Excerpt: 'Into Thick Air'

Into Thick Air
Into Thick Air: Biking To THe Bellybutton Of Six Continents
By Jim Malusa
Hardcover, 336 pages
Sierra Club/ Counterpoint
List price: $16.95

Crows wake me in the predawn cool. They're taunting each other, or me, but it's still a nice alarm clock. I open my eyes and watch color seep back into the world. Small clouds above the warming horizon are lined up like pink commas. The usual splendid workings of earth and sky — but I worry over the wind-swept curve of the clouds.

Last night the dingoes moaned and cried. When the explorer Charles Sturt came this way in 1845–46, he wrote that the dingoes' "emaciated bodies standing between us and the full moon were the most wretched objects in creation." Sturt was one of the first to systematically explore the center of the continent, prodded by his dream of an inland sea. He even brought a boat into the desert, "for it will be a joyous day for us to launch on an unknown sea and run away towards the tropics."

Sturt wasn't crazy. About 500,000 square miles of Australia — a sixth of the continent — slopes not to the sea but instead into the closed basin that is Lake Eyre. The Volga River, Europe's largest, drains a similar expanse, and also flows to a closed basin — the Caspian Sea, watery proof that Europe is wetter than present-day Australia.

Sturt was ten thousand years too late to discover Australia's equivalent of the Caspian, Lake Dieri. After the Pleistocene it literally evaporated, and its ghost is Lake Eyre. Blurts of runoff from rains up to five hundred miles away can flood one corner or another of Eyre. Once every twenty or thirty years the lake can be sixty miles wide and fifteen feet deep.

This isn't one of those years. Like the man at William Creek said: lots of salt out there. Fortunately, that's all I'm expecting. A little bird they call Willie wagtail keeps me company, snapping up flies as I pack my bags. Feathered in formal black-over-white, Willie inspires me to jazz myself up for the special occasion. A fine-looking shrub with cotton puff flowers, ready for the craft fair, supplies a nice boutonniere for my shirt.

When the sun appears and only the solitary can hear the daybreak angels sing and toot their long horns, I set off like a bloodhound, hot on the scent of Lake Eyre. It's a fine start, wheeling along with my shadow in pursuit, the desert air as clear and intoxicating as gin, everything reminding me of why I ride: to be outside. The bicycle amplifies life, making good times better.

And bad times worse. After one hour the headwind revs up and my spirit cracks like the skin on my hands.

To the cyclist, and the sailor, there is never simply a "wind." It's either a headwind, crosswind, or tailwind. A headwind is worse than any mountain. The mountain delivers tangible rewards: a view at the summit and a downhill on the other side. A stiff headwind drains you out of spite, simply to show you who's boss.

A truck pulls alongside. After the dust blows back, the driver cranks down the window and asks how I'm doing. Miserable, I say — ten kilometers per hour, max.

"Need a lift to Coward Springs?"

I'm not sure where Coward Springs is, but I remember the lesson of the sole survivor of the Burke and Wills expedition: never refuse help from the natives. My rescuers are a wheat farmer and a nurse on holiday. At the spring they're meeting the nurse's son, a herpetologist. When we arrive twenty minutes later, I'm treated to some freshly captured reptiles, including a barking gecko with blinking shining eyes and skin as soft as a peach. With a single croak it wrecks my notion that Australian reptiles are deadly silent.

From Coward Springs it's twenty-five miles to Lake Eyre, which I figure will be a good four-hour battle into the wind. I'm no longer cursing the elements, because nothing is going to stop me now. My knees are aching, but I pedal on and without stopping reach into my shirt pocket for the aspirin bottle and toss back three tablets.

Five miles from Lake Eyre is Curdimurka, an abandoned railroad siding on an abandoned railway. The well still functions, and I stop to fill my water bottles and to snoop inside the stone building. The wind is gusting and the door slams shut behind me.

No more wind. I sit in a chair and rub my thighs and realize how living outside for a month has made me appreciate being inside, out of the sun, sheltered from the blowing dust. One lick of comfort is all it takes to make me consider spending the night inside, but I'm not quite where I want to be.

A half hour before sundown I crest a rise and there's Lake Eyre. It extends beyond the horizon, just like the sea, if the sea were white and silent and you could ride your bike on it. I push and drag my machine through the dunes fringing the shore, bump over a scatter of gibbers to reach the salt crust, then pedal onto the lake. There are a few snags of driftwood to avoid, locked in the salt as if frozen in ice. Beyond, it's clear sailing. I could pop open my tent, strap it to the bike, and in this wind set a land speed record.

Turning back into the wind, my speed drops and I break through the salt and sink two inches into a damp black clay. No matter: I stop and take a picture before pushing the bike back to shore. Like a sand creature, I find a hollow between the dunes and hunker down out of the wind. I dig through my panniers and find my meager reserve of brandy, just in time for a bloody sunset over Lake Eyre.

The problem with Mount Everest is that you can't spend the night on top. Tonight my noodle dinner is ready extra-fast because water boils hotter at forty-nine feet below sea level. Tonight the wind fades and the quiet settles in and comforts me. I fall asleep, all alone at the edge of a salt lake in the desert. In the night I wake to find the moon down and the stars zinging bright, and although I'm at the very bottom of Australia, I'm feeling pretty high.

Excerpted from Into Thick Air: Biking To The Bellybutton Of Six Continents by Jim Malusa Copyright 2008 by Jim Malusa. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Sierra Club/Counterpoint.

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