Day 75: Near Milltown, NZ to Lake Ianthe Campground - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 9, 2014

Day 75: Near Milltown, NZ to Lake Ianthe Campground

Light rain falls on the rain fly as we pack up inside the tent, and then on our heads as we load up our gear and return to the trail. The hills that stood tall behind us last night have disappeared into the low clouds that brought the rain, and only the wekas are around to say good morning.

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We startle all kinds of other animals as we drop out of the forest and down into the valley. Rabbits shoot off into the bush when they see us coming, birds leap into flight from the tops of the fence posts, and we scare away the calves who graze on the grass at the trail's edge. But a poor group of about a dozen sheep have a much tougher go of it. When they see us coming they begin to run away, but because we're riding in between fenced paddocks there's nowhere for them to go but the direction we're headed. And because sheep have the ability to run a lot faster than you think, there isn't any way for us to overtake them and continue on. The faster we pedal, the more their instincts kick in, and the more they accelerate to try and stay ahead, leaving clouds of dust and the smell of sheep poop in their wake. This has the effect of turning us into shepherds for almost two miles, until at last one of the leaders gets caught up in the fence line and the others stop to watch, which gives us a narrow window to shoot past and lets the herd head back the way from which they came.

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We ride on gravel roads for much of the morning, and there are few places in this world we can imagine that would be finer than this little slice of New Zealand. There aren't any cars or trucks or mountain bikers out this early on a Sunday, which leaves us free to enjoy the sounds of the forest as it comes alive and revel in all of the shapes and textures and thousands of shades of green that fill our vision. It also gives us the chance to look out on Lake Kaniere, with the surface flat and calm, the water so clear that we can watch three-foot-long fish swim silently past the shoreline, the peaks of mountains hiding from view within the thick low clouds, blue ducks chasing each other across the sky and above our heads with nothing to muffle the sound of their honks and flapping wings, and not a person, a lodge, a power boat, or a zip line to be seen anywhere.

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We stop in the middle of the road to eat oranges, switch between talking in Wisconsin and Texas accents for who knows what reason, and dream about how wonderful it would be if we could cross every country in the world on peaceful and healthy back roads just like this one. That's when Kristen creates a word to describe these kinds of places: wilderishness. They're close enough to the outside world to remain accessible, but protected enough that much of the natural beauty remains. We hope there's more waiting for us as we continue south.

Before it dumps us back on to paved roads, the trail gives us one last shot of excitement. Over one five-mile stretch it takes us through an endless series of blind corners, creek fords, wooden bridges, switchbacks, and narrow paths with fast-moving water on one side and a steep dropoff on the other. We also have the chance and the need to dodge the occasional angled tree that stands at the trail's edge with the trunk hanging over the path at exactly face height. Each of us has a couple of moments where we're right on the line between in control and having fun, and completely out of control and flying face-first into the remnants of a mine shaft.

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"It's not for the faint of heart or the unbalanced," Kristen says.

This is the truth. On a mountain bike it would be less of a challenge, but with all of the extra weight and width that we bring to the trail, flying down on road tires requires all of the focus we can find. And it's fucking awesome.

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We stop in Hokitika long enough to load up on food, have a fifteen-year-old boy ask us to buy alcohol for him, and say at least half a dozen uncharitable things about the tourists that pour off brightly colored buses in waves and jam the town's sidewalks and cafes and knick-knack shops. We get excited for a moment when we hear the familiar sound of an American accent, but the feeling fades just as fast when we realize that the voice is attached to the most boring American tourist that has ever lived, the one who we will later watch miss his bus as it leaves town ("Hey, where's he going?")

A shop selling jade, a tour bus, and another shop selling jade. This is Hokitika.
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Then we return to Highway 6, which is the only main road around here, and the road that will become our constant companion for the better part of a week. Even though we're less than a mile from the sea we aren't able to see it, but that turns out not to matter at all. We take a break at a park next to a lake dotted with little one-person sailboats, where we eat perfectly ripe kiwi fruit with a spoon and debate whether we should change our name from Team Hawthorne to Team Bodily Noises. Later on, when a road biker passes going the opposite way, I wave. But instead of saying hi like I would back home I say hiya, because that's what most people here seem to say, and we've been in the country long enough that little things like this are starting to creep into my speech.

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We see cloud shadows charge along the hillsides and also across the fields, where young rams charge into each other head-first while the rest of the herd grazes without watching. We can figure out when the highway makes an arc back toward the sea not by the sight or the smell of the water, but by looking at the trees. The more dramatically the branches lean to the east, away from the direction of the prevailing winds, the closer we're getting. And despite the fact that we're on the only main road in the region, on a beautiful day, on the weekend, there's almost no traffic. And most of the traffic that does exist heads the opposite direction. This means that we can ride side by side and talk to each other almost the entire way. Throughout all of it we're warmed by the sun. It's proof that it doesn't take dramatic scenery or thrilling cycling or being welcomed into the home of a stranger to make bicycle travel interesting and satisfying. Sometimes a pleasant ride under sunny skies is more than enough.

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A one-way ticket.
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With the afternoon turning into evening we make our way up through a long run of climbs that are neither too long nor too steep. Soon the light traffic drops away to nothing and we start to pass from the boundaries of one scenic reserve to the next with only tiny gaps for farms and towns in between. This keeps us tunneled in a landscape where ferns grow so thick at the sides of the highway that it takes wide and deep drainage ditches to keep them from reclaiming the road and turning it back into bush land in a year's time. When we look off to either side of the highway, all we see is a wall of green that swallows up the light and leaves us wondering what kind of curious-looking creatures we might find back there.

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More than anything we're ridiculously happy — to be riding in this place, to be riding in this country, to be riding and experiencing all of these wonderful things together. It's all so good that the happiness starts to make us kind of crazy. We try to come up with terrible love songs, which Kristen then sings out loud, more or less on key but only with about fifty-fifty success on the lyrics. It starts with Celine Dion's "Power of Love," goes on to All 4 One's "I Swear," and then goes over the edge with modern classics like "When a Man Loves a Woman," "On the Wings of Love," and the truly heinous "Truly Madly Deeply" by Savage Garden. If anyone were around to see it they'd assume straight off that we were drunk. To think that two people could be so excited by traveling around on bicycles would seem beyond the scope of possibility.

Your day is coming.
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After we finish eating dinner along the shores of Lake Ianthe, with the sun falling behind the tallest hills to the west and the sandflies descending by the hundreds, I think about how I gave up so many parts of a normal life to make this trip happen. On the days that are tough, when the weather is bad or something important breaks or there's tension between Kristen and me, the hard moments can lead me to lay awake at night and wonder if I made the right choice, if all the struggle and the stress of riding and working and living on the road is worth the effort. I wonder if it could possibly live up to all of the expectations and hopes and dreams that I placed upon it.

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But then we have days like today, where everything falls into place, where cycling sixty miles feels like the most natural thing we could do, where we vibrate with joy, where our faces hurt from constant laughter, and where the details of the world unfold in front of us with the kind of depth and texture and unrivaled quality that we'll remember them with reverence for the rest of our lives. And then the answer becomes so obvious that I feel like a fool for ever having thought otherwise.

Today's ride: 59 miles (95 km)
Total: 2,444 miles (3,933 km)

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