Dispatches from the Road: My “Rocky” Pep Talk in the Desert

Angela Maxwell2

Note: Last month, we profiled Angela Maxwell, who’s spending the next five years walking around the world solo. We’re excited to share occasional dispatches from her journeys on the road. Here’s her first installment, from Australia: 

I knew from the moment I took my first few steps that there was no going back.

And so here I am, walking across the Australian Outback. And today, it feels like the apocalypse of my world. There are so many things I miss: warm baths, red wine, leather boots, iced lattes on Saturday morning with my girlfriends, staying in bed till noon with my head roosting on my boyfriend’s chest.

I have plenty of water and I’m chugging a liter an hour, but there’s no cure for the dryness that makes my tongue remain glued to the roof of my mouth. To test me further, my water supply is hot, close to boiling. This is the point when I know the sun is getting to its highest and I have to set up a shade camp till it cools down a bit.

What brought me here is a simple yet admittedly illogical reason: I was told to take a walk.

Now some, if they heard a calling like that, might use reason to interpret the meaning and start taking a walk every morning before work. But I have never been a very practical person, and so when I felt a tug pulling me into a grand ambition that would cause me to risk losing everything I knew and loved, to endure trekking through searing deserts and monsoon mountains and eating two-minute noodles while living in a tent for five years, I thought, Sure. Why not? Take a little stroll around the planet? I’m in.

Of course there were numerous reasons not to go ambling across four continents by myself, including that I had been building my business for more than four years, I had just moved in with a man I was deeply in love with, and I had very little (and I do mean almost nilch) experience in wilderness survival.

Yes, I had gone hiking and camping many times before, but it was usually close to a campground or my car so I could drive back to the comfort of my home. And I never did it alone.

But inexperience wasn’t a good enough reason to ignore my newly planted aspiration. So eight months after researching, reading, preparing, biting several fingernails, and having a few nightmares and courage-inducing martinis, I left my home in Bend, Oregon, with a rickshaw cart dubbed Athena, a fittingly robust name to help me feel a bit more prepared for the unknown. She was built to carry the two most obvious elements of survival: nutrition and shelter. 

Yet it would be alone in the arid desert that I would learn about the third element needed: love.

Angela2After resting in the shade and rehydrating the tenuous strands of my throat, I begin walking again. But this afternoon, something happens that obliterates any illusions I had that I would handle disaster with grace. Athena’s front wheel buckles and she becomes immobile.

If I had imagined it as just a possible scenario, I would have seen myself sitting down to have some tea, thinking about how to fix it, and then applying my ingenious idea to keep her wheels moving.

Unfortunately, there is more kicking and crying involved in the real situation. Those of you who have experienced thermometer-busting temperatures know that oppressive heat can bring out the worst in us.  

And then I remember something a girlfriend used to say: “Sometimes a good scream is the best therapy.” 

So that’s what I do. Several times. And it feels enlivening and exhausting.

After my umpteenth cloud- and ground-shaking howl, I feel a little better. I lie on the desert floor staring at the sky through the filter of a branch shading me for a rest.  

There I am, unable to cart my essential belongings, and I feel hopeless and helpless. Through some frustrated tears, I curl into a ball with my arms around my chest. For a moment I transport myself to my old couch, where I felt held in the womb of a safe environment and a home I loved, not to mention air-conditioning. In my mind I am waiting for the pizza to turn a perfect golden-brown and I will be joining my best friend for a martini tonight.

Then I hear a magpie above me, bringing me back to the dusty terracotta floor.  

I fight against the stifling sunlight to open my eyes just in time to see a baby magpie taking flight from the nest, with a fumbling plunge; it appears to be her first flight. She lands just a few feet from my face.  

She looks around, perhaps as we all do in those moments of vulnerability, to see if anyone witnessed it. But she isn’t knocked out. I watch her shake it off and start hopping about looking for food with her mother.

I begin to giggle when I realize that I am now imagining Sylvester Stallone giving me a pep talk in the middle of the Great Sandy Desert. "Life ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."

I mutter “Thank you, Rocky,” speaking only to myself and the magpies. 

I sit up, wipe my eyes, and take a penetrating look at the beauty around me. Bound to the unexpected mishaps just by the nature of my walk, I realize it will be my love of my journey that will carry me around the world.  

I decide not to waste another minute feeling sorry for myself. I vow that I will find something every day that I love about my walk and, with practice, about myself.

Then I make a cup of tea.


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