Day 174: Salmon Gums, WA to Helms Arboretum - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 16, 2015

Day 174: Salmon Gums, WA to Helms Arboretum

Our fingers turn cold and stiff and flex at half speed as we roll down the short hill out of Salmon Gums. Beyond the school and the town park and the community hall we pass the grain depot, ride next to a railway line, and look out toward the south and east and west and see wheat field after wheat field after wheat field. If it wasn't for the cracked white floors of the dried lake beds next to the road there'd be no way to know for sure that we haven't been transported back to Victoria or New South Wales.

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We ride past as many abandoned homes and schoolhouses as we do buildings that are still in use. With the weekend having passed, and the caravan park checkout times having not yet arrived, we have the road almost entirely to ourselves. Even though reaching Norseman was a big deal because it marked an end of the extreme isolation of the Eyre Highway, we're still in remote country. It'll be the better part of a week before we start to regularly pass through towns and cities with more than a few hundred residents.

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For now it's mostly places like the town of Grass Patch. We take a break in the shade of the covered porch at the not-yet-open tavern, and from this vantage point we can see just about all there is to see of the place. Next to the railway line, massive stacks of wheat several city blocks long stand next to nine-story-tall silos filled with wheat. They watch over the tavern across the street, a tiny post office building, a fabrication shop, a few dusty storefronts that have been empty for ten or twenty years, and a flat-topped church hemmed in by tall yellow grass. A school and an oval and a caravan park and a few blocks of houses stand unseen off to the west. This is the long and short of Grass Patch.

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At the edge of town, which stands no more than half a mile from the other edge of town, we ride past a sign that calls out the distances to the places ahead of us. The next three — Scaddan, Gibson, and Esperance — are all fifteen or sixteen miles apart. The consistent spacing is a holdover from a different era, where towns used to be placed based not on driving speed and fuel capacity and the need for burgers with the lot, but how far horses and camels could go between water stops.

Beyond Grass Patch the pattern of the day remains the same: low rolling hills and gentle bends with long stretches of dead-straight highway in between. And so we fall into the kind of conversations and debate that fill in the gaps of so much long-distance riding: American and Australian immigration policies, tattoos, terrible sports nicknames, the accuracy of caravan model names (e.g., the Adventurer versus the Leisure Seeker), and trying to figure out the likelihood that we'll ever see a Saved by the Bell reunion show. Then we return to an old standby we'd forgotten about: saying awful things about the farmers that in the heart of the summer leave their sheep in sprawling paddocks that include exactly zero shade trees, to the point that the animals all congregate at the top of a subtle rise in a desperate attempt to maximize the amount of air that passes over them to try and stay cool.

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The Western Woodlands, and just about any reminder that they once extended this far south, are gone. All we can see that's left of them are a few sparse stands of forest that now act as wind breaks. We're now in this weird middle ground where nothing exists in its natural state any more, but because the towns out here are so tiny or have disappeared altogether, that there aren't any people around to talk to either. I've traveled a lot of places by bicycle, but it's hard to remember many like this, where the land is this remote and yet so completely shaped by humans. Where there should by every right exist some kind of soul, all we find instead is a vacuum of fences and rail lines and trucks.

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After we roll into Gibson and stuff sickness-causing amounts of fried fish, veggie burgers, and potato wedges into our faces, I spread out the ground cloth of the tent on an upward-sloping rectangle of shaded ground covered in dried pine needles that have fallen from the intricate network of branches above. First I close my eyes and draw in deep breaths and listen to the wind cut a noisy path through the boughs. Then I stare through squinted vision up into them, where I notice how the green shades of the needles all appear slightly different because of how the sun and shadows hit them. I look at the big bird nests that may have been around for years, as well as the smaller nests still under construction or abandoned because another tree became safer or in some other way more appealing. I look at how certain branches move freely on the breeze, while others are constrained to narrow channels by the bulk of the other branches that box them in.

It's one of the simplest yet most satisfying pleasures I know of, especially when the shade gives refuge from the strong hand of the mid-afternoon heat and wind. And so I lay there, content and relaxed, going back and forth between eyes open and closed, until the heart palpitations and the unusual stretching feelings in my stomach start to taper off.

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Esperance is the next town up the highway, and it's the biggest place we will have been since Whyalla more than three weeks ago. Based on this fact, and judging from all of the Esperance-related brochures we've been seeing for the past three weeks, and also considering all of the tourists we meet who tell us we have to go there, it seems like an expensive and cliched tourist trap of the highest order. It's not a place we have any interest in spending the night. And thanks to a little luck, we don't have to.

A few miles past Gibson we pull off the road and start to ride down a dirt path that leads us back into the grounds of what the sign calls an arboretum. It isn't an arboretum in the usual American sense, with paved walking paths and well-manicured grass everywhere. It's really just a chunk of gum tree forest that was once logged and has now been left alone to regrow, probably with the intent that in another thirty years it'll all be chopped down again. But we're almost certain that isn't going to happen tonight, so we wheel the bikes off the path, crunch over downed tree branches and piles of dried leaves and pine needles, and set up in a shaded nook where we could probably hang out for weeks without being found.

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As I fill myself with grease-soaked leftover potato wedges that sag when I pick them up, I think about how I feel tired. Not so much tired in a physical way, but tired of some thing. My first instinct is that I'm growing tired of cycling day after day after day, and that with a return to the States looming just a few weeks away, my mind is starting to lose parts of its focus on the road ahead and replace them with matters of the home and the heart. But the more I consider the feeling, the more I wonder if the explanation is one that's far simpler: that I'm tired of riding on highways. From just outside of Port Augusta we've been on highways every day, and by extension, we haven't been on the kind of quiet and isolated back roads that came before, that we still speak of with reverence and joy. I also know that for at least the next three or four days that's how it's going to stay, with the traffic building in volume as the patience of the drivers drops off accordingly. There's a chance it could stay like that all the way to Perth, with the two of us diving off into the shoulder every two minutes to avoid death by caravan.

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I think about it for an hour and never figure out where the answer lies. Maybe it's something else altogether. But for tonight it no longer matters. Arcs of pale orange and purple and blue begin to cover the western horizon as the sun sets, until eventually they glow with such force that they paint all of the objects in the tent and in the woods that surround it in faint versions of those same tones. It's a powerful, visceral show that inspires us to try and find new and clever ways to describe its beauty in the five minute window that covers both its birth and its death. Cool starts to creep in soon after, and we unfurl the sleeping bag in anticipation of what promises to be another peaceful night in the woods of Australia.

Today's ride: 57 miles (92 km)
Total: 6,163 miles (9,918 km)

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