She had come all the way to Australia in a quest of herself. Traveling seemed to soothe her and give her purpose. Maybe starting from scratch over and over again was her thing, she thought. She found it exciting to reinvent herself, to start a new life that had no boundaries. Stressful, but exciting. Eventually the excitement would fade, the new life would have nothing more to offer and so she would move on again. It seemed easier this way. Some would see it as a perpetual escape but she felt free.
On the plane to Tasmania, she wondered what it was that pushed her even further. She was already so far from home in Sydney. What was she hoping to find in Tasmania? The appeal she felt for rugged nature was strong and inexplicable. What answer was she expecting from this leap into wilderness?
When Montana set foot in Tasmania, she was ready to walk the Overland Track on her own, with a copy of Wild in her backpack. After all, Cheryl Strayed had walked the Pacific Trail without any training. The Overland Track was far from being as challenging but she would still have to push herself and that’s what she was after. She wanted to experience the feelings of tiredness and loneliness and learn to overcome them.
Her parents had never taken her abroad when she was young and her childhood had been quite dull. Nothing she could complain about, only she couldn’t remember being a joyful kid. They had called her Montana because they dreamed of American wild plains. They had never been, but she liked to think it was their way of inspiring her to travel. So many times she was mocked at for having an unusual name as a kid. Today though, she couldn’t be bothered to even think about it anymore. She was in Tasmania, becoming someone else. Excited to start the track the next day, Montana packed and went to bed early that night, thinking of all the adventures she would experience on this trip. She was hungry for thrills, desperate to feel alive.
The next morning, she enjoyed some homemade granola that she had baked for the trip. She had suspected that despite her willingness to walk the track, she might sometimes feel lonely and she thought satisfying food might bring her comfort.
Once at the starting point of the track, she was overcome by anxiety, as if her life depended on this walk. She had set this challenge for herself and now she couldn’t afford to fail. Failing would mean going back to zero and at this point all she wanted was to move forward. She would walk her way to a new beginning, no matter what it took.
The first few hours of the track were as hard as she thought it would be. Already, she could feel the blisters forming on her heels and her shoulders getting soar, and yet it felt satisfying. While the pain was bringing her body back to life, she was focused on the smell of native plants and the sound of the wind. Surrounded by nothing but nature, she could finally breathe. The fresh air flowing through her lungs was carrying hope and aspiration.
In the warm mid afternoon light, she spotted him on the side of the track, apparently taking a nap. Or was he? She grew worried thinking he might actually be injured or ill. As she approached and asked if he was alright, she heard him snore and immediately felt a fool for disturbing him while he was just trying to rest. She tried to back off but Joe opened his eyes and smiled to her, showing no sign of surprise. “I’m fine, thanks for checking on me,” he said as he climbed to his feet. “I got tired and I don’t really have any camping gear so I usually just lie down on the grass. I’m Joe by the way” thrusting his hand out to shake her hand. They chatted and ended up laughing about the incongruity of the encounter.
They spent the next few days walking together. Rising early, they would prepare breakfast hastily in the dark and eat while watching the sunrise. They had in common that they needed time in the morning to gather their thoughts and they both enjoyed grasping the beauty of nature in silence. Only when finished eating, with the sun showing entirely would they start conversing, making jokes and laughing.
Joe wouldn’t say much about himself. He was better at listening and wouldn’t deliberately confide in her. Montana was under the impression that he was born mysterious so she didn’t push him.
Their relationship grew surprisingly fast in a few days, although it would never get physical. Every night, Joe had insisted on sleeping on the grass, leaving Montana enjoy her two person tent. He had started his exploration of Tasmania this way and seemed to be committed to it. Montana didn’t insist even if she would have loved to snuggle into his arms. She barely knew him but he gave off a sense of safeness that she found attractive. He wasn’t much older than her, maybe a couple years or so, but he seemed so confident in his masculinity that she kept forgetting he was just a young man. She hadn’t come all the way to Tasmania to find love and still, she could see herself falling for him. That said, her charm seemed to have no effect on him, and that was probably for the best.
They arrived at Lake Saint Clair after six days on the track and decided to go around the lake rather than to take the ferry across. It was an extra day of walking, but what was the rush after all? They had had a great time on the track and they both seemed to want it to last a bit longer.
The view of the lake was breathtaking. It was so peaceful that Montana felt moved. She also felt nostalgic thinking about when Joe and her would have to say goodbye. She had this bad habit of feeling nostalgic for times that didn’t belong to the past yet. She was here, sharing a nice and unique moment with him, but instead of embracing it, she was suffering at the idea that this moment would be over soon.
“What about we have dinner somewhere tonight to celebrate the end of the walk?” she said all at once without catching her breath. She had been thinking about it for a while but did not have the guts to ask. After a long moment of silence, all he answered was “Oh I don’t know…”. She had been prepared for him to decline the offer but she definitely hadn’t expected this kind of confusing answer. What was there to know? She felt angry and sad at the same time. If he didn’t want to have dinner with her, he could say it out loud, she would take the hit.
“Forget about it, I shouldn’t have asked”
“Because clearly you’re embarrassed and you want to say no”
“I would love to have dinner with you, don’t get me wrong. It’s just… It’s just that…”
“That you have a girlfriend?”
She saw him become tensed instantaneously. As she looked at him, she realized she shouldn’t have been so abrupt. Not only his mood had changed suddenly but his physical aspect too. His sweet traits had faded and now his face looked worried and old. During the walk she had never seen him get angry or even frustrated. It was the first time he showed such strong emotions and it disturbed her, as if she was watching him getting undressed. They stayed silent for a few minutes, the tension hanging in the air. His personal life was clearly a subject to avoid, at least she knew that now.
Once they reached the closest town, Montana took a deep breath and gave Joe a second chance. “I think the local pub is the only option around here. Maybe a beer would do us good? It’s on me.”
“Sure, but I cannot stay for too long.”
Satisfied that Joe finally agreed on giving this trip a nice closure, she smiled and said: “No worries, I always drink fast anyway.”
The pub was packed with locals who seemed to claim it as their second home. There wasn’t much entertainment around so the pub was everyone’s hideaway.
After a few sips, Joe seemed to relax and apologized for being confusing sometimes. The relationship they had developed meant a lot to him, and he wanted her to know this. Montana could not have been happier to hear these words coming from Joe’s mouth. He was acknowledging their connection; it wasn’t just a fantasy of hers.
“You do drink fast!” Joe exclaimed. As he got up and went to the counter to ask for a second round, Montana saw two policemen entering the pub. In a matter of seconds, she watched as Joe froze and the policemen walked towards him. The three of them exchanged a few words and even though she couldn’t hear what was being said, she could sense that something was wrong. When Joe was forced to lie down flat, handcuffed and taken out of the pub into the police car, her heart stopped. It made no sense. The scene seemed unreal and couldn’t be real. She wanted to yell that there was a mistake; they had gotten the wrong person! The Joe she knew wouldn’t do anything wrong but her wide-open mouth wouldn’t emit a sound. Just a moment before they were having a nice conversation and now Joe and the cops were gone and she was standing there in shock, all eyes on her.
That night, alone in her hotel room, Montana was close to madness. She obviously didn’t know this man. He could be a murderer for all she knew. Or maybe it was all just a mistake? It had to be. The time they had together was too pure and beautiful to be a lie. She was angry, sad, and tired of overthinking. She tried to find him a thousand excuses. After all she had lied to him about who she was too. She was just pretending to be this adventurous, fearless girl who could achieve anything on her own while her mind was full of terrors. Her thoughts were confused, she felt overwhelmed and exhausted. Tomorrow would be a brand new day. She would go visit him at the police station and try to make sense of this situation. She fell asleep thinking that surely Joe would have an explanation.
She woke up suddenly at dawn, the same way she would after a powerful nightmare. Anxious but eager to find out the truth, she hurried to the police station and requested to see Joe. When asked who she was, it took her a few seconds to come up with an answer. “I’m a good friend of his” sounded like the right thing to say.
She waited in the lobby for the policeman to go get Joe. When he appeared, she realized she hadn’t thought of what she would say. She wanted answers, but she had no idea how to formulate her questions. Apparently he had anticipated her shock and as he got close to her, he hugged her and muttered, “I’ll tell you the whole story.” She could hear the raw emotion in his voice.
They spent the few next hours at the police station, talking and crying over what had happened. Back in Sydney, his girlfriend suffered from depression and in spite of his support, one day she couldn’t take it anymore. Life was too heavy on her shoulders; she wanted to get rid of the pain. When he woke up one morning and realized she wasn’t by his side, he rushed to the only place she could have been, the shear sandstone cliffs near the entrance to the harbour that plummet into the raging sea below. She was standing on the wrong side of the fence, standing up still, looking at the horizon. It wasn’t the first time, and every time, he would rescue her and she would promise not to do it again. This time, as he was helping her climb back on the right side of the fence, she slipped. He held his hand as tight as he could but she wasn’t holding back. He realized she was letting herself slip. He saw in her eyes that she had given up, that this time she didn’t want to be rescued. He would never forget the touch of her hand nor the vision of her body washed by the waves. “Maybe I should have jumped with her” he said, his eyes lost in the distance.
Desperate, he had run away even though he knew the police would suspect him. He felt so horrified he didn’t want to have to justify himself to the police, because she deserved to be mourned with respect. They had planned to go to Tasmania together so he would go for her. “That’s how I ended up on this track and met you. You look like her you know.”
Montana still hadn’t said a word. She didn’t know what to say, as no words would heal his pain, no words would bring her back, no words would undo what had happened.
“I’ll be by your side when they set you free” was the only thing she could articulate. “Because that’s what friends are for,” she said. “And because I love you” she thought.