I was 14.

A small story.

Gary Dean, October 2016

I was 14. A quiet boy, living in an outer suburb of a small and isolated city called Perth[1], in a large and remote state called Western Australia.

Australia globe

The Perth of that time considered itself a bastion of the British Empire. In theatres, before the movie started, people stood for the playing of God Save The Queen. Except for those few ratbag proto republicans in the back who remained seated.

Every year hoards of English migrants arrived by ship to settle in Perth, mainly in the new dormitory suburbs like the one I lived in. A large proportion of students in the schools comprised these recent arrivals. As a consequence, local born students — like myself — developed accents with a distinct English affectation.

A year earlier, in 1970, the city was connected to the Eastern States by passenger rail for the very first time, crossing the vast, arid Nullabor Plain. The fog of remoteness had lifted, just a little, and it was now possible to imagine a life on the outside.

At 14 my life was not that happy. I was depressed, alienated and bored beyond belief; a beacon for bullies for thinking differently, and by nature a little asocial.

The counter culture of the time — the hippie movement — intrigued and attracted me. News of events such as Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury had penetrated the fog, albeit a few years late. This bright new culture offered solace, hope and identity. I wanted to find it.

I cannot recall what happened, but my situation had reached a point that I could no longer endure. Early one morning, without telling a soul, I packed some food — flour, sugar, tea, powdered milk — some utensils, water bottle, sleeping bag, and my guitar[2].

I started walking. East. No other direction was possible.

I got to the Great Eastern Highway, and stuck out my thumb. I had never hitchhiked, but on television I had seen hippies heading for San Francisco, so it seemed like something that people did.

Just getting to the outer city limits took some hours. People were reluctant to stop. But once I reached the outskirts of the city the roads opened up, and after a few hours waiting I got my first decent ride on a truck.

A few rides later I eventually reached the tiny rural town of Toodyay, a mere 60 kilometres from the outskirts of Perth. And despite having travelled a relatively short distance, it was almost dusk.

I didn't want to hitchhike at night, so I looked for a place to camp. I settled on a hillside paddock overlooking the town where I rolled out my sleeping bag. On my first night on the run, I recall thinking: I did it; I escaped.

The exposed hillside was cold and windy, and I didn't sleep well. At first light, I packed and headed back to the road and started hitching again.

I got back onto the Great Eastern Highway at Northam, then had a long wait for my next ride. Many large road trains passed by, honking their bullhorns as they passed and making me jump out my skin. This presumably provided the drivers with amusement.

After many, many hours I got a ride from this youngish man sporting a beard and driving a VW Kombi van. A hippiemobile. We drove until dusk, then stopped on the side of the road to camp for the night. He didn't want to drive at night because of the kangaroos, which are a road hazard in those parts.

Apart from some fruit given to me by drivers, I hadn't eaten anything since I left Perth the day before. On the side of the road I made a small fire, and mixed some dough to make damper. I made rather a mess of it, spilling half the flour onto the ground. The damper was undercooked, but it filled the hole in my stomach.

The bearded driver slept inside his van, leaving me to camp on the ground outside. The countryside was semi-arid bushland, with red clay soil, and a few scattered low trees. Wheat and sheep country. My thoughts focussed on how to get as far away from Perth as possible.

Early the next morning, after a cup of billy tea, we kept driving. A few hours later the driver stopped in the small wheatbelt town of Southern Cross, his destination. I got out and started hitching again. The traffic was becoming very infrequent.

I eventually got a ride in a car heading to the gold-mining centre of Kalgoorlie, the last major town before crossing the Nullabor Plain. It was already night. I got out of the car about 10 kilometres short of the town, walked a little way into the bush, and set up camp.

It was getting cold, being quite a way inland and the night was totally black. I got a fire going and made damper with the remaining flour. I rolled out my sleeping bag alongside the fire and tried to sleep.

After a long night I got up at first sign of daylight. My hair was a wiry, matted mess, with the smoke of the fire infused into it. I had forgotten to bring a comb.

So there I was, exhausted from lack of sleep, unwashed, with no more food, and not a cent in my pocket. Crossing the Nullabor Plain to the first city in the Eastern States, Adelaide, was still more than 2,000 kilometers away. It would take me three days or more on the rough gravel roads. I knew there would be even fewer vehicles heading eastwards from Kalgoorlie; perhaps one every few hours, with no certainty of getting a ride. It was all just too hard.

I started hitching. West. No other direction was possible.

I didn't have to wait long for a ride. The car was going non-stop to Perth. I didn't think about much on the way back. I knew there would be consequences with my family, and maybe even the police[3], but I didn't care. I arrived back in Perth at night, a hungry, tired and filthy mess.

My mother took me directly to my grandparents' place. Apparently to get a talking to. But they didn't know what to say, perhaps being more accustomed to talking at me, rather than to me. It was a pointless and somewhat embarrassing exercise. I had experienced an awakening and I could never be the same again.

The next day back at school was surprising. Some of my classmates had found out what I had done, and looked to me with admiration. I didn't expect that at all.

I had learned the nature of some of the challenges ahead, and I was no longer afraid. I would be prepared next time.

* * *

A little over two years later I finally made my escape. And a thousand other stories followed.

[1] Popuation of Perth in 1970 was 610,000; population of the entire Western Australia was 1,000,000.
[2] The guitar was a semi-acoustic that I traded for an acoustic with my old mate Kim Salmon. I learned that semi-acoustics are useless around a campfire. Thanks Kim. [3] Indeed, the police were called.