Day 186: Wellington National Park to Fremantle, WA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 28, 2015

Day 186: Wellington National Park to Fremantle, WA

A few kangaroos get close to the tent again during the night, but we wake up having not been trampled just half a day's ride short of the finish. That means we have the chance to lay back in the tent for an hour, savor the cool and quiet of the morning, and stare up into the branches high above. We watch their leaves change color in the shifting angles of the rising sun, see the thin low clouds passing through the narrow gaps of blue as they charge toward the west, and think about the fact that this deeply satisfying part of our life is drawing to a close.

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We eat our last breakfast in the tent, get dressed for the road one last time, take great joy in the fact that we don't have to pack away the sleeping bag and pads anymore, and then we too continue our charge toward the west. The highway is a mess of road construction and SUVs towing boats and speeding motorcycles, but today I manage to block all of that stuff out. My legs feel light, strong, and rested, despite all the hills we've done in the last few days. I'm almost vibrating with excitement for what's less than thirty miles ahead.

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Cockatoos with black bodies and small patches of red on their tail feathers screech and squawk as they leap into flight out of tops of the tall trees that line the road. Trailered race cars speed in the opposite direction, bound for the track in Collie. Road signs announce still more coal-fired power plants.

The last of the hills fall with ease. A tailwind grows and grows and pushes us toward the coast at even greater speed. We cheer when we pass the sign announcing the road train assembly area, because it means we never again have to ride alongside them. We refuse to take breaks because we don't want to wait any longer than we have to.

"It feels like the last day of school!" Kristen says as we pedal up the last hill before the long downhill to the coast.

At the top we see it, a vague line of color at the horizon: the Indian Ocean. It's nineteen miles away, all downhill and flat until we get there. We just have to keep from crashing or being squashed by a speeding ute and we're there. With this in mind I reconnect my back brake, we push away from the crest of the hill, and we're off.

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Except of course it's not the last hill.

We fly down, round a corner, and ... Hey! What the?

Oh fuck you, road.

But at the top of that hill the low plain leading to Bunbury comes into view. When the big yellow signs telling trucks to slow down appear, we know that this time we're headed down for real. Beyond the signs that warn truck drivers of the catastrophes that wait for them if they don't check their brakes, the grade grows and grows until it reaches seven or eight percent, which makes it feel like we're headed straight down. In the two miles that follow we never drop below thirty miles per hour, even while riding the brakes. And as if the speed and wind and cold and view of the ocean weren't enough, a split second after I decide to spit, the big ball of white stops its forward progress and then whips back around before landing with a smack on the side of my face, just below the cheek bone.

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After a small second breakfast at the last roadhouse we'll pass through on this trip, we return to the road for the ten-mile sprint to the finish. We yell out to the cows near the fence line and tell them that we rode here all the way from Sydney but they don't seem to care at all. Then it's on past fertilizer plants, industrial parks, and machine shops that soon give way to the modest one-story suburban homes and takeaways and used car dealerships of Bunbury. All of them pass in an undifferentiated blur as we crank hard with this anxious rush of adrenaline growing inside of us.

Not interested.
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We push with all our strength up one last ten percent-grade hill and from there it's all over. At the bottom lies a narrow strip of sandy beach that stretches to the north and south for as far as we can see. We push our bikes down one last embankment and walk into the endless expanse of blue-green that we've been imagining for the last two and a half months. It is clear and warm and beautiful beyond all description. And the fact that we're standing in it means that there's no more Australia left. We just rode across a continent on bicycles carrying everything we need with us. No support vans, no cars acting as wind breaks, no staying in an air conditioned room every night. We did it together.

We did it.

Done.
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What stands out the most to me is how different it feels to stare at the Indian Ocean today, compared to the moments I spent looking at the Pacific when I finished crossing America three and a half years ago. When I started that trip I had legitimate questions about my ability to sleep outside most every night, to handle day after day and week after week of hot weather, and most of all to ride more than 6,000 miles through valleys and across prairies and over mountain ranges while carrying with me everything I owned. Reaching the Pacific not only proved that I could do all of those things, but it also helped me realize that I could achieve just about anything if I threw consistent effort at it every day for four months. It re-framed the concept of possibility.

Because of this, there was never a doubt in my mind about having the kind of strength, endurance, and indifference to personal hygiene it would take to ride across Australia on a bike when we set out from Sydney back in December. I just had to stick with it. And for the first six weeks, most everything came together as I would have hoped. The roads were good, drivers were careful, small towns were friendly and numerous, we rarely wanted for food or water, the mechanical problems proved easy to solve, and life at home stayed settled. It was one of the most satisfying stretches of bicycle touring I have experienced.

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But as we made our way down, across, and then back up the Eyre Peninsula everything started to change. The problems with my wheels and tires layered themselves one on top of the next. Nothing we did to try and solve those problems came easy or ended with a permanent fix. The gaps between towns and food and water became wider and wider. Work issues from back home began to chip away at the freedom we'd come to know and love. And then there was all of the worrying about the health and happiness of my dog, and the guilt that I felt for having left him behind in a bad situation in the first place. All of this had to be dealt with in addition to the normal physical and mental demands of cycling self-supported across Australia during the middle of the summer, none of which are trivial. This psychological baggage floated alongside of me every mile of every day for a month. It was only when the stress and anxiety receded during the last few days that I could at last understand and appreciate the degree to which they'd been affecting me.

And so even though it's great, wonderful, amazing, spectacular, and all other kind of adjectives that we just finished cranking across an entire continent under our own power, the feeling that grips me with more strength than all of the others is relief. I'm relieved that the the riding is over, because it means that the big ugly things that have troubled my mind for so long are all but gone. What I have to worry about now is much more basic and immediate, like Kristen stepping in dog poop while walking around in the beach in bare feet (which she does).

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As I look around at the water and sand and expensive homes, and listen to the waves crash into the shore and then recede, I'm also struck by how anticlimactic it all seems. It's just a strip of beach and the smallest sliver of ocean. What I'm proud of isn't how we're ending, but everything that came before. It was our unique combination of roads, people, weather, countryside, challenges, and hilarious moments that made our adventure worth living, worth fighting for, and worth remembering. I'm proud that the bicycle I built for Kristen made it all this way with style and grace and not one mechanical problem caused by me. I'm proud of the risks we took in leaving home behind in the first place. I'm proud of our ability to stink up a tent night after smelly night.

But more than anything I'm proud of Kristen. She had never pedaled a loaded bicycle until the morning we left Portland, not even around the block. She had never done any of the things that make cycle-touring what it is: riding through thunderstorms, climbing steep hills at three miles per hour, fixing a flat tire in the direct sunlight of a hundred-degree afternoon, pouring out every bit of strength you have in the fight against headwinds, speeding down the back side of a mountain pass with enough brake power to keep you from plummeting off the edge and into the valley below but nothing more. She had never wild camped, never stayed with strangers who she met at the side of the road, never hitchhiked. She had no idea what she was dropping herself into.Yet here we are, more than 6,600 miles later, and she's every bit as skilled and tough and passionate about traveling by bike as I could ever hope to be.

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Before we left home I told her that an adventure like this is tougher to handle than a marriage. When you're married the challenges are more predictable, they happen far less often, and you spend fifty hours a week away from each other doing work or other life business. There's always a release valve somewhere. In contrast, we haven't been apart for more than four hours combined in the five months since we left Los Angeles. We've had to deal with every decision, problem, mistake, disagreement, or roadside meltdown together, immediately, and then pull ourselves back together and keep on going. Couples who have traveled with each other know all about this. They'll tell you how long distance cycle-touring will shine a spotlight on your most redeeming qualities, while at the same time revealing all of the terrible things about your personality that you wish no one knew. They'll tell you that your trip will have one of two effects on your relationship: it will bring you closer together than you ever have been, or it will tear you apart. There's no middle ground.

I can now confirm these theories to be true; I have never been more in love with Kristen than I am today.

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With sand stuck to our feet and ankles, we take off our bike shoes for the last time, replace them with sandals, and then start to backtrack in the direction from which we just came. We make it only half a mile before we stop again, this time for an armload of shark and chips so big that it could feed a family of four and their dog. We sit on a bench in front of the shop, cooled by ocean the breeze, relaxed and content. We can't help from looking over and smiling at each other every few seconds out of sheer happiness and satisfaction with what we've accomplished in the last few weeks, the last two and a half months, the last 6,600 miles of riding.

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We sit and wait at the train station for an hour and a half, alone at the far end of the platform eating chocolate bars and drinking cheap beer hidden away in Kristen's insulated water bottles. In the warm embrace of an eighty-degree day, shaded by the awning above us, there washes over me a profound feeling of calm and peace. A steady flow of tension leaves my body, charging its way out through my the tips of my fingers, the lobes of my ears, and the overgrown muscles of my legs. With every moment that passes it seems more and more like there's no longer anything in life worth worrying about.

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The same feeling follows me on the two and a half hour train ride that takes us from Bunbury to Perth. Although it's true that this trip is ending, it's just as true that it marks the start of a new lifestyle for Kristen and for me. A few months from now we get to do it all over again, together, in the country we both know and love so much. And so there's no nostalgia for what has just ended, no concern about whether or not we'll ever have the chance to set off an another grand adventure, no wondering if this trip will represent the high point of our lives. In their place it's simply quiet, confident joy.

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It feels like our day starts fresh as the clock rolls over to 5:00. That's when we pull into Perth, wheel the bikes off the train, and find ourselves standing on a busy sidewalk in the middle of the largest city we've seen since Sydney. It's a complete shock to the system, but we're in luck because we don't have to try and navigate through it alone. A fellow bicycle traveler named Ric contacted us through our journal about a month ago and graciously offered to show us around the city, help us get our bikes and gear boxed for the trip home, and even give us a place to stay. He meets us in front of the station not thirty seconds after we walk outside, and from there we load up our stuff in his van and set off across Perth on our way south to the city of Fremantle.

There we meet Ric's wife Anna, a pregnant explosion of energy and positive thought and curse words. She's an absolute delight. Around their kitchen table we eat figs picked fresh from their garden and narrow slices of watermelon. We talk about life in Fremantle, our favorite touring journals, and their cycling trip through Germany and Denmark and Sweden. That trip ended with Anna falling off her unloaded bike and breaking her ankle in a manner so severe that the only comparable injury the doctors could find was from the time of World War II, when the rudder pedals on the floor of crash-landed fighter aircraft surged up with so much force on impact that they all but sheared off the ankle joints of their pilots. (The problems we faced on our trip now seem tiny and unimportant in comparison.) Throughout all of it, my mind and body continue to unwind and come to grips with the fact that our days will no longer center around things like picking the ideal campsite, trying to analyze the elevation changes of the landscape that stands in front of us, or calling out to sheep that stare back at us with an equal mix of wonder and fear. The pace and structure of modern life are coming, and they're coming fast.

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After dark we walk to the main drag in Fremantle. It's alive with the sounds of eating and drinking and laughter on this pleasant late summer evening. There we eat Indian food for the first time since the night we arrived in Sydney, backed by the sounds of a guy singing off-key Latin and jazz music while alternating between playing a keyboard, a drum machine, and a trumpet, all while sitting on top of a wheeled cart with flashing lights that glow like some combination of a traffic signal and a disco light. The women that walk past wear short skirts and dresses, while the men have shiny shirts and tight pants. The air is heavy with the competing smells of perfume and cologne and pizza and coffee. Last night we were in the forest dodging kangaroos; tonight we're here. It's a difference in environment almost too extreme to process.

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From waking up in the woods, to soaring down steep highways, reaching the Indian Ocean, feeling the sand and water mix between our toes, celebrating what we've achieved, traveling by train, and sharing an evening with two interesting and thoughtful people who we've only just met yet already feel like friends, when at last we lay down in bed we can't help but smile at our good fortune. It's a day worth remembering that stands out even above all of the other days of the last half a year worth remembering. And it's yet another reminder that our decision to take a risk and leave behind stable, predictable, expected lives back home in America was precisely the right thing to do. We feel alive, we feel fulfilled, and we get to revel in those feelings together, day after day, week after week, month after month. This is our life, and right now it's so, so, so good.

Today's ride: 29 miles (47 km)
Total: 6,613 miles (10,643 km)

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