Channelling all old fogeys ever, today, when I say that I might currently live a circumscribed life, but I was young once. I took risks, was adventurous, did silly things and survived. Every so often I feel the need to assert this fact. I’d hate to think that I had spent my whole life living the way I do now. Hmm, perhaps other people do and are happy about it. Maybe I shouldn’t cast nasturtiums.
In my mid teens I frequently took the train to the Blue Mountains to walk quiet bushland tracks I’d seen described in a guidebook, without letting anyone know where I was headed or for how long. It gives me the horrors now to recall how often I wandered off alone, prior to cell phones, GPS, etc. This was while I still believed in the power of magical thinking to protect me, along with the usual youthful sense of immortality.
In my late teens I often took the overnight train up the coast and hitch-hiked around the Northern Rivers region when public transport or bicycles weren’t available. This was years prior to getting my drivers’ licence for work purposes. Back then I said I’d delight in smashing a car if I ever won one. The only injury I sustained while hitching was to my pride, when a drunk old man playing dirty ditties on the car’s cassette player called me names after I declined a ride to his house, a drink, and a root. Shaken, I still hitch-hiked to Nimbin later that week with fellow WWOOFers.
In my twenties I hitch-hiked around the North Island of Aotearoa for the same reasons as before. Once, I was picked up by a police patrol car and they dropped me at my destination without a word of reproach. Another time a couple of young men bundled me into the back of a panel van and asked leading questions about past hitch-hiking experiences. I bluffed my way through until they dropped me at my workplace. One gorgeous summer day, wearing only a sarong, I was propositioned when the driver detoured to a reserve off the main road. In my own mind I was demurely dressed compared to my time in a clothing-optional commune. I pretended not to understand what he was suggesting and he dropped me back at my digs. I was propositioned by strangers a lot, back then, and not by anyone I was remotely interested in. It was disturbing.
The older Aussie man I was seeing around that time wasn’t a big talker, and neither was I. We could walk for hours around town, hand in hand or with his hand on my neck, without exchanging more than a few words. We lived in sugar cane country and my parents would be horrified if they knew we once had sex in the middle of a cane field. I don’t recommend it. It’s hard, lumpy and full of critters you don’t necessarily want to get naked with. Think rodents, snakes and spiders. We never used contraception and thus it was only luck that kept me barren. Good old luck!
My Kiwi partner and I frequently hitched rides to camping grounds (carrying everything but the proverbial kitchen sink), and once hitched from Christchurch to the West Coast, only to discover that bikies were having a convention near our campground that weekend. Another weekend we hitched up the coast and ended up being rained out of our tiny tent and harassed by seals. We also hitched to Auckland for a kd lang concert. Apart from the inter-island ferry passage, the rest entire ride was free. In Auckland, we stayed with friends. We were both working full time, but on crappy wages, so this was the only way we could manage the trip. Having someone to share the conversational burden with was excellent, and I had a blast.
One New Year’s Eve we hitched to Blenheim to join a group of women for a peaceful protest near the Waihopai spy base. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, so after a night or two I WWOOFed nearby at an older woman’s place. We later hitched home together, singing songs we’d learned at the campsite. A lovely Swiss couple we’d met there ended up staying with us for a few days and kept in touch for years after.
At Seal Rocks, NSW, I swam alone one morning (not a great idea), and without my glasses on thought I was swimming with a dolphin. I just saw the fin a short distance away and was oddly thrilled. Walking later along a higher vantage point, my companion and I spotted the shark patrolling the beach.
Friends and I swam in a river at Kakadu National Park (Northern Territory, Australia), while joking about the presence of crocodiles. Having safely survived this, our campsite was trashed by stampeding water buffalo while we scrambled for safety atop the Land Rover.
I had my first driving lesson en route from Darwin to Perth, on a stretch of straight highway. As soon as my companion had me safely reach fourth gear, she slept for an hour, then woke to teach me to brake. Fortunately I didn’t encounter any creatures on that road, as hitting one probably would have turned me off driving for life. She also took me to a remote Aboriginal community to visit people she knew. The people were friendly but the place was sobering. I’d had no idea that such conditions existed outside the big cities – like a World Vision advertisement. Approaching Perth, we witnessed the glorious Spring wildflowers. They’re worth making the trip to see, if you get the chance.
I hitched alone from Perth to Albany, staying en route in youth hostels and other tiny establishments, and talking to the occasional dolphin from a pier in the middle of what felt like endless, peaceful nowhere.
In Brisbane I rode pillion on a flatmate’s motorbike, in shorts and t-shirt, to Lamington National Park. Stupid, and I paid for it with a horrendous sunburn, but good Lord it was a magnificent place to visit. I still remember the letter I wrote to my sister about it.
After my sister died, I joined a friend for parachute jump training. Sadly, before the jump date I relocated to another town for work. As it turned out, I wasn’t really cut out for live-in nannying, but while there I learned to use equipment at the community radio station, and had my first close encounter with a Steiner School, imprinting me for life.
Grieving, I visited many Spiritualist Churches, hoping for messages. At one, the medium pointed to me, using male pronouns, and said that my sister wanted me to feel her hugs every time I wore my woolly scarf. Imagine my devastation when my scarf blew overboard on the inter-island ferry. That trip was so rough that many passengers rushed to the toilets. I ended up cowering below, breathing slowly and deeply near a window. I hoped to at least see a dolphin or whale, but no such luck.
At some point, after volunteering at an independent pre-school, I decided to try live-in training at a cult-like religious organisation that attracted me with their wholesome values. While I didn’t last long there either, I still think of it fondly. The people were warm, kind, sincere and funny. Some of them kept in touch for years. It was also the first time I’d encountered a macrobiotic cafe, walked barefoot in frost, chanted in groups before an altar, or tried using a regular flush toilet without the benefit of dunny roll (we were encouraged to use a bottle of water with a nozzle you aimed at the required area, to clean ourselves). I’d been camping before and used composting toilets, but this somehow seemed more adventurous.
Then there was the time I completed a three-month outdoor adventure course for ‘at-risk youth’. We canoed, kayaked, climbed rocks in the snow, abseiled, cross-country skied, camped and bushwalked in gorgeous locations. My only injury was a twisted ankle when forced to jump from a boulder while bushbashing. We’d managed to lose the actual track. In between trips we sat around, played pool, wandered off to buy ice cream, or participated in worthy pursuits such as basic bush regeneration. I’d never felt so alive as when I was in the forest. It felt like the meaning of life.
Later, I participated in the Conservation Corps (South Island, Aotearoa) and the Greenhouse Corps (WA, Australia) and once missed a Michelle Shocked concert when forced to participate in some bogus group bonding event. Yep, still disgusted about that, lol. I attended Soil and Health meetings, community garden meetings, Landcare and Permaculture meetings, political meetings, exchange and barter group meetings, and Al Anon. I volunteered with Greening Australia and Meals on Wheels. I studied periodically, wrote articles for a community newsletter and helped establish a rural farmers market.
In my thirties, my partner and I lived in a rustic log cabin, and regularly went spotlighting around the bushland property. We put red cellophane over the flashlights – it was supposed to protect the eyes of wildlife. A favourite memory from this time was sitting at the fence line at dusk, and watching a group of Yellow-Bellied Gliders swoop one by one from tree to tree until all ended up in an enormous gum beside the house. There, they gnawed on bark and made noises that I couldn’t imitate if I tried. Another favourite memory is of standing at the front door to try to identify the source of some odd noises, and witnessing two Wedge-tailed Eagles swoop past. We camped one summer in a National Park north-east of Melbourne, and I saw my first Greater Glider. Everywhere we drove, I’d be leaning back in the passenger seat and looking out the sunroof for koalas. It was an amazing place.
After a particularly chaotic time, I couldn’t do it any more, just came to a full stop. I tried, repeatedly, and kept shutting down. Thus began attendance at mental health support groups, CBT treatment groups, and art therapy groups, until I eventually decided to be gentle with myself. To accept reality. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy now feels like a better fit than CBT. Living slowly and quietly agrees with me. Writing helps too. Solitude, stable housing and a small group of friends and acquaintances are a blessing. Until further adventures are possible, I can enjoy memories.
Thanks for letting me share them with you.