By Liz O’Herrin Lee
My new husband and I are driving the Great Ocean Road, adventuring west from Melbourne along the southern coast of Australia, for our honeymoon. One hundred and fifty-one miles hug the liminal space between cliffs that drop to the southern sea and thousands of gum trees rising to the north hiding koalas and kangaroos. The forest is not silent; more than 2,000 varieties of cloud-shaped eucalyptus trees pulse with squawking magpies, sulphur-crested cockatoos, and crimson rosellas, all competing to be heard over the crashing waves below. The panorama looks like it dropped out of a magazine spread, but the road itself is a miracle in its own right.
We were researching for our honeymoon when we’d learned of the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s top tourist destinations and the world’s largest war memorial. It was built as a homage to more than 60,000 Australians who lost their lives during the Great War. Far from the nation’s capital, 3,000 returning World War I veterans constructed the road as a tribute to their fallen comrades. Because so many ships had met their ends dashed against these cliffs and in response to the wave of soldiers returning home, the government had developed a solution: one part employment and reintegration scheme for returning veterans during the Great Depression, one part government plot to connect distant seaports by easier means than the Shipwreck Coast, and one part memorial.
My husband and I have both caught terrible colds, and our senses are marred by Australian cold medicines containing ingredients whose names we didn’t recognize. After initially being delicate with dosing, then realizing much of it was homeopathic, we’ve thrown the pharmacy’s kitchen sink at congestion.
We’re exhausted from driving on the “wrong” side of the winding road. Keepy-lefty, let the righties go firstie, we sing aloud to ourselves at every traffic circle entrance to keep our foggy American brains from short-circuiting. It feels like a piece of comforting poetry to end up on this road, a giant war memorial, to mark this life milestone. My new husband and I had met through Team Rubicon, a veteran-centered disaster response organization, where we both were working to make good happen in response to the ways we and our loved ones had been profoundly impacted by war. My husband is a civilian and lost a close veteran friend to suicide, which spurred him to help other veterans. I’ve spent the better part of 10 years working on veteran benefits, policies, and programs after my deployments. If not for the wars, we would never have met.
My mind turns to the men who built the Great Ocean Road, and I wonder if they were thankful to have made it home and to have found something to keep themselves busy. Were they happy to be out in the bush, away from civilization? Were they simply grateful for work and food during the Great Depression? Did they feel like Sisyphus, chipping away inch by inch, resting blasting caps on their knees to absorb shock during bumpy rides over the cliffs, only for another landslide to occur and to begin all over again? Did they believe it was a fitting tribute to their dead?
I believe it is.
Near the end of the coastal scenery on the Great Ocean Road lies the famous limestone pillars of the Twelve Apostles, remnants of millennia of coastal erosion. The natural monoliths are notable both for their height—some are taller than 150 feet—and their close proximity to one another. They feel immediately recognizable from computer screensavers and attract visitors from all over the world. We stretch our legs as we walk down to the coast’s edge, dodging swarms of buses carting tourists, careening minivans filled with squealing children, and pretty young women wearing yellow sneakers and miniskirts who pose for Instagram stories. If the embattled men could see us now, what would they make of today’s crush of visitors?
Studying the bone-crushing waves below, this very coastline home to iconic surf brands Quiksilver and Rip Curl, I’m reminded of the Big Sur stretch on the Pacific Coast Highway, its striking cliffs with coast live oaks emerging from mystical lavender sand. It dawns on me as the wind whips my hair that the aural environment of the sea conveys a powerful energy; this memorial feels so much more alive than any other war memorial I’ve visited. And I’ve visited many.
During the years I lived in D.C., I spent my fair share of late nights contemplating the black wound in the earth that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, running my fingers over names. Early mornings training for a marathon, pausing my run to observe the glory of a World War II memorial empty of visitors. Even the benches at the veterans memorial in tiny Bellaire, Michigan, where I spent this past summer preparing the lakehouse for our wedding, command solemn reverence.
But none of those memorials feel very alive, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe the men who built Australia’s Great Ocean Road prefer that we contemplate life rather than death when we visit the memorial to their fallen. The monument lives and breathes, ebbs and flows, allowing visitors to bask in native flora and fauna. It feels a meaningful tribute to contemplate the gift of life, the passage of time, and the laws of nature.
One thing here on the Great Ocean Road is certain: The limestone structures will one day all fall, beaten down by the sea, destroyed by the very means that brought them to life. But scientists predict that in the millennia to come more pillars may emerge from the coastline, as the waves continue to lick away at the softer sediment while harder rock resists, leaving more Apostles that will ultimately succumb to the same process that bore them. Birth, life, death, birth.
The Twelve Apostles marks the halfway point of our celebratory road trip. After observing the magnificent towers we turn back to Melbourne, then a long flight home, and continue our journey as life companions. I do not know what joys and sorrows and adventures the future holds for us, how long we and our loved ones will withstand the beatings of life, but having my husband to face it with feels like the comfort of a heavy blanket. We’ve managed to establish something profoundly beautiful through the conflict of life, much like the coast presenting its incredible landforms despite the beating waves. Or is it because of them?
Liz O’Herrin Lee served with the WI ANG from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16s. She received her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. She resides in Denver with her husband, Mike, and she is a Tillman Scholar.