Friday, March 6, 2009
I walked into the pub and asked the bartender, “Is it always like this outside?”
It must have been something in my eyes, or maybe the orange hair, face and clothes, but I diverted his attention from pouring beers long enough to peek out the front door.
He called back into the bar, “C’mon and have a look, it’s the end of the world.”
I fully intended to push on from here, a dying town in the northwest corner of New South Wales. This used to be sheep country and prosperous, but that was before twelve years of punishing drought. Ivanhoe is now a town of one pub, two gas pumps and no small number of sun-faded For Sale signs.
With the grass long grazed to stubble, the red Outback dust takes flight without much provocation. I had watched the sky turn brown and strange through the day, as strong winds fanned by 105° heat gathered in the face of a passing weather front. I’d hoped to make two or three more hours before dark, but folks just shook their heads.
A guy at the gas station looked up and laughed, “It ‘asn’t gotten bad yet. The ‘roos aren’t even out.”
I made no more than five miles before a red veil blotted out the sky, swallowed my headlights and covered the road. I stopped the car and stepped outside to get my bearings, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Dust filled the space between molecules with forty knot blast furnace gusts, and the power lines buzzed with weird static.
When I turned around and found my way back to the pub covered in orange, I asked for a beer and smart-assed, “You get much of this?”
One of the locals slowly looked me up and down and smiled, “Dust? Yeah mate, a bit.”