Field Notes From a Solo Road Trip
by Kathryn Reese
Nambour, Queensland, Australia
Bad news hadn’t been delivered in a single call but a sort of complex, a looped, repeated conversation as Dad got worse. I talk it over standing in the car park of the fruit market. Quite hungover. The crisp hill’s breeze blows the scent of fresh cut pineapples around me. My best friend’s voice breaks through the haze, talks sense. I have to go
home. Flights are post-Covid Easter expensive, but I can drive. 2000km. I stand in the sun, watching corellas harvesting the roots of paddock weeds as I call my boss for leave, my ex to take the kids. Within three hours I have packed
thermos, sachets of coffee, bread, bacon and eggs, esky and ice, a small suitcase, pillow, tissues, and a box of plastic water bottles
in the back of my seven-seater soccer mum Kia and set out
Dad was a coach driver. I remember him taking school loads of children to the snowy mountains—I can’t possibly remember that, only the romance that filled my pre-school mind whenever someone spoke of “Snowy Mountains.” I have a photo-enhanced memory of being two years old, sitting in the driver's seat of a Sunshine Coach, grasping the steering wheel. Hold on Dad, I’m
turning left onto the freeway. Away from the remnant blue gums, standing isolated in paddocks, precarious on the edges of dams. Away from vineyards, black cattle and new, grey-roofed housing estates. Towards
A couple hours down the road, I am already inventing companions. Mirages: my son, my best friend, my ancient Sumarian spirit guide. They are feet-on-the dashboard restless, splitting open the pack of red frogs, skipping about in my playlist.
Turn the music down and I will tell you how this white dust landscape once was sea, tell you of the shells crushed and the mineral salt cracked.
From this crest, the mallee could be ocean. Treetops, wind-rolled, rise and curl,
glisten, as if with moisture.
Sunset blurs to watercolour orange, pink, yellow, right across the rim of the horizon. Easter moon soaks the road, broken white line to gravel edges. There is no one else here. What will happen if I break down, crash?
Dad gave up coach driving and became an ordained minister. I don’t want his prayers. I don’t share his faith in a divine being who keeps the machine of my vehicle running, keeps me from collision.
My eyes scan silhouettes, seeking ghosts and kangaroos.
I pull into a rest stop, park between a ragged mallee gum and a paddock of wheat stubble. I unroll my sleeping bag, curl up on the folded-down back row, between suitcase and esky. I wait for sleep. Trace
the road train’s rumble from one horizon to the other; map its route as it follows the highway’s inexplicable curves—what is there to avoid, out here? If I remembered quadratics, I’d plot the road train’s journey. Discern if it matches the stars.
She is hiding over there, to my left, beyond a scuff of trees. The word “river” slurs down to one syllable. Her flow slows down to a trickle, hoarded for soaking the rice.
Dry paddocks. Wandering emus. Sun bleached grass, heavy with seed, saltbush tall and rugged as the ewes that graze upon it.
Crows gather on the fence wire, knowing this abundance brings lambing and migration.
The sky is the same wide blue as last time I drove this way. My son, reclined, resigned to boredom, reported one eagle, six magpies, an army of galahs and zero clouds. Asked: Has it ever rained?
I know water here as a dusty mirage, as a blue graphic on google’s map. My eyes flick between icon, road, and eucalypt, catch on a reflection: the sun immersed between the trees.
motel. Shower, pyjamas and a long video chat while I stretch out on the double bed. My best friend sends goodnight kisses that flutter, little moths on silver wings. I listen to family coming and going from neighbouring rooms: Laughing, talking, telling each other
April rains where there has been too much rain. Over summer, several inland creeks that cross the highway remembered their muscle, rebelled, tearing down barbed fences, tearing through drainage ditches, tearing over levee banks. Temporary signs and traffic cones guide me to slow down, avoid the places where hollows are gouged in the road, avoid the freshly sealed
scars. Earthmovers are tucked into compounds beside dirt tracks. Brooding, ominous yellow and hungry.
Pilliga. I would embrace her ironbark, her mountains and wide overtaking lanes.
Pilliga is pregnant. See how thick she grows, how she glows, how she sways. I want to run my fingers through the sun-bleached lengths that cover her ochre skin.
At the rest stop, I pour coffee. Part the grass with a toe and caress dust.
Rugged mountains over my shoulder. Something about the blue-grey of them evokes paintings on my grandparents’ wall: alps, chalets and snow. There is no snow, only
scraps of cotton. Harvest left the floodplain awash with lint and tractor dust. The road runs parallel to empty furrows, protected by a straight-edged drainage ditch filled with plastic bottles and stunted sunflowers.
Miles of weeping myall, grey foliage heavy with mid-afternoon sunlight. Thick grass has immersed cattle, buried creeks, buried the shell of a wrecked sedan. Weary, not yet nearly home, I grasp the steering wheel, fossick for red frogs, turn up the stereo. Stay awake, stay alert, stay awake. There can be only so much reflection.
When I see Dad he is bright, after three days of super-strength antibiotics. He recounts the tale of his admission and hospital food. I sit perched on a plastic chair, shrug off sleep. Trace
the path of his IV, through a network of valves. The tube curls around, into his arm, horseshoe curve smooth as a freeway on-ramp. If
I remembered trigonometry, I’d plot the angle between his pillow and the window. Discern if he can see streetlights or stars in the shoe-box sized window high on the white wall.