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A family tracks down outback memories

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When my children were little we traveled extensively. Living in Melbourne, Australia, and Tokyo for seven years gave us the opportunity for some glorious globe trotting. As we toured, traversed and trekked through Tahiti, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Bali and Nepal, my husband, Earl, and I developed a few basic rules to make traveling with kids easier:

Temple tours bring on temple tantrums. Seek out live entertainment. Snake farms and aquariums are always good.

Feed and water them every two hours. Sunflower seeds and a soft drink in a bag count as a snack.

Beware of places that contain the words "coral beach." It sounds romantic, but the brochures don't mention bleeding feet.

Our return to the U.S. in 1990 ended those exotic escapades. I was happy to put away my passport and concentrate on learning about Los Angeles, for me another foreign assignment. But 1994 was a big year: I turned 50, Earl turned 60 and we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Attention must be paid to such milestones, but neither of us wanted to throw a gala that would be over quickly and just as quickly forgotten.

"I know," Earl said finally. "Let's go to Australia and take that camping trip through the outback," referring to an epic journey we had planned with our Melbourne friends in 1984. They had made the journey; we had not. For 10 years, the names of the old cattle tracks and the towns that grew up alongside them had ricocheted through my imagination with the cadence of a train conductor calling out stations: Milparinka, Maree, Innamincka, Oodnadatta. The names conjured up romance, adventure and challenge. This was our chance to fulfill a dream. Should we invite the children to join us? Yes. Would they want to come? No.

I call them children, but in 1994 Matthew and Stephen hadn't been children for a long time. At 20 and 16 respectively, they were no longer easy to coax along on family trips. How do you convince two independent California kids that the most fun in the world would be to join their parents on a family vacation? Promise them they can drive. And when the driving is to be done over unpaved roads, dry creek beds and sand dunes in a Toyota Land Cruiser, it's an easy sell.

As it turned out, we needed Matt and Steve for more than driving. Packing and unpacking the Land Cruiser and putting up the tent each night would have taken three times as long without them. By the end of the two-week trip, they could get us settled down for the night in 20 minutes. But it didn't start out that way.

"Are we having fun yet?" Matt asked as we struggled to put up the tent in a campground at our first stop in Broken Hill, New South Wales. The sun was setting, a blend of pink, blue and white. Baby colors. My 6-foot-2 babies were struggling with the canvas and with each other. (An argument between brothers about the best way to do things and who is or is not a jerk is no respecter of place.) Adding to our tension were several Australian families who had settled into their camp chairs to watch the greenhorn Yanks. What had seemed easy during our practice run in a Melbourne backyard was suddenly complicated.

Sproiinng. One of the aluminum poles snapped back and hit me across the mouth. My teeth survived, and so did we.

Exhausted by our efforts, we were inside the tent and ready for bed at 7 p.m. We hadn't shared a room with the boys in 10 years, and I wasn't sure how it would work with four sleeping bags packed into a tent the size of a walk-in closet. But the kids let me know.

"This stinks," Matt, a college sophomore, said as soon as we got settled. "I've been away from you guys for a whole year, and now I have to spend every waking and sleeping moment with you."

Taking a back seat

It was a long night. When dawn finally came we had two disgruntled boys on our hands.

"This has been the worst night of my life," Steve grumbled from the depths of his sleeping bag. "Every time someone got up, I got stepped on."

Earl and I realized we had to act fast to salvage the trip.

"Let them drive," I said as we packed up after breakfast.

And so, when we left Broken Hill, Matt was driving and Steve was navigating. From our vantage point in the back seat, Earl and I watched as the boys took turns driving across plains made of rough and broken bits of rock that glistened like diamonds but were as sharp as nails. They outran kangaroos doing 60, played chicken with a flock of pink and white cockatoos in the middle of the road, kept pace with a dingo until it peeled off across the red desert and drove around the bleached kangaroo skeletons and rusted car wrecks.

No temples on this trip. Instead we saw ruins of fettlers' cottages (fettlers were railway workers), abandoned homesteads and the half-restored building used for the biannual Curdimurka Outback Ball.

"Can koalas walk?" Steve asked one day when we passed a sign that said "Koalas. Next 11 km."

I didn't know the answer to that, but I did know that kangaroos and emus cannot walk backward.

Throughout this trip I found myself walking backward through time, to when we lived in Melbourne and I was 10 years younger and 15 pounds lighter and the boys were little. Images from those years did a slow cross-fade into the present. I had mixed feelings as I watched my sons in control of the car and knew that they were, at this point, also in control of their lives. Earl and I had literally and figuratively taken a back seat.

Through the rear windows we watched the scene as we drove the Strezlecki, Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks, all established by aborigines and later used as cattle routes. Part of the way we followed the path of the old Ghan, the train that, until the late 1970s, ran from Port Augusta just outside Adelaide to Alice Springs. The train was named for the Afghan traders who used camels to move supplies between the towns and outback stations in the '20s and '30s.

Seeing the changes

Vegetation in the outback changed subtly but constantly. There were no clear-cut breaks. Clumps of yellowish-green spinifex, gray-green mulga shrubs and dry riverbeds lined with eucalyptus trees were interwoven across the sandy plains.

Colors were muted in the early morning, and at night the pink of the sky deepened into an orange that matched the color of the land. A cayenne-colored dust covered everything, inside the car and out.

Remembering one of our cardinal rules when the boys were younger -- factor in regular snack breaks -- we always stopped for smoko, as the Australians call the morning coffee break. At Cameron's Corner, an isolated point where South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales meet, the cafe and gas station were the only buildings, and we were the only non-locals. "They're staring at us," Steve, my self-conscious teen, whispered as we walked into the cafe.

After we had ordered our biscuits with rosella wild berry jam and a homemade meat pie, the owner pointed to Steve's Metallica T-shirt. "That's not heavy metal," he said, handing Steve a knife and fork. "This is heavy metal."

After four nights in the tent, we were desperate for a bed. We pulled into Innamincka ("You're either Innamincka or Outa-mincka," the welcoming sign said) and decided to book a room in the town's only hotel and replenish our supplies at the town's only general store.

"Sorry," we were told. "No rooms till Tuesday and no eggs till Thursday."

That night, outside Innamincka, we found the best camping spot of the trip. We pitched the tent along Cooper's Creek, a running stream, unlike the dry creek beds we had forded for five days. The smell of the eucalyptus trees was heavy in the damp dusk. The night softened, and so did our moods. We built a fire, toasted marshmallows and drank cocoa. Matt played his guitar. Earl and I talked about our own childhood and reminisced about Matt and Steve growing up, laughing at the memories that make up a family's mythology and history.

"I hope this is what they remember when they look back on this trip," I said to Earl as we put out the fire and climbed into our sleeping bags.

Four days later we found ourselves in Coober Pedy, an opal mining town in South Australia, set in a landscape so lunar that it is often used for filming moviesof the post-apocalypse world. Lunch at the town's Swiss Bistro was decidedly upscale compared with the camp cuisine we were used to.

"How'd they get garbanzos way out here?" Steve asked as he picked the little yellow balls out of his salad.

We were back in civilization. We had hit the bitumen with mixed feelings. We had boiled the billy and slept in a swag. And learned that, yes, koalas do walk.

We had added memories to our family album, and I had managed to hold on to my children for another brief moment.

Catherine Gandel is the author of "Jon Jerde in Japan: Designing the Spaces Between."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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