Lessons from the back of beyond

What did the trip teach me? What did I learn cycling around Australia? I was hitch-hiking from Picton to Nelson today. The first two hitches got me a little ways and we made easy, inconsequential chatter. The third driver to stop proved a more interesting discussion. At first it seemed he wasn’t keen to talk, I imagine I looked pretty scrappy as I hopped in to his posh sedan, me in scuffed boots and warehouse worn pants, he in a linen suit and a pair of shoes that looked to cost more than anything I own. But after we felt each other out a bit we found plenty to talk about.

He talked about driving most of the east coast and up to Darwin in a car he bought for $20 and gave away to a hitch hiker in exchange for one last tank of petrol. We connected on a shared tendency to recluse ourselves, and how our solitary nature is sometimes mistaken for aloofness.

After talking about the unorthodox self-therapy of my trip around Australia for a while he asked me “what was your biggest learning from doing that?”. The question surprised me at first, partly because it was asked so earnestly, he wasn’t just making conversation, he wanted my advice on how to live better. His asking the question triggered the movement of some ideas from my sub-conscious to my conscious. These things had been a growing part of my philosophy since the early months of that journey but it took his question, more than two years later, for me to bring them into focus again.

The trip showed me what my body could do. Cycling 23,000 kilometres around Australia was me diving head first into the deep end of a pool, not knowing how to swim. I came up panting, in the early days I tired myself out thrashing, always wanting to go further than I could. It took a while before I really settled into simply taking each day as it came. Physical exertion is an unbeatable meditation. When the body cries out, it’s the mind that keeps you going. With practice we can make the body a place of solace when the mind cries out. When my body is in distress, I take solace inside my mind. When my mind is in distress, I take solace in the use of my body.

More than anything else, that months long journey had taught me about the relationship between my mind and my body. It had also taught me a great deal about habits.

We talked about willpower and how too much stock is put into it. Willpower is a muscle, it can’t be exerted continuously without relief. That’s why people can’t sustain radical dieting. You have to make the life you want a habit. You can’t simply will a different life into existence, it has to reach a point of sustainability before the will is gone. Good habits are the bedrock of a good life.

As we passed into Havelock, where we would part ways, he congratulated me on having “figured a lot out sooner the most”, I thanked him for the lift and the spiriting conversation and stepped out into the dark, wondering if I’d score another hitch so late in the night or spend a night sleeping rough at the roadside.

You can read a bit more about my journey here.