If you've been reading the news about Mullumbimby lately, you'd think the locals all have two heads and pitchforks and breathe fire at you as you walk down its main street.
Mullumbimby's famous these days as Australia's anti-vaxxer capital - where shops flout COVID-19 regulations on wearing masks. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald two weeks ago said local politicians were too scared to challenge them. Depending on your viewpoint, you probably hate Mullumbimby more than any other town in Australia. I know I would. Except for one thing: I'm from there.
The only thing Mullumbimby was famous for when I was a kid was winning Australia's Tidy Town competition. That hardly made the front pages. And then there's its rugby league team, the Mullum Giants, one of the oldest rugby league clubs still competing in Australia.
Footy always had a big place in the heart of any Mullum local. Home games on Sundays were the town's regular social occasion, the team hadn't won a premiership since 1960 - each year was going to be the year. Saturday's Moonshiner games (the town's union team) attracted almost as big a crowd.
There were counter-culturists back then too, plenty of them, but everyone got along. They were a colourful lot, they looked like they went to a Led Zeppelin concert around 1971 and never went home. They'd only come to town for supplies (the things they couldn't grow) and for cups of herbal tea at everyone's favourite café, The Popular. They'd clear out as quickly as they came – back to the hills they lived in. There were more communes and bizarre multiple occupancy arrangements up there than there were in all of California.
At the local high school students tended to fit into one of two sub-groups: (1) kids of the hippies from the hills, whose parents didn't have jobs, or (2) town kids whose parents worked trades. Considering how radically different our home lives were, it's a wonder we got on at all. But we did, famously, for decades after we graduated, we'd band together across the world, bonded by our childhood. The community rallied round worthy causes and families in crisis; no-one had much money, but no-one went without. If crime existed, it was only someone growing their own supply. We had front row seats watching our mates' parents get busted for the weed they had in the glove box at random police checks when they dropped their kids off at school.
A lot of us moved away when we finished school as country kids do: to university in the big smoke, or further, to see the world. But we still called Mullum home, no matter how far we wandered, or how long it'd take before we went back. Probably because Mullum never really changed. Stewart's Menswear on the main street was still where kids went to hire suits for their formals, the Middle Pub had the cheapest beers in town and Sunday footy was still the highlight of anyone's social calendar, especially when the team finally won the premiership in 2004.
Mullum still beats with this same small town heart despite all the headlines you read. Deep down, it's the same little happy place of my adolescence. Mullum long had a reputation for protest, and questioning authority, but people used to do it to save rainforests, or to help return parts of the region to the Bundjalung people who owned it long before we did.
A new type of local began to arrive a while back: brasher, bolder, and with a hell of a lot more money. Trust-fund hippies, some of us called them. COVID brought more and more of them out of the cities. Life got faster, people a little angrier… just last week someone beeped me as I helped my wife limp across the main street (she'd hurt her ankle).
Rents sky-rocketed, house prices went insane: people from Fitzroy and Paddington bought up Mullum sight unseen and now you can't buy anything decent here for less than a million bucks.
Long-time local identity Mandy Nolan feels the change. "COVID-19 has ripped our rainbow flag in two," she wrote in local paper, The Echo. "There is a disharmony in my community I have never felt before. I see it when a man in his 70s screams at a 16-year-old retail assistant about his rights not to wear a mask."
But all the same old souls are still here, I just have to look harder to find them. For every local yelling at you to take your mask off, there's 100 hoping you'll keep it on - just like in your town, or suburb. You know, it's probably true: Mullum may well be the anti-vaxxer capital of Australia. But ask anyone who grew up here and they'll tell you what should be making the headlines: How's that?! We won Australia's Tidiest Town!