When Mike Pauly arrived at the shed for the interview, I stored the ‘cray pot’ in the car and made two cups of tea. After convening around the hernia maker, I found out that Mike’s ‘minor setbacks’ was in fact a chain of crisis that started from two hospitalisations in the Kimberley from life-threatening dehydration. The doctor, after the second hospital stay, diagnosed him with a double hernia, so he paused the trip to come back to Perth for an operation only to find out post-op that he had a blood clot the size of a golf ball, which required two further operations. He fell silent as I placed the tea back on the stump. He stared into the distance and proceeded to tell that his daughter-in-law has just been admitted into hospital with a terminal illness.
Mike’s journey of loss began as an infant in the orphanage and his journey with crippling ailments began at 17 when he was hit by a car and diagnosed with osteoarthritis in the knees, a condition where the cartilage—the protective covering which stops the bones in the joint from rubbing together—wears away. By middle age he was going through a divorce and had amassed a number of diseases including pernicious anaemia, hypothyroidism, graves disease, high blood pressure, obesity and pneumococcal. In physical and emotional anguish, Mike fled to Mother Teresa’s missionary in Calcutta. When I asked ‘why?’ he told of children’s hospital for the terminally ill in the States. The hospital had adopted a holistic healing program—which uses similar principles of other healing fellowships and institutes like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Mother Teresa House—where the hospital’s practitioners encouraged the children to care for their peers in neighbouring dorms. What the medical practitioners observed, Mike said, was that by the kids helping others with their pain and fears, they were able to forget their own.
In 2005, Gary Green from the Orbost Men’s Shed organised a Conference to bring the 200 Sheds in Australia together to talk of a new wave of research into the holistic health advantages of the movement. In 2007 CatholicCare Newcastle and the Windale Shed published the results of the first shed survey. Question four of the survey asked ‘What are the main uses of your facility?’ 77.4% of sheds said companionship. The response showed that men throughout the country were in dying need of a community of mates. The movement spread, gaining the attention of Government bodies, Charities, Welfare organisations, Men's Health groups, and the media, so a handful of state representatives—Bill was WA’s—organised an unofficial peak body and, eventually, submitted a document to the senate to get some much needed financial support. After years of meetings via email and personally funded interstate trips, in 2010, the Federal Government took interest, realising Sheds’ knack for addressing men’s health and well-being and, through the Federal Department of Health, funded the movement from which the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) was born.
Mike walked 30–40 km a day, starting at 3am and retiring at 5pm. Because of tight dietary restrictions Mike subsisted on a vegetarian diet consisting of dried fruit and vegetables, nuts and protein powder. Despite enduring disabling knee pain each day, he assures that walking cures everything. “I prayed for help, used plenty of mantras, positive affirmations. You have to use the power of the mind. Once you get through the pain the endorphins from the walking make you happy,” he says. Mike set out raising money for arthritis research because in the world of crook knees one would think he’d be a celebrated paragon for researchers and sufferers. The arthritis foundation agreed to accept Mike’s charity, but to no further endorsements or support, which Mike would have been okay with if his donations bag wasn’t stolen by a mob in the deep north of WA. Devastated and desperate for support, he asked for a pay system that could carry out electronic transactions to which the arthritis foundation refused. Mike reassessed where he’d donate the collections and came to reflect on the shed’s men who’d supported him all along: Bill, Alan and the crowd of members who’d walked that first mile out of Freo with him.
Mike timed his arrival in Newcastle—he’d walked around 8000 km—with the 2016 Australian Men’s Shed Association convention. He’d been invited as a guest speaker and was asked to tell the story of his journey. The convention was filled with representatives and members from sheds—by this time, over 1000 sheds existed—all over Australia. On the podium, Mike said he was dedicating the walk to The Fremantle Men’s Shed Alma Street initiative, a 10 week recovery program that taught the patients at the mental health wing of Fremantle Hospital wood and metal working, which had been discontinued because nobody could fund it. In awe of Mike’s story, Brian Durrant, one of the conference attendees, offered to help. Brian tracked the rest of Mike’s walk with a GPS device which could pinpoint his whereabouts. The system was so accurate Mike often asked Brian “What colour underpants am I wearing today, Brian?”
Before Mike reached a town, Brian would organise the local Men’s Shed to provide accommodation and food which was a welcomed change from the rabbit food and spinifex beset ground Mike endured the first half of the journey. Bill said Brian was the reason Mike returned a couple of kilos heavier. “During the second half, he was doing it too easy,” Bill laughed.
“I was just amazed that a bloke at his age with crook knees was taking on a task like this with no support. I could not let him go any further without some sort of assistance,” Brian said.
To keep the sheds around Australia up to date, Brian would post a write-up on the AMSA website on how Mike was travelling, which quickly amassed a national following. Bill says Mike was a thread tying a country of like thinkers together.
“The generosity of the people was amazing,” Mike said.
A club of men—whose motto is ‘Growing Old is Graceful’—rode on motorbikes out to the desert savannah to give Mike a solar panel to charge the very few electronic necessities he had. In Wollongong he was also reunited with his old dance and poetry teacher which he hadn’t seen for 35 years and was invited to join the festival of choirs to participate in his other favourite pastime: singing.
Mike later appointed Brian as his guardian angel, but by the time I called Brian he refuted, saying he’d been promoted to archangel.
When Mike, after two years and 16600 km, returned to Fremantle he become one of only five people to have ever walked unaided around the country, and certainly the oldest. I caught up with Mike, 3 years after our first chat, so I could hear the rest of the journey. He divulged snippets of time on the road, the people he met, and the challenges he encountered, the hardest being his step-daughter’s death, but I always got the sense that he was only covering a fraction of what happened, of what he went through, but Mike’s reserved nature seem to demonstrate a certain acceptance to life’s inevitables losses. Mike says that although he wanted to dedicate the walk to others in need, he embarked on the journey to save himself. In a life inflicted by severe arthritis, Mike has been introduced to all the supposed ‘cures’, but he says through all his years walking the only real cure is learning to live with the pain. He jokingly attributes his optimism to suffering to his Catholic upbringing. “Whenever there’s suffering there’s always something beneficial that goes with it,” he says.
“Like Saint John of the Cross. He wrote so much beautiful poetry out of that suffering.”
The walk, he says, was his forty days in the desert.