The road to Alice Springs is called the Stuart Highway, but it’s hardly a highway. It isn't paved. It isn't made. It's just a track corrugated by road trains with their multiple, overloaded trailers. The roadbed is covered with a layer of dust the colour and texture of paprika. It settles in depressions and surprises me with a silence that muffles the rumble of the car. 50 mph appears to be the optimum speed to keep the reverberations to a minimum. The optimum for a road train appears to be about 90 mph which means that every time one overtakes, I'm blinded by a rusty mist. It swirls behind the trailers as they chase the horizon, shimmering in the distance.
I'm not concerned about running off the road. It doesn't seem to matter when there's nothing to hit, except abandoned cars or various parts — a tire here, a bumper there. Tow trucks are desert pirates, cruising a road that begins in one place and ends in another with nothing much in between. It’s barely worth the cost of retrieving the deserted cars. Like everything that dies out here, they are soon picked clean by scavengers.
I can't help noticing that many of the vehicles are of the same make and model as the car I'm driving, a 71 Holden wagon, recommended because of the wide availability of parts. Rightly so — they were everywhere. I'd bought it in Sydney for $700 — a cash advance on my credit card. I hoped to sell it when I returned. It's the cheapest way to travel, that's if it survives the Stuart Highway.
The sign outside Coober Pedy had said last petrol for two hundred miles. I'd figured a full tank would easily make it but the needle on the gas gauge was sidling up to the red E sooner than expected — sooner than Alice Springs. I was hot, tired, and hungry, thinking that if I ran out of gas there'll be one more Holden on junkyard strip, when just by chance, I noticed in the rear-view mirror what looked like a cut off near the last corner I'd rounded. I would never have spotted it if I'd not glanced up at that very moment.
I turned the car round and drove back to the corner. Sure, enough it was an old dirt track intersecting at the bend in the highway. The track, hardly visible, wasn't marked on my map, but there was a small sign a little way in that proclaimed, with outback honesty, "Grub and Gas — maybe. About ten miles." I took a chance and drove down the track. I figured it might lead to a sheep station or mining settlement.
Nine miles in the engine began coughing, and then as I cleared the brow of a low hill it died completely. I coasted into town, what there was of it; a dozen abandoned buildings with rusty tin roofs and red stone walls blasted by the desert sand. I coasted right up to a gas pump, one of those old ones with a hand crank. It stood alone and untended like a main street cenotaph.
I got out and looked around. Opposite the pump was what may once have been a hotel. I crossed the street, pushed open the door and entered. I was surprised immediately by the air-conditioned coolness, then amazed to find someone sitting behind the office counter watching TV — unbelievable.
I had already prepared myself for a lonely night and long walk next day. There was hope after all. "Sit yourself down," smiled the man. "Have a beer, I'm just watching this old Ed Sullivan rerun.” I joined him, there wasn't much else I could do. Finally, the show ended, and the man stood up. He was tall, carrying some extra weight. With his sun worn face and thick white hair he was a black and white negative.
"I just love those old shows," he grinned.
"Entertainment just ain't the same no more. Anyways, welcome to the Quality
Hotel. Guess you'll be wanting gas, most folks do. Got
plenty of rooms too if you want to stay the night. Old fashioned service — an' the food is pretty good too. I cook it myself."
"Sure, thanks," I said. I wasn't likely to get a better offer.
He led the way into the dining room. It was spotless. The decor was early fifties, an old Wurlitzer stood in the corner. "Want some music?" he asked. "There's a good variety, mostly fifties and sixties." He pulled a handful of change from his pocket and slapped it into my hand. "Take your pick. I gotta get my apron on. I'll be back in a minute." I chose a little Buddy Holly and early Everly brothers. Not my era, but I thought I may as well relax and get into the mood.
The place had a feeling of serenity about it, but I couldn't figure out how anyone could live so far from life. Through the window the street was windswept and empty. Beyond the Gas pump was the same Kindergarten landscape. It never seemed to end. When the old guy returned, I asked him what attracted him to this isolation. He just laughed.
"We'll talk later," he said. "Now, what are you going to eat?" I couldn't believe he would have everything listed on the menu, but he didn't hesitate when I made my requests. After I'd eaten, he insisted I step into the bar for a drink. Like the dining room, the bar too was spotless — but empty. He poured me a drink, and then invited me to join him on the porch to watch the sun go down.
"Simple pleasures," he remarked. I agreed. I felt pleasantly content. I sipped my drink and relaxed as he told me his story.
"I first came by here in the early seventies," he began. "I was jus touring around with a bunch of friends at the time, raising hell. We'd been drinking and partying and it was late. I wandered off and darned if I didn't get lost. I was out there in the desert for days, jus wandering around. The boys thought I'd left town on my own, so they left too.
By the third morning I got the feeling nobody was looking for me. Funny thing was I wasn't scared. I jus seemed to focus on what was going on around me. It's amazing how much there is to see when there's nothing else to do but look. You know, the desert looks dead, but life is real intense here when you learn how to see it.
Anyway, I was starting to think I was close to the end of mine when this Aboriginal kid found me. He was out there wandering around too. Except he could have wandered around for a month with nothing but his hands in his pockets — if he'd had pockets. Me, with all my money and resources was about to check out. It was like I just relearned something I used to know as a kid. Like I'd come home to something that seemed right.
I call it quality; you know quality of life. I decided to stay. My toy box had been fit to bust for some time and jus didn't give me pleasure no more. I could see the good life was killing me and I didn't like the look of the future. I cashed in all I could and simply bought up what was left of the town. I have plenty to live on. I find pleasure now in giving the best of old-fashioned service to the occasional traveller who happens by."
It was only when I asked him about family that a cloud came over his face. "They couldn't come," he answered. "They couldn't let go of the quantity. I still stay connected — kind of."
We sat quietly for a while then, watching the sun put a fresh coat of paint on the biggest sky I'd ever seen.
"You know," he said, breaking the silence, "The sun doesn't go down, we're racing away from it at a thousand miles an hour. Jus a matter of perception. Things aren't always what they seem, nor what we want them to be"
He stood and went inside, returning with a guitar. He sat back, put up his feet, and began to play. His voice was rich. It wove in and out through the colours of the sunset, then when the sky in the east turned a deep indigo, it fell into a perfect harmony. I was spellbound.
"Did you write those songs?" I asked when he'd finished."Kind of. I guess I had a little help from God. He's the real creator you know. But since we are made in his image, I create the best way I know how. He jus gives me all the notes."
"How do you mean?" I asked, curious.
"See those stars up there. That's quantity, and quality. Every one of those stars is a musical note put there by God. I just pick out the ones I need."
"You could make a fortune with those songs you know, they're perfect."
"Make a fortune!" he snorted, "And then what? No, I'm happy to play for myself, or whoever wants to listen. It's enough."
I slept well that night. I rose early to find the old guy had breakfast prepared. I ate, and then went to the office to pay my bill. He wouldn't hear of it.
"I don't need your money son." he chuckled, "I don't have any use for it. Let's get that car of yours filled up. You'll be wanting to leave." I wasn't sure I did, but we went out to the pump together. He checked the oil and the tires, then cleaned the windshield. He filled my gas tank, that is, he half-filled it.
"I'd feel better if it was full," I suggested nervously.
"Full!" he said, "you don't need it full, son. You're too focused on the quantity. This is quality gas, finest gas in two hundred miles. What more could you want? Guaranteed to take you to the Alice."
I had no reason to doubt him. We shook hands. "Thanks again," I said.
"You're welcome. Be on your way. An when you think of me, think about quality."
We said goodbye. As I drove off, he yelled, "Don't look back son." But I just had to take a quick glimpse in the rear-view mirror as I reached the top of the hill. He was gone of course. The place again looked deserted, but I knew there was life there. It was just hiding away from the brutal glare of the midday sun.
I reached the Highway and headed north. Rumbling along to Alice Springs on my quality gas, thinking a quality highway would be a delight. I went on to travel the Northern Territory and Queensland, seeing people and things that TV would never make real.
By the time I returned to Sydney the car was only running on three cylinders, but I was able to sell it in time to cover the payment on my credit card. I had to admit the car was a wreck, and it had never really been mine, but it had fulfilled a dream for me. I was beginning to understand what the old guy meant. The car had quality. He really believed in quality, right down to his shoes, the strangest shoes for a desert dweller. They were blue — blue suede.
c David Hobson 1996. Published in Mixed Messages 2007