Working on a million-acre cattle station—with one homestead in the middle for twenty or so people—lends perspective.
First, there is the open land, the immense vacancy of human life. Within a hundred meters in any direction, only the tweeting chatter of birds or the brush of dry grass can be heard. Sharp hills—not mountains—poke into the horizon, and the sun casts the most intricate tangles of shadow between trees. Weekday musters are insane and chaotic, but on the weekend, the lazy-flowing river behind the homestead sets a tempo as serene as anywhere I’ve ever been.
More important for me, though, my early experiences in Australia proved to me how incredibly unskilled I really am. In this arena, one must own a wide breadth of skills or he or she will perish. Our homestead was positioned a hundred kilometers or more from another human and hours from the nearest town. Mail came in by plane. For firewood, we felled a tree, and if a new roof was needed, we grabbed a ladder and a hammer.
If your car breaks down in Raleigh, North Carolina, you call AAA; if your car breaks down in the outback of Western Australia, you grab a can of Emu Export Lager and a ratchet set, pop the hood, and start fiddling.
Ben Mills is twenty-one, and he can do a hundred things I can’t. He’s a mechanic, a welder, and a builder. He drives a tractor-trailer rig, a Bobcat, a Ditch Witch, a loader, and any other piece of construction equipment with wheels. He painted the helicopter. The one that he flies for the mustering season. Ben feeds the cattle in the yard, a job that would take me twenty-plus minutes, in less than four, and he can raise a fence faster than a washed-up actor can accept an invitation from Dancing With the Stars. He came just short of a career as a professional motocross racer, and he can roll a micky—a young wild bull—from his bike. Confident as he is knowledgeable, he makes deals with the buyers coming in from Port Hedland and Broome. He uses words like indiscriminately and subvert in normal conversation. He reports the riveting stories of his life with fancy phraseology like “I grabbed four gears straightaway” to describe a speedy escape from a scene. He can put a round in the hump of a camel from three hundred meters away, and when he goes fishing, he comes home with dinner for the whole family. When something breaks, I leave it (“It still works, you just need a third hand in the mix to hold that lever in place”), while Ben takes it apart, hooks a quick sip of his beer, and puts the unit back together again.
I’m pretty sure that when the prime minister of Australia presses the red panic button, Ben’s cell phone rings.
Me? I’m proud to know Ben. I listen and watch carefully, happy to learn from him and guys like him. But it stings a little to realize how little I bring to the table on the ranch. Standing next to him, I sometimes felt pretty worthless. Back home I have a degree in business, even if eight of my neighbors do, as well. Colleagues ask me questions, and whether they take action or not, they at least nod and say, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. That’s interesting.” I work, and my work carries at least some weight. I get occasional handshakes and e-mails after jobs well done. You may have me in darts and foosball, but I’ve got you in H-O-R-S-E and rummy, and, win or lose, I can take you the distance in tennis.
I matter a little back home.
But Australia brought me back down to Earth. Life at Warrawagine was humbling. I truly believe that the cattle operation would have run smoother if Ivana and I hadn’t shown up for those two months. I struggle to recall anything positive coming from our hands while employed in Australia, save a couple of extra-shiny toilets, some mended fences, and Ivana’s luscious apple pie—a dessert that can give even the grouchiest twit a half chub. Other than that, we just broke shit and stood idly by, feeling useless as we waited for instructions. I remember one day, while traveling in the rumbling buggy behind a mob of cattle as dust swirled into our eyes, I turned to Ivana and remarked, “Literally, if we were not here right now, if we just disappeared—poof!—I don’t think anyone would say anything until they saw our empty placemats at the dinner table.”
Imagine that. Imagine showing up with fifty levels of enthusiasm yet being so perfectly useless that when your superior looks at you, his first immediate thought is, “What easy job can I give you so that you won’t be in our way?”