As I drive down Selkirk road for the first time in months, the thing that strikes me most is the number of cattle I see; on both sides of the road grazing cows and bulls are scattered, the houses of their owners in view some distance away, deeper into the paddocks behind the gum trees and fences. Several neighbours’ horses still look familiar to me as I pass them. A bay mare I’ve watched age over the years throws its head into the sky as it pulls at a clump of grass embedded in the earth beneath a fence post.
I am overcome by an urgency I always feel whenever I return here from the city. The clean air seems to enter my body almost immediately as I make the turn off Donnybrook Road, transporting me back to another time when this was the entirety of the world, when the world itself was wide and simple, and adulthood seemed a lifetime away. The sight of the horses especially moves me. In the rearview mirror, I notice a foal I haven’t seen before following its mother across the paddock floor.
Woodstock is no longer what one would stereotypically think of as a country town, at least not the kind I grew up in. It is a strange experience to leave the freeway and drive until you see the paddocks and livestock surrounding you and feel you’ve crossed some kind of border, stepping over a line in the earth where life becomes both familiar and new.
Horses, cattle and sheep are still visible in the distance from every direction on our road, a capsule of forgotten time around which the city has been steadily encroaching. I remember fearing this as a teenager, when I noticed the paddocks disappearing and housing estates emerging across the landscape, leaving this small part of the earth that still remains as it always was, surrounded.
As I pull my Ford into the property past the contorted gate and old milk letterbox, I notice the gumtrees and overgrown bushes along the fence line and the raised earth around the dam in the first paddock. No horses in that one now. A shed still stands at the far edge, as in every yard on the farm, a place where the horses can eat and seek shelter from the rain and wind and sleep in the dirt underneath the tin roof.
I am home for the annual rodeo taking place in Whittlesea the following day, and it is clear the world has moved faster than I have in making the journey here. Everything on the farm seems to be still, but only temporarily; there’s an unmistakable feeling of change.
This sense of change does not only come from the land but from a place within me I can barely comprehend. There is a calmness in me that feels unfamiliar. The acute anxiety and paranoia I always feel whenever I see my parents, or one of my brothers, has begun to subside slightly. The reason for this change is that I have recently entered Alcoholics Anonymous for another desperate attempt at sobriety after yet another prolonged period of serious alcohol abuse.
I am home for the rodeo but I know subconsciously I have brought myself here to make it easier to control myself and not slip up again, to be watched and to retrieve something I left behind here years ago. My mental and physical health has declined more significantly than ever before, I have gained a lot of weight and I am terrified to leave my apartment where I live alone. I feel as if I am completely broken, and it was only a terrifying episode the previous weekend that brought me back from the brink to seek help.
It is strange to be back on this property, the place where my struggles with mental health, self-harm and alcohol festered and grew and led me to the state I am now in. This land where I felt isolated, which I detested and sometimes felt ashamed to be from as a teenager. In the course of becoming a monstrous alcoholic, I have completely lost myself and where I come from, and it feels almost too late now. The land has disappeared, as I have, but the farm hasn’t left me. It never matters how bad I get or how far away I get, it remains firmly pressed into my bloodstream. The land is there without me, waiting.
Returning home for the rodeo feels symbolic. This farm, surrounded by horses and cattle, was my world as a child, the only place I ever wanted to be. There is a photo of me as a three-year-old with my hobby horse dressed in a cowboy outfit, wanting to be like my father, who was a horse trainer. Now my life has become a series of dualities after years spent crafting myself into the kind of person who would not be from such a place.
But with the fading of the alcohol from my system, I want only to be back here and at the rodeo. I am what could be described as a rodeo enthusiast, but in recent years I couldn’t tell you the name of a single horse, bull or rider currently competing. All I have done for almost a decade is drift from one disaster to the next, sleepwalking in a haze of alcohol and worsening depression. Now with AA and this realisation, as well as a family who somehow still love and speak to me, perhaps there is a chance. It almost feels like the last one.
I have arrived finally at a desperate wish for simplicity, for some form of clarity and identity; rodeo, horses, immersion in the land and freedom from my life of concrete and crowded streets. For the last few years, I have very much lived separately from the world I grew up in, and now have to reconcile with having chosen that life and wasted an incomprehensible amount of time.
I walk slowly from my car after parking in the front paddock, taking in everything I see as if I’ve never seen it before. I walk to the fence and greet Spur, a stallion who lives in the next paddock, grazing. It seems he remembers me as I stroke his mane and speak to him. I am glad he has no idea what a wreck I have become and how easily I could not be here. I can almost see the culmination of events that led me here as I greet my parents and younger brother. I feel an urgent scream from my body, reaching out for shelter, understanding and forgiveness.
Trauma makes alcoholics. Trauma creates a loss of self some never reclaim. I want to find myself. I was born somebody else and today I am completely lost.
I wonder if the trees and grasses remember my body as I remember theirs. The glass and the blood I brought here. Smoke and footprints. I wonder if they know me and that I was born somebody else.
It almost feels as if my body is in a dream I will never have again, a dream I have never had before on this 30-acre property in Woodstock.
I am a ghost. Whoever I am is not here, replaced by a stranger.
Glass and blood. Endless glass and blood.
No alcohol left but my mouth is dry and full of blood and I am incomprehensibly thirsty. I eat the glass and feel it slice at the lining of my stomach.
The years have begun to compound and converge. I am a child. I see faces and bodies, beautiful bodies I have harmed and have buried somewhere in the paddocks but cannot remember where. They have no names and they hate me. There is a fire that does not recede and only grows when I fan it with my hands. There are horses running everywhere and they trample me when I try to stop them. An enormous bull steps on my heart but I do not stop breathing. It feels like it has trampled my throat into the ground.
I scream for my mother and father and they hear me but do not answer. I watch them walk into the distance, leaving me inside the flames.
My arms are covered in blood, deep lacerations I do not remember causing. Some fresh, some from years ago accentuated by keloid scarring.
I wake in an empty, squalid room after dreaming the farm is burning. I wake and call the number.
A young woman answers and I tell her I need help. I tell her I want to die but I also want to live. She is kind to me and somehow doesn’t think I am crazy.
She has heard this before.
I tell her alcohol has ruined my life and there is a fog across my mind I cannot break through. I tell her I have caused harm. I tell her I have been harmed.
I tell her I want to go home, back to the country. I tell her where I grew up and what happened to me. I cry.
I pour a bottle of whiskey down the sink and retch at the smell. I pray.
I decide to go to the awful meeting and go home for the rodeo.
I decide to wake up.
I wake early the next day before the rodeo. Another day. A week sober.
My friend pulls into the driveway. After spending some time with my parents and walking the paddocks and talking, we make our way into town.
We drive past my primary school and the houses of people who will no longer speak to me. We drive past the pub. Past it.
It is hard to describe how this day simultaneously has everything and nothing to do with rodeo; rodeo as a metaphor for life and human struggle rather than a sport, a hope of conquering what could not be conquered. To ride until being bucked off, stomped on and gored, and still get back on every time, no matter the harm caused.
The withdrawals have become almost unbearable but my mind feels like it is beginning to still slightly.
The Whittlesea rodeo throws back to traditional rodeos in the sense that it does not have the bells and whistles most modern rodeos do. There is no screen projecting the action to the audience, nor replays of rides and events. There is simply a corral the size of a children’s football field beneath football lights suspended from either side to light the arena. The bucking chutes on the far side are where the roughstock riders sit and prepare, the announcer standing to the side of them. The judges sit close by to have a full view of all the events.
Directly opposite the chutes, there are two small grandstands overlooking the arena and continuing up to the edge of the fence. Ticket holders also gather around the corral and try to see the rodeo over one another’s cowboy hats. It is how I imagine rodeos were prior to the technology we now expect. There is a sense of locality to it.
All of the events are as expected. Barrel racing, steer wrestling, calf roping, saddle bronc, bareback and, my favourite, bull riding.
Being here feels like stepping across some barrier I have created for myself. I feel a sudden desire to know myself, and where I come from, and be the person I always wanted to be without being consumed by what I know will kill me if I let it.
My friend and I walk quickly past the kiosk serving alcohol and make our way to the arena fence.
At the other side of the corral, a gate opens and a horse rears and blows suddenly from the chute, throwing the rider down low in the saddle as he presses his spurs above its shoulders. I am completely mesmerised by this moment, this battle occurring in front of me.
I forget how desperately I want to escape my mind and drink again.
I forget for this moment how far I’ve travelled and where I live now. I forget the catastrophes, the loss of identity and wasted years. I forget what I look like and how I have harmed my mind and body. I remember who I am and where I come from. Where I will always come from, even when the farm is gone and I cannot drive down Selkirk Road and see the horses again. A deep isolation dissipates. I see a farm no one has ever visited but me.
I forget almost everything.
Today, I am home. Today I want to live.
For the first time in my adult life, I know that I want to try.
Robbie Coburn is the author of poetry collections Rain Season (2013) and The Other Flesh (2019). His work has been published in places such as Poetry, Meanjin, Island and Westerly. He is currently working on a new book of poems entitled Rodeo. Find more from Robbie at his website.