My question was met with a vacant stare from the skinny, unkempt man about my age behind the gas station counter. It wasn’t just that he didn’t appear to understand the words that came out of my mouth; he seemed to be slowly scanning the outline of my head, as though trying to figure out what planet I’d come from.
“Do you sell lighters?” I asked again.
“No?” He replied with an upward intonation, making him sound unsure. “Where you from?” The man asked, his gaze now drifting to a spot somewhere behind my head. He seemed to have lost his concentration.
“New York,” I said, as I paced the shop, killing time while Ryan filled our diesel tank, looking for anything I could light a stove with – matches, two sticks, a magnifying glass. I was desperate to make coffee.
“A lighter!” I exclaimed, holding up the object triumphantly.
“Ah, a Bic,” the man corrected, as I placed my discovery on the counter. Something about the man’s accent told me he wasn’t from Australia.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Really! How long have you been…uh…here?” I said, my hand vaguely motioning towards the brown, lifeless landscape and the lone house on the horizon.
“In Cocklebiddy? About two years.”
“Two ye…what?” I asked. “Is there another town nearby?”
“No,” the man replied. “Well, I guess there’s Norseman.”
I nearly choked on a fly that was buzzing around my wide-open mouth. Norseman was a good five-hour drive to the west. I know, because we stopped there for coffee, a piece of Lamington cake and to take photos — not because Norseman was pretty, but because we were fascinated by the fact that everything in town had been built out of corrugated tin. Corrugated tin fences, corrugated tin houses, corrugated tin mailboxes and even statues of camels made of corrugated tin. The week Norseman appeared on the map, there must have been a liquidation sale on corrugated tin somewhere in Western Australia.
It was hard for me to believe anyone would choose to live out here on this parched, gravelly slab of rock with few trees and barely a mound of dirt to claim as a topographical feature. I mean, surely this town was founded on an expletive. When that first determined settler stabbed the unforgiving ground with his shovel, desperate to find gold as they did in Coolgardie, I imagine he shouted “Cocklebiddy! There’s no gold here!” Throwing his shovel down in disgust. Now, 117 years later, Cocklebiddy is a town of seven Aussies and one Scottish dude just hanging out, waiting for another expletive to change their world.
Though the Nullarbor Plain is dubbed a “tourist route” in Australia, the last few days have shown the term to be an ambitious one, probably better described as “a god-forsaken desert that no one but a silly tourist would consider driving across.”
So how the hell did a Scotsman end up living out here?
I decided not to ask any more questions, lest my bewilderment become offensive. Instead, I left $2 on the counter for my lighter and went outside to check on Ryan’s progress.
Fuel was one of the reasons Ryan and I pulled into this gas station after what felt like days of driving with very little change in landscape. But, really, it was the lighter that compelled us to pull over – we had no way of using our gas stove without one, and the lack of stimulus on this straight and endless road meant we would need a LOT of coffee to get us across the Nullarbor Plain.
Even the road signs along the way warned us we might literally die of boredom:
“Drowsy Drivers Die,” “Fatigue is Fatal,” “40 Winks Will Save Your Life” and “Survive this Drive” were the slogans reminding us to stay alert and pull over often.
“Was the guy friendly?” Ryan asked eagerly, running on a theory that towns in the Australian bush would be like small-town America to a Brit: full of easy-going, hospitable people clambering to help out a lost Englishman and hear his Hugh Grant impression.
“He was Scottish,” I said. “He’s been living here for two years.”
Ryan raised an eyebrow, then turned his head slowly to take in the empty landscape surrounding us. “Two years?!”
“That’s what I said!”
“What the…who did he kill?” Ryan asked.
“I did not ask him that,” I said. “Out of politeness.”
“Really? That’s the first question I would have asked.”
“Clearly, you have no manners,” I said.
“I would have at least asked him what he was doing out here,” Ryan said.
“And what if he said, ‘I killed someone’?”
“Well, then, at least we’d know.” Ryan said.
“We wouldn’t know. We’d be chopped up into tiny pieces and buried in the desert. He can’t just admit he’s killed someone and let us live to tell the authorities. That’d be stupid.”
“Well, good thing you didn’t ask then.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
With that, we grabbed our lighter, packed away our spare diesel fuel and bounced off down the road in our van, leaving Cocklebiddy to fade into the distance like an antiquated curse going slowly out of fashion.
So far, the 1,200 kilometers we’ve covered since leaving Perth has shown us that driving across Australia is all about the journey, not the destination. Which is a bit of luck, really, because all you’ll find out here is Cocklebiddy.