Gasp! A blog post! Okay, yeah, this has been the longest dry stretch since I started this blog four (!!!) years ago, but I’m resurfacing long enough to share with you a piece of writing that’s been sitting on my hard drive for a while now. This is a story from the three months I spent in Australia back in 2009, which I’ve posted about previously (specifically regarding echidnas and a giant dust storm). I fiddled around a bit with the idea of submitting this piece to a literary magazine or several, but ultimately decided to just post it here. It’s around 1200 words; let me know what you think.
Storm in the Outback
I ended up in the Australian Outback mostly for lack of anything better to do.
The autumn after I graduated from college, I was working for an Italian PhD student studying bird behavior in western New South Wales in exchange for travel expenses and a place to stay. This wasn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds; we weren’t studying emus or kookaburras, but Chestnut-crowned Babblers, small, chattering, boisterous brown birds recognized by their bold white eyebrows. My primary job was to wear a GPS tracker while following around a flock that seemed to delight in endlessly darting up and down the sides of steep, rocky ridges while I huffed and puffed after them. The PhD student, contrary to affable Italian stereotypes, turned out to be taciturn, unsmiling, and difficult to please. Still, it felt like an adventure, which was exactly what I was looking for.
The birds roosted at night in large, communal nests woven through the branches of the scrubby mulga trees that dotted the lanscape, and we sat in camouflaged blinds to videotape them as they returned to the nests each evening. Late one afternoon the PhD student dropped me off at one nest tree with my tripod, camera, and collapsible blind. The plan was that he would drop the second field assistant at another site further down the red dirt track, then set up himself at a third nest, finally coming back up the track to collect us after the birds had all roosted for the night. Though he ended up a couple kilometers away, I could see the truck from my assigned spot, parked on top of a ridge.
As I popped up my camouflaged hiding place, I heard a quiet growl of thunder somewhere in the distance, but I ignored it, figuring it would blow over or pass by; I desperately didn’t want the glowering PhD student to think I was a wimp scared of a little thunder. I even paused to snap a photo of the clouds, which were turning orange as twilight approached. In the air above me swarmed a flock of hundreds of woodswallows, more than I’d ever seen at once before, their nasal calls making a tremendous racket.
The thunder sounded again, closer this time, and the wind started to pick up.
I was debating whether I should head in after all when the PhD student radioed to tell me to do just that. Calmly, I packed up the equipment and slung the straps over my shoulders before I started walking toward the relative safety of the truck, which looked deceptively close parked on the crest of that ridge. Even though it wasn’t dark yet, I put on my head lamp and flicked it on, just in case. An approaching storm wasn’t cause for panic—not yet. It was just prudent to get to shelter rather than take any unnecessary risks.
It was another voice crackling over the radio, one of the other researchers back at the station, that made us realize maybe this wasn’t an ordinary thunderstorm. “Babbler people, get the fuck back to the house NOW! Man, you have to give up for tonight, there’s a hundred-kilometer-per-hour storm heading straight for you that’s going to flood all the creek beds for sure!” I began to jog, and then to run, the camera case and folded-up blind bouncing on my shoulders.
I don’t know how long my race with the storm lasted. Certainly no more than five minutes. As the twisted mulga trees began to sway back and forth with increasing energy, branches hissing as they rubbed together, I continued hurrying toward the truck. Sometimes it was in sight, sometimes hidden behind the ridges that separated me from it. The other field assistant was frantically radioing the PhD student as she struggled to fold up her own blind. I could taste the red dust as I hopped through endless the jumbles of rocks, my throat raw from exertion as I scrambled up the hills at top speed. When the full fury of the storm finally hit, I was no more than fifty feet away.
The force of the wind struck me like a physical collision. I was downwind of the truck and made it a few more steps before I had to throw myself to the ground to avoid being blown back down the hill I had just climbed. The wind was full of grit and hailstones that pummeled my arms and shoulders so hard I thought my bones would break, roaring like a living beast.
I was terrified, in a way that I had never experienced before. Looking back, I’m not sure I was really in as much danger as I felt like I was, but in the moment I genuinely thought I might be about to die. I remember screaming a long, wordless scream, the only time in my life that I have truly screamed in fear.
Then suddenly the PhD student, who was bigger and heavier than me, was half-dragging me the rest of the way to the truck, where the other field assistant was already waiting, having finally abandoned her gear to get to safety. Shaking, I reached up and switched off my head lamp as I huddled in the back seat. (The other field assistant told me later they had been able to see me coming the whole way, thanks to the light of that head lamp, bobbing up and down as I jogged across the Outback terrain.) One of the windows in the truck was blown out and the PhD student’s hat and glasses were gone but somehow I was still clutching my camera and blind.
The three of us waited for the storm to pass—it blew on as abruptly as it had hit—and then for the water in the normally dry creek beds to go down enough for us to drive through them and back to the field station. I hadn’t even noticed that there had been rain as well as hail. By the time we got back, night had fallen and the thin delicate crescent moon was setting in a perfectly clear sky.
The last month of my season in Australia passed without further excitement, aside from the lasting bruises on my arms and shoulders from the pounding hail. I went home and moved on to the next thing and haven’t kept in touch with the taciturn Italian PhD student, the other field assistant, or any of the other people I met at the research station; those three months of my life have been reduced to a few lines near the end of my resume, a handful of photos of red ridges and kangaroos, and a vivid memory of fear.
There are so many stories about “mother” nature, inspiring and welcoming and wonderful. However, nature is not a warm and loving mother who cares about you. Nature is a force that can’t be reasoned with, can’t be fought, and it can be absolutely terrifying. I went looking for an adventure in Australia, and this is what Australia taught me. The lesson has stayed with me long after the bruises from that afternoon faded, and if I ever start to forget, I only need to close my eyes to bring back the power of the wind on that rocky hillside.
You can’t fight a storm. You can only get out of the way.