Chapter 3. Here, there and everywhere

Dorrigo NSW, 12 months later

Rick and I crawled along the rock face behind the waterfall, then stood looking out at the world through the veil of water. I could see the others in our group wandering along the stream bed, squatting to test the water temperature, pausing to admire the pond. Imagine having your own private waterfall.

Over the past year, we’d seen a lot of properties, and this one was the most amazing.

I had no idea the land above Dorrigo was so beautiful. We were in the heart of the Great Dividing Range and had just trekked along the top of a long escarpment with astonishing views of the rolling hills below. Eve, Rick and I had sat on a rock overlooking a view that flowed all the way to the Pacific and had imagined into existence a series of cabins scattered beside us along the top of the cliff. What a way to wake up in the morning. What paradise.

However, we’d also started doing mental calculations about the cost of bringing in electricity for over a kilometre, putting in a road, building a sewage system, supplying water, not to mention putting up the cabins and whatever else might be required. They were scary numbers.

There were eight of us this time – we were exploring the possibility of adding another couple to our group. Lyndon and Beth were good friends of Michael and Judy, and they were on the hunt for a rural property as well as someone with whom to share the cost. Lyndon had a vision that veered between grazing a hundred fat cattle on a big chunk of pasture and building an eco-centre that would be a dynamic hub for the green revolution, staffed by passionate woofers (“willing workers on organic farms”) of all nationalities working for free.

Lyndon definitely knew what he was there for. He had uncovered on the internet this 625-acre block on the escarpment above Dorrigo, going for $800,000. A scroll through the photos and a talk with the agent had convinced him he wanted this land. And he figured he knew the six of us well enough to trust we would be suitable partners in financing and carrying out his vision.

Michael for one shared that vision. He said he could picture himself on a sturdy little mare, tramping through the back passages of the property while visitors were making their way up the long driveway for some residential leadership training or team building on the ropes course. For the first time Michael’s eyes had lit up with the opportunities he saw in a property we had uncovered.

Myself? I was trying to be open-minded on the Lyndon-and-Beth part, the six-hundred-acre part and the eco-centre part. I liked to think I was someone who is open to possibilities, and I had not yet admitted to myself that not in this lifetime would I commit my life earnings and my future to a venture with as many unknowns as this one had – partners I hardly knew, passions I didn’t share, money I didn’t have at hand. I was here mostly because it looked like a fun way to spend the Easter break, and as well I was bound to learn something about our mission.

I had also wanted to learn more about Beth and Lyndon. I had a view that Lyndon was a handyman, and we appeared to be desperately short of that particular talent in our group. There wasn’t a mechanic, a farmer or a carpenter among us, and Lyndon was a bit of all three. So between the waterfall and Lyndon’s skills, it had seemed worthwhile checking out this opportunity.

Last night we’d met up with the other six at a motel with spectacular views of the Dorrigo hills. We’d had a great meal, drank some wine and talked about how enticing the area was. Michael told stories about his childhood spent on a farm not far from where we were right now; I could see this territory was an important part of his heritage.

And today we’d come up to visit the property. Driving the fifteen or so kilometres over rough country road was an eye-opener, as was seeing just how big 625 acres is. There was no doubt the property was stunning. The waterfall wasn’t its only great feature, but it was my favourite. Coming from the west coast of Canada, a waterfall made me feel right at home. It was magical to consider owning one.

Lyndon and Beth headed off early to get back to Sydney. The rest of us gathered around a rugged table in a café in Dorrigo to check in with each other. One by one, each of us expressed our views about the property and the project. Michael began, enthusing about the land and its potential. He said he was excited about the possibility of a vibrant community of fellow eco-travellers. Judy spoke next and was considerably more circumspect. Like all of us, she loved the land, but you could see her trying on the purchase and finding the fit uncomfortable.

From there the conversation got more negative. Rick, Daniel, Eve and I all expressed variations of the view that the property was astounding but we could not afford it. The initial purchase would be a stretch, and it would throw us all into debt to finance the building and the infrastructure required. Rick said he loved the imaginary cabins on the escarpment overlooking the valley far below, but felt even the $50,000 that would be required to bring power into the site was prohibitive – and that was just the first drop in the financial bucket. Eve spoke of the land as the world’s best location for yoga retreats but expressed the view that the price even before development was unaffordable. During his turn, Daniel used his napkin to sketch out some alarming maths on the costs of the project. He also talked about how he didn’t think he wanted to retire to such high-voltage and unfamiliar activity, nor to the remoteness of the location. When I spoke, I reflected on the joys of that waterfall but felt the property was out of our financial reach.

At his end of the table, Michael drew back in his chair as the opinions piled up in opposition to his enthusiasm. “There’s always a way to accomplish something if you want it enough,” he muttered, then looked at us gloomily. “But as always, I’m the odd man out. Never mind, that’s fine,” he said, looking anything but fine. After a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, while I searched for something to say, he added, “Don’t worry, I’m not pulling out. I’m just feeling a little disappointed. Let’s keep looking; something’s bound to show up.”

“It will,” Eve said firmly. “And it will be something we all like and agree on. Not you nor anyone else will get railroaded into a proposition you don’t want.”

It was a simple but satisfying summary, and the conversation drifted on to more comfortable topics.

We’d learned a good deal about ourselves and the project. For one thing, we’d discovered that most of us didn’t want to turn this into something massive and life-consuming; that, while there was much we loved about this property, at core we were planning to gear down, not up, in our lives. We recognised that our budgets had a ceiling, and began to understand what that ceiling was.

We’d also had a taste of what being in agreement really means. Although we had agreed early on that the group must reach consensus on every issue, it was becoming obvious that that wasn’t going to be easy to accomplish. It wasn’t comfortable when one of us wasn’t aligned, and we had experienced all the usual tendencies to put pressure on, to want our opinions to dominate, or to give up completely.

Perhaps most important, we’d learned something about one of our partners. It was the first time I heard Michael express this odd-man-out view of himself, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be the last. It seemed that our project was triggering some deep-rooted personal beliefs – and probably not just for Michael.

*    *    *

Newcastle, the following month

The six of us were gathered again at a small sidewalk café in Newcastle. We’d been through a full day’s trekking to various acreages, looking at properties within a half hour’s drive of Newcastle, and it was debrief time again. We discussed how Newcastle was a town you could love. It had a vibrant café culture and housed an excellent university, giving the town a youthful, energetic, urbane flavour. It was also only a couple of hours from Sydney, which meant we’d be within easy reach of our children, as well as our old friends. It was close to the ocean, and we were recognising that was important to us.

But the properties we had viewed weren’t particularly interesting. They were small acreages without much character, in an area with a reputation for dryness. Because of their proximity to Newcastle, and to Sydney for that matter, these properties seemed expensive. A two-acre lot with a small house was going to cost us the same as the 625 acres in Dorrigo would have. And most off-putting of all, the lots had been noisy, close to highways and in the lap of neighbours.

Around the café table, I could see us struggling to be upbeat. We had been looking for over a year and had, among the six of us, checked out dozens and dozens of properties. By now it seemed it was going to be hard to find something one of us liked unconditionally, never mind all six of us. For the first time I had the thought that perhaps this wasn’t going to work. But Eve, in her quiet matter-of-fact way, reminded us it was too soon in the game to quit. “We’re getting closer,” she said, and I couldn’t help but believe her.

Generous, uplifting Eve. How I relied on her to bring peace, certainty, calm – and fun.

And of course, again we’d learned something: we wanted at least a few acres of space, and we wanted tranquillity. We were discovering we were looking for a configuration with affordability, the country, the beach, and nearness to a viable community as its four cornerstones.

*    *    *

Killabakh, a month later

We were standing in Scotty’s shed. Each of his tools was pegged on the wall, the wrenches in ascending size order, the hammers perfectly spaced. Every tool was outlined with permanent marker so that after it was put to work it could find its way home again. On another wall was his rain chart – every millimetre of rain meticulously recorded on its particular day of fall. The order was awesome and somehow terrifying.

There were many beautiful things about Scotty’s property. It was 198 acres, sub-dividable, with a pristine though ageing home on it. It had views to die for across the tumbly Killabakh hills and sat next to a large and rugged national park called the Goonook Nature Reserve. The acre or so around the house showed us what could be done on the right property: there was an orchard with mangoes, peaches and nut trees; the fences were immaculate; the gardens and lawns were inviting. There was a dam from which water could be pumped to the gardens, and plenty of tank water capacity. The now-elderly Scotty and his wife had built the grounds from nothing.

I loved that block. We’d walked up the hill to the place where we could build a new house. The views from our imaginary front balcony were breathtaking. The land was green and fertile. Scotty claimed there was plenty of rainfall in the area, and his chart supported the claims.

Michael loved that block. He could see himself on his mare again, his brown Drizabone swaddling his shoulders and his akubra shading his contented face. He could see finding a hole in the fence where he could lead the mare through and then tramp for a couple of hours in the national park.

One of our conditions, “No more than ten minutes from a good cappuccino”, was under threat. If there were good coffees to be had here, they’d have to be produced by a machine in our own kitchen.

But it was those carefully arrayed wrenches and the rain record that were the lasting image. Their message was clear: know what you’re doing and do it well. Be clear, be organised. There are skills required to manage a property of this size of which you city-slickers have no idea. Beware: buy this property and the responsibility could overwhelm you.

The challenge was daunting.

In spite of that, we made our first offer, about three quarters of the asking price. To no one’s surprise, the offer was knocked back. God knows what we’d have done if it had been accepted. In hindsight we’d have probably sat on it for year or two, then subdivided the property into two and sold both pieces. It was beautiful but it was too big. And very rural. It was full of responsibilities. It was a long way from the beach, and forty minutes from a hospital and a good café.

Again, we’d learned something: we got an appreciation for the size of 200 acres, and realised we didn’t need or want more than a tenth of that. We began thinking for the first time that five or ten acres would suit. We were finally all aligned that, yes, views and tranquillity were essential, but a small acreage was what we wanted.

Making the offer reinvigorated me. I was drawn to this part of the countryside, with the Manning River running through it. I would continue to contact the real estate agent, trying on properties until we found the right fit.

*    *    *

Oxley Island, a month later

I loved them not.

I had been trapped for what felt like hours in the back seat of the car. Rick and Michael shared the front seats and I was sandwiched between Judy and Maggie, a talkative friend who had been a real estate agent in the area for a few years and now was heavily pregnant with her first child. She was touring us around some properties for sale in her neighbourhood, sharing her knowledge of the area and the market, as well as her undeniable enthusiasm for the region.

However, the person in my rather confined seat wasn’t capable of appreciating the generosity. I was feeling truly done with the whole land-searching project. There were too many points of view, too many opinions, too many conditions. I couldn’t tolerate one more setback, or one more person saying, “This doesn’t work for me.” All I wanted to do was whip off my seat belt and abandon everyone. I imagined my harsh command: Stop this car. Then I’d clamber out, slam the car door, stomp across the road and scuttle through the fence. THAT would make my point. The team seemed to be relying on me to be the steadfast, stubborn, unstoppable one. And I wanted to let them know I was ready to spit the dummy.

Instead, I rubbed my furrowed forehead, thinking: God almighty, is this what it takes to belong to a community?

My heart thumped as a realisation took root. It actually was my job in this project to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we got to our destination. That was my role in the harness and the team counted on me for it.

I closed my eyes for a moment and let the clamour of thoughts and feelings wash over me. One more property to view this afternoon. I could survive that.

I’d like to say that the miracle occurred then and there – but of course it didn’t. We checked out the final property of the day, which was prone to flooding and clearly wasn’t going to become our new home.

Afterward, we dropped Maggie off at her home, and the remaining four of us headed to a little park on Oxley Island which overlooked the ocean end of the south arm of the Manning River. Standing unconfined on the river bank with the surf pounding in the distance, I regained my equanimity while we debriefed the day. We were on Oxley Island, a delta land mass near Taree which was framed by a network of rivers feeding into the ocean. We’d viewed a riverside property, which had been enchanting, though too expensive; we’d visited several interior properties which were peaceful and affordable, though a bit flat and uninteresting. The four of us agreed that Oxley was an intriguing prospect. It wasn’t perfect, but it had some distinct advantages. For one thing, it was a water haven: close to the beach, with river views everywhere. Another advantage was that it was a fifteen minute drive to Taree. You couldn’t mistake Taree as a cultural nerve centre of New South Wales, but it had a hospital, waterside cafés, twin cinemas, an entertainment centre and a vibrant industrial area that warranted a big Bunnings. The Manning Valley seemed to be a proud and vigorous community reaching over hundreds of square kilometres.

The properties we’d seen on this exploratory mission weren’t quite the right thing, but I sensed we were beginning to align on an area we liked. It was near the beach, and we were finally agreed we couldn’t do without the surf: we were Sydney-siders and had been near the ocean for most of our adult lives. We were after a sea-change more than a tree-change.

We also agreed proximity to a regional centre like Taree was a strong advantage. It was sensible to be near civilisation but this little island, with its dairy farms and grain fields,  wouldn’t confine us to a suburban style of existence.

Maybe we were getting close.

Maybe being stubborn is not the same thing as being unstoppable, I reflected as we drove back to the city later in the day. Stubbornness is personal; being unstoppable is a contribution to others. Perhaps I could ease up on the stubbornness, and accelerate being unstoppable. Perhaps generosity is the key to belonging and to be successful in this project I just had to develop a little more of it.

I had my seat belt fastened again.

*    *    *

Upper Lansdowne, the following month

Judy and I found a comfortable bit of wooden fence and perched on it at the side of the road. It was a warm early spring day and for the moment it felt nice just to stretch out with the sun on my face. We were sitting a few inches apart, both of us chewing on stems of grass. Michael and Rick had driven off to have one more look at a property up the road. Judy and I had walked back down the driveway of a house we’d just inspected, and were waiting for the men to return.

We talked a bit about the property behind us. Again, it was an attractive piece of land, but the house left a lot to be desired and the price appeared inflated. It was definitely not “the one”.

Although we had pretty well made up our minds that we wanted to be close to the ocean, we’d continued to be attracted to the striking beauty of the countryside in this area in the hills above Taree. To get where we were today, we’d travelled up what had to be one of the most enchanting country roads in New South Wales. We’d followed along the Lansdowne River, sometimes high above the river looking down over the fertile valley, sometimes in the valley itself looking up at the soaring hills of the Eastern Highlands.

Sitting there with Judy, I noticed a feeling of apprehension clutching at me. I frowned, trying to identify the unease. I looked back at the house we’d just come from, and then I began to figure out the problem. I said, “Judy, paint me a picture of what a day in our retired life would look like.”

Judy laughed her throaty laugh. “Ho-ho, isn’t that a question?” she said. “All right, let me think.”

We both considered awhile. It didn’t seem like a difficult question, but nothing was springing to mind.

I looked up at the hills and let their serenity motivate me. I said, “I wake up, sit up in the bedroom of our beautiful new house, and am treated to the vista of the valley below. There are any number of jacarandas in bloom and it’s so picturesque I have to thump my chest to get my heart started again.”

Judy cracked her finger joints, as she does when she’s thinking hard. She picked up the thread. “I head to the kitchen and put the kettle on to make a cup of tea.”

“And the jug is already hot,” I interrupted. “Because Eve has been up for awhile, made a cuppa and is now doing yoga in…er…in the yoga space.”

“Yes!” Judy said. “So I take my tea and join Eve. After an hour I feel stretched and alive. Then I put on my jogging togs and go for a climb up through the hills.” She gestured toward the long steeply sloping hill behind us.

I squinted at it, against the sun. “Meantime, I go find Rick, who’s putting together a fruit smoothie for breakfast. We sit on the deck in the sun and enjoy the drink and the views. Then I grab my gardening gloves and head out to…um, weed the tomatoes.”

“And to plant some shrubs we bought at the markets yesterday,” suggested Judy.

“And pick the bugs off the roses,” I said.

You have to admit we were trying.

But the ideas fizzled out, and we paused, chewing thoughtfully on the stems of grass. We’d given the visualisation a good shot, but it felt worrisomely boring.

I began thinking about my current typical day. Dash to the bus stop, refine the day’s to-do list during the half hour commute, and then head straight into a non-stop day at the office. I might be running a Negotiations course with twenty students for a corporate client. Or I might be working with a group of trainers in developing better classroom techniques. Or I might be shoulder to shoulder with the sales team furiously cranking out a big proposal. For sure I’d be handling fifty to a hundred emails and no end of small emergencies.

It was practically impossible to imagine a morning cup of tea, a leisurely yoga session, a smoothie on the balcony with Rick, poking about in the garden.

I glanced over at Judy and thought about her day. She was off to the pool each morning for thirty quick laps before heading into North Sydney to run the small financial advisers’ office of which she was practice manager. Among other things, she was in the middle of planning the installation of a new IT system, driving the sales force to bring sales forward for the month and hiring two new people for the admin area.

We looked at each other. Judy was frowning, probably trying to picture herself in a life up here in the hills.

We laughed shakily. Something unknowable and possibly threatening loomed ahead of us.

Was it about retirement? Was it about life in the country?

Accustomed as we both were to a rapid-fire corporate life, driven by ego and performance goals, could we possibly be fed by a rural life? Could we find meaning here in the countryside?

What on earth were we doing?!

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