Tag Archives: Great Ocean Road

Duetting: Memoir 45

Duetting: Memoir 45 Robin Botie of ithaca, New York, photoshops apicture of her daughter who died of cancer on Bells Beach in Australia.

“Why would you want to go THERE?” ask two stewardesses on my flight from Sydney to Melbourne, when I question them about transportation to Geelong, the gateway city for my next destination, the Great Ocean Road.
“To scatter my daughter’s ashes,” I gush out, in tears, overwhelmed by the first bit of interest anyone has shown in me since I got to Australia. I’m also a little terrified, having no plan for getting from the Melbourne airport to Geelong to the tiny town of Torquay where I have booked a room. This is not how I like to do things, not knowing what’s next.

From the airplane to the Melbourne shuttle, two train rides, two buses, and long walks dragging my rolling luggage behind, I am making my way, inch by inch, with direction-seeking and extended waits between each step. It takes all day to get from Sydney to the remote town of Torquay on Australia’s southeast coast. This second part of my journey is filled with questions no one back home could answer. Marika’s friend Carla would only tell me the Great Ocean Road must be discovered for oneself.        

The first I’d ever heard of the Great Ocean Road was in April 2010 when, in the middle of her trip, Marika had phoned. Overjoyed to hear her voice, I was caught off guard. I thought she was homesick. I should have known better. She was calling to ask for extra money. To rent a car for a trip along the Great Ocean Road. It was “what everyone does on holiday from Melbourne.” I told her, No. So she and Carla took a bus.         

Now here I am, two years after Marika’s trip, on a V-Line regional public bus, racing along a two-lane winding road that hugs a corner of Australia’s dramatic southeastern shoreline. The road ties together one hundred fifty miles of remote coastal towns and popular resorts. Prime surfing territory. I can’t take my eyes off the teasing blue sea which one minute seems ahead of me, just beyond a stretch of beach, then disappears and is suddenly smack below as we speed along atop high cliffs. We wind by rocky gorges, rolling foothills, secluded bays, and shipwreck coasts with towering limestone formations. Built as a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I by the returning soldiers, and later the jobless of the Great Depression, the Great Ocean Road is one of Australia’s National Heritage Sites. Tour buses from Melbourne regularly run its length, stopping at the most dramatic spots, the stunning seascapes in Marika’s photos.

Finally arriving in Torquay at the east end of the road, in a new motel room I reconstruct the altar of photos, chocolates, and stuffed Puppy, around the box of ashes. Then, wanting to locate the trailhead before dark for the next morning’s mission of ash-scattering on Bells Beach, I question the motel’s friendly bartender. No one else is around at that moment. So he closes up shop and leads me to his car. I hop in. He’s not really a stranger, I tell myself. But I sit poised for escape anyway. He drives a short distance down a deserted road.

“Yer sure ya want to walk all the way from the motel ‘n the morning?” he asks, regarding me like I’m crazy. “It’s a long way.” I don’t want to look at him. What am I doing in this bartender’s car anyway? He keeps driving.

“Nine kilometers, that’s only like six miles. Not much elevation change. Why not?” I say with a rising cloud of doubt. He shakes his head. I must look old to him, this kid running the whole show here. A hotel, motel, gaming room, bar and bistro, all in one, the Torquay Hotel Motel is the liveliest place in this little town. Everyone including this bar-boy seems to be Marika’s age, maybe younger. “I can walk back from here, thanks,” I say once we reach the trailhead. My sense of direction flustered, I ask him, “Which way back to the motel?” just to be sure.

Back at the bar and bistro later, I borrow a knife to open the sealed box of ashes, to let Marika breathe. And to make sure I won’t be stuck way out on the beach the next day, unable to open her box without tools. It is my first time meeting her ashes. With held breath and quivering hands, I pry gently at the box. It opens easily, like she’s pushing the lid from inside. She’s a trillion tiny shards, like cool white sand on a beach at sunset. In a plastic bag. In a bewildering way she’s still beautiful. I stare at her. At what’s left.

“The internet’s crashed,” says the Hotel Motel bartender when I seek him out once more, to get online. “I’m sorry. This never happens. I’ll refund some of your money.”
“No, that’s okay,” I say, thinking I may have killed the Internet connection myself. I’d tried to google “how to scatter ashes” and the little iPad went blank. Connection disappeared. It went the way of my family and friends all during the past year whenever I’d mentioned anything about Marika or ashes. Or death.

I didn’t have much faith I could learn efficient tossing techniques online anyway. I’d simply have to stand with my back to the wind and wing it. Tossing ashes. Flinging ashes. Ashes are typically “scattered” or “spread” if not kept forever in an urn on the mantle until someday some distant young relative has to figure out what to do with them. Marika had requested her remains be “scattered in Australia, if possible,” which gives me a lot of leeway. Spreading means smearing, like what one does with peanut butter or sunblock. So I’m glad she specified scattering. It gives me more a picture of sprinkling small amounts. Either way implies a distribution over a large area or several areas, broadcasting here and there, as opposed to just dumping it all in one place. And Australia is a vast continent, almost as big as the US. Early on I decided to leave ashes in the places I knew from her photos that she’d been happy.

The next morning, I load Marika’s Ithaca Track and Field drawstring backpack with water bottles, a peanut butter and plum sandwich, and chocolate bars I’d hunted and gathered from the local grocery the evening before. I add maps, Marika’s stuffed Puppy curled into her baseball cap, and the ashes. But when I put the pack on, the box of ashes chafes at my back, giving me visions of Crusaders with heavy crosses gouging deep gashes across their backs and shoulders. I take the bag of ashes, maybe six pounds, out of the black box and gently stuff it back into the pack, leaving the box behind. With a full, heavy backpack I step out the door to a blinding sun. Quickly the bag of ashes settles into a rounded rump shape that bumps behind me as I walk a few hesitant test-steps around the parked cars. I imagine I’m carrying a life-sized Marika piggyback style. I can almost feel the swish of her heels swinging by my knees.

“Mom. Let’s go.” She kicks and nudges me in the direction of the trail. And so we’re off to Bells Beach. A long walk with a lot of weight, but all I need to do is keep on the right trail and be wary of the high tide at four-thirty the bartender had told me about.
“Oh, I’ll be done way before then,” I’d responded. Then he’d warned me to watch for the occasional big rogue wave, and I’d stifled a gulp.

Now, tall dark Norfolk pines line the beaches I pass. A long boardwalk over shallow water bounces under me as I tread the moist planks. When I reach solid ground, the landscape changes rapidly. Forest turns into scrub, and then into sandy coastline. Soon the path climbs. It becomes gravelly beneath sky that is dauntingly blue and forever. Under the hot sun, I lumber over rocks and cliffs, along crunchy red-sand footpaths, and through heathlands. Grasses, scattered trees, birds flickering in low woody bushes. Scrubland. The Surf Coast Walk twists and breaks off occasionally for lookouts. I whisper nervously to Marika’s ashes each time the trail splits. When it hangs over the shore, visions of falling from crumbling cliffs crash in my head. And I assure her—her ashes—we’re okay.

There are surfers out in the distance. A dog sits in the teeming shallows waiting for its owner. So much of surfing is waiting. You wait to be in the right place at the right time, wait for the right wave, and then fly with it. Hold on when you’re tossed, keep on top, re-find your footing when it’s lost, and then go the distance. As far as you can. And scramble back up again when you get dumped. And wait some more. It reminds me of living with cancer. Am I a cancer survivor, I wonder? Marika got wiped out by cancer, but I survived. Watching the surfers, I wonder how they don’t get completely mauled in the crashing waters.

Three hours later, I climb down several sets of wooden stairs and stare at Bells Beach, the exact spot in the photo. The photo where Marika stands smiling, holding her arms out like she’s hugging the world. Only it’s an empty landscape before me now. It’s supposed to have her centered in front of the jutting point, arms lifted outward. Glued to the spot, sweating, I wait like I’m expecting to be met by her ghost.

An Asian tourist, bogged down with heavy cameras, passes by after a while and I give him my borrowed, pocket-sized point-and-shoot to take my picture in Marika’s place as I try to duplicate her pose. When the tourist is done and walks off, I am left alone on the beach. A kick at my back tells me Marika wants out of the bag, so I remove it from my pack, open its twist tie and inch closer to the water. Fears of waves and the incoming tide clash with the realization that I need to wade into the water to release the ashes. This is what I came all this way for, I tell myself. I can’t just spill Marika’s ashes onto the sand. So I kick off my sneakers, roll up my pant-legs, and cautiously slip into the seething surf. In knee-deep water the waves barrel into my body, soaking me almost to my waist. I brace myself against the poundings and try to ignore the stirrings in my head, “Don’t go out too far” and “Never swim alone.”










Facing Fears and Getting Gutsy

Facing Fears and Getting Gutsy Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops images of herself and her daughter who died, Marika Warden, on Bells Beach off the Great Ocean Road in southeast Australia.To get gutsy is to do something you never thought you could do, something positive and adventurous, that makes others wince in wonder that you dared to try.

In April 2012, I went alone to Australia to scatter my daughter’s ashes.

During the three years before, trailing Marika through the wilds of cancer, I was not afraid she would die. But I was afraid of almost everything else. Being alone, getting lost, falling, drowning. Losing control. Marika was fearless. To keep up with her I told myself I was too. I pretended we were on a road trip: there would be easy times and hard times but we were together and it wouldn’t last forever.
Then, shortly before she was to turn twenty-one, she died. The ground beneath me broke. I was alone, lost, and drowning.

I brought home the sealed black box of her ashes from the funeral home and built a small altar around it in the living room. I wished her goodnight and good morning each day. Her ashes were not just dust. The ashes were her, humming and dancing inside the box, watching me come and go.
In her final wishes she’d requested that her ashes be scattered in Australia.

It was not the trip I’d imagined. I’d thought to make it a family pilgrimage but my mother couldn’t go. None of Marika’s Australian friends answered my emails. And at the last minute my sister cancelled out. But taking Marika’s ashes to Australia was the last thing I could do for her. So a year after she died I stuffed the sealed box of her ashes in my carry-on bag and flew off.

I hugged the box through plane rides, airport security checks, customs, bus and train rides, and long walks to find lodgings. At dusk, in a small motel just off the Great Ocean Road, along the southeast coast of Australia, I met her ashes for the first time. With held breath and quivering hands, I pried gently at the box. It opened easily, like she was pushing the lid from inside.
She was a trillion tiny shards like pink-white sand on a beach at sunset. In a plastic bag. She was still beautiful.

The photograph on the altars I set up shows a smiling Marika on Bells Beach, holding her arms out like she’s hugging the world. The first morning on the Great Ocean Road, I held the photo as I turned from the winding street to follow the trail to that beach. Under a hot sun I lumbered over rocks and cliffs, along gravelly red footpaths, on deserted beaches and through heathlands, always close to the shore if not hanging right over it. Visions of falling from crumbling cliffs crashed in my head. I whispered nervously to the bag of ashes in my backpack each time the trail split. And hours later I climbed down huge sets of stairs and stared at Bells Beach, the exact spot in the photo. Only it was an empty haunted landscape that was supposed to have Marika centered in front of the jutting point, arms lifted skyward. Glued to that spot, sweating, I waited like I was expecting to be met by her ghost.

Finally I removed the bag of ashes from my pack and inched closer to the water. Fears of the incoming tide and the rogue waves I’d been warned about clashed with the realization that I had to wade into the water to release the ashes. I couldn’t just dump them into the sand. So I took off my sneakers and cautiously slipped into the seething surf. In knee-deep water the waves barreled into me drenching my pants. Bracing myself against the poundings, I tried to ignore the stirring in my head, “Never swim alone.”

I dipped into the bag. The ashes were gritty. They swirled and danced out of my chalky hand, away with the wind, making small smears on the water’s surface. I slogged through the water. Waves crashed at my thighs and washed back out to sea dragging the sand from my grasping toes. I watched Marika’s ashes disintegrate as they rocked and receded with the waves. Then BAM! I was hit with a rogue wave. It sprayed my face and soaked me to my armpits. Catching my breath, I looked around. No one was nearby. If I drowned or was swept away I would never be found. Hugging the diminished bag close to my pounding heart, I retreated to the dry sand.
For four days I spread my daughter’s ashes. Until at last I turned the bag upside down and shook it empty. It made flapping sounds like a bird taking off.

Seagulls squawked and whined. I sat frozen on a wharf. Small brown birds surrounding me stared and waited. And from someplace inside me faint tremors churned. I rocked. Back and forth over the water, hugging myself. The water’s rippled surface caught the sun and exploded in my face. I closed my eyes on tears. Inside it was bright red, like fire.

And maybe the gutsiest thing, the thing I never thought I could do that makes people wince, is what I began sometime after I returned home from Australia. It was a way to make all the colorless days, sleepless nights, and long years ahead into something positively adventurous. I decided to treat the rest of my life like I’m on another road trip: easy times, hard times, it won’t last forever. My daughter’s spirit, that I hold close, coaxes me to live boldly. And I tell others whose loved ones died, they don’t have to let go. That they can hold on forever to the memories, the love, the voices of the ones they thought they lost.

Now, when someone tells me, “It’s time to get over it,” with my gutsiest grin I say, “Never.”

Getting gutsy is all about stepping outside your comfort zone to reach your goals and live a life that makes you truly happy. This post is my entry for Jessica Lawlor’s Get Gutsy Essay Contest. To get involved and share your own gutsy story, check out this post for contest details and download a free copy of the inspiring Get Gutsy ebook.