[This is the final post in the series Smiling Kodiak Rides Again]
I may call myself a progressive, but at the end of most days there is nowhere I’d rather be than where I started: home. This morning the sultry voice of the Radio National breakfast host informed me it would be no easy feat: “Today’s forecast is for severe and sometimes dangerous thunderstorms, with high winds and damaging hail.” I don’t usually start my day with a prayer, but on this occasion I asked the gods to let me discover the radio station was broadcasting from a distant region of country Victoria.
The weather radar confirmed the accuracy of the forecast. A long swath of red nightmarish storms crept slowly towards us, running parallel to the entirety of our sixty kilometer cycling route from Myrtleford back to Wangaratta. I muttered many solemn oaths. Damn gods.
Outside, fish-scale clouds turned scarlet as the sun rose. I reviewed my maritime weather ditties: “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Mackerel sky, not long dry.” Damn ditties.
It wasn’t raining yet, though, so we decided to git while the gitting was good. It would take the best part of three hours to ride back down to Wangaratta. I figured that left an extra two hours to shelter somewhere when the storm came through. Thunder rumbled in the distance. The wind was blowing in an upwards direction, revealing the bottom of every leaf I saw. The air had a distinctly electrical smell, reminding me of the time my brother stuck a butter knife in a power outlet. (This is the sort of lesson older brothers are most useful in providing.)
I worry too much. After the short climb back up to Taylor’s Pass, we coasted the rest of the way, barely stopping. By ten-thirty we had stored the bikes at the train station with three hours to luxuriate in wondrous Wangaratta. This worked out to be about two hours and forty-five minutes more than required.
Oh, look, Wangaratta is a lovely town, although even Wikipedia seems unable to identify its raison d’être. After checking out several second-hand shops, including the nicest Salvation Army store I’d ever visited, we sat down for lunch at the Pinsent Hotel. The kitchen didn’t open until noon, but the place was buzzing – with houseflies. We sat in a sunny windowed corner reading and swatting with the local paper as a half dozen elderly couples shuffled in. The waitress knew them all by name, confirming their regular orders without prompting. “The fish and chips, Mac? And the lamb for you Libby? I’ll be right over with the coffee.” The only attention we got was from one couple that fixed upon us with a disapproving glare. I think we may have taken their table, or perhaps swatted their flies. We survived a most forgettable lunch.
A bus load of men – about twenty of them, all between twenty-five and forty, all wearing blue jeans and work boots – arrived. They lined up a row of deuces that stretched across the restaurant. A few of them headed for the pokies (slot machines) after finishing their lunch, but most of them just sat there silently, with one eye on their beer and the other on the television. Frank and I tried to concoct a reasonable explanation for this social event. The most likely description we could conjure was a prison guards’ wake.
The Wangaratta Chronicle shed some light on the picture. It quoted police as saying that over their Australia Day crackdown, one in three Wangarattans tested had illicit drugs in their system. Yikes. That explained the bus. And possibly the disapproving glare. It was time to get out of Wang.
Back at the train station we collected our bikes and tried to positon ourselves at the point on the platform where the baggage car would stop, leaving us first in line. To my dismay, eight other cyclists had the same idea before us. A delicate ballet was underway. One cyclist, and then the next, would nonchalantly maneuver a bicycle a bit closer to the platform edge, a slow-motion game of chicken. The tension was palpable.
Then, just as the train arrived, the Sword of Damocles, hanging there for three days now, fell. A severe and sometimes dangerous thunderstorm hit with high winds and damaging hail. The V/Line station employee offered instruction and assistance, but when a lightning bolt cracked nearby all semblance of civility ceased. A young girl squealed in utter horror. An old man barked “Unhand me!” although nobody was handing anybody that I could see.
Simultaneously, four cyclists tried to force their way into the baggage car, all elbows and handlebars. Three of them ended up in a tangled heap on the baggage car floor. I was fine, though, realizing once in that there was ample room for all. Helping them up, a comprehensive round of insincere apologies were exchanged, signaling the resumption of polite society.
V/Line returned us home in timely and comfortable fashion. Believe it or not, I had nothing to complain about.