‘I wandered, lonely as a cloud ...’ wrote poet William Wordsworth, choosing ‘cloud’ as a simile for loneliness. On a day like today, however, watching wispy flocks — little balls of cotton — scudding across the skyscape, blown hither and thither by an unnaturally strong, unseasonal breeze, it’s hard to equate clouds with loneliness at all. They appear to be having a great time, racing across the firmament. And all the people below — on the pavements and in cars — appear to be unconsciously imitating them, dashing towards destinations with unusual zeal. I guess it’s the strong wind that’s dictating things. Anyhow, it’s not clouds I want to dwell upon, but the notion of ‘wandering’.
A wanderer, we know, is an itinerant — one without a fixed destination who, as it were, goes where the wind carries him. Lachlan Forrest falls under that category. The name itself conjures up images of heavily wooded areas, but Lachlan tells me his parents named him after a river, the chief tributary of the Murrumbidgee, in New South Wales. They were farmers, the Forrests.
“I had the itchiest feet in our small town,” he says, speaking through a beard that’s taken over the lower half of his face, mouth, lips and all. “I had to leave as soon as I finished high school.” Getting to that level, he says, was torture, but he endured only to keep his parents satisfied. They pinned a lot of hope on him taking over the family business, being the eldest boy.
“My younger bro, Cal, was far more the business type than I could ever be,” he says. It is our one — and only — meeting. I happened to be standing in the sunshine for a change, rather than sitting in the mall sipping a coffee when a voice just off my shoulder enquired if I possessed a cigarette lighter. I couldn’t oblige, but Lachlan was happy to accept a coffee instead and, in the process, got talking about himself and what brought him to my neck of the woods. The answer to which is: Nothing specifically.
‘Sleep rough, eat rough, live rough’
“I go where the road takes me,” he says, “me and my possessions.” He gives a tiny backpack a friendly kick as it leans against the wall. “Sleep rough, eat rough, live rough, and never tire of it.” The way his eyes light up as he describes one different day from another — each with its own self-contained anecdote — it’s easy to see he’s telling the truth. “Wouldn’t change it for a thing,” he says. The longest he’s stayed in one place is a week, working in an orchard, picking apples. And that’s since he left home, at 17!
In 15 years of living as a wayfarer, he’s travelled the four points of the compass in Australia. “I’ve encountered snakes, been bitten by a dog, watched a man narrowly escape being taken by a croc. This bloke had been sleeping under the same tree that I slept under the previous night, just off the river bank.” He’s helped paint a school (for two nights of shelter and food); worked in stables at a racecourse, cleaning up after the horses; assisted with an amateur firefighting unit trying to subdue a minor blaze; helped rescue a toddler who somehow got trapped half in and half out of a second-floor window; and feels he’s nearly mastered the elusive art of skimming stones.
“In the end, it all comes back to the water,” says Lachlan. His coffee drunk, he taps me on the shoulder, pronounces, “You’re a legend, buddy,” and, without a backward glance, wanders away into the distance. With a wanderer, I guess, you only get a one-off encounter. As they say: Here one minute, gone the next. For all that, his life sounds a lot richer than mine.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.