I spent the night drinking with locals at the Sandy Creek Hotel, a beautiful old pub with big Queensland balconies and views of cockatoos sweeping in flocks across the flat grassland between clusters of stringy barks.
Back on the highway, I caught a ride to Inglewood with a farmer in a well-worn ute. I didn’t catch his name but he told me life is tragic at times. Two years ago last Friday his daughter-in-law dropped dead with a brain aneurism. She was a lovely girl, he said, beautiful, and only 24 years old with two kids.
His son now cares for their kids and they’re doing pretty well thanks to support from friends. It’s important to have good friends, he said. They get you through dark times.
At a café in Inglewood I got chatting to an Ambulance driver. She was an enigma. At a glance she looked like a young man: Dressed in dark sunglasses and a paramedic’s uniform of blue overalls, she had bright orange hair cut short in a masculine style and a green and red tattoo of a stallion on her forearm. We started chatting and I told her I was hitchhiking. She took off her sunnies to reveal bright blue eyes, alive with attention. It was hard not to gaze at her face, her thin nose and delicate features. It struck me that she was beautiful.
She made a point of calling two colleagues to let them know she was about to leave for Goondiwindi, adding loudly that they should expect her there in an hour. Pretty sensible, I thought, for someone about to offer a lift to a hitchhiker. By contrast I abandoned my practice of texting the numberplate to Natascha, my partner back in Sydney. I figured I was pretty safe in an ambulance.
Conversation began slowly. She was wary of me, so we talked about her job. She’d seen horrible things but the best part of it was being able to help people. Not necessarily saving lives. Sometimes just holding someone’s hand and listening was all the help they needed – particularly patients with mental illnesses, so many of whom were left stranded by the health system. She didn’t want any photos taken and we agreed not to swap names. But talking was more interesting than staring in silence at the flat grassy landscape that stretched endlessly around us, and gradually she began to open up.
Seven years ago she was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told her it was probably terminal. They said there was a chance she could make it if they removed her lymph nodes but it would destroy her immune system – she would have to live in a virtual bubble, unable to ride horses as she has done since childhood. So she said no.
We talked about the power of the mind. As a younger woman she had tried to control everything in her life and although she achieved the markers of success, she was inexplicably unhappy. Cancer taught her that you have no control of life’s events – the only thing you can control is your response to them. You can wallow in life’s injustices or you can rise to face them. And it is often your response to events that shapes their resolution.
She survived cancer, has been clear of it for three years. Two years ago her partner gave birth to a baby girl, Georgia, who is now walking, talking, and learning day by day why she has two mummies and no daddy. The ambulance driver told me of her hopes for her daughter. They are not of wealth, prestige or academic success: simply of happiness. She doesn’t want the fact that Georgia has lesbians for parents to become an issue at school. Having spent some time recently around a boy who has two mummies, I offered that if it they treated it as a non-issue, it would not become an issue for their daughter.
We pulled in to Goondiwindi and she got out to help me unload my bag from beside the ambulance bed in the back of the van. She wished me well and touched my arm as she shook my hand. “My name is Lina”, she said.
Oh, and in case you think Goondiwindi's in the middle of nowhere I'm here to correct you. As this sign shows, it's in the middle of EVERYWHERE. And only 3571km from Darwin. Look out, here we come! ;o)