Day 132: Ararat Regional Park to Wannon Crossing Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 5, 2015

Day 132: Ararat Regional Park to Wannon Crossing Campground

No danger of heat stroke this morning. We ride up steep hills and fly down the other side over and over again, all the time wishing we hadn't shipped our gloves back to America just before we left New Zealand. The strong south wind is already out in force by 8:00 and we don't even ride a mile before our fingers turn numb and it takes twice as long to open a fist as it should. It's not like New Zealand, where we'd buy bread just so that we could use the bags to wrap around our toes to keep them from freezing, but it's still a cold-ass morning for this part of the world.

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But we're lucky that we have the chance to ride here at all. Last week the road we're riding on was closed, because the fields and trees on both sides of it were on fire. It left the air thick with the smell of charred eucalyptus, turned the soil a mix of red dirt and gray ash, and we can only identify the street signs by shape because the flames have covered them in a layer of black char. To get a sense of the fire's intensity all we have to do is look at the jacket of black that climbs fifteen to twenty feet up and around the trunk of every tree.

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For some reason I start thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail back home in the States, which leads me to ask Kristen what trail name her brother-in-law was given when he hiked it a few years ago (Scout, she later remembers). I decide that if we ever hike the PCT I hope that I'm given the trail name Starfighter 3000, and that Kristen becomes Scofflaw. As this brilliant conversation goes on, kangaroos bound out from over the barrier at the edge of the road a hundred feet in front of us, then hop across the highway and leap over the fence beyond it like some kind of circus act before disappearing into the trees.

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Hall's Gap is more of a circus sideshow. We know it's going to be bad when we pass a small zoo a few miles out of town, when traffic increases by a factor of ten, and when we start to see masses of rented camper vans like what we experience on the South Island of New Zealand. The feeling is confirmed within five minutes of rolling into the center of town. We walk out of the grocery store bitching about how every item costs twice as much as it should only to bump into a large family bitching about how they can't find any ice cream shops open yet. Soon everyone is distracted by the brigade of rented mopeds that rolls five deep down the shared walking and biking path and almost runs over a middle-aged guy, who shouts at them in anger as they wobble their way toward some tourist trap that, let's be honest, is probably going to be disappointing.

Small children run out into the middle of the highway to the horror of their parents. Distracted old women with horrible hairstyles wander slowly into the middle of the highway to the horror of their confused husbands. Pairs of ducks with fuzzy brown heads wander down the sidewalk looking for the next sucker who will feed them potato chips or French fries or some other kind of garbage they haven't evolved to eat. And then, having not found it, they too wander across the highway oblivious to the overloaded SUVs and minivans bearing down on them. When they make it to the other side, a group of bored middle schoolers are ready to block their path and chase them around and try to pick them up.

We're thinking of getting one of these for our six-month ride around America.
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Hall's Gap is like a giant dingleberry hanging off the ass of Grampians National Park. And it exists in this way because as modern humans we seem to be incapable of experiencing the beauty and wonder of nature unless every comfort of civilization and a bunch of inane novelties none of us really need are no more than an hour's drive away.

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It's a shame, because once we've passed by the parade of lumpy and underwhelmed tourists on mopeds returning from mini-golf — as they honk their horns and skid off the pavement and forever perch half a second away from an accident that will cause them permanent paralysis — the national park is a wonderful place to be on this mild summer afternoon. The clouds have parked themselves off in the distance, leaving us to ride in the shadows of hundred-foot-tall gum trees that lean at a subtle angle toward the road. And because almost everyone in this part of the region has parked their ass in Hall's Gap for the rest of the day in front of a TV or air conditioner or overpriced pastry we have the highway almost entirely to ourselves.

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Do not pet emus and kangaroos simultaneously.
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We ride with kookaburras hooting in the trees, but almost as soon as we notice their calls we find we're able to focus on nothing else but the impossibly terrible stench of a dead emu rotting just off the edge of the road, which carries with it a smell so visceral and powerful that we almost puke on the spot. As we pull out of near-unconsciousness I stare off into native forest and bush so thick that anything sitting more than fifty feet back from the pavement remains hidden from view. It makes me wonder about what other unique and interesting and possibly deadly plants and animals and insects might live and thrive out there, and out in the thousands of acres of land beyond where no human footstep has ever fallen.

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Although it's hard to tell with all of the tree cover, we know we're riding through a valley between two lines of sandstone mountains, and when gaps in the forest appear we have a chance to look up at their jagged, near-vertical peaks. Grampians doesn't hit you over the head with unforgettable vistas and waterfalls and glaciers like so many national parks in America, but the fact that such untouched country can be enjoyed without the worry of being smacked in back of a helmet by an RV mirror because the driver thought he might have seen a buffalo somewhere over there gives the place a charm all its own. And so we do our best to lean back, ignore all of the numbers on the screen of the cycling computer, and ride without any concern for where we're going or how fast we're traveling.

It's tremendous. At many points we stop and find ourselves alone with no sound other than a single songbird and the light hiss of eucalyptus leaves fidgeting on an even lighter breeze. It's a world more lush and green than anything we've seen in weeks, and we're not sure when we might see such a place again. Most of the cars go by us at high speed, bound for whatever destination has been entered into the GPS unit next to the dashboard or attached to the window with a suction cup, but the two of us are content to be exactly here.

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With a cheeky wallaby munching on the grass behind us, we take a break at a picnic table and stuff our faces with carrots and granola bars and tortillas filled with peanut butter and blackberry jam, then drink water by the gallon. We've already become tired of both of these things, but because we're now riding a lot of miles consistently, and doing it in hot and dry weather, our lives have turned into an endless saga of eating and drinking and all of the bodily functions and noises that follow along from that. When our slow road finally reaches its end there are many things we will miss, but the constant need to watch for grocery stores and water taps and toilets will be far down that list, somewhere after horrendous tan lines, choking on inhaled flies, and dodging hairy shirtless Germans in the hallways of every hostel we stay in.

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Not long after we roll into a campground in the early evening, we watch a dad and his two teenage sons chop wood and start to build a fire, even though it's only 5:30 and the sun still shines down on them direct and hot.

"Maybe they're going to cook on it," Kristen says.

But when we look over ten minutes later they're all sitting around the thing in camp chairs, staring into the flame, not talking to each other, trying to remember why they thought going camping was a good idea in the first place. Five minutes after that they're up from the chairs, chopping still more wood.

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Soon the sounds of screaming children, slamming car doors, battery-powered air mattress pumps, and radio broadcasts played at the volume of a bullhorn all blend into one undifferentiated mass. At the far end of the campground, set away from the ruckus, we slow dance our way through a relaxing evening with nowhere to go and nothing to do but read or write or stare up through the mesh of the tent and into the complex network of branches that form intricate patterns against a clear blue background, still content to be exactly here.

Today's ride: 51 miles (82 km)
Total: 4,159 miles (6,693 km)

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