getting lost in port hedland.

yesterday i received a package in the mail from a friend. it was a beautiful handmade collaged card that read, “remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” the words “heart” and “treasure” were cut from a magazine and stood out amongst the rest.

there was a black and white image of a native with a crown of leaves blowing into a conch shell and a sunflower unready to bloom. there was a vibrant image of a clay pot filled with yellow crushed powder.

it was as if that mustard pigment was waiting for someone to spread its color throughout the scene. bring the sunflower’s curled up petals back to life. creep into the leaves and echo into the shell. they say you can hear the ocean if you place it against your ear.

the card was accompanied by a book. a field guide to getting lost by rebecca solnit.

there i was. on the northern coast of western australia. in a small transient town defined by the mining industry. in the soon-to-be-remodeled kitchen of a brick home on kennedy street.


staring at this book. and this note. sent halfway across the world to me by a friend.

i flipped through the pages but turned back to the cover.

a field guide to getting lost…

after our epic two week road trip, we arrived in south hedland after dark on december 15th.

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i could not see the town as we drove into where i would call home for the next two months. there were heaps of tiny lights shining in the distance, and we had to wait for a long train loaded with iron ore to pass before getting into town.

ryan had not yet picked up the keys to his house from the previous property manager, and it was late on sunday night. so continuing in our usual fashion, we set up the swag for the night…on ryan’s own patio (see photo below). but not before doing a headlamp-fueled inspection of the property.

every home in the area has aluminum siding fences surrounding the perimeter. gates open and close allowing only those with permission in. there is no waving to your neighbor as you mow your lawn. no drinking coffee in a rocking chair on the front porch smiling at strangers.


as we walked around the yard and house, ryan pointed out the broken security light. i tiptoed over the broken glass allowing fear to creep in slightly. then he pointed out the small white handprints painted on the back of the brick exterior. a lump formed in my throat. then he pointed out where someone had tried to break in through the window screen. i became visible scared.

are you all right? he asked me.

we were going to sleep outside on the cement ground of the patio of this house that had been unoccupied for two months. a house and neighborhood that ryan had not seen in six years.

it was dark. and we all know what happens to the mind in the dark.
i don’t think i slept that night. and when i did sink into a sleepy stupor, i inevitably woke up to a mother cat protecting her three kittens or a gecko crawling alongside our makeshift bed or the sprinklers coming on to keep the grass green.

and then it was morning.

the sun woke up quickly and so did i.

but all the sudden, the park across the street was a welcome sight instead of a vast emptiness filled with the unknown. and all the sudden, i was in a new world.

welcome to port hedland. or south hedland actually.

south hedland is a sister town to port hedland, an 18km drive across empty fields of red dirt and past a salt mine.

port hedland is the second largest town in the pilbara region of western australia, with a population of approximately 14,000, about half located in south hedland.

yep, you read that correctly. south hedland has about 7,000 people. that is the same amount of people as my freshman class at university of michigan. that is a little over four times the amount of facebook friends i have. that is…small. and yet it is the second largest town in the region!

every aussie i had met along this trip had asked me one question, “do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

i had smiled and thought something similar to what that card read, “remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”

i was following my heart. and although i knew all along that we were driving to a house in the middle of nowhere,  i’ll admit that as ryan drove me around port hedland and south hedland on the first day, my heart sunk. i tried to feign a smile as he took me to one of port hedland’s oceanfront parks, but i failed miserable.

it was over 100º F at 9am. i had not slept the entire night for fear of someone or thing climbing over the fence to get us. and now, here i was, staring out into an ocean (one that i couldn’t swim in due to sharks and crocodiles) filled with massive ships waiting to deliver millions of dollars worth of merchandise to somewhere faraway. and i wanted to be faraway too.


port hedland has a natural deep anchorage harbor which, as well as being the main fuel and container receiving point for the region, was seen as perfect for shipment of the iron ore being mined in the ranges located inland from the town. the ore is moved by railway lines from four major iron ore deposits to the east and south. we’re talking about 15 million tons of iron ore shipped out yearly.

when you arrive in hedland, you instantly form a frustrating relationship with iron ore. or rather with the red dirt that covers everything. you cannot walk outside without coming back in with a bit of a red tint to your skin. when you dust, your cloth turns red. when you mop, your water turns red. when you do laundry, your machine turns red. it is impossible to keep up with it.

and so you learn to love it.

there is something amazingly beautiful about a barren red landscape illuminated by a setting sun. the contrast of blue sky to red earth reminds me of that yellow pigment waiting to paint the black and white images on my card. the glow of the sun seems to connect to the soil and create an endless horizon.

i haven’t spent a lot of time in arizona, but i imagine it would be something like this place. only maybe substitute gum trees and spinifex for the multiple types of cacti.


situated in the middle of the town is a shopping center. envision a mall from the 90s. pretty run down but trying its best to become hip. inside the shopping center is a kmart, coles grocery store, pharmacy, and a few random other stores and kiosks including a news/magazine stand that i have been banned from shopping at because ryan does not like that they have a $15 minimum for credit card purchases.

it is pretty regular to find some reason to go to the shopping center almost every day. especially since we arrived in south hedland to an entirely empty house. the first purchase involved towels for a much needed shower.

everything else in town surrounds the shopping center. now by everything else, i really just mean the essentials: schools, hospital, library, gas station, pub, liquor store, hardware shop, post office, salon, youth center, swimming pool, fitness center, chinese food, subway, and mcdonald’s.

literally, that is everything that is in south hedland. if you drive the 18km to port hedland, you can make the list a little longer, but not by much.

after a few weeks of living here, my credit card bill had become pretty hilarious. there were only three companies that received most my money: kmart, coles, and mcdonald’s (aka macca’s here).

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now you might think that with only three stores taking up space on my credit card that i might have saved some money, but it is quite the contrary here in the desert. everything is way more expensive. most things are more expensive in australia, but this place is an extreme.

an easy example…

there is no movie theater in hedland. no movie theater anywhere close to here! however, the high school has a performing arts auditorium that shows a recently released movie once or twice a week. you just have to pay $18 per ticket! (and yes, i did make ryan pay $36 so we could go see anchorman 2.)

back home, the movie theater is a staple of my life. every holiday and family gathering usually ends in my brother informing us which movie he hasn’t seen yet and that we are allowed to go see as a family.

and here i was, about to spend my birthday, christmas, and new year’s in a town with no movie theater.

had i lost my mind?

or was i losing myself in something new and unknown?

i started reading the book that flew several thousand miles to meet me today. the first chapter explores a question posed by the pre-socratic philosopher meno:

“how will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

when we arrived here in december, i had never lived in a small, remote town. not in america, and definitely not in australia. but now, a month later, i am learning how to get lost in it.

2 thoughts on “getting lost in port hedland.

  1. ho ho!! well, remember “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “your mind creates the reality” and “there is no way to happiness – happiness is the way”…. all from the buddha. you will be there two months?… just enuf time to get into it….

  2. Love it, you nearly make port hedland sound half decent. It can be hard out there but always try to see the glass half full. And you have my favorite grant by your side , but shhhhhh don’t tell the other brothers I said that haha. Would love to meet you some day. Hope you love Australia!

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