(Written two days earlier - 18th June 2013)
In the central square of Saint Andre Les Alpes I rest beneath a bar umbrella. A glass sits half supped beside my laptop, moisture on the inside already absent - the temperature is well into the 30’s and I’ve gone through ten litres of water on the road today. Elsewhere, two men stood three storeys up on some scaffolding they seem to have created from stuff regularly found in dumpsters pretend not to be the culprits behind large pieces of stone falling to the public walkway below. It seems dangerous to me but nobody else is noticing.
A small boy on a bicycle squirts a water pistol at a very happy dog, then falls off flat onto his face. He cries loudly. The dog still seems happy. In search of the only refreshment within reach small children play near (and in) a fountain, soaking each other with rapid splashes. The mother of one of the smaller munchkins is shouting ‘ooh la la’ - they actually do that in France?!
I’m over 800 metres above sea level and 110km of road lies between my current position and sea level itself. I’m in a battle with myself now; questioning the current validity of my mission and balancing it up against what is right and what is necessary. What is really important?
The dog continues to smile, nothing seems to bother him.
No longer am I calculating the great distances between the south coast of France and Paris. Rather, I’m wondering how I can make it to Nice. I bared my grin and powered through the pain between Zurich and here, almost 440 miles in 7 days, but I realise now it’s not a sustainable effort. Just 35 miles today has left me empty. I stop every few minutes for slugs of water and for rest, to ease the strain on my lower back which spreads pins and needles up to my shoulder blades as I ride. It’s a comfortably numb feeling, even ticklish, but not at all natural.
The dog is now lying at the base of a tree next to the fountain, a puddle forming beneath his spread-out form as a young girl - she can’t be more than six - pours water from an Evian bottle over his head. He beams, tongue out, looking right at me. Still smiling.
The pain drain plus the fear of exacerbation makes the situation serious enough to create new, untrodden ground for me. On previous expeditions the consideration of not being able to conclude a journey has been absent and to face such thoughts off the back of something so seemingly trivial as a slip on a step - it’s bizarre.
Usually I’m flexible enough to double over and place my palms flat on the ground beside my feet. I think they call that freakish. Right now I can’t get down to my ankle. Tying a shoelace requires sitting.
I don’t think there’s an item of land-based exercise equipment better placed to develop all-round fitness than an ElliptiGO, and it sits well in the rehabilitation market too. Had I ridden the last seven days and 470 miles on a bicycle I don’t think I’d be able to move but as it is, I’m a little crooked and bent over when off the GO but actually being on it allows me to keep supple. When freewheeling I can stretch out - exactly what I need to be doing. I’ve never been one to do anything stupid in the name of bravado; if I felt riding the ElliptiGO was damaging I would have stopped in Zurich, but in actual fact it’s keeping my core strong and my back warm. With this injury drain my range of distance is limited but I’m able to ride with regular breaks, edging towards what now seems to be a nice destination.
My injury isn’t huge, it’s not warranting hospitalisation or even large doses of painkillers, but it’s more than a concern. I need to rest up for a while but the pressure of this journey’s planned schedule makes that impossible. I feel that now this where I need to put honour second to health, but that includes a satisfactory - albeit premature - finish. Being picked up in the mountains would leave me low after the efforts of the past seven weeks, so to the sea I go. It’s close, and it’s downhill.
Al Worden is one of only five living men who has been even more remote and out of contact than the more celebrated astronauts who walked on the Moon. Really interesting interview with him about his work and whether or not he was really lonely up there…
Here’s the interview as found here
Seven men in the history of humanity stand apart from the rest of us. These are the Apollo command module pilots who spent time alone in orbit around the Moon, while their colleagues walked on the lunar surface. When they were on the far side of the Moon, these astronauts were completely out of contact, and further from Earth, than anyone had ever been before. Or has ever been since.
Only five of these people are still alive and, when I meet him, Apollo 15 command module pilot Al Worden still looks every bit the veteran astronaut. Even in the unlikely surroundings of a crowded restaurant in Yorkshire, in northern England, this former test pilot stands out – an alpha male holding court, surrounded by a group of admirers eagerly hanging on his every word.
Worden flew to the Moon in July 1971, alongside commander Dave Scott and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin. During his time alone on the command module he entered the record books as the “most isolated human being” ever - at times his companions being 3,600km (2,235 miles) away on the lunar surface.
Like the other Apollo astronauts I’ve met Worden would rather talk about the mission and its achievements, than himself. As the first of the so-called “J” class missions, Apollo 15 is widely accepted as the most scientifically rigorous of the Apollo programme. Nevertheless, as we sit down in a quiet corner of the hotel bar, with proposals out there for a return to the Moon and missions to Mars, I’m keen to learn about the human experience of being so far from home:
Do you feel that command module pilots get overlooked by history – you had what was perceived as the less glamorous job?
It’s kind of funny, everybody’s focussed on those who land on the Moon but their function is to pick up a rock. They’re just out gathering rocks and they bring all those rocks back and they get analysed. In terms of the science, you gather a lot more science from lunar orbit than you can on the surface. I photographed, for example, about 25% of the lunar surface – the first time that had been done. I mapped about that same amount. That’s a lot of data to come back. In fact, I guess they’re still looking at it.
I’m interested in what was going through your mind as the lunar lander separated from the command module and you see it getting smaller and smaller in the window as it passes out of sight and descends towards the Moon. What goes through your mind when that’s happening?
First off, you wish them luck: “I hope you land okay!” The second thought is: “gee I’m glad they’ve gone because I’ve got this place all to myself.” And so I had three wonderful days in a spacecraft all by myself.
Wasn’t it lonely?
There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the airforce, then as a test pilot – and that was mostly in fighter airplanes – so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more, except once they came around [when the orbiting command module was above the landing site) and I said “hi”. On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight.
You were a quarter of a million miles away from home though.
Yes, you’re a long way away but the thing that most impressed me about being in lunar orbit – particularly the times when I was by myself – was that every time I came round the backside of the Moon, I got to a window where I could watch the Earthrise and that was phenomenal. And in addition to that, I got to look at the universe out there with a very different perspective and a very different way than anyone had before.
What I found was that the number of stars was just so immense. In fact I couldn’t pick up individual stars, it was like a sheet of light. I found that fascinating because it changed my ideas about how we think about the Universe.
There are billions of stars out there – the Milky Way galaxy that we’re in contains billions of stars, not just a few. And there are billions of galaxies out there. So what does that tell you about the Universe? That tells you we just don’t think big enough. To my mind that’s the whole purpose of the space programme, to figure out what that’s all about.
Did that not make you feel even smaller and even more alone?
Oh yeah, you want to feel insignificant? Go behind the Moon sometime. That’ll make you really feel that you’re nothing!
I’m intrigued that you said you preferred being out of contact with Houston, why was that?
I didn’t need someone yammering in my ear. I had a lot of work to do. I had a lot of things I was trying to accomplish. I kind of say that in a joking way, because if anything serious were to come up then I’d certainly want them to contact me. But if everything was going well, I didn’t need to talk to them and I could concentrate on the science I was doing.
How busy were you? I imagine a lot of your thinking about the Earth and the Universe was done after the mission?
That’s a funny thing, when you’re out there observing all this and doing all this remote sensing, and the photographing and the-this and the-that, you don’t really have time to think much about it. You put it in a memory bank and when you get back that you think about all that. I worked 20 hours a day and I’d get three or four hours of sleep a night. So you really don’t have the luxury of the time to sit and look out of the window and think “oh gosh I can ponder on the universe out there and philosophise about what’s there.”
What about music – what was your mix tape for the Moon?
We had little cassette players that we could use during the flight. I was, and still am, an absolute Beatles fan and I love their music. I also carried some Elton John, some John Denver and the Blue Danube Waltz [from the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey].
You are one of only seven people who have been isolated, in orbit around the Moon [the others are the command module pilots of Apollo 10, 11, 12, 14, 16 and 17 and only Apollo 15, 16 and 17 pilots spent three days alone in lunar orbit]. Are there lessons that astronauts in the future can learn, if and when we return to the Moon or go onto Mars?
I think there probably are, although we all had different experiences. The lesson I got was don’t get too friendly with your crew. With the long periods of time you spend with the other two, I found that I was more tuned to doing the job I had to do than I was with interfacing with them. We really worked well together professionally but we were not particularly great friends and I think that was a benefit.
How does that work then? It’s hardly a nine to five job when you can go home at the end of the today, away from your work colleagues?
That’s why you need to maintain a distance between people. If you get to a point in a flight where it’s time to take a rest, not do anything for a while, you need to be comfortable that you can enjoy the solitude without having to feel you have to talk to everybody.
I guess we all expect you to be chums, are you saying that’s not necessarily the case?
Apollo 12 they were always buddies – Pete Conrad treated his crew like brothers. If you saw one, you saw all three because they were always together. We were the opposite of that, we trained together but we didn’t socialise a lot together and I think that made us a more effective crew.
Your colleagues Dave Scott and Jim Irwin left footprints on the Moon – which will be there for millions of years. Will you have left anything behind as a memorial to your mission? Your urine maybe?
It could be, we actually made urine dumps when we were in lunar orbit. What we had to do was we’d open the valve and flush it all out, then make a trajectory change so we got out of the way. It could still be there. However, the Moon doesn’t have enough gravity to retain particles in orbit – that’s why there’s no atmosphere. I suspect anything we’ve dumped has disappeared by now – my guess is there’s nothing left.
This is a long old trip. I look back now and struggle to comprehend that this is the same journey that took us through the shires to London, then bounced off the south coast with such ferocity that we found ourselves in Holland, climbing the hill there. Then the grey, sodden greenery of Germany, merely a 730 mile flooded conduit leading us to the gorgeously rolling Alpine underbelly of southern Austria and Switzerland. Even a steep, solid 50-minute cow-topped climb out of Frangy - just a sliver into France past the Swiss border - just last Friday seems like a lifetime ago.
The view is constantly changing, and the last ten days have demanded use of a word so often overused in modern-day language. Awesome. The opening five weeks of this journey were fun, health-inducing and a constant reminder of the kindness of strangers but the challenge and the scenery was tepid. The people lifted the bar but my gut was dominated by a most unusual feeling. I was hoping for more.
Perhaps my familiarity with Europe was the reason, low lying Europe, in any case. I’ve lost count of the number of times Squash shouted to me, ‘this could be England!’
But as we began a climb out of Oberstaufen on June 5th it all changed. The raw majesty of snow-tipped mountains loomed over to our left, standing sentry between us and the south. Wisely we avoided the challenge; jumping onto the Swiss plateau where Squash and I parted ways for a short while: loved ones were flying in to opposite ends of the country and their attention was thoroughly needed.
The Swiss, by the way, are even more efficient than the Germans. Everything was spick and span. On time. Spotless. I like it. Well done you neutral people.
In preparation for three days off the road I transported my ElliptiGO down some narrow steps to the rear of a Zurich video shop, which at some dreadful point encouraged a rather drastic pop in my back. Suddenly the most basic movements became difficult: standing up, getting out of bed, carrying a rucksack.
I take my health for granted. Sure, I go to roost a little in between expeditions and nurture my belly until it is nicely round, but I’m always able to sprint after a burglar should the opportunity allow.
When something in your body clicks, so does reality. We’re ever so fragile. After my break, which was totally lovely by the way and thanks for asking, I needed help bringing my ElliptiGO out into the daylight. I was struggling to lift the old girl to nudge the kickstand into place. I couldn’t bend over to attach the straps on the trailer.
Remarkably, once riding I was fine. Sore, yes. Tense, definitely. But the impactless nature of the ElliptiGO means I’m able to move without worry of further damage, at least to the area in question. The body is a wonderful creation but its reaction to stress has a downside. A poorly anything will be naturally protected by the transition of strain to another area and other niggles have been developing in my calves, shoulders and neck. And it all hurts when I step off the GO. So ironic, considering I was at my all-time fittest before those steps…
Of course, I’m tired and that’s when injury infiltrates. Add this to the fact that the terrain of awesomeness is rugged and raw and topographically exciting. I am rewarded by the joy of staring up at crumbling cliffs and mountain forests and snowy peaks and tight gorges by the regular steep climbs that go hand in hand with this territory.
This morning Squash and I parted ways. In order to complete this journey without compromising my health I will travel direct and slow (the slow bit, especially, is pleasing) but this means a final total of 3000 miles is extremely unlikely, for me. I’m fine with that, numbers do not validate a journey in my book and I’ll enjoy my patient plod home, but Squash is physically capable of the record and I’m right behind her as she busts her ass! You can support her too on her Twitter and Facebook.
This morning, as I went left (towards the coast) and Squash went right (towards more mountains), I was reminded that sometimes planning is futile. Decisions can only be made based on current moments and all you can do at those times is to make the right decision. The difficulty level of this expedition has risen steadily since the Alps came into sight: it would have even had I not damaged my back.
The additional draining of energy that accompanies continual pain has now been joined by intense heat, but you know what? Give me these moments time and time again come rain, shine or North German Gloom. The joy of any journey appears hidden sometimes, but it glints out from the most unlikely of places, you just have to keep on looking.
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