I walked the streets of my dusty, middle-of-nowhere town buried in the heart and heat of Australia. For a year and a half, Alice Springs cradled my adolescence. Her far-flung small town ethos taught me lessons to savor for a lifetime –concern for neighbor, freedom from pretense. Aboriginal songs in the surrounding buttes carved a haunting soul scar, a longing for social justice. Sleeping under ghost gums during walk-abouts in the untamed outback desert taught me how to dream, unfettered as the Southern Cross towering above.
Hot summer sun beat down on my neck, as flies chased sweat trickles down my back. I wanted to impress in my mind every sensation, so ordinary and every day, soon to be just a distant memory as I returned to my “real life” as a Colorado native. The Todd River flowed during my sojourn in the Australian outback, an every one or two year occurrence in the dry, sandy riverbed; and my Aussie friends assured me it was a promise I would return. But here, on the way to nowhere, realistically I would probably never pass again. I slunk into the shade of a Desert Kurrajong, and song erupted: galahs, grey and dusty pink with white crests. “Chill chill” they chirped, as though bidding me “good-bye,” as though urging me to never forget the mystery of the middle-of-nowhere.
Some thirty years later, when I close my eyes, I still hear them sing. It’s a siren call buried like a burr in my soul: a call to wonder, the allure of something worth finding in the middle of nowhere.
Like a flock of galahs lifting from a ghost gum, decades later, wonder fluttered my heart in Southern Vietnam. After hours of traversing the countryside, our driver pulled to the side of a road. We unfolded tight legs and scurried to the other side. We disappeared down a narrow path winding between buildings, through tall spindly trees, and then meandering out into open rice fields, fields so green it was as if sight alone could not contain them and waves of singing emanated from them. I couldn’t suppress a grin, a sense of pinch-me-now, I can’t believe I am really here. A small girl stirring a glass of green tea on a dilapidated porch watched us pass with wide eyes. She was as curious about me as I was about her way of life, so common and unsensational to her. Yet for me, it felt like a gift of the galahs to walk an obscure path where it was unlikely that very few who looked like me ever passed before.
It was as though I heard an echo of the galah song in Nepal. Pressed in from every side by movement in a narrow canyon carved between towering buildings, people crowded from street asphalt and on up, as high as I could see, perched on crumbling roofs. Vehicles of every shape squeaked, honked, and puttered. Balanced precariously on a narrow sidewalk shoulder, I felt the shudder of air as motorcycles roared by just inches away. A shrine to my left, incense in the air, verdant green growing on top of brick structures, baskets of red tomatoes, wires draped overhead, people ducking through corrugated metal doors: I felt as if I was walking through a movie set, carefully constructed to evoke the exotic. But this patina could only be produced by centuries of rain and sun and movements of living beings. And there I was, a drop swept along in an ancient river as ordinary to the people I passed as the snowy streets of home are to me.
Surely the galahs dipped their white-crested heads in blessing last year after a long tedious drive to central Haiti. Buried in the dusty forest, I followed our guide down another narrow path. I fell in step behind an old woman who padded the rocky path in bare feet, carrying empty plastic jugs. We trekked single-file along a ridge beside ochre corn fields, sprawling beneath layers of purple mountains, crowned by cerulean sky. Various structures perched along the ridge – roughly hewn, boarded boxes on stilts and brightly painted siding topped with thatched roofs. The trail opened into a clearing, a well sourced by a freshwater spring. Here, as she did every day, the old woman greeted her neighbors as she filled her jugs. Awe: me, a Colorado country girl visiting a community well buried in a country very few outsiders ever visit.
And still the ripple of the song chases me to a quiet cold Colorado morning. It’s been a year now I’ve been home-bound, a year since I visited Haiti. Memories of these middle-of-nowhere places where stories wait to be told are like quiet dreams, latent songs that make poor bedfellows. They kick and wiggle, and call me to go. At the same time, if nothing else, they remind me there is more than this day-to-day sloughing through falling and then melting snow. They remind me that wonder is found in the middle-of-nowhere, probably even here. Perhaps the true gift of the galahs is presence, awareness of the here and now.
Only, somewhere the galahs are singing, and I can’t quite quench this yearning to go. Oh how I long to go.