Armidale, NSW

The Armidale School, July 2012Those of you who are regular readers know that this blog is rarely, if ever, written in real time. Traveling and creating the sort of updates that I like to write is challenging, to say the least. I stayed with P. and K. in Armidale from July 4-18 before I went on to the Hunter Valley and the Thoroughbred stud farm about which I’ve already talked to some of you. I know that you understand and will follow along, anyway.

When I was still visiting friends in Marlo, I received an email from P. in Armidale. He said that he had been a bull rider and still has horses. He must have read my profile and noticed that said I’d like to ride again, and that I spent summers painting the granary, the barn, the shed, the garage, the shop – because he invited me to come up and paint the house he shares with his partner, K. Since I wanted to head north and east into New South Wales, I thought that was a great idea.

Canberra July 2012On the way, I stopped briefly (from 5 p.m. one day until 11:55 a.m. the next) in Canberra, which is the capital of Australia. One thing I can report from Canberra is that it is cold. Cold enough to have an outdoor ice skating rink, which was a nice surprise. I didn’t go skating, though, because the rink was quite small, the ice looked terrible, it was crowded and I didn’t have my own skates with me. Other than that, it looked great. The cold did not seem to affect the natives, who dine outside no matter what the weather. I went to a little café in the morning – emphasis on little – where there was no seating left inside. There were heaters outside, though, and I noticed a woman out there enjoying her porridge, sitting with a gentleman who was eating bacon and eggs, each dressed in overcoats, gloves and hats. Stubborn cusses, these Aussies. I did finally buy a pair of gloves in Canberra.

I think I indicated in the last entry that the bus ride from Marlo to Canberra was five hours; to Sydney the next day, another four hours. Then another four hours (which turned into six because of a train delay) to get to Tamworth. It’s a big country.  Eventually, I arrived in Armidale (see previous entry), a community of some 25,000 souls, an astonishing number of public, private and boarding schools (the featured photo is The Armidale School), a university, and two cathedrals, one Anglican, one Catholic. The New England Highway, one of the three major eastern Australian highways, runs through it. Considering its relatively remote location, Armidale is a sophisticated little country town. Besides the annual Fall Festival, the 9th Annual International Film Festival also attracts an audience and took place August 3-5 – tickets were sold out in one day. There were also several little cafes where a person could get a decent flat white – yet another sign of civilization.

P., one of my hosts, works for the shire council (sort of like a county government) at their water treatment facility where effluent is recycled for irrigating alfalfa that feeds beef cattle which are then sold each year. On his way to work every day, he passes the farm that he owned for years. He rebuilt the house, fenced paddocks, raised kids … but they never lived in the renovated place together as a family. P.’s wife moved into an apartment in Armidale after a fall during the remodeling process, and never moved back in. He was served, the property sold and the proceeds split. P.’s heart is still at that place where someone else now lives and enjoys his hard work. He grieves for the home he built.

It’s easy to understand why. P. grew up at Black Mountain, out in the bush. He started bull riding at a young age, starting with calves, then steers, then bulls and rode rodeo events for years. In the 1980s, he went to the Calgary Stampede as a member of the Australian team. He still trains horses and has half dozen spread over a couple properties. He has a prize saddle from Texas with the 4-H logo on it (those of you who grew up in the country will understand that …) which was fascinating. Weird to see that hand-tooled, high cantle, horned saddle hanging in his workshop are along with the Aussie stock saddle.

Armidale Courthouse, July 2012His kids have gone on to be cowboys, too. While I was there, the Calgary Stampede was underway in Alberta, Canada and his daughter was there. Another son sent him a Facebook message from somewhere out in the bush where he’s rousting cattle. His other son is a trick rider extraordinaire who has been to Hollywood but is now in Byron Bay, training others.  He credits his father and his upbringing with much of his success and love of horses.

If there was a prototype for a cowboy, P. looks like he was issued by Central Casting. He is tall, lanky, a bit bow-legged. He is sinewy, his face is lined from years in the sun. The only thing that deviates from the stereotype is his hair, which he wears long and plaited like an American Indian. In fact, he loves Native American spirituality and showed me elk skin drums that he made himself.

Armidale Post Office July 2012P. spoke a great deal about the home he refurbished and the acreage he had as well as the fact he had to drive past it every day on the way to work. He has a beloved dog buried under a gum tree there, and one day on the way home pulled over to visit the spot, grateful for the dog’s presence in his life for so many years.  We drove out there one day and immediately understood his longing, seeing how it is a happily situated place, a stream cutting through the property, cattle in one paddock, sheep in another. He pointed out the fences that he built, the way he divided the land for stock, the stone house that was refurbished and decorated in a western theme. I wondered if home is the place that you grieve, as well, the place that you idealize and mourn when it’s gone, always wondering what could have been and what you would rather have had, if only circumstances or people had fit your plan. I wondered if P. would ever be able to let his disappointment go, and most would say that letting go would be a good thing, but sometimes I’m not so sure. Some people have a deep need to remember, and to long for something. Sometimes what we imagine satisfies that longing like nothing else ever can.

Phil Snell's farm, Armidale, July 2012P.’s goal with that property was to build a place for his family. The work took years to complete, and in that time, kids left home and his wife and he divorced. So again, I have to look at the idea of family as home, no matter where one is in the world. His partner K. spent about four years up in the Northern Territory, working as a physio therapist, flying in to remote communities to provide treatment both in hospital and out-patient. The Aboriginal population is large in that part of Australia, and unique. She relates an experience of taking cover in a hospital during a cyclone, seeing everybody sleeping together in family groups, thinking that she wished there was a place that she belonged like that. She did end up being adopted into a family and tribe, fortunate enough to experience members of a tribe opening their hearts to her.

So if we’re looking at connection to place as home, I think we also have to consider the people that accompany the place. I have been alienated by the superficial ideals of Southern California, not that I’m saying that everybody shares that superficiality. But that quality is repellant to me. In that case, the place has been defined by the people for me. And maybe this journey is one on which I long to find not only where I belong, but to whom I belong, as well.





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