I took the usual route, biking up the valley a short distance before turning off the tarmac onto the rough dirt and gravel of No. 2 Line. A few hundred metres of level ground, then the climb began. Perhaps it was the slight tailwind, or perhaps the crackers and tomato had fueled me better than I'd expected, or perhaps I'd just struck a good day, physically and mentally; whatever the reason, the result was a quick ride up the steep, winding road in a gear at least one cog higher than usual. At the top I circled a few times; the usual slow, tight circles; time to let the burn in my legs begin to subside; time to gaze out over the valley, up towards the Oroua headwaters, out northwest to where hard hill country receded into the distance under heavy grey cloud. Somewhere out there, Ruapehu slept under that dense blanket. One day he'll awaken fully and remind us of our true powerlessness
and insignificance. Or, maybe Taupo will wake first, and if that eruption proves anything like that of 1800 years ago
— one of the largest in recorded history — let alone like the Oruanui eruption which, 26,500 years ago, spewed out 300 cubic kilometres of ignimbrite and 500 cubic kilometres of pumice and ash, ...well, no one anywhere near here will survive to reflect on his powerlessness and insignificance.
I sped back down the road, taking the corners carefully. Too much loose gravel on hard-packed dirt; too much chance of being ripped to bits in a spill. Blood and skin and pain, and maybe a broken bone or two. Maybe worse. I lost a wonderful friend
in a bike crash a few years ago, and now find the fierce joy of careening down these rough roads tempered by the memory of his accident. I honour him in three ways: by remembering him, by delighting in the biking, and by staying alive. I think he'd appreciate all of those.
But where the road's straight or the corners gentle, it's hard to resist that thrill, that urge to cut loose, especially when it's been earned not by pumping fossil fuel into an engine's tank, but by the hard work of muscles and lungs,
blood and willpower. I leaned slightly into a gradual corner, straightened as the road dipped, and readied myself to start pedalling again when the road rose once more.
And something ran out from the roadside grass and across the road in front of me. An instant of astonishment, then I recognised it.
I could have run it over. It seemed curiously slow, although its legs were working furiously. I saw the black-tipped tail, the cream-coloured belly.
I heard it, clearly, distinctly, a high-pitched chittering as if the small beast was swearing at me, telling me to eff off, to mind where I was going. I heard it and understood the message as I sped past and it vanished into the grass on the other side of the road.
I could have run it over. Perhaps I should have, but I'm glad I didn't. I veered slightly and shot past it. I couldn't crush something so wild, so fierce, so alive.
I biked on, buzzing with adrenaline and delight, realising I'd called out as the stoat disappeared behind me. I should have exclaimed something profound or enlightened, but all I'd uttered was an inane, although vehement, “Ah! Fantastic!”
But the words didn't matter. What mattered was the encounter, a moment when nothing mattered but that moment, when being alive was more important than anything. What mattered was that one intense, small, electric life, disappearing into the long grass and swearing at me as it ran.
1. For anyone wondering why running over the stoat might have been a good idea, I added a few notes (with links) to a post I wrote a few years ago. That post includes several photos of a wild stoat.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1 & 3. Looking up No. 2 Line; about three quarters of the way to the road end.
2. The view down the road from the same spot. Loggers had been working there for the last week or so.
4. Beyond the road end, No. 2 Line. A poled route leads a short distance over farmland to the edge of the Ruahine Forest Park, and to the "Ashurst boulder" (300 Kb pdf) — actually about 20 km from Ashhurst (it has two "h"s); it's a group of boulders with a few reasonable problems.
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor