kangaroo at sunrise, just outside Alice
[apologies if you saw this up here briefly last week and then wondered where it went – the post i put up to explain why got lost somewhere. A version of this article was published in last Sunday’s Age, so I took it down until then]
I was in the middle of Australia last week. A friend and I road-tripped from Adelaide up to Alice Springs, which is a 1600 km trip straight up the middle of the country. It’s one of the quintessential Australian experiences – the dirt gets redder and redder with every kilometre, until it’s almost blood red by the time you get to the centre. For the last 1300 km, there are only towns or roadhouses every 250 km or so. On the second day, we couldn’t get breakfast in Coober Pedy, where we’d stayed overnight. Nothing was open, not even the service station food counter. We drove the 150 km to the next roadhouse where the only coffee we could get involved a teaspoon of Caterers Blend in a polystyrene cup [make your own at the urn, hand over your $2.50 for the privilege].
It’s tempting to think that we were in the middle of nowhere, but more truthfully we were on the edge of nowhere. It’s the vast space to the left and right of the road that is the nowhere: thousands of kilometres of wilderness with barely a tree or a bush or even a track. Australian folklore is full of stories of people who took a turn from the road without knowing what they were doing and have never been found. It is only by miracle that sometimes someone is.
My friend was going home. With every signpost that indicated we were getting closer to Alice Springs, her smile would broaden. We took ‘welcome home’ photos at the Northern Territory border. She couldn’t wait to feel the soil beneath her feet again, the burning heat of the centre’s sun. This was her place, these were her people. This was her life.
I, on the other hand, felt an unexpected sense of alienation. It is remarkable country, made even more beautiful by its ancient story, but I don’t find my own within it. Its beauty for me is in its otherness, not its resonance.
Somewhere after the border, though, I had an almost irrepressible urge to turn left; to leave the road and take a faint track into the immense emptiness that lay on the side of it. The urge was so strong that had I been on my own, I don’t doubt I would have done it.
If that sounds romantic and cliched, it was actually anything but. I knew that if I took the turn I’d not come back. If I turned left I’d lose myself in this wilderness, and, more frighteningly, I would want to stay lost. There’s no happy ending to this kind of lost, though. I had no sense that I would find myself to be one with this place and, as the cliche goes, know myself for the first time. This would be lost-ness of the most terrible kind, where you no longer know the edge of your skin, where you are subsumed by your surroundings. You no longer know who you are. You become nothing to the world’s everything.
I knew without any doubt that if I turned down the track into the wilderness – if I made this my lent – when the 40 days were over, I would not know to return. My survival would not be of my own making, and it most definitely would not be assured.
We throw around poetry of wilderness and deserts at Lent with the blithe carelessness that comes from not knowing how desperate and desolate these places are. We speak of having faith in terms of believing that God will provide the food or water or shelter from the heat. I’m not sure I know anymore what faith really is, but I know it’s much, much more vast than that, and even more important. It’s something to do with lost-ness, survival, and holding on to the edge of my own skin. I’m not sure the wilderness is my place to find it. But I’d really like to know where is.