Through countryside that resembles eastern Oregon or northern California without the mountains, I rode the CountryLink train South, South West from Sydney to Melbourne, an all-day ride. Only sour moment was receiving a packet of imitation espresso powder and a cup of hot water when I expected brewed coffee at least.
After 10 days in Sydney, which felt like the world testosterone capitol, I’m chipper to be in laid back Melbourne where the air is sweet and art spaces outnumber rugby pitches.
Sydney ferries offered entertainment and respite. The Parramatta river tides caused that long route to turn around at Rydalmere where passengers headed to the end of the line completed their trip by bus. Even through the days of rain and grey skies, I boarded a Rivercat or ferry every day, as passage is included in the weekly transport pass. The return from Manly to Sydney at night provided a neon lit, nearly full moon arrival at Circular Quay, the primary ferry dock.
Melbourne is a major port city too, and I’ll be boarding the Spirit of Tasmania on 12 February for passage to the island that captured my imagination when I was age 6 or 7 and just starting to collect stamps.
In Melbourne, I spent most of my first morning at the Old Treasury Building, an elegant Italianate building where all the gold was once vaulted. Exhibits featured local history, the founding of Melbourne, jailhouse photographs of late 19th c. Chinese miscreants and audio renditions of commentaries by the rough and tumble gold miners. Today I’m at the State Library and will soon look at some old maps of Tasmania. Art museums and archives have surprising collections.
Friday, I’m headed down the Mornington Peninsula where new friends have offered to drive me around to see a bit of the south coast. They are an Aussie couple about my age who emigrated from So. Africa and run a real estate promotion business here. We met last night on the Southbank River promenade as we watched the passing scene and sipped wine. They had gallantly protected my Greek salad from scavenger birds while I returned to the food court to fetch a glass of a bright, dry Semillon Chardonnay blend.
Last week of January, 2012, I hopped on a bus to Congee Beach and walked up the coast line on a really nicely constructed walking path that skirts the coast for 6 KM up to Bondi Beach. The point north of Congee is notable for a metal and concrete memorial to the Australians killed in a bomb attack on a tourist club in Bali. Reported sightings of the Virgin Mother Mary have brought a home-made memorial nearby.
The walk follows the limestone cliffs, park land, playing fields, past houses with expensive views, old boat houses, and fancy flats. There’s also a huge cemetery overlooking this segment of the ocean.
Strolled through the Bondi Pavilion, built in 1928 and opened in 1929. Wandered into a large exhibition space and spoke with photographer Hilton Luckey about Australian surfing traditions, the manly-matey culture, and the alt lifestyle back in the day. Reminded me of Santa Cruz, Big Sur and points south during the mid 1970s when we would sleep in vans or under the stars, and pass the time hiking in the forests or lolling on the beach. Did the strong gut ”’get-‘er-done” ethos from Australia migrate cross the Pacific? I don’t know.
The coastal path was well marked and graded with stair and teak railings for elevated areas. While the sun burned down, the physical part was easy for me and the infrastructure is so highly developed that there are filtered water dispensers and fountains every kilometer or so.
After slurping down a chocolate milkshake from the beach bar at Clovelly (Shark Point on the map) I paused to paint a little watercolor. My idea of paradise — walk, look, paint. At the end of the day, I watched young surfers, then took another bus back to town.
People often ask me about my travels and experiences in remote places. My travels are indeed varied — driving in an ancient Citroen across North Africa, camping out in scrubland or near the sea; climbing volcanos in Sumatra, Lombok, and the Moluccas; trekking in New Zealand; kayaking on Lake Biwa, Japan; and rafting and hiking in Kamchatka.
It all started with a passion for maps.
Some of those adventures became travel articles or were anthologized in travel books. One solo journey is recorded in detail in my book Pyrenees Pilgrimage, published in 2010.
I walked across France alone through the Pyrenees Mts. and foothills from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, a difficult and strengthening experience. I’ve planned other cross-country walking journeys which I plan to do in the coming years.
During the 1970s, I wandered North America extensively on multiple cross country trips by car, train, bus and occasionally, thumb. During one marathon drive, my siblings and father covered more than 9,000 miles in less than 10 days. We must have been driving night and day. I lived briefly in Missoula, MT, and for much longer periods in Santa Cruz, CA, San Francisco, CA and St. Petersburg, FL. During the 1970s and 1980s, I spent time in every lower 48 U.S. state and camped in National or State Parks in many of the central, southern and western states. I also visited Mexico and travelled across Canada by land a couple of times.
It wasn’t until 1992 that I visited Hawai’i and I’ve returned several times. Moloki’i and Big Island are my favorites, and Kaua’i is perfect. In 1993 I traveled along the southern area of Alaska, by sea on the state-run inland passage ferry on my way to Anchorage. On that trip, I was headed for a month- long stay on Kamchatka across the Bering Sea. That was when Alaska Airlines ran regular flights from Anchorage to the Russian Far East.
Other places I visited during the pre Reagan years include Sardinia, Sicily and Elba. With my companion, I traveled by bus or train and camped out on beaches or occasionally stayed in pensions or with friends. We traveled through Costa Rica for 2 months in the winter of 1982 and I visited South West France many times.
After I started working for the Washington Post and began writing travel articles for the paper and other periodicals (and later on, websites), my travel ramped up because a few short trips were at the invitation of foreign governments (such as Yugoslavia before their civil wars) or occasionally, I would have an assignment that included travel expenses paid by magazines.
Though most people assume the bulk of my travel costs were paid for by the Washington Post, that was never the case. I worked for the Post Travel section in a freelance capacity. Freelance writers know that magazines and newspapers usually don’t cover travel expenses.
I arranged my own long adventures with unpaid leaves of absence from work for long Asian trips during the 1980s and 1990s. Just as I had saved for my first solo trip in 1966, I habitually worked at two or three jobs to support my thirst for travel. I explored Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Central Asian on a trek with an outfitter in 1998, rather than going solo.
In all, I’ve spent time in more than 90 countries. I’ve lived (had an address, cooked my own meals, my own library cards and/or driving permits) in China, France, Mexico, Canada and Italy. During the years when I was living in Mexico and China, I was an employee of the US government. I paid for my travel within those countries.
In sum, the travel writer’s lifestyle requires economic prudence and that usually means the writer needs a job. Writing contracts that include travel expenses are infrequent. When the urge to travel is strong, a resourceful individual will find a way.
Train on my way to Savannah, Gee A. Mix of people new to train travel and old timers who know the routines. Pervasive rings of mobile phones display the only creativity modern AmeriCan-Bandana allows: What is your ring-tone?
While most want to fill the space with sound, the rest of us are struggling to empty the sound from our space.
What is the next killer app people asked, back in the 1990s after Netscape, after Red Hat, after Af-Ta. The next one will be the one that silences everything. I don’t mean replacing ambient noise with an iPod generated music mask. My sound neutralizer is a variation of Baby Quiet ®, the helmet that prevents your attention deficient youngster from bashing its brains out against the cement wall in the day care center that wasn’t your first choice but will do the job.
Silence is more than golden. More precious than diamonds and not easy to obtain. When what is most precious is gone, the restoration costs more in terms of energy and effort.
What was that sound? Is that a wild animal up ahead? Or just an oddly shaped fallen tree branch. Steady, now. You’re safer here in the mountains than in most places in the world, as long as you keep your head cool and mind where you step.
Death by Hiking is pretty rare. Usually, fatalities are associated with falls or exposure. Typically, an unfortunate outcome is related to lack of adequate equipment or clothing, lightening strike, dehydration, hypothermia or lack of experience.
Ninashka Hanz talks about being a good witch. How Wicca is the only religion a young woman like her could embrace. The Slovak grandmother taught her the old ways and what was the point of life but to be one with nature and your own true self? Her Czech grandmother from the other side of her family was a witch too, but deep and dark.
Twenty and wondrous to watch, she moves from one campsite to the next, changing conversations, flipping campers’ radio dials. She approached our site after a short exchange in laid-back FM station style with Don the post office warehouse worker whose tent was pitched nearest the forest. Then we watched her sashay up to AM Top 40 tuned Joe Six-Pack camping with a family not his own, having exchanged his kids for someone else’s when a new Momma came into his life. I thought I’d seen the young woman roving the campsites somewhere before.
Nina says the big Rec-V next to our van belongs to an ex-Navy guy who was at Ft. Meyers back in the late sixties and now drives around the lower 48 from state park to federal forest, camping out year-round. “I tried to sell him on driving up to Alaska,” Nina said, “but he didn’t want to drive outside the borders of the USA. Go figure.”
Later we realized we’d seen her hitching on Route 101, fetching groceries. I spotted her first, warned Les to slow down. “It’s a girl. We have to pick her up.” He shrugged, drove past. “We’re headed up to Mono, need to get there before dark.” By now, surely he sensed I was exhausted by his silence on the road and needed to talk to other people. We’d been road tripping the better part of a month without saying much. Get up in the morning, drive, stop, gas up and go on. Smoke into a state recreation area, eat, sleep and do it all over again. The pots of coffee on the Coleman burner marked the passing days.
I told Les that he and I used to be on the opposite sides of some line. If I hadn’t crossed over and made a move, nothing would have happened. Now I crossed the line to move outward again, in this case the line is a sandy gritty campground path that connects the tent sites to the restroom and bathhouse. I’m headed for a young couple huddled around a campfire and soon enough I realize the female is the same person I’d seen that afternoon on 101.
I offer Nina and Joe Six Pack a bag of marshmallows. I’m guessing that Nina is reluctant to waste her time with him because that’s what she calls him to his face, Joe Six Pack. I hang around, toasting marshmallows and keeping the conversation around the crackling fire drifting upward instead of down into a silent gully of stoned introspection. Nina is sucking her beer bottle and complaining her life is not worth much, the other face of the girl who says her ambition is to make money packing Alaska salmon. I tell her what she’s doing now is still an opportunity, not a mistake.
Nina holds court at Mono Campground, so named after the last great mononucleosis epidemic of 1969. Not really; Les and I entertained ourselves with such made-up road stories. We’d been there ten days now and Nina long ago installed herself as unofficial hostess greeting all newcomers, visiting her favored campers each day.
Nina would come round, telling the older folks how she lives in state parks and national lands. “It’s my land,” she’d say. “Yours too. Take advantage of it. Stay as long as you like. Remember, these forests belong to us — We the American People.” I’d nod and smile at Nina, then repeat what she said to Les who was cleaning his revolver under the plastic pull-out awning. I’d asked him to show me how to aim and shoot it, not like I knew anyone else with a weapon like that. “It is her land, you see, Les? And ours too. America, land of the free. This is government forest, owned by we the people, so she’s living on her own property.” My volume climbed. I was trying to shake Les from his skeptical view of Nina. He pulled his lips back in the fake mad-dog smile. We hiked far into Los Padres Forest and I learned to hold, aim and release the trigger, without ammo.
If anyone interesting pulled into the neighborhood, as we called our corner of the three campgrounds, Nina invited them over to her site for wine, dope and guitar tunes. “Before I became a witch,” she said, “I was a singer in a rock band. I was the drummer’s old lady,” she bragged. “They had to let me sing or he wouldn’t play and that group needed a drummer. Couldn’t play for nothing without him.” She’s her own old lady now, just twenty years, writing ballads about the meaning of life, too young to have a storehouse for the meaning.
We bathed in the sulphur hot springs and she talked to her dog Sugarfoot. “All bark, no bite, but they don’t know that,” she confided, pulling shreds of Bugler tobacco out of the economy size can and piling it into two glued together Top rolling papers. “Hey Sugar, hey Foot — go kill, maim and scare,” she joked at the dog, a mangy white cur that splayed on the dusty dry grass nosing its hindquarters . She spoke without raising her head from licking the seam on the cigarette. I ask her where she got the tobacco. “Downtown, you know, in Carthage, east of Santa Barbara.” The joke was there’s nothing east of Santa Barbara but mountains.
Another time when we were together in the bathhouse, I asked her, “You ever get scared out on the road alone, sleeping in campgrounds? Not knowing where your next meal or ride is coming from?” Nina laughed, “Fear? Of what? Magic protects me,” she said. “I really am a witch; no one would mess with me.” Like Sugarfoot, she’s all bark, no muscle. I think Sugarfoot does his part; looks like a mean junkyard dog.
Later I heard her giggles while she toyed away the night. She’d moved on from Joe Six to the ex-Navy guy in the big motor home. When I walked by, they leaned back on folding chairs looking at the stars. “Have some wine and weed,” she urged. “Andy has some of the good stuff, Maui magic. Come on, let’s talk about things tragic and all that good-lookin’ magic.”
“That sounds like a line from a song,” I said. “Write that one up!” Nina grimaced and pulled her guitar from behind the chair. “Sure, I’ll come by later when I’ve punched it out.”
Toting her guitar and Bugler can, a stack of tattered songbooks under her armpit, Nina sloped towards our camp. She showed me her own lyrics copied on three-hole lined school notebook paper. She banged out her twenty year old lament, a defensive answer to a world that has not dealt her well. In the song, she wants to go to Scotland and she wants to go to Budapest to see what her grandmothers talked about.
“My name was Hanzlik in the old country — Czech and White Russian.” She sang patches of a language that only a million people know. “There’s none of us left,” she slurred. “We gypsies and witches, ‘zey killed all us women. ‘Cept ‘zose who went hiding, ‘zey killed us all off.”
Nina slugged back cheap wine, fisting the bottleneck. Now she’s sitting on a picnic table. The ex-Navy man is sloshed and amazed by her. He’s wandered over to see why she’d been gone so long. Nina says fuck a lot, has no lasting interest in him, knows the difference between knaves and knights. She’s telling us about different men she’d known, maybe to shuck off Andy-the-Navy-guy or maybe to stir him. On the one hand I want to give her my time and my ear, but she talks cheap. Not new to me, this story.
She sings: “Jest mello down some backroad, bein’ native and naive, eatin’ weeds and grazing dope, sniffing each other’s breeze. Me and this spring’s lover, me and love me later. Sometimes my mind I play, sometimes each old day. Beat the clock in corridors of plenty, listen to the voices rhyme, magic airwaves on the sundial.” The song was truly awful.
“It might be time for me to leave Mono campground. Change my life,” she says, dragging on another Bugler reefer. A scrap of tobacco from the end of the rolled cigarette sticks to her lip.
Sure enough, she hopped in our van the next morning, headed out with us to the highway west of Santa Barbara. The coast road, 101. Sugarfoot curled on a throw rug in the back and Nina crouched on her gear. I swiveled around in the shotgun seat so I could talk to her and still keep an eye on the road ahead. Les drove as usual, nodded once in a while towards the side view window. Kept his peace when she broke the no smoking in the van rule and lit up in the back.
We dropped her off in Christmas (the town named Solvang), California within sight of the big yellow house that she said was her adopted mother’s. “I’ll stay here with her for a while, then head up to Alaska. Time to get some money.” In the right side-view mirror, I saw her stall around, put her knapsack and guitar on the ground next to Sugarfoot, then stick out her thumb.