Race Across South Africa, part six
Ten days into the trip, it was already becoming difficult to remember any other way of living. Events that occurred just days before would slip into corners of my memory that already seemed dusty; Pietermaritzburg was another lifetime. It's interesting, the way these kinds of journeys slow time down. You step outside your comfort zone, and suddenly every minute has meaning. New sights, sounds, physical sensations and emotions are bombarding you with such ferocity that the only way your brain can process it all is to narrow your perception to a single moment, and then another. I'm accustomed to passing time in large chunks; I work a project, click on Facebook, and suddenly an hour is gone. Days pass in comfortable routine, weeks go by, years stack up, and suddenly events that happened a decade ago seem like yesterday. The Freedom Trail has the opposite effect; I arrive as a child, gut my way through adolescence, and grow old and weary but wiser, all in the span of three weeks. It's a compelling — and enduring — extension of life. Intensive bicycle touring and endurance racing are not something I could do with every moment of my existence, but I cherish each opportunity for these concentrated life experiences.
Richard was leading and quickly left the track — I'm not sure he noticed, but I was watching the faint indentations in the grass like a hawk. I called out and reeled the boys back to the ruins, where we followed the track in the opposite direction. It was almost completely dark, but we were beginning to climb more steeply when we should have been descending. I checked Ingrid's compass, and sure enough, we were marching in the wrong direction. I called out again.
Liehann and Richard were reluctant to go back at first. Liehann thought the track might loop back around; we hadn't seen an arm going off this trail anywhere since we passed the ruins. My irrational fear was beginning to take hold, and a cold chill replaced my blood. It was just like in my dream — Night Was Coming, the track was disappearing, we were hopelessly lost. I started shivering. "Let's go back to the ruins," I pleaded. Even if we didn't know where to go, I just wanted to know where we were.
"We must get this right," Liehann said tersely. "Otherwise we'll spend the whole night bumbling around out up here, which people in this race have done."
As we traced the track back, Liehann noticed a narrow singletrack dropping off a stream embankment, which we followed downward as it slowly became more defined. My compass confirmed a correct direction, and Richard and Liehann had become confident enough to start riding their bikes. But the damage to my morale had been done. It's tough to explain. I knew we'd be fine, but the phobia of being lost had taken hold, and I couldn't stop shivering. This was always one of my major fears as a child; I'm one of those who held onto traumatizing memories of screaming in a grocery store after losing my parents. Fear of being lost continued to haunt me as an adult, and I developed my outdoor lifestyle with an emphasis on knowing the way — signed trails, races with marked courses, explorations with a GPS making a digital bread-crumb trail, GPS tracks, and trusting others. With apologies to Liehann and Richard, I didn't have any of that in the Freedom Challenge. This forced me to face this fear in ways I never had before. Even when I was alone in the frozen wilderness of Interior Alaska, I always had this sense that I could find my way. Staring out into the stark, unbroken darkness of the Karoo, I couldn't simply put faith in my maps and compass and companions, which were all perfectly capable of showing the way. No, I could only stew in this frantic phobia that I might just wander forever and never find a light.
But the family at Elandsberg was very nice. My tights were accumulating a large number of holes, including a gaping tear beneath my right butt cheek. The woman offered to sew it closed for me, and her husband offered Richard a beer, of which he enjoyed a few rounds while they watched soccer on television. Richard was also fighting a cold, and announced he planned to sleep in, rest during the day, and wait for Steve and Di to catch up. Liehann and I were down to a group of two.
As I walked down the stairs outside Stuttgart, a piece of concrete broke underneath my right foot, rolling the ankle badly as I topped over on the grass. A sharp, intense pain gripped the joint, followed by that sinking feeling of dread ... I sprained my ankle. I'd traveled well over a thousand kilometers in Freedom Challenge, riding technical terrain and scaling steep mountains and rocky cliffs with my bike, and this is where I injure myself — the steps of a lunch stop. I crouched on the ground for several minutes as the pain rippled through, and then stood up to assess the damage. The ankle was very sore and starting to swell, but I could move it without issue. "I can still walk," I announced to Liehann.
We still took our time with it, stopping at every intersection to scrutinize the cues. When we reached the first tall fence, it was locked. I was bewildered. "How, how do they expect us to get over this?"
This would be the beginning of our development of techniques for scaling ten-foot fences with bicycles. For this fence, Liehann climbed to the top and straddled a thin mental pole. I handed my bike up to him, which he balanced as I climbed up and over the fence to grab the bike from the other side. He tried to muscle it over the top, but with little to leverage on, he had to engage brute shoulder strength to swing it over the bar and lower it to me. He was out of breath and seemed rattled after that effort, and we still had to do his bike. As I prepared to climb back over the fence, we both noticed a spring connected to the lower part of the gate. I jiggled the attachment, and sure enough, a small door had been installed in the gate, and it was open. We both laughed at our unnecessary effort.
"Well at least we know we can do that if we have to again," I said.
"We need to figure out a better technique," Liehann said. But at least we knew to *always* check to see if a gate had an opening before climbing it.