It centers on the infamous T.E Lawrence, an Englishman and an officer who led a seemingly impossible mission across the Nefud desert to usurp the Turks at the Jordanian port of Aqaba, in 1917.
The movie depicted quite a ding-dong of a battle though I seem to recall the history book version of events being somewhat different. No matter.
The basic gist of the movie is this: The Turks had control over the coastal port of Aqaba and had large-caliber guns focused out over the Gulf, playing havoc with the Brits as they tried to sail supplies up the YingYang.
Aqaba was unassailable via the Gulf side and it was thought impossible to cross the Nefud desert to attack Aqaba from land. So certain were the Turks of the impregnable nature of this stronghold that they didn’t even bother to place defensive garrisons to the rear of the City where it lead into the Nefud.
This of course inspired Lawrence and his plan was to lead a small task-force across the desert, join with rebels along the way, then overcome the Turks with a surprise attack from the land.
The movie presents a remarkable visual of the Nefud Desert crossing; the blistering heat by day and the chilling cold by night. Days and days of marching under the relentless sun with little food and little water, only to arrive at their destination in Aqaba to engage in a fierce and bloody battle with the Turks.
All good stuff with the Arabs and the Turks and that whole Christian thing going on and I remember the Pope giving the movie ‘two thumbs up’ when it was released on Betamax.
On Friday 26th September I rode out on the first leg of a 4 day mini-tour of NE Wisconsin.
The trail began at my home in Egg Harbor and ended at the Bayshore State Park Campgrounds some ten or so hours later.
As Lawrence had with the ride on Aqaba I journeyed under adverse conditions, hampered by the blistering heat of the day and the harshness of the terrain.
Undeterred I summoned my inner strength and courage, thumbed my nose at the conditions and embarked on the journey with the bravado and courage of a true British adventurer.
I do in fact share much in common with Lawrence - he was also a tea drinker and liked to ride the occasional bicycle, though a camel became his preferred mount in later years.
The Ride on Aqaba Begins
I’m moving on the Bayshore State Park to the South. It’s almost straight south of me as both it and my present location are on the Bay of Green Bay. However, for tactical reasons I’ll be traveling across country to the East, for many miles, then veering back towards the West as I enter the latter stages of the journey.
As I set out down HWY 42 it’s a beautiful day, sunny and warm with only a gentle breeze from the West lapping across the golden fields of corn. It’s perfect riding weather and my spirits are high.
There’s an obvious need to travel light so only the bare essentials are strapped onto my mount. My mount for this journey is a GT Timberline 29er, not a camel, but quite similar in appearance to the majestic desert ship with its twin humps. My tent is strapped over the front of the bike along with a Coleman’s sleeping bag and my clothing and other accessories are strapped over the rear, creating a profile sufficiently camel-like to suspend disbelief.
Inside my Marks and Spencer sports duffel bag I carry an assortment of items many would consider superfluous on a trip of such magnitude. There’s pressure on me to travel light but an honorable British Explorer like myself should never forsake the creature comforts synonymous with the Great Empire we represent (particularly when traveling overseas).
A tin of Earl Grey teabags sits atop the duffel bag availing themselves for speedy access. A pack of Silver Spoon sugar lumps share space in the tin. A small candle-powered stove rattles rhythmically like a wind-chime in the gentle breeze. Shortbread biscuits are packed in a small Tupperware dish to protect them from crumbling. No civilized person appreciates shortbread once it crumbles. A bottle of HP Sauce nestles securely inside the duffel bag wrapped loosely in a spare pair of Winter longs.
In spite of the obvious (to me) need to carry these items, an element of doubt flickers through my mind as I try to negotiate the first corner out of the parking lot and onto the highway. My ride is heavy, it has a high center of gravity and a definite ‘twitch’ to it. Indeed it feels top-heavy and unstable, this will take some getting used to.
The bike lane is a comfortable three or four feet wide yet in spite of my best efforts to steer into the bike lane I miss it by a good two feet and I’m almost creamed by my first SUV of the day.
I’ve prepared myself both mentally and physically for the wide range of predators I might encounter on this journey, including snakes, bugs and bears. My mind flashes to the potential irony of spending two weeks preparing and three days packing, then getting hit coming out of my own parking lot by a guy driving a Buick and wearing a Bears jersey.
I console myself by chanting a slow karmic mantra and try to remember to be alert at all times to the perils of the road.
Not so with me. I’m under constant attack on the road from ‘FIBs’. FIBs, for those who do not know are - ‘Fucking Illinois Bastards’.
My home town of Egg Harbor boasts a modest 265 population, but with the influx of FIBs during the tourist season these numbers increase ten-fold. There’s no avoiding FIBs, they are everywhere.
More recently, since the addition of a swell new Marina in town, we’ve been inundated with a new phenomenon from the South - FIBTABs. ‘Fucking Illinois Bastards Towing A Boat’. The danger is essentially doubled with FIBTABs, particularly for cyclists such as myself. They’re oblivious to all around and have the single-minded ambition of getting from Chicago to the Bay of Green Bay in the fastest possible time. Locals such as myself are viewed as a minor irritation by FIBs and are considered merely an unfortunate casualty of war should one or more of us be taken out en route.
I resign myself to the probability of becoming collateral damage and keep a special lookout for any driver wearing a Russian hat and tossing ‘Home of the Hoagy’ wrappers out of the car window; then I ride on.
I’m cruising along at a reasonable pace, showing around 13 mph as a rolling average. Oddly enough I can feel my calf muscles already, a consequence of the heavier load. It usually takes 30 miles or more before I begin to feel my calf muscles.
As I move off the highway and on to the quieter County Road G, I feel a welcomed sense of relief. I can let my guard down now and relax for a few moments. I breath heavily and inhale the sweet smells of the Bay of Green Bay which sits directly to my right. ‘Eau De Paper Mill’ should really be bottled and sold back to the FIBs. If you could inject a few drops of ‘Dead Bay Perch’ into the scent profile those mothers would lap it up as a memento of their trip up to cutesy cutesy land. “Here honey, splash some of this behind your ears, it reminds me of when we were boating up in Door County”.
I try not to be bitter. I’m leaving behind the rat race for a few days and it will take a little while for me to purge all negative thoughts and emotions and become at one with the beauty of my surroundings.
I’m on the Ahnapee State Trail now. Pedaling on the gravel is quite hard with this heavy load. My choice to use narrow road tires and have them inflated up to 70psi may not have been the right one. Information about the road surface is being transmitted directly into my sphincter. It seems to be functioning as a shock-absorber and is moving sympathetically to the tune of the road. This is not a good tune for a sphincter to play.
This thing does not ride well on gravel and I have a lot of gravel ahead of me.
I remember the movie and how Lawrence would beat his ride relentlessly with a stick. Again he had an advantage over me. There’s little to no point in beating a bicycle, but with a camel? Hey, smack that bugger with the go-faster stick until it drops.
I find myself thinking about John Cleese in Fawlty Towers and how he beat his car with a tree branch when it wouldn’t start. Maybe it’s worth a shot?
My arse is sore from the seat pounding. Why did I bring so much gear?
I’m starting to take a mental inventory of what I’ve packed and it occurs to me that perhaps more items than I first thought may be superfluous to my needs.
I travel everywhere with a hammer. In this case I brought along my trusty 3LB claw-hammer as it serves a dual purpose. Of course primarily I will need it to drive home the tent pegs, but the claw side of the hammer can also be used to affect repairs on the bicycle, extract nails from tires and open the cans of Heinz Baked Beans that I brought along for the trip. So obviously the hammer is essential; as are the beans.
I brought along a battery operated pump to inflate my air mattress and I do recall those batteries being quite heavy, as is the pump itself. I remember from many years ago that trying to self-inflate a Queen sized air mattress after a long day on the road is no fun at all, and I know I’ll thank myself later for bringing along the pump.
The sun is beating down and it feels like it’s maybe 90 degrees even in the ample shade offered by the trail-side trees.
What’s with all these leaves on the trail, they’re affecting my rolling resistance.
I ponder these things as I move slowly towards my destination in the West. Though at this stage of the journey I’m still heading East. For tactical reasons.
I consider reacquainting myself with the map and examining the choice of route, but then I realize that it’s normal to try to second guess myself whilst under duress, and I resign myself to continuing on with a stiff upper lip.
I’m becoming conscious of having my mouth open all of the time, this must be slowing me down. Also my arms are flailing too much at the elbows. I’m creating too much wind resistance. That fucking sun.
A form takes shape somewhere in my mind, it’s Fred the Channel 5 weather man. I can see him standing in front of his little map and pointing towards many large balls of glowing orange. Not one sun but two, then three, then four….”It’ll be hot out today, people. Better stay indoors and stay cool”. And he’s gloating like a perverted devil, relishing as all weather men do in being the bearer of bad news.
I close my mouth and it feels faster this way but I can’t breath properly through my nose. I start thinking about Robin Van Persie, the striker for Manchester United Football Club. Each and every time the camera catches RVP he’s clearing his nose by pressing down one nostril and blowing the contents of an ice-cream cone out the other. That can’t be good for your nasal passage, can it? I take one hand off the handlebars and attempt the RVP maneuver but I can’t keep the bike in a straight line and make ice at the same time and I veer off the road and into the ditch. It’s my first crash of many.
My bike is down and on top of me and I’m laying lazily under the neath and it actually feels quite good as I’m in the shade afforded by the bicycle. My first instinct is to look around and see if anyone is watching, then I realize that there’s no one there. In fact there hasn’t been anyone there on this entire journey so far. I become quite melancholy and I start to reminisce over bygone times and days of old when I had a life and things were good. Then I feel something cold trickling into my shorts and I realize I’ve just peed myself.
But wait. It wouldn’t be cold, would it? Sure enough as I extricate myself from under the bike I see that I’ve emptied the contents of my last remaining water bottle into my crotch. But damn that felt good. It was worth whatever malignant effects of dehydration I find myself consumed with in the hours to come, just to have something cold and wet between my legs. I slosh it around a little trying to get the full effect for as long as I can. Later in the ride I recall feeling a bubbling sensation from within my shorts as the chamois began to ferment.
I’m back on the bike and finally heading in a Westerly direction when I run over my first snake. That poor little bastard didn’t stand a chance. They make a hissing sound when you run over them, not a slow one but a more frantic one, like pulling the cork from a champagne bottle but without the bang. I’m not sure which end of the snake the hiss came from.
I glance back quickly as I ride on but thankfully it isn’t chasing after me. I then find myself pondering the anatomy of snakes for a couple miles until I’m overcome with a desire to urinate.
I pull over to the side of the road and I lean my bike against my butt cheeks and try to take a pee into the ditch whilst stooping at an unnatural angle to support the bike. Everything is still wet and crinkled inside my shorts from the water bottle incident and no matter how I try I can’t get the turtle to leave his shell. I tuck away and get back on the road to Aqaba.
I’ve had enough of this. There’s just too many hills. What’s the point of all these hills? They’re like mosquitoes, what’s the point of all these mosquitoes?
I’m riding with my mouth wide open again and I’m wondering how many calories there are in flies and bugs. Not many I suppose.
I remember the scenes from the Nefud desert and wasn’t it always flat? This doesn’t seem fair, really. And I’m traveling alone, unlike Lawrence who had his entourage. I remember those little Arab boys yelling ‘Orrance!’….’Orrance!’….what wouldn’t I give to have a couple of little Arab boys.
I just became aware of the fact that my butt cheeks are involuntarily puckering at the sight of a hill and gripping hard onto the seat, then my ass makes a short popping noise when I get up off the saddle to hit the hill. What’s that all about? Maybe I should stop and Google it. What would I use for a search term though, ‘ass puckering up on hills what gives?’ I think about the energy it would take to apply the brakes, stop, press the button on the iPhone etc etc….then decide to just press on.
The sun feels hotter and brighter than it would ordinarily at this time of the day. It must be around 2.30 or even 3 pm and I’m thinking about a long cool shower, a clean pair of dry shorts and a rub-down with some soothing coconut oil by a couple of Vestal Virgins.
I can’t contemplate distance at this juncture. I know not how far I have come nor how much farther I must travel. I am oblivious to direction. I sense that the epicenter of the force which bears on me and impedes my progress is directly ahead and it is into this force that I must travel. It hides its true nature behind a shimmering haze and calls to me mockingly to dare to venture forth. And venture forth is what I must do.
I snap out of my poetic phase and ponder once again on the possibility that I’m carting too much stuff. I’m thinking of starting to jettison things I don’t really need. That wing mirror is useless and it must weigh a half pound. Those granola bars have passed the expiration, they’re not really safe. How many cans of Heinz Baked Beans can one guy eat on a four-day trip? How much does all this shit weigh? Why am I lugging it all up these hills? Why can’t I take a piss?
It’s too hot and I’m dying of thirst. The sun is unrelenting. Or should that be relentless? I’m wondering what natural resources I have at my disposal that I have not yet considered. I could use the claw hammer to hack at a tree and try to remove sap. Too messy.
Then I notice some peculiar looking dung in the road and my mind wanders again.
This time I’m transported to the Green Lake WI Winterfest event that I attended several years ago. I was an unwilling volunteer at the food counter in the main tent and I remember accidentally overcharging everyone who ordered a hot dog. I had the price confused with the bratwurst. Same bun, same basic shape, same ingredients - lips, scrotums etc, just a different price. I drank a lot of beer that day. I remember the Chamber of Commerce VP Dusty Walker commenting a few days after the event that the revenue from food was up from last year but beer sales were down. Go figure! I wasn’t ‘volunteered’ the following year.
But anyway, back to the dung. Each year at Winterfest they’d bring out the Winterfest Camel. They used to drag that poor fucker out on the ice in the middle of Winter so the kids could pet it. What kind of education is that for the kids…camels in Winter? it’s all messed up. Come to think of it that whole event was fucked up. An Englishman dressed as Santa, drinking Miller Lite and serving hotdogs to Americans whilst standing in a tent parked on top of a frozen lake in the middle of December with kids running around yelling “I want to ride the camel…I want to ride the camel”. What the fuck? Did that really happen or was I tripping on a bad chicken wing?
There, look, there’s camel shit in the road again. Orrance…!
I like this song by Queen that’s playing on my iPhone - ‘A Winter’s Tale’. I’m not sure why I keep thinking about Winter, am I hallucinating?
It’s a shame about Freddie Mercury dying so young, he was a good egg. I wonder how much stuff he used to take with him on tour? I bet he had a ton of it. High-heeled shoes, hairy chest wigs, cod pieces, that stuff must have weighed a ton. I suppose he had people to carry it for him and they probably weren’t on bikes.
I need to stop for a pee again. This time I’m determined to shed a few ounces. I find myself standing at the side of the road trying to pee but still there’s nothing’s coming out.
I scratch and tug around down there and come across something that wasn’t present when I set off earlier today. It feels like a hard shell, or perhaps a pie crust. I peel off a layer of something hard and white. I have a salt-encrusted nut-sack. That can’t be good. I toss it into a field then regret doing so immediately. It could be nutritious. Seasoning for a soup?
I’m back on the bike now and I’m moving in a zig-zag motion towards the setting sun. It’s been at least an hour since I last perspired. I’m contemplating whether this is a good thing or not when I hit a pothole and veer off onto the grass verge.
I’m under the bike again and it’s time for a break, I’m becoming delirious.
As I sit at the side of the road picking the shell off a hard-boiled egg my mind wanders yet again to my load.
I don’t know why I bought the cheaper spare tent pegs. There were 4 steel ones in a pack for $1.99 and 4 aluminum ones for $2.99. I bet those aluminum ones were a couple ounces lighter. Hauling 2 ounces for 70 miles requires around 25 joules of extra energy. I could’ve saved that by spending an extra lousy buck.
I have no recollection of the last few miles of this journey. I stopped taking notes and I have nothing at all to reference back to. The last lucid memory I have is of sitting at the side of the road eating hard-boiled eggs.
But by piecing together certain clues the following day I was able to ascertain that –
A - I made it to Aqaba
B – There were no Turks or Arabs, in their stead I encountered an even more unpleasant tribe of indigenous, the ‘Rednecks’. A loud and rowdy rebellious rabble of beer-swigging Yahoos who liked nothing other than to whoop and holler into the early hours of the morning outside my tent.
Much was learned during the events of that long Autumn day. Introspection is a powerful tool but it can really mess with your head when you’re fatigued, dehydrated and malnourished. Riding alone with nothing but the sun and the wind and the fields of corn might seem romantic in some kids’ Enid Blyton novel but it really isn’t all that it’s cut out to be.
In future I’ll take the car and stay in a motel. Or better still, just stay at home. It’s much safer there, even with the FIBs and the FIBTABs.
Allah Be Praised.