A balancing act, a wallaby, and a ride into the light

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There’s a wedge of bush – a kind of island in suburbia – running over a freeway tunnel near my house, crowded with dense scrub and cut by two creeks. At the southern verge, a rough trail drops from the paved bike path and takes a serpentine route through the gum trees, over a patchwork of raised roots and clay the colour of dijon mustard.

At the bottom of the descent, four trails converge. One follows an old wire fence overhung by creepers back up to the bike path. One plunges sharply to a rocky creek crossing where the earthen banks are crumbling into the water. If you go straight, it’s rougher again, a series of tight dirt berms and ruts leading to a gully. Over the creek there is a utilitarian wooden bridge framed by tyre-shredded mud at either end.

This one particular Friday, I was a couple of weeks into a lockdown that had seen my riding plummet from 12 hours a week to two. The bad news seemed relentless, and while I can’t recall many of the specifics of what was in the headlines back then, there was one thing that stuck in mind – a report that one of the symptoms of coronavirus is that you lose your sense of taste.

I remember thinking how that sounded a bit familiar – not because I had coronavirus or was even sick in a physiological sense, but because at that time all of my senses felt dulled. That week, it was like my sight, my hearing, my ability to perceive and then experience joy, had all lost their sense of taste. Life was a kind of washed-out grey.

It often feels like that when I stop riding.

Through the berms, dodge the ruts, over the bridge. Deep breaths.

It was a cold morning, and I was wearing a hoodie and baggy shorts over the t-shirt and boxers I’d slept in the night before, because the thought of getting changed to ride had proven a step too far for the last fortnight. I felt the autumnal chill cutting through my sleeves and saw the sun piercing the early morning haze. The world seemed to have a certain luminous glow, and I wondered whether it was always there and I’d just been too preoccupied to notice.

As I positioned my pedals to ride over a log, there was a flash of movement up the trail. Framed by overhanging branches in the middle of the path – just standing there – was a wallaby, ears pricked. As if it was waiting for me to appear.

For the briefest moment we locked eyes, each a bit startled and awestruck to have company in the quiet morning mist. And then the moment passed, and with a sudden start the wallaby hopped off the path and down towards the creek, like a fur-covered bowling ball bouncing through the bush. I could hear it crash through branches for a while and then the world was silent again.

At the end of the trail, the trees have tried to reclaim the path. The tendrils of their roots are slippery over the off-camber ground. Balance too far one way and you’ll lose your front tyre; too far the other and you’ll tumble downhill into the undergrowth. Shift your weight in the right spots at the right times, and you might just make it through. Everything there comes down to balance.

Everything does, I suppose.

I hadn’t been in balance. I’d stopped riding, started spiralling, lost my days to the darkness of the present rather than the hope of the future.

Backlit by the rising sun, breath rising in a cloud, I rolled forward. I felt my tyres bite on the tree roots and hoped I’d stay upright. What else could I do?

These days roll into each other like an unspooling film, a series of little snapshots of moments wasted and worried over and gainfully spent. Sometimes I hold those frames up to the light and hope that they show me something good. Too often they show me sitting at a desk staring at a screen, scrolling-scrolling-scrolling-clicking-catastrophising. And sometimes, they show me a wallaby on a trail and the dawning sun filtering through the gum trees, painting the world golden.

In those moments I remember how my senses felt dulled, and how they sometimes still are. But then I remember the smell of the wet soil, the pitter-patter of mud flung into my downtube, the cold air biting at the back of my throat, the wind on my face, the water streaming from my eyes, the burn in my legs, the life coursing through my body. Then, the negative blooms into colour again.

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