What a Hitchhiking Trip Around Australia Taught me About Courage
In 1983 I was working for what was then Martin Marietta Aerospace. That year, Bendix tried to gut the company in the then-very popular shark wars of corporate buyouts. Along with many thousands, I lost my job. Back then, corporations had enough moral backbone to provide some kind of severance pay. I was thirty. Now I was jobless, but I had twelve grand in my pocket for my trouble.
Two Australian movies had come out right about then: 1980’s Mad Max, which was our first introduction to the superbly talented-but-troubled Mel Gibson, and Man From Snowy River in 1982, which was an award-winning movie which brought to life the much-beloved poem by Banjo Patterson. I was entranced by both. That began a dream. After I got laid off, a potential reality.
I wanted to see Australia. Right about that same time, United Airlines cut a deal with Qantas, Australia’s national airlines. I got a mailing that promised that if I had enough airline miles, I could visit OZ, New Zealand and Fiji.
I had the miles. My first Great Adventure swam into focus.
I set to researching these countries. That was well before most of us had computers and well before the Internet, or at least widespread use of it. I spent a lot of time in libraries. There I found the marvelous book Tracks, based on the true story of Aussie Robyn Davidson’s solo journey across the Red Center of Australia. I was further entranced. I thought if she could do it, so can I, although I wasn’t yet in love with camels (I am now but that’s another story).
At the same time I came across a powerful quote from Amelia Earhart. Earhart’s private writings are largely still private, even a century later, but this poem is public. Here I quote only the stanzas I printed, and which have had pride of place in my beloved Daytimer ever since:
“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release from little things.
Knows not the vivid loneliness of fear nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living, compensate for dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate, unless we dare the soul’s dominion?
Each time we make a choice, we pay with courage to behold the restless day and count it fair.”
I did go to Australia (and New Zealand and Fiji). I spent four years there, scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef. I learned to fly ultralights over the hills of Geelong, earning my license. I thumbed from one end of that great country to the other pushing my limits. I started my professional speaking business there. Made terrible, stupid, foolish mistakes (happily, that only I paid the price for making). And learned that I had big shoulders along the way.
I still make mistakes. Plenty of them, albeit not the same ones. Not even. What that trip taught me was how to learn from them. How never to blame others for the quality of my life. How to live out loud despite the ankle-biters.
When I returned to America in 1987, a great many people told me that they were “gonna go there someday.” Fast forward to 2020, they haven’t. That’s fine. My life is not for everyone. In fact, very few folks would want to make the sacrifices to have my life, such as it has been. Going forward I have no idea. Assuming I survive this period, I will thrive no matter what. Because I can live in a tent and on rice if I have to, and have.
However; to the poem, and ankle-biters.
Earhart and another contemporary of hers, my personal muse Beryl Markham, were extraordinary women of their times. Aviators both, damned good ones. In Markham’s case, also a superb horsewoman and much more. They were subjected to criticism, ridicule, scathing hatred and biting commentary. Still are. How. Dare. They. Buck the conventions of their times. Yet they did. And in doing so not only paved the way for all the female pilots since, but provided, as did superb women explorers before them (and there were many), explicit exhortation for us to do the same., And more.
We have, too. Women and men both.
Courage wears a great many faces. It is found as much in the small daily acts that we engage in as well as the great sweeping gestures, such as flying westward across the Atlantic against the wind, as Markham did for the first time ever. Why she’s my shero:
Markham is the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight (a westbound flight requires more endurance, fuel, and time than the eastward journey, because the craft must travel against the prevailing Atlantic winds).
Her book West with the Night earned her this praise from none other than Ernest Hemingway:
“she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But [she] can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.
People attacked Markham for her beauty. For her piloting. For her lovers (which apparently included British royalty, good for her). They claimed she hadn’t written her own books. Ankle-biters.
The poem Courage speaks to me of the hateful fear and jealousy that people feel and use to attack others. I see it online all the time. Happens all too frequently even on Medium. While that saddens me, not only do I fully understand what the stresses of our times cause us to do, but I also understand that not very many of us are willing to shove ourselves into difficult circumstances simply because, well, they ARE difficult.
That doesn’t mean that courageous people aren’t shit-scared. We all are. As in: every single nurse and doctor on the front lines. Shit-scared and deeply courageous. A hell of a more courageous than I am. To me, it means that yes we’re scared but let’s get it done anyway. Probably the best movie I ever saw that speaks to that is the superb and terrible Hacksaw Ridge.
Difficult times can make for strong people. Not everyone. For others, they descend into throwing verbal acid in the faces of people they don’t like, or approve of, or fear. It’s an awful aspect of human nature. You and I can learn from what we do that is hurtful, notice that it’s dysfunctional and choose to what it takes to rise above it. That is what courage looks like in practice. The extreme adventure travel I have done these last many years has been a crash course not only in physical difficulty, but even more so in learning to dance with the internal demons. We all have them.
How courage translates into your everyday circumstances is unique to you. I believe powerfully that you and I are placed precisely where we belong in order to become what we were meant to be. Not everyone does. Those who quail at that very invitation become ankle-biters to others’ efforts. But then, the value of that is that they provide the very work that others need to overcome. Ankle-biters are gifts.
We all have a role. A place. An opportunity. It is a second-to-second choice. You and I are going to get attacked. How we choose to respond demonstrates courage or lack thereof. You and I are going to be misunderstood, criticized, undermined and sometimes, leveled by others.
How we choose to respond, or not respond, is a statement of courage.
It’s not easy. Rising above the ankle biters never will be. It’s ever so much easier flinging angry darts at people. Or, you and I can turn to the examples of people we admire, great and small, heroic and everyday, and find our own sources of courage. To choose a higher path. To do the hard things. Right now our world is populated with millions of examples of just that.
Will I be an arrow moving forward? Or will I hide in my cave and fling angry darts at people? One is the way of the warrior. Right now, we need plenty more of those. I hope you will become one, in your own way and in your own time, and in your own unique style. I’m tagging you, Charles Roast, Ann Litts and so many more people whose courage I deeply admire.
About a month ago I was standing out on the plains of the Maasai Mara, in Kenya, next to an aging Maasai man who was our animal tracker. The night had just fallen, and the winds touched our faces. We could barely see each other in the waning light. Some distance away, the Land Cruiser that we’d taken out into the African landscape was lively with the sounds of the rest of our group enjoying a drink and the safety of the guides, rifles at the ready. Netty and I stood in the low quiet, listening.
At almost the same time, Netty and I heard the lions. Unmistakable. Two males fighting over a female for mating rights. We could track their movements as the harsh sounds circled us to the right, getting closer. We didn’t move. All around us were jackals, leopards, night hunters.
We smiled at each other. I could see his beautiful white teeth in the night. We touched each other’s shoulders.
And stood listening to the lions.