The jeep stuttered through miles of washboard in the predawn of an Australian summer day. The headlights slashed the darkness as our vehicle hurtled onward. Although I kept my window zipped shut, I would later find the fine dirt known as pindan stiffening my hair and clothing. For me, the scourge of the outback was not the venomous snakes, searing heat, or any number of creatures capable of inflicting death. No, it was the insidious creep of powdery red dust that clogged my pores and invaded my sinuses.
My husband and I had driven into the game reserve early, on our way to hunt for shells at low tide. This was one of our many junkets into the outback while he served remote sea duty in Western Australia. He was stationed at Harold E. Holt, a communications station jointly run by the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Airforce. We’d adapted to our isolated location, so much in fact that I had trouble remembering a time when I hadn’t lived in this curious place where flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos eddied in flight, emus raced our jeep, and pink-and gray galahs gossiped like old women on power lines.
My first full day at Exmouth, the only settlement on Northwest Cape, should have warned me that challenges lay in store for me. Since our car hadn’t arrived yet, I’d taken the bus to the base. After picking up some groceries, I headed home, or at least I tried to. My inability to backtrack might be funny (arguably) in a parking lot in the States. In Australia, it became a more serious failing. All the houses looked alike. I squinted out the bus window into the glare with my heart pounding. I’d have to ask for help. Still recovering from my painfully-shy childhood, that prospect didn’t strike me as any better. Thank goodness, it wouldn’t be necessary. My house had come into view.
I climbed out of the bus with shaky legs, shifted the bags of groceries in my arms, and as the bus roared off, crossed the street toward my house. I’d reached the driveway when I realized I’d been mistaken. I’d never hung that welcome sign by the front door. This wasn’t my house after all.
Uncomfortably hot, I glanced up and down the street. Nothing moved. Now what? I could knock on the door beside that welcome sign. I might later have done that, but newly arrived in a foreign country, I hesitated. Anyone could be inside.
A flicker of movement caught my side vision. I turned my head and caught my breath. A bird like an ostrich was strolling out of the bush toward me. Of course, it had to be an emu. I watched the bird approach with interest, then growing panic. It hadn’t looked so large before, but it stood taller than me and had what looked like a sharp beak. I backed away. The emu followed.
A car came by in the road, braked, and backed to me. The driver leaned over and opened the passenger-side door. A got into the car without hesitation, more frightened of the bird than a stranger. Fortunately, the man was a kind neighbor ready to help a frightened woman find her way home.
That had been a couple of years ago, and as my husband swung the car around a turn, I smiled at myself for being afraid of Charlie, an affectionate emu adopted by the Exmouth community. A mob of kangaroos hopped across the road in full flight. Both red boomers and little greys could be found at Exmouth. These were the boomers, which could grow to the height of a man. My husband applied the brakes abruptly with a sideways glance at me. “Sorry.”
In the jeep’s headlights, a red boomer bounced in circles, in an agony of indecision over which way to run. My husband laid on the horn, and the terrified creature made up its mind to run toward the coast, just over a sand dune. The jeep proceeded forward at a slow pace, then shuddered to a stop a second time.
I looked out the window and laughed. “No one will believe us.”
Just ahead on the side of the road, a boomer huddled with its head down, paws over its eyes, and tail protruding into the road. We made our cautious way past and drove off, removing the mechanical monster that had frightened the boomer. I no longer live in Australia, but the image of a kangaroo bouncing in circles or hiding its eyes with its tail exposed has remained with me.
How often am I like those kangaroos, fearful of a monster in the road? Like them, I mistrust the unknown and believe it means me harm. Have I hopped about in circles, looking for a way to run when any decision would remove me from a dangerous path? Perhaps I have hidden my eyes and wished the monster away. Had those kangaroos but known it, we wouldn’t have harmed them. I wonder. How many monsters have I created from fear itself?
How many monsters have you created from fear itself? Literary Wayfarer Journal: The Monster in the Road