Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hilltop Hotel

March 26th.

I submerged my head. It had been ages since I last took a proper bath, especially one that could fit my reasonably large 6'5" frame. The water was too hot, just the way it should be. I changed positions, either scooting forward to submerge myself to the neck and thus exposing my knees, or submerging my knees at the cost of exposing my chest. The high and much cooler mountain air was now humid in the small, shared bathroom on the second floor of the Hilltop Hotel in Omeo. Seems like a lot of mountain towns are four-letter words. Maybe that’s just me. The blood pounded in my ears as my body temperature rose with the hot water. Omeo in its lawless gold rush days 150 years ago had been referred to as "the mud, the blood and the beer." Granted, my mate at the end of the barstool was a few beers down when he told me that earlier in the night as happenstance put me at the Hilltop. I had not planned to stay at the Hilltop Hotel. I had not planned to run out of cash in the high country of Victoria, either. Who was to know that the only ATM for 50 km in either direction and available after 7 p.m. would not have money it?

I had not panned to stay at the Hilltop Hotel, but that last 27 km through Cassillis hadn’t been the icing on a cake, but rather the unforgiving stretch in what was already a long, hard day of climbing - especially the unforgiving Kilometers 17 and 18 from the turnoff in Swifts Creek. The country was high and getting higher as I plowed through Long Gully. Distance seemed variable as I climbed through a valley into the mountains. Each gully, stream, and ridge created troughs on the hillside that draw your eyes towards the center in vertigo. My eyes wanted to pop out of my head. This was the hardest physical riding of the trip. Unencumbered by bags, I may have enjoyed it. I wasn’t either – unencumbered nor enjoying it. Joy, however, was reaching the crest. It seemed I was in another world on a high plateau with mountains stretching off into the distance – a thousand feet closer to the dark and ominous clouds appearing behind the now visible peaks.

I had planned to stay in the bush, but my legs jellied and were asking for some love. It was a request I could have ignored if the freezing rain had not started to fall quickly, chilling me in my perspiring state. Dry-shirt, jacket, hat and a mostly downhill run still did not keep me from the cold as I rolled into Omeo. I had no cash and knew an ATM would be hard to find in a small mountain town late in the evening, and thus I daydreamed I would find a publican with a kind heart willing to take my passport as collateral until whatever store that had an ATM opened in the morning.

The publican’s name was Tom - 58, glasses, flannel shirt and a trim frame from a lifetime of outside physical labor. He worked the pub part-time for Sharon and Pat - 18 months the owners of this old pub. It had a white edifice with bars on the window and a solid steel bar to keep the rowdy drunks out when it’s time to be out. Sharon tells me of the locals that come in and relate to her of "the time they paid for a window when they 'put so-and-so's head through it.'"

On that windy Wednesday night that I arrived, there was no sign of the roughness. Just a cheerful "we’ll take care of you; she’ll be right" attitude that got me an open line of credit at the hotel. This coincided with a "mate your f***ing crazy; there’s two inches of snow at Mt. Hotham (my destination that week)," from the locals.

There was no doubt I’d get to Hotham, but they were not convinced I would do it on my bike. This remains to be seen. Either way, rides were offered all around. My mate at the end of the bar sat and shot the breeze. Mostly he spoke, and I listened and heartily agreed. I put a lamb shank on the tab. It was only 2 bucks more than the chicken parma. The meat fell off the bone, and I guiltlessly ate some of the fat.

He asked me to join him outside as he "hadda fag." Dude, the Kelpie dog, was outside plowing trough a mountain of scraps from the kitchen. His girth revealed that he ate from the top paddock. He brought me a broken and slobbery tennis ball, and my friend rolled his eyes.
"Don’t start that shit," he said.

Despite this, he was a good, if inebriated, bloke with a touch of the curmudgeon to him. I threw the ball anyway, and Dude, "Cool Dude" by Sharon’s reckoning, ran into the wall of steel kegs in the back and returned it, dropping it gently on the turned-over styrofoam eskie next to me.

We go back inside and converse with Sharon and Tom. I switch from beer (four pots = 2 pints) for candy. I eat three. Tom goes to bed saying he would meet me next morning for “brekkie” and get my passport out of the safe. My mate gets a six-pack of VB (Victoria Bitter) and heads back to his place to sit in his spa and have a rare "lie in." Sharon and I talk a bit more. Two months after coming to the Hilltop, the bush fires came, and firefighters from all the old colonies (Canada, NZ and USA) came to Omeo. It was 130 breakfasts a day and 200 meals a night. Sharon got 4 hours of sleep a night and lost 50 lbs. She pours a glass of Kahlua splashed with mild and four ice cubes. I help her put up the stools and note with amusement that the felt of the pool table is decorated in bikini-clad woman. I am informed there are more risqué ones. I see cigarette burns in the felt. Sharon locks up the joint, placing the large steel bar on the door. We are now safe from errant drunks and Mongol hordes alike.

The hotel and the characters that come with it hint of a time not so long ago - the mud, the blood and the beer. The doors are old and thick, and the hallways are narrow. It’s a mountain, high country feeling – the Wild West. The hot bath in the hotel and the fact that I am the only guest completes this image. The towel is red, and neatly folded on the lavender doona. It’s crisp from being line-dried, and it scratches my back with great satisfaction. I hadn’t planned on staying at the Hilltop Hotel - but I’m glad I did.

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