Monday, July 21, 2014

Last South Africa post, I promise

Liehann and I finished the Race Across South Africa on July 1, and returned to California on July 5. We'd given ourselves a buffer in case it took a few more days to reach Diemersfontein, and also so Liehann's girlfriend Trang could come out and spend time with him and his family in Somerset West. Those extra days near Cape Town were a whirlwind. With Trang and Liehann's friend Evelyn visiting from California, there was lots of touristing to be done. And of course Liehann wanted to visit his friends in town. I struggled with the rapid shift back toward civilized life and mostly just wanted to escape into the mountains, but I was happy to spend a few more days in this beautiful country. 

Trang, Evelyn and I all weighed in on our preference of tourism opportunities. My list was long and included Table Mountain, but with the time crunch, we could realistically only choose one. So I lobbied for my top choice — go to the coast and watch penguins. It's intriguing to see exotic animals in their natural habitat. Plus, penguins are so adorable and awkward on land, just waddling around and falling over all the time. I can really relate to that.

 We looped around the Cape Peninsula on Chapman's Peak Drive to watch the sunset.

 I couldn't help but think of Big Sur in California and feel wistful about going home. It had been a long trip, more than a month, and the intense nature of the Freedom Challenge stretched out the emotional timeline to something much longer than that. Sometimes I let myself believe that I'd be happy as a permanent vagabond, anchored nowhere, but then I get out there and realize I'm too nostalgic and prone to homesickness to ever truly be free.

 The first weeks after the Freedom Challenge have been difficult. There's always that period of decompression, when I shift from feeling like I could live this way forever, to wondering if I'll ever feel strong or adventurous again. The physical setbacks are noticeable, although I still harbor suspicion that the struggle is mainly in my head.

 Most of what we call life is held in our perceptions. What terrifies me could have no impact on other people. What makes me most happy would make others miserable. What gives me energy, others find draining. And vice versa. All-encompassing experiences such as the Freedom Challenge are compelling because of the way they expand perspective. They demand the best of us and also bring out the worst. They peel away artificial shells and let raw emotion run naked for a while. They draw bold lines over what has value, and what does not. They open our minds to inexpressible beauty, a clear-eyed view that I have only experienced when I'm most vulnerable and exposed.

 And so I wonder, when the intensity of it all has diminished, what's actually worn down — my body, or my mind? At least during those final days in Cape Town, it seemed to be the latter. We had lots of fun activities and social engagements, and also lots of real life to catch up with. I relished in brief opportunities to get out for two solo runs. These runs were good for the soul, an opportunity to ease the shock of the transition by returning temporarily to this simple, raw mindset.

It had been stormy and cold during our entire first week we were in South Africa, and then we enjoyed sunny, mostly dry weather for the three weeks of the Freedom Challenge. Then, true to the pattern, our final days in Cape Town were stormy and cold. Two days after the Freedom Challenge, I stole away from the house for my first recovery run in the Helderberg Nature Reserve. I couldn't bear the thought of climbing anything, so I just ran along the friendly trails in the valley below the mountain. The day before we left, there was a major storm. Downpour, flash flooding, snow on the peaks. Liehann and Trang planned to visit a farmer's market, giving me an opportunity to run in Jonkershoek.

This run was incredible. I'll just go on the record now and admit I haven't felt remotely fit since I returned to California. But for this one last run, before jet lag set in and deep physical and/or mental recovery took hold, I felt like a falcon. I'd been dragging around that bike for weeks, and suddenly I was light and free on my feet, relishing the sensation of driving rain against my face and charging toward a snowline that I longed to reach. As I climbed higher, the sky began to clear and streaks of sunlight escaped through the clouds. Jaw-dropping views of the valley opened up, and I could see walls of craggy peaks, waterfalls, and lush vegetation that I didn't have to hack through ... it was all so enjoyable. Although I agreed to return after two hours, I got a little carried away and had to sprint as best as I could to get back in time. I was eleven minutes late, but wrapped up 10.5 miles in 2:11 which, considering all of the climbing, is close to real running. It had been a while. I couldn't believe how fast I could move without my bike.

This valley is directly behind where Liehann went to school and is close to a house he still owns. One of my first thoughts was why would Liehann ever leave this place to move to California? (Liehann has a great job and girlfriend, so I make this statement in jest, mostly.) Of course, I missed California, too. I missed Beat, my cat, Diet Pepsi, just sitting down and writing, riding my bike up Montebello Road, and going for runs on the dusty, poison-oak-lined trails that have worked their way into my heart. It had been a long journey, and I was tired, but I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.