There are some places where the land sings and you hear it. There are some places where the curves of the hills embrace you and hold you, safe. There are some places where the light dances on the water and your spirit dances with it. And there are some places where you do not wish to be, where a sense of unease comes creeping, creeping until it envelops you. On a road in Somewhere New South Wales last week the cloak of unease wrapped itself tightly around me and did not let go.
I’d looked at the map before I set off and had an idea in my mind of the landmarks and turnings and tiny towns I would pass through. It was a simplified digital map and it withheld the truth. The contours, the twists and turns, the types of vegetation—these vital pieces of information were omitted.
The tiny towns, I learned as I drove, drove, drove, did not exist. In Somewhere NSW there is a lot of nothing. A house or two, down a long driveway and hidden by the landscape, may have existed at those dot points on the map, but towns there were not. There were no petrol stations. There were no pubs, cafes, churches, schools or rest stops where people might gather. There was just country.
At first it was pretty. High on the tableland there were soft hills in surprising green, indicating a microclimate where rain falls. The road swooped and curved and the light was bright.
Where the dry took over and the sheep and paddock grass became indistinguishable, my mood began to drop. Where the road plunged and brittle trees crowded the bitumen, deep discomfort took hold. “It is possible,” I thought, not for the first time this year, “to push yourself too far out of your comfort zone.”
Once again, I came face to face with the naivete of a “she’ll be right” attitude, the foolishness of blind optimism. Alone on a country road in the middle of nowhere, just past the middle of life, I started to cry. Partly it was the what-ifs: “If the car breaks down out here I’m stuffed.” Partly it was hormones: holding on to your sanity in perimenopause is hard work. Mostly it was the situation, allowing space and time for all the things that I thought were neatly packed away—grief, fear, frustration, disappointment—to come springing out.
It was not, I realised, the fault of the landscape. Out there, the insects, birds, animals, grasses and trees were living another day oblivious to my despair.
The road kept winding and the tears kept falling and then—WHAM!—around a blind corner on a steep hill I found myself nose to tail with a caravan. Rational brain, which was definitely taking a back seat on this trip, said, “Oh! Another person!” But irrational brain, who was driving, said, “AND NOW I’M STUCK BEHIND A CARAVAN AS WELL!” Stuck on a road too far from home to turn back. Stuck behind an obstacle I couldn’t see past. Stuck trundling along at a speed I didn’t want to travel at.
There was no phone reception out there, but a satellite somewhere was still valiantly giving directions while my phone charge dwindled. Eventually the caravan lumbered away as I took a right turn and found myself in new country again: pine plantations. There’s a silence to pine plantations that disturbs me. They seem to discourage birds. Sound is deadened and light is swallowed by the hectares and hectares of thickly planted sameness. I cried harder.
“Perhaps I just need to cry,” I thought. Rational brain tried some self-comforting tactics. “You have food and water,” it said. “You still have half a tank of petrol.” I tried to concentrate on breathing deeply but instead pictured myself abandoned forever in the pine forest, a woman gone feral, with matted hair and wary eyes, living off pine shoots and the occasional rabbit.
It is also possible to have too much imagination.
The last words uttered by my dying phone were: “In 10 kilometres, turn right onto the highway.” Those 10 kilometres were long and slow, carrying the weight of all my hope and expectation. A highway. With people. I still couldn’t see any sign of the mountains I was heading for, but I knew they were out there somewhere and I was inching towards them. I didn’t know how to get to where I was going without a map, but I knew that soon I’d see another person and ask for help. “I will have to stop crying eventually,” I thought.
Four hours after leaving home, I pulled into a petrol station, snivelling and dishevelled, where a kind and beautiful person showed me how close I was to my destination: “You’re nearly there! Keep going!” And I bought a phone charger for the car.
Very soon after that, revived by a hug and two huge mugs of tea, I sat in the warmth of my friend’s little cottage and listened as she talked about the concept of the second arrow. The first arrow, pain, is unavoidable. But the second arrow, suffering, is preventable. We overlay our pain with too much reaction and make it so much more painful with our suffering.
I wondered: had I done that? Had I layered suffering on top of the pain I felt on that long, lonely drive? No, I don’t think so. While I acknowledge the arrow concept and see how easy it is to shoot the second arrow, to make things worse, I don’t think that’s what was happening. There are just some times in life when you need to fully feel all that’s within you. You may not realise it. You may not be expecting it. You may think everything’s fine and you’re in control, and suddenly the chaos of being human shows up.
There was space out there in Somewhere New South Wales to let it all out—to be a messy, imperfect bundle of emotions. Perhaps there was something in the air, something in that landscape that triggered such intensity and set it spilling for hours, unstoppable. Perhaps that’s why no-one lives there. Perhaps everyone who drives that way has the same experience. I don’t know. I decided not to test that theory and took a different route home.
I’m fine. I’m sharing this story in case you’re experiencing something similar. If I meet it again, I’ll recognise it for what it is: something that probably needs to happen. And I’ll have a name for it. “Aha!” I’ll say. “Here we are again, in Somewhere New South Wales.” Be kind to yourself. Let it unfold. Keep going.