It was the first day of summer, 2016, and the future glittered with promise and adventure. I was twenty-one-years-old with a fresh journalism degree. I was not going to work in an office. Instead, I was moving into my mate Benno’s shack in the Karridale forest, where I was determined to build a different kind of life around surfing, freedom, and the few freelance writing jobs trickling into my inbox.
It took only a few months for that dream to become a lonely and insular nightmare.
Benno was the only one of my mates who owned, or had loaned, I should say, his own home. His timber shack was on a couple of acres in the forest. It had put him half-a-million dollars in debt. It had no kitchen, no rooms, and no interior doors.
I arrived with a cardboard box full of clothes, a couple of cameras, a few books, and a handful of surfboards. I scrounged a mattress and arranged my belongings on the floor. That night, as we cooked our first meal together outside over an open fire, Benno regaled me with the story of his and his then girlfriend’s housewarming party a few months earlier.
“I’d just got back from working five weeks on a boat, and the bloke I bought it off was already supposed to be out of here. I got here and he was still here. There was shit everywhere, man. It took all day to get rid of it all. Then it gets dark and all these people start rocking up – I forgot I’d invited thirty people to my house. We’ve got no lights, no furniture, nothing. We haven’t even got a fridge for people to put their drinks in, or a veranda. We just ended up sinking warm beers on the dirt in the dark all night. It was classic.”
But the housewarming stage was long gone when I moved in. Benno’s five-year relationship had ended not long after he moved to Karridale, and around the same time, he left a well-paying job driving boats in Exmouth, spent his savings on a truck, bobcat, and timber mill, and planned to build a business selling firewood and crafting furniture. He foresaw easy money and carefree living off-the-grid. I shared Benno’s ambitions.
It all seemed easy enough at first. We lived on discarded loaves from a local woodfired bakery, Benno’s vegetable garden, and a freezer full of beef he had bought from his mate up the road. I paid the rent in a daily barrow of weeds pulled from around the property.
The house became more convivial, our living arrangement more communal when Benno’s mate, Dylan, moved in. Dylan was an easygoing, intelligent, and slightly lost Californian. We got along well. I moved my mattress down onto the bare concrete slab in the rear quarter of the house, and gave Dylan my spot on the wooden floor outside the toilet. It was a strategic move on my part, because the toilet also had no door.
Dylan had just arrived in Australia, and he was still becoming accustomed to our sense of humour. Benno and I considered it our duty to speed up the process, and Dylan gave us plenty of ammunition to work with. One evening, Dylan gave us the sage advice never to “dip your pen in the company ink”. A few weeks later, he was fired from his job as a hotel bartender after sleeping with his boss on a drunken New Year’s romp. Then, when he found a job at the Karridale tavern – the only feature of the township - he took up with the local chef.
Benno and I disdained Dylan’s choice for comfort and for easy money. We were determined to do things our own way, and we might have realised the big dreams we had for our businesses had surfing not consistently got in the way. A rough four-wheel-drive track through the forest was all that was between us and a world-class beach break. It was often pumping, and always empty after lunch. Most summer afternoons, we drove Benno’s rusting Landcruiser along the beach until we found a peak. The only CD in Benno’s car was Eric Clapton Unplugged. Ironically, the stereo would not switch off with the vehicle motor. Eric Clapton was always plugged in.
Autumn came around, and the surf began to consistently pump. The first rains also exposed a leak in the roof above my room. A puddle on the floor swelled to a lake, and with no money it grew to an insurmountable problem. We tried packed the roof beams with black garbage bags, then sealing the screws with silicone. When that failed even considered glad wrapping the whole bloody thing. But the water kept dripping. The lake soon became a raging torrent that destroyed the power boards at my desk in a shower of sparks and smoke.
Meanwhile, Benno was having his own power problems. One night I came home to find him sitting beside the fire with a pile of mail. He was opening the envelopes, peeking inside, and tossing them into the flames. They were his bills.
“I hope you’ve charged up your computer,” he said.
Benno had tried keeping his struggles to himself for a while, but now they were too much to conceal. He had fallen weeks behind on his mortgage repayments and his shed was falling apart. When his only neighbour became fed up with the noise, she dobbed him in to the council for illegally running a business from home. It ended his dreams, and I struggled to realise mine with no power or internet.
Karridale was a dangerous place to be depressed. Time to think is a blessing if your mind is in the right place, catastrophic if it’s not. There was nowhere to hide from your thoughts in Karridale, but people still tried at the pub. It was the only common ground for social interaction. Throw the prevalence of firearms into the mix, and it’s easy to see why the rates of rural suicide are astronomically higher than those in the city. These were all grave concerns that I held for Benno. Who knows what might have happened had Dylan and I had been there.
Dylan and I did what we could to bolster Benno’s spirits, cooking, cleaning, and trying to keep a genial atmosphere. But when everyone left Karridale and I remained alone, I found myself slipping into the same hole.
Dyaln took off to go travelling and Benno went to work in Perth. I was determined to stay; this was the cheapest way for me to live on my own terms. There had been a certain charm to our poverty when we were all together: the way we scrounged the resources we had into something useful, like when we ran out of food and Benno ate ice cream and oats for dinner three nights in a row. But poverty in solitude was misery.
I used my time productivly at first. There was plenty of time to write, or to put it differently, there was bugger all else to do. I worked all day at home, and rarely saw anyone else. Soon I didn’t want to see anyone else. All I wanted was to stay at home, and to be left alone to work on my dreams in peace.
It was only when I left Karridale for a week that I realised that this was all actually counter-productive. I went to Perth for a week and interacted with people my own age again. I laughed, drank, and picked my mind back up out of the black hole that I had forced it down. Maybe this idea of locking myself away was really just selfish and lazy, I thought, a kind of Chekov’s peculiar monasticism that achieves nothing.
As the great man says, “a man needs more than six feet of earth and a little place in the country, he needs the whole wide world, the whole of nature, where there’s room for him to show his potential and all the manifold attributes of his free spirit.”
There was plenty of space in Karridale, but little room to grow.
I left in July.
Three years later, it’s July again. I’m back in Karridale. It’s the same as it always was, as it will always be - lonely, isolated, and stunningly beautiful – but all of our lives are vastly changed. Benno is away driving boats in Kununurra for the season. He’s happy and slowly creeping out of the red. Dylan is getting married, to the local chef he met while working here. I’ve bought a new four-wheel-drive and Benno’s shed is somewhere dry to convert it into a camper over the winter months. I’ll take it around Australia, hopefully next year, in search of opportunity and space to grow.
Who knows; I might even find a real job.