I had been riding my new Felt carbon 29er mountain bike for about two hours along the most wonderfully un-trafficked roads in New England (Australia, that is). Since leaving home, I’d been passed by only two cars, both farmer 4WD’s replete with dogs out back, elbows out windows and hats on heads. The way things should be, in my view. Farmers and 4WD’s are a natural fit. They give friendly waves and don’t try to run me off the road.
The great thing about this particular ride is that the further you go, the more remote and wilderness-like the road becomes. As you can see from the plot from my bike GPS, I was heading for my favourite river; the most special place I know of on this earth we all share. The mighty, small, ever furious River Styx. It’s a ride through mega tall trees, ferns and thick, thick bush. There are cliffs on each side of the road with drops so steep you’d need a parachute to pull you up if, somehow, you left the track. There are lyre birds on the road, bush turkeys in the undergrowth and tiger snakes everywhere. Not to mention leaches in the grass and that overwhelming wet wilderness mossy smell that only places like this can provide. Even the wind has a special sound tuned by tree- filtered, slightly chilled moving mountain air.
When I think of a top-shelf mountain bike ride, this is the place to be. It’s one of those so very few places where the sublime realities of mountain biking will always outpace even the best efforts of escapist marking spin. And yes, I have indeed been to Whistler BC. This place is vastly more intense. You have to be here to know what I mean.
So, you’d probably expect that riding down a remote forest road like this would be the last place you expect to see a convoy of cars.
You can hear them coming for miles. A gear changing howling, fuming rage of human contempt for the wilderness through which they tresspass. The first thing you notice is that all the birds disappear. Then the whole forest goes seriously quiet. The air goes still. Then the onslaught appears like a tsunami of rage. An invasion is probably the closest word. Here they come. A convoy of polished monster aspirational tough-man townie trucks. Metallic capsules of transplanted urban space, protecting their occupants from the wild wilderness void outside. Like a convoy of spaceships, their occupants see the world from the perspective of mobile lounge chairs, un-natural music and artificially conditioned air.
I pulled off the road, just like everything else around here with legs. Or wings. On they come. Metallic monsters, headlighted and howling down the trail. You can see the drivers. Baseball capped, middle-aged men. Staring vacantly ahead. Piloting their ships as a swimmer dives through the depths. Looking out from the goggles their windshields provide. They don’t look like they are enjoying the ride.
As they pass me by, I am struck by a most curious sight. Plastered on the facing passenger windows are the pudgy faces of a hoard of children; noses squashed on the glass, hands pressed up beside. They are looking at this most curious exhibit beside the road. Me. Their expressions are as vacant as the driver in the front seat. They stare. Like people looking into a fish tank. Like people watching a show. They are observers. From outside.
I feel depressed for these people. They are experiencing this place like a video game. Watching; but not a part of. Removed. Missing out on the full agenda of sound, smell and space that constitute this unique place. There is little reward for effort so easily spent in superficially visiting a place like this. The hills of this place are abstractions to the oil-fueled mechanical grunt of their cars. The challenge of travel is simply to hold onto a wheel. There’s nothing to reap when you spend so little to harvest. You are relegated to the status of observer. The reality they see is as virtual as any video game.
They have gone. The sound of their passing is dissipating into the wind. The place is now like it was before. They left little trace because they consumed, experienced, so very little of what it has to give. Back to the walled silos of urban life they return. Little repaired through connection to the alien realities of existence outside. All the worse. They may as well have never bothered to make the trip.
Perhaps mountain biking is a key to escaping life in the concentrated human-scape of our towns. Perhaps if more people could leave their urban bubbles behind they would value these wild places as more than a distracted vision from behind a wall of air conditioned glass.