The 26th Parallel
It wasn’t the part where I got to pet wild dolphins. It wasn’t being able to see more fish than I had at the Great Barrier Reef, in knee-deep waters. It wasn’t playing pool with US Naval Officers in one of the world’s most remote Naval bases. It was not wading in crystal clear turquoise waters with manta rays swimming at my feet. No, it was a wild horse. A horse, of course, that made me realize I was a fucking brat on the greatest road trip of my life.
If you’ve hung around here long enough, you know Godless Mom used to live in Australia. I wrote about the second time I lived there, when I was 15, in this post. If you didn’t read it, let me just say that life had been less than easy as a foreign 15 year old in a hateful Australian high school. I dropped out after experiencing severe bullying. I, being 15, of course went on to brood and sulk about the fact that I still had near half a year before I could go back home to Canada. I was miserable to be around, even to myself.
It was no different on a road trip we set out on up the West Coast of Australia. I squeezed in to an overpacked car, and scowled out the window as red dirt deserts and talcum powder beaches sped past me. I turned up the volume on my walkman, and hummed along to Under The Bridge by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. I was committed to being sour. Perfectly committed.
We took this trip with several other families who were exchanging to Australia through the same program as us. We drove along these desolate roads under the beating sun, a cavalcade of foreign teachers and their families, cars piled high with camping gear.
Our first stop was Kalbarri. A long stretch of snow-coloured beach and spits striping the gemstone water teeming with aquatic life and their snorkeling paparazzi. We found a campsite and began to set up camp. I, in true teen angst style, grabbed a lawn chair and my walkman and sulked as all the other kids and my brother played tag and kick the can. This was bullshit. I was sure of it.
Just as my Dad hammered the last peg of our tent into the red Aussie ground, a helicopter flew over us and the campgrounds began to empty and people sped toward the beach in droves. We heard keywords popping up here and there as campers breezed past in hurry, “drowned”, “dead” and “accident” caught our ears and we followed them with morbid curiosity.
Before long, we’d learned a couple of Japanese tourists had drowned while snorkeling in the inviting Indian Ocean. I took this as undeniable proof this trip was doomed. All I’d needed was more sadness to up the ante. My scowl deepened, and I flipped on Something In The Way by Nirvana on repeat. Fuck all of this, I thought.
Our orange tent
I snoozed through nightmares of drowned bodies and Kurt Cobain’s depressing face and rose the next morning wishing I was back in Canada and this whole year had just been a dream. Instead, there was my Dad, poking his head into the tent, “Rise and shine, sweetheart! We’re off to see the dolphins!”. Ugh. How could he be so cheerful?
We drove through desert and more red dirt and dry heat, for nearly 7 hours this time. Our train of teachers’ cars putting along in the merciless sun. We were headed to Monkey Mia, where wild dolphins came in to shore several times daily to visit with people, grab some snacks and just be generally dolphin-like. I didn’t let on, but a small part of me was looking forward to meeting wild dolphins. I mean, you’d have to lack a pulse to not look forward to that in some way or another.
We arrived in Monkey Mia, another breathtaking white sand beach with brilliant blue waters. We set up camp and explored the grounds. It was late afternoon and we wouldn’t see the dolphins until the next day. So, I hopped in the pool and submerged myself to drown out the sounds around me and just be alone for a few moments. I floated, looking up at the sky from under the surface of the water. The only noise was the sound of the water meeting itself and the side of the pool, and the sun’s rays beat their way down to the bottom of the water in pillars of brilliant light. It was so quiet, so peaceful and I began to feel something that slightly resembled happiness.
A parrotfish! That’s my mommy!
As I sauntered, waterlogged, back to the beach where we were camping, I noticed a commotion on the shore. I arrived just in time to see one of the other teachers we were traveling with reel in a giant parrotfish, which he promptly wrapped in foil along with some lemon slices and threw on the “barbie”. We ate well that night and I tried to keep my scowl from turning to a look of deep satisfaction, but I don’t think I was entirely successful judging from the elbow nudge my mom gave my dad, with a grin, pointing in my direction. So, maybe I’d had an okay day. The whole fucking trip was bullshit though, I was still quite convinced of it.
Meeting wild dolphins, even in my pathetic mental state, was profound. Our second day in Monkey Mia was filled with Dolphin petting and feeding and watching my dolphin-obsessed brother’s face light up with joy. They were playful and friendly and came in several times to visit the medium sized crowd that had gathered. Wading in the water, with these beautiful creatures swimming around me, looking up to me with big, glistening eyes that seemed to say, “Play with me! Be happy!” I felt a warmth creep into my chest and I smiled at them. Okay, so maybe only parts of this trip are bullshit, I thought.
How could this not make you smile?
The next day we packed up quickly and hit the road. A family from St. Catherine’s, Ontario was driving behind us, part of our motorcade of tourists, and they had two sons. Having forgotten my walkman in my backpack which was now in the trunk, I had to amuse myself somehow and proposed to my brother that we put on a show for our friends behind us. As their little, orange Datsun followed us, we faked a melodramatic fist fight in the rear window so they could see. After a few minutes, the Datsun passed us and pulled out in front of our car. We saw the two boys in the back seat begin to fake a fight and I cracked a smile. I watched and watched and my brother and I looked at each other and wondered when they were going to stop. It seemed to get more ferocious and more animated until finally we saw the Datsun’s turn signal go on and we followed them into a gas station parking lot. We watched as the car screeched to a halt and the boys’ parents burst out of the front seats, threw open the back doors and began to try and pry the two boys apart who were now clearly fighting for real. I actually laughed. I laughed and laughed with my family and found it difficult to stop chuckling to myself about it the rest of the way to Coral Bay.
If you picture the most revoltingly beautiful beach in the world, stick it on a shallow bay that is literally overpopulated with coral and fish of every colour of the rainbow, and line the background with giant white sand dunes, you have Coral Bay. During our time there, my brother overcame his nervousness with snorkeling by walking knee-deep into the Indian Ocean, bending over with a mask on and dipping his head in the water. What he saw under there is what we swam through for the next couple days straight: nothing but thick walls of fish and other sea creatures so abundant and colourful you had to catch your breath to take it all in. It was beyond anything I had seen at the Great Barrier Reef and I couldn’t drag myself out of the water for anything. After two days, I didn’t want to leave. I had fallen in love with this underwater world of wonder and forgotten I even had a walkman with me.
But alas, we had to move on and I pouted for not wanting to leave. It was getting harder and harder to put on a frown and act angry. I was enjoying myself but I didn’t quite want to let on yet.
Our next and last stop on this trip was Exmouth, an American Naval base. As we drove into town, we noticed that all the other cars on the road were American cars with the steering wheel on left. I hadn’t seen a left side steering wheel in near 6 months and as silly as it was, this small slice of home made me smile. We got out at the campground and walked around as my parents set up the tent and all we were heard were North American accents. There were Americans everywhere. After my experience with Australian high school, I’d never been so elated to see Americans before and sooner than we could say ‘G’day!’, we were playing pool with several American Naval officers in the game room of the campgrounds.
Later, in the afternoon, we hit the beach in the nature reserve. This was a completely deserted beach, in an entirely isolated town of a handful people. It was just sand, water and grass as far as you could see. I waded in the water and jumped in excitement over dozens of manta rays swimming around my feet. Feeling them rub up against my ankles and calves made me laugh and I leaned over and let my fingertips run over their slippery, flat backs.
Walking back to the campground, we spotted a wild Emu and someone cracked a joke about emu burgers, and we all chuckled. We ate more fish for dinner and retired in our tents, exhausted.
I rose to the sound of a blast of air and could see out of my still-groggy eyes, the side of our tent trembling near the zippered flap.
Is that a horse? I thought.
Yes. There was a horse outside my tent. A wild horse. The air ejecting from his nostrils was sending little tsunami ripples through the orange canvas and I could barely make out his mane as he shook it in the morning light.
Suddenly, I felt oxygen leaving my body and not coming back. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes began to water over. I realized what a selfish, ungrateful child I had been over the past week. What the fuck was my problem? Didn’t I have any idea what opportunity I’d been given? As pure awe filled my chest cavity, I finally took a breath in and thought, “Grow the fuck up, Courtney. This is real. This is amazing. You are happy and there is nothing wrong with that.” I heard the horse stomp his foot just outside our tent. He let out a slight whinny and I laughed and smiled at the rest of my family, freshly awake and staring in awe as well. I realized in that moment how fucking lucky I was. I looked at my incredible family experiencing this incredible moment together in this incredible town and realized I was not just lucky, I was one of the luckiest people to have ever lived in all the world.
“Breakfast is ready!” We heard one of our friends yell from the picnic table, “but you all might want to wait before our NAY-bor leaves to come out… get it? NAY-bor?”
My family and I looked each other and began to giggle groggily. This trip was so not bullshit. This trip was the exact opposite of bullshit. This trip was one of the best times of my life.