Stories from the road

Life in the Slow Lane

By Cate Kennedy

BACK in the halcyon days of the early 1990s, road trips could be open-ended, with "up the coast" being the only description anyone needed, and my 1975 Toyota Corolla coupe perfectly up to the task. I'd had this car for years and as far as I was concerned, it had every feature I needed. Reclining seats. AM/FM radio cassette player. Windows that wound open and closed for precision climate control. And, as my mechanic kept saying, you couldn't kill it. It already had 485,000 kilometres on the clock and ran on the smell of an oily rag. Tent, blow-up bed, fishing rods and backpack in the boot, Esky wedged in behind the driver's seat. Now just punch a Paul Kelly tape into the cassette player, open the 1978 BP Australian Road Atlas at the double page, and hit the road.

Only one thing defined the trip's pace, and that was collecting books. Back then, brothers and sisters, books were things you had to actually go into a shop to buy. In 1990, every Australian country town was a treasure trove of op shops, clearing sales and Rotary car-boot markets. Thousands of hours could be spent in a daze of bliss, browsing, collecting and snapping up bargains. If you knew what you were after, you could fund your whole road trip by buying old books and, if you could bear to part with them, selling them on to second-hand book-dealers on your return. I can still pull a book out of the shelf and think fondly: "Yep, Anglican fete in Coonabarabran, 1986." See – books come with built-in memory.

Up the coast via the Pacific Highway, back via the inland highway. Days passed in a wonderful stupor of changing landscapes and counter meals. It wasn't until we were almost at the Queensland border that we began to notice the Corolla was developing an almost imperceptible vibration.

The shake was more pronounced by the time we reached the hinterland, the car already crammed to the gunnels with books. Perhaps, we thought optimistically, it needed a change of spark plugs, or – to hell with the expense – a new oil filter.

In Bellingen, we chugged into the local mechanic's and explained our plight, then headed off down the street to sit at a cafe and drink something called a chai latte. Before long, though, we were sought out by the mechanic's assistant.

"Stevo wants to talk to you," he said, ominously. "It's about your car."

I know nothing about what goes on under a car's bonnet. I just like to put the key in and drive away, which is why I had a Toyota. If you're the same, you will sympathise when I say Stevo's elaborate diagnosis sounded like "quack quack alternator quack retorque the caps quack big-end quack quack cracked head quack connecting rod quack totally rooted".

He'd taken a look inside, he said sorrowfully, done a quick post-mortem, then just closed her up again. The Corolla's illness was inoperable, and terminal.

"What do you suggest we do?" I said. Stevo said I could dump the Corolla there, out the back in his car graveyard, and he'd sell me another cheap, small, Japanese car to get home in. He had several discouraging specimens for sale. I looked at them, then back at the Corolla, its front headlights like the pleading eyes of a faithful old dog. What? He wanted me to abandon my car here and pay a thousand bucks to drive away in a DATSUN? What did he take me for?

"How long will it last if I keep driving it?" I said.

Stevo tipped his hand back and forth pessimistically. "Hard to say," he said. "Could blow up 10 kms down the road, could last a few hundred more if you go real slow."

We stood looking at the Corolla.

"What do I owe you?" I said. "We'll keep driving it, if it's all the same to you."

Up the road, we reasoned, when the Corolla finally garrotted its pistons, or whatever it was Stevo predicted, we'd just freight it back on the train, laden with books. A sort of giant wheeled suitcase, which might get us at least to the next major railway station. We'd just keep going 'til that happened, staying off the freeways.

And frankly, the vibration was hardly noticeable. Perhaps Stevo had been exaggerating to talk us into buying a rusted-out Gemini. On the big stretches of southern Queensland coast, we got used to the engine's vibration, and it became part of the somnolent rhythm of the drive – the soothing pulse of surf crashing onto sunbaked beaches, the soundtrack of golden hits and memories on the local AM dial.

We switch-backed around Brisbane's city limits and on to Buderim and Bundaberg. Outstanding book pickings in Bundaberg. By now we were so far beyond pushing our luck, we'd become fatalistic. No point driving on a hair trigger, not when avocados were six for a dollar on roadside stalls and mangoes were so plentiful they couldn't give them away. We vibrated gently along in the slow lane. Relax – let those caravans overtake us. We had Proserpine in our sights, or bust. Literally. The car, impossibly, just refused to blow up.

By the time we reached Cairns, the Corolla's shake had become Parkinsonian, shuddering like an overloaded washing machine on spin cycle. On the upside, we'd come 2000 kilometres further than Stevo had predicted, and we were still on holidays. Hell, we'd still be on holidays if we had to get on a slow train south with a year's worth of reading material – how bad could that be? We'd explore the Whitsundays for a few days, then accompany our poor, overtaxed vehicle onboard the southbound train. It never occurred to us to ditch it at a wreckers, sell the books and fly home. It would be like abandoning the third member of our road trip, the most valiant, hard-working member.

So when the time came to drive, finally, to the station, we hesitated. Idling, the engine shake wasn't quite so noticeable. This was crazy of course, but . . . well, why not? We were going south now, after all – the freight cost could only get cheaper from here on in. We patted the Corolla's dashboard, and set off, wincing. Sure, our teeth rattled in our heads and the steering wheel pitched and tossed like a bronco, but until we bucked that engine clear onto the road, we'd made our choice. We were sticking with the car.

We limped back through Rockhampton then turned inland to the road that in the BP atlas seemed to run, straight as a raindrop, all the way down into Victoria: the mighty Newell Highway. We had hours of plains to cover, nursing the Corolla along in the sweet spot that seemed to hurt it least: 70 kilometres an hour.

On the dash, cassette tapes buckled in the heat. The reclining seats thrummed like massage chairs. Goondiwindi, Moree, Narrabri, Dubbo. On and on we rattled and rolled, through sunflowers, cotton and sheep country glittering through the sandblasted windscreen, our wheels going over the occasional thunk of railway lines. Now the washing machine's centrifugal force was wildly off, as if someone had thrown eight pairs of runners into the mix. But that car wouldn't say die. Parkes, Forbes, Jerilderie, Tocumwal – towns with excellent op shops, excellent pies, excellent locals who refrained from pointing out that our car seemed to be running on two cylinders and a loose hammer.

By Shepparton we were too scared to stop. We lurched into the outskirts of Melbourne at 11pm like marathoners entering the stadium, a keening hoarse moan under the bonnet and a full-body juddering that made Sydney Road a blur. Our hardy old Corolla, it could scarcely raise a trot. Like a dog who'd limped 5000 miles and just wanted to crawl under its own house to die, it shuddered one final clattering death-knock and expired, I swear, right outside my front gate.

The next day, when I towed it to the wreckers in Epping, the resident mechanic looked at it assessingly. "You fond of this car?"

"I sure am."

"Look, for a thousand all up I could drop a reconditioned engine in there, and you'd be back on the road again."

"Really? Isn't it a bit past it?"

He allowed himself a small moment of sentiment, resting his hand on the bonnet with something like awe.

"Not these," he said, reverently. "These ones go forever."

The Road Behind

By Simon Castles

THE mythology of the classic road trip, the Kerouac kind of thing, is all about the road ahead. But when I think of road trips, I think of the earliest ones I took, which were all about the road behind. Particularly the gravel road behind.

My family had a grey Volvo station wagon. There were seven of us. Mum and dad were up front, dad the driver, mum the provider of sharp, hissing intakes of breath to indicate danger. Mum also gave out the Minties, one each about every 500 kilometres. We chewed them slowly as possible and then sniffed and gnawed at the wrappers for extra sustenance.

My three elder siblings were in the centre row of seats. Which just left me and my twin sister Jane. We were in the car's third row in seats that faced backwards. Our seats were black vinyl and hotter under the sun than anything under the sun. Lava times infinity, as Jane put it.

The rear-facing seat was introduced by Volvo for design and safety reasons and – my hunch – because the Swedish thought it would be funny to make the world's children carsick. Well joke's on you, Volvo: I had only one Mintie in my stomach, and there was no way I was giving it up.

Every Christmas in the '70s my family drove from Canberra to Lakes Entrance in eastern Victoria. We took the Monaro Highway, which runs north-south between the coast and the Great Dividing Range. The trip, mum assures me today, took six to seven hours. Oh, mum and her silly "real time" ideas! It was a journey of at least two days.

The road between Canberra and Cooma was OK, and from Cooma to Bombala it was tolerable, even as the countryside became wilder and the death wish of the marsupials more keen. But things got rough south of Bombala. The word "highway" is generous for what the Monaro was back then. The road was gravel for about 50 kilometres, and trees were known to lie across it, presumably having died of boredom.

Most of the trip the windows were all down. This was airconditioning. I didn't have a window, so I could only look with envy as those in window seats were blasted with refreshing hot wind and exhaust fumes. How lucky they were to have their faces made rubbery and numb by the thunder of rushing air. To have their lips rearranged and their eyelids turned inside out. Oh, to be whipped and strangled by my own hair.

With the windows down it was impossible to hear anything. We would shout at mum to turn up the stereo, but our words were blown away, out over the baking plains, baffling wallabies. When the message did somehow finally make it to the front of the car, mum would lean in towards the stereo, against the wind, and at least appear to turn the knob in the right direction. And we would go from hearing nothing, to hearing nothing.

Once we hit the unsealed road, the windows had to go up. Bits of rock and gravel pinged against the car and, had the windows been down, would surely have taken out my twin, who had a way of attracting flying objects to her head. The car was quickly coated in dirt and dust, which made it virtually invisible to the many logging trucks that were busy carrying away the forest.

As we slowly roasted, I would stare out the caked and crusted rear window at the dust swirling into clouds off the tyres. I found it impossible to anticipate bends in the road ahead because I  saw only the bends in the road behind. My head and stomach swayed in the wrong direction. I breathed still and stale air, also known as my brothers' farts. It was around this point my Mintie would most seriously consider ejecting itself.

The car rattled and shuddered over the gravel. Voices vibrated, taking on the staccato rhythm of the car's failing suspension. I would hear dad speaking, his voice bouncing up and down on one syllable, struggling to bounce onto the next. What is he saying? Something about stopping in Cann River for a milkshake is my guess. For if milkshakes hadn't been invented, and dad hadn't had the promise of one down the road, he would never have set out on this trip in the first place. He may not even have risked having a family.

We'd reach Cann River hours or possibly days later. We'd peel ourselves off our seats, leaving a layer or two of seared skin behind, our screams of agony hidden beneath our cries of freedom. Then we were out on the street. I'd be happy to be out of the car, but more than that I would be happy to be simply facing in the same direction as the rest of the family. And that direction was towards the milk bar, where beyond a doorway of colourful plastic strips to keep out flies, there were milkshakes waiting.

Born to Run

By Fran Cusworth

COME back to the 1980s with me, to the Hume Highway, Melbourne, where a teenager stands by the road wearing cut-off jean shorts and tossing her perm. One hand is on her hip; one thumb jabs at passing traffic. This is me.

I'm setting out to meet some friends in Surfers Paradise, before getting back in time for my part-time job as a kitchen hand. Yes, that's right –  I'm planning to hitchhike 1703 kilometres across three states, just to party for one night.

I'm a 19-year-old arts student, and I think I'm living this rock'n'roll, Baby-You-Were-Born-to-Run type dream, where girls flit around big countries with only a wink and their thumb, transported by all those  lovable characters on our long-haul roads. Have I considered any risks? Uh, no.

My first lift is in a truck, with a friendly father-and-son combo, lots of chat, and country music. Next I'm picked up by a frenzied guy who steers his 44-tonne rig one-handed, the other hand madly scratching his head, a sign he's OD'ed on the wake-up drugs. In Queensland, a police car drives me right into Surfers.

And I've made it! Me and my gang ride one of those double-decker party buses to do the clubs, pure tourist trash we are, and the night is a blur of drinking UDLs, dancing to the B-52s and Chaka Khan, and swimming at dawn. Fantastic!

However, while my friends sleep off hangovers, I am now the loser who needs to hitchhike 1703 kilometres home. I set out late in the day, and get dropped at a remote turnoff. And that's how I find myself at midnight, almost asleep on my feet, staring nervously at a dark, empty, Queensland road with my thumb out.

Finally, an old bloke stops his truck and says, "Jump in."

I hesitate. He's big and broad, blunt-headed and dead-eyed. But then, I don't exactly have a queue of drivers auditioning for my Born-to-Run fantasy at this point, so I climb in and we head south. He doesn't talk much, as the white lines flash under the headlights and the engine hums. I finally relax, and doze off.

His gravelly voice wakes me.

"Why don't you sleep back there."

I turn and look through a letterbox-shaped, glassless window behind our heads. It leads to a sleeping cubby; about a metre deep, a metre high and the width of the truck. In my delirious exhaustion, the mattress and pillow inside look like heaven.

"OK, thanks."

And, yes, because at 19 I trust the whole world, I get in. And I fall straight to sleep.

I wake later to find him climbing into the cabin. The truck is silent and parked, and his broad body is next to me, his breath close in the dark, his hands everywhere.

My cool hitchhiking dream has morphed into an overheated nightmare: I am in a box shaped like a coffin, its entry blocked by a man who thinks it's time I paid for my trip.

I hit and shriek, and then with the clarity of pure terror, I stop. I pretend to relax. With my heart hammering, I say quietly: "Why don't you move over here a bit? Have some room." He does, pressing me into the back wall but unblocking the entry window as he does, letting in light.

Still fully dressed, I take a deep breath and roll on top of him, acting pretty casual, but getting myself closer to the window. And then, quicker than a lizard, I launch myself off him and scramble through that gap; fling open the passenger door and leap down to the ground, where a glorious dawn has lit fields with pink and gold.

The world smells of grass and earth. The endless horizons of my country have never looked so beautiful.

I don't even know which state of Australia I'm in. I've left my bag behind. But I'm free of the coffin, and from here I can run.

He shouts and grumbles at me for a bit, but seems unwilling to leave the shelter of his truck. Finally, he drives off. My pack hits the roadside dust further down the road, and then he disappears.

I lie in a paddock and watch the sky change colours, my blood pumping crazy fast, while my Born-to-Run fantasy flakes off my skin and falls away.

I soak up the vast gorgeousness of a solitary dawn, the road stretching empty as far as I can see. I never want to hitchhike again.

Unfortunately, the only way out of here is to take a lift in another truck, where I now sit grim and suspicious with my fingers on the door handle the whole way home to Melbourne.

I fall into my own safe bed and sleep for 16 hours, am late for my dishwashing shift and get sacked from my job. I will never, ever be quite so trusting of the world again. But oh, we had a great night dancing in Surfers.

Other People's Cars

By Michael Green

I'D BEEN invited to a wedding in Darwin in July. Somehow, August arrived. I was still in Melbourne, mired in the worst of winter, those bitter weeks when the calendar says it is nearly spring. A friend said a knot had formed in my forehead.

"Bugger it, I'm going north," I decided. "Who knows what'll happen?"

I cadged a lift with two bushwalkers on their way to the Grampians. There, I waited by the highway, smiling and waving at cars. Within minutes a taciturn Brazilian named Carlos, who delivers phone books for a living, stopped his small truck and drove me all the way to Adelaide's central market. Whoosh! But it wasn't until the next day that my brow really began to lift.

I'd been dropped at the turnoff to Port Pirie and I was standing in the dirt, head down, scribbling in my notebook: "Bobbi and Tim, maroon Mazda 323, nurse and plasterer, adult kids, Coca-Cola beanie, booze and bipolar, the golden rule tattooed on Tim's left forearm ..." when a white van pulled up ahead.

It was Harm, a wiry fellow with a thin, grey ponytail and great joy in his face. The joy is always there – I knew that straight away – but he was particularly elated right then, thrilled by my means of travel.

We enthused together. He reminisced about his wandering days after migrating from Holland, and showed me his gallery and home in the old shipwrights' workshop in Port Germein. He made coffee and explained how, for more than two decades, he'd been growing tree seedlings and giving them to locals.

Later, I walked the town's long jetty, 1 kilometres over the shallow Spencer Gulf, while the sun set on the Flinders Ranges behind me. I looked back and saw the once-barren port nestled in green.

From there I went north through the desert, gathering momentum, standing by the road and sitting in other people's cars: Squizzy the resentful, racist roofer; Robbie and Jimmy Barnes, Arabunna mob on their way to a mine; Speeding Amy, the Vietnamese woman too tired to sleep; and Dave, who'd crashed into a tree and broken all his body, but found his backbone – he was moving north to make a better life.

Before long I was in the Alice, both attracted and repelled. Attracted by the rocky MacDonnell Ranges and the sharp, generous people I met; repelled by welfare dependency and idyllic expat cafes. Attracted by a football final with its mixed, lively crowd. Repelled by a day watching court.

I was shocked by the nihilism of the drunks and the recklessness of a new government removing controls on alcohol supply. I was confused and spellbound by it all.

In Yuendumu, about 300 kilometres north-west, I volunteered at the community arts centre. I filled paint pots and took the artists cups of tea, listening all the while to the sounds of Warlpiri: the fast, rolling combinations of the consonants j, n, p and r, and the vowels a and u.

I read a book by an anthropologist who'd lived in a women's camp there. She learnt to abandon planning her days, to submit to the collective will instead. She gave up control, but gained a profound curiosity upon waking each morning.

Back in Alice, I tried my own brand of recklessness. Four days I hid at the freight terminal, ready to hop a cargo train. Four nights I trudged home, nine-parts despondent and one-part relieved – the trains either hadn't come or lacked a place to stow away. I'd have kept trying, and might have fried like an egg on a hotplate, but for Macarena, a sparky Chilean traveller who offered to hitch with me the next morning instead. I went with Macarena.

On and on I went, north through hot springs and waterfalls, high school visits and football games, canoeing days and speedway nights. Until, after two weekends of laksas and mangoes at Darwin's markets, I turned around and came south.

John McDouall Stuart took five years and six attempts to cross the centre on horseback. He searched for waterholes and ached with scurvy. I hitched the Stuart Highway home from Darwin in just four days. I slaked my thirst at roadhouses and scanned the narrow ribbon of asphalt through seven different windscreens.

For Stuart, the desert brought purpose and quietude, an escape from the awkwardness and alcoholism that dogged him in colonial society.

For me, it brought conversation and gratitude, and insight into the lives of people I'd never otherwise meet. Exactly 150 years apart, both of us yearned for salad.

After breakfast on a Friday, I walked to the highway near Coober Pedy. At lunchtime, a fitter-and-turner named Greg stopped for me in Port Augusta. He'd wrecked his fender – hit a dingo on the left side and a roo on the right. I said I was headed for Melbourne.

"You're in luck," he replied. He was from Cranbourne. He'd drop me at  my door.

At 3am we crested a hill on the Western Freeway and the big city's lights sent shocks of surprise through my fingertips. I'd gotten into other people's cars and put myself in Harm's way: I was joyful. It was late, but my eyes were bright and my forehead clear.

"Who knows," I wondered, "what will happen tomorrow?"

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