The big wet, which is predicted to hang around until June, is holding up one unlikely cyclist. For three months, 82-year-old Lexi Clissold has been waiting to head off on another cross-border bike trip. In 30 years, the ‘gallivanting granny’, who sports a red mohawk, has travelled 50,000km around Australia. She’s biding her time in Ballina as ‘she can’t go lying around in the bush when the ground is so wet!’
So does she really sleep on the side of the road? ‘Yeah, I set up a spot, out of the way, in a tent. I keep a low profile so I don’t draw attention. I camp like a mouse.’ At night and in the middle of nowhere, most readers could relate to the unwelcome need for a toilet trip. Lexi laughed, ‘I keep a bucket inside the tent for that!’
Let’s travel back to the ‘Forest Gump moment’ when Lexi decided to get on that bike and just ride.
At the age of 50, having brought up eight children and without a partner, Lexi was retrenched from work on the Gold Coast. A concerned daughter asked what she would do.
‘I’m going to get on a push bike and go around Australia,’ she replied. Just like that.
A surprisingly supportive daughter accompanied her to purchase the bike. Lexi added that ‘it would be a fun thing to do, fill up a space in my life, and I’ve been riding ever since’.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride. One of the first journeys was to head north. Only six weeks into the journey, Lexi had an unfortunate fall from a bridge into a dry river bed. ‘Lucky’ Lexi added that ‘it was a sand bar’. The said bridge was narrow and did not afford Lexi the room to move across when a car came up behind her. Lying on the ground with a heavy bike and trailer on top of her, Lexi was lucky to have been noticed by a group of people. However, she had to organise her own rescue as nobody knew what to do with her. Lexi suffered seven broken ribs and undiagnosed head injuries.
Her cunning wit and determination was able to outwit a doctor at a country hospital. By proving she could walk the hospital floor she was able to leave. Lexi knew she needed help with the brain injury but she had promised she would visit her daughter in WA. It was a three-week car trip before she made it back home.
A morning visit to her home doctor ended up in brain surgery that afternoon. Lexi had a pool of blood half an inch thick across the top of her head from a ruptured blood vessel. She was lucky to be alive. In four days she was back on that bike, preparing to restart the trip.
That was just the beginning of a 30-year voyage – over 50,000km. You can imagine the stories, the good and the bad: cyclones, wild bulls, crocodile-infested waters, stalkers and teen gangs are just some examples of the tougher times. Yet her courage is strong enough to be unrelenting. Age won’t stop her, but she knows that from here on in she will have to slow down.
Once upon a time Lexi could keep improving her fitness but has now ‘reached a point where I go the other way, I’m less active. The time schedules are all gone. When I was younger (this was still over 50!) I would ride 150km a day, but now if I want to stop for a cuppa I do. I am just touring now.’
Ukulele players would be happy to know that in such limited packing space ‘Pedals’ has a place for her uke! Music has always been a part of this modern swaggy’s life, even scoring her a runner-up place at a music festival in Mildura! Lexi continued, ‘I can write songs when I ride along; 29 so far.’ Loneliness has been the impetus of many a traveller’s song. I commented that loneliness must be her best friend out there in those wide open spaces. ‘While I’m riding, I’m working, watching for traffic, and thinking, of course. Plus people are always stopping and talking and taking photos. I guess evenings are when you miss the company the most.’
Lexi fruit picked and now receives the pension. She is quick to advise other age pensioners, ‘When people start getting into their 50s and 60s they start looking at retirement villages and places. I’m doing this to prove that older people don’t have to stop.’ Many people living on a pension or limited income in their older age struggle to make ends meet. Lexi responded, ‘Just get a bike. You can live on half a pension, no bills and you’re keeping fit. You can stay over in parks for around $20 per night if you need to. What I don’t spend on accommodation, I can afford to go on a boat trip or a flight when I get to a town.’
Medical condition is surely an issue that would inhibit such a lifestyle. I wondered if Lexi had been faced with this adversity. ‘Yes. I’ve had a heart operation, but that doesn’t make me want to stop home.’
Open roads and spaces can reveal many inner mysteries and wisdom that everyday life distracts us from. At 82 and 50,000km later, I invited Lexi to share any deep reflections from her path. ‘The instinct to be feral like I am never leaves me. I am in tune with the animals and their noises, for example. I still get frightened, which keeps me guarded when I need to be. I am probably old fashioned but I think the way children are being brought up now, they lose their feral instincts. They seem more shut off and the mums and dads are going overboard spending money on them.’
For the upcoming trip Lexi is ‘… going to a place called Camooweal, 2000km from here and near the QLD and NT border. I heard the local people on the radio say they don’t have many people visit, like musicians etc. They are right at the end of the line so I wrote them a letter and let them know I am coming. It’s 5,000km all round.’ The Rural Flying Doctors have been notified of the trip as her chosen charity. Lexi understands the term remote and is well aware of the need for this service. She adds, ‘These days the charities can handle all donations electronically so people can donate from anywhere!’
Of all the reasons one couldn’t live this nomadic lifestyle, Lexi believes that ‘… family is what holds people back, especially if you are an older woman. They all huddle together and either tell people they are too old, or they let other people’s lives rule their life.’
With age on her side I wondered if Lexi had seen this inhibiting trend with older people, particularly women, before. ‘Towing caravans used to be regarded as unsafe, now there are many older women on the road towing them and set up in little rigs.’
Not one to sit dormant, Lexi took me to a nearby Anzac memorial garden that she has been attending to. The space was created in 1987 but newer monuments have been created in town and this one seems to have been forgotten. A few phone calls to Ballina council and the old tables have been replaced. Lexi has donated paint and plants and spends her downtime beautifying what was becoming a rundown area. It seems Lucky Lexi is leaving more than a bike trail in her path.
Lexi recently advertised for a companion rider. The offer is still open with a departure date no later than mid-May 2012. You can make contact by leaving a message at Ballina Gardens Caravan Park on 02 6686 2475.