Day 65: Near Tadmor, NZ to Murchison, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

October 30, 2014

Day 65: Near Tadmor, NZ to Murchison, NZ

The rain and the clouds have gone by the time the sun comes up, but the clearer skies that take their place come with a cost: heavy blasts of wind that shoot up from the valley and straight into our faces. And the wind feels frigid and angry, because we gained enough elevation yesterday that when we look at the hills only a few miles off to our right we see the tops looking out from below the clouds with a fresh layer of snow.

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I don't spend the morning on a gravel back road on New Zealand's South Island, but inside my head. Even though we've been cycling for more than two months, I'm still having trouble getting used to riding with someone else. Instead of losing myself in the environment, the challenge, the people, and the terrible food choices that have always gone along with this kind of traveling, I spend much of my time thinking about the person who rides just in front of me or who appears as the biggest object in my rear view mirror. I worry about whether we're riding too far, if the hills are too steep, if it's too cold or too wet, if she has enough water, if she's carrying too much weight, if she's hungry, or if she's enjoying what we're seeing and what we're doing. If I had never walked into her life there's a slim chance she would have ever found herself in the middle of an adventure like this. It turns out there's a profound feeling of responsibility for her well-being comes along with that, even though Kristen is tougher and more self-reliant than just about anyone I've known.

Not quite postcard-worthy.
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The transition away from riding solo feels like such a sea change. When I'm by myself, everything I do is selfish, from deciding when to get up the morning to where I want to go, when and where and what I want to eat, when to take breaks, how much money I want to spend, and making the choice to stop for the night when a camping spot presents itself or push on toward something else that's uncertain but might be more interesting. It is the definition of freedom. But riding with someone else changes that, because every one of those things now requires the agreement of two people. I'm fortunate that Kristen and I live and travel in a similar enough way that the burden of these kind of decisions represents a small price compared to all of the wonderful moments that we get to share with each other along the way. And when the weather is good and everything is going well, thoughts of how I used to ride almost never enter my mind. But when things get rough, when the favorable conditions and the good times and the parade of joy decide to step aside for awhile, I find myself looking for the comfort and security of the selfish structure I came to know so well. Some day this may not be true, but that day isn't today.

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And today is rough. For hours we pound into the wind alongside terrain that's now dead and barren, thanks to all of the ruthless clear cutting that's been done to it. It's a continuation of a pattern that's become familiar but still surprises us. For all that we were told about the intense beauty of the South Island, in general we've so far found it less attractive and impressive and worthy of saying "Holy shit, look at that!" than the North. It's had its moments, and I think we'll get them more consistently when we reach the coast and head south toward the fjordlands — I've been stretching out my index finger to get it ready to capture all of the awe-inspiring scenes we're sure to want to commit to the camera's memory card — but it hasn't yet happened.

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Around mid-morning we take a break in a park located at the junction of two highways and the junction of two tall and narrow gorges. Wind blows strong up from the gorge toward our right and shoots down with equal force but more intense cold from the one on the left. They come together in a near-freezing and constantly swirling blanket of what feels like the middle of American winter that wraps itself all around us. I start to wonder if this kind of thing is unusual around here, but then I look over toward the closer highway and see a big brown sign with an arrow pointing to the left that directs drivers toward a ski area.

We stand around and eat crackers and chunks of cheese and an orange, but the conversation that happens around the snack break is short and tense. Because of the cold and the wet and the weird angle at which the tent was placed last night, neither of us slept uninterrupted for more than an hour or two at a time, and this came on the heels of several nights of poor sleep. We haven't felt warm at any point in the last twenty-four hours. We know more wet, cold, windy weather is waiting for us. Kristen's toes are numb and her confidence is shaken from a low-speed fall she had back on the gravel road before we reached the highway. A migraine drills into the front of my head, just above my left eye, from a lack of sleep and food and water. I tell Kristen how I feel stupid for having put us in this position. It reminds me of my decision to ride through the Western United States during the late winter and early spring of last year, despite the cold temperatures, despite the intense winds, despite boring terrain, and despite the lack of friendly and welcoming people. Even though I knew before I left that all of those things weren't just possible but also the most likely outcome, I charged ahead with naive optimism anyway, hoping for the best but finding the worst. Kristen talks of making an escape by vehicle. I don't, but as I stand looking out on the highway, the same awful feelings I had a year and a half ago while standing over my bike on the windblown panhandle of Texas with my head down and my eyes closed start to bubble up inside.

The last two days have been our first taste of sustained bad weather and of sustained adversity on this trip, on the heels of so much sunshine and so many fortunate events. We're not handling it with grace.

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But we still have a little bit of luck on our side. Because the truly bad weather hasn't yet arrived, we know that we have at least one more day to find a place where we can settle in and wait for it to pass through. We just need to get there first. The nearest town is Murchison, twenty-five miles down through the less-cold gorge, so with spirits low and feet wet and extremities starting into the earliest stages of frostbite we leave the park behind and start cranking.

Although the gorge around us becomes narrower and more dramatic the farther we go, our minds aren't in the kind of place where we can appreciate or enjoy the beauty around us. As we ride, we're again inside of our heads, trying to put into words what we're feeling out here, what we want out of this trip, what we think we're capable of and comfortable with, and how to deal with the terrible weather that's sure to find us again going forward. All of these thoughts and questions and worries have existed in our heads for weeks and months, but it has taken the stress and the unpleasantness of the cold and the wet to bring them up to the surface. Now that they've arrived it's impossible to push them back down.

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Above everything else, the goal becomes reaching town as soon as possible and getting warm. The temperature goes up a few degrees as we descend, and when the sun makes another appearance we begin to shed the jagged cold that burrowed its way deep into our muscles and bones during the last couple of hours. But the wind remains a constant, bouncing us all over the road and at many points shaking our mirrors with such force that we can't see what's coming up behind us. The best we can say about the afternoon is that at least we're headed down instead of up.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon and the evening holed up in a tiny motel room, where the mass of stuff that spreads out onto the bed and into the corners somehow manages to be eight times the volume of what our panniers will carry. That's where we clean up, eat up, rest up, and take turns sitting close enough to the heater that we run through regular checks to make sure our pants are not on fire. We also spend a lot of time talking more about what we think traveling together should look like. We discuss the kinds of conditions and experiences and pace that we need to feel good, to feel supported, and to feel fulfilled on a long adventure like this, where it's not at all unusual to swing between soaring high points on one day, and then on the next end up in one of those valleys that makes it feel as if everything is crashing down on us. We aren't there yet, but with time and practice and hard work I suspect we'll find the answers.

This place has everything.
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The most immediate choice we can make is what to do about the heavy rain that's forecast to fall early and often tomorrow. On this point we're in perfect agreement: take tomorrow off, stay warm, and live to ride another day.

Today's ride: 37 miles (60 km)
Total: 2,215 miles (3,565 km)

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