Day 125: Lavington, NSW to Collendina State Forest - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 29, 2014

Day 125: Lavington, NSW to Collendina State Forest

The streets of Albury stay empty even though it's Monday, because Australians take their holiday time off from work almost as seriously as they take wearing short-shorts with black socks. We ride all alone down four-lane avenues on the way into the city, then take the empty streets of downtown past banks and clothing boutiques and Brazilian wax salons that are all hours away from keeping Albury's citizens solvent, well dressed, and free of razor burn in those sensitive areas. Beyond the suburbs we travel above the banks of the Murray River and alongside the ponds and marshes that fill the gaps in the lowlands that crowd close to it.

Heart 0 Comment 0

The Murray is one of Australia's great rivers, kind of like the Mississippi in America. It stretches over 1,500 miles and goes all the way from Australian Alps in the east to Lake Alexandrina near Adelaide, and it's a critical part of what allows agriculture to exist in this hot and dry place. But like the Mississippi, the roads that parallel the river don't run next to it, because if they did they'd end up under water every time the river floods. Instead they travel over rolling hills, which means you'll only notice the thing when you cross over it on a bridge or roll into a town perched above its shore.

The only way we know for sure that we're close to the river at all is the band of green that stays half a mile distant off to our left throughout the morning as we ride on the shoulder of the highway, passing over Dead Man's Creek and then a dozen others, almost always boxed in by the invasive Chilean needle grass that grows yellow and brittle and in incredible volumes. The roar of a heavy breeze thunders across our ears as it speeds toward points south and west, and we look out of millions of young stalks of golden wheat that all stand at an identical height, making the fields look as if they've been groomed by the world's largest set of hair clippers. When we spot the tangled, decaying mess of a kangaroo that stretches across the width of the shoulder up ahead, we each draw in the biggest breath we can and hold it until we're at least a hundred feet past the surrounding halo of stink and flies.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

We see the Murray for eight seconds as we make our first state line crossing in Australia and pedal into Victoria. As soon as we hang a right and start heading to the west the complexion of the day changes in a serious way. We ride past an olive orchard a few wineries, and thousands of acres of parched grasslands, but we hardly notice them. That's because the wind blows at twenty-five miles per hour with gusts up toward forty. What was a calm and pleasant day only an hour before is now dominated by the sounds of the leaves and branches of the trees stretching out toward the southeast as far as they can go, then whipping back to the northwest for a moment before being pummeled in the other direction in a boxing match where there are no rounds, no bell, and no referee to step in and call an end to an unfair fight.

Heart 0 Comment 0
Heart 0 Comment 0

The wind blows so strong on our right-front quarter that several times it pushes me off the pavement and into the thick layer of gravel that covers the shoulder, where I scramble with legs spread and hands death-gripping the brakes to keep from dumping everything I own into the ditch. It's so strong that we don't ride upright but at a ten-degree angle toward the right, crabbed into the gusts in a futile attempt to travel in a straight line. It's so strong that tiny tumbleweeds appear as if from nowhere and lodge themselves in the spokes of my front wheel, going click click click until I stop and pull them out

Heart 0 Comment 0

Wind blown bits of grass and dirt and stream across the sky, and at one point a short stub of a tree branch slams into the side of Kristen's head below the helmet line, leaving her eat sore and ringing. Bugs and grit and maybe airborne clods of cow shit deflect of my legs, jam themselves into the corners of my eyes, and coat my face in a fine layer of brown. We manage to miss the bluish-white bolts of lightning that slash their way down toward the ground in the fields we rode past only ten minutes earlier, although not long after that we notice the smell of a distant bush fire starting to fill the air.

Heart 0 Comment 0

But there's nowhere to get a break from it, nowhere to hide. The only thing we can do is keep cranking along at five miles per hour until the shit dies down or the next town comes into view over the horizon or around the bend. It's a lot of looking down at the five feet of road in front of our tires, turning our faces to the left to shield them from whatever's shooting across the sky, and trying to reconcile how long ago we thought we'd be in town for lunch against how much longer it's still going to take us to get there.

Heart 0 Comment 0

Our bodies need a break by the time we cross back over the Murray into New South Wales and reach Corowa in the middle of the afternoon. We see a place on the town's main drag that advertises the unusual combination of pizza, DVDs, and a juice bar, which seems dubious but also somehow perfect, because I want pizza and Kristen wants a smoothie. But when we walk in there's no juice on the menu, no juice in the fridge, and we're told that they don't start making pizzas for another three hours. All they do inside this expensive storefront is carefully clean the coffee machine with one of those brushes that police investigators use to lift fingerprints from crime scenes and rent DVDs to no one at all.

Heart 0 Comment 0

We head over to the bakery across the street, where there aren't pizza slices or smoothies, but there are sausage rolls and cans of Coke so at least I'm happy. We plan to settle in there for a few hours to rest up and clear our minds, but not twenty minutes after we sit down three employees start to wipe off the counters and tables, stack the chairs that had been arranged on the street out front, and look at us with expressions on their faces that say, You're getting the fuck out of here now, right? This seems strange, because the place doesn't close for two hours, and the glass cases are still filled with pies and cookies and tortes. But as hungry people walk past instead of stopping we realize an important fact: no one in Corowa sells food; they just clean the areas where food should reasonably go.

The strange behavior parallels the strange mix of people that walk the town streets. There are vacationing families with little children, twenty-year-old bros with backward baseball hats, their bleach-blonde-haired and day-drunk girlfriends, a heavyset older woman with a cigarette in one hand and a chocolate milkshake in the other, and white-haired men in polo shirts with beer guts so substantial that the bottom third of their shirts cover the paunch only in the draping manner of a tablecloth. Corowa had the look and feel of small-town Australia from the seat of the bikes on the ride in, but the image fades with every passing minute.

Heart 0 Comment 0

As we pedal over to the old standby, McDonalds, a taxi backs out of a parking spot and into the bike lane in which I'm riding, coming to a stop just a few feet before running into me. But rather than pull back in and let me pass, he idles and waits for me to ride around or walk away or maybe start singing Phil Collins songs; I don't know. Having grown tired of Corowa by this point, I stand over the bike staring at him, unmoving, content to block him in until he moves his ugly Ford sedan out of the lane I have the right to ride in so that I can buy a damned milkshake.

I drink said milkshake while a group of six teenage girls who are on holiday with their families at the nearby river sit at a big table behind us. They talk about how it's not that big of a deal to drop out of high school because it's not that important, because you can totally get a good job without a degree, because they know one woman who managed to do it. After that it's on to the finer points of shaving their leg hair. Then they have more trouble than they should in trying to figure out how much older a twenty-five-year-old is than a sixteen-year-old, which seems like reason enough for them to reconsider their desire to drop out of school. As this goes on, a woman with a cone of soft serve ice cream in each hand walks outside and sits at a table on the covered patio. She eats one herself, then holds the other in front of her dog's face while the dog licks it up in about eight seconds. At the adjacent table, a group of six fifteen-year-old dudes tear through paper and plastic bags filled with horrible processed food and make disparaging comments about the traditionally dressed Indian women who walk past their table to enter the restaurant. When the future world leaders have finished stuffing their faces, they just leave the burger boxes and french fry pockets and drink cups spread all over the table, where the trash blows onto the ground and then inches its way toward an escape out into the parking lot.

Heart 0 Comment 0

It's with great relief that we leave the awfulness of Corowa behind three hours after rolling into town. Yet we find that the wind hasn't calmed at all, and we pedal up subtle rises at four miles per hour in our small chain rings. We don't have it in us to battle it for the four or five hours it would take us to reach the next town, nor the desire to ride under the cover of darkness that would go along with it. But luckily, where the patron saint of adequate dining experiences failed us, the patron saint of awesome free camping has clocked in and is on the job. Not far down the road we pull off into a state forest and within minutes find ourselves setting up the tent at the edge of a small bank that looks down on the Murray River.

Heart 0 Comment 0

As our bikes lay on their sides in the waist-high yellow grass, thirty to forty cockatoos screech and squawk and squeal in the trees, where the branches creak under the load of wind that refuses to die. When night starts to descend, mosquitoes big enough to carry off a Buick begin landing on the mesh of the tent, and every five minutes when I look up I see half a dozen more. The air is clear and fresh, there isn't another person in sight, and the tension left over from the day fades as we stare up into the branches of the gum trees and marvel at the wonderful place we just so happened to have ended up. By the time we say goodnight to each other, the ugliness of Corowa and the difficult ride that brought us there have become nothing more than blurred memories.

Today's ride: 46 miles (74 km)
Total: 3,776 miles (6,077 km)

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