In lives too busy and with too many demands, we jumped at the chance to go bicycle touring for a few days, longing for the simple rhythms of thinking about nothing more than the spinning spokes of a bicycle wheel, about the next feed, the next climb, the next piss, the next shower and bed at the end of the day. Our destination: the ‘hills’ on the edges of the Hunter Valley, up Gresford, Dungog and Stroud way. We slept in old pubs that charged next to nothing and reminded me of my boyhood in country towns.
I am always astounded at how rich the experiences of a few days can be: on this three-day ride they included memories of my dead father preaching, the campest gay man I have met, with his fluffy pink cowboy hat serving drinks behind the bar, a farmer with impossibly white teeth and a ‘strange’ smile, ‘law-and-order’ country style, and some absolutely gut-busting climbs and whooping drops – all these experiences and more at our doorstep! In any other place in the world, places like this would make you feel like you were in another country. Here they are barely 50 km away.
The first day, from Newcastle to East Gresford via Paterson, was a late March stinker: 32 degrees in the shade and 45 on the road. Our riding legs were not quite with us yet, so the long stops for a fire and billy of tea were welcome, as was the slow litre of ginger ale at Vacy while we watched the locals go about their daily lives: a woman with a massive coif emerging from the ‘Cowlick’ salon (a shed at the back of the general store); the woman in the shop boasting of her five children in five years; and beside the road a roo resting from the heat, disturbed by our passing. As far as he was concerned, cars and trucks were obviously fine, but bicycles and voices not – he resettled about fifty metres away.
Yet a sizeable chunk of the day was spent – unexpectedly – thinking of my father. On a back road I spied the towering Presbyterian Church of Patterson, hard by the railway bridge. I have worshipped in there! I recalled the panelled pulpit of an old church, the towering windows, the high iron bars holding the timber structure together, the small vestry, the aged Presbyterian hymn books, the magnificent pews and those utterly useless radiators half-way up the walls. But I also recalled my father leading worship and preaching there of a Sunday evening once per fortnight, often playing the organ as well with his great flourishing finales, of a youth group that meant so much to me worshiping there. More than three decades ago: he was my age, still seeming to enjoy life, always on the lookout for his ideal country parish that seemed to be one more church away.
Back to the ride: with leaden legs and red faces we puffed into East Gresford, soaked up a long shower … and were informed no food was available in town.
‘Except’, said the publican, ‘two supreme pizzas at Dot’s shop up the road’. He phoned and asked, ‘Do you want them?’
‘Does the pope tuck his pants in with a shoehorn’, I thought.
Soon enough Ron at the bar put down his beer and drove me over, although I had to compete with the beloved dog for space.
‘We don’t get much trouble up here’, Ron said. ‘And if we do, we know soon enough who it is’.
I laughed. ‘Just like when I was growing up – in towns like this’.
‘Oh, they try’, he said. ‘Especially at the show. Blokes from Raymond Terrace or Newcastle might try to stir things up. But we snuff it out soon enough and they don’t get far’.
Later in the evening I fell into a dead sleep pondering the benefits and drawbacks of country ‘law-and-order’.
Our second day, eastward across two mountain ranges and the Dungog Valley to Stroud, demanded not merely riding legs, but mountain-climbing legs. We had one massive mountain climb and few very decent ‘hills’ to climb. Mountains are deceptively easy if you refrain from pedalling like mad to get to the top and restrict yourself to a cadence that is well within your capabilities – or so the wisdom goes. It all gets tossed aside on really serious climbs: now the next revolution of a pedal is a major achievement, even with a gutful of liquorice for ‘energy’. At last, at long last, the top of the climb arrives … and nothing quite compares with the 8 km drop on the other side, whooping by vistas of green hills and mountains, gorges and valleys.
Dungog was our lunch stop. ‘Dead Dog’, they used to call it: a country town that felt much the same year after year (and I have been coming here on and off for more than three decades). But today I noticed again the changes of the last couple of years: a new lick of paint here and there, a cafe or three, newer cars, glistening real estate agents. The city mob had found Dungog at last, finding here an ‘untouched’ country town; except that by their arrival they change it and thereby remove what was appealing (the anthropologist’s curse). Stroud, our destination for the day, may have become such a town many years ago, especially since it was on a main drag and not at the end of the road. But now it was Dungog’s turn.
One more ‘hill’ – another mountain really – and we rolled wearily into Stroud. Only to be greeted by perhaps the campest barman I have ever met. Behind the bar at the Central Hotel he winked and purred and tilted his pink cowboy hat with tassels. ‘A room?’ he said. ‘Of course’, and jiggled his hat some more. He was obviously good for business, since the whole town seemed to have congregated in this massive establishment.
He was certainly better company than the bearded farmer with a strange glistening smile who came over to chat on the next day – south-east on the coastal push, via Medowie and the Stockton ferry home. On a relatively easy day with an increasing headwind across the coastal flats to home, we had stopped beneath a stunning Morton Bay fig for a drink and snack. Before long the farmer appeared – smiling very widely indeed. ‘I thought one of my calves was caught in the barbed wire’, he said. ‘Those bicycles look like calves at a distance’. I was reminded of the sign at the pub: ‘It you think the bar staff are beautiful, don’t drive – you’ve had too much’. We were on our way quickly.
Back in Stroud: we found our room past the faded piano covered in bird shit, up the swaying staircase, and through double doors that opened onto the balcony. The best view in town! But what has all this got to do with Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution? In the late afternoon sun, I pulled out a volume of Lenin’s Collected Works (45 volumes in total). Feet up on the cast-iron railing, looking out over the town and the hills, I read Lenin. I had done the same in East Gresford, and briefly in Dungog, wandering if this was the first time Lenin’s collected works had been read in these parts. Perhaps not, but I am reasonably sure that he didn’t arrive by bicycle.