Day 81: Near Albert Town, NZ to Queenstown, NZ - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 15, 2014

Day 81: Near Albert Town, NZ to Queenstown, NZ

A storm rolls through during the middle of the night. Because we sit at the bottom of a valley where the surrounding hills are very high, instead of listening to the cracks of thunder dissipate out in a sort of radial pattern we hear them funnel back up the valley, where the waves bounce off the hillsides and seem to maintain their power and volume as they charge toward points north. Then the lightning comes. This makes Kristen anxious, because more than anyone I've ever met she worries about the chance of being struck by lightning while cycling or camping. Although I feel bad for her, and I understand where the fear comes from, I'm also kind of amused by it. Day after day I watch her ride in front of me wearing a black helmet with a black sweatshirt, black shorts, black leggings, black panniers, and a bike colored such a dark shade of red that it might as well be black. This has the effect of making her much less visible to the cars and trucks that blow past us all day long than she otherwise would be, which is a situation far more fraught with danger than a thunderstorm, but which doesn't bother her at all. Yet on this night, she lays awake nervous until fifteen minutes after the last flash lights up the inside of our tent.

Not pictured: the ice cold wind blowing straight down the lake from the mountains.
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Paul MulveyI’ve been in enough of these chilling windstorms to “see” the ice cold wind coming across the lake. I felt the cold before I even read your caption. Well pictured.
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11 months ago

Beyond the bistros, tract housing, designer dog breeds, and rock climbing gyms of Wanaka we head south and follow the curves of the Cardrona Valley. We ride among the smell of fresh-cut grass, the bleating of sheep, an endless series of paddocks, rows of plastic-wrapped hay bales that sit all alone in the middle of a field, and a dusting of snow so light on the closest hilltops that it looks more like powdered sugar. The combination of greens and yellows, the texture of the hills, the thick bands of trees along the banks of the river, and the color of the sky all remind me of Western Montana. They make my heart swell with awe and happiness and appreciation in much the same way.

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And like Western Montana there aren't many roads out here. Between Wanaka and Queenstown there are only two, which means that cars blow by us at high volume and high speed on the shoulderless road all day long. The wind also blows cold like it would in mid-spring in Montana, which leaves us riding in jackets and gloves all day. It also leads me to do what I so often do during strong headwinds: ignore the bike computer, try and focus on the beauty and detail of what's around me, and tell dirty jokes to the cows that huddle beneath the trees next to the road.

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Tired legs, traffic, the wind, and the cold make the day start to seem like a job to be completed. Our main source of joy comes from making fun of the roadies from Queenstown who fly by wearing stretchy clothing with garish colors and patterns that cover them from head to toe to keep out the cold. For most of them, their only exposed flesh is a small oval around the face, at the edge of which form rolls where the skin and fat mash together and create a series of chins that look like little inverted staircases. It's a rare day when we're not the worst-dressed people on the road, which makes these moments something to savor.

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As if someone has flipped a switch, the green landscape that's been our companion since New Zealand first came into view on our approach to the airport in Auckland disappears. In its place the hills turn yellow and dry, and look dead and lifeless in comparison to what's come before. Before I can consider why this might be, I have to take the lane and pull in front of an approaching SUV towing a trailer who has ideas of passing us on what has become a steep, narrow, winding road as two cars speed toward us from the opposite direction. This turns out to foreshadow what so much of the rest of the day will feel like.

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When the clouds thicken, we grind. When the wind blows with more force and anger, we grind. When the grade steepens again and the shoulder falls away to nothing, we grind. When tiny snowflakes start to fall as we near the top of the climb, we grind. When the wind reverses course and blows bigger snowflakes straight into our eyes and ears and freezes our faces in the process, we grind. We stop grinding when we reach the pass that crosses over the Crown Range, but only to talk about how cold we are and to put on rain pants for the horrible descent that's about to start.

Snow!
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As soon as we head down the other side, we begin to lose feeling everywhere beyond our core. There are beautiful mountain and lake views spread out before us, but with heads down and jaws clenched and fingers no longer warm enough to feel, we hardly notice the scenery. With wet rims and brakes and stiff hands, winding down through the dozens of switchbacks required to join the highway at the bottom is a tense, painful, frightening experience. We shed what feels like a couple thousand feet of elevation in less than ten miles and it feels like we have to earn every inch.

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We crank out slow miles toward Queenstown on rough cycle paths. A line of snow-capped mountains so remarkable that they're actually called The Remarkables look down on us from just below the cloud line, but we're so beaten down by the cold and the wind and the rain that it's hard to give them more than passing looks. It feels like a nasty winter's day in the Northwest, yet we're only five weeks away from the first day of the New Zealand summer, which somehow makes the dreariness that surrounds us seem that much worse. It also turns the end of the day into a death march where hunger and dehydration and fatigue bear down on us with greater force the farther we go. Yet we seem to be the only ones surprised by this, because we pass half a dozen couples walking hand in gloved hand, all of whom wear the kind of parkas most people reserve for blizzards.

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Reaching Queenstown provides a certain feeling of relief, but the place manages to cancel most of that out by presenting us with a long line of chain stores like Starbucks, KFC, Pita Pit, and Sunglass Hut, the kinds of things we haven't seen since we jumped a train out of Auckland. They're complemented by the thumping bass that echoes out of sketchy bars, the hiss of tour bus brakes, the packs of semi-drunk dudes who roll six or seven deep, the Louis Vuitton store, and the kind of shops that exist for the sole purpose of selling tourists thirty-dollar teddy bears, eighty-dollar jars of honey, and roughly 800 kinds of skin cream, all of which they could just as easily buy at home. It's a sudden, harsh, eye-rolling reminder of the kind of lifestyle we gave up on forever when we cycled away from Portland back in August.

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At least it's a city that has pizza — although to get it we have to go to a place that blasts American rock music, and where the waitresses all wear white bunny ears and puffball bunny tails, because we've happened to show up on what the sign outside advertises as their annual Pimps and Pornstars day. Whether the gravity of this event is felt by the two-dozen fifty-year-olds that eat their overpriced pizza while we wait for our takeaway order is unclear.

We skipped out on the Skittles shots.
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What is clear is that the road has taken its toll on me in the last week. My leg muscles are tired, my neck and shoulders ache, my hair is matted and crisp at the many points where it meets my helmet, my face and lips and chin are red from sunburn, I'm battling a pair of mystery eye infections, all of my clothes stink, and I have stacks of emails and journal comments to respond to. When I look at the weather forecast it shows a long stretch of terrible weather looming only a few days off. The weight of all of these things bear down on me and leave my mind a tangled mess, which leads to me standing in the bathroom for ten minutes, forehead against the wall, staring down at the floor trying to make sense of all that's happened, thinking about how to fix what's broken, and hoping to figure out where our adventure is headed next. Sometimes this bike touring stuff is just hard.

Today's ride: 52 miles (84 km)
Total: 2,730 miles (4,394 km)

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