Day 121: The Rock Nature Reserve to near Walla Walla, NSW - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 25, 2014

Day 121: The Rock Nature Reserve to near Walla Walla, NSW

A few minutes after I wake up, I check my email and find a message from one of the followers of this journal:

Jeff,

I've just finished making a three-ring binder "book" of the text of your current trip. It'll be my Christmas present this year to a friend of mine who has MS to the point he can't use a computer. A few years ago I provided him day-to-day print-outs of Between the Ends of America. He had a serious accident during that time, and your adventures were the main topic of conversations during his recovery. Since then, he's been so-so on books I've purchased for him, but this year I know I have a winner! Thanks for sharing your story.

Wishing you and Kristen ongoing safe travels and happy times.

A wide smile spreads across my face as I turn my head to the side and run my fingers through my hair. Then I turn right away toward Kristen and read her the message, and in an instant the tent fills with the warm and satisfying feelings of Christmas morning. It might be the best gift I've ever received.

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A black wallaby hops across the dirt and gravel path in front of us as we head back to the road, but after that we ride only among the birds chirping in the trees and and the flies buzzing around our heads. We pass by rail line towns with names like Tootool and French Park whose best days have long since passed, and are now little more than a cluster of three or four homes and the remains of an old train platform. It's so quiet and undisturbed on this early Christmas morning that we spot a pair of foxes sleeping on top of hay bales near the fence line, who only spring to life and shoot off into the brush when they hear the clunk of a gear change as we ride past.

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When we break away from the trees and gain a broader view out toward the north and the east we see rain falling to the earth from the clouds in dark gray bands that lean to the right at a thirty-degree angle. Yet where we are the roads stay dry, and at least once every half an hour one of us starts talking unprompted about how much we love those clouds for shading us from the sun and giving us the gift of perfect riding conditions.

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When at last the clouds lose their ability to hold back the rain, they start to spit cool drops on our bare arms and the air fills with the competing smells of eucalyptus and petrichor. But in the warmth of the summer a shower isn't reason enough to put on rain jackets or even to slow down, so we keep cranking. We spend an hour trying to figure out our favorite songs of the year 2014, talking in terrible Texas accents, and spitting for distance as the boom of distant thunder rolls our direction from the wall of darkness that builds in the skies behind us.

We read Christmas emails from friends and family aloud whenever we stop. It's the most personal, visceral reminder so far that the holiday traditions are continuing on back home as always, except that this time we're not there to experience or influence or remember them. The thing that saves us from feeling too sad or homesick at the thought of it all is the fact that we're so happy to be riding all alone out in rural Australia, in a place we never expected we'd travel, and where we'll probably never have the chance to travel again. Christmas of 2014, with its kangaroos and gum trees and billabongs, will forever stand in stark relief when compared to all of the holidays that came before and all of those that will come after.

Soon we stop less and less, because soon the thunderstorm begins to rumble with greater intensity. When the rain starts to fall like it means it, we scan both sides of the road and the fields beyond for places we might be able to take shelter. We consider hiding under raised water tanks, beneath the awnings of hay lofts, under the cover of a carport that's blocked by a closed gate, and almost hop off the bikes to check and see if the door of a nearby earthmoving machine has been left unlocked. Yet every time we find a place that will work, we pause for a moment and look around and notice that the rain has eased, and that there's no longer any point in stopping. This happens half a dozen times as we always manage to stay even with or just ahead of the leading edge of the storm, becoming wet but never soaked.

Don't stop.
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Still we decide to divert from our planned route and seek shelter in the town of Henty. This proves to be the right call, because as we roll past the show grounds and the cricket oval at the far edge of town the sky splits a seam and rain starts to pool and puddle in every low spot of the street within ninety seconds. We pedal as hard as we can, and within moments round a corner, head down the main street of town where every building is closed for the holiday, and then dive beneath the awning in front of the grocery store.

We sit on the bench in front of the store, eat a pot full of canned beans and corn, and watch the locals driving home from Christmas morning or heading off to Christmas lunch or dinner somewhere farther down the road. It must look a sad scene, the two of us sitting shoulder to shoulder on the bench eating from a three-quarter-ounce metal pot with one shared spoon on this holiday that's so focused on time spent with the family, because soon a local cyclist shows up and hands us a plastic tray filled with four pieces of Christmas cake and a couple of those crinkly packets of energy gel that the roadies love so much. Half an hour later a small silver truck pulls up with the window down, and the man inside starts talking to Kristen.

"How ya goin'?" he asks.

"Good, just trying to call my family," Kristen says.

"Do you need anything, like food or dinner?"

"No, it's okay, we've got provisions."

"Well, I hate to see people traveling and without some place to go on Christmas. You're welcome to come to my house. I've got my son and daughter-in-law there and we're going to have lunch if you're interested."

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We are, and that's how we meet Russell, his wife Lynn, their son Chris, their daughter-in-law Nicki, three of their five grandchildren, and one soccer-playing Collie dog. We learn about the family and about the town of Henty as we power through ham and turkey and yams left over from a Christmas lunch that just ended.

"There used to be four banks, two grocery stores, and a Telstra office," Russell tells us. "There were farms all over, and each one had, you know, ten or twelve workers, so it was a big town and there were a lot of services to support those people. Now we're down to one bank and one store. The farming's all automated. There are only about a thousand people left, and most of them commute seventy k's to Albury or Wagga."

"Kick the ball. Kick it. Kick it. Kickitkickitkickit!"
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After dessert we head out to the back yard and Russell's garage, which is far bigger than his house. Inside he shows us and then starts up his 1929 Dennis fire engine, of which only seventeen were made and just four still exist. As he explains how he restored the thing and how he still drives it around from time to time, the grandkids scream and shriek and run around the house and the yard, the dogs run and bark and nip at each other, and we feel like the Christmas spirit is alive and well. Not alive and well in the everything-is-wonderful, made-for-TV family special kind of way, but in the imperfect and awkward way that's the stuff of real-life Christmas. Like how Russell's grandson pulls a wad of spit-covered green and red M&Ms out of his mouth and places them back in the bowl with all of the others at the center of the table, how Lynn makes fun of Kristen's American accent, how Chris is in a foul mood and looks like he can't wait for the day to end, and how everyone rushes around to get ready to head off to dinner at the home of another branch of the family, because if you aren't commuting you aren't really celebrating Christmas.

It's one of those interesting, memorable, kind of weird experiences that always seem to find us on the road. And if the thunderstorm hadn’t forced us to change our plans and ride to Henty instead of continuing straight south, we would have missed all of it.

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Full on food but also nostalgic for the holidays back home, we set out again in the late afternoon. It feels like we've been dropped into a different day or week or month. The gray and rain and cool of the morning are gone, and in their place it's all blue skies, high clouds, dry air, and the kind of unflinching sunshine that stands ready to turn any exposed patch of skin into a dark red array of blisters. Our freehubs click and whirl as we ride next to fields where the wheat and hay have already been cut for the year, which leaves them looking sparse and harsh and uninviting. From what we know and what we've been told of the country that lies ahead of us, the next few weeks of our lives are going to include a lot of the same.

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This means there's no need to rush, so we don't. With heat and headwind and rolling hills working against us, we give in and ride slow. On a tip from Russell, when we reach Billabong Creek we look for a side road that leads down toward the water's edge. The empty beer bottles, the mounds of household garbage, and the long-dead sheep that we pass on the gravel and dirt track that takes us there don't give us the most optimistic feeling, but we decide to stay patient. In the end we find a flat spot perched above a bend in the creek, and there we settle in for a Christmas dinner of crackers and untoasted crumpets with peanut butter and blackberry jam among the trees and the animals and the bugs.

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Within an hour of the sun setting, the moon has taken its place in the northwest sky. Every two seconds an insect lands on the surface of the creek, and the impact sends out a concentric ring of little waves that soon bump up against the rings created by all of the other insects. Crickets and cicadas and kookaburras compete for our attention with their calls, but the trickling of the water over a cross of trees that have fallen into the creek distracts us toward sleep instead. Even though we've had all day to come to terms with the fact that this was Christmas Day, we never reach the point where our brains can acknowledge it as the truth.

Today's ride: 61 miles (98 km)
Total: 3,694 miles (5,945 km)

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