The girl turned to me and smiled.
“I love going through the tunnel,” she said softly, as though her statement were a confession that would remain a secret that only the two of us would ever know.
The road ahead of us dipped underground and the car dipped with it. The bright sky overhead was replaced by the sterile glow of fluorescent lights. I sensed that going through the tunnel was a ritual passage from city into suburbia, and then into the outback beyond. This passage had assumed this importance to her as she grew up in Perth and I knew it was no small thing for her to share that with me. Just by traveling through it in the way so many other cars were also passing through it we had officially begun our journey and the girl and I had penned the first word of another chapter in our shared history.
Growing up in the United States had nurtured in me a love of long drives and road trips but Australia had presented few opportunities to pursue this particular passion of mine. Rare were my travels outside of the Sydney city limits within which I now lived and rarer still were such journeys not made by air travel.
I was told by the girl’s mother that this drive south from Perth and into the wine country of Western Australia would take three hours. I looked forward to the journey and the opportunity to discover new terrain in a country that I had barely explored.
The vistas turn barren not that far beyond the tunnel and for the first time since moving away from West Virginia I began to feel quite far removed from my homeland. The Indian Ocean was on the right side of the car as we drove south. I had been on a west coast before, but that west coast was not this west coast. I had seen desert before, but that desert was not this desert.
The girl’s mother told me that the freeway on which we were traveling had been purposefully routed around the small towns that dot the southern coast of Western Australia, so roadside attractions were not to be had. Her voice betrayed a hint of remorse as she relayed this information but it was misplaced if it was remorse for my own lost experience. I had more than enough new wonder to absorb in every direction.
I focused my attention on the intensely blue and clear sky. It felt natural to imagine myself as a microscopic dot on a classroom globe, a dot that was directly opposite West Virginia and my family that remained there. To that point in my life I had not travelled extensively by any means and yet there I was, well and truly on the other side of the world.
The barren desert of Western Australia spreads away from the ocean and toward the opposite horizon for what seems – from the tiny enclosure of a moving car – to be an indeterminable distance. It seemed possible that it extended on forever.
The car moved at a steady clip but everything seemed to pass in relatively slow motion. In the mountains of West Virginia, deer crossing signs warn motorists that those very animals may wander onto the highway but here the road signs warn of kangaroo crossings. These signs conveyed two reminders for me, then: to watch out for ‘roos and also that these highways are not those highways.
The girl’s mother pulled the car to the side of the road to change seats with Gary, a friend of the girl’s family. I stepped out of the car as they did so and was enveloped in one of my favourite states of being.
The sun beat down on my head and shoulders while a warm breeze blew in from the sea – carrying with it the smell of the surf – and took the edge off of the otherwise brutal heat. The outback reached to the east and though it appeared to extend infinitely past the distant horizon, I knew that in reality it stretched several thousand kilometres from where I was standing – all the way to my current home in Sydney.
One could trek through that terrain and not encounter another human being throughout the entire journey. I allowed myself to imagine that if I had been alone that I might have given it a good start.
Some indiscernible distance away through the haze and the heat the ground appeared to rise to a shallow peak. I would have arrived early in the morning, greeting the rising sun not with trepidation but with the warmth with which one greets a friend in whose company one can be their truest self. I would walk with a notebook in my pocket and a bottle of water in my hand until I scaled that distant peak, hearing no sound aside from the crunch of the rocky sand under my boots and the gentle hum of the crashing ocean waves. Upon reaching my destination I would pass just over that peak so that the highway, the sea and my car were hidden behind me and for a not insignificant amount of time I would stand and squint my eyes into the distance, admiring the expanse of the Australian outback and recalibrating my sense of being in the world. I would feel in that moment like an American cowboy who had been robbed from his own wild west and dropped instead into this one. That rustic sentiment would entertain and then overcome me until the highway, the sea and my car were not only hidden, but utterly forgotten.
Yet they did exist and I was not alone, and thus I climbed back into the car and the journey south continued.
The flat and barren terrain gradually segued into that of gentle slopes and thick but exotic wooded areas as we neared Margaret River, but still the ground was sandy to the point that it was hard to imagine much more than weeds ever growing here, let alone acre upon acre of grapevines. Grow they do, though, and we happened upon those vast fields of vines with increasing frequency as we approached our destination of Dunsborough.
Gary and the girl’s mother asked me if there were vineyards in West Virginia and I told them that the hilly terrain and occasional snowstorms of my home state did a fine job of preventing the successful establishment of any. I was assured that I was in for a treat over the next two days and – having been sorely in need of a sojourn from my work and studies – it was easy to allow myself to believe in that promise.
We arrived in Dunsborough late in the afternoon and immediately fled the vehicle in search of a particular bakery that was fond to the memory of my fellow passengers who had embarked on this journey before. I secured the quintessential Australian snack – a meat pie with tomato sauce – and we all sat on a bench in the shade and watched the hustle and bustle of Dunsborough fail to compete with the hustle and bustle of Sydney or Perth. It was a failure we were all happy to embrace.
Sleepy Whaler’s Cove – a small gathering of tightly grouped villas – would be our home for the next two nights. Our own villa was named Halcyon. There would be no avoiding rest and relaxation on this holiday, a fact solidified not only by the thematic nomenclature of the Whaler’s Cove villas, but also by their enviable proximity to the beach.
I stood on the back porch of Halcyon and – buying into our new home’s moniker – allowed myself to recall peaceful times spent on the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina when my own family had vacationed at that particular dot on the other side of the globe. A man and woman were enjoying the shallow surf with their dog and I hoped for their sake that they were locals who would never have to leave if they didn’t care to.
Fantasy overtook me again as the girl joined me on the porch and we began forecasting our future lives along this peaceful beach. We would keep the sun’s rays for ourselves and establish a daily frolic on the beach with our dog as a routine that we promised ourselves we would not take for granted.
Behind us Halcyon rose from the sand – a mud-brick structure supported by wooden frames and bordered on the outside not with windowed walls but with windows that were walls. It was guessed that I would walk into town every morning to collect newspapers I would rarely actually read and maybe fetch our breakfast from the bakery. The pub had already been spotted during our drive into town. It was self-evident that Dunsborough would become to me what Key West had been to Hemingway, just with significantly fewer cats. My masterpiece would be written on this shore, a great American novel written by a displaced cowboy.
Gary and the girl’s mother joined the girl and I for a walk along the beach as we continued to spin our yarn of future bliss. As we made our way back through the streets of the neighbourhood, I was again reminded of the Outer Banks. Here, like there, the pavement of the roads sits on the sand only hesitantly and the telephone poles seem to be held up by their wires, rather than the other way around. Had the few cars that passed been driving on the right side of the road I might have believed that I was on that coast a world away.
We returned ‘home’ to Halcyon and I looked out the windows that were walls and saw not the Atlantic, but the Indian Ocean. I thought again of my fantasy of seeking recalibration in the outback; the desert that was not that desert. Had I taken that long trek across the outback I would have eventually arrived at an east coast but that would be a different east coast than the one of my childhood. This country was not that country, but it was home.
I caught the girl’s eye as she watched a different couple playing with their dog in the surf. She smiled at me as the warm ocean breeze embraced us both. No trek through the outback was needed.
My recalibration was complete.
Greg Joachim is a writer of fiction, memoir and personal essays. He lives in Sydney with his wife Claire where he is working on a collection of short stories and essays while pursuing his PhD in sport for development at the University of Technology, Sydney.