Today’s article is written for the Reach To Teach Teach Abroad Blog Carnival, a monthly series that focuses on providing helpful tips and advice to ESL teachers around the globe. I’ll be posting a new ESL related article on my blog on the 5th of every month. Check back for more articles, and if you’d like to contribute to next month’s Blog Carnival, please get in touch with me at email@example.com, and I’ll let you know how you can start participating!
*Read the rest of this month’s Blog Carnival here.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber
I was broke and living in the world’s most disgusting hostel in Darwin when I answered a job ad for a remote shop attendant in the outback; right in the blistering red center of Australia. The guy on the other end of the phone – over a crackling and dusty sounding connection – offered me the job after a five minute conversation, and I took it without a second thought. Necessity is the mother of adventure.
A week later, the German couple who ran the shop picked me up at Alice Spring’s airport in a well traveled Land Cruiser. We drove for four hours, turning off the main highway to a series of smaller and progressively more treacherous dirt roads – ploughing deeper and deeper into the great nothingness. We stopped briefly to climb up a rocky knoll and have a look around. The scorched red desert stretched out in all directions, unhindered but for bits of sage scrub and low scraggly trees, all the way to the horizon. The only signs of life were a couple of birds pirouetting overhead. We were truly in the middle of nowhere; deliciously insignificant.
Redgum Store catered to the surrounding aboriginal community and was – unexpectedly to me – quite busy. I worked and lived with two other backpackers: Lincoln, a towering American with a vast font of knowledge and a burgeoning talent for magic tricks, and Florian, a good looking French-Swiss bloke who ignored me at first. Over time, the shyness evolved into furtive smiles and flirting, and then into something more.
A few days after we’d rung in the New Year Flo asked me if I wanted to go and take the license plates off of the derelict and rust addled car we’d found a few kilometers from Redgum on a previous lizard hunting excursion (one must create their own entertainment in the outback). As we left the house, he joked to Lincoln, “If we’re not back in three hours, call the police.”
After removing the license plates, we climbed back into the truck and he drove fast down the red dirt road, taking a circuitous way home. I put my arm out of the open window and played with the wind.
We came to a junction and backtracked, unsure which turn would lead us back to Redgum – each fork looked exactly the same. As we sped along, the rear wheels began to slide out from under the truck, as though we’d hit a patch of black ice. The truck fishtailed down the track, becoming more and more uncontrollable. He over corrected and sent us barreling sideways into a copse of trees. The unfolding scene became viscous in my mind, blurred and timeless. One of the wheels struck a toddler sized termite mound and we rolled, twice. All I remember thinking was, “Oh, I’m upside down”. There was the grainy crunch of breaking glass and trees and car parts. Then everything was still and we looked at each other, agape. He looked like a vacuum bag had exploded in his face.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. Are you okay?”
“Thank god. I am so sorry. Yeah, I’m okay.”
I gingerly opened my door, and he, his. There was more glass crunching, that awful gnashing sound. I assessed my body, the way you do in savasana in yoga. We stood together and catalogued the damage, gently touching each other’s scrapes. My body was quivering like I’d been electrocuted. We were remarkably unscathed.
The good news was that the truck was right side up. The bad news was that all four tires had ruptured and the air was hissing steadily from them, like malicious balloons. I was impressed with his composure. Not once did he swear or raise his voice. He apologized over and over until I told him to stop. We gathered up all of the things that had been flung about during the truck’s flight, and discussed strategy.
In civilized life, it would have been so easy. Get on the phone, flag down a passerby; barely a blip in the evening, aside from insurance woes. Nothing in the outback is so simple. There was no cell phone coverage. And the aboriginals don’t like to drive at night, so our chances of being found before morning were bleak. We were stranded. The sun was setting, all purples and blues.
The smartest option would have been to stay in the truck and wait until morning. Then again, we weren’t impossibly far from our caravan village. It was conceivable to make it home to sleep in our own beds. I wondered if Lincoln, a typically conscientious person, was already getting worried about us, if he would start a search. Would they find us? Would they find the truck and not us? Would they assume the worst? Which option would worry them the least?
We dashed the idea of staying with the truck until morning. Adrenaline made us both keen on forward motion. The sun sank further, the blues and purples stretched and deepened, and we started to walk down the long red road. I carried two bottles of water and he slung a garbage bag with the rest of our stuff over his shoulder. We didn’t have a flashlight, as we had removed the one usually kept in the glove compartment on New Year’s to camp out under the stars. I said, too brightly, “The moon will come up soon… it won’t be so dark”.
The moon did not rise that night. But the stars, brilliant and numerous as they are in the desert, illuminated the road decently enough. I tried not to think about what lurked in the darkness.
We stumbled and felt our way through the dark. It was like trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in a strange house. The slippery red sand was nearly impossible to walk on, especially with flip flops. We talked to each other’s shrouded figures, filling the inky emptiness with light chatter, as though we were going for a romantic stroll.
We talked about the impending fork in the road – the junction we had been unsure of earlier. We decided that we’d go right. Well, he did and I deferred since my sense of direction should never be consulted for anything. I felt like we should go straight, so I told him that we should probably not go straight. I remembered a sign on the left side of the intersection, meant for traffic going the direction we intended to go, scrawled in red block letters on the dis-articulated bonnet of a white car: “Liftum Foot”. Neither of us had the foggiest what that meant. Slow down, perhaps?
A throaty, deep moan erupted from the void behind us. I clutched at his hand, like the ditzy blonde in a slasher flick. We froze, would have exchanged terrified looks if we could’ve made out each other’s eyes. The moan continued and evolved from creepy bump in the night into the lowing of a cow. I exhaled and so did he. The cow followed a few steps behind us, mooing every so often, letting us know she was there. “Cows don’t, like, attack people, do they?” he asked.
“Nah. But I don’t know what this one’s deal is. God knows about these outback cows.”
“Don’t say stuff like that.”
He turned, holding my hand tightly, and made threatening noises at the cow, and after a beat, I joined him, and the three of us hollered at each other through the darkness. She followed us a little longer and then left us to it.
We came to the fork in the road. It had, of course, seemed much closer when we were driving. “It is going to take us forever to get home,” I complained. My feet were beginning to ache, blisters were bubbling on my feet and my calf muscles were oozing lactic acid. He had hurt his foot on New Year’s, and was limping but being stoic about it.
He went to check if the Liftum Foot sign was there, to make sure this was the intersection we thought it was. I lay down in the center of the intersection, in the dirt, and stretched out. A shooting star streaked across the sky. In spite of our situation, I felt my heart swell, like it always does when I look up at the stars. His footsteps receded, paused and then came towards me again and something else, something hooved, came with him. He ran; it ran, too. The thundering footsteps sounded like an approaching stampede. I jumped to my sore feet, panicked, and stood there impotently. And then the hooves disappeared, sucked back into the opaque desert as though whatever it was had never been there in the first place, and he was next to me again. I put a hand out, reaching for him and he encircled my waist with an arm. We leaned into each other. “What the hell was that?” he said, panting.
“I want to say ‘alien’ but I reckon it was one of those wild horses… too bad he didn’t stick around, we could’ve ridden him home.” He laughed and the renewed surge of adrenaline bolstered me.
He confirmed that it was the indecipherable sign, and should we, really, go right? I said yes. Decisive for once, even though I was far from sure.
We walked on.
“Do you think we’re going the right way?” I asked tentatively.
“I don’t know anymore… what do you think?”
“Uh, I still feel like we should’ve gone straight. And now I’m kind of wishing we would’ve stayed at the truck. What if this is the wrong way?”
“Well, I say we keep going this way for a while. I mean, we’ve gone this far and I don’t want to go back. But if we go, say, another kilometer and there’s nothing, we’ll go back.”
The conversation ebbed and silence curled around us like a cat going to sleep.
And we walked.
“Stop for a second. Listen.” he said. Crickets. Frogs. Eerie rustles in the grass. Mosquitoes fluttered against my skin.
“Hear that?” he said. I strained. There was low rumble. “Is that the generator?”
We walked stumbled faster, towards that beautiful sound, our mechanical Star of David. We spoke of what we’d do when we got home. A shower. A glass of coke with lots of ice.
The rumbling grew louder and finally, blissfully, the gate appeared out of the shadows, like a night mirage. We chatted brightly, and ambled the last few steps to our house.
We met Lincoln as he was going from the main house to his caravan for the night, wearing a flashlight on his head. “G’night” he said, and carried on into the dark.