I am somewhere, nowhere, in the middle of the Australian outback, the last place I belong or ever thought I would be. North from the town of Wiluna, following the famous Canning Stock Route 1900km across the arid heart of Australia, and not one thing easy or sane about it.
For a week four of us, along with an overabundance of supplies, have been packed into a pair of six-cylinder diesel Land Cruisers now stuck deep in sand. The odour of warm bodies mixes with the smell of potatoes, grains, and coffee. I think of dunes, but here they’re called ridges and run for miles, saw-toothed, and jagged at the top. Steep, sometimes rising fifty feet, crossing them is like trying to climb an ever-shifting three-storey building. Dust is everything and everywhere. Inescapable. It’s in the air of the holy hot sun rising and the ungodly cold night. Dust is what I breathe and eat. It tangles my hair and coats my scalp, itching.
I lean against the dug-in all-terrain vehicle, wheels spinning, mind-boggling. How can I, a forty-five-year old New Yorker who has aspirin delivered, attempt to push what amounts to a condominium with four wheels up and over a mountain of sand in the most Godforsaken wilderness on earth?
“I told you it wasn’t a tea party out here,” Cameron says. He smiles, this father, this stranger, with that wicked grin I’ve come to know in the two short weeks we’ve known each other. His face appears carved from heavy wood, deeply creased, otherwise unlined, and softened by hazel eyes that droop slightly at the outer edges.
“I’m fine,” I say through the grit in my teeth, not fine at all. My head aches, reeling from dirt and heat and cold and him. Cameron pulls himself taller, shoulders back. He looks at me, a faint twitch in one eye that could be a wink, but maybe not. He’s sizing me up. “Why can’t we just go around?” I ask, examining a cluster of new bites on my inner arm. Mosquitoes, or the ever-present bush flies or spiders, hopefully not the deadly redback I’ve been told about.
“Around can be two days,” Cameron says. “We can’t afford it in supplies.”
I realise again how totally dependent we are on our carefully calculated provisions. The isolation here is staggering, like the magnificent desolation of distant planets.
“We’ll have to use the tow,” Grant says, wiping the back of his hand over his lips. Lips almost too full, resulting in a slight, not unattractive pout. He’s taller than his father, although not by much. And Cameron is leaner, harder, where Grant carries a soft layer.
“I’ve got it covered,” Cameron says, stepping in front of his son.
Grant rubs the stubble of his red-gold beard with the back of his hand and turns his baseball cap around.
“The tyre pressure’s too high,” Cameron says.
“Same in both,” Grant says, climbing into the lead cruiser.
“Can’t be,” Cameron says.
I let out a deep sigh as Jen checks her flawless face in her mirrored compact, wraps a pink daisy appliqued sweater around her shoulders, and slouches in the backseat of the beached cruiser.
Cameron leans in the window on the sleeves of his worn flannel. “Need you at the wheel, young lady.”
She rolls her baby blues at her grandfather and climbs over the seat. I stand nearby, unsmiling, hands on my hips.
“What can I do?” I ask, dust settling in the corners of my eyes, under my nails and between my fingers.
“Stay out of the way,” Cameron says.
I take a breath, sand sticking to my nostrils, obliterating any sense of smell, and stare down at the hard ground. A land left behind or never found. And me, I’m a moon walker far from my life.
Cameron grabs hold of the cable from the forward cruiser, legs spread, digging in his heels as Grant starts to jump down. “Let me do that.”
“Stay where you are,” Cameron says. “I was handling stuff like this before you were born.” Arms above his head, he holds firm to the cable. It’s heavy and he’s old, but he drags it within inches of the hitch as Jen guns the engine for the moment when the cable attaches.
Men and machines are exhilarating to me. In the city, I marvel at tightrope walkers on scaffolding high above a new skyscraper. Now, I watch as Cameron guides the cable closer, both engines roaring, then a loud, metal cracking snap and the cable rips from his hands, blood suddenly streaming down his arms. I scream as Jen leaps from behind the wheel and runs, blonde hair flying, to her grandfather.
Grant slams the brake and climbs down, yelling at Cameron. “Get out of the way.”
“The hell I will,” Cameron says. “Get back in, I don’t have all day.”
They calm down, try it again. Cameron clinging now with bloody hands, guiding the cable until it finds its hold and the engines cut with startling silence. He lets go, knees buckling into the sand, then on his feet before I reach him, waving me away. I stand on the sideline, heart racing, staring fascinated at his ruined hands, rough-boned, unfamiliar, as the wind picks up swirling dust to evening. Cameron grabs a roll of bandage from the cruiser, Jen hugs her sweater closer, and Grant rewinds the cable. They seem to know to stay away from the old man. I’m dumbfounded, aghast. Cameron glances at me.
“Don’t look so worried,” he says, wrapping his hand with the bandage.
“Not me.” The dryness catches my throat and I sound unconvincing. “Things like this happen,” he says.
Not where I’m from. Not in the middle of Manhattan. Sand whips my face and I shift my weight, uneasy.
“You’re just a fish out of water,” he says.
I nod vaguely at the analogy of a fish in the desert.