Unless you have been there, taking on a seemingly insurmountable physical challenge in a vast wild place, embracing your “Most Disgusting Self” may sound awful. I write this now, sitting on the porch of a guest farm outside Windhoek, Namibia. The dogs are lying contentedly beside me and the jackals are calling to each other over the darkening scraggly bush that cloaks the rocks and peaks of the Namibian landscape as the African night drops. In seconds, it will feel as if a light has been turned off. I have a soft bed with a duvet against the increasingly frigid desert nights, a hot shower for the first time in weeks, and my bottom is slowly mending.
Much of the African Spokes crew is off cycling Leg 5 to the south, traversing the famous red and yellow Namibian sand dunes, as tall as mountains, putting in long days with short mileage as they slide up and down the sandy roads graded out of the dunes with heavy use of the Trifecta. In a few weeks on Leg 6 they will complete the full ride 6520 kilometer ride in Cape Town meeting family and friends to celebrate, but my time cycling with the crew is done.
And that is the only thing I regret.
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