Chips with gravy, blistering heat and screaming kids have reminded me what I missed most about travel during the pandemic.
Coronavirus was delivering sadness and stress around the world, and the idea of flying or road-tripping again for pleasure felt out of kilter with 2020's vibe.
I was feeling comfortable in my fibro-shack on the NSW Central Coast, and later when the straw of lockdown broke my marriage I found complacency again in a Sydney flat.
My neighbourhood gave my everything I needed, or so I thought.
Somehow it had been three years since I’d seen my parents and sister south of Philip Island, down on Victoria’s Bass Coast.
For the first year I was just slack, then after Covid-19 flexed its muscles, every time I planned to take time off work and drive down, either Melbourne or Sydney would get locked down.
Omicron meant record case numbers and I wasn't sure it was safe to travel.
From St Kilda to Kings Cross with my dog
On Tuesday, I set my alarm for 6:30am, hit sleep 10 times, then packed up my ageing Honda Civic with too many green-bags full of clothes and toiletries, and buckled up my dog Dexter on the back seat.
This would be the first Christmas apart from my wife, and I wasn't sure I wanted to think about our past along the 950km journey.
Driving down solo for the first time in a decade, my plan was to avoid the bucolic country-town-stopovers we'd enjoyed in years gone by.
I’d only be slowing down to let Dexter have a wee, or fill up with petrol and buy a can of V and a sandwich.
Leaving Sydney, I flicked on Paul Kelly’s From St Kilda to Kings Cross, and then Incident on St Dowling Street as I turned left off Moore Park Road.
I should have known, I was already failing in my intention to have a utilitarian trip. Nostalgia was taking over.
Gundagai more welcome than a pristine Fijian beach
Despite never having lounged on a Fijian beach or partied at Ibiza, somehow that was the idea of travel which had infected my mind during lockdown.
That was about to change.
As I approached Gundagai, I started singing “There’s a track winding back to an old fashioned shack” to Dexter.
Forgetting the words, I asked Siri to play Slim Dusty’s version of the famous song, but when she failed to find it, I veered off the freeway and into the town.
The park around the visitor centre was stinking hot. Couples and families had monopolised the shade ahead of lunch.
A woman juggling three kids and a phone shouted her order through to the take-away shop.
"Chicken and chips with gravy and a caramel milkshake," she said.
Everyone sharing the cover of the same tree quickly learnt her son's name was Tyler.
"Tyler, Tyler!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.
He decided not to hear her. Instead he raced up and down the hot footpath screaming, fought with his brother, then splashed a family in matching PPE sitting near the bubbler.
Council signs warned about swooping magpies, but the only danger I experienced was a teenager stinking of Lynx almost hitting me as he swung across the park on a flying fox.
I put on the air conditioner and sat in the car.
Road trips reveal a melting pot of people which can't be found at home
Before leaving Gundagai, I snapped a photo of my glum face in front of a sickly Christmas tree and sent it to a friend.
The lens of my scratched up iPhone was making photos pretty blurry, but I persevered and at Holbrook I took pictures of Dexter posing in front of the town’s famous landlocked submarine.
I spoke to friend who was freezing over in Edinburgh and told him a family were sheltering from the heat in the car park under a tinny being pulled by a Pajero.
I was having a blast sharing stories with my mates.
It wasn’t the relaxation of travel that I’d missed most, but mixing into the melting pot of out of place travellers and sharing these experiences.
Stuck in the same suburb, my life had become unconsciously homogenised, but out here on the road there were folks from Portland, Wagga Wagga, Mosman, Moonee Ponds, Penrith, Parramatta, Rutherglen and Caulfield.
Over the Murray to meet mum and dad
Over the Murray and into Victoria, my last major stop was Glenrowan, where I picked up some tea towels featuring Ned Kelly to send to a friend overseas and remind him of home.
I cut off the tags when I saw they were made in China.
I scampered down the streets in shorts and thongs to take a photo of a two-storey-high statue named Big Ned, and bought a six pack of beer for my dad.
As I drove through Wonthaggi at around 10:30pm and neared my parents' suburb, I pictured the red-eyed, sobbing reunions I’d seen on A Current Affair and 7:30 Report.
I pulled over the car to collect my thoughts and put on Cold Chisel's Flame Trees, a song about revisiting your home town.
When I arrived at my parents' farm, we had a heartfelt hug and I excitedly shared stories of my travels as they watched me eat a late dinner.
After I hopped into to bed, with distance between us, I sent my ex pictures of Dexter enjoying the trip and we wished each other a happy Christmas.
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