Culture

Where Phantoms Stroll

Nikki Tranter
"Along Curr Road"
Photo: Nikki Tranter

The Goulburn Valley's trees are dying because of the drought: the worst since 1927. Kyabrum is not a fun place to be right now, but it never really was, even when the farmers were thriving. One rare, rainy night, a feeling of hope creeps in from the shadows; but the illusion quickly flees like the ghost that it is.

"I in my snakeskin boots / have better things to do / than vegetate / grow roots into you."
-- Patrick Halterman, "Reflections on Fredericksburg"

The Goulburn Valley has some beautiful, albeit nearly dead trees. They look best at night, marking the many highways, byways and back roads, painted against the sky, black on grey. Lit up by car headlights, they seem to shape-shift from sickly foliage and rotting stumps into screaming phantoms; the effect aided by howling wind and brittle branch-ends flailing about like torn and dangling coat sleeves; some snap and fling themselves into the road, where they scuttle menacingly in front of cars. The Goulburn Valley's trees are dying because of the drought: the worst since 1927. The lack of rain over the past two years has burned our rich, green paddocks into a dusty, hardscrabble yellow. It's also made the cows skinny and the farmers broke. It's not a fun place to be right now, but it never really has been for me, even when the farmers were thriving.

I live in Kyabram. With a population of about 5,000, Kyabram is one of the Valley's bigger small towns. This little place is a bit of a tourist destination, too. It's famous for an animal sanctuary, apparently the best of its kind in the country, housing a large range of native animals including emus, kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. It's located on the edge of town, and is a constant attraction for the locals as well, with families picnicking on its big, front lawn every weekend. Inside the foyer of the sanctuary is a logbook for visitors to write their names, where they come from, and share a thought or two about the sanctuary. Flip the pages and you'll see that people have visited from as far away as Hong Kong, Mississippi, and Wales. I've never seen these people in town myself. I figure they don't stay long, especially since once you've seen the wombats, you've seen everything Kyabram has to offer.

I don't know what it is about Kyabram that bothers me so much. It's like any other rural locale; filled with as many nice people as not-so-nice people. It's got its share of rich (the doctors, the solicitors), and poor (the street kids and caravan park families). It's got sporting heroes and promising artists, juvenile delinquents, gamblers and vandals. There's a stadium and a football ground, a Target store, a bunch of churches for the Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians and Masons, there's a Catholic school, two state schools and a high school, a public swimming pool, and there's a few big, old pubs, all with their original architecture, including the Commercial Hotel, the Kyabram Club (with computerised poker machines for the gamblers), the Blue Brick Hotel and a giant hole in the main street where the Albion Hotel stood until a matter of months ago when it burned down. As yet, there's no McDonalds. I've lived here for 25 years, leaving occasionally to indulge my passion for world travel. It's amazing what a few trips to America, Japan, and even other parts of Australia can do to reinforce one's perception of just how small Kyabram really is. People around me are always so fascinated by world travel, but so few seem actually to have been anywhere. Here it's always about who won the "footy" and "Bloody 'ell, look at those petrol prices!"

Until a few weeks ago, I thought there was little about the Goulburn Valley that I didn't know. As comfortable as I guess it is here, with no major traumas around, no war zones or gang violence or whatever, I was still convinced the place was a boring, culture-free wasteland. On a recent midnight drive through the smaller towns on the Valley's outskirts, I discovered that maybe my perception of the area wasn't exactly spot on. I don't know if it was the rainy night — the first in a long time — or the moody Kenny Rogers tape I was listening to, but on a drive home from a friend's place a few towns over, something made me veer from my regular route onto the smaller Curr Road. This route would take me through the tiny towns of Girgarre, population 200, known for its Heinz tomato factory, and Stanhope, population 600, known for its Bonlac milk factory. If Kyabram is a flairless wasteland, then these towns are nearly void of life. And without those factories keeping so many of the locals employed, they'd likely soon vanish entirely.

I'd driven through these town heaps of times during my stint as a rural reporter. One of my duties was to visit them and find news. Even the tiniest happenings were good enough for me to create copy; from sporting wins to craft classes to pet parades. If I could get a photo of a kid holding a football, I was happy. Sometimes people would retire and I'd report on that. Schools might get visits from the police or the fire truck and I'd report on that. Once, I was so pressed for material that I stopped the car in Girgarre, got out, and asked a family playing at the park if I could take a photo of their kids playing on the rusty slide and the broken swing set. Family Finds Fun at Girgarre Park. I remember being so disenchanted by the whole rural reporting thing that I even cried once on my drive along that road. I dreaded the same faces, the same places, and the same half-assed stories about kids painting rabbits for Rabbit Week or whatever. It was part of the reason I quit the paper a year before I completed my cadetship. It was hopeless.

On my drive that night, though, with the wind howling, blowing the precious rain about, I found myself transported. I hadn't been through Girgarre or Stanhope since I quit my job and without the pressure of looming deadlines this time that same road felt almost . . . welcoming. The trees might have loomed, but as I drove into Girgarre, they seemed almost like watchmen or guides as I made my way in the dark. I'd never seen them in this kind of light before, dim and dark but strangely vibrant. It was as if the old place had been waiting for me, hoping I'd come back at the right time to see its vibrancy, brought to life in the darkness of night. In the late hours, I could see Girgarre as it was meant to be seen: as a charming, old-world locale, more rustic than rusty. The drive through Girgarre usually lasts maybe a minute. It's a blink-and-miss-it place, with nothing at all remarkable about it except perhaps that it is so unremarkable. But I lingered in town that night, almost hypnotised by the orange lights from the big old Heinz factory that bathed the town in an orange glow. I drove by empty shops, a post office that also serves as a bank and a news agency, and the surrounding shops that still display their former names, though those businesses themselves are long gone. I passed a public restroom, graffitied with green spray paint in wide, looping circles, a lone mess of lines with no apparent meaning.

The houses lining Girgarre's main street are well kept with mowed front lawns and lush gardens. It's so odd to see the gardens, especially at night, when I haven't noticed them at all during daylight visits. Basking in the artificial glow of the headlights on my car, the blues and the pinks of the flowers in these gardens are an almost shocking site compared to the brittle and barren yellow grass in the fields and paddocks only metres away. There's a kind of defiance in those flowers, as if they seem to be letting cynical passers by like me know that, no matter what the dry fields might say, Mother Nature is not entirely uncontrollable. And Girgarre is not wholly without colour, after all.

With a new vision of a strong Girgarre in mind, I drove on to Stanhope. Jolted for a moment though I am by the six dead foxes hanging upside down from the "Welcome to Stanhope" sign. Speckled with blood, their dried and flaking insides hanging from torn bellies, the sight of these corpses twisting in the wind doesn't faze me. Trapped and hung perhaps as a warning to their brethren seemed not to invite terror but strength and determination of the people of Stanhope that adversity could be overcome, and that sometimes the necessary steps were harsh and uncomfortable. Stanhope feels a lot less inviting than Girgarre, but it, too, seemed to exude a new attitude at night, which went undetected during the day. Passing by the old butchery, the bakery, the hardware store, and the news agency, it's as if I've stepped back in time. Draped in kind of an oak tinge from the yellow streetlights, Stanhope looks like a 100-year-old snapshot, unchanged from the days of the gold rush, when the town didn't need the milk factory just to survive

I want to pull over and walk beneath the streetlights, pretending for a minute that it is 100 years ago, and that I can see fresh, steaming bread in the bakery window, buy a newspaper from the news agency and read about the latest invention set to forever alter communication or travel or finance. I wave at the bank manager through the old bank window that's held together now with cracked electrical tape, and pass by the school and dip the straw hat I'm likely wearing to the children in the playground. I'm feeling fine, dressed in long black pants with suspenders. I don't stop, though, as late as it is, as abandoned as the town feels. Even in broad daylight few people stop here.

Out of the town and on the last leg of my drive home, I think about Stanhope and Girgarre and the sights they offered that night that I'd not seen before. My travels stem from a desire to escape this Valley, to flee all this that I am so bored with. It's funny how the simplest things like a billboard on a highway in Maryland, or a toilet in a Tokyo hotel room, or a particular street signs in New York City make me double-take and wonder at how different Australia is from the rest of the world, how comparatively bland. Until this night I was convinced that the only beauty in the world existed far, far way from a place like Kyabram, where all the streets, towns, and people look the same. Maybe what is in the seeing is how I choose to see. Maybe I'm so wrapped up in what's so far away from Kyabram that I've missed what's in front of me, closed my eyes to the town. With this in mind I continue to Kyabram, hoping to find something new in my hometown, to rediscover the place I'd dreamed of escaping for so long.

Entering my hometown that night I look around for that one thing, that one image that will jump out at me and remind me why I still live here. I peer through my car window, trying to see into the darkened backyards, the streets ,and the parks for some . . . sign. But there is no magic, here. I only see the Commercial Hotel where so many nights I'd helped my friends as they'd stumbled home drunk after a vodka binge, nights they'd had to help me. The Ford car yard is just beyond it where just by the chain link fence, blocking the displayed cars from the sidewalk, I saw a guy punch his wife in front of their three little kids. My high school is a few streets over, where I was laughed at for wearing my school jumper through scorching hot summers. A bit beyond that is my old boyfriend's house where I'd once walked into his living room and caught him "watching videos" with some other girl. One block up from his house are the railway tracks I ran home along one night after a boy spat on me at a party when he overheard me say something silly about his girlfriend. The tracks pass right behind the newspaper office I worked at. I remember hiding behind my computer from a co-worker who decided out of the blue one day to communicate with me only in grunts, criticise my work habits to anyone who'd listen and just generally make my days so painful that I eventually just gave up doing much of anything at all.

Looking out at Kyabram on this windy night, rain temporarily blurring my windshield, I can't think of one good reason I've stayed here when all my friends have moved to the city to go to school and start the careers they'd been talking about since primary school. Is it easier to stay? Am I just too comfortable here, knowing that no matter how many times I go away and for how long, I can always come back to the safety of the familiar? But that doesn't sound at all like the adventurous and brave me. And come to think of it, it doesn't sound like this place is really all that much of a comfort to me. What is it that's keeping me here if instead of shops bathed in sepia, evocative and romantic, I see only walls splattered with sterile, white streetlight? Even at this hour, I see the same kids with the same empty glares sitting on the post office steps with their skateboards and baggy shorts. Any wonder that came with the night had stayed in Girgarre and in Stanhope. This night had shown me that the familiar could be different and enchanting and new if only I let it. But, these Kyabram streets just brought back feelings of rage and shame and anger, so why not just pack a bag and walk away? The best I can come up with is that that whatever it is — my mum and dad just a few doors away from me, the familiarity, the awesome-looking trees against the night — it's not Kyabram's fault. The phantoms are mine.

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