Iwas in a world of pain when I went to see Chris, in June, last year. Chris Bell, 27, is an osteopath, who works at a clinic in Williamstown.
A few months earlier, I had fallen from my bicycle with calamitous results: a broken collarbone, busted shoulder and damage to my neck.
I felt winded and frail; hesitant, too. Like the tremors that follow an earthquake, the accident sent aftershocks coursing through my body: there were days I couldn’t function; there were nights I couldn’t sleep.
I shuffled for months between doctors, specialists and Footscray hospital. Is this, I wondered, how we end: wounded, bent and aching, queuing for appointments in sterile waiting rooms?
I met with Chris, once-a-week. At the start of every session, Chris would shake my hand.
I found this gesture so reassuring and respectful: like he considered us partners, engaged together in the business of untangling a giant ball of knotted string.
As he worked on my shoulder, the two of us swapped stories in an easy exchange of candid thoughts. I was drawn to his self-assurance, to his calm and modest manner. He seemed wise beyond his years.
When I told Chris that I write, he asked to read my work. The following week, he came armed with questions and a swag of cogent insights. It meant a lot to me.
We talked about travel, mostly. I told Chris that writing is a form of travel, the kind you do at home.
I told Chris that I try, in my writing, to connect with people and everyday things in ways that reawaken that sense of an expansive life, which accompanied me as a backpacker.
Chris, in return, talked about his van, a 2011 turbo-diesel Hyundai.
At the end of a working day, when most of us retire to the couch or television, Chris goes bush or heads for the coast. Not occasionally. Not only on weekends. But mid-week. And often.
He drives for two or three hours, then sets up camp somewhere remote. He sleeps in his van and wakes in the morning, a million figurative miles from the day he left behind.
In this way, he bends and stretches time. He fits two or three days into one. He slips the bonds of mere routine and finds his way to good, new things.
Each of Chris’ travel stories lodged in my imagination with swift and vivid force.
He camped one night in the bush, near Lorne. As the evening wore on, foreign travellers emerged from the darkness, drawn to the warmth of his fire pit. By the end of the evening, Chris and the travellers were mates.
When he camps by the coast, he surfs in the morning – up at sunrise, out on his board, attentive to the tide.
In one of his stories, when he travelled with his partner, he rose at dawn, paddled out among the breakers and turned his board towards the shore.
The beach was his alone, a damp stretch of broad sand sweeping away to the left and right.
He saw his van, nestled among the shoreline scrub. Inside the van his girlfriend lay sleeping, safe and warm. He thought to himself: Remember this moment. Life doesn’t get any better than this.
In retrospect, those appointments with Chris were a highpoint of my week: significant markers in the sea of fog that long-term pain represents.
Chris is a fine osteopath, but it was his stories that called me forward. I was with him in spirit, when he spoke of his adventures: a fellow traveller on the road, sustained by the image of a campervan rolling through the landscape.
Chris and his girlfriend, Amanda, are quitting their jobs and hitting the road in May. They plan to travel and work around Australia.
Chris has been preparing the van: installing custom-built compartments; a stovetop; and new, interior insulation. They intend to travel for at least a year. Their dog, Ralph, will accompany them.
I know that Chris is nervous as the month of May approaches. It’s no small thing to roll the dice and gamble big. But if anyone can, Chris can.
I like the way he talks about Amanda, with affection and respect. The two of them, together, will make a go of things.
And me? I’m back to somewhere near full strength.
I invited Chris to my house last week. He dropped by in his van. I gave him a bottle of Pommery, the best champagne I own.
We christen ships before they sail. I reckon the van deserves the same.
Featured image: Breakfast view; Chris Bell, 2019
Image insert: A mess; April 2018
Follow Chris, Amanda and Ralph via their travel website or on Instagram @outbackosteos