Many happy returns

One of the interesting things about revisiting a place over and over again is the way your shifting attitudes towards it can chart changes in yourself, writes GEMMA NISBET

I’ve driven south along Albany Highway so many times that the trip feels almost like a moving meditation. Out of Armadale up the steep hill and through forest and bushland until the roadhouse at Bannister, where the landscape opens up to fields of green or yellow or brown, depending on the season. A quick stop by the river in Williams, past the old stone church at Arthur River and then you’re driving by the turn-off for Wagin’s Giant Ram.

So it goes, past landmarks large and small: towns and tracks, but also the awning from the baby-pink roadhouse that used to be at Tunney, and the farm with the sign that gives its name as “Krak-A-Tinny”. And then, after five or so hours and a couple of turns, I’ll end up in Denmark, winding down my windows to let the smell of eucalyptus flood the car — an act of purification as I cross the bridge over the river into town.

There’s a photo of me, not far from that spot, aged about two or three, wearing gumboots and standing amid the cows in the top paddock at a family friend’s farm. It wasn’t, perhaps, my first visit to Denmark, and it wouldn’t be the last. We’d come back again and again over the years, sleeping in front of the fire at our friend’s timber-and-stone cottage — a home away from home which eventually became our own, as my parents took over the battle with its resident rodents and paddock of watsonia when their friends moved further out of town.

For years, I loved going there — being in the forest, or by the river, or at the beach. I’d ride horses with a local friend, and walk the dogs through the bush, and borrow books from the dinky library that used to occupy one of the shopfronts on Strickland Street. I’d spend long afternoons painting, or reading, or listening to music on the radio in my little bedroom at the cottage. I had my first argument with my first boyfriend on a walk in the forest behind that house. Years later, when my dad died, I went to Denmark to scatter his ashes.

One of the interesting things about revisiting a place over and over again is the way your shifting attitudes towards it can chart changes in yourself. And so, as my teens progressed, I came to resent having to make the journey south when I could be with my friends in Perth. I stopped riding and painting, and let my library membership lapse. My parents divorced, the cottage was sold, and my local friend moved to Tasmania. In the years that followed, I visited Denmark only rarely. And for all the nostalgia I felt for the place, it was other destinations, further afield that called me more strongly.

Then, a few years ago, my mother joined the growing number of retirees making their homes in Denmark. She and her partner bought a house on the far side of that hill where we’d stood among the cows — itself now dotted with new homes and a roving mob of kangaroos. Mum began to call with news about the birds on her veranda and the vegetables in her garden — with local news and the people she’d seen that day at the dog park. I started to visit regularly, and though the town had grown larger, I was gratified that it still felt familiar, like an old friend.

In some ways, returning to Denmark felt like circling back on some piece of myself: the person who scarred her shin clambering up the warm rocks at Greens Pool but still jumped off the top, and who didn’t worry when she lost the trail while climbing Mt Lindsay. Who got up before dawn to braid the horses’ manes for Pony Club, and carefully inspected their legs for ticks after every ride. Who hurried less, and daydreamed more.

Revisiting a place again and again can show you what’s changed, but perhaps also what’s worthy of being reclaimed. And for that alone, it’s well worthwhile.


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