Day 131: Maryborough, VIC to Ararat Regional Park - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 4, 2015

Day 131: Maryborough, VIC to Ararat Regional Park

One day later, everything has changed. We can't see the sunrise because it's blocked out by a thick cover of gray overcast. It's cold enough that we think about riding away from Maryborough in our rain jackets. And the wind that stormed down with such intensity from the north all day yesterday now comes straight up from the south and tries to blow us all the way back into town. Within the hour it starts to rain a little. It's hard to believe it's still summer in Australia.

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"I have some important things I need to tell you," I say to Kristen as we crank slowly into the headwind.

She slows and I pull alongside her.

"I'm a steady hand. I'm a Dodgers fan. I'm a leading brand. I'm a one night stand. I'm a ladies ... man."

And then I slip back behind, happy and satisfied with the knowledge that the song will now be stuck on both of our heads for the rest of the day.

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The winding road to Lexton takes us past old churches, short golf courses that have been dead for years, and dark gray wallabies and tan-colored kangaroos that hop in stride with us along the fence line until they find a gap that lets them shoot out into the fields beyond. We feel the dull ache in our knees continue to grow as we push harder than we should against heavy headwinds and dozens of rolling hills, and then feel the dull ache in our hearts continue to grow as we lament the fact that we aren't riding through the town of Bung Bong.

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The endless charm of rural Australian police stations.
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Cockatoos screech in the branches of gum trees directly above our heads and we ride past a number of abandoned three-room farmhouses where the wood siding has rippled and separated and the sheet metal on the roof has rusted after several decades of disuse. Most of the homes where people still live have dogs that start to bark like mad as soon as they see our furiously pumping legs coming. Just as many houses out here have dogs hanging around outside of them as they do back in rural America, but here every dog either lays in a kennel or roams around a yard where all of the gates have been shut. When we think back on it, we realize that we haven't been chased by a dog since we traveled through Central California more than three months ago. As if the wonderful back roads and friendly people and abundant free camping weren't enough, Australia has taken away the need to worry about being mauled by the kind of angry, unloved, underfed pit bull that rural Americans are so fond of.

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We enjoy easy riding under clear skies and with a cool breeze on one of those wonderful back roads on the way to Beaufort. The town isn't much to get excited about, but our expectations weren't that high to begin with, given that the slogan on the sign that welcomes visitors proudly describes it as, "The last highway town before Melbourne.” It's not much more than a stopover point, a place where people pull off the road for ten minutes to lay some cable, to pinch a loaf, to squeeze out a Cleveland steamer. It's also a place of gas station fried chicken, overpriced bakeries, children who have almost turned catatonic from four straight hours of staring out the window at rural Australia, and people who turn parallel parking into an elaborate dance of three dozen separate movements but still end up with at least one tire sitting on top of the curb.

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We escape as soon as lunch has halfway digested, heading down back roads where small gum trees have been planted in precise rows to help extract eucalyptus oil, and where in one of the paddocks our eyes catch on the flat white reflection of the rib cage of a sheep that died long ago. We also wave to the volunteer firefighters who spend their Sunday afternoon washing and waxing and polishing the massive red truck that sits inside the single-garage rural fire station that's miles from the closest house. It's the middle of the day, with no clouds to block out the sun, no trees to provide shade, and yet it's pleasant riding all the way. Given the extreme heat of the past few afternoons it feels like a rare and precious gift that we have to make the most of.

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Farther on the wind shifts from the south to the southeast, which happens around the time we make a hard right turn and start to head west. We fly down a smooth one-lane paved road in the partial shade of short gum trees, with wallabies hopping in the underbrush, and our first views of the Grampians Mountains coming into view when we reach the top of a rise and descend into the valley beyond.

But mostly it's wide open fields with nowhere to stop and no one to talk to except for the sheep, so we pedal hard and listen to the sound of the dry grass being dragged backward on the breeze. Cranking in the big chain ring at sixteen to twenty miles per hour and watching the road speed past in a blur as it falls under our wheels, it feels like we're really doing it, like we're actually charging across a continent, and that if we just keep working hard we're going to come out at the Indian Ocean on the other side. It makes us feel proud and confident and comes with a unique sense of satisfaction that we haven't felt at any other point on this adventure.

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We push into Ararat looking for pizza as a reward for the biggest day of riding we've had since we started this trip more than four months ago. After we find it, we eat while sitting on a bench a few doors down from the pizza shop, where we chat with an old timer. When we tell him that we're going to be crossing the Nullarbor on our way to Perth, his reaction isn't one of shock or horror or an attempt to convince us of what a terrible idea, like we hear most every day now. Instead he thinks about it for a moment, staring off at nothing in particular on the wall in front of us. Then he turns his head back toward Kristen and me and says, "Well good on ya. That's gonna be a wonderful adventure."

The glint in his eyes tells us that it isn't some reflexive response or pleasantry. He's driven that highway before; he told us as much. He knows what's out there. And something about the look on his face suggests that in the beat of silence that passed before he opened his mouth, he was imagining what riding across that wide open stretch of Australia on a bicycle might look and feel like, with a younger version of himself charging across the treeless plain instead of us.

In so doing, he also confirms what's become a new-found truth: anyone who doesn't say something negative about us riding across all of Australia in the middle of the summer immediately becomes our friend. And as if encouraging words from friendly old men weren't enough, Ararat also has one of those weird automated toilets that start to play Burt Bacharach songs as soon as the sliding door latches itself shut. What a place!

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With grease and soda blazing a trail through our insides we push out of town on tired legs toward a patch of forest four miles down the highway and another mile up a side road of soft reddish dirt and horrible washboard. My reward for the longest day of riding since we left Portland is a flat front tire — which for an added bonus I manage to shred some of the rubber off the bead of when I try to remove it from the rim — and noticing that a nut and bolt and spacer from the front rack have disappeared somewhere along the way in the last few days. I hope that a new tube, three tube patches to cover the exposed bead, and a zip tie for the rack will be enough to keep my decaying bike going at least to Adelaide without a major problem.

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But I'll deal with that stuff as it comes. Tonight I'm happy with how far we made it today and how much beautiful countryside we saw along the way. I'm content to listen to the creak of gum tree branches and the squawk of cockatoos that will carry us off to sleep under the brilliant light of a perfectly full moon. And I'm happy that I get to share all of it with someone as wonderful as Kristen, who continues to show the ability to appreciate all of it even more than I do.

Today's ride: 84 miles (135 km)
Total: 4,108 miles (6,611 km)

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