Breaking Down in Australia
“I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
and see what there is to see”
—Jack Johnson in “Breakdown”
The inevitable backpacker van event has occurred to me: The Breakdown. It couldn’t have occurred at a much worse time than it did, late in the evening the day before I was supposed to start a long-awaited harvest gig early the next morning. But then the location was actually quite convenient. I’ve heard tales of backpacker vans melting down in the far remote outback, with no services for hundreds of kilometers. I happened to break down in the middle of suburbia.
This wasn’t the typical garden-variety breakdown either. This was what’s called the “catastrophic breakdown”. Upon inspection by a mechanic, it turns out the timing belt in the engine broke and warped the engine cylinders. Before this happened, I didn’t even know what a timing belt was, let alone its importance in an engine. It turns out, though, that the timing belt is the piece of equipment that keeps the engine’s moving parts in sync. A broken timing belt equals moving engine parts clanging against each other. It also equals a $3,000 charge for replacing the engine.
But when the timing belt snapped and Frank’s engine turned its last, we were quite fortunate to be on the busiest commercial highway along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Using Frank’s momentum, I managed to steer off the main road into a 7-11 parking lot. There I found myself ‘stranded’. Without my own set of wheels I was limited to where I could walk on foot—or to travel with the extensive bus transit network. Though I was without a vehicle, everything I needed was within walking distance on that main street—coffee shops, grocers, convenience stores, parks, car rentals, hostels, surf shops, furniture outlets, rug stores—and much more. I was even about a kilometer away from the repair shop (though I still needed the tow).
A long-time favorite musician of mine, Jack Johnson, holds a rather romantic notion of breakdowns, singing about taking the opportunity to get out and explore the world on foot instead of in high speed transit. But I’m doubtful Jack Johnson was daydreaming about breaking down in the midst of California-style suburban sprawl. Getting stranded nearly halfway between two of the Sunshine Coast’s major beach cities, the landscape has developed into a suburban dream of strip malls and Aussie big box stores that punctuate endless tracts of brick-fenced single-family homes. Not to mention that the wide, high traffic capacity streets and discontinuous sidewalks make pedestrian touring exceedingly difficult.
Personally, rather than looking at the opportunity for adventure that a breakdown affords (as I was more inclined to do when I was younger and broken down with friends), I more often view breakdowns as a hindrance. True, I’ve been through the stranded-from-car-trouble game a few times before. This resume of mine includes getting stuck in the ditch twice (in two different vehicles), and getting stranded after mechanical failure twice more (in an additional two different vehicles). In fact, on a long road trip I usually anticipate such car trouble to occur—and I’ll feel like I missed out on something if nothing goes wrong on a long trip.
Whether seen as a hindrance or opportunity, the breakdown does have its way of (forcibly) taking you off your own well-planned schedule and creating a new experience for you. Thus, when you face the inevitable breakdowns in life, do you dwell on the costs and inconveniences of the situation? Or do you use it as a path towards something you likely wouldn’t have done otherwise?
As far as Frank breaking down goes, it’s a mixture of both. No longer able to camp in my van while it’s in the repair shop, I had to take the only affordable and available accommodation I could find in a resort community during peak season. Sure my temporary accommodation’s among the lousiest of hostels I’ve ever stayed in, but I’ve gotten to meet many more people than I would have if I stuck to my van. And sure, the section of town I’m staying in now feels like Los Angeles sprawl, but there are many unique local eateries and enterprises hidden amongst the strip malls and traffic-clogged streets. I wouldn’t have noticed these things if I had merely driven through as a passerby. In the end, I’ll get to know a new area of Australia more intimately via foot. Plus, I’ll have walking access to some beautiful surf beaches every day after work.
Listen to “Breakdown” by Jack Johnson here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4O7ufx9D_s