Life is in the extremes. For most of it we drift, we switch off. The world continues to turn without us. The universe continues to expand. We are not missed, living underwater, the chaos around us swirling. But every now and then we need to breathe, need air, need to fly up to the surface and start again. When we do, for a moment, it’s a shock, an intake of emotion and we see everything clearly, vividly, our heads above the water. Looking back, we remember only these extreme moments. Joy. Pain. Anger. Adrenaline. Relief. We can go for months, years with no defining moment before reacting to some event, something unpredicted; acquisition, loss, a chance meeting, a kiss shared, an immediate need to survive or an immediate opportunity. In these moments we make decisions, whether for good or for bad, and those decisions equal life, equal living.
I imagine of when I am old. The life I lived becoming a blur. I will have only a collection of memories and they will be the most extreme moments of my life. One of those memories, I am certain, will be of an icy, autumn morning on the slopes of the Swiss Alps, descending at over sixty km/h by bicycle down into the dark, shadow of a two thousand metre canyon. Today was that day. I was about to wake up. About to reach the surface. There had been a few strong, vivid moments in my short existence; rushing down a snowy hill in England as a child, my brother and I attached to a small wooden sledge, flying through trees at high speed. The first girl I kissed, at night between the seats of a bus, as we travelled to France for a school trip, the rest of the class asleep. Ruining a holiday to Cyprus by angering my Dad to levels I’d not seen before, the shame I feel. The disappointment of getting my college grades. The elation of getting my university degree. Arguments. Fights. Moments of forgiveness. Moments of acceptance. Beautiful discoveries of songs, of books, of films, of new creative ideas. Falling through the sky, above the mountains and lakes of New Zealand, never happier, never freer, never more weightless nor ecstatic nor overwhelmed. The realisation that I was about to leave England for a long long time, that this trip was real. These are some of those moments.
I was wearing my helmet for the first time. Gloves for the first time. Thermals for the first time. I was reaching insane speeds. I knew my bike inside out now. Knew what it was capable of and how much it could take and I was comfortable. Never had I ridden so fast or through such a dramatic, dangerous or beautiful landscape. At high speed, the details were hard to take in. Pine trees, dark cliffs, green hillsides, cows chomping all a blur in the corners of my eyes. In forty five, fist clenching, teeth gritting minutes I twisted and turned, overtaking trucks and cars that moved slower than me, round hairpins, over mile high bridges, with a roaring river far below. In and out of shadow. Wind pinning my head, my face back. Down I flew. The road was consumed by tunnel after tunnel, the sounds of nature swallowed by the ringing, echoing roar of wind as I entered each one. It seemed to last for an eternity and with each bend my smile grew bigger, my eyes wider. Towards the end I stopped at the corner of a one hundred and eighty degree turn, unable to cycle for laughter and, I will admit, for tears in my eyes, tears from the wind, from sheer joy and from relief. My old world was gone. I had almost been in hysterics. It was an unstoppable laugh that came from somewhere way down. When I looked back to the mountain top I saw only the jagged, rocky crags of the canyon around me, blue skies beyond. The peak was out of sight, gone. I laughed from adrenalin, from fear and, more than anything, because I felt something at all. In fact, I felt everything, for the first time in a long time. I was in an extreme place. It was an extreme moment and it was added to the memory bank.
After weeks of just cycling, adjusting, just getting there, I finally found myself on a mountain top, a mountain I had cycled across an entire country to reach and I realised that this was all happening. Right now it was happening. It takes extremes to make you appreciate the here and present, to put you back in your place. To make you go ‘wo! Life is now!’ Through light and shade. Heat and cold. Tunnels and open air I travelled. Refreshed. A year earlier I had been surrounded by palm trees in a peaceful place, in Goa, driving by motorbike across coastal highways. I’d had the idea for this trip then, riding beneath the Indian sun and now the same feelings returned, like yawning after a long long sleep. That idea had become a reality. You did this. You here. You cycling. You rolling through these mountains. Heart pounding. A layer of skin being stripped away by the wind. I laughed because I was free.