Day 64: Motueka, NZ to near Tadmor, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 29, 2014

Day 64: Motueka, NZ to near Tadmor, NZ

In the end, the morning is spectacular. It's cold enough that we can just see our breath, but the clouds are thin and high and the sun warm and bright. We quickly make our way out of town, cross over a river, and then ride alongside small homes, country schools, fields of apples and kiwis and hops, and little kids who say hi and wave and grin at each of us from the seats of their strollers as we pass by. Because we expected the worst and instead find the best, we pedal with our heads up and smiles on our faces and look forward to a wonderful morning in New Zealand.

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All of this is not enough it seems for the cycle tourist we pass. As with the rider we saw a couple of days ago, he doesn't say hello or wave or even look up from the road in front of him as we ride by each other headed in opposite directions. At first this bothers me, because touring cyclists are supposed to at least acknowledge each other, especially in a place like this where it's early in the season and there aren't that many of us on the roads. But then I realize that he must have paid too much for camping last night, or ate the same kind of flavorless pizza for dinner that we did, or he's impossibly envious that I get to ride with such an attractive traveling partner and that if he stopped to chat he would be unable to hide his jealousy and would come across as grumpy and jaded. That has to be it. Realizing this creates enough empathy to keep him from becoming the source of so many disgusting and tasteless jokes.

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In the valley we ride next to fields where blueberries grow beneath massive garages of netting that stand as tall as a two-story house and run as wide as four football fields, to protect the fruit from hungry birds. In the paddocks we see trees planted with bottomless barrels placed around them, so that the goats don't eat the trees before the trunks have a chance to toughen up. The rest of the time I have important conversations with myself, out loud, about what I think of this trip and how I feel about where I am in my life. This is one of the greatest joys that comes along with traveling on empty back roads that don't turn more than once every dozen miles or so: having the ability to lose yourself in thought, to let your mind and your mouth wander to wherever it is they feel like going. I always forget how much I miss this until I come off a long stretch of city or highway riding and find myself falling into it again. It's like a reunion with a long-lost friend.

The grass grows tall and thick at the road's edge and fills the air with sweetness, and at several points we pass through areas of native trees so full and tall and closely spaced that it's like we're in a kind of natural tunnel. The sun shines down on us from the left while clouds above us turn thicker and darker and then start to dot our legs and arms and panniers with tiny rain drops. Through a gap in the hills toward the northwest we see the snow-capped peak of some tall and distant mountain.

When we stop, Kristen looks back toward me and says, "This place is unreal."

"But it is real," I tell her.

"But it is real. I can't believe it."

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Then it starts to rain. Then we start grinding up a steep climb at three miles per hour. Then the rain pours down like it's coming out of ten-thousand shower heads.

These have a way of making New Zealand a lot more believable.

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We wait out a few rounds of showers at a cafe in the little town of Tapawera. It's the kind of place that in the back corner has a bunch of home-related stuff for sale, like those fake-weathered wood panels that say things like, "Always tell the truth, even if it hurts" and "The laundry room is self-cleaning ... Do it yourself!" To find out that shit like this exists everywhere, not just in awful little knick-knack shops back home, somehow makes the scope of America's influence on globalization feel more real than all of the fast food chains and fashion brands and imported SUVs that we've seen so far combined.

I try to console myself with a milkshake, but it turns out to be the thinnest, most flavorless milkshake the world has known so far. With some banal Norah Jones song droning on in the background, we consider the question, How many people have been killed by a schnauzer? Later, when one of those awful Coldplay songs with shallow and inane lyrics about love starts playing, I act like I'm puking. Throughout all of this, Kristen reads interesting facts about New Zealand history from a book she finds lying on one of the tables, and that within a half an hour she will have stuffed deep into one of her panniers with no firm plans to return it.

White people smiling ridiculously — it must be fun!
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As soon as we ride out of town the day turns beautiful again, with sunshine and blue skies making everything around us look bright and healthy instead of cold and dull. The hills tower hundreds of feet above us and are dotted with sheep so distant that it makes the hills look like they've been sprinkled with grains of rice. Closer to the fence we watch newborn lambs with huge ears and long legs and skinny bodies chase after one another for thirty seconds at a time before falling down on their sides in the grass to rest. We pedal in the shade of thick trees and cross over slow-running creeks on old one-lane bridges.

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When the rain returns, we take shelter underneath the awning of what was long ago a general store. There Kristen reads me more about what prehistoric New Zealand was like, including this:

All its vegetation and animal life evolved in the absence of [marsupials and other mammals]. And the places that mammals would take in the ecosystems of other countries — all other major land masses apart from Antarctica — would in New Zealand be filled by birds, insects, and reptiles. Weta, giant crickets, grew into the largest insects on earth and hunted like mice ... The largest raptor ever known, Haast's eagle, weighed up to thirteen kilograms and developed a wing span of up to three meters; it preyed on giant moa, whose pelvic bones would be punctured by the eagle's enormous talons. Of the moa, one species was the tallest bird that ever lived ... Even as recently as 10,000 years ago humankind had spread to an over every habitable continent on Earth, including New Zealand's nearest neighbour, Australia. And this occupation and colonisation had major effects on the subsequent evolution of plants, animals, and land forms. But not in New Zealand. In New Zealand, as an early geographer put it, "a land without people waited for a people without land."
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Within twenty minutes the dark stuff is gone, and we again ride in the sun with smiling faces while making grand declarations of how much we love this country. But in twenty more minutes the skies grow dark in front of us and the only blue to be seen runs in a narrow line 180 degrees behind. The heavens open up again, pounding us with heavy rain and gusting winds. Water streams down the channels of our helmets, we shiver from the new-found cold, and the spray kicked up by our tires coats our legs with splotches of dark gray mud. And then twenty minutes after that a broad patch of clear skies appear right above the sheet metal school bus shelter into which we dove to find cover from the madness outside. It's as if a fuse is loose somewhere far above, leaving the bad weather to flicker off and on without end.

Where the sheep are.
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In the middle of another downpour we come across an easement a few dozen feet off the road that leads between two paddocks, toward a river, and eventually on to the trailhead of a Department of Conservation walking path. I want to keep going, to push hard and try to reach the campground that's twelve miles up the road, where we'll find water and a bathroom and maybe shelter that we can put the tent up beneath. But Kristen is cold and wet, and when I ask her if she wants to do the same I know the answer before the question leaves my mouth.

We unlatch the gate, dodge hundreds of sheep turds, and make our way back and down to the river. When we get there we find no bridge, only a road that runs to the edge of the water, disappears below the surface, and then shows up again as it heads away from the opposite shore. The decision of how far down the path to go no longer becomes a decision; this is home for the night. The only flat spot sits a few feet from the river, which flows with enough speed that it leads us to believe that if the rain keeps up we'll wake in the middle of the night to find the water cutting a path across the floor of our tent. Our only other option is a gently sloping patch of grass farther up the hill — everything else is on a steep bank — so that's what we choose.

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Once we're inside the tent, all chance of cooking dinner and doing anything productive with the rest of the evening falls away. We drink beer and eat crumpets and chocolate, listen to the rain fall onto the outside of the tent in hard pops and plops, and burrow deep into the sleeping bag to try and regain the body heat the day has taken away, which we hope will cause the wet wool socks on our feet to dry by the morning. Due to the slope, every so often we find that the sleeping bag has slid down to the far end of the tent, which already has multiple puddles. Because it's so cold, we don't want to get out of the bag for any reason, and so to fix the problem we have to wiggle and scoot and kind of hop inside of the sleeping bag in a coordinated effort to move it back up to the near end with both of our bodies still inside.

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We both end the day tired from the riding and tired from having not slept enough for several nights in a row. When the warmth of the sleeping bag, the rhythm of the rainfall, and the constant rushing and crashing of the river all come together, we fall head first into a heavy sleep and don't look back.

Today's ride: 50 miles (80 km)
Total: 2,178 miles (3,505 km)

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