By Jessica Cathcart
Every small town has its unique quirks that make it stand out against all the other tiny dots on the map. The stories that every visitor gets told over lunch at the pie shop, the places they’re told they absolutely must see if they never see anything else again in their life.
Residents, no matter how much they love or hate their town, adore these quirks, and sew them up into their own fabric of identity.
My hometown, Rockhampton, has a few of these.
There are the six bull statues, in honour of our Beef Capital fame, which have had their testicles stolen so many times they’re now bolted onto the plinths.
There’s the sculpture on the main shore of our local beach town, Yeppoon. It’s officially called the Spirit Stone, but was lovingly renamed the ‘Giant Butthole’ by the public, because it looks like a giant butthole.
There’s also the ‘Soul Tree’: a large tree decorated with dozens of pairs of shoes, outside the house of a hippie lady who teaches belly dancing.
Honestly. You can’t make this shit up.
Then there’s the fact that Rockhampton is actually Hell.
Ok, it’s not quite that dramatic. The north side of Rocky is watched over by the Berserker Range, the main mountain of which being Mount Archer. The mountain is much loved by our town; kids search for bugs on school excursions, families hold birthday picnics, hikers and mountain bikers abound, youths get secretly wasted of a night time, and many a daring couple have punched their public sex card, all atop this peak.
There’s a short trail at the summit that leads to a lookout over the town, and if you happen to be up there at night, the city lights look gorgeous. And without fail, someone will point out the Hell Lights.
The Lights are a series of main streets that run parallel and perpendicular to each other and, with just a little creativity, they do indeed spell out the word ‘HELL.’
As teenagers, my friends and I loved this.
Rockhampton is not particularly small, especially in comparison with our rural neighbours, but to young eyes it certainly lacked the glitz and glamour of the big cities.
“Rocky is such a hole.”
“Urgh, I can’t wait to leave this boring town.”
“I wouldn’t ever shop here, I just do it all in Brisbane when I can!”
I can’t actually ever remember a weekend when we couldn’t find something to do, but we all wanted out, as soon as we could. Living in Rockhampton was actually living in Hell.
The attitude never really went away.
Most of my friends are gone now. They’re lawyers and doctors and teachers in bigger, more interesting places, and this has only confirmed their feelings toward the town that made them who they are. They ask why I’m still there, insist I be the one to visit them, and joke about how they made it out alive.
This dissatisfaction isn’t unique to Rockhampton: everyone wants something bigger and better, and it’s a sentiment that is particularly rampant in isolated rural and regional Queensland towns. I remember a friend from Blackwater who couldn’t wait to graduate so he could move to Rocky, and we all thought he was an idiot, basically. He did spend a few years here, then he, too, moved on to the big city.
Rockhampton has had a facelift in recent years. She has a brand new riverbank precinct, the successful Rocky River and Capricorn Food and Wine festivals, a flourishing arts culture, nearly all the major chain stores, markets, water parks, and fairy lights. And yet all these things mean nothing without community, a sense of belonging, and a willingness to place yourself at the forefront of progress.
My old friends are all wonderful people and talented professionals full of vision. I can’t help but wonder what this town might look like if they came back to their roots and committed to creating a place that everyone, even moody teenagers, loves to be a part of.
Missionary Jim Elliot once said, “wherever you are, be all there.” There’s a power in that, the ability to say, ‘yes, I am here, now, with these skills and passions, and I won’t waste them dreaming about some better place. I will create a better place.’
Maybe you live in the midst of the bright, city glamour; maybe you live on a thousand dusty acres with a cow and a tractor; maybe you live in actual Hell.
But wherever you are, that is where you are.
Be all there.