The Outback Follies

Crossing the Australian outback, where epic vistas, charismatic wildlife, and time-forgotten outposts are matched only by the unique social opportunities

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

I. The Long Night of Suicidal Boomers

Not one day into the outback and we're breaking the no-driving-at-sunset rule. It's sunset, and sure as shoot, we're driving. My friend Sugar has the wheel and is doing in the neighborhood of 80 miles an hour on the graveled road, creating a cyclone of rattatooing rock beneath our floorboards. It feels like someone's firing an assault rifle at the underbelly of the car, a Subaru station wagon that doesn't belong to us. I'm sunk deep in the passenger's seat, expecting the bull's-eye shot that will detonate our gas tank. Sugar solves the problem by boosting the stereo volume another notch and belting out a Lena Horne tune: "It's a fine romance. It's a fine ro-MANCE!" She is just shy of six feet tall, Sugar is, with white-blond hair and the kind of complexion women try to buy. She works the gas pedal with a size-10 foot. When we first met, we were 15 years old. Just recently, for better or worse, we turned 30. The sky ahead of us is so big and purple that the land itself, a buckled, darkening plane of dry earth and scrub grass, seems incidental.

This is the hour we've been warned about: that dusky, confused time when kangaroos emerge in squads from the bushes to make fatal leaps at the rare passing car. Kangaroo suicide hour. Mick, the wizened tractor driver we met at the gas station a few hours back, says, "They'll bloody wreck ya. Hit a 'roo and I reckon ya walk the rest of the way to Alice Springs. On crutches."

We know so little. We left the wine bars and botanical gardens of Adelaide, the coastal capital of South Australia, six hours ago, traveling a strip-malled highway that gave way to rolling country road and crumbled finally into this deserted, rubbly boulevard. For the last hour, we've been shotgunning straight north through limestone prairie both carbonized and colorless, like something that's been left in the oven too long. My three maps detailing our route all look the same: desert to the left, desert to the right, and a dotted red line that ticks its way up through the outback. "Outback" is Australian for "out back of the the bloody beyond." I read this in a guidebook, the same place I read that we definitely should not be driving at sunset and that Australia is home to the world's most venomous snakes — king snakes, tiger snakes, brown snakes, and something called the desert death adder. Sugar happily eschews any third-party input, guidebooks and maps included. "I just like to be surprised," is what she says.

Prior to meeting in Adelaide last night, we'd let 10 years slip by without a visit. We postcarded through our twenties — offering sporadic, three-by-five editorials on our go-nowhere jobs, go-nowhere love affairs, trips to Africa and China, graduate school, abrupt cross-country moves, better jobs, better love, and still more wandering. But a month ago, staring down the barrel of my fourth decade, I got suddenly anxious to catch up with Sugar. Call me a pessimist, but another five years and I imagine phoning up out of the blue for a girls-only road trip will not be so simple.

This kind of thing gets both of us down. We are happy, privileged people, and yet thinking about the future — about babies and husbands, in particular — occasionally gives us vertigo. Sugar has been living in Melbourne as a Fulbright scholar. She has a real name, which is Kelly, but she's been dating a Tasmanian cricket player who calls her Sugar. It fits. I approve of the Tasmanian cricket player before I've met him.

We've filled every air pocket of the car with stuff. Among other things, we're carrying socket wrenches and duct tape, WD-40, two first-aid kits, a spare tire and a spare spare tire, a fire extinguisher, a compass, three kinds of rope, 60 gallons of emergency water, two weeks' worth of food, tents and sleeping bags, half a case of good Australian wine, Sugar's arsenal of Chanel products, a pile of CDs, and a glove compartment full of chocolate. We are prepared to survive anything. In the next week, we plan to find our way over a thousand miles of a land so sun-hammered and empty, so famously inhospitable, that it's beaten back and broken down and swallowed up settlers and explorers for more than a century. Even now, tourists disappear down mine shafts, families inadvertently drive themselves into oblivion, dingoes steal babies. Some people simply go and never come back.

Even the city folk in Adelaide swap yarns about their eccentric neighbors in the bush. Already we've heard tales of a booze-swilling bronco rider named Phantom and a cave-dwelling playboy called Crocodile Harry. Far to the north, there's Molly Clark, champion of outback women, a senior citizen homesteader who can blow off the head of a king snake with her shotgun, who can split wood faster than any guy who dares take her on, and whom we figure we might admire. "Aw, that Molly, she'll teach yuh a thing'r two," say those who know of her, and most everyone does.

In these parts, we women are called birds. We are called chicks, chooks, and Sheilas. Sometimes, feeling respectful, the men simply call us foy-males, as in, "I reckon we don't get a lot of you foy-males out here in the bush." Partially for this reason, the bush is where we're taking ourselves for our Last Hurrah. Planning this trip, we had pictured ourselves as a pair of Daisy Dukes, bashing our way into the untamed heart of Australia in a two-ton monster vehicle. But the station wagon's a fine car, and we got it loaned to us for free.

So we're barreling toward who-knows-what, through some of the world's most desolate country, in our spring-loaded, royal blue station wagon.

"Like two soccer moms," I say.

"Like two soccer moms touring hell," says Sugar, scanning the horizon. Sometimes we feel too old to be one thing and too young to be another.

She expertly steers around a dead kangaroo without missing a beat in her song. Every mile out here, it's another furry mountain. The live ones, some of them six feet tall, are massing silently in the indigo light, in ghostly clumps of two or three. Kangaroos are also called boomers in Australia. They have disarming deer faces, little T. rex arms, and the glutes of a powerlifter. Some have pouches but no babies. Two hours ago they were cute. Not anymore. If the kangaroos are on the right side of the road, they appear to be gazing wistfully at the bushes on the left — and vice versa, giving the impression that at any moment they could choose to bazooka themselves directly into our path. I am antsy. The sky is rolling into black. Sugar sings on — "We two should be as hot as stewed TOMATOES, but baby, you're as cold as yesterday's mashed POTATOES!" — and the car chatters ahead, forging two sodium pools of light on the dark, dark road.

II. On You, on Me, Ennui

I wake with red dirt in my mouth. Red dirt in my hair and beneath my fingernails. The outback is two million square miles of mostly red dirt — bulldust, the locals call it — an iron-tasting cinnamon silt that floats off the desert dunes and coats everything, especially newcomers. Sugar, too, has been bulldusted. She has to unload the entire car before recovering our jumbo canister of Handi-Wipes. We mop some of the baked earth from our bodies, boil water for tea, stuff everything back into the Subaru, and start driving again.

We're following part of the Oodnadatta Track, a 400-mile dirt road that bends its way north through the deep space of south-central Australia, connecting the few places where groundwater has forced its way through the callused bedrock to form life-sustaining springs. For thousands of years, it was trekked by Aborigines, who traded tools for shell, ocher for boomerangs, following the invisible song-lines of their ancestors. In the mid-1800s, Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart used the springs along the Oodnadatta as stepping stones to the interior as he made five disastrous attempts to cross Australia south to north. On a sixth try in 1862, with 11 men and 71 horses, and after 18 months, Stuart reached the northern settlement of Darwin so exhausted that he had to be lifted from his horse. "I am now reduced to a perfect skeleton," he wrote, "a mere shadow." By my estimation, we'll be just about out of gas by the time we hit the town of William Creek, which on Friday nights, we understand, has a pub full of cowboys. We see this as a challenge.

In the meantime, Sugar and I take turns yelling stories at each other. We spent our glory years stuck together at a New England prep school, where Sugar wore frosted blue eyeliner and I had feathered hair that I cut myself. Our favorite complaint in those days was that we suffered from ennui, something we expressed by sweeping into other people's dorm rooms and collapsing dramatically on the couch. As far as I was concerned, it simply signified a perpetual ache for something more interesting than what we had.

All these years later, we find that we are better-adjusted versions of our old longing selves. Sugar remains a hybrid of glamour queen and Nebraska farm girl, the tall blond in Chanel lipstick who commands an audience at the diplomat's ball, extemporizing on the merits of Caterpillar over John Deere. Before getting her Fulbright, Sugar handled education and foreign-policy issues for a prominent U.S. senator. She's thinking about running for the Senate herself someday, and I honestly believe she'll win. I live in Maine with my boyfriend and my dog in an apartment furnished with yard-sale detritus. I have no steady income as a writer, but I like to think it keeps me from getting stale. The last time I did black-tie was with Sugar at our high school prom, on the way to which I ripped my strapless dress right up the back, trying to scale a stone wall.

"My prom dress went to one Halloween party and got retired," says Sugar, who keeps contorting her long legs to get comfortable on the passenger's side. Twice already she's accidentally kicked the car into neutral. Her prom dress was a memorable cream-colored sateen with a starched bow the size of a sofa cushion on one hip.

"I went to my last Halloween party dressed as a mushroom," I say.

Sugar laughs the same way she always has: a big, wide-open schnort.

We pass sandy creekbeds and stony creekbeds and no sign of water anywhere. This part of Australia may average less than eight inches of rain a year, but it tends to arrive in sudden gullywashers that can fill a creek or turn a road to mush almost instantly. Three weeks before our arrival, one such downpour marooned 20 travelers for more than a week on a spot of high ground just north of the Oodnadatta.

Today, though, the land is a backward-moving conveyor belt of charred brown tundra. The sun has broiled the sky white. I fish Diet Cokes and a few Tim Tams — a richer, more chocolaty version of the Oreo that's very popular in this car — from the mini-cooler we keep shoved behind the driver's seat. I read aloud from the guidebook, which says that in Aborigine culture, the land is considered a huge, detailed road map of the mind. The three people we've passed today, all in Land Cruisers traveling in the opposite direction, have acknowledged us by hoisting a single finger from the steering wheel, as if involving the whole hand would be too much effort. As if it hardly matters that we're all out here together.

III. Befriended by Men with Giant Bras

I find Butch, my first outback friend, slumped on a bar stool beneath a drooping 58DDD brassiere, the masterwork in a collection hung like prayer flags from the rafters of the bar at the William Creek Hotel. Butch looks to be about 60, with a weather-bitten face and an inebriate's earnestness. He wears a Cat Diesel cap and an oil-stained flannel shirt unbuttoned at the wrists, has a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. He smells truly bad.

"Y'havin a stubby or a tinny?" he asks, leaning in close.

Stubby, I learn, is Australian for beer bottle ("bo-ohl," says Butch) and tinny is beer can ("cayrn"). Butch is nursing a tinny of XXXX. I ask for a stubby of Carlton Cold. He lives in a trailer some miles up the road and comes here every night with his little dog, Muttley, a white-bellied yapper who's busy suctioning food scraps from the floor.

Out here, everybody counts as a neighbor. Fly a plane over the outback at night and you'll see that humanity has made only the smallest mark — 50 or so generator-driven lights winking up from a thousand miles of darkness — and thus community knows no distance. On Friday nights, the jackaroos drive three hours across the plains to converge on the William Creek Hotel, the only building in a dusty, fly-infested town with a population of seven. Two airplanes and three Land Cruisers are parked outside, and across the street is a solar-powered pay phone, reputed to be the most remote phone booth on earth.

"Where you birds headed?" Butch wants to know, chucking his chin toward the other end of the bar, where Sugar is intently studying the jukebox, her face lit yellow and purple.

I start telling Butch that we've basically got no plan — we're eyeing an opal-mining town called Coober Pedy, and after that, it's north into the bloody beyond, toward that tough-granny homesteader Molly Clark. Suddenly I've got an audience.

"Aw naw!" says one lanky man in low-slung dirty jeans and a cowboy hat.

"You girls better watch yourselves in Coobah Pedy. If they don't kidnap ya, they'll bomb ya. She's a strange-ass town, that one."

"Goin' to see Molly!" says Butch, giving me a hard look. "Chroist! She's bloody far north."

"I'd watch out for the roads m'self," says another, a crinkly-eyed redhead who introduces himself as Tim Byrnes. "What are ya drivin'?"

I try to look nonchalant as I tell him. There are tattoos snaking up his arms.

Over the next two stubbies, I receive an onslaught of driving advice, some cautionary words about reptiles, plus three offers for personal escorts to Alice Springs. Twice I'm asked why I'm not married. Somebody wants to show me his bullwhip. After a while, it occurs to me that I've lost Sugar. Maybe she's gone to bed. I climb off my stool and take a wobbly walk around the room, shouldering through thickets of lonesome cowboys. I ask for the ladies room and am told there is none. Tim has been at my elbow for an hour, narrating every ditch and chuckhole from here to Coober Pedy. Now he wants to show me something on a map tacked to the far wall. We are halfway there when a big loud shriek — "Oh, baby!" — tells me everything I need to know: Sugar is alive and well and playing pool.

In the back room, with nine stupefied local boys watching, Sugar has cleaned up on four games straight. Sinking her last eight ball, she drags me back to the bar. "These guys are so friendly!" she says, and I don't disagree. We share some tequila with two red-cheeked jackaroos from Anna Creek. One's hat is black, the other's is gray. We learn that they work six days a week, for which they earn about $200, mustering cattle from one water hole to the next. They ride motorbikes, not horses. Aside from Friday nights at the pub, they spend their evenings sitting around the homestead, watching one of two television channels you can get via satellite. They like The X-Files and King of the Hill and a whole lot of footy, which is Australian for rugby.

"It's a lonely loif," says the dark-hatted one. They are sweet and sincere. They want to get married and manage cattle stations of their own someday. When we ask, they tell us they are 17 and 23.

"Good Lord," Sugar says, pointing at the younger one. "We're like twice your age!"

"Where are you guys going to meet your wives?" I ask.

"Royt here, we reckon," the older one says solemnly.

More time passes. More tequila. I play one game of pool and give up. I've lost Sugar again. The wind is whistling through the walls. Hank Williams lows from the jukebox. The black-hatted jackaroo keeps wanting to dance. I go looking for Sugar, figuring she'll tell me whether it's a good idea or a bad idea to waltz with a jackaroo. It's late now, and there's something ultimately heartbreaking about this bush-country brotherhood — these men who call one another mate, boozing beneath a canopy of swaying bras, waiting for a wife to walk through the door. When I ask Sugar about the dancing, I know she'll say yes. That's what we do for each other, I realize. Then somebody points me toward her. Sugar is outside, across the street in the planet's most remote phone booth, drunk-dialing the Tasmanian cricket player under a wet moon. I cross the street and get in line.

IV. Within the Rank Cave of 1,000 Willing Virgins

If a place can feel instantly sinister, we've found it. Coober Pedy is wrecked and postapocalyptic. There are no people — except on the danger signs everywhere, warning of abandoned mine shafts, which number in the hundreds of thousands and are left uncovered. The signs depict black stick figures in graphic free-fall. They say, "Don't Run, Don't Walk Backward, Beware!" In the distance we can see pyramids of spooky white gypsum, refuse piles left by excavating machines, dotting the vast opal fields like a giant, sprawling tent village.

"Weird," I say to Sugar.

"Weird," she says back. Sugar has been a slave to my hangover all day. On the rutted road from William Creek, she gently fed me Gatorade and cucumber sandwiches. She played her disco compilation CD until I ordered her to pull over so I could spend 20 minutes sitting by the side of the road, woozily contemplating the bushes. Sugar herself woke up fresh as a daisy, scarfed down a big plate of scrambled eggs, and then did all the driving. I love her and hate her for this.

It was the Aborigines who named Coober Pedy, which translates fittingly as "white man in a hole." Most of the town's 3,500 people live in dugouts hacked into the sides of the eroded sandstone hills. Coober Pedy wasn't anything at all until 1946, when an Aborigine woman named Tottie Bryant happened upon an eight-mile seam of opal, setting off a white-man stampede. They came from all over, from places like Indonesia, Greece, and Yugoslavia, furiously humping mining equipment and explosives across the desert. Today, there are apparently people from 76 nations in Coober Pedy, lustily digging holes in the baked earth, gnawing out the brilliant stone that the ancient Greeks called opallios, "to see a change."

Because the guidebook tells us to, we stop in at Crocodile Harry's lair, "an interesting example of a dugout home." Crocodile Harry, it turns out, is in the hospital recovering from a leg injury, but the door is open, and Harry leaves an impression, even in absentia. His lair is a cramped and foul-smelling multi-room cavern with white-washed walls and a domed ceiling, not unlike a brain cavity. The man's cave reflects the man's mind, showcasing Harry's devotion to erotica, including piles of nudie calendars, nudie posters, and several eight-foot plaster renditions of headless women with watermelon-size boobs, sculpted, it would seem, by Harry himself.

We find ourselves in the bedroom, which features a bed, a small TV, a faded, striped terry robe hanging from a hook, and Harry's "virgin collection," a dizzying collage of more than 1,000 women's names, painted by female visitors on the bony walls and ceiling of his bedroom over many years: SIRPA FROM FINLAND, KISSES FROM DOROTHY, HARRY U STUD — JEAN, BRISBANE. I let out a low whistle; Sugar wrinkles her nose. Farther from the bed, there's a tattered newspaper clip on the wall. "The best girl will get a prize of a fortnight in my bedroom," Harry, a former croc hunter now in his sixties, has told an Australian paper, "Second prize will be a week in my kitchen." Then this, "They can be pretty near virgins. I'm not that fussy."

The weird gets weirder. We have arranged to meet up at the Italian Club, an aboveground miners' hangout, with Tim Byrnes, the crinkly-eyed redhead we met in William Creek. Tim is 31 and pale as an Irishman. Originally from Coober Pedy, he's part of a nomadic road crew based outside William Creek. He's now driven his truck four hours here, purportedly to give us an update on road conditions. He'll drive four hours back to report for work at sunrise. We get the distinct feeling we're being courted.

Tim explains that in Coober Pedy the Italians hate the Greeks, the Greeks hate the Italians, and everyone is terrified of the Serbs. The miners tend to be clannish and hostile — a situation compounded by ready access to explosives. At the local drive-in, this announcement is beamed onto the movie screen nightly: patrons: explosives are not to be brought into this theatrE. In the last ten years, the Coober Pedy courthouse, the town hall, and the newspaper offices have been bombed. A Greek restaurant got "bloody totaled," and ditto for the police station. Most recently annihilated were two police cars, which happened to be parked in the spot where our Subaru rests.

"Shitchyeah! Diesel fuel and fertilizer!" says Tim, growing more enthused as we get more freaked. "Y'do it to impress yer mates."

A muscly man with a big shrub of a beard then comes by and introduces himself as Karl. He invites us to a party out by the dump, and when we say no, he snatches Sugar's camera from the table and goes swaggering off toward the men's room. "Maybe I'll just put this down me pants and give you Sheilas something royt to look at back in 'Merica!" he shouts. Every miner in the Italian Club — a burly group of about 20 — laughs wolfishly.

I am giving Sugar the eye, and Sugar is giving me the eye back. We try to disengage, but Tim transitions from bombing to kidnapping and murder. A German woman was raped and strangled and tossed down a mine shaft, he says. An Italian woman disappeared even more recently. Sugar is on her feet. I'm scanning the room for Karl and our camera. "They never found the Italian chick, but she probably got tossed, too," Tim continues blithely. "The only way y'get caught is if yer up that the pub, braggin' about whatcha did to 'er."

We wish Tim good luck with all that, recover the camera, and get the hell out.

V. A Few Short Notes on the Song of Life

To take my mind off how fast Sugar is driving, I read aloud from the map. We've got the mighty Mount Barry, 269 feet if it's an inch, to the left; and Lake Cadibarrawirracanna, an unseen, dried-up lake, some miles off to the right. I reel off all the places named for women — Henrietta Creek, Mount Rebecca, Anna Creek, Lora Creek, Charlotte Waters. Did these Annas and Rebeccas live out here, we wonder, or were they merely figments of cowboy dreams? Their namesakes, these creeks that cover the map like capillaries, are nothing but specters — waterless beds that might fill in a monsoon but otherwise will remain as parched and empty as the rest of the land. So much wishful thinking.

Five days now, we've lived this life, on the road breakfast to dinner — eating road food, listening to road music, suffering road headaches. Every bump we hit seems to unloose another courtesy and send it winging out the window. Sugar has stopped excusing her belches; I am stockpiling dirty socks beneath the driver's seat. "We've lost our infrastructure," I say to no one in particular. We are having Tim Tams and baby carrots for breakfast. Sugar eats with one hand and drives with the other. We overtake a slow-moving pickup truck. We never knew life could be this good.

Some hundred million years ago, most of central Australia was underwater, covered by a shallow, lapping sea full of prehistoric wildlife. Driving over bleached, salt-crusted plains, we feel surrounded by Mesozoic ghosts — needle-toothed plesiosaurs and tentacled ammonites, icthyosaurs and nautiloids — baked in and fossilized on all sides. The planet turns toward dusk. We pitch camp behind a roadhouse in Oodnadatta, a predominantly Aborigine town, laid out in a neat grid of weather-worn concrete bungalows. A few children kick a ball around a tarred playground. The adults seem to be shut in their homes, quiet.

Everything I've read about Aborigine culture emphasizes that it's difficult to understand from the outside and nearly impossible to summarize. At its most traditional, Aborigine life involves following the paths of the Ancestors, the creators who sang the land into existence, naming the water holes and wattle trees, the cockatoos, snakes, and honey ants. They roamed the continent, leaving a trail of music behind them. These song-lines, it's believed, connect the people to the land, the past to the present. The great aim of one's life is to sing your way to where you belong.

To the west, somewhere between far away and nearby, a dingo starts to howl. The sky has filled with opals. Sugar and I eye the Handi-Wipes only to decide against washing, crawl into our tents, and wait for sunlight to crack the other side. All that matters now is the motion.

VI. Baby Amber and Two Who Got Away

We gas up at The Roadhouse in Oodnadatta, which is also the town's one-stop post office, bank, restaurant, campground, general store, and auto shop — all run by a small-framed blond of about 40 named Lynnie Plate. Lynnie and her husband visited Oodnadatta in 1974 as camel-trekking hippies and never left.

"Happens to lots of folks," she tells us cheerfully. "You think your life is headed in one direction and then you end up somewhere else, no worries."

When we mention that today we're turning off the Oodnadatta Track and heading north toward Molly Clark's place, Lynnie loads us up with things from her shelves to deliver on credit to homesteaders along the way. We've got spark plugs for a cowboy named Leon, a bag of mail for another cowboy called Phantom, and mousetraps for two brothers living at Dalhousie Springs. All of it is crammed into what little space is left behind our headrests.

We find Leon on a grassy stretch an hour north of Oodnadatta, riding a Yamaha motorbike on the fringe of a herd of shuffling cattle. His face is so sunburned it looks sooty.

"We're like a couple of soccer moms, dontcha think, Leon?" Sugar joshes.

Leon looks blank. This doesn't really translate. Sugar lays a few explanatory details on him as the cows lumber past and her hair whips high in the wind.

"Aw yeah!" Leon exclaims finally, shaking his head, as if he can't believe he missed it the first time. "Oy getcha now. Mums! Mums watching footy!" He tucks the spark plugs into his shirt, looks at the Subaru, and then revs his bike and shouts a final thought: "It's foin for you Yanks, but I reckon mums here don't care much for footy!"

We play Patsy Cline and tell epic stories. This is the hidden benefit of the road trip: No need to abridge. I give Sugar my romantic history in its entirety, and then tell all my friends' love stories too. Sugar psychoanalyzes her old boss and then delivers elaborate plot summaries of a couple of her favorite movies, From Here to Eternity and Tank Girl. We condemn right-wingers and agree that Madeleine Albright rocks. I point out the fact that Sugar's big high-school crush has grown up to be a nude model. She points out that mine got really fat. Miles pass. Pink cockatoos slip in and out of the sky above. An electric green lizard skitters across the road. We're living on desert time now, which is to say that time is no longer linear. It crooks and corkscrews toward the monochrome sky. We half expect to meet ourselves — as 15-year-olds, as wrinkled old battle-axes — in a blue Subaru, driving the other way.

Eventually we crash-land at Hamilton Station, Phantom's homestead, and hand over the mail just in time for lunch. Lunch is a big plank of fresh-killed beef, pan-fried in our honor by Tim, Phantom's 19-year-old ranch hand. Young Tim is beautiful. We love watching him cook. He is blue-eyed, lanky, and shy, under a frayed black hat. He tilts the frying pan and makes the fat sizzle.

Sugar and I are seated at a small, Formica-topped table, and Phantom slides us each a cup of tea. He's 33, wiry and unshaven, a hard-drinking bronco rider turned family man, with a dark tan and a battered hat and wayward blond curls.

"You Sheilas been out 'ere long?" he asks. "No? Well, we don't get a lot of you foy-male types, ever." Leaning back in his chair, he hangs a cigarette from his bottom lip. "Rare as rockin'-horse shit, I reckon."

Molly Clark is out here, I mention. "Molly!" says Phantom's blue-eyed wife, Allison. "Oh, we couldn't tell you a thing 'bout Molly, 'cept she's a pioneer out here. Molly sticks to herself, mostly." She stops bouncing their strapping, flaxen-haired baby, Amber, on her lap for a moment, adding, "The road to her place gets ugly from here. Just watch yerselves."

"Oh, that's OK," Sugar says, with a sweep of her hand. "If we get into trouble, we'll just call for young Tim." The boy's cheeks go crimson.

The kitchen is tidy and spare. A UHF radio high on a shelf reports from other cattle stations while the three of them tell us about ranch life. There is nothing dignified about how I feel just now, eating beef with white bread and ketchup in a little homestead set down on a piece of range that's bigger than Connecticut. I am melting. I am in love with them all. Sugar is mesmerized by Amber.

"She's just like a Nebraska baby," she is telling Allison. This is her highest praise.

I spend a minute dreaming about how it would feel to get whisked out of my life by a bronco-rider named Phantom, to live in a little house on the prairie and have myself a robust farm baby. And then I'm remembering that husbands and babies give me vertigo — it's the same omelette cooked in a more exotic pan. Then I'm not sure. Whatever the case, the road is calling. We've got another day's drive to reach Molly Clark. We help clear the dishes.

Allison walks Sugar and me back to the station wagon. She explains that she was a secretary outside London until she came through the outback on holiday three years ago, bumping into Phantom down at the William Creek Hotel on a Friday night. "I was passin' through, with every intention of going home after a few weeks," she tells us, adjusting Amber on her hip. "Me family can still hardly believe it," she says, a faint smile playing across her face as we climb into the car. "I was just like you."

VII. What Became of Molly, Part One

Fifteen minutes now we've been sitting at the state border between South Australia and the Northern Territory, docked next to a big orange warning triangle that says 4WD ONLY!! It's 6 a.m.; the land is lit in pink. Sugar's got her nose buried in the Subaru manual, displaying her first interest in written instruction of any kind. It has become suddenly important to understand the difference between the button that says "overdrive" and the one that says "power."

We've come 700 miles without a bit of pavement, no problem, but now we're at a narrow trench of gnashed, moiling mud — the start of a 65-mile trek to Old Andado Station, Molly Clark's homestead. Some folks say Molly is 85; others have her a decade younger. They say she can tune a diesel engine and has sent a 2,000-pound feral camel scampering with a single, ferocious roar. She has lived alone for the last 25 years, since her husband died of a second heart attack on their property. (The first heart attack being the previous day, while he was taking off from the airstrip.) When travelers hit her doorstep, dirty and exhausted and expecting to be congratulated for whatever hardships they've endured, Molly apparently doesn't bother listening. "Bah, it's good for yeh," is what she says, before turning back to her chores.

Presently, though, we're concerned only with the road. Get stuck in a place like this and it could be days before another soul drifts by. Just east of where we are, rains stranded those travelers earlier in the month, requiring airdrops of food and a rescue by Phantom once the downpour stopped. "Bloody pain in the arse," was Phantom's summary.

The sky above us, however, is a cloudless blue. We are into our last 250 miles of driving. We're so dirty it's unbelievable. Sugar's running shoes are so caked with clay it looks like she's got hooves. There's bulldust in our lungs, bulldust matting our hair and building ridges inside our noses. We're two days past having clean clothes. The back of the station wagon is a rank salad of half-eaten granola bars, dirty T-shirts, mildewy tent apparatus, and unraveling rolls of toilet paper. We feel as battle-worn and capable as an army tank.

At least, that's how we felt an hour ago, before we sank the Subaru up to its belly in mud. What started as intermittent puddles in a field have turned unexpectedly to intermittent fields in a puddle. We're on a paddy of grass surrounded by brown water, the rear end of the station wagon submerged, the front end perched tenuously on dry land, aimed like a piece of artillery at the sky. Convinced the car is sinking, Sugar has pulled out all her valuables and piled them on a safe spot of grass. We are scrupulously avoiding conversation and finger-pointing. Instead, we are digging. Sugar is on her knees, using her hands to try to excavate the right front tire from a giant rut. I am rooting rocks out of the mud and tossing them into the watery well beneath the back tires, which are half-swallowed by muck. I am hoping for traction.

Sugar sits back from the tire and tosses the first grenade. "Now would be a good time to have a shovel, Sara," she says severely. Back in Adelaide, she handled food-stocking, while my job was survival miscellany. There are dribbles of sludge stuck in her hair.

Without mentioning whose manicured Nebraskan hands steered us into this, I wade into the water, open the tailgate, and start rummaging. We've got every damn tool in the book, but no shovel. I unearth a plastic garden spade and deliver it to Sugar.

"A spade is part of the shovel family," I say.

She takes the spade wordlessly and continues her digging. I go back to my rocks. Every ten minutes or so, one of us gets into the car and guns the engine, producing bilgewater spray but no motion. Frustrated, Sugar finally wraps her hands around the bumper and, with a mighty groan, actually tries to lift the car out of the mud. Alas, we are going nowhere.

VIII. Stuck in the Middle of Our Road

"He didn't get that fat."

"True," Sugar says. "He was already chubby."

We're back to old crushes — and getting no nicer for the fact that we're moving again. Miraculously, we got hauled out of our grass-paddy by a kindly husband and wife from New South Wales, now trailing us in their Land Cruiser as we negotiate the last miles to Old Andado. Mucky plains give way to sand again; we fishtail down a giant dune and there's Molly's place, a sprawl of shantylike corrugated-iron buildings, winking cheerfully in the sun.

But Molly isn't here. Instead, two young guys come out from inside and give us the once-over. It's not until now that I understand just how startling we are — the Subaru wears a thick carapace of mud; there's a banana-size scrape on one of my arms; Sugar's hair has an electrocuted look to it. After all that digging, our backs are aching fiercely, and we are slumped and frowning. Keeping their distance, the boys explain that Molly broke her hip recently, kicking out a mulga stump. She's recovering in Alice Springs and won't be back for weeks.

"Kicking out a stump, can you imagine?" I say, steering us out of Old Andado and onto our final stretch of desert.

"That's my kind of old lady," Sugar says back. We are friends again.

I spend a while feeling dejected about missing Molly Clark, though I can't say exactly why. I had this vision of her, sweet-faced shotgun-toting octogenarian, caretaker of this wild and lonely outback garden, the pioneer mama we all carry inside. I thought maybe she'd get me excited about my future. But whoever she is, she's simply not here.

Out on the horizon, we can see a lake — a distant, Caribbean shimmer in the direction of Alice Springs. The road forks. We head left, only to find that the road splits again. Next we go right and get looped back around, we think, to where we started. Soon we're looking at a series of tire tracks that bifurcate and trifurcate in every direction across the sand. Sugar lets out a giddy laugh. Hand-over-hand on the steering wheel again, I recall a story I heard about a family from Queensland perishing in a situation like this, driving in circles until they ran out of gas, became dehydrated, and died.

Using the lake as a landmark, I spin us back toward the water and hit the gas. The station wagon bucks into gear and launches. What we don't understand yet is that we're hurtling toward an apparition, sunlight glancing off acres of dried earth. Maybe there's water out there somewhere, but perhaps it's only the promise of water, the memory of water. The point is, the road has vanished behind us and we're not thinking about how to find it again. Point is, we are suspended in this weird nothingness, the tinsel-shine of some illusory lake trembling and darting like a mercury blob ahead of us, far away and never getting closer.

IX. What Became of Molly, Part Two

It's about showers and phones now. The sun sets, the illusions dissolve, and the road returns beneath the wheels of the Subaru. We hit pavement just outside Alice Springs and let up a hoot. We pass Kmart and KFC and shops full of Aborigine tchotchkes. Sweet heaven, we're going to bathe! We find a hotel, swank by outback standards, with a pool and a pen of dazed-looking kangaroos for petting.

Sugar gets her cricket player on the phone and I dance into a steaming bath. Sunk in wondrous clear water, I do a little archaeology, recovering my body from the layers of caked-on earth. Everything we do has a certain last-night deliciousness to it. We eat fried barramundi and sing "Waltzing Matilda" with a crowd of paved-road tourists at the local steakhouse. We wash it all down with cold stubbies. When sleep comes, it is deep and full, the two of us knocked sideways and unconscious by the full weight of our fatigue.

In the morning, I drive a combed and lipsticked Sugar to the airport.

"Bye, lovely," she says, bear-hugging. Then there's that schnort again.

With a few hours before my own flight out, I try one last time to find Molly Clark. There's a listing for her in the Alice Springs phone book. Her voice is a ratchety squall. I explain that I just drove 1,300 miles through the outback on the chance that I might get to see her.

She says, not unwisely, "Well, that's bloody pathetic, isn't it?"

She'll give me 15 minutes and a cup of tea.

"Is there a certain time that's more convenient?"

"I don't have a flaming clue what's convenient!" Molly Clark roars.

OK, then.

I'm at her doorstep now, working up the nerve to knock. It's a tiny bungalow on a quiet side street. I try to think of what it is I want to ask Molly, or say to her, but it all seems suddenly childish. I consider bolting. Bolting sounds like a good idea, a grown-up one. But through the screened door comes a voice: "You that 'Merican girl called me on the phone?"

She's there, deep in the green shadows of her kitchen, bent over the sink, peeling potatoes. I squint through the screen. "It's me," I say. Molly does not turn to look. Sun filters through a pair of chintz curtains, lighting the storm of white hair on her head, the thick glass of her spectacles. She skins another potato and drops it emphatically into a pot of water. There's a pile of carrots on the counter nearby, and I can see through the shadows that Molly uses a walker to get around. I realize then that she could be anybody, there in her kitchen, an old lady from the outback or my own suburban grandmother from Philly. Just another tough old bird. I pass an awkward minute on Molly Clark's threshold. Until, with the tiniest swell of a smile, she invites me inside.

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