Where were we, my loves?
I’d fallen from a cliff into depression, and spent over two years fretting over where to live.
This is the story that comes after.
Of the journey between here and there.
Of the space after the leap before we land.
Of Leonie pretending she’s Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson, travel writer for the day. (She may also be in the mood for talking about herself in the third person today too, it seems.)
Of the insights that emerged from a road trip across inland Australia.
We pointed the car’s nose north and headed out of Canberra for the second momentous time in our lives.
The children were hungry before we even got out of the suburbs (of course).
When you are going on a long trip, it feels like the time spent trying to get out of your own city seems infuriatingly long. SET ME FREE DAMNEST CITY, I LONG FOR THE OPEN ROAD!
At last, onto the highway. North to Yass, Boorowa, Cowra and beyond.
We drive up along the alpine ridges through platypus country, take unexpected backroads down tiny country roads, watch the morning light sprite over frosted gum trees.
I imagine myself living in every house we pass, wondering what life would be like if this was home.
Who lives here? How did they end up here? Are they happy?
Could I live here? Would I be happy here?
We begin playing a game in the car, a game we will come to rue the moment it fizzed into my overexcitable brain:
KIDS! EVERY TIME YOU SEE AN ANIMAL, YOU MUST SHOUT WHAT SOUND IT MAKES!
It was glorious fun for quite a long while there.
It was a car that echoed with 80% BAAAAS, 15% MOOOOOOS, 3% NEEEEEEEEEEEEIGHS and 2% WOOOOF, BOING BOING BOING (kangaroos and rabbits) and MEEEEEEH (goat).
I guess that gives you a fairly good indication of the country we drove through.
It’s a long ass journey, from there to here. Australia, the land of the great expanse, long stretches of road with no one in sight.
The first night, we drive off the alpine ridge and descend down into the western plains. Here, there’s a big country town that I’ve dismissed for years. We’d stopped here 16 years ago, right at the beginning of adulthood and life, on our trek to move to Canberra for the first time. We were young and broke back then, so we stayed at the cheapest hotel on the cheapest street. It was littered with trucks and fuel stations and fast food joints. That’s all I saw, and it left a dusty aftertaste in my mouth, so for years afterwards I called it f: Dubbo, The Overgrown Truckstop.
My husband likes to tease me for my snap judgments, so for the past 16 years, his first response to questions about where he’d like to holiday or move to has always been a deadpan: Why, Dubbo of course. And I would respond in furious tones: NEVER! FUCK DUBBO! GRUMBLE TRUCKSTOP GRUMBLE! And we would both laugh wildly. (I should mention that we’re at that phase in our relationship that our inside jokes are SO inside they are inbred and barely comprehensible even to us. This does not make them any less funny however – the ridiculousness of just how recycled and worn they are make them even better. Like fine wine, our repertoire of old couple jokes.)
So my husband was so excited to AT LAST be staying in our favourite joke town that he suggested we stay for TWO NIGHTS and really live it up. And hey, why don’t we finally go to the zoo there too?
Now, from the outside, it would look like I would be the opinionated driving force in the relationship: in public, I’m extroverted, loud, obnoxious, frequently inappropriate, flamboyantly ambitious. My husband is the gentle, quiet quintessential introvert who appears to be mildly amused by my behaviour. Behind the scenes in life though, our roles reverse. He likes to talk more, I prefer to have my head jammed firmly in a book. He wants to discuss feelings, I want to watch TV. He makes most decisions on what we do on a day-to-day basis, I don’t really care either way. I’d rather just sit and read, thanks, so he’s going to need to decide if we leave the house and where we are going. This may also be due to the fact he’s a Rebel, I’m an Obliger and we’re in a quintessential Rebel-Obliger relationship (as coined by the ever fabulous Gretchen Rubin).
All of that, of course is a very long way of saying: Chris wanted to do something, so I went along with it as I usually do. I don’t know why I didn’t say that to begin with, or why it even needs saying, but there it is. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. If I’m ever erring on whether I should include more details or not, I’ll take more details for 600, thanks Alex.
So that’s how we ended up staying in Dubbo for two nights. Because of a joke and a zoo. We aren’t broke anymore, so we rented a sweet little cottage in a sweet part of town. It also meant our absurd white fluffy dog could stay with us so she could continue her decade-long obsession with staring at my husband. I don’t blame her, it’s my obsession too. Here’s the cottage, incase you ever find yourself there because of a joke and a zoo too. We bunkered down for the night, ordering Hogs Breath dinner to be delivered (OH THE DELIGHT!!!!!!) and I washed my kids in the little tub at the bottom of the shower.
The next day we went to the Holy Grail: DUBBO ZOOOOO. And immediately shelled out to hire a golf cart to tour the zoo because FUCK YES GOLF CARTS. Dubbo Zoo is a big ass zoo that stretches for kilometres. You can walk, bicycle, take your car or hire a zoo golf cart. HIRE THE FUCKING GOLF CART FOR THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE GUYZZZZ. NO OTHER OPTION IS WORTH LIVING FOR. The golf cart was honestly at least 80% of our zoo excitement as a conservative estimate. Sure, there were animals, but GODDAMN A ZEBRA PRINTED GOLF CART WITH 4WD WHEELS. I’m trying to think of other notable memories from the zoo and the below is the sum total of our day beyond those golf carts:
Meerkats are terrified of planes as they believe it is a bird of prey.
“Honey, have we ever seen an elephant before IRL? I can’t remember?”
“Ummm… YES! Don’t you remember like… ALL OF INDIA? And all the elephant-related traffic jams?”
“Oh! Yes! There’s that!”
(I’m the forgetful one.)
We studied hippopotamus (hippopotamusses? hippopotami?) for a long time. In particular, their pooping habits. This stems from our family obsession of this video clip. My kids are also at the stage where butts and farts and poops are pretty much the funniest thing in existence, so they were chanting “OOOH YEAH! JUICY JUICY HIPPO BUTT! HIPPO’S GOT A JUICY BUTT BUTT” and taking extremely zoomed in photos of said juicy hippo butt butt. I duly noted down in my homeschooling mother’s journal the important lesson that had taken place in animal biology that day.
And then we toddled back to that sweet little cottage to ponder how early we could order Hog’s Breath to be delivered again.
(And relive in vivid detail our DAY IN A ZEBRA GOLF CART.)
The next day we take more Google Maps-instigated back roads and wonder what sound we are supposed to shriek when we see EMUS!
I’d like to take this opportunity to provide an important pronunciation lesson for all Americans.
Emu is NOT pronounced E-moooo.
It’s pronounced E-mew.
It’s our bird, so I reckon we get pronunciation rights on it.
Anyways, we saw ’em.
We drive through the largest nature reserve in Australia, all red dirt and black-barked trees.
There are slices of excitement when we see wild goats and a wilder pig.
Mostly I just let the sun wash over me and feel gladness:
for a new road, a new view, for land I haven’t seen with these eyes before.
I’m no longer stuck in indecision, I’m free and moving forward.
This is a grand adventure, no longer the sunken regret of my life.
The relief is immense.
It grows warmer as we travel north and I start to peel off winter layers.
My husband’s Pepsi explodes in the car somewhere between Dubbo and Moree, soaking all four of us, our seats, the car ceiling, our confused dog.
We can barely breathe for laughing so hard. We pull over to find towels to mop us all up and to get new clothes for thoroughly drenched me. We drive off again, slightly sticky skin for the rest of the day.
I roll up my sleeves, let the light seep in.
The trees and mountains begin to thin until we realise they have thinned so much they are non-existent. We are in flat-as-a-tack cotton country. There is nothing here. Nothing but flat lands, and cotton. We marvel at how you can stare for miles until the mirages make your eyes wobble.
I text one of my dearests who grew up here and left as an adult.
Fuck me mate, your joint is thrill-a-minute. So much to see!
I take a photo of the void as evidence. There’s three things to see in every direction you face: land that stretches unchanged in colour, texture or flora, horizon, parched blue sky. There’s less here than in the desert.
She messages me back:
I used to dream of what it would be like one day to see a mountain.
That thought sticks with me.
Her, as a little girl, hearing about mountains, wondering what those magical things must be like. It seems to me we are all raised with those blind spots, of the things that weren’t visible in our reality, until one day they suddenly were. I wonder what soul lessons must be born from living in this kind of sparse triptych painting, what it would feel like to walk the landscape as the tallest vertical around. Would you feel more alive to the blunt, bare, naked truth of it all: that we are spinning on a ball in space, only just barely held down by gravity?
These are the kinds of things I think of.
The cotton trucks leave wafts in their wake, and the cotton balls cling to the sides of the road. It looks like it is snowing, it looks like rabbits have had their tails caught in a weed, it looks like the truck drivers have been weeping and thrown their spent tissues as they went.
My children marvel at it out the window, and I smugly tell my husband this is the best geography class our kids could ever take.
Just when I think I can’t bear the bare anymore, vegetation begins to re-emerge again, as does such anomalies as mounds of grass! Trees! Rivers! Oh look! A hill! A mountain range off in the distance!
My palette has been washed anew and my eyes can not be more excited to have more things to fixate on.
CACTUS! I SEE A CACTUS!
First one, then another. We crow and crane to search for more. My children haven’t seen wild cacti before, and each new sighting is a miracle. Within an hour, the far and few between sightings begin to cluster until cacti is our new normal.
The sunlight slants golden red by afternoon. It’s not sunset, but there’s a fire somewhere, sending up great gobs of smoke, choking all other colours out.
We keep driving as the land grows greener and the temperature raises higher celcius by gradual celcius.
We cross the Queensland border, stop at a motel at at the river town of Goondiwindi.
My eldest daughter gets out of the car.
It’s been four years since we left Queensland. She’d spent her first four years there and was used to living barefoot, or in thongs if shoes were essential. So much so that when we’d moved to Tasmania and suddenly rediscovered the need for shoes, we’d had a bloody hard time finding footwear she could tolerate.
“Mum, please! These are so uncomfortable! I don’t want to wear shoes! They feel so bad around my feet! I don’t like it!”
It took months of experimenting and buying different styles of shoes before she didn’t complain. And then she’d adapted, and we didn’t hear anything more about her hatred of shoes.
Until we crossed the border back into Queensland, four years later.
Unannounced, my daughter discards her shoes and informs me:
“I won’t be wearing shoes ever again, I’ve decided. We are in Barefoot Country and I’m going to be the Barefoot Kid again!”
My husband and I blink and stare at her, then each other.
We shrug and say:
“Okay. Sounds good honey.”
We had no idea it had still been weighing so heavily on her soul/sole.
The motel owner comes over to give us milk, and stays with us, talking for a long time. She kneels on the ground, pats our dog, talks to our kids. She asks us questions about our life and tells us about hers and is all round the most friendly person we’ve met in years.
My husband and I turn to each other, weary, blinking.
We’d forgotten how friendly people can be out of the city. We’d forgotten how much we’d missed this.
Is this why we’d grown so sad?
My barefoot children decide that since they are officially in the semi-tropical north again, they need to make use of the hotel pool. It may be dead of winter, but the temperature is 20 degrees – something we hadn’t felt in months in Canberra, and it would have been months more before we felt it again.
I let them wade, see the puffer-jacketed Queenslanders oggle at us.
I know what they are thinking:
It’s what we used to think when we were here and saw Victorians sunbaking in Airlie Beach in July.
I laugh. This winter, we are the crazy Southerners feasting on 20 degrees.
Next winter, we will return to our Queenslander ways of shivering under 25.
The next morning my barefoot children clamber in the backseat, restless for landing.
Today is the day we turn east – glad east – and slip off the ranges into the coast, to greens and blues, to our new home.
I don’t know what we were expecting on this trip following the Queensland border towards the sea.
It’s land we haven’t traversed before which continues to make me giddy.
We thought it would gradually grow busier, denser with people and population.
Instead we drive for hours through shrub. The only signs of people are the tiny dirt roads every so often with a wooden sign denoting the property name. I don’t know what they farm here: cows? Sheep?
We see nothing, and can only assume they are farming dirt and trees.
Still, there’s a sweet relief in my bones when I see the tell-tale signs of my home state:
The palm trees. A sky that is saturated cornflower blue.
The wooden Queenslander houses in all their verandah-ed glory.
I didn’t know how attached I was.
Finally the great expanse of dust and tree farming ends and becomes the greens of horse studs instead. We manoeuvre through the industrial expanse of Toowoomba before suddenly hurtling down the range. It is steep – far steeper than we expected, and our car begins to shriek in resistance.
My husband and I give each other Looks, and hold our breaths until we can finally pull off.
I picture the rest of the day being swallowed with mechanics and maybe a new car. We test and check, and by we, I mean my husband. Once he’s satisfied it was an anomaly, we saddle up and carry on east. (Spoiler alert: it ended up shitting its pants a couple months later.)
East and the inland becomes hinterland as we swarm closer to the sea. The greens become greener, the blue becomes bluer. We drive through rainforest, past wildly shaped mountains, remnants of volcano lava cores now lush with trees. Villages are sprinkled through here: fudge stores and antique shops, all the kinds of things that are generally fucking useless to locals but fabulous for tourists.
Under a motorway, then up a highway, past the stories of my husband’s youth.
This is near where my friend died, he tells me.
And we are silent because even though it is new land for me, it is old for him, and it comes with its own stories both glad and hard.
And I am grateful because he’s said yes to this, yes to me yet again, yes to finding what our family needs together. Despite all his reservations, he’s taken the leap with hand in mine.
And I am full of love for him, grateful for his grace.
The sign points to our new suburb on the Sunshine Coast.
We indicate and turn towards it.
At some point, between the gums and the gullies and that great golden light flickering, I turn to Chris and say:
You know, all this talk and soul searching about where home is, and I’ve been thinking of something.
People always ask me why we don’t move overseas. We can live anywhere, so why wouldn’t we live in France, or Japan? But I’ve never even toyed with the idea, it’s never once tempted me, and I don’t think you’ve ever wanted to either.
And I’ve been thinking about why that is, and I think for me it’s because I would become so homesick for this land. Remember when we spent a month in India and Singapore, and when we got home, I just sank down on the ground outside of the bus stop? I missed the Australian dirt so very much.
I think at the very heart of it all, Australia is my home. And it hasn’t been one town or one place for me to call home, it’s been all of Australia. I just love her, all of her.
And I feel so very lucky that I’ve been able to love so much of her.
All this time I’ve been looking for home and I’ve been inside her all along.
And he smiles, and he nods.
He loves her just like I do.
And we turn and watch her great beauty unfolding beneath our wheels.
Home. We were inside her all along.
(To be continued… as ever…)