Day 156: Elliston, SA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

January 29, 2015

Day 156: Elliston, SA

We pass the time in Elliston by working and sleeping and eating. I stop by the town's bottle shop — which is also the hotel, the pub, and the center of social life in Elliston — earlier than I probably should. There are half a dozen other guys who are also there earlier than they probably should be. One of them is the District Council President, a guy named Kym who we met back on Australia Day in Lock.

"D'ya like fish?" he asks me as I step out the front door.

"Um, well, yeah," I say, thinking about all of the great fish and chips I've eaten in the last month.

"Come with me," he says. "I've got some for ya."

We walk out to the front of the hotel where his boat sits on a trailer next to the curb. He steps up onto the metal fender that covers the tire, reaches over the gunwale, opens a cooler, and searches around in it for about twenty seconds, looking for just the right combination of fish. When he climbs down and turns to me I'm presented with a plastic bag filled with three whiting, all eyes and heads and scales and fins. I've never in my life cooked a fish, let alone chopped off one's head, skinned it, and pulled out its spine. I'm not even sure if those are the steps you'd actually take.

But not wanting to seem like some kind of uninformed urban wanker I don't mention any of this. Instead I do the only thing that comes to mind, which is to thank Kym several times, take the bag when it's offered to me, shake his hand, and then head back home with my cider, iced coffee, cookies, and chocolate bar joined by the slimy, salty cool of a bunch of dead fish.

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In the early afternoon Kristen and I settle in for a game of Trivial Pursuit. This version of the game was made long before either of us were born, and has been tucked in the far corner of the living room for so long that the pieces and cards and board all have the sort of intense baked-in musty smell you normally find only when you're in the basement of the graduate library of a major university or hanging around the elderly. It's also the Australian version of Trivial Pursuit, which means that in addition to arcane facts about Lyndon Johnson we have to come up with answers to questions like How many troopers chased the jolly swagman? and What did a deaner's worth of potatoes cost in 1960?

The game goes on for what seems like hours as we make terrible guesses about Australian swimming champions from 1924 and black-and-white foreign films of the fifties. But when it comes down to the final question, the one that can push me over the line to victory, everything falls into place.

"What direction does a wombat's pouch open toward?" Kristen asks.

As soon as the words leave her mouth she sighs and rolls her eyes as I yell out "The top of its back!"

I dedicate my victory to the charming little third-grade boy who told us all about wombats at the school yesterday — the kid who, in classic small-town fashion, is the grandson of the man responsible for the pile of fish that now sits shoved into the back of the nearby freezer.

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The wheel situation continues to straddle the line between disaster and complete incompetence. Despite several calls to the bike shop in Port Lincoln where the wheel is supposed to be shipped I have no tangible update on its condition. It might have been built today, but it might not have. If it was, it might have shipped today, but it might not have. If it didn't ship today, it might ship tomorrow but it also might not. There's a chance that it might come close to the specs that I talked about with the guy in Adelaide a few days ago, but I can't get a clear answer beyond "It's a good rim," which means next to nothing at all with the Nullarbor and the vast emptiness of Western Australia standing between us and Perth.

And so we remain stranded, subject to the whims of a handful of people who don't have either the desire or the ability to to help get us back on the road.

We continue to take in as much of Elliston as we can handle by walking a few houses down the street to the home of Cynthia, who is the headmistress of the school where we spoke yesterday morning. Together with her husband Mick and their dogs Xena and Ruby we settle in for a long evening filled with prawns and fish, beer and wine, all of which come from Australia and all of which are delicious and wonderful.

Ruby being Ruby.
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The conversation also helps put our breakdown in perspective. Cynthia tells us about an English couple who ended up in Elliston a few years ago after their van stopped running as they headed down the Eyre Peninsula. Because they had no money to pay for repairs, they spent three full weeks living in and around town cleaning houses and doing odd jobs. But it seems this still wasn't enough to raise the kind of cash they needed, so they had to take another path. It turns out that a wedding was taking place the following weekend, and having heard about the two travelers' situation, someone offered them a deal: the woman would be paid to strip at the bachelor party and the guy would be paid to do the same at the bachelorette party. (Australians call these things a buck show and a doe show, respectively.) And they did it; they both got naked in front of a bunch of drunk strangers to help come up with the cash they needed to keep their adventure moving. It's a helpful reminder that as long as we have a roof over our heads and our clothes on our backs we're doing just fine.

Somehow the topic of swimming comes up, and it's soon revealed that I never learned how to swim. This shocks our hosts, and Mick takes it as his personal responsibility to make sure that I know everything I need to in order to fix that. He's so serious that he disappears into the house for a few minutes before returning with a piece of scratch paper and a pencil. He dictates the instructions to himself as he writes them down. After several minutes of careful consideration, combined with the effect of many bottles of beers and glasses of wine, the instructions go like this:

  1. Get goggles.
  2. Get and a kickboard and then KICK LIKE HELL.

The last bit is also underlined three times for emphasis. Random notes about breathing and kicking strategies fill the margins of the page.

But the evening isn't entirely light-hearted. As Kristen explains:

With two beers and three glasses of wine down and I finally get the nerve to ask the question that's been on my mind for months. Throughout the casual conversation of the evening I've been thinking about how to say it. From what I've experienced so far, I’m not sure I’ll get another chance. 
"It seems like there is a gap between the Aboriginal people and the main population," I ask Cynthia. "Is this really common? Are there a lot of problems?"
She pauses and sighs. She has worked in a school in an Aboriginal community, lived and worked in a comparatively diverse, larger city, and expressed more progressive views than we have heard since staying in the Clare Valley weeks ago. 
"There’s a lot of history," she starts.
She goes on to describe some of the massacres that occurred in the local area when Europeans began to explore and settle, then jumps ahead to the modern problems of a social welfare system that isn't really working, unemployment and the abuses that go along with that, and a general attitude of intolerance.
"Most people have very little interaction with Aboriginals, so the old ideas just keep living on," she concludes.
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After all of this, we return to the house, I open my laptop, and I sit down at the kitchen counter to work. This is where I'll stay for the next five hours, launching critical website features that will be used by more than 10,000 people applying for low-income housing assistance back home in Washington State in the next twenty-four hours alone. It's one more challenge in a week that has filled itself with them. As Kristen tells it:

Jeff is proud of me on days where we climb mountains or cover long distances
[editor's note: and on all other days]. But today I get to be proud of him. I get to see in him the kind of patience, endurance, work ethic, and sense of fun it takes to make cycle touring a part of your life (and to make an overall good person). His bicycle sits in a stranger's living room, immobile. He faces the most crucial work project he's had in years. He is on and off the phone for days trying to organize some way to get a new wheel. He is trying to route and plan for what has been made out to be the toughest stretch we'll face during our time cycling across this country. The journal he works so hard on falls farther and farther behind. He is asked to take time to show a group of kids a kind of life they have never encountered. His partner wants to watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and play Trivial Pursuit. All of this he handles with grace and humor. There are stressed moments. Moments of loud cursing or silent staring. But he has this amazing ability to bounce back, to feel the emotion in all its intensity, process it, and come out of it with a clear decision or even a joke. I am more in love with him, stuck in this stressful, unpredictable situation, than I have ever been.
Working man.
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The feeling is mutual.

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