Celebrating a Place

Parking our van at the very edge of a cliff in Australia and thinking about life.

– Life unfolding, here and now –

* * *

The south coast of Australia is an extraordinary place. With its slightly concave shape it receives the notorious rage of the Southern Ocean without any protection.

The Australian Bight is known for its extremely rough seas. When I was young I crossed it two times, as a deck hand on a German freighter. There I saw over 30-foot waves for the first time in my life, waves that would rise in front of the bow like a mountain range and crash into the ship, sending a shudder vibrating through 15000 tons of steel that made my heart stop. I was scared because I had caught the “serious” look on the captain’s face, but I was also fascinated by the majestic gentle grace of such gigantic moving water mountains. One time I secretly climbed up the rear mast to get the ultimate view and got soaking wet even up there.

Today that reminds me of John Muir, who described his exhilaration, riding out a storm in the Sierras, sitting in a tree, swaying violently in the wind. It strikes me today as a completely sane and beautiful thing to do.

The Nullarbor Plain of South Australia is treeless (as the name indicates) and flat as a table. Where it meets the ocean it abruptly breaks off in a vertical 300-foot drop, without any gradual slope or beach. There is one railroad, crossing this empty plain of earth, straight as a gunshot, not the slightest curve for about 1000 miles. And there is a road one can follow through this emptiness, almost equally straight and long and lonesome. The road stays always close to the coast, but one hardly ever sees the water.

It takes many days to drive from Esperance to Port Lincoln, and it’s like being on the ocean. What you see is empty sky and horizon, endless horizon. Movement becomes illusive, boredom permeates and aches the body. At first, one may get awfully tired, but I actually become quite alert and wide awake on such long desert roads. The mind gets quiet and patient and sharp as a knife, even the subtlest changes outside are full of wonder and surprise. Over time the mind becomes like the sleepy cat, licking its fur, attending to itself, doing long forgotten homework, and finally listening to the static and purring.

Once we drove on this road. A yearlong odyssey all over that continent had given us a certain feel for the country and a mental concept of the geography, and, as I knew the coast was near, I wanted to see this abrupt broken edge of terra firma.

So, one day, still in such state of heightened awareness, after endless hours of driving through nothing, we followed a barely detectable track south and suddenly, after less than a mile or so, without any foretelling changes in the landscape, stood at the end of land. Suddenly the land under the horizon simply turned into water; the horizon itself did not change, and there was no warning of a drop-off. With a little lack of attention, one could have easily driven over the edge and plummeted down into the raging sea.

 We stood there, at the edge, and never was it easier to imagine standing at the end of the world. The sea was hardly audible, a hundred yards below, sloshing against the vertical rock. There were no big waves – now – a strong offshore wind-swept the sea flat.

We could see some 25 miles up and down the coast in either direction. When one looks along a coastline at “normal” places the land is usually somewhat higher than the flat horizon of the sea, and a land-horizon is usually somewhat hilly and not completely straight. Here the land happened to be as flat as the sea, and the horizon was perfectly straight all around, 360 degrees, and there was no interruption where sea-horizon turned into land-horizon. Looking at this uninterrupted perfect horizon all around, without any step or gap, the mind couldn’t help thinking to be on an uninterrupted, flat, one-level surface, be it land or sea. But standing at this significant drop, seeing the mental misrepresentation right there, deep below, caused a strange, eerie contradiction.

Your intellect tells you: the 300-foot difference between the two levels, even though drastically real in front of you, becomes invisible in the distance; far away, both horizons just blend into each other. But the mind doesn’t readily believe what the intellect suggests. We know about the power of optical illusions, or do we really? Do we really know how unreliable our perception is? We may look for and find plausible excuses for sometimes misinterpreting reality, for a mistake like this, but is such a misjudgment really the problem? Isn’t the problem that we interpret and judge at all and continuously forget that we do?

During our travels we often made it a point to “celebrate” a place we found, to cherish and honor it and even make some formal effort to express our appreciation. We would set up our chairs and the little table and sit and let the place speak to us. At times this romantic “style” was something like a “Leitmotif” in our traveling. Travel as finding a beautiful tree to sit under and observe and contemplate – or travel as looking for the mystery and revel in that, rather than discovering facts.

When I turned around to park the motor home properly for such a celebration I knew exactly what I had in mind. Without saying much, Parvin watched with slight concern and a knowing smile when I backed the vehicle up and drove it very carefully all the way directly to the edge. When the rear wheels were about a foot from the edge I set the parking brake as hard as I could and put some rocks behind the wheels.

The entire rear end, a third of the vehicle, nearly 10 feet, stuck out over the edge, the entrance was still over solid ground, but our sitting area inside and our bed were suspended in mid-air.

Parvin stayed outside and kind of waited to see if my exotic idea of a romantic place would dissipate by itself, but I went back and sat on the couch, and I liked it.

“If you want your tea you have to come inside!” I lured her; “there’s no wind in here! And you’ve got to feel this! It’s as if time has stopped in the middle of falling!”

It took a while before she came in and tiptoed to the couch, but then we sat there together and laughed and just observed our feelings. We had our dinner, the wind died down, and the sun, casting a ghostly shadow of the broken land far out over the sea, slowly lost its power and melted into the strange horizon. I stepped outside and, holding on to the entrance door, I allowed myself to pee right down into the open space and follow the perfect arc until it dissolved in mid-air.

When we walked around in the vehicle, deeply aware of our refined situation, there was always this delicate enhanced mindfulness in our movements. Could our own movements actually jeopardize the stability of the vehicle? Of course not. But simply being aware of the potential was profoundly interesting.

The initial feeling of alarm, but not exactly knowing for what, gradually changed into a remarkable overall relaxed awareness. We didn’t spill our coffee mugs or trip over the carpet; we didn’t speak unnecessary things. Somehow we felt it’s enough to pay attention like this, not to something in particular, but to everything, to live in limbo, at the edge, not really in a dramatic way, exposed to real danger, but with the same attitude. Everything in us and around us seemed to have a mysterious glow of significance, everything mattered. We witnessed life unfolding right there in that moment.

In the sinking light of the day the background roar of the sea underneath – like distant chanting – gently filled the growing stillness. We opened our bottle of wine and clinked glasses:

“To the end of the world – may it never frighten us!”

“May we drink up our life to the last drop before we complete this fall.”

I opened the window and threw the empty bottle into the night. We held our breath and listened for the splash – it never came.

This motor home was our own creation, as we had built many of our houses on wheels ourselves. We had bought it as an old bus in Sydney, had thrown out most of the seats, bought lots of wood and tools, drove to a lonely beach, and converted it into a great spacious motor home. It had an exceptionally beautiful bed that filled pretty much the whole rear end of the bus. As this bus had windows all around, sleeping on this bed was almost like being outside in the open. We could see the stars at night and be caressed by the first light in the morning. For the day this bed was lifted up to the ceiling with an ingenious pulley system and gave room for a luxurious sitting area.

When we settled down to sleep that night, I lay awake for a long time, listening to the chanting of the sea underneath. Nothing about our situation seemed really extraordinary anymore. I felt the pressure of the weight of my body on my skin, the image was still there, in my head – the picture of being suspended in mid-air, ready to fall – but in a wonderful unspectacular way it had revealed its merely imaginary quality. I can’t remember any bad dreams there.

The next morning we walked along the broken edge for several miles and saw our tiny little castle from the distance. A thin morning fog was rising from the sea and drifting over the land. When I started the engine and drove off, after a long quiet breakfast, we left with a wide open heart. There was not at all a feeling of relief, as if we had escaped a great danger or passed a test. It was not as if we had uncovered a secret, it rather felt as if we had looked at a new secret. I didn’t look back, and I tried to keep this sensation of deepened awareness like a precious gift.

The same fog would greet us every morning over the next days along the coast. Further east, the empty plain had gradually turned into a savannah again with a few trees and brush. One day, we got lost in this fog on our early morning walk. The air was delicious and cool, and we were still naked (you never see another person out there for days!). Just strolling aimlessly through the ghostly open forest, fog patches floating between the crooked tree trunks, the broken edge of the coast not far, we couldn’t find our motor home again. Like Adam & Eve we walked in the gently moving fog through this labyrinth of widely spaced white-barked trees. Birds were singing in the mist. We knew the fog would burn off soon and open blue sky was already visible over us. It didn’t take long until we finally saw our home on wheels in the distance, again we left with our hearts open like a flower, sensing the endless mystery of our lives and ready to celebrate it at any time.

              Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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