Note: Names have been changed.
A note on my disappearing act—
You know how it goes: January is two-thirds of the year, February and March are weekends, by the time December rolls around you have twenty minutes to make a plan for New Year’s and then boom, it’s time to swap the Christmas tree for Easter decorations. Add Millennial apathy and work ethic and you get this, a writing assembly line churning out a single mediocre travel essay a month.
My URL traffic reflects the post shortage. Numbers are down to Trump Inauguration levels, but that’s okay. Surely in the meantime, you’ve found other newsworthy stories. Stormy Daniels controlled her narrative and hundreds of thousands of actors bankrolled by Soros and, I dunno, let’s say the Jewish controlled Deep State, marched across America in an attempt to prevent tragedies that had, up until 1999, been entirely averted using thoughts and prayers. With this as the backdrop, my adventures feel less than irrelevant.
But this is the Internet, history’s most pernicious and nefarious choose your own adventure story. An organism so voracious in its content consumption that its sheer volume and copypasta tendencies belittle its quality. An article about Christopher Steele and a trending one on Buzzfeed, “Plan Your Dream Vacation and We’ll Reveal Your Emotional Age”, can cause an actual split in attention. This helpful sheet on spotting fake news should be on every screen, but instead, it’s easier for actual fake news to take its place. HIV Kinder Eggs comes to mind, as does: “Was Amelia Earhart Eaten by Giant Crabs”? (The answer, as the article re-confirms, is no.)
Having done my duty to try to nudge your attention towards current events, my conscious is clear to continue into the deep and dirty work of creating superfluous prose.
Where I left off was Noosa. I was with the Dutch ticking time bomb, Lisa. She’s cast from the mold that all Dutch people are cast, though she’s “short for a Dutch girl”, about 5’ 8”. Her skin turns to toffee in sun, her blonde hair darkens. She keeps the hair in a ponytail, otherwise, it falls crimped and splays oddly about her shoulders and face. Her face is well put together, pretty, teeth in ideal alignment. Her proportionate nose is adequately fixed to the center, and her eyebrows don’t tend towards too thin or too bushy. She is flat footed and walks with her weight forward, slapping the ground. Nearly always in flip-flops, the shoe absence lets her display her body’s most recent addition: a tattoo of a wave. The personal significance of this tattoo, she assures me, is monumental. Her intent is to add a mountain tattoo, and the dual symbols will represent life narratives that are essential to understanding who she is, where’s she’s been, and how she’s developed. She refuses to tell me what they are. “I can perhaps never trust anyone enough to share these things,” she says.
Two narratives did become clear. The first was physical in nature. A year earlier, while biking in Holland, she crossed a busy intersection and wound up in a driver’s lap. The car twisted her bike into a steel origami and made her bones, especially the collar, into internally lodged confetti. Surgery pieced her together and left her with a railroad track scar across her shoulder blade. The bolts that held her collarbone together were hard knobs that raised her skin. And when she carried a bag, she slung it over her unharmed shoulder.
The second narrative involved men. Not quite multitudes—two in particular—though she did say being such a late bloomer in the attractiveness arena made her a barnacle when it came to men who showed her any romantic interest. A simple hello was enough.
Lisa is now in her late twenties, but in college she came to Australia as part of her hospitality degree’s study abroad program. For most of the program she was in Noosa, and, as things are wont to do, she met a boy. One rather connected, with wealth, and possessive of a bad streak. In other words, a teenage girl heartthrob. The romance was brisk. His parents considered her their daughter, she and he discussed kid names, and she planned to move to Australia when her degree finished in order to begin life as Mrs. Noosa Boy.
This is not to say there were no warning signs, there were: his prodigious drug use, his planting drugs on her as she moved about town, his temper, his penchant for the physical, his taste in music. Yet being nineteen and growing up ugly only to become attractive shapes a mind into believing in relationship scarcity, so she tolerated a lot.
When she went back to Holland to finish her degree and prepare for her return to Australia, she received an electronic missive from her beau, the condensed summary of which said: “do not return, found someone better.” Many tissues were sacrificed, bad poems were written, John Meyer songs memorized. He was kind enough to pay for half the airplane fare she had purchased and now would have to cancel without refund. A decade elapsed and she returned to Noosa for the first time, arriving shortly before I did. Time had not quite stripped locations of their emotional potency: the hotel where they met, since remodeled, the street where he lived, landscaped unchanged. These presented her with small reminders of a life not lived. What should have been locations of complete familiarity were now icons of an alternate history.
“Does he still live here?” I asked. She shook her head.
Her romances did not end with him. Another guy, more recent, also broke her heart in engineered ways only imaginable in retrospect. She refused to tell me the core aspects of this story, instead choosing to hold the narrative prism to segment different light. How she overcame this relationship trauma was using the same vehicle Jiminy Cricket used for transportation: a falling star. While sitting on a New Zealand beach in the middle of the night, she looked skyward. New Zealand skies are choked with stars, they could die by the thousands and their numbers would seem no less. She witnessed the disintegrating streak of a meteor and interpreted it as a message from her ex-boyfriend, telling her, “It’s okay, you can move on and be free.” (I suggested he communicated this already when he dumped her.)
There were many narrative gaps in these stories, ones I replicate here, both out of necessity and laziness. I found that the connect the dot game of her relationship history wasn’t much fun to play, especially because any clarifying question was answered with, “Do you not listen to anything?” And because it was difficult to get a word in edgewise. She retold a story from childhood, sleeping over at a friend’s for the first time and the next morning those parents calling her own and saying, “We heard Lisa talking all night.” Childhood habits are difficult ones to break.
But we spent a couple of days in Noosa: went kayaking, saw a sunset, argued over coffee. Then we left to go north. Up to Hervey Bay before continuing towards.
Going from the salubrious, sultry, hot water of Noosa to Queensland’s rusty north is a bit like going from a hot, moist oven to a hotter, moister oven. The land is banded by barren washes and speckled with small eucalyptus. Dead kangaroos decay on the road shoulders. The highway has trivia games to keep drivers alert. There is an abundance of sugar cane.
Lisa drove. Being in A/C was marvelous. In Noosa, all we had were fans, which did nothing but propel the hot air at us faster. Lisa developed migraines from the heat, and I discovered hers are contagious. Driving made her content though, as did maintaining dictatorial control over the radio. Adele played a lot.
We spent a couple nights at a hostel in Hervey Bay. The town is a gateway to Frasier Island, a massive sand one filled with dingos and, ostensibly, the remains of babies. Neither of us wanted to expend the funds to visit, so the nearest we got was the dividing channel, further south at a place called Inksip Point. A brigade of locals stood on the sands, either fishing or looking out. One came over to us and asked where we were from. We chatted. He considered the spot to be the world’s finest and came every evening for the sunset. He had a small, shoddy haired dog that looked exhausted from fetching. We stood directly in line with the ferry crossing, the last one of the day coming in, chugging slowly, water from the current curling against the metal hull.
It’s a difficult crossing, he said. Just last week a crack sailing duo misjudged the current flow and the sailboat ended up sunk. He pointed to where it happened. In the spot where it had, the ocean looked to be punching at an invisible wall, it was the meeting line of ocean and channel outflow. “Took a few boats to help with hauling her up.”
At Hervey Bay, Lisa and I spent most of the time healing from each other’s company. I saw a movie, Lion, about an Indian kid who falls asleep on a train and winds up being adopted by a Tasmanian couple. Lisa did a lot of beach yoga. At night at the hostel, hostel kids did what hostel kids do: they rolled cigarettes and smoked while looking at their phones. Translucent lizards scurried across walls and slurped up insects. The sun’s absence offered no respite from the heat. Sleep was a chore.
In the morning we drove to Rockhampton.
Nobody outside of Australia knows Rockhampton as a place worth visiting. Nobody inside of Australia does either. The highway that goes into it rises into a bridge that traverses a silt heavy floodplain. Once across, it ropes around a rotary. One of the exit options is into Rockhampton. In the center of the rotary, on a massive pedestal, is a gigantic bull, all anatomical parts accounted for and in correct proportion.
Rockhampton has likely propped up the art world’s bull market for decades (I refer literally to bull art, not to an art marketplace worth investing in): bull statues are at city entrances and exits, in squares, atop buildings. You don’t have to be a heifer hugger to realize why. Rockhampton, Cattle Country, the Beef Capital of Australia. This is the claim, one I didn’t bother to fact check because no other city claims it or claims with such fervency, so I figured it’s best to just let it be. I was, however, disappointed that ground beef sold for the same $8 AUD a kilo at the chain supermarket. I was also disappointed to see no auction pens, no trailers hauling cattle, no cow drives through main street. The absence of cattle when there was supposedly such a glut made me pointedly ask: Where’s the Beef?
No answer came, and the nearest I got was a double cheeseburger at a local Macca’s.
Rockhampton hostels aren’t quite as ubiquitous as elsewhere. Instead, we found an Airbnb hosted by an elderly lady. I’ll call her Lula. Her home she uses as a bit of a boarding house, housing indefinitely a Sichuan student who studies accounting at the nearby university. She cooked him all his meals and cleaned up after him. In the bedrooms, there were beds with lace covers and brass headboards, those touches indicative of care in purchase. Photos of her children and grandchildren were ample. Their childhood books were still in bookcases.
Lula was on the spring side of eighty. She wore plastic framed glasses that magnified her eyeballs into planets. She had a high-strung dog that was a white velcro strap to anyone who entered the home. Her husband died years earlier, and she made the most of his absence by enjoying it. She was loved: her grandkids called her daily, not with niceties but to carry on a genuine relationship, her adult children visited her or she visited them. On the first night, I bought a bottle of wine and asked if she’d like a bit. The way she nodded, sprightly with a beam of mischievous pleasure, reminded me of a six-year-old accepting a treat, and the wine, a Syrah, went straight to her tongue. She thought so highly of it she asked me to write the label for her. The three of us sat at her small table, she asking Lisa about various womanly ailments, suggesting what minerals Lisa might be deficient in. She pulled a scrapbook of family photos, trips to Bali, Noosa beach days. She went to bed later than usual and slept in the next morning.
I rose earliest and had my coffee while determining what aspects of Rockhamptonian culture was best to explore. It has an art museum and coffee and brekkie places that are purported to be chic. I had a walk downtown the day before. A river curls through it, there’s an esplanade, but not much else: construction, a park, businesses, most of which were closed since it was past 5 pm, and a used bookstore with commercial best sellers from the 1990s. Across the river, out of downtown, most activities took place at the mega-mall, a supreme place for people watching.
Before Rockhampton, I’d heard this term: bogan. I thought it was a shoe. It’s a type of person, in fact. Picturing one properly requires some knowledge of Australiana since the icons of the bogan sub-cultural are inherently part of Australia’s broader identity. They drive utes and drink Victoria Bitters, for example. The American equivalent is a redneck. The translation isn’t exact, but it’s enough for you to craft a rudimentary image: jorts, Adidas, mullets. (Side-note: I’ve been trying to get the term “boganvillea” to catch on as a slang word for an Australian mullet. If you can help out, it’d be much appreciated.) It turns out Rockhampton is full of them—bogans and boganvilleas. Whether it’s fair to say this is an epicenter of bogan culture is beyond my reckoning, but I certainly felt like a damn fool wearing topsiders and a shirt with sleeves. Having orthodontic work and no tattoos pegged me immediately as an outsider.
When Lisa joined me at the kitchen table she suggested exploring the hinterland. As of yet, we’d kept to city boundaries, so her suggestion to go 200 kilometers west to a National Park called Blacktop Tableland was an attractive one.
We got in the car and she drove.
The land was flat and stretched like rubber. Lisa couldn’t keep straight, which was problematic considering that’s all the road was. “My arms are getting so tired,” she said, “It feels like I am fighting the car.” She went onto the shoulder at every opportunity, the tires singsongy over the caution grooves. I recalled the lead up to losing Bitchface, where all my attention and energy were focused on preventing her from veering off. “There is a lump in the road, I think,” Lisa said.
“All roads have humps in the middle. It’s for drainage. You’d notice it all the time if you can notice it now.”
“No. The hump here is a mountain. You can see it.”
“I can’t see it. Roads are built uniform. It’d be the same here as the roads yesterday. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s the alignment. We can check when we pull over.”
“It’s the road.”
Something continued. An hour in and she’d veered left and reared back so often I kept checking the rearview to see if a cop had lights on to pull us over.
“I can’t drive anymore,” she said.
“I’m hungry anyway. At the next roadhouse let’s pull in.”
Already we’d driven through Wycarbah, Gogango, and Boolburra, coming up were Duaringa, Goowarra, and Dingo. The next town would be like all others: a water tower, a graveyard of cars, the splintered remnants of old wooden buildings. The newer construction was of one story Queenslanders, which are like cookie cutter Victorian bungalows with timber walls and corrugated iron roofs. A population sign was posted in front of each town, the sign displaying small number figures, 260, 490, the last digit often on a tile a shade off from the rest on account of how much less time the sun had to fade it. I imagine there is a road crew on call for whenever a mortician or midwife has a job to get done. “Hank, we’ve got a boy, the name is Jack.”
“Don’t care about the name or sex missus, just give me the total number.”
“Thank you kindly. Gus, go update the sign.”
Duaringa was the next town. It had a new BP station that Lisa pulled into. I got out, put the gas nozzle in the tank, and headed in to pay. There were two other parts to the structure: on one side a roadhouse with tables and a buffet of fried goods under heat lamps, on the other side a mechanic shop with a few bay doors open, mechanics inside, greased and working on cars on lifts.
I paid and the lady at the register nodded towards the rental. “Is it yours?” She asked. I said yes. “Rear left tire is flat.”
So. It. Was.
The rim looked compressed but not ruined. It had dug into the rubber though, and where it did was a long, bald gash from how the two rubbed together. I asked Lisa, “How long ago did you notice the car start pulling?”
“Almost as soon as we left Rockhampton.” Luck had been on our side that the tire didn’t blow or that the rim hadn’t crimped to be unusable.
“What’ll we do?” Lisa asked.
“I’m going to have a go at the loo, please get me a bacon sandwich and a coffee and we can think of options.”
When I joined Lisa, the waitress came with brekkie.
I never asked for health in my life, and even if I had this roadhouse wouldn’t have listened. Whatever carcinogenic properties that bacon or that back-of-shop griddle had made this sandwich one of the best I’ve tasted. Nothing but filigrees of cured pork slices patterned between a roll, a spread of ketchup, salt and pepper. The accompanying coffee had an inebriating strength, and with the combo, Lisa and I sped through the rental car papers and handbook with a directed and confident purpose. I thought about cost considerations and timing. What was my time worth in pulling the spare from the trunk and the jack? Lisa and I agreed if we did make the change ourselves, there’d be no going on: Blacktop Tablelands had dirt roads in and out, and the last thing we needed was to have bolts popping off in a place with no cell service.
I pulled my wallet out and had a look. I said to her, “I have a ten note. What about you?”
“Hand it over?”
“What’s your plan?”
I walked over to the mechanic’s shop and explained the issue. I greased the man’s palm and he greased mine. “Drive in mate,” he said, “We’ll take care of it.”
As fast as a Nascar pit stop and we were on our way, a bit high strung from the risk of going to nowhere with no spare. But when we got to the Blacktop Tablelands, the views, oh, the views made the experience and risk worth it…