Day 120: Forest Hill, NSW to The Rock Nature Reserve - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 24, 2014

Day 120: Forest Hill, NSW to The Rock Nature Reserve

The drug dealer that lives in the tourist park has already served two drive-up customers by the time we wedge ourselves out of the sleeping bag at 5:30. The third rolls in as we're wheeling the bikes out to the driveway at 6:15 and honks the horn of his Ford SUV when he rolls up to the front door, which somehow manages to make the thing that everyone knows is already going on even more obvious.

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The sky to the west remains gray, but the sun shines bright and hot as it rises in the sky behind us and reflects off the chrome bumpers of the utes headed in the opposite direction. The air is thick with humidity and the grass is almost entirely yellow. We pass horses in jackets that chew on low-hanging tree branches, the pavement goes from smooth to rough and then back again every hundred feet, and the streets all run parallel or perpendicular to each other. If you switched the gum trees to oaks and moved the street signs over to the other side of the road, it's easy to imagine that we're riding in Indiana or Illinois instead of the countryside just outside Wagga Wagga.

Hand farting to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
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We spend almost three hours in the tiny town of Uranquinty so that I can prepare for and then call into a meeting taking place back in Seattle. It's a strange feeling, knowing that for everyone on the other end it's their last item of business before walking out into the cold and rain, heading home for the holiday break, and not returning until January. It's just as strange when Kristen receives text messages from her family as they drive across the Midwest visiting one set of relatives after the next. It feels that way in part because we're far away from home and the people we know and love. But more than that it's because we're in a place with the climate of a desert, traveling from small town to small town, insulated from the trees, the lights, the advertisements, the fake snow, and the twenty-four-hour Christmas carol-playing radio stations. It turns out that when all of the context around a culturally significant day doesn't exist, that day becomes just like the days that came before and those that come after — which is to say that today is different but still wonderful, because today we're still riding across Australia on bicycles.

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In desperate need of an energy-boosting scroggin.
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It's a straight shot down the highway from Uranquinty to the next town, but there's no great joy in traveling with garbage trucks and RVs and people rushing to get to Christmas Eve dinner at grandma's house 300 miles away when you don't have to, so instead we stick to the back roads. Rather than watch our mirrors and consider the odds that our imminent death is rolling toward us at 120 kilometers per hour, we cycle free and easy down a one-lane paved road where the edges run chunky and jagged like torn paper as the prairie tries bit by bit to reclaim the land that man has tried to harness. When we stop to rest, we don't hear engines or tires or rattling truck beds, only the wind making the long strands of wheat grass sing and dance on the gusts. Waves of heat rise up from the land and turn the outlines of the distant barns and hay lofts fluid and soft. Sheep and cows lay next to each other in big piles beneath the shade of broad-branched gum trees, content to watch us pass instead of running away because it's too hot to make that seem like a good idea.

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The landscape stays modest. We aren't surrounded by the magnificence of New Zealand's Southern Alps, looking out over waves as they burst ashore onto the California Coast, or watching the sky turn a thousand shades of purple as the sun sets behind the Rockies. But there's nothing wrong with it, because if that's the level of brilliance it took for us to appreciate the detail and character of the world around us, so much of it would become a disappointment by default. Instead, we look out on a simple, uncomplicated sort of beauty, and feel happy to be right where we are.

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In the early afternoon we roll into The Rock, named with a total lack of creativity after the pointy little mountain in the distance, which is also the only mountain in the distance around here. Because it's Christmas Eve, the only place besides the grocery store that's open is the butcher shop. The two cafes, the car and tractor repair shops, the gas station, and the doctor's office are all closed. The dozen other storefronts on the main road through town look like they've been closed for years and maybe decades.

As I sit on a bench in front of the store and eat Tim Tams at an appalling rate, a skinny guy in his late thirties wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with shades and a baseball cap and a mouth where no one tooth lines up with another walks up.

"How ya goin mate?"

"Not bad at all, thanks."

"Where ya headed?"

"Well, Perth eventually." He stops, turns his head to the side, gives me a surprised look, then steps forward and places the open palm of his right hand on my forehead.

"Ya feelin' alright mate?"

We talk for a few minutes about weather and distances and where Kristen and I are from, and then he wishes us well and heads in through the double swinging front doors. When he walks back out again, he stops and shakes my hand.

"Best of luck to ya and Merry Chrizzy," he says as he walks back toward home.

That's The Rock for you. It's a small town, and one that's become a lot smaller since the days when most goods and most people traveled long distances by rail, and when most every building of consequence was made from brick. There are the remnants of an old bank building, the big two-story hotel that's been turned into apartments, and the broad greenway that separates east-west traffic on the main street empty only for us.

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But it's a good town that's clean and safe, where kids still ride their bikes on the street, and where every other vehicle that rolls through town is a white-colored ute with a metal flatbed bolted to the frame in the back. It's a place where the train between Sydney and Melbourne still stops, where the 860 people that live here seem to know each other, and where the doors of the church stay wide open all day long because there's no reason for them not to. And so we sit at a bench or lay in the shade of the trees in the greenway across from the grocery store for hours. We read and write, drink expensive cider and cheap champagne, and feel the sweat start to bead on our foreheads whenever we move any part of our bodies for longer than five seconds.

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When the heat starts to fade we head out of town, but make it no farther than a picnic area and parking lot at the foot of the trail that leads to the top of The Rock. With native forest surrounding us on all sides, we trade daylight for the tiniest sliver of moon and the black outlines of the trees set against the dark blue of the cloudless and star-scattered skies. We lay back on our sleeping pads and listen to the hyena-like hooting and howling of kookaburras, the rumble of passing trains, and the sounds of small somethings shuffling through the brush beyond the concrete pad on which the tent sits. It's a Christmas Eve night unlike anything either of us have ever experienced or could have expected.

Today's ride: 37 miles (60 km)
Total: 3,633 miles (5,847 km)

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