Day 119: Combaning State Conservation Area to Forest Hill, NSW - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 23, 2014

Day 119: Combaning State Conservation Area to Forest Hill, NSW

We pedal out of the forest to find skies textured in shades of light gray and the smell of fresh-fallen rain rising up from the pavement. There's not so much rain that puddles form in the low spots of the road, but still enough for me to see the reflection of the clouds and the blue sky patches in the wet, smooth surface of my front tire.

Heart 0 Comment 0

The big hills seem to be far behind us, and even the little rollers of last night are nowhere to be found. In any direction we look, what we see now are yellow grass and trees fading into one big mass that disappears at the horizon. With a tailwind coming down from the northeast we head along a back road that used to be two lanes wide, but so few cars now use it that when it was replaced they narrowed it to one. This morning we share it only with one car, one ute, one SUV, and one motorcycle.

Heart 0 Comment 0

After a week of waking up in the morning and feeling the heat subtly build with every passing minute, the cloud cover and the chill of the raindrops as they fall into our skin feel like wonderful gifts. Instead of hot sun on our backs, it's just the three or four flies that are always perched there, no matter where in this country we ride. We travel at a quick but easy pace, all the while talking with nostalgia and reverence of things like what we loved about living in Portland, the hidden wonderful parts of Florida, and how much we love our dogs.

Heart 0 Comment 0

As if we we're riding on the Great Plains, the grain silos next to the railroad line in the town of Junee appear miles before we actually roll into town. It's a place where most everyone seems to know each other, where the sidewalks of the main street are covered to provide shade from the sun, and where advertisements for Victoria Bitter beer have been hand-painted on the side of century old brick buildings. It's also a place where people stop to say hello and offer encouragement or directions or incredulous looks when we tell them we're headed to Perth on those two push bikes right there.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Junee would be a great place to escape the midday heat, but today we choose not to stick around. We know that at some point the cloud cover will burn off, and probably the tailwind too, and we'd like to be as far down the road south toward Wagga Wagga as we can by the time one or both of those things happen.

And so we bolt. We avoid the highway and travel along a road that parallels the gentle elevation changes of a railroad line, with the day feeling twenty or twenty-five degrees cooler than we thought it would, thanks to the clouds acting like a big gray bodyguards and standing between us and the blistering heat of the direct sun. Kristen sings out "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch," I cough up and then spit out flies that dart into my mouth whenever it hangs open for more than two seconds, and we watch a thunderstorm rumble and move across the countryside, where it approaches us, then surrounds us, then soaks us with rain and hail that start to pool on the highway within moments. This leads to uncontrollable laughter and causes the most profound looks of joy to stretch across our faces, because it's nothing like all of the thunderstorms we battled through in New Zealand, where the cold and the wet came together and made us want to curl up in the fetal position and cry underneath the nearest Podocarp tree.

Heart 0 Comment 0
A hundred feet before riding into a hail storm.
Heart 1 Comment 0

Farther on the shoulder disappears. This makes for stressful riding, but hey, at least we're not in China. At one point a locomotive coming up on the tracks from behind us blows its whistle for no reason other than trying to scare us, but hey, at least we're not in China. And we continue to try and sort out the problem of Kristen's front panniers jumping halfway off her racks whenever she hits a bump, but hey, at least we're not in China.

Heart 0 Comment 0
A boy and his bottles.
Heart 0 Comment 0

Despite that positive attitude, we're not quite prepared for what we find in the highway-side town of Forest Hill. We stop in the first RV park that we come to, which features a fallen-down playset, empty beer bottles on the porch tables, a half-dozen active electrical hazards, one functional toilet out of three in each bathroom, and dirt and leaves in the sink. Somehow dirt and leaves also made their way up into the paper towel dispenser, and they come shooting out in a little avalanche when I pull down on the first sheet of paper. There are spider webs spread across the shower doors, sad-looking cabins, and sadder-looking permanent travel trailers with sadder-looking permanent residents sitting on the uneven steps in front of them. The privilege of staying here costs twenty-eight dollars per night. The place runs on the honor system, because even the owners can't stand to hang around for a minute longer than they have to.

Heart 0 Comment 0
This is not ideal.
Heart 0 Comment 0
Nor this.
Heart 0 Comment 0

We head on to a second park a few blocks down the highway. No one's in the office there either, and the place is also filled with cheap cabins and permanently parked trailers. The bathrooms are locked, there aren't any showers, the kitchen is a slab of concrete with a roof and walls on two sides, all made of cheap sheet metal. The highway roars a hundred feet away. As we sit and consider the merits of the shithole spread out in front of us, gusts of wind sweep across the property and blow clouds of dirt across the uncomfortable wooden benches on which we sit.

Or this.
Heart 0 Comment 0
I don't even know what this is.
Heart 0 Comment 0

We head back to the first place. At the end of the driveway we notice a sign pointing out that the park has a two-star rating on a three-star scale.

"I'd hate to see what a one-star holiday park looks like," I tell Kristen.

"This is like a place where you go when your spouse kicks you out for drinking, and then you never leave," she responds.

"I put the over/under for drug deals here tonight at two."

When I go to use the bathroom, I step around two dozen nails sitting on the sidewalk that leads toward the door. Inside I see that the only roll of toilet paper sits on the counter next to the sinks, which are of course coated in a thick layer of dirt. When I go to reach for it, I notice a reddish-brown, finger-sized mark that's either blood or poop.

"How clean was the shower?" I ask when Kristen returns to the picnic table where our stuff has exploded from within the panniers.

"Well, it doesn't look like anyone committed a murder in there or anything, but I think you're more likely to get bit by a deadly spider in there than if you walked out into the outback."

Several cars enter this place they call a tourist park, do a loop around the driveway, take in the scene, and head right back out the way they came from. While I'm away buying food at the grocery store next door, a teenaged kid holding a skateboard walks to a trailer at the far edge of the grounds, knocks on the door, looks around anxiously, and then when the door opens buys a bag of weed or coke or whatever from the guy who lives inside. A heavyset man of about thirty who wears track pants and tennis shoes shows up and goes through the same process an hour later. Several others arrive and soon leave by car throughout the evening. The drug deal over/under comment turns out to have been spot on. It seems like we've been dropped into a world so far away from what Kristen and I know, from what our friends know, and from what our parents know.

Heart 0 Comment 0

But in reality we haven't. It's like my friend Scott so often says: there but for the grace of God go I. If a handful choices or external factors or twists of fate had fallen another way, we each could be in some place similar to this, with no path through which to get ourselves out. Instead we’re the lucky ones. We might be the luckiest ones, in fact. We're here for a day — not even a day, more like an evening, the night, and maybe half an hour in the morning. We'll come in, rest up, get out, and by the time we're fifteen miles down the road tomorrow we'll forget it even existed. But it does exist. And for the handful of people who call this place home every night, who piss in or on or near these toilets, and who wash themselves in these showers, it sits at the center of their existence. When I look at it that way, for us to complain about the shabby looking grounds or the broken appliances or the bathroom that doubles as a death trap seems arrogant and entitled and completely without sympathy for people who even at the most fortunate point in their lives might never be half as fortunate as we are now.

Heart 0 Comment 0

And by now I mean right now, this evening. We clean up and do laundry, then sit at the concrete picnic table and eat fresh cooked fish and chips. We read journals on expensive smart phones, and when we read about far-off places like France and Burma and the southern reaches of Argentina, we know that if we really want to go there, some day we can. We go to bed happy, healthy, and ready to leave this place at dawn and never again return.

Today's ride: 60 miles (97 km)
Total: 3,596 miles (5,787 km)

Rate this entry's writing Heart 2
Comment on this entry Comment 0