Day 177: East Naernup Nature Reserve to Ravensthorpe, WA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 19, 2015

Day 177: East Naernup Nature Reserve to Ravensthorpe, WA

After having spent the previous sixteen hours surrounded by the native greens and browns of the nature reserve, we wheel the bikes back out to the highway, coast down a short hill, and then get back to the business of climbing over the slow rollers that lie beyond. What we see as we pedal hard at six miles per hour is wheat as far as the eye can see. Except for a handful of native trees and imported pines used as wind breaks, the land has been sacrificed and laid bare to produce wheat that — as a number of wheat farmers have told us — will be harvested, loaded into a truck, then transferred into the cargo hold of a ship and sent halfway around the world, never once touching a dinner plate in an Australian home.

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It's not like the wheat fields are some new-found artifact for us, but it's the stark contrast with the nature reserve that presses the nerve today. And in doing so, it's not about what's in front of us, but what isn't. The beauty of the land is gone, the subtleties of the land are gone, the character of the land is gone. The legions of birds and kangaroos and lizards and spiders that used to thrive here now exist in small fractional numbers. And those that are left do their best merely to survive on native land that no longer covers the plains, but is instead confined to narrow bands and squares that in the context of Australia as a whole feel like the size of postage stamps. The kind of rich biodiversity that took a hundred-thousand years or more to develop has being shoved aside or destroyed altogether in less than a century.

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We both ride with this feeling of detachment, of disconnection from the country through which we're traveling as a result. And we spend a lot of time with our line of sight pointed more down toward the pavement in front of us than the countryside beyond.

None of this is helped by the fact that by 9:00 the armada of utes and caravans and road trains has returned to the road in force, or that fifteen minutes later we pass by the yawning spread of an open-pit mine that has reduced the hillsides to bald, barren slopes shaped into consistent angles by so many thousands of hours of labor by man and machine, and that fills the air with a heavy chemical stink. The mine also has the effect of adding even more big, heavy, hurried trucks to the shoulderless two-lane road on which we ride. At the same time, the path ahead of us becomes more like an ocean, rising and falling in long, steep waves, and running flat only for a moment before charging back up or down again. Between the traffic and the terrain it's a far more challenging place to ride than the Nullarbor ever was.

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At one point I let loose with a big spitball. The side wind immediately grabs ahold of the thing, flings it back at me, and causes the sticky ball of white to land in the creases of the right arm of my shirt. It's just that kind of morning.

What we face today is the kind of challenge you face so often if you're a modern human who gives a shit about the great percentage of the world around us that's being sliced and sheared and picked clean at a rate that's unsustainable, and the river of unhealthy and irreversible side effects that follow. Kristen and I can't ignore what we see and how it makes us feel, but at the same time we have to find a way to compartmentalize those feelings, and to do what we can to focus on all of the good and beautiful and wonderful things that still exist. Although complaining is an important part of well-balanced mental health, there's a limit to how far you can take it. Past a certain point your worldview devolves into a downward spiral of cynicism, despair, and eventually defeat, and then you're in danger of letting the best parts of life slip past you because you're too blinded by what's wrong to notice them.

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And so I think about how today is cool, how the overcast is thick, and how tiny raindrops deflect off of me. I focus on the fact that beyond the mine we head through an unbroken landscape of native green, where for half a dozen miles we see no fences or farms or wandering cows. I laugh and smile at the exuberant waves we get from a bunch of people headed for Esperance in the kind of old passenger van where you just know that the interior is heavy with the baked-in smells of weed and unwashed dude.

"Give us more room, motherfuckers!"
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We crank hard but still can't crack eight miles per hour on the six flat miles going against the wind that take us to Ravensthorpe. By the time we get there we're tired of the hills, tired of the road trains, and tired of wearing shirts that smell and feel and look like they've been fermenting in the bottom of a damp ice hockey equipment bag that someone left in the trunk of a car that they abandoned in an uncovered parking lot during the hottest part of the Las Vegas summer. We wander around the grocery store for ten minutes picking up supplies for the road ahead, but by the time we're ready to check out we both agree that all we want to do is stop riding, get clean, eat terrible food, and drink beer. And we both agree that it's a brilliant, flawless, unparalleled plan.

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We wheel the bikes over to the pub across the street and grab the only room not taken up by men working in the nearby mines. By the time the next sixty minutes have passed, every aspect of our plan has been carried out with efficiency, skill, and grace. We reward ourselves by laying around for the rest of the afternoon.

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In the middle of the evening we walk over to the pub. In the way of all small rural Australian towns, the pub is the beginning and middle and end of the nightlife on this Thursday in Ravensthorpe. It's the bar, the restaurant, the liquor store, the place to gamble, and the motel, all in one. As we sit in a corner on a pair of stools arranged around a tall round table and wait for our pizza, the smell of cigarette smoke filters in through the screens of the open windows behind us and we look across the room at the bar, where there's a row of older men who have the deep facial creases and hunched posture of someone who's been working at manual labor since the age of eighteen. The big taps behind them offer five choices of beer: Carlton Mid, Carlton Dry, Bulmers, Victoria Bitter, and, of all things, Miller Genuine Draft.

Above the shelves where the bottles of hard liquor sit, the Cricket World Cup plays with the sound off on a wide flat screen television. (The United Arab Emirates are in the process of smoking Zimbabwe.) The bar is a place filled out with a few mullets, some unibrows, and half a dozen men straight from the mines in their fluorescent orange or yellow work shirts. There are pull tab machines along the back wall, horse racing on small TV screens, little kids running around the obstacle course of legs and tables and chairs, and husbands and wives who've been married for decades staring off into nothing and not really talking to each other. The dinner specials are written in orange letters on a chalkboard: minted lamb chips, lemon pepper prawns, beef vindaloo. Behind it all is the echo and hum and vibration of eighteen conversations all rising and falling at the same time.

We are here, in this place, on this night, and something about that just feels good.

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The pizza comes in a box and we take it back to our room. With no table or chairs to be found we eat it on the bed, hunched cross-legged around the box as The Beatles' Revolver album spills flat and harsh out of cheap speakers from the laptop that sits next to us.

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To the sounds of "Eleanor Rigby" and "She Said She Said" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" I think about how I have a lot of respect for people who travel by bicycle in modern countries and have the skill and dedication to stick to a budget of five or ten dollars per day, who eat only from grocery stores, who camp every day for weeks and months, and who resist the temptation to buy beer. There are many times I've wished I had the same kind of dedication and restraint. But sitting in this room, clean and full and perched on a soft bed, I'm happy beyond all words that tonight I'm not one of them.

Today's ride: 45 miles (72 km)
Total: 6,294 miles (10,129 km)

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