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Uncle Stevie: Back from Down Under

EW’s columnist spent a month zooming around (and breaking down) in the Australian outback, far away from the pop-culture zeitgeist — and enjoyed the silence

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Uncle Stevie: Back from Down Under

I celebrated September by seeing The Bourne Ultimatum, and had a whale of a good time, but don’t worry — this isn’t a review of a movie that may no longer even be in theaters by the time this reaches your eye. Good as it was, I probably would have been just as exhilarated coming out of Underdog on that particular day. Even Balls of Fury.

Before Bourne, I hadn’t been to the movies for a month; I’ve been out of the country. (Didja miss me? Nah, didn’t think so.) I spent August in Australia, mostly in the outback, which makes northern Nevada look like Manhattan. I went with my old friend and lecture-tour roadie, Carter Withey. Carter drove a Toyota Land Cruiser with an attached trailer. I rode a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy — a sweet ride; two speeds, stopped and gone — and stuck the bike on the trailer for the 800-mile stretch of unpaved road Aussies call, with a mixture of irritation and affection, ”the dirt.” I brought a fair amount of this dirt back in my suitcase, on clothes that will eventually have to be washed. Or burned. Burned might be better.

Carter and I spent a couple of nights sleeping rough, under the brightest stars I have ever seen. On one of those nights, wild camels ambled through our campsite, probably looking for sugar, which they love. And we spent most of one day broke down by the side of the road, after the punishing terrain snapped not just one trailer axle but both. We were rescued by a smiling aboriginal named Jack (no last name ever offered), who hunted up the only mechanic within a piece of land roughly the size of Delaware. Thanks, Jack — you the man.

During those weeks I not only saw no movies, I saw no U.S. news, and all the big American celebritards fell off my radar. I learned more about Australian football than I wanted to know — big hairy legs, teeny-tiny shorts, ’nuff said. When we weren’t sleeping outside, Carter and I spent nights in outback accommodations known as dongas. American translation: shoe boxes with space heaters, bathroom optional. In some of these were TVs of the sort that disappeared from American homes around 1965. The choice of programs was severely limited. In my Warburton donga, about halfway across the dry, red-dirt desert of Western Australia, I had three choices: a newscast in Chinese (where I was treated to the surreal image of a diplomat — I think he was a diplomat — gravely shaking hands with a dog in a ballet skirt), Cartoon Network, and Speed Channel. You’d think a satellite dish could suck in anything, but nope; just those three.

Am I complaining? I am not. One of the reasons I went to Australia — maybe the biggest reason, after the unmitigated joy of speeding through gorgeous country on a big-ass bike — was to purge my head, or at least try. I wanted a month away from everything, partly to get rid of the clutter, mostly to see how things would look when I got back.

The answer, based on my afternoon at the movies, is they look better. Happier, shinier, fresher. I watched The Bourne Ultimatum with a clarity I hadn’t experienced at the movies for a long time. And with simple gratitude for being so lavishly entertained. I even wanted to hang out in the lobby afterward and discuss the damned thing, if only to find out if I was the only one curious about where Jason Bourne was getting all those passports he kept plunking down.

That kind of purge, it seems to me, is a good thing. Maybe even a necessary thing for someone who has spent most of his life plugged into the zeitgeist. The silence out there is deafening (well?except for the night the camels came through), and that quiet pause gave me a chance to realize how much of what we watch, read, and listen to is — shall I be honest? — disposable crap. (Can you say ”HeadOn: Apply directly to the forehead”?) Too much of that din for too long results in critical deafness. And too much entertainment — yes, even the good stuff — makes it easy to forget what entertainment is for in the first place: to amuse and delight.

But is it good to be back in the land of Chuck Berry, where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day? Sure. And is it good to plug back in? Yeah. High on my to-do list is downloading all the episodes of Damages and The Kill Point I missed while I was away. And, of course, there’s the Rob Zombie Halloween movie — probably bad, but unmissable nevertheless.

Still, I think I’m going to make my entertainment fast a yearly thing. I wouldn’t want to give up movies, TV, and Yahoo! movie trailers forever — I am, for better or worse, a creature of my culture — but man, I liked not knowing what was up with Paris or Lindsay. I liked not knowing what opened No. 1 at the box office, and whether or not the critics gave it their stamp of approval. I liked road-tripping on that motorcycle. I also liked waking up in the night and seeing the silhouettes of camels against the stars. And, although I wouldn’t want it all the time, I liked the silence.

I liked the silence.