With apologies to the heat, what I remember most is the color of the dust.
After the shuttle bus pulled in that morning, a fine coating of orange dust settled over the town of Alice Springs. But unlike the dull, transient dust I’d seen in America, this dust looked provincial, as if for centuries it had been proud to rise and fall in the exact same spot.
I had climbed aboard that shuttle some twenty minutes earlier, one of four excited faces, all of us twentysomething, all of us peering through tinted windows; two of us about to discover that Australia can be a stealer of bliss. Before we could say “down under,” the landscape flattened, momentum slowed, and our driver braked us to a stop. The four excited travelers stood and grabbed for luggage.
The third, my buddy Steve Cole, pressed his leather hat on his head. Ahead of him, a duet of girlish giggles filled the aisle. Steve’s longtime flame, Darcy, led the way, blond hair swishing side to side, her height blocking our view. Right behind her was my brunette girlfriend, Allie, who eased between the seats with her year-round tan, toting two bags of luggage and her journal. Allie and I worked together in a remote region of Ecuador, and our dates were nothing if not adventurous. Today, edging forward on an Aussie shuttle, we peered once more through tinted windows, stunned at the absence of rainforest.
Last off, I tipped the driver with a five and stepped from air-conditioning into an early February heat wave. Not just any heat, but desert-quality heat. For here the seasons were inverted, or perhaps the season never changed. From the baked look of the terrain, every month was summer.
“Did you tip him?” Allie asked over her shoulder. The weight of her luggage pulled her arms straight, and already the sweat beads had formed on her cheeks.
“He’s happy,” I assured her, turning to give the driver a thumbs-up.
We all stood in the road for a moment, blinking our disbelief, hoping our sneakers wouldn’t melt.
Darcy reached into her shoulder bag and drew out her sunglasses, aviator frames with mist-green lenses. She was tall and not easily given to embarrassment, the kind of girl who could paint her car an odd color and not care what you thought, then sell that same car and use the dough for charity. Now adorned with her mist-green lenses, she looked quite Holly-wood but spoke pure Southern. “Y’all, this land just goes fo-evuh.”
Steve grabbed her heaviest bag and grunted with the effort. “Yep, so big you might lose the rest of your r’s.”
Darcy frowned, slung her camera strap over her shoulder, and asked Allie to share the sunscreen. Our long-traveled foursome shoved luggage to the sidewalk and stared up at a sign beneath a wooden awning: OUTBACK ADVENTURES—RENTAL FOUR-BY-FOURS, AND GUIDED TOURS.
The last guided tour I could remember was a field trip back in the third grade, when our class toured a Texas fort and after lunch I hid with Michael Stokes beneath a cannon. All afternoon we’d pretended to shell the Union. A search party of teachers found us just before sunset.
Twenty years later, I, Jay Jarvis, stood on the other side of the planet, in the Northern Territory, just outside of a discount rental agency, discussing with Allie, Steve, and his independent girlfriend whether to rent one four-by-four or two. Travel all together or in separate vehicles? This was the only relevant question. After flying fourteen hours across the Pacific and losing an entire day of our lives to boot, no way were we going on a guided tour.
We took all of sixty seconds to decide.
Allie reached out and took both of my hands in hers, swinging them persuasively, in the way she always did when she wanted me to see things her way. “Jay, I’d like to be able to engage in some girl talk every now and then,” she said. “And lots of alone time with you too.” She let go of my left hand and reached up and pulled away some dark hair sticking to her neck, hair that had grown long and uncooperative, semiwavy and unfit for heat. She tugged at the bottom of her shirt and enticed some air inside. “So I vote for two.”
Darcy Yeager, in all her height and blondness, stood with hands on hips, looking around as if she could not believe we had actually arrived here. Finally she sniffed the hot air, gazed over her sunglasses, and nodded her approval. “And I want some alone time also, just Steve and me riding together.”
Steve moseyed over beside me—he’d gained a good ten pounds since I’d seen him last, and he’d cut his hair military short. Together with the hiking shorts and the outback hat, he looked like a stocky, twenty-eight-year-old Boy Scout, ready to explore. He put an arm around my shoulder and winked at the girls. “And Jay and I are gonna need to talk sports every once in a while.”
I left them in the shade of the awning and stepped into the rental place with our order memorized: Two dependable Land Cruisers, please. Extra gas. Hold the guides.
Cheap vinyl flooring and a pair of chrome chairs masqueraded as a lobby. Motown music piped low and nostalgic from the ceiling. Outback Adventures had a retro feel to it, and atop the counter a chrome bell was the only available employee. I stepped forward and rang the bell.
From a back room came an angular fellow with leathery skin and sun-streaked hair. He reached across the counter and shook my hand, in a manner that told me I was about to get charged too much. “I remember you, mate,” he said after I’d told him my name. “You’re the Jay who called in from South America, right?”
“Ecuador, right. You spoke to me and Allie.”
“And the other two out there,” he said, pointing out his front window. “They look American too. That tall girl, the blonde, she’d be his sister, I hope?”
“Nope. His girlfriend.”
“Me luck,” he muttered and began filling out the rental forms. “So I guess you need to see what you’ll be driving. Right, mate?”
“Right . . . mate. And how much per day? ’Cause we’re gonna need them for four days.”
Rental Guy produced a calculator and began a tally. “One hundred twenty-three dollars and eighty cents per day,” he muttered. “So that would be—”
“Four hundred ninety-five dollars and twenty cents,” I said, smiling. “Times two.”
He looked up from pressing the buttons. “Good at math, are we? Well, let’s see how good ya are at navigating ’Stralia.” He motioned for me to follow him outside.
Rental Guy led our foursome around the side of his building, where he summoned us together and began espousing the capabilities of his well-used fleet: Four-wheel drive. Spare gas cans. Spare parts. Two-way radio to talk to the other vehicle. A tent and sleeping bags folded in back. “And if you happen to break down or get stuck while camping or out carousing,” he said, pointing toward the barren interior of his country, “do not leave the vehicle. Our heat is a killer. Three of every five people who try to walk in, die. But four of five who stay with the vehicle, live.”
Allie stepped in front of me. “But what if you’re in mixed company and you have to go?” She stood on her toes and peered as far as she could into the colossal blank that was central Australia.
Rental Guy’s answer was quick and dismissive. “You sheilas just go behind a bush or a rock formation, hurry back to the vehicle, and no worries, aye?”
Aye. No worries.
He then pointed to the last three four-by-fours he had available. The silver one sported a flat tire and a cracked windshield, though the other two looked in decent running order: A burnt-orange Land Cruiser that was obviously not its original color, though it did remind me of the University of Texas, my alma mater. And then a white one, a bit newer and boasting symmetrical mud stains behind the wheel wells. Roof racks and oversized bumpers topped off the rugged look.
“V-8s, mate,” our host said to Steve.
Steve dropped to all fours and examined the undercarriage. Then he stood with orange kneecaps, kicked a back tire, and gave his approval.
“Saucy,” Darcy said, smiling at the discussion of our rides. Darcy was the worst driver in our group, but also the most insistent upon driving; she’d spoken of little else all the way across the Pacific. After the four of us initialed the rental forms, she climbed behind the wheel of the white Land Cruiser and left Steve to load their luggage.
Not that I didn’t help. Allie and I loaded similar gear into our burnt-orange chariot—the one to which we would entrust our lives in hundred-degree heat. While loading, I kept glancing over at a thermometer that hung on the side of the building, wondering if the thing was broken. “That’s the temperature in the shade, mate,” warned Rental Guy, who lifted the hood and began checking the oil level. “So take plenty of bottled waters. But we cool off quickly in the evening.”
I opened the driver’s door to inspect the interior, saw a rag on the floorboard, and used it to wipe the collecting dust from the side mirrors and windshield. “What’s with the big bumpers?” I asked.
Our host placed one foot on the front bumper and pressed hard. The vehicle barely bounced. “No worries. After sunset you might see roos and wallabies hopping about. They’ll cross the roads, snoop around campsites. These bumpers here’ll protect you and the sheila.”
Next he reached in under the dash and pulled out a walkie-talkie, small and black, not much bigger than a cell phone. “Jay, this here’s your best friend,” he explained, turning the squawk control on and off. “You and the other vehicle can talk to each other if ya get lost. I checked her out just this morning, and she’s got a good range to her.” He demonstrated how to work the thing and then stuck it back under the dash.
While he and Steve checked all the fluids in the vehicles, Allie hurried around the passenger side, toting a backpack and a frown. “Jay, I wish he’d stop referring to me and Darcy as ‘sheilas.’” She set the pack in the backseat and turned to speak. “Doesn’t that mean ‘hooker’ in Australian?”
After we had all of our gear situated in the vehicle, I called Rental Guy aside and asked him, in a low whisper, if “sheila” did indeed mean “hooker” in Australian.
“No, mate,” he whispered back. “Means female. A few Aussies even use the term for female kangaroos.”
“Aye,” I said, not sure if he was telling the truth but trying my best to adapt to the carefree lingo. “No worries.”
They say Australia is about the size of our lower forty-eight. But the similarity stops there. For if maps of the two countries were overlaid, Maine to Maryland would comprise the Great Barrier Reef; Sydney would envelop Savannah; Melbourne would be Miami; and across the country, in the role of windswept San Diego, would sit Perth. Now that we all have our bearings, I’m here to tell you that we were not in any of those places. Not even close. Where we launched from was, in effect, Kansas, which in Australia means the Northern Territory and this town of Alice Springs, gateway to the outback.
The plan was to spend four days driving in and out of arid wilderness, during which we would visit some famous rocks, King’s Canyon, and an Aboriginal settlement. Then we would return the vehicles, fly down to Melbourne and depart three days later from Sydney. But how often does the reality-map overlay the plan?
Darcy and Steve pulled away first. After a stop to buy groceries and two cases of bottled water, they led us down a two-lane highway, a dull blacktop coated in familiar orange dirt. It was early afternoon, and the tourist town behind us faded rapidly, in contrast to the view ahead, a rocky horizon that seemed to just keep growing and growing.
Minutes later Allie reached over and put her hand on mine. “Jay, this is the free-est I’ve felt since we floated off in the Atlantic with our eyes shut.”
“Don’t remind me. We almost became human sushi.”
“It was a test. . . . I would only date a risk taker.”
I rubbed her fingers and tried to adapt to driving on the left side of the road. “If you don’t mind, let’s say yes to vision in Australia.”
Pursuing her had meant saying no to a six-figure offer to work on Wall Street, yes to risk, and maybe to Ecuador. It also caused a wedge in my family. In Dallas lived relatives mired in shock over my leaving the investment world to go work in a jungle village with a Carolina girl whom they’d never met.
And because of what I’d given up, I often teased Allie about what our dating life might have been like if she had been the one who’d moved. “Hey, do you realize that had I stayed on as a stockbroker, we could have afforded to come here twice a year? Twice a year down under?”
Through a curved section of road she remained silent. Then she opened her journal, wrote a line, and spoke without looking up. “And you’d have been traveling with someone else . . . twice a year.”
She had this mind-set, this theory ingrained in her that if a person was passionate about something—in her case helping to raise a bunch of orphans—that everything else, including who she ended up with, would flow from that service. Perhaps she was right.
I followed the white Land Cruiser along a straightaway—already Darcy was speeding—and pressed the issue with my girlfriend. “So, you’re certain that you would never have moved to New York City to be near me?”
Allie closed her journal and gazed out of her window. “No way,” she said, not a hint of tease in her voice. “It was either going to be me working alone in the village, or me and you working together in the village, but it was never going to be me living in New York City.”
Such brown-eyed convictions not only attracted me but produced in me a challenge—to convince myself that occasionally men have to leave career and relatives in order to cleave to the right woman. And right now, as we drove between sparse fields of grass and stone, my thoughts were growing very cleavolicious.
Darcy and Steve rolled on ahead of us, pulling in their wake a hovering copper dust that settled on and blended with our burnt-orange hood. The road out of Alice Springs had begun smoothly enough, but now the pavement looked tired and scorched, like it was ready to give way at any moment to packed dirt and gravel. For the next hour we drove between plains of golden grasses, weathered rocks, and, I imagined, lots of scaly things that crawl.
Allie began writing on a page of her journal, and a few miles later she caught me peeking. I only saw the first two lines—the beginning of a poem—before she hid them with her hands.
Aussie foyer, red welcoming road
What lies beyond, in your arid lands?
“Don’t,” she said, clutching the journal to her chest. “It’s not good yet.”
Convicted, I caught up to the others on yet another straight stretch of highway—and saw Darcy reach over and squeeze Steve on the neck, as if to thank him for letting her drive. She sped up, and I accelerated through their dust.
With Darcy feeling the pressure of steering the pace truck, the next fifty miles became the vehicular equivalent of ADD: tall blonde slowing to see everything; tall blonde speeding up so as not to miss anything.
Soon the deficit and the disorder caused me to level off at a reasonable speed, and it was then that Allie leaned into the console and looped her arm around my elbow. “Jay, did the rental guy ever explain what sheila means?”
“He said it means you resemble a female kangaroo.”
And here, just when I was feeling all romantic about this journey, Allie reached into the backseat for one of her bags and said, “I think it’s time for some girl talk. Catch up to Darcy and I’ll switch places with Steve.”
After Allie alerted them on the two-way radio, I honked twice and waved Couple Number Two to a stop.
Both vehicles stopped on the shoulder and sat idling. Allie started to open her door, then reconsidered and leaned across the seat to kiss me good-bye. “G’day, Jay.”
At the parting of lips I winked and reminded her to wear her seat belt.
There would be lots of switching of drivers on this trip, but if I’m honest I’ll admit that I was so distracted by what I was planning to do that I almost missed Australia.
The entire ordeal seems a blink, a breath, and yet it is memoir and forever.