Old Man in Fog
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Solitary drives often clear my head enough to write.
During my 20-minute morning travels, sometimes I see him.
He's not always out and about.
Mostly I come across his bent back as he walks slowly along the side of a country road. He's usually hobbling along the un-busy, one-lane pavement between Scarsdale and Berringa.
He looks to be in his 90s; his face is rivulets of rubbery wrinkles; his hair is stringy and fine and sparse; his scalp is freckled with sunspots.
Although he looks old, I have learned that in Australia, faces age under dry air and harsh sun. Those who work land, be it mining for gold nuggets, ranching cattle and sheep or growing produce, age like a California raisin in the sun.
In this gold mining part of Australia, several generations have seen hard times and moved on. Some families have stayed and stuck it out, certain that better luck or better weather is on the way. Success depends on whom you ask.
At any rate, it's hard to tell how old someone is.
Stooping, this "foggy" man walks with a crooked cane made from a hardwood gum tree branch. The thin length of wood is skinned of bark and worn smooth with age.
In the tradition of blokes from an older, proper, era, he wears a suit-jacket, but it's worn-out, wrinkled and frayed. His grey jacket matches his grey, baggy trousers.
Hearing my sedan approach, he steps slowly to the side of the road; painstakingly patient in his pause as I pass.
Once I saw him surrounded by fog. He carried an armful's worth of kindling collected from the roadside. Spindly twigs were tucked into a bent elbow on a cold, frosty morning. His other arm used his cane for balance.
I wanted to get out of the car and help, but his eyes told me not to.
I found where he lives through asking the postmistress at the general store: a 150-year-old gold miner's house--a shanty of corrugated tin and plywood with front verandah posts bending under the weight of a roof. A tin water tank lists to the side of his home toward a shallow ravine where a creek may have run decades ago to provide water. When he's not wandering the roads in search of firewood, a thin string of dark smoke rises from an ancient, precariously leaning brick chimney. I wonder, is this ramshackle shack with dried-out land his inheritance from a gold-mining father in the area?
When I drive by him, I slow down out of respect. He never waves or lifts his walking stick, or even acknowledges that I have passed by, except for that "look."
But always as I pass, leaving him in my rear-view mirror, this is what surprises me:
He turns slowly. He stops. He stares, until I can't see him past the bend in the road.
When he does that, I wonder if he thinks about far away days
with horses and buggies passing through the gold towns, carrying women in finery and men in top hats en-route to the bustling Smythesdale Court House Hotel for dinner, or scoundrels to jail in Ballarat.
I wonder if he has or had a wife and children.
I wonder if anyone but me thinks of him?
And I wonder if he wishes I would quit driving on his road while I clear my head to write.
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