Broken White Trail

Broken White Trail

Cover by Austin Neill 

People travel for different reasons. Recreation, junket, mental health. And many trips are shaped by certain frameworks that guide or sustain a certain version of yourself. From the family vacation; to the gap-year trip to ‘find yourself’ or whatever; the backpacking journey in the middle of nowhere; the romantic holiday with the love of your life; the getaway from the ennui of everyday society; the marathon away from, but competing with, demons within you; and more. In many cases, the development of one’s types of trips can reflect a kind of personal evolution based on who you are at different stages of life. I thought this was my case. But once I thought my type of travel was developing linearly – hence my life – it moulded into the shape of a helix.

My gap-year trip, 2012, is about running towards something. No pain within me, no angst, just enthusiasm for what the world offers. I want to meet other people who represent this kind of freedom, not trapped in repetitious small-town mundanities, however arrogant that may sound. Enter Chris, a guy who becomes my best mate. My very own Dean Moriarty from On the Road, someone who really lives in the moment with little regard for social conventions or consequences, searching for ‘it’.

On our first night in Amsterdam, he and our mate Alastair and I walk through the Red Light District, window shopping. After a few enquiries, it’s clear that any appointment costs fifty euros for twenty minutes.

“That’s about as communist as you can get,” says Chris, passing yet another perfect façade in a window. People are gathering in the street, chatting, some walking their bikes amid all the pink and cherry backdrops. At the end of a block he says, ‘I’m going to that sexy brunette back there.’ He strides back half a dozen windows. Alastair and I sit on the canal, legs hanging over the ledge. I’m uninterested in fucking a prostitute. I can’t get over the need for mutual desire.

The streetlights leave a light-shaded residue on the canal. Enigmatic, superficial purples, beneath a footbridge. Sin on full display. No smoke and mirrors. Residential buildings in the city appear so transparent, huge windows displaying apartments’ interiors. Apparently, this openness reflects or shapes the Dutch people. I dunno. Hard to judge when I’m only here a few days – but given their relaxed nature towards sex, drugs and even bicycle helmets, I guess it makes sense.

I think back to this morning. Walking along the canals, natural light trying to drive through the greying clouds, Alastair and I were relaxed. We observed the bikes and the smiles and the dim neon-lit alleyways. Chris jumped in front, stopped us and said, “We’ve been in Amsterdam for half an hour and we’re not even high yet! What the fuck are we doing? Cunts, look around! Everybody is fuckin’ high!”

No more than three or four minutes later, there’s a faint thud of Chris’ lady’s door. Alastair and I turn. Chris advances towards us from the window. Shoulders perched, chest out, the cheesiest grin I’ve ever seen in my life.

“Boys…” He sits next to me. Slowly he swings his legs out, dusts his hands, takes a breath. Rowdiness in bars in the background. White noise like foreign-language news presenters. “That was the best root I’ve ever had.”

***

In 2013 I’m still pumped to explore new places and want to step things up: Africa. Wearing a backpack with a small red tent strapped to it, I’m equipped to tackle lands further afield from user-friendly Europe. I want to be challenged. Maybe get in danger. After six months working in the Whitsunday Islands, I’ve saved enough money. By this point I have a ridiculous, romantic vision; I’ll meet a beautiful, fun girl on the road, fall in love and keep travelling side-by-side. Hollywood garbage. At the staff party the night before I leave Daydream Island, I’m speaking to a girl who says she met her boyfriend travelling and I say I have faith.

I spend two weeks on the heavenly Lake Malawi, completing my open water diving certificate, kayaking and consuming deadly amounts of potassium in the form of two-cent bananas. Symptoms of malaria wash over me – nausea and vomiting – which a dodgy prick test has me falsely believe is food poisoning or something. Like the canals in Amsterdam, the lake gets splashed with purples, but a natural rose-violet sprayed with mandarin.

I head to the Malawian and Zambian border. In most southern African countries you need visas that cost money. After a sunrise wake-up in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, I ride three packed-to-the-brim minibuses to the border and arrive five hours later – the worst and best part of African travel. One delay is returning to the guesthouse from one of the city’s main bus stations because I left my iPad under my pillow, with the next bus waiting for me. Here’s the irony of travelling in the third world: trying to detach yourself from a lot of superficial first-world bullshit but freaking out about losing your electronics.

Finally at the border – a small, house-sized building – I’m told the Zambian visa costs fifty US Dollars. In Malawian Kwacha I only have the equivalent of about twenty-five dollars. They don’t accept cards. No other travellers are here. I think of what to do. A bus back to the last town with an ATM, Mchinji, would take half an hour each way. But I don’t know when the hell the next bus comes and the whole damn process will take too long. It’ll already take all day to get to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. So I do what you do in Africa when things go wrong. Nothing. And I wait.

Soon after, two white men enter the building and take a form and a pen each.

“Excuse me, I was wondering if you could do me a big favour,” I say to the one with glasses. He’s only my height but stocky and stern-looking. “I didn’t realise the visa costs fifty US and I don’t have equivalent cash on me.” He looks suspicious and kind of scary. His bald mate looks back-and-forth from his form. I feel like a beggar, embarrassed. “Is it possible for you to cover my fee? If you drop me to the first ATM over the border I’ll withdraw the money for you.”

The men chat and tell me they agree. The glasses-man, David, asks me where I’m headed. They’re going to Lusaka too. Brilliant. He and his mate Ross are white Malawians selling timber in Zambia; Ross is a tour guide, just accompanying David on the trip. A strange accent – a weird hybrid of South African and Scottish. David asks the officer the public transport rate to Lusaka and I agree to pay them to drive me all the way. I thank them and we get our stamps and head to David’s ute.

The ute tray is packed with covered-up timber, stacked well above the security of the side rail. All afternoon I sit ninety degrees, one hand holding the rail behind me, facing the barren countryside, wind stretching my face, sun warming my neck through Baobab trees, occasional passers-by waving on their miles-long walks for basic supplies, a family of cattle fleeting like the connection of yesterday, bodies squashed in the back of a pickup truck for local affairs I know nothing about, a Mosi Lager in my hand. Not ready to commit to anybody, I’m sipping a second beer, grateful and relieved, the sun sinking from the unpolluted African sky, a broken white trail of paint behind a person I won’t be again.

***

Oscar Wilde said in The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.’ In February 2015, during a blissful holiday to Japan with my girlfriend Alice within our first six months, I can’t help but feel all the work is behind me. The debauchery, third-world traversing, the girls I don’t care to see again, others across the globe I’ll always have stupid and meaningless crushes on. They have culminated in this – retirement.

We’re on a train from Tokyo to Tokamachi for a snow festival. Gazing out the window, Alice’s chin on my shoulder, her first time seeing snow she’s happier than a senior citizen gardening in the spring. Surrounding the snow-capped buildings, deep powder blocking the entrances, skeletal trees are injured huntsmen waiting for rescue from beyond the mountain range. For a while in the town we think we’re the only westerners. We hold hands passing the pink flags and decorations lining the streets. Children are playing on the snow sculptures and giggling at us. Smiling, we tighten our grip. Only a business hotel available, king single rooms, we must book two rooms but Alice brings her pillow to mine. Making love that she’ll always recall, the matriarch of mountains watching over us, we swing each other around like children.

At the Iwatayama Monkey Park outside Kyoto we hike to the top. Whether they’re showing off or just playing, monkeys are wrestling. Alice says, ‘Is that us?’ and we elbow each other and kiss. Inside the building we feed peanuts through the barrier, I freak out thinking a monkey’s grabbed me, but it’s just my bag scratching the barrier and Alice laughs. Our photo together at the lookout is her favourite shot of us, her smile so genuine, the haze over the city an omen of what’s to come.

***

After any amount of overseas travel, many people from countries like Australia and America and Canada, myself included, realise how little they’ve seen of their homelands. In late-2016, after Alice breaks up with me for the third time, I take off to Tasmania to catch up with Chris in Hobart and explore the rest of the island on my own.

I head north, up the coastal road, checking out the Bay of Fires. The white fluffy clouds have drifted to a happier place. The gloomy, ruminating clouds shield them like brainwashed soldiers who don’t realise why they’re fighting. Although I’m the only person in the car, monsters are sitting in the passenger seats. Strapped up. Seat belts on. In for the ride. My two bags aren’t the only baggage I’ve checked in. I think about Kerouac saying nothing’s behind you on the road, everything’s in front, but I can’t help but think that’s bullshit.

I pull in at one of the thousands of stops. A young couple’s camping with a van and surfboards, under a shady tree. Silently sitting in chairs – contently happy. Why can’t it always be that easy? Windy outside. Down at the beach, orange-hued granite rocks glare like city billboards. Rocks in and near the water lime green with moss. Fully clothed, a mum and dad play with their toddler son in ankle-deep water, unbothered about their jeans getting wet. The boy shrieks when his legs submerge and the parents are laughing. Laughter is magic – freezing time – and I smile until they stop laughing and then I feel heavy again.

I figure I’ll go to St Marys. Not sure what to expect from the town. See what happens. Triple j radio keeps me company, passing the farms and towns and lonely taverns. A Violent Soho song. The festivals Alice and I attended. Seeing that band and all the others and howling like wolves and holding her from behind and kissing her head. Tears leak down my face. I squint. They’re all moments of time stopping and it’s only when we feel time that misery can come scratching up with its claws. I lose control and bawl my eyes out and pull the car over to the rustling gravel.

When I park in St Marys it’s six on the dot, still more than two hours of daylight. I cross a bridge. On one side, leafless branches hang over the brown rivulet like carcasses, reflecting from the water that skips past families of pebbles. On the other side, a yard so light green it looks painted runs alongside the river. Up a small hill, lavender-flowered plants and manicured shrubs from a backyard follow the stream around. In the background, quaint houses with large backyards sit peacefully before the forest.

The pub is quiet. Cold Chisel’s playing. Sitting on a stool at the bar, I wait for service. The girl is cute.

“Schooner of Boag’s Draught, please.” She pours the beer and I pay. “What goes on in this place?” I put the change in my wallet.

Looking me up and down, noticing my leather jacket she says, “You’re not from around here?”

“No, Queensland. Just passing through.”

“Not a lot, really. This is it.”

The doorbell chimes. A bunch of tradies still wearing hi-vis. They line the bar.

“Hey, Jess. How ya goin’, darlin’?” says the older bloke.

She makes his usual order and serves the rest. They sit around, hardly talking, giving one-liners here and there. Reminds me of Heart of Darkness how the sailors don’t normally talk unless they have to. And my mate who’s worked on cruise ships saying if you’re gonna complain, just shut up ’cause nobody’s gonna be back on land anytime soon. These tradies have no time for cowards.

Nothing’ll happen in this place. I call Chris.

“I’m at St Marys, debating going up to Launceston now for the night. Reckon it’d be worth it?”

“Yep. For sure.”

“Even on a Wednesday night? I won’t get there till after eight.”

“Absolutely, go for sure.”

I finish the schooner in one mouthful and order a tall Boag’s for the road and jump back in the Nissan, caring not for cops. Google Maps says Launy’s an hour and forty away, arriving at 8.15 but I reckon I can get there by eight. I speed across the highway. One or two lanes throughout. I sip my beer which stays cold and the revs get me pumped, I hurry to a place where something might happen, and the glint peeps on its toes through the valley and eases away behind the hills.

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