Day 145: Hamley Bridge, SA to Watervale, SA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 18, 2015

Day 145: Hamley Bridge, SA to Watervale, SA

We head back to the road before 6:30, all alone with no human sounds to be heard anywhere, not even the hum of truck tires on the small highways leading to or from town. The fields off to our left have just been plowed, so the ground there reflects reddish-brown where all of the others glow golden with wheat. The road rises and falls on gentle hills as we travel away from and then back toward small creeks. Kristen eats dry cereal from a box by tilting it back and pouring the flakes into her open mouth. It's an impressive morning all around.

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We ride slow, coasting through towns so small that their rail lines and general stores have both long since been abandoned, and where the sign announcing the name of the town lists its elevation along with the amount of rainfall it gets in an average year. We watch foxes and kangaroos charge away from the grass at the edge of the road and through the fields beyond after we startle them. In Tarlee we rest beneath the covered entryway to a closed cafe and look out on the white-colored grain elevators that tower over the town and all of the countryside beyond.

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I start to feel like I'm going to pass out on the way to Riverton, because our nearly empty food bags mean that I'm powered only by a granola bar, a handful of raisins, and a couple of those meat sticks that we were given a few days ago. But we make it to town, and when I see the red and white IGA grocery store logo appear on the side of a building I pump my fist in relief. But the joy is short-lived when we realize that it's closed on Sundays, and so is every other cafe and restaurant, even though Riverton sits on one of the region's major north-south highways and thousands of cars and trucks pass through every day. For that matter, every other business is closed too.

Continuing its trend of not caring at all about visitors, Riverton has exactly zero signs pointing toward the rail trail we intend to ride out of town, nor does it even mention the thing on the giant sign board that lists all of the bicycle trails and routes of the region. Nobody has laid out a strip of tacks to give us flat tires, and there's no one charged with actively trying to run us off the road, but if we stick around long enough I think we might find them.

This park was probably closed too.
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We finally run into the Rattler Trail a few miles out of town when it crosses the side road down which we're riding. Right away it takes us into a more peaceful world, where a narrow band of hard-packed fine gravel charges through the fields and paddocks instead of alongside them, and where we're far removed from the howl of traffic and the need to check our rear view mirrors every six seconds. Near the edge of a field we pass an apple tree that stands all on its own, one that probably came into being after a passenger on a long-ago train trip chucked an apple core from out the window as they passed by on their way to or from Adelaide.

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When we reach Auburn we enter the Clare Valley and the start of wine country. Along with that comes a world of tasting rooms and posh cafes, where the risk of crashing into a sign advertising a bed-and-breakfast is more or less constant. It's a place where there are more polo shirts than checkered work shirts, and more luxury sedans than Ford Ranger or Toyota Hilux utes. We also cross over from the Rattler Trail to the Riesling Trail, and only a few miles from town the paddocks and cows and sheep disappear. In their place we look out on a patchwork of vineyards that spread up and over most every acre of productive land, all in precise rows.

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At one point we round a corner and see two lines of bright green pine trees ahead, one on each side of the trail. Their branches arc overhead and provide wide blocks of shade, so we coast out of the sun and stop in the cool. The wind passes through the trees, creating the low-pitched whirling sound in the way only pine needles can, and helping stir up that sharp, woody smell that only pine needles have. In an instant the combination of those two things transports us back to our first few weeks on the road, where empty back roads through the national forests of Oregon and California sat at the center of our lives, and where every night we went to sleep surrounded by the pines while resting our heads on thick beds of their fallen needles. As we stand over the bikes with our eyes closed, cooled by the breeze, all alone on the trail, the presence of the pine trees stirs up strong emotions in each of us: first a deep reverence for the past, then following from that an appreciation for what's in front of us today, and finally excited anticipation for what's coming in the weeks and months and years ahead.

The trail beyond brings with it easy riding, gentle grades, no garbage, lizards scurrying across the face of cuts through sandstone, the shadows of hawks above crossing over the surface of the trail, and the subtle blur of heat waves at the horizon. All of it helps add to what was already a wonderful day to be cycling across Australia.

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I have it in my head that we're headed to the end of the trail and the town of Clare, where we'll be staying with a couple of Warm Showers hosts. But when we get there and look up the address of the house where we're supposed to be headed, I realize that our hosts actually live in Watervale, a town that we passed more than an hour ago. To get back there would take us somewhere closer to two hours, because we'd have to spend a lot of time pedaling uphill and against the wind during the hottest part of the afternoon. After pitching a bitch and berating myself for screwing up something that seemed so simple, I walk into a nearby patch of shade and call the phone number my hosts left for me in an email. When the woman at the other end answers, I'm taken back to the summer of 2011, to my four-month trip across America, to the Grant Village Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Back then I wrote:

An hour later I glance out the window and notice huge masses of gray looming tall and menacing in the sky, headed directly for the campsite where my tent and most of my gear sit exposed, without the protection of a rain fly. I pack up in less than 60 seconds, unlock the bike as fast as I can, throw on the single pannier, and then bolt. I hustle back toward the campground like a man possessed, at speeds I never knew my tank of a bike was capable of. When I reach the site five minutes later I jump off the bike while it's still moving and then lean it up against a picnic table as big, fat, cold rain drops fall and start to soak everything I own.

Except they don't. When I walk up a small rise and around the corner I see my tent—with the rain fly on and all of its corners and sides perfectly staked. I stand confused for a few moments before I realize that someone must have seen the tent, also seen the thunderstorm coming, and decided to help out a stranger. I smile widely for a couple of seconds at the sheer kindness of it all until I realize that a torrent is about to let loose, and then I dive inside a tent that doesn't have a drop of water in it.

When the rain passes I crawl back outside and try to track down my rain fly angel. A minute later she comes walking my way. Her name is Louise, and she and Kerstin are from Australia. They set out from Seattle six weeks ago, bound for Boston but taking their time getting there. Together they form a powerful ray of sunshine, talking with big smiles and great enthusiasm about the amazing animals and scenery they've seen in Yellowstone, the friendliness of the people they've met throughout rural America, and how the roads in this country make traveling by bicycle a joy. I feel better about my own trip simply by osmosis. As we talk, an elk with a postcard-worthy rack of antlers munches on grass and flowers in an open space a hundred feet away, totally unimpressed by all of the travelers and their giant tents, propane barbecues, giant campfires, stacks of brightly colored coolers, and brigades of uncomfortable folding chairs.

The voice on the end of the line today is Kerstin. When I tell her that we're going to be late, she offers to come pick us up, and after thinking about it for half a second I accept. Fifteen minutes later, Kerstin and Louise show up, all welcoming with smiles and good cheer, and we load our bikes into their two tiny cars and make our way on the fast road back to Watervale.

I can't believe I'm here, in a small town in rural Australia, reconnecting with two of the most wonderful people I met during a that amazing ride from Florida to Washington State. By some stroke of luck, while Kristen and I were looking for a possible Warm Showers host in Adelaide, I just happened to look a little bit farther north on the map, just happened click a few of the red pins marking available hosts on the map, just happened to recognize Louise's name from the postcard she and Kerstin had sent to me upon their return to Australia after reaching Boston, and they just happened to be in town while we were passing through. It's an incredible combination of events that somehow fell exactly as we would have wanted them to.

Back at their house, I soon learn that with little in the way of jobs and property holding them back following their trip, Kerstin and Louise chose to leave city life in Sydney behind. After many years spent working in logistics, Kerstin decided that she wanted to follow her passion and get into the wine industry, and a move out to the Clare Valley came soon after. She and Louise have been here for a few years now, along with Tash, an eleven-year-old Greyhound that used to be a racing dog but now mostly lays around the house, moving from one room to the next every couple of hours to find a slightly better place to sleep. In that time they've become a part of the close-knit community in Watervale (population 293), and have a tough time imagining a return to the pace and expense of urban living. Out here they use the trail to ride their bikes to tennis, to pick up groceries, and to have breakfast with friends who live a few towns away. It leaves Kristen and me both inspired and a little envious.

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The four of us catch each other up on the various moving parts of our lives and reminisce about our incomparable bicycle tours over a dinner that is both delicious and photogenic. The meal is bounded on one side by better beer than we've had in weeks, and on the other by the kind of optimism and joy and curiosity coming from Louise and Kerstin that I remember from the conversations we had over dinner at the cafe in Yellowstone all those years ago.

Kristen, Kerstin, and Louise.
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Before we know it, afternoon turns to evening and then to night. By the time Kristen and I close the door to our bedroom, the weight of a day that hasn't paused its forward progress at any point in the last seventeen hours falls heavy onto our shoulders. All it takes is the click of a light switch and we're done.

Today's ride: 48 miles (77 km)
Total: 4,718 miles (7,593 km)

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