At around 6 A.M. this morning, I awoke to light pushing its way through the gap in my curtains onto the covers of my bed. I stretched, immediately pulled my camera out of the suitcase under my bed, stepped into some slippers, and walked out the door of my room into the freezing morning air. Clad only in pajamas, I spent a few minutes snapping photos of the sunrise: a pale, golden-yellow fading to dark blue, with the outline of a windmill in the foreground. It was a beautiful morning. It is nearly always a beautiful morning at Nilpena, the 400 square mile property in the Outback of South Australia, where I spend a month each summer.
My mother is a paleontologist. She studies the fossils preserved in layers of rock on the mountains of this property. Luckily for me, she needs a team of people to help her dig out the beds of rock, clean them, find fossils, and then catalogue them. There’s a lot more to it than just that, but those are the basics. We also have to spend time clearing the rocks and shrubbery that decorate the mountains, so that we have a nice, flat surface to lay a bed of rocks on. Simply finding fossils is a task that can take hours and days: light changes over the course of a day make fossils that are impossible to see in the morning obvious in the evening. It’s hard work every single day, but you can’t beat the view.
There is tiring work even back at the Homestead, our nickname for the old, stone house originally made for the sheep shearers who would travel to the station to, you guessed it, shear the sheep. Dishes have to be washed by hand over the course of a day, the individual rooms need to be cleaned, drinking water must be brought back from the water tank, and so on. No matter what time of day it is or where you are, there’s always something to be done.
Not only that, we’re in the middle of the Outback. There is dirt. A lot of dirt. It’s often difficult for my friends to imagine spending a month each summer surrounded by said dirt. And it’s true that literally everything it dirty, from the floors of the Homestead to our car to our faces to our dishes. But that dirt is a side effect of the general awesomeness that is living in the Outback for a month.
On our drive to the fossil localities (which feels more like the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland than an actual drive), we spot around five kangaroos on average every day. Sometimes, we even catch a glimpse of a mother kangaroo and her joey sitting comfortably in her pouch. Emus prowl the hills and creeks, looking like living dinosaurs with their lurching steps and clawed feet. The landscape is as varied as the nail polish colors I go a month without seeing. Creeks bursting with tiny crayfish called “Yabbies” are quite wonderful for exploring, rolling dunes are perfect for rolling down, challenging hills are fantastic for climbing, junkyards are ideal for investigating. Every single day provides the tools for a new adventure. And we, the blacksmiths, are ready and excited to make the most out of those tools. My entire life, who I am, has been shaped by this landscape, from the fossil-covered rocks to the dirt in which they rest.
I spend this month without calls, Snapchat or Instagram, with limited Internet and limited water. I am very far behind on all of my favorite TV shows. I do not remember what being clean feels like. I am, however, happier than I am anywhere else.
And that sort of surprises me. The things that people feel they need to make them happy – phones, social media, constant contact with everyone they know – are not necessary for happiness. It is in fact, at least in my case, dirt that makes for happiness. Or if not dirt, sunrises.
For this reason, I believe it is important for us to, once in a while, turn off the cell phones that we seem to be so addicted to. Get off the grid for a moment. Look around and notice how beautiful the world can be (whether you’re in the Australian Outback or a Los Angeles apartment). Go on an adventure. Every corner of the world has its own creeks and emus and sunrises, and it’s up to you to find them.