Day 185: 13 miles west of Arthur River, WA to Wellington National Park - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 27, 2015

Day 185: 13 miles west of Arthur River, WA to Wellington National Park

We have two days to go. There's just one full day of riding left. The end is here.

The rain is also here. Tiny drops fall through the mesh as we wake up and eat breakfast and get dressed. From yesterday's thunderstorm and the humidity that stuck around after, our clothes are still wet and every surface around us is wet to the touch. Rain continues as we tear down the the tent, load the bikes, and return to the highway, where every vehicle that passes has its headlights on. There are a lot of different ways we thought our last days in Australia might look, but this was never one of them.

But the rain and the cool aren't bad; after the heat and hills of yesterday they're refreshing. And by keeping away the intense heat for a few hours they help make up for the fact that it's one of those days where it takes us forever to get going. Kristen's tire is flat, so we pump it up twice in the six miles it takes to reach Darkan before replacing the tube under the covered entry to a grocery store with the emptiest collection of shelves we've ever seen. Then my bike computer stops working. Then we have to fill up on water. Then we decide that for all of our hard work we need to reward ourselves with fresh-baked sausage rolls from the roadhouse across the street from the park.

Everything's broken at this point.
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Somehow this last bit of laziness pays off. As we start to pedal away from the roadhouse a woman who sits at a table beneath the nearby porch while drinking tea calls out to us.

"Are you taking the rail trail to Collie?" she asks.

We look at each other for half a second.

"What rail trail?" I ask.

"If you head up that first left there you'll see it. It runs from here to Collie. It takes you off the highway, sends you by the farms and the woods and all that. It might be a bit better for you."

Because Kristen loves rail trails almost as much as she loves sausage rolls we decide to give it a shot.

It turns out to be a great choice. The trail runs through narrow rock cuts, bends in lazy curves over the hills at grades no better than two or three percent, and every so often we run over old railroad ties left behind. At several points the yellow grass that grows as tall as our handlebars creeps all the way up to the trail's edge, where it brushes against our panniers, wrists, forearms, and calves as we pass. At others we find ourselves surrounded by trees on all sides, where they block the roads and farms and homes from view as we travel through this rare lightly touched stretch of countryside. We haven't at any time in Western Australia traveled between towns on a road that wasn't a highway, which makes the dramatic change of scenery all the more satisfying.

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It's one of those trails that isn't used enough to stay in perfect condition, but it gets used just to the point where it makes for decent riding if you're able to dodge the fallen branches and patches of soft gravel that will shove you to the ground if you're not paying attention. Today the only visible tire tracks on the trail today are the ones we leave behind, and we spend more time watching out for the ant colonies that are doing their best to reclaim the trail as their own than we do looking for other riders.

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On what would have been a day full of hills the trail mostly flattens them out. We also don't have to think about cars, and not once do we need to dive off into the shoulder to avoid being squeezed off the road by a passing road train. This leaves as our biggest challenge not running over the foot-long lizard that has wandered into the middle of the trail to warm his blood in the emerging sun, but who freezes when he sees us coming because something hard-wired into his brain tells him that's the best survival strategy. The farther we go the clearer it becomes that we're passing through a transition zone where the massive wheat fields of the past few weeks turn smaller and the rolling hills that surrounded them become covered with the dark green of thick woods.

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If it was up to me I'd jump off the trail and continue on to Collie on the highway. The trail surface makes for slow riding and most of the time road runs within sight and has very little traffic on it. It'd be a little faster, a little easier, and by heading back to the road I'd get the satisfaction that comes with doing exactly what I want. But I don't mention it, because it's not up to me.

Every few weeks on this trip I think about what kind of life lessons I'll come away having learned, because it's impossible to spend six months traveling by bicycle and not draw something from the experience that changes you in a meaningful way. In keeping my mouth shut and continuing on the trail based on the fact that I know how much Kristen loves them, one of those lessons reveals itself today. On the 10,000 miles of journeys that came before this one, bike touring was this pursuit that was selfish in every way. I decided when to start, when to stop, when to rest, where to eat, where to go, who to stay with, what kind of weather to ride in, and on and on and on. I loved that. It was part of the appeal, part of the magic.

In the 6,500 miles that have passed since leaving Portland, that mode of touring has disappeared. Every decision — what direction the tent should face, what type of peanut butter to buy, when to seek shelter from an oncoming lightning storm, what's an acceptable price for a room in a backpackers — has some level of negotiation attached to it. Unilateral decisions don't exist anymore. Where the rhythm of life on the road is concerned, this is a sea change. But I've learned that what's given up in freedom comes back in an equal amount in the form of trust — trust in the judgment and insight and capability of the person I'm so fortunate to travel with. Kristen has all of these things in generous amounts, and they have taken us to unique and interesting places and situations I never would have had the chance to experience on my own.

As if it was designed to drive home this idea to me, the last part of the trail turns out to be the best part. The native forest around us grows thicker, the birds appear in greater numbers, and one kangaroo after the next hops away into the trees that extend away from either side.

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Unfortunately, the trail doesn't lead us to Collie as the name Collie-Darkan Rail Trail would suggest. That's because a giant coal mine looms over the land to the east of Collie, in a way that suggests the full trail won't be completed until roughly 2053. As the last of the path runs out, the quiet and solitude of the countryside is replaced by the never-ending scrape of metal on rocks, the revving of diesel engines the size of a house, and the beep-beep-beep of a digging machine that's been shifted into reverse.

As soon as we turn back onto the highway the source of all that noise appears, and it's beyond anything we could have conceived. The mine parallels the road, starting from just a few hundred feet south and running so far into the hills that it's impossible for us to see where it ends. This massive man-made canyon stretches unbroken for miles and looks not unlike how one might imagine the gates of hell, all shades of gray and piles of rock and devoid of any hint of natural life. The wind comes from the south this afternoon, which sends blowing our way a thick, awful stink from who knows what corrosive chemical source. There's this idea that the apocalyptic event that ends life on earth will be just that: a single, defined event. But when I see places like this and what they look like, how they operate, what they belch into the air, the reverence that so many people have for them, all of the billboards posted by the mining companies that speak to togetherness and powering the future, and the terrible side effects that can never be undone, I can't help but wonder if the apocalypse is already here and we just haven't realized it yet.

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Down the road we see rising above the trees the imposing tower of a coal-fired power plant as it pumps a thin but constant coal-fired brown fart cloud out into the crisp blue sky of another beautiful afternoon. As we go farther we realize that the plant has its own mine attached to it, a mine entirely separate from the other, which is itself entirely separate from several others in the area. It all of a sudden becomes clear why this road is so wide, why Collie is so much bigger than any other town in the area, and why all of those road trains have been headed this way on what seemed like a far-off country highway.

We can't help but laugh and then shake our heads when we roll into town and see a sign announcing that Collie entered itself in Tidy Towns 2014, an award program that honors sustainable communities in Australia. Because although Collie is many things, what it precisely isn't is sustainable. It's a town that for a century has lived off coal, where there's an inefficient ute or SUV or both in every driveway, where we see no one walking the streets on an afternoon with perfect weather, and where the community pool that's under construction (and probably financed by donations from the companies that operate the nearby mines) is called the Mineworkers Memorial Pool. The hills that surround Collie and the black gold held within them are a finite resource, and with the ways in which mining technology is speeding up its extraction, it's a place that by definition is unsustainable, as the residents of Butte, Montana and a hundred other mining towns in America would be more than happy to tell you.

But hey, at least they have pizza. We eat outside at a table on the main street through town, where we watch the passing coal trains, the miners driving home in expensive cars and trucks, and the long line of vehicles waiting at the drive-thru window at the brand-new McDonalds. If we returned to this same spot in thirty or forty years we suspect they would all be nothing but distant memories.

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After dinner we head right out of town. There's no need to fill up with extra water and no need to buy more food because we have only thirty-five miles to the ocean. We're almost there.

When the thick woods of national park land appear off to our left not far out of Collie we wheel the bikes off the highway and settle in for our final night in the forests of Australia. Although we're the only people around we're far from alone. Moments after we zip ourselves into the tent the incomparable chorus of kookaburra calls begins to filter down in all directions from the thick canopy of branches above. Soon they're joined by the thump-thump-thump of kangaroos foraging about for plants. Most of them pass several hundred feet away, but one continues to come closer and closer and closer until he's no more than fifty feet from the tent.

"Hey, that's close enough!" Kristen yells out through the mesh.

But the hopping sounds and the crunch of the underbrush only get stronger as the roo moves closer still.

"Hey! Hey!" I yell out.

It's probably our American accents that confuse him, but nothing we say has an effect. And so I pull out my iPhone, switch on the flashlight, and shine it out into the woods to help keep us from being trampled in our tent by a hungry and curious kangaroo.

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It's a moment that's weird and a little scary and memorable all at once. If any single sentence could characterize this strange trip of ours, I think that might be it. Tomorrow the cycling part of that trip comes to an end. But far from being sad about that fact, we lay back inside the tent and spend an hour talking about our favorite experiences from the past six months, the moments we most remember, and all of the ways in which this adventure has changed our lives for the better. And then we let the moonlight and crickets and ocean of stars carry us off into the night one last time.

Today's ride: 56 miles (90 km)
Total: 6,584 miles (10,596 km)

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