With everyone sound asleep I leave the house at 6am. The streets are mostly still. I rely on the bike light as I cycle towards trendy Beach Road. The only sound is the changing of my gears against the backdrop of birds singing the world awake. It’s Saturday morning and I’m avoiding bunches who usually start at seven. I figure if I’m out early I can ride quietly and not be overwhelmed by numbers.
As I roll to a stop, giving way to a small group barreling down the road, the silence is shattered by the sound of each rider saying good morning. I look around to see if there are others behind me. No, it’s just me. I’m taken aback by their friendliness and impressed they can even speak at the speed they’re going.
This is how my day begins, riding beside the ocean with the sun rising and the sound of the cyclists all wishing me well as they fly on by. Yeah kind of shows you how fast I am not going. There is something about it, almost intangible as I peddle along, that is pulling at me with each greeting. There is a kindness in such a simple gesture. There are some who don’t say a thing as they pass but the ones who make the effort impress me. It doesn’t take much and it creates a connection, even just for that moment. Reminds that I am not alone. I feel happy.
I am seeing connection everywhere these days. Worlds opening up. The support has been incredible and the enthusiasm for a woman getting on a bike is second to none. I’ve been out riding with a couple of different women’s groups, learning skills and increasing fitness. There has been nothing but encouragement, and a lot of laughter.
As a side note, how awesome are some of the clothing kits. Wild. Just quietly I don’t mind a six foot man in lycra. Am I allowed to admit that? Now I’m a lycra girl with nowhere to hide. However, here is a tip, you should never refer to Rapha as Ralph in the bike store, it stops conversation. No need to thank me.
Back to my new efforts, most of my life I have suffered from black and white thinking, my mind doesn’t seem to like the middle ground. To my credit, through the years I have learned to see when this polarized mindset kicks in and to ignore the initial cognitive assessment. This was once again evident when I borrowed a 17-year-old bike from a friend to see if cycling was a hit before I brought myself one. Gosh if Sister Lorraine and Father Michael could see me now, so sensible.
This borrowed bike was the clip-in-your-shoe-on-the-pedal kind so that took some getting used to. Yep I took a few falls. My shins, hips and hands covered in bruises for a good few weeks. Ouch. I’m glad one my cycling friends gave me the heads up about not unclipping fast enough. He laughed twice, first when he warned me that falling over was all part of learning and all riders do it. Thanks buddy. I didn’t feel so stupid when it happened. And again. And again. And secondly, he was amused when I reported in with each fall but he also tempered his response with be safe out there, and seriously, what about a bike path? Now that was a good idea.
Three falls in fact, each with embarrassment written all over them. One was outside a building site, and yeah you can imagine. My last one was on a two-laned main road. I had traffic behind me, I timed the turn really well, coaching myself in my head, you’ve got this G and then some pedestrians stepped out onto the road. I needed to stop suddenly and couldn’t unclip fast enough. Yep, I just fell sideways, in what felt like slow motion, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. I happened to be wearing bright pink so you couldn’t miss the chick cyclist falling. What was I saying about wild kits?
As I lay there humiliated with cars and trucks stopped behind me, that black and white thinking kicked in. Blow this, I quit, it’s too hard and I do not know what I’m meant to be doing. I pulled myself up, utterly frustrated, and limped off the road to safety with the voice of a kind driver asking if I was alright. I wanted to scream back I’m not alright, this was a stupid idea but I forced a smile and thanked her for asking. My thoughts continued to swirl, why wasn’t I getting this cycling gig? Surely at 46 this is just a ridiculous undertaking! Um, hello girl, you’ve been on this bike for two weeks, on your own. Get help. Sometimes I annoy myself with missing the obvious.
Now weeks on, yes it’s still early days, I’m riding my new bike, it’s a brilliant red by the way, and that help continues to arrive. I have joined a cycling club that runs an awesome beginners group. You know that means more rowdy kit. Facing my fears, I’m learning the skill of riding in a bunch and meeting so many great people. The polarized thinking has relaxed a little now that I am not on my own. I have a couple of cyclist friends who have been so generous in riding with me, and teaching me how to ride safely and confidently on the roads, and cycling paths (yes I took that suggestion on board too).
On my first beginners bunch ride, an older gentleman with the kindest demeanor rode beside me for a time. He asked if he could give me some advice, sweet. Sure, I said. He told me that my bike was my friend, it wanted to help me so how about you stop strangling the handlebars, and relax your shoulders a little. He had me laughing. He was right. I was murdering them with tension.
Now when I ride I have his calm voice in my head. It has been like that with each person who has taken the time to help me. I am grateful I didn’t quit on that last fall, and my next goal is to climb Mt Buffalo, and a few others (wink, wink) before I head to Europe mid-year to hike. Hopefully, I might be able to meet up with others and tackle a mountain or two on a bike. I wonder if there is a kit for that?
“Courage is not shaped by a Wonder Woman cape, it is an everyday girl facing that which terrifies her and saying yes anyway.” Quote unknown.
Two years ago, at age 44, after completing only two overnight hikes of around 20kms each I was compelled to travel to the Italian Alps. Originally, I looked at a hike in Sardinia but June was going to be too hot. Look up North they said, the Dolomites, there are some good walks up there. The Alta Via 1 is around 150kms. I never questioned my ability aside for a few jokes with my friends, I just took it in my stride I would do it.
In hindsight, when you are hiking a path of this scale, it might have been prudent to buy the topographical maps first and have a look. I cannot explain to you the drive that propelled me to choose this one. I did not question the call and I booked my flights. In the end I think my hike was about 200kms. You’ll read why.
I make myself sound like I didn’t do any research. I read a lot. I put out a call on Facebook and sure enough a friend of friend had done it the year before. Awesome. He sent me a billion photos and answered my questions. Did he use a compass? Was the trail hard? Trail markings clear? Problems with altitude? He answered in word, sending more photos of him hanging off cliff faces, holy crap, he looked fit.
I found a reputable tour company and booked a self-guided walk. This meant people knew I was out there and I was expected nightly at each Refugio. Perhaps the question ought to have been, should a gal who has been hiking less than year take on this trip solo? Maybe subconsciously I knew what the answer would be so I never asked. I refused to listen to fear.
“you are not in the mountains, the mountains are in you.” John Muir
“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”
Of course, I trained, well what I thought was training for this hike. I took hikes with a hiking group who all reassured me that I could easily do the AV1. A few of them had done it but I failed to see they did it in a group. I added in stair work and hiking on sand, and for the record that did not prepare me for snow, nor did my regular Bikram yoga classes. Damn it, the snow was a hard slog.
However, as always, yoga prepared for me the mental anguish and despair I faced. I had learned to not give up, acknowledge the pain, name the struggle but keep on going. I also hiked amazing routes above Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast before the AV1, covering many kilometers with steep ascents and descents. The rest of the fitness came on the hike.
A handsome Italian guide, Andrea, briefed me on the maps marked out with highlighter, saying it was easier to follow and he did it for all his clients. Looking at the map, I thought maybe he was just sick of going to search for lost hikers. This was not just one straight path, it was crazing making spaghetti like trails. The map was a one big mass of green and grey with trails of blue, red and a little bit of orange. What the hell do they all mean anyway?
I was about to find out. I have a friend who talks about waking up bit by bit when you’re on a spiritual path, and maybe this was true for your first real hiking path too. There is no argument I wasn’t awake about how demanding it would be. The alarm was about to scream so loud I would be fully awake soon enough.
“The best views come with the hardest climbs.”
“How wild it was, to let it be.”
Back to Andrea, he asked if I had hiked before, um yes. Was I okay about being out there on my own and did I understand that people die on this trail? Sure, I said. I mean the hotel receptionist just called me the adventurous type. I guess that was the Italian assessment of my hiking ability. He said I could call him any time, as long as there was phone range, and if I needed him he could come to me.
He then cheekily suggested meeting me at the end of the AV1 for some via ferrata (Italian for climbing route instead of hiking). I nearly choked on my food. I remember thinking he definitely had an element of likable crazy to him. He laughed, said it would be fun. I did wonder if that was opposed to this not being fun. You know I’m so going to try via ferrata next time!
Had I thought this through? Yes and no. I believed a hike in the Dolomites would be spectacular and beautiful, pretty meadows, stunning mountains and cow bells. What I didn’t know was it would push me beyond all my physical and mental limits, allowing me to witness courage, exceptional fortitude and to uncover how self-doubt can easily rob me of encountering how capable I actually am. This was mighty girl stuff.
There’s a lot out there about moving outside your comfort zone, well this hike took me to a totally new level of discomfort. I experienced a few utterly desperate moments where I just had to surrender and lapse into absolute powerlessness. Paradoxically, I then watched the magic arise through bravery in action: making decisions, finding solutions, losing my temper and returning to a calm state once again. I nearly threw my hiking poles over the side of the mountain at one point. Not helpful.
This was the Italian description of some snow on the mountain!
With mountain after spectacular mountain, both majestic and daunting, I had many moments of awe in the vast spaces I found myself in, I had to stop walking to take it all in. There was fear bordering on panic when I took the wrong trails, like I could possibly lose my mind at any moment. Well some might have argued I had already lost it. At my lowest moments, I just wanted lie down on the trail and take my last breath. Dramatic I know.
Self-doubt was ever present and dominating, screaming through me at what I loser I was to be out here. Ironically, it is the first time I looked at my self-doubt and knew with absolute truth it was a liar, to be pushing my boundaries like this does not take a loser, it takes a warrior.
Surprisingly, I write that with sarcasm, getting lost was a combination of some poor signage and let’s face it my own inexperience. I felt both enormous joy and sobbed my heart out, sometimes at the same time. My toes caused me excruciating pain in the last few days making me cry even more. I lost five toenails in the end. In contrast, my body was astounding and powerful as I walked up, down, over and through knee-deep snow, mud, massive boulders, little rocks, pathways, streams and meadows.
Climbing heights to 3,000 meters where it became this mystical realm beyond the world as I knew it, in-between layers of cloud, where anything seemed possible. I wandered through green valleys to the sound of only cattle and goat’s bells, curiously raising their heads to watch the lone hiker walk on by as they grazed in the morning sun.
It’s a sign. Always welcomed on the trail.
Alone for hours in my own company, with both peaceful thoughts and dark, desperate ones. Forced to find my way when I just wanted to give up exhausted. I distinctly recall climbing one mountain, sobbing, and unreasonably wishing for someone to appear before me and hoist me off the mountain. At the same time, knowing to the contrary the only person who could save me was myself, you know be your own hero, by taking step after step to the top. Relief flooded me as the hut came into sight each day (which also meant a macchiato and Italian cake) as I navigated my way along those trails with wonder, doubt, happiness, confusion, agony, aches, energy and a force I never knew I had.
One of the days I hiked with a gorgeous young lady, Allannah, who was taking the same route, she was a perfect companion and geologist, very handy. Day eight I hired a local guide, Roberto, knowing I was bordering on physical exhaustion with an 18km trek over five snow slopes, one mighty peak and severe descent. I remember the snow easing the pain in my toes. He even carried my backpack, a hiker’s dream. I declared I loved him in Italian. He couldn’t stop laughing. He spoke very little English but he said the mountains were in his heart. I could tell.
As I followed Roberto I remember thinking this is an exquisite walking meditation as I didn’t have to think. Asking for help was totally unplanned but instinctively the right thing to do for that day. Some trails were busy, some were remote, and regardless I kept on until I found myself grief-stricken with sadness on the last day, not wanting to leave these mountains both holding and changing me.
“It’s not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.”
“go where you feel most alive.”
There were two common questions on my return, “did you know what you were getting yourself in for?” Ha, I have sufficiently answered that. Secondly, “what did I learn from my hike?” I saw both a contradiction and an erroneous belief, I thought the more vulnerable I felt the weaker I would be, but as I pushed myself into the most self-exposure I have ever known, the more robust I became.
Interestingly in this state where my thoughts grew dark I discovered I could hold myself in those spaces, indeed I was strongest in what I would once have labelled as pathetic. Essentially, it did matter how I treated myself in those moments, in dropping into extreme vulnerability I found resilience and self-compassion for the tenacity it took to be on the trail on my own. Experience and living in the unknown, the part that is beyond the plan, is where I found the magic, the inexplicable depths of who I am.
Back at home, I was recounting my tales to a woman in her sixties, with my then 10-year-old daughter snuggled into my side. I was a few months into a new relationship and the question was raised “with all this adventure, do you think you will be too much for him?” Well aware my daughter was listening to every word I replied kindly but fiercely, that I didn’t care about being too much for anyone because this is who I am. I realised how far I had come.
I have spent a great portion of my life pleasing others and thinking I am not enough, and now I was being presented with the idea I might be too much. I know this woman had good intention, I love her dearly, but I also understand this is no longer my story. I do not have to tone myself down for anyone nor do I even have the slightest willingness to do so.
In the relationship mentioned, we had talked about the possibility of hiking the Walkers Haute Route together this year. Little did I know this was going to be our last conversation, a few days later we ended abruptly and for good reason. This was a few months back and with my heart broken open, I booked the flights anyway. I am now happily planning my return back to the mountains of Europe, solo. This time I will take with me confidence and the experience I have earned. I’ve even mapped the route myself!
And that girl cuddled into me, well she is one of three gutsy daughters, and I also have a great son. I know they watch very closely in how I live my life. There is no space within me to give up on my dreams because I am on my own. I am busy seeking adventure and daring myself to keep on turning up to life in a mighty girl way. Some may label that too much. I would call it wholehearted.
My daily treat at the Refuigo, Italian cake and a macchiato whilst looking the map for the next day.
The end of the hike, so happy to take my boots off!
A few months ago, I was compelled to make the bold decision to hit the reset button on my life. As it turns out a very powerful resolution for me. I felt shockingly low and disheartened, so very apt when in you’re the middle of transformation. Sometimes the perspective doesn’t arrive until you’re a time down the track. Well I’m here to report I’m down that track, literally, as I’ve just finished the Great Ocean Walk this week, which I’ll get onto shortly.
Back then, my decisions for the future began to be based on a Facebook meme that happened to pop up in my feed on a day where I was feeling reckless and highly charged with emotion. A simple but powerful saying of “do something today that your future self will thank you for.” Damn it, all my thoughts of retaliation were instantly squashed as I didn’t want to stand in my future with remorse and amends to make. No thanks, my future self said fuck that. Refocused, I planned and booked the hike when I was at an emotional bottom trying to find my way through the transition.
When I hiked out last week I was so excited about taking on the 100km challenge. Who wouldn’t be? Okay maybe not you non-hikers out there! This trek had stunning ocean views with the sounds of the waves crashing onto shore to keep me company. As the saying goes “the cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” The tears were all cried so the sweat and sea were exactly what I needed. The wilderness is where I recharge from this world, and with mostly no phone range on this trek it was a welcomed break from the white noise of life. I simply walked.
My hikes are not constant Zen experiences and I can’t take a selfie of the inside of my mind to show you exactly what I mean. I’m talking about the monkey mind and I almost invariably suffer at times from it doing its thing, THINKING. There are no problems with thoughts except when they demand you start to live there. When you are hiking alone there is a lot time to think, daring to take on a life of its own and before I know it I’m in the middle of bad idea getting a worse one. I try not to give myself a hard time and I see it as the spiritual challenge of every hike, that at some point my thoughts are going to run amok.
The morning of day two, I awoke to barrage of thinking and it was not good. The usual suspects were there, “what the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere anyway”, “look at you all by yourself”, “can’t you just live a normal life, why do you have to push yourself all the time”, and that’s just a few. I made my coffee, grabbed my journal (a luxury when weight is vital) and started writing. Out it all flowed, the bullshit, the negativity until I hit the real sore point. Fear. A really big one and nothing to do with hiking. Truth is it had been lurking there for some time and I was scared about pulling it out into the open.
I stared at it, quite startled by its ferocity and I thought how in the hell am I going to get through this one, I’ve never felt this before. Immediately overwhelmed, my eyes were drawn to an etching on the wooden table at camp. Someone had scratched a circle and within it was a triangle. This very drawing is the symbol for Alcoholics Anonymous, something that is recognizable worldwide to people in twelve step programs. I am familiar with this fellowship for many reasons and seeing it instantly reminded me to just trust. This is all I had to do with this new fear for now. Buoyed I packed up camp and hiked on.
Her intuition was her favourite superpower
Find me where the wild things are
The next morning, day three, I awoke to a heavy heart and loneliness. Whose idea was it to hike anyway? Let’s blame Facebook for that dumb meme several months ago. I was awash in my own pain. I just wished to hike peacefully. With that I penned my thoughts again. I accepted my grief as real but I saw my loneliness as disconnection and I could change that. Coffee in hand (it’s almost always involved in my insightful moments) and I set my intention for the day. I planned to connect to each person I saw if they were responsive to it. I would respect their privacy if they didn’t want to make eye contact but I would at least say hello and chat if they were open.
Now this can be a tricky intention when on a trail because sometimes you don’t see anyone for hours or even all day, or even days. However, not on this morning as I hiked out of camp and almost walked into two people. They had many questions about a female solo hiker on a 100km trek with 20kgs on her back. His parting comment was, “I bet you’re getting sick of talking to yourself”, I laughed, he knew what is was to be human. A one point as I hiked I named out loud everything I was grateful for in my life, that took some time, and I was feeling pretty blissed out by how beautiful and remarkable my life really is.
This also happened to be my longest hiking day, about 25kms with many quiet hours but as I got to crossing points there were day visitors who loved a bit of chat. At about the 21 km mark I sat at the seat which miracously appeared, thank you, feeling exhausted after clocking up 65km in three days. I knew I had a few kilometers to go, and two of that was on soft sand, said to take a good hour to cross. As I wondered how I was going to pull this off another hiker appeared. This dude had just thrown a rock in his pack and was doing some training for his next hike. My kind of guy. We chatted about the South Coast Trek, which I would love to do so he invited me along in March and then took off.
I dragged my weary body into action to finish the day’s hike. As I approached camp I could feel a really lovely vibe. People! A group of about 12 on a catered tour. A delightful man said, “are you Georgina?” um yes, thinking I’m in trouble with Parks. I always go to the dark side first. He smiled and handed me some information from the rock in the pack guy who asked it to be passed along to me. This welcoming man was a mature and humble professor of mathematics, business and philosophy and we became fast friends, as I did with a few others in the group. I didn’t hike with them but I spent two nights in their company, very engaging and interesting people. More connection.
The next day was a remote and difficult track and only the hikers who are prepared to carry everything in get this experience. I was the only one there. I have to say it was the best of all the campsites, perched on a high cliff overlooking the ocean. I soaked up the afternoon rays, daydreaming and watching the sunset. This is true multitasking. I hiked 6 days and the last few were with calm thought. Now being free to reflect, I felt thankful I trusted my future self to know what was best for me in a time where everything felt uncertain. I could acknowledge my own bravery and tenacity, not only being able to get out on the track solo but in pressing the reset button a few months back. I had no idea when I planned this hike it would be the perfect time for me to see my transformation was complete.
I remember standing outside the institute on a busy Melbourne street. I felt frozen with fear willing myself to go in. At that moment, my phone rang and it was one of my closest friends, I burst into tears. That’s not random. I was attending an information session on a course I wanted to do but I couldn’t get myself through the door. I had four young children at home, aged 1-6, and I was desperately longing to do something just for myself. My friend coached me through the entry, gently reminding me it’s gathering information only. And that is how I stared my pathway to study. Hesitant, not believing I could do it and yet a little excited I might actually achieve something other than mothering my kids.
I finished the course wishing for more. My marriage ended and at the same time I started an undergraduate degree. As you do. I remember submitting my first essay and freaking out when I got the mark back, it said a D. I immediately thought A, B, C, D, that is a shite mark. Then I looked it up, oh okay, it’s actually a distinction. Yay for me. In many ways it kept me focused on something tangible rather than ruminating on the crap unfolding in my divorce. I really do not know how I got through those couple of years, but I do know this study gig was giving me hope and a different future.
I had to take a semester off because it was way too much emotionally with the divorce, that pissed me off. I needed it though. I then thought I’d make up for it and did four university units in one semester, just outright crazy. Pulled it off though. I also did a disc in my back and I have memories of standing in the laundry, laptop on the bench because I couldn’t sit without pain, kids about my feet, writing a difficult essay on cognitive psychology. Blurred is how I would describe that period and I managed some pretty good marks too. Might have been the prescription pain killers.
I wanted to quit out a few times especially when doing three units of statistics that just got harder. There was a high failure rate, students were repeating for the second and third times. Far out. My friends told me not to quit but to get a tutor. I did. I passed those units without failing. Phew. I finished that degree in 3.5 years, not bad for a solo mother of four young kids. I then sold the matrimonial home, down-sized and re-committed to supporting myself whilst forging my new pathway back into the workforce. Maybe one day I could contribute to my own super fund. And that was a big thought for me.
Of course, I signed up for some more study, completed a post-graduate certificate. Still I was not satisfied. Yep, it was a Masters next. Bring it on. I was pretty efficient at managing home life and study by now, also adding in running a small business. This is when the gallery appeared, I was scoffed at for that and told I should get a real job. Some of those moments had me reeling in self-doubt. At times I felt stripped bare of feeling worthy and that I deserved something fantastic for myself. Thankfully, my friend’s voices were much louder than my self-doubt. Rock on gorgeous friends, I love you.
My Masters has been monumental, in volume of work and continuing to believe that I could do this. I am very familiar with the old imposter voice often declaring “who are you to want something better for yourself?” Then the gallery pops up again, telling me I should just get a mindless casual job like all single mothers do. I sunk into that statement, especially as it was said in front of my daughter and full of disrespect. Ultimately, every snide remark made me more determined. I realized my kids might have heard those disparaging comments, however my actions were speaking a lot louder. I cared about my example to them much more than the critics on the sidelines. They have watched their mother rise. And it seems in spite of the gallery, my own self-doubt, I was up for the task as I have just received notification I can apply to graduate. I am done. Happy dance.
I wouldn’t give up this road I’ve paved for myself for anything. Stressful yes, and at times, so very busy. Many have helped me along the way, too many to mention. The greatest advice I got when considering study was “the time will pass anyway”, it certainly has but I’ve come through with some considerable education behind me. I’ve challenged both my inner voice and it seems a few other critical voices. Maybe they’ll all shut the hell up now. I can pinpoint the reason I have succeeded and it is only because of the effort, I showed up. Kicking and screaming sometimes but I never, ever gave up. Throw in an ocean of logistics (thanks to the Colonel, my father, I ace organization) and the determination to create something brilliant for myself it has been a mighty undertaking.
The kids want me to do a PhD now. “Hell no”, was my answer. My brain is tired. I need to do some hiking, and I’ve taken up cycling. I’ve got some great trips planned spilling over into 2019, and there are job opportunities opening up as well as my own practice and Leaning Inwards. I finish 2017 knowing there has been endings which also means there are many new beginnings arriving, and it feels amazing. I feel bold, fierce actually. The gamble I took on my life coupled with the tiny belief it might be possible to create something better for me has paid off. I’m not a betting girl but when it now comes to myself I will back myself every time. And as for the gallery, I believe it has gone quiet, I like to think rendered speechless from here to eternity.