Walking in early light, wetlands a short drive from home, where, like the rest of the world, all is quietly closing due to this ravening plague, part of my way parallel to a usually busy highway. I think of another road, traffic-choked, in my distant past. Figuring the year I last drove it those miles ago, I reach back, meet my younger self who casts several glances at my now thin hair, assessing the ruin.
His surprise at where I live now sweetened knowing how long he shall last, he thinks the nearby gas fields recently discovered that he read about must be the reason: employment. All he has known so far is an expectation of work. I paraphrase how, why, I landed here, both linked to my late education, love, work, try to explain about these three life effects felt by most. Stunned, even excited, by where his life leads, he now wants to hear of my health, journey. Happiness.
He knows about the Spanish ‘flu, read that, too, seems more fascinated than horror-stricken by brief news of today’s scourge, but he is young. His skin fascinates me. I tell him everybody would be relieved if this present canker’s naked statistics we absorb like poison, minus the personal misery, grief, and despair, doesn’t exceed that post-WW1 mortality rate. He mentions being concerned for nothing about the nukes, thinks self-isolation, overrun intensive-care facilities, the end of sport, non-electric entertainment, connection – this propels his interest into overdrive – sounds like a fantastic movie script. He loves dystopian themes. I tell him there are more coming. I know from inside knowledge he prefers damaging news told straight, yet want to protect him, protect hope, that lifeblood. Is he too young to be thinking of worldwide virulence?
I cross the highway listening for the odd vehicle, move deeper into the salutary peace of the natural world, but see few birds. Even they seem to have shut up shop, except for a lone pelican, its exquisite wake. Cheer up, my young companion urges, slowing for me, you did so much, although it sounds like you stuffed up a lot. Ah, the chirpy ignorance of youth. How should this end? Endings trouble me.
A haphazard reader as a boy I wanted to drive a bus, then to embrace glory representing my country at sport, then again, in my youth, to become an actor via some miracle. Time on my side until I took my eyes off it, I read among a crazy assortment of books including atlases, one by a British writer of American crime about driving through every state during the nineteen-fifties. Exploring America’s vast geographical and cultural gallimaufry became a forlorn wish as time turned against me. Another wish is to remember that writer’s name, find an old second-hand copy of his travel book online.
I read Kerouac, a different spaced-out hedonistic glory, imagining myself a hitchhiker resembling young Paul Newman in The Long Hot Summer, cool On the Road like Sal Paradise in Big Sur where punctuation took a vacation. The comfort of books became a de facto method of feeling the sun on my face until an opportunity to visit America as a volunteer worker opened up. Falling ill en route, unable to immediately honour my contract, I was sacked a couple of weeks after arriving. The driver of my short-lived employers, dumping me at a motel for one pre-paid night, pissed off by my treatment, asked what I would do now that I was recovering. Not sure, I replied. Ever think of hitchhiking? he said. You’d meet people. Americans are better than this.
A short walk from the motel, unsure of the direction my thumb hankered towards after experiencing the unexpected, I plunged into the wonderful relief freedom affords, this adventure’s distillation having taken years like a fine malt whiskey, unplanned yet not so. Travelling the other way, a tall black guy, perhaps a basketballer standing, torso visible through a sunroof, pointed to a car braked some distance beyond me. Hefting my pack, a small tent stowed, risking what? my long-lulled nerves? I lumbered on shaky legs into time stilled forever in memory now, somewhere in upstate N.Y., heading north, I guessed correctly, heart a skittering mouse as I disappeared into America’s pulsing hinterland.
Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review, Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book, wonder sadness madness joy, is published by Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.