Beau Miles doesn’t mind walking to work, even if it’s a 90km ordeal. Here he breaks down why he left the ute in the shed, and spent quiet, painful hours trudging the shoulder of Australia’s biggest highway – existing on what others throw away.
It recently occurred to me that I’m at the halfway point in life, having lived the same number of years as an adult, and non-adult. I’ve become a pain in the arse, questioning everything, including questions. Early life crisis perhaps, where you sell your car instead of buying a new one, looking for an organic, grass-fed, postmodern version of renewal. It’s also the first year of my adult life that I’ve not left my home continent, domesticating myself in various capacities instead of crossing a large patch of water to be somewhere else.
A few years ago, perhaps five, I started to realise the significance of home roots. Not just the natural progression of being around to have kids and grow vegetables, although they’re on the list, but starting to understand the significance of my so-called adventures in terms of a) their insignificance b) their great importance.
Let me explain this contradiction, based on walking 90.4km to work twice, as a potentially mind and body numbing experience that examined my relationship with thirst, shade, blisters, hunger, noise, mindlessness and my sense of adventure; all from the discarded wastelands of Australia’s largest road.
Beau Miles: Adventurer
It started, I think, when an emcee for a school assembly introduced me as ‘Adventurer’. The kids in the front row stopped playing with their faces and looked vaguely interested, presuming a story would be told about losing a finger to frostbite, or crossing a desert without water or a hat.
‘I sounded cliché, in search of something or someone, rubbing together sand and dust and salt with body fluids, as if some kind of alchemist embalming a thick coating of adventurous spirit.’
Boys with I-don’t-care-hair (that gets constantly preened to look that way) searched me out, finding me in the wings of the stage. I imagine they wondered why I wasn’t more tanned. Word for word, the emcee read my story from my old website, delivering a well-trodden 268-word paragraph to 800 students. It struck me that I’d spent two decades as this mystical, self-prescribed figure; an embellished character who runs and paddles, chafes, tells stories, and eats buckets of carbs.
It was strange hearing my words fill the auditorium, voiced by another man. I pictured my younger self pitted against mountain ranges and coastlines, testing how far I’d get on a few biscuits and a tube of sunscreen. I sounded cliché, in search of something or someone, rubbing together sand and dust and salt with body fluids, as if some kind of alchemist embalming a thick coating of adventurous spirit.
Simpleton at heart, my two great rocks in adult life are being sun smart and animalistic in flight. Not always smart, and never brown, I cover up, go, and keep going.
But What Is Adventure?
Self-searching journeys of the adventurous kind, like my past expeditions of paddling around the southern coast of Africa and running the Australian Alps, and perhaps like your own forms of doing and traveling, are deeply perceptive, adjustable and personal. Contemporary scholars put forward that adventure is a balancing act of risk vs competence, pitted against one another to meet a required level of engagement.
A sense of adventure, peak adventure, or misadventure are said to be felt, death being the tipping point of misadventure, and underwhelming experimentation being the precursor to adventure itself. Yet real risk is largely perceived, subjective and difficult to quantify. That is, real risk is not as objective as people make out.
You’re more likely to die from the distracted hands of a texting driver, or unseen bacteria, than landing through surf in a sea kayak. Genuine and unlikely risk of harm and death is around us at every turn. Participating in outdoor adventure programs in the U.S for example (my line of work), is less risky for a student than turning up to their regular school day.
If we think something is risky, adventurous, misadventure, beautiful and ugly, it is, regardless of it being true or not. Where we go, what we see, and how we shift and manipulate our understanding of what we’re doing is an exemplary power of the human psyche.
‘Drinkable water, the most basic of human needs, was unavailable by natural means. The world of creeks, swamps and rivers was shifted, dammed, sick, dry, or simply inaccessible. It was not lost on me that one of the busiest human thoroughfare zones in my country lacked the most basic element for sustaining human life.’
Drinking tea a little slower now-a-days, I’m learning to take notice of this epic power of perception. Less and less do I bugger off to far-flung corners of the globe, meaning I’ve come to the realisation that I can do more in less space, just as intensely, with fewer tools. Stripping back versions of my day to day, including needs and wants, has me whispering true lies to myself in order to retrain my adventurous vocabulary. I’m cornered into being a better version of my native self; looking, listening and feeling my way over land and water to get somewhere.
As socially adapted liars, humans oscillate on a broad scale of how and when we lie. It makes sense to do ourselves a favour and convince our internal voice that homespun adventures can be challenging, insightful, dirty, intense, intimate and all-consuming, even when conducted in seemingly mundane, unnatural and unhygienic, everyday places.
The 90km Walking Commute Rulebook
- Leave with only the clothes on my back, hat, shoes, and nothing else
- Find and make my own shelter
- Source all water and food – either by finding it or buying it using money I find
- Be at work 30 hours after departure to deliver a 2-hour lecture
Finding Adventure In The Gutter
My glowing face in the balm of this computer screen means I survived. I also made it to my lecture with half an hour to kill. There were a few testy points of real risk, some genuine discomforts, and tremendous moments of beauty. I even came upon an epiphany not long after finding a large pink straw in the shape of a penis. Here’s what stood out…
I inevitably forgot about my lower half not long after leaving the porch. Legs and feet simply and subconsciously guided my eyes and head to whatever it is they were looking at – in this case, an abstract vision of work, 90km away. Stepping out smooth strides on an unnaturally flat and linear surface, I travelled at an average of 5km/h.
As Rebecca Solnit so wonderfully writes, ‘mind and feet operate at the same pace’, rhythmically, going somewhere. I narrated silently my one-act play, not realising the bubble I was in until a car honked, or I left the highway for long enough to hear anything but the oppressive sound of traffic. It genuinely felt a little edgy, leaving with so little.
There were several farmers on tractors during the initial country roads, people filling their cars with petrol at service stations, and I noticed a woman tending her garden in the suburbs when I sat to eat a discarded orange. Yet the walking, social, sporting, out-of-doors and active human, was almost completely missing. Not even a pair of French cycle tourists passed by in either direction.
The sense of solitude was no less powerful than being in a vast desert. As a wilderness of some kind, the strangeness of this dichotomous landscape engaged intimacies of a very different nature. Danger, at times, was very real. When the roadside shoulder vanished at bridges it meant I was three-feet away from high-speed traffic. Water was circumspect from all creeks, streams and drains, of which I constantly crossed and were rarely named, whilst the always-present sun highlighted the fact that I walked in a world with no canopy, no shade for my fair skin.
The modern road is stripped of vegetation each side, ready to take another swathe of highway lanes. Unlike many forms of wilderness, there was very little food on offer. I had presumed from thousands of miles of running that I’d simply stumble upon half-eaten takeaway and bruised bananas, but I found almost nothing.
Heading away from the roadside any great distance was fruitless also. Stark, often-treeless paddocks stretched either side of me offering only grass, boxed away in countless barbwire fences. Discarded cola drinks containing their final moments of fizz were my principle form of calories and hydration.
Drinkable water, the most basic of human needs, was unavailable by natural means. The world of creeks, swamps and rivers was shifted, dammed, sick, dry, or simply inaccessible. It was not lost on me that one of the busiest human thoroughfare zones in my country lacked the most basic element for sustaining human life.
I felt immediately the effect of pace; rarely do I walk on the roads I drive. I noticed the cracked edges of my road several hundred metres from my house – a result of milk trucks grinding up the road at 10-15 times faster than I was travelling. Never had I looked so closely at the glacial qualities of bitumen, whittling away from the edges.
Even running countless home loops around my mile-long block, two or three times faster than walking, I would blur past this obvious degradation. Weird and wonderful, at times disturbing, items of roadside rubbish were everywhere. I collected and spent the entire Australian currency in coins, rummaged through a box of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies on VHS, and wondered who owned, momentarily, each piece of rubbish I picked up.
When returning the rubbish to the roadside I felt as if I had violated my moral code, as if I was now throwing it away, having momentarily taken ownership. Bolts, bricks, milled timber, roofing tiles and drill bits set me off thinking about the world’s material ages; stone to bronze to iron, before the overwhelming prince of darkness emerged in endless forms of plastic. Synthetic concoctions never before mixed by nature strewn along our pathways with irreverence, like a beautifully noxious, un-seasonal flower.
The outfall was staggering, a full spectrum of packaging eddied into culverts and shaken into size order – the larger and blunt items layered on top. Women’s shoes of a medium size were common. A shiny object would attract my attention at times, as would a bold, unnatural colour. Pure shapes, circles, triangles and squares, or overtly straight items would divert my eye from the chaotic curves of the Australian bush.
Picking through an assortment of porn, wallets, asbestos, and suspiciously lumpy bags that I presumed to be chopped up humans, mapped the tale of 120,000 strides, and how I, like the rubbish I found, am part of this complex mega highway.
During my dark night, strapped within a king-size duvet, layered with house insulation and several towels, I slept in short but intense bursts. I had earned my rest. Twelve hours later, when arriving at the workshop, the always moving, continually onward experience took on a feeling of loss – stopping dead after so much forwardness. I rarely, for example, looked back. One doesn’t tend to look behind them with the prospect of a destination and a long white line to follow.
The indulgent capacity to stop and think beyond the moment exists mostly in the aftermath, and even then, you often have to make a mental note to do so. Having returned to a bed, food and company, my first instinct was a brief feeling of guilt for being idle. Inevitably, and rationally, this turned into appreciating that even at walking pace, and even in such a short space of time, the intricate, fragmentary and immersive nature of my commute would take time to decipher.
Although I tried. My lecture was full of immediacy. With sun-cracked lips and blistered feet, I stank to high heaven. Heat radiated from a raised blister on my heel the size of a 20c piece. I was beyond hobbling, owning the feel-good-pain, like a curious toothache that feels better when you bite down. Stories I told were as close to me as any storytelling I’ve ever done. It was as if my showerless state, soiled clothing and blooming freckles meant I looked like my words. I represented a mirror of the road, which was precisely the point, delivering a lecture about adventure from within the journey itself.
Still got questions? Watch Beau’s Q&A video (it’s set in the middle of a highway, of course).
Three days after the walking commute, a photo spread in Australian newspapers titled ‘Man walks 90km to work’ was the most read national article that day, proving that curiosity lies as much with the walker as it does the audience. Beau has paddled to work since writing this article (it took 4 days), and has lined up a horse, balloon, wheelchair and junk-made chariot for 2019 commutes. See the trailers for the walk and paddle commutes on his YouTube Channel. For blogs and other cool stuff visit beaumiles.com.