It was meant to be just a drive from point A to point B to share Christmas with the family. It had been one of those years that was best left behind and I was excited to spend time with special family members. Away from ghosts of the past.
Along the Newell Highway this drive took a turn. No longer was it just a means to travel the thousand odd kilometres across 3 states. It was my pilgrimage. One final trip with you across the land we treasured and admired its changing tides.
You would have been impressed with the miles and miles of golden paddocks. The grain now harvested and its gilded hue slightly fading as the stubble turns to earth. We would have both been intrigued with the individual wheat stacks across the Riverina as farmers were wrapping their wheat in plastic to store on farm. A clear sign of a very prosperous year.
My mind was taken back to driving the same road with you in the early ‘80s and how you wished you had travelled at night as the track was profoundly depressing with the ravages of drought – bare paddocks blowing in the summer winds, the sparse starving stock seeking water and feed to survive, the skies clear with little hope of saving rains.
I know you would have appreciated the difference now and noted the numbers of sheep, fresh off shears that roam the knee high pastures. I noticed. You had taught me to see.
We could have chuckled together at the farm mail boxes as we scooted down the Newell, many decorated for Christmas. You would have pointed to the water filling swampy low areas, now a wetland haven for multitudes of birds that chorus as we break for road works along the stretches damaged from the floods that now bring life to the region.
Ducks and turtles forage in the evening stillness as we stop for the night at Forbes. A few Willy Wagtails sing an evening lullaby in the fading light. A single tear trickles down my face as their song takes me back to the night not so long ago when the Willy Wagtails warbled a midnight melody calling in a sadness that settled as you took your last breaths. I knew I needed this pilgrimage to bid you farewell.
The story you told me on another trip a few years back springs to mind as we take the long stretch from Forbes to West Wyalong. I still find it hard to imagine how my grandfather Clem rode this same track on a horse in the 1920s. It seemed such a long expedition to buy another horse! I try to imagine the dusty tracks now replaced by sealed highways, the cleared cultivated land that would have been pristine and untouched, and the stars overhead as he rested his weary body and horse each night. I’m thankful you shared this piece of family history with me.
The West Wyalong truck stop is a welcome sight, not just for us but for many travellers on similar journeys to loved ones for the festive season. I strike up a conversation with a family eating their cereal in the carpark, the children’s hair still woolly and eyes still cloudy from the night sleep. In years past that was us. I have recollections of getting dressed in town parks, eating corn flakes from plastic cups as you and mum tried to get some miles in before we woke. Having had children of my own I appreciate how precious those quiet miles were.
You would have wandered around the busy carpark and struck up a few other yarns with fellow travellers. I only watched this time and envisaged the stories of voyagers along the Newell.
I smile at the football ovals in each town with the four posts at either end. I’m not sure you ever played Australian Rules in your time in the south of the state? As we continue through Narrandera I seemed to recall you did play ‘proper’ football games out this way as you sought some Rugby League comps in the heart of Australian Rules country. I guess you spent some time in these towns along the Murray River and Riverina district and probably broke some hearts as a young single graduate in this area.
Stories from you faded as I crossed the swiftly flowing Murray River and headed into Victoria. I continued on this pilgrimage with a heavy heart, knowing that you would have truly relished in the changing landscapes as we zoomed towards Melbourne.
I have no doubt you would have repeated the story of trying to drive in Melbourne with your mother-in-law and her strong opinions in the back seat and how you unexpectedly ended up on the steps of Parliament House. I think the roads are better now – or at least with technology we made it the port in plenty of time for our passage across Bass Strait, where we gathered to make new memories with one less seat at our table.
You can rest. Our land is in good hands.