Day 87: Near Beaumont, NZ to Flat Top Hill Conservation Area - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

November 21, 2014

Day 87: Near Beaumont, NZ to Flat Top Hill Conservation Area

I can't think of many things in this world better than falling asleep next to a river, tucked into a warm sleeping bag, knowing that I'm miles away from anyone besides the person laying next to me. On the heels of a long day spent pedaling a heavy bicycle those things come together to create the kind of deep, peaceful sleep that takes hold in minutes and doesn't end until light starts to shine through the rain fly.

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When we return to the trail we continue to ride all by ourselves. We pass the occasional abandoned shed or rusted-out car, dodge piles of cow shit and sometimes the cows who left them behind, and speed through clouds of gnats that stick to our arms and legs and faces by the dozens. The grades are easy and the surface in good condition, so the biggest challenge turns out to be lifting the bikes over a couple of downed trees that have fallen across the trail. This gives us the time and space to consider important things like the animated movie Pocahontas, how my high school French teacher would sometimes leave during the middle of class to take a smoke break, and the cultural significance of the collected works of Christina Aguilera.

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We stop in Millers Flat, where the town is small enough that the friendly woman who works the cash register at the grocery store is also responsible for putting the mail into the matrix of postal boxes that sit embedded into the front of the building. On the bench next to the door we eat fruit and chocolate and cookies, and listen to songs by The National, which sound tinny and flat as they pump out of a tiny iPhone speaker. Most of the locals who drive up say hello to us as they walk to or from their cars. When two farmers park in front of the store at the same time, we watch as they hop out of the cabs and then make small talk while checking out each other's trucks (called utes in New Zealand) and the details of the spraying hardware and plastic tanks attached to the flat steel beds in the back.

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Along the trail we see trees that have slumped so far over that a third of their branches now sit on top of or sink just below the surface of the rivers. There are also trees that have leaned so far in the other direction that they've fallen into the hills and form a natural archway over the path. Kristen stops several times to smell the little yellow and purple and white lupine flowers that grow up to and over the edge of the trail by the tens of thousands. And then we reminisce about our time in Portland: the things we did, the things we wish we'd done, and the things we'll do when we find ourselves back there some time next year.

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At a cafe in Roxburgh we meet our destiny. It comes in the form of a pair of toasted, melty, oniony cheese rolls artfully placed on a small white place in front of us.

"There's today," I say to Kristen, "And there's every day that came before."

In the end, we both agree that the cheese rolls were good but not great. But we'd built them up so much in the last week that I'm not sure anything short of a touched-by-God level of deliciousness could have satisfied us. At least Roxburgh has a fleet of those musical toilets that we've come to love so much, because it's been far too long since we pooped to the sound of Burt Bacharach's greatest instrumental hits.

"Every time I hear that song now I'll think about wiping pee off a public toilet seat," Kristen says as we pack up and get ready to leave town.

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Another off-road cycle trail leads north from Roxburgh, but there's an eight-mile gap in the middle that makes the whole thing inaccessible to most everyone. The gap exists where a farmer decided he wasn't going to let the few dozen tourists who actually use the thing ride on a seven-foot-wide path through the edge of his property, dagnabbit. The only way to use the trail, then, is to pay a hundred bucks a head to take a boat that can bridge the gap. We're not paying a hundred dollars for anything that doesn't come with a bottomless supply of pizza and cider and crumpets and also a puppy. Our only option is to head onto Highway 8 instead.

The highway is the definition of horrendous. It mixes heavy traffic with steep hills, blind corners, and narrow shoulders lined with deep, soft gravel. Worse still, it's the kind of road where every corner looks like it's the end of the hills, but then as soon as we reach the apex of the curve we see either more climbing ahead of us or a long descent followed by a longer climb that regains all of the lost elevation and then some.

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Angry skies full of rain and cold loom up above the hills to the west. The hills out toward the east look harsh, where pale yellow and green grass mixes with fat chunks of rock that date back to a time so distant that we can't even conceive of how long ago they were blasted into existence. But we hardly have the time and space to think of the landscape or the weather at all, because we have to pull off the highway constantly to let cars pass when they approach us from opposite directions at the same time. In our infinite wisdom we've placed ourselves in this terrible place just as Friday evening traffic starts to swell. The the wind shows up. And befitting of the situation, there's no gradual lead-in, no warm-up, no preview, just powerful gusts that appear without warning and proceed to shove us to the left and then the right nonstop, with the added effect of drowning out the noise of approaching traffic — all of which makes a tense and stressful and dangerous situation more tense, more stressful, and more dangerous.

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I try to figure out how to explain what I think of this stretch of highway.

"I want to call it a ball-buster, but that seems sexist," I say to Kristen in one of the rare moments where she can hear me over the howl of the wind. "But ovary-buster doesn't seem right. And gonad-buster is generic and just weird-sounding."

She thinks about this for a moment and responds, "How about you just call it a chain-buster instead?"

"Huh? What? No! That's ... what is this, second grade?"

"Then how about shitfucker? This road is a shitfucker."

"I like it!"

Two minutes later she says, "You're a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce, highway."

I pause for a moment to consider this.

"I prefer the brevity of shitfucker."

And a new highway name is born.

A potential source of our troubles: not enough energy-boosting scroggins.
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A few miles farther on, as we stop off the edge of the road to catch our breaths and try to make sure that our last strands of sanity don't blow away on the wind, I look over at Kristen and say, "It's not all rail trails and sunshine, but at least we're not riding through the middle of Bangkok right now, you know?"

But a certain points I wish we were. At least then we could pull off the road, head into a bar, and tuck into a pint or two of Chang until our nerves had a chance to piece themselves back together. Instead we grind and curse and fear for our safety without end on one of the worst stretches of road I've experienced in 20,000 miles of cycling, Central California coast included. Even though we only take one break longer than a few minutes, it takes us more than four hours to cover seventeen miles.

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And then our fortunes change. With morale heading down at high speed, we come across a conservation area that allows for wild camping. It takes literally three seconds for us to decide that we're not going any farther. Under skies so dark that the lake reflects a color more black than blue, we cycle down a dirt road, along a gravel footpath, and then push the bikes across the narrow concrete arc of a small dam. On the other side we set up the tent in a hollow protected from the wind, surrounded by schist formations and scrubby little native plants that we suspect look the same today as they did at the start of the last year, the last century, and the last millennium.

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We watch light fade to dark with the rain fly doors open, letting the breeze blow through instead of creating as many barriers as possible between us and the world, which has been our nightly burden for what feels like forever. Tonight we rest easy and let the bird calls, the buzz of bee wings, and the sound of an unknown something splashing at the water's edge a few hundred feet away carry us off to sleep.

Today's ride: 47 miles (76 km)
Total: 2,909 miles (4,682 km)

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