I’ve done so much this year, been so many places and seen so many things, and now I’m back where I started and things are different but the same. In a way, I lived in so many lives while I was away, staying with so many people, and never in one place for very long. If, in leaving, we open ourselves up to the world and all its possibilities, we must also renounce the lives we’ve been living and accept whatever comes our way. This is the great lesson of travel, learned not from Eat, Pray, Love but from experience, and therefore much more meaningful: that everything is okay as it is, that everything’s perfect, or, more accurately, that everything will be okay however it happens to turn out. And in renouncing our lives we have to figure out what’s left when that’s not a lot, when all of our crap is packed away in boxes in someone else’s basement and we’re completely alone in a foreign country with no itinerary. We hatch plans and then the wind blows us this way anyway and everything turns out perfectly. Or it turns out differently than we wanted, but it turns out anyhow. It seems big and impossible and lonely and scary crazy to travel alone, especially to travel alone as a woman, but it’s the most natural thing in the world. It will be big and impossible and lonely and scary crazy, but it will work out anyway. You will worry about money and you will get teary and your breath will catch in your throat whenever someone you’ve met along the way and come to rely on leaves you alone again until you don’t anymore. And you might spend all your money and you might find yourself driving around an entertaining DUI felon perpetually holding a Red Bull in one hand and a joint in the other and who even other Alaskans describe as a “psycho” after answering a Craigslist ad looking for a Female Sidekick/Adventurer/Driver, of which you apparently are all four, and you might find yourself on an adventure holiday with eleven ten-year-olds and a weathered skipper who tries to kiss you the night before sailing off on a seventeen-foot yacht for five days, during which time you will studiously try to avoid making eye contact with said skipper, through all seventeen feet, and sometime before you’re back on dry land and he’s taken you to task for your behavior and said he’s not sorry for his, you will be standing at the front of the boat (is that the bow, or the stern, or the helm?) in some of the less-traveled waters of New Zealand, and the sun will be shining and the rain will be pouring and the wind will be whipping and the skipper will be at the wheel barking along to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” playing loudly over the back of the boat, “Woy yoy yoy, woy yoy-yoy yoy,” and the eleven ten-year olds will be huddled in their life jackets there in front of the overlapping ridges of Stewart Island’s mountains fading shadowy gray with a rainbow arcing out over all of it, double at times and so, so vibrant. You might find yourself in that one perfect moment and realize how lucky everything is, and how unlikely, and you might find yourself, and that might be the point. And you’ll get back to whatever’s left of the life you left behind and you’ll make more money and you’ll fill in the rest and it will all have been so incredibly worth your while.
It’s all fun and games until a grizzly tears your face off, the man pushing his bicycle gleefully taunts, catching up to the group of women walking ahead of me. It’s twilight, finally, in this land of the midnight sun, and suddenly it strikes me that perhaps we should know better than to walk this half mile past the end of the road half drunk in the light of the half moon. I’ve got one gun and you’ve got none, he singsongs, and by way of response one woman points out that it’d be six on one anyway: At least they’re in a group. At least someone would know if one were to disappear. This ceaseless sense of impending peril underlies daily life here. The neighbor woman in Anchorage offhandedly mentions that she could walk out the front door and never return, days after I arrive a woman is stomped by a moose in the park, she didn’t see it coming, the same park I see a mama bear and her three cubs lumbering down the trail toward me in, another woman reportedly must barricade the door of her cabin against a charging black bear. The wildlife is lethal, the weather is lethal, the mud flats are lethal—a man is taken away by the incoming tide during an ill-advised walk across them—the roads are lethal. Always the sense of impending peril lurking just below the surface of your thoughts, an edge that slowly hardens while life moves blithely along, business as usual.
I walk up a riverbank alone for half an hour before looking past the fireweed and the clear water shimmering in the sun with a start thinking this is stupid, thinking, leave. Bob Hicok’s words roll around:
stupid, that was mean and categorical,
we’re wired and emblazoned and impressed
by the singing of birds who are merely
shuttling air from one spot to another, holding it
as we do each other in a waltz
to let it go further on, where it must fend
I didn’t see it coming, she told the reporter. Sign at the visitor center—If a bear attacks: Fight a black bear. If a grizzly bear attacks play dead. If it starts to eat you, fight back. That you could return from a walk in the woods half eaten, or not return at all. I love tent campers like you, it’s so cute, the man I go fishing with says, a grizzly could just eat you for dinner. It is, after all, all fun and games precisely until a grizzly tears your face off. Everyone stops to gawk at the moose wading through the pond in town, we take crappy cell phone photos of it and wonder why in the world a moose is here in the middle of Anchorage before continuing on our path to fitness or the rest of our lunch break, the moose wondering why Anchorage is in the middle of Alyeska, Aleut word for Great Land, Anchorage with its horrible swaths of strip malls and subdivisions and future developments parceling out more of the same, the city’s only saving grace its proximity to the Chugach Mountains, to this Great Land.
We drive eight hours to McCarthy, an old mining town two footbridges past the end of the road with a year-round population of 28 and where I walk alone on the riverbank and behind the women and the man with the bicycle. We stop to ogle the pipeline at a convenient spot along the road, its silvery mass winding up and down pumping dirty oil and money into Alaska’s Permanent Fund. In McCarthy I find two mildewing twenties in the pocket of a coat that’s served as some squatter’s pillow in a decaying rail car outside town. Forty dirty dollars is ten gallons of gas. Seven of the continent’s sixteen tallest peaks tower here in our nation’s largest national park, six times the size of Yellowstone—KRAAK—you can hear the violent ice and rock fall of some glacier receding miles away; it stops you in your tracks. The remains of human endeavor, of the mine and the railroad that stopped transporting $200 million worth of copper here 75 years ago, amount to not a lot against the wildness of the place. The dirty glacier, the dirty oil, the dirty dollars, an eight hour drive. It looks so close to Anchorage on the map. I wonder what the pipeline looks like 75 years from now.
…These bits of song-air
and dance are changed forever, everything
is changed forever all the time, I’m not here,
I’m up ahead, running with my arms thrown back
to embrace how mild life seemed
when I first noticed light coming to rest
on my mother’s face…
My mother’s lived a dozen lives since I knew her last, nearly a dozen years ago. For a while she was a cockroach that came to visit me on my pillow, the only one I’ve seen in this part of the country, not beautiful, certainly, but small and practical in her way. Once she was a bird, flitting from here to there on the trail in front of me, showing me the way; she may be still. I wonder which sensation she liked better, flight or vision, good vision she lacked in her human life, color and depth and fully functioning cone cell photoreceptors in her retinas. Or maybe the fantastic vision of a mantis shrimp, perceiving ends of the spectrum we can only speculate about. At some point I will have lived for longer without my mother than I ever lived with her. I will be thirty-five years old, my driver’s license and passport will have been renewed with better or worse photos, more or less hair on my head, a new fullness or tightness in the cheeks, and I will not have attained enlightenment like the Buddha had. Everything is changed forever all the time, I’m not here, I’m up ahead, flitting with the bird, wading with the moose, charging with the black bear, ebbing with the tide.
I’ve teamed up with a wayward Alaskan and fellow HelpXer who plans to return to the South Island where he hasn’t gotten to spend much time before leaving the country in a few weeks. His stories last forever and he comes across as a dreamer who seems to fall on bad luck quite a bit. So far, his schemes involve:
- Getting back his Alaskan residency in order to receive a $1M loan from the state to purchase and outfit a seine boat and all necessary permits. One good fishing season will recoup the costs.
- Developing a railroad tie made out of recycled or repurposed materials or anything that’s not soaked in creosote, do the environment a favor, and take advantage of this untapped billion dollar industry. He needs to do more research in this area, but it may be possible to present himself as a marketer for some of the firms already struggling in this field.
- Convince a family he stayed with in Nortland to sell him a bit of their land “for dirt cheap” and build a small structure in one of the paddocks that they can use any of the time he’s not there. Then he will have a place to land in New Zealand and a base to explore the country. He still needs to approach them about this.
- Start a chili pepper growing operation and develop hot sauces for sale. NZ has little in the way of hot sauce. It’s possible to contact a man in the South Island he’s read about in the newspaper who has been building a pepper operation for the last ten years, camp on his property, receive potentially thousands of pepper seeds, and learn the operation. There’s no time to contact him now though.
- Invest in a king salmon farm near Aoraki Mt. Cook on the South Island. Fish farming goes against everything a commercial fisherman like himself knows, but the farm is supposedly ecologically sound, produces a high quality product, and does not impact the fish in the ocean since it’s all inland.
He doesn’t care to spend any time or effort beyond the initial research, which I can relate to. Now he has signed up to relocate a motorhome from Auckland on the North Island to Christchurch on the South. I will meet him in Wellington and we will take the ferry in the morning. This plan has to work out because Wellington is otherwise booked up for the music festival going on this weekend. I ask about the passenger fare for the ferry since I thought the walk on fares were sold out when I checked, but he just figures I can hide somewhere in the motorhome and save the $55. Americans must be the cheapest travelers, which must be why I like teaming up with them. I figure, the ferry’s going anyway, what’s one more person?
I’m at the YHA near Wellington’s central business district and they hold my giant backpack for me until the motorhome shows up, hugely and hulking in the parking lot of the supermarket across the street after 8. He’s been driving all day from Auckland. We stock up on groceries and head to a quiet street in a nearby suburb for the night. We’ll be leaving by 6:30 for tomorrow’s adventures with the ferry so don’t figure on bothering anyone.
In the morning he drives nearly to the ferry before pulling off so I can climb into the overhead area above the cab. This is just the entrance to the waiting line however, the real fun doesn’t begin until I’ve climbed back down and am enjoying a cup of coffee when I see the van in front of us start to move. I’m in such a hurry I try to vault myself from the rear passengers’ seats up to the top, but it’s much too far and I fall back down. “Get in your hole!” shouts the driver as he starts the engine. I climb back up by the more practical way of the kitchen counter. The motorhome sleeps six and there are bags of blankets and duvets and towels enough for that many and I squeeze myself behind them, but it’s no matter. Whoever collects the single boarding pass is unperturbed and I could have just as easily sat on the damn toilet. My foot is aching, and I don’t realize until I get down that it’s bleeding—I’ve sliced open the bottom of my right big toe in the first unsuccessful leap. My poor bloodied and bruised feet. There are the two open and scabbing blisters on my heels from trying to break in my hiking boots on the Tongariro Crossing, the potentially busted toe on my left foot from skirting a metal trail divider by bike in Napier, and now this. Not to mention the increasingly stark lines of my sandal tan. I have booked the four day 50km+ Milford Track Great Walk in less than a week, and there’s no changing it unless there are any other cancellations.
Wait. You’ve just read the Cor-o-man-DELLE, but it’s just a flat Cor-o-man-dle, which makes it sound much plainer than the rolling expanse of coastal scenery on this peninsula directly east of Auckland. I was thinking to ride the bus, but my host in Auckland recommends the ferry, which seems much more fun. In fact I barely make it to the ferry dock in time. I swear it’s a twenty minute walk from where I’m staying, so I figure leaving forty five minutes for the bus will be plenty. Traffic through the central city this morning is something else though, and I’m not the only one worried and breathless at the launch. A bunch of Kiwi school kids are on the boat, and they take over the bow, mugging for endless photos and hanging off the edge. They get off for some kind of field trip at the preserve of Rotoroa Island, leaving us tourists to continue on to Coromandel. It’s a two hour crossing, and all I can think is this would never happen in the US. It’s not a tiny boat, but it is pretty small, with the lower deck only a couple feet off the water, which sometimes sprays up, making snapping photos a bit perilous. I’ve been on small ferries in the US, but nothing like this. We cruise through the Auckland harbor for what seems like forever and you really get a sense for how sprawling the city is.
There is a bus from the ferry dock in Coromandel to the town proper that’s operated by an independent tour company, and they offer their services but I’m lucky and catch a ride with New Mexico, here in New Zealand for a weeklong vacation. In the US, he’s a shaker tester, which apparently means he shakes and drops cell phones to see how they’ll perform. He’s headed north up the peninsula as far as you can go, and it’s all gravel road past Colville, the only small town north of Coromandel. There’s little here but the dusty road which winds in and out of the rugged hills that seem to drop directly down to the coastline, sandy beaches, and a few secluded campgrounds maintained by the Department of Conservation. We stop at the northernmost one to refill on water, but it’s for boiling only. We meet a Kiwi family who’s here for a week plus a day before and after driving. I can’t imagine spending a week here, and we ask the appeal, which is precisely that there’s nothing to do. They have brought all their food and water. We go north as far as we can and then turn back, and now the massive hills are on my side of the car, and they seem to rise directly up a foot or two from the side of the road. Somewhere along the way the car blows a tire, but we’re lucky and near another area managed by DOC. They wheel out a handy pallet jack seeming thing to prop the car up with, and there’s a full size spare in the trunk. We drive around the roads through the bushy interior of the peninsula and land in Whitianga (Fit-ee-on-ga) where I say goodbye to my driver and hit the hostel. If he makes it to the Tango festival in Portland he’s planning on, I’ll lend him my couch.
In the morning I catch a ride from the Spainards staying in my room to Hot Water Beach a half an hour away in time for low tide when you can dig your own hot tub to the geothermally heated water beneath the sand. The café nearby offers spades for ‘hire.’ You can hire almost anything in New Zealand. The beach is mostly given over to old white people however, and some have even managed to sit in about six inches of water. It’s not even worth getting into my bathing suit. The walk up to town from the beach crosses a small stream and the water’s running all hot and cold at the same time. The folks I’ve come with have gone on their way and I hope I don’t have to walk forever back to the hostel. I catch a ride close with the lead of a Kiwi logging crew, but in total it takes me three hours and I miss Cathedral Cove along the way and understand why you really need a car for some places here.
I get the bus back to Coromandel and my ride to Auckland, where I’ll meet another American for a road trip through the rest of the North Island. Except I don’t. The ride is listed as Auckland to Colville on a rideshare website, and it’s been a couple of phone conversations and several emails to set up, so I’m not quite sure how he’s actually leaving from Thames, which is an hour and a quarter south of Coromandel and impossible to get to on the bus until morning. I’m feeling very discouraged walking up to the hostel in Coromandel for the night—it’s just not what I’ve planned, and we sometimes clutch a bit tightly to the way we think things should be going. I decide to head out for a walk lest I make the other guests as miserable as me—“Sounds like a terrible day,” a nice English woman repeats, though I don’t elaborate—and find a DOC track up to a hillside with 360 views of Coromandel town with the forested hills behind it, the sea with the peninsula stretching out into it, and the beach and the boats in the bay below. As I wait for sunset perched on this perfect spot it starts to drizzle and a huge rainbow stretches out over the town below. Edge to edge, the whole arc of it won’t fit in any photo I could get. Holy shit, holy shit, I kept thinking. Which is to say, never get so upset you miss the rainbow. Indeed, the hostel is decidedly the best I’d stayed in, with plenty of indoor and outdoor space and a homey feel, and the town is small enough that my smile on the street is met with Hiya!s. One woman cruising down the sidewalk on her motorized wheelchair kicks out both legs in hooray and greets me with “Hiya, Love!” I can catch the bus to meet my roadtrip in the morning, and things will work out this way.
On my own again, I ride the bus south to Whangarei (pronounced fang-a-rey) but don’t stay longer than catching the next bus east to Dargaville, a cow town on the West Coast of Northland where I meet my first HelpX host. Help Exchange is similar to the more widely known WWOOF though not unique to organic farming—in exchange for a few hours help each day, according to the host’s needs, you are welcome to food and accommodation for the night. I think it’s a good idea to land somewhere for a while before catching another road trip.
The driver of the bus to Dargaville is more than a bit harried. When I try to bring my giant backpack on board he says to put it in the back, but I’m also trying to carry two other bags and hand him the cash for the fare. There’s a bit of a miscommunication as to what I should do first, but after trying to hand him the bill twice I realize my mistake and head out of the bus to shove my bag in the back with the greasy rags and tools and what have you. There are two other backpackers, but only one more bag will fit, and the third he dumps, unceremoniously and upsidedown, into the legroom area of the passenger seat. He nearly barks at the passengers at the next stop to open the door, but it’s clearly stuck so he exasperatedly goes around the bus to unstick it. His whole body is tense along the drive and I wonder what he’s done today to feel this way.
We pull in to Dargaville directly across the street from the market that’s closing up for the day and where my host, Ian, has been selling his sauces. On the way home he picks up more than thirty kilos of tomatoes, in addition to bags full of bell peppers of all colors and description, or capsicum as they’re known here, to process into more pasta sauce and relish. And you say tomato, they say tuh-MAH-toh. Trained as a chef, he cooks fritters with smoked mussels from around here and prepares a salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, loads of basil, and an amazing sauce. The food is so good I just roll each mouthful around to get all the flavor. Then we head out to an empty stretch of the 100km+ long Ripiro Beach nearby for a peek at the sunset on his quad. It’s wonderful. The clouds reflect off the wet sand and the ridges of the coastline melt into the horizon in the distance with no souls in sight. The water is warm and the ocean is so, so big in front of us. I try driving the quad but still don’t know anything about a manual transmission. Back at his house, I’m welcome to a sort of addition with its own bathroom, and after two nights in hostels and another two camping, sleeping in a real bed is absolute luxury.
Ian proves a fantastic host. In addition to freshly made and all you can drink stovetop coffee, he’s into good food from nothing but the freshest ingredients. After breakfast of toast with egg and bacon, I watch him deal with the two massive pots of tomato sauce he has boiling on the stove. If he had enough small jars he would make up his “comestibles” and I’d bottle and label them, but he refuses to buy new jars and so is always scavenging about from his customers, friends, and just about anyone else for more. Even with his generous fifty cent return on jars and forty-five minute drives to the recyclers, he never has enough, so just pours the sauce into giant pickle jars for now. Whatever’s left will simmer to reduce even further while we head out for the day’s work. First I split wood for about an hour. I hold the axe in hand an arm’s length from the chopping block, having only split wood probably once in my life before, and probably rather poorly, and warn “Don’t laugh.” Fortunately he gives me some helpful tips beforehand so the axe does more of the work than my shoulders, and the job is all sensation: the shaft of the axe sliding through my hand, the satisfying thwack of the blade into wood, the chopped pieces flying here or there, the fresh smell of the Cyprus wood in the air, the sticky sap on my hands, the sweat beading up on my brow, the peeling and raw skin of my thumb pad, the new calluses on my palm. It’s practical, refreshing work, and over before it becomes tedious. Next is a ride by quad bike to water the fledgling trees he’s planted at the top of his windswept property. Ian’s a bit of a dreamer. These trees are meant as a windbreak for the other structure up here which may one day be his living quarters, but they’re three years old already and maybe two and a half feet tall. That’s it for chores today.
I’m left to my thoughts while Ian goes into town to deal with some work things. If I were braver or more competent on the quad I could return to the beach, and he does offer to drive me, but I’m perfectly content in this peaceful place, with nothing but cows and fencelines and the daily trips of the school bus to interrupt the ceaseless rangelands. Ian calls his property “The Gulag,” but it’s more pastoral than anything. I realize I’m a bit off the beaten path now, and thankful for it. Soon enough Ian brings home fresh sausage, bread, white wine, and pesto to go with the local olive oil and cheese that he pulls out of the kitchen in addition to the now ubiquitous tomatoes. The olive oil has a strong flavor and I could sop it up with bread forever. We talk all night about politics and the differences between Kiwi, Austrian, and American societies. Ian’s more than a bit of a socialist, and he’s a little surprised an American is just as much a left winger. I promise to wake in time to leave by 6:30 for the next morning’s market, this time in Mangawai, a sleepy town an hour and a half southeast of Dargaville, on the other coast again.
In the morning I help Ian set up his stall and then check out the rest of the market before walking through the town in about an hour. There are a few shops and I look in the secondhand ones, where I pick up a bracelet of flat greenish black glass beads for only $5, the first cash I’ve spent since riding the bus into Dargaville. Back at the market, Ian’s very much the entrepreneur, selling his sauces along with the Northland’s red kumara, or sweet potato, which is fresh out of the ground and very popular here. At the supermarket in Auckland it’s reportedly $10 a kilo, but Ian’s selling it for $2.50 and still making a profit. He also has the rainbow capsicums along with some big green ones, manuka sawdust for smoking, wooden smoking platforms, and kauri wood spoons and tongs. He’s also a woodworker, and works with the developmentally disabled at his charity in Dargaville that will soon close down. His sauces are all socialist themed: there’s the AK-47 Revolutionary Relish, Mama’s Muzzolini pasta sauce, and the as yet unlabeled Fidel’s Feijoa Fusion blah, blah blah, as he says. It’s Kalashnikov Industries International Limited, conscious capitalism as he calls it.
Today Ian sometimes throws his voice to a long American drawl, it’s very John Wayne, and very comforting. After the market he takes me to see Frank, an Uh-MER-i-cun expatriate and artist whose house is a sort of assemblage of all kinds of materials built out the back of his friend and somewhat of a patron’s property. “The children of the revolution are here!” shouts my host as we arrive. “So,” Frank asks, when we meet, “what are you. A photographer, or…” and he’s stretching for some other reason I may have ended up here. I say, “Yeah, I can…” and, immediately recognizing my accent, he brightens and says, “You’re an American!” Yes, I can. American. He’s been assembling his underappreciated life’s work here for the last thirty years and it’s all sculpture everywhere—here a stand of coffee makers stacked on top of one another, there a concrete block with skateboard shoes, bicycle wheels and bits and pieces everywhere, paintings and collage too. We help him move a tailgate/bumper assemblage he calls Helen, after Helen Clark, the former prime and minister and self-appointed Arts Minister of New Zealand who Frank had tirelessly tried but failed to persuade into developing a retrospective of his work, and I immediately regret not getting a tetanus booster before I left. “I mean, you’ve been here for thirty years, you have to have some work to show for it, don’t you?” he says. I ask for the bathroom and am directed to either a bucket behind a narrow door or else the bush out back. After a bit of conversation, more politics peppered with questions of whether or not I’ve heard of this or that band like the Be Good Tanyas, Lucinda Williams, and Travis Tritt, Ian breaks out some fresh sourdough and chorizo he bought at the market, tomatoes and capsicum, and Frank brings out a brick of yellow butter, hummus, and Speights beer. It’s a good afternoon here, at this so-called outlaw’s last resort for us rat race refugees on the edge of the world.
Auckland doesn’t strike me as altogether different from any North American city I’ve been to except the shops all close by six and everything costs about twice as much. I can’t decide if it’s particularly unfriendly to pedestrians or if I’m just always looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic. Probably that one. It’s very much a city–everyone is expressly nice, but in an efficient businesslike way. The pace of life in cities, everywhere, is just faster.
American culture is at its zenith. I come across Seattle Espresso and Burger Wisconsin, both independent cafes, and the radio station at the hostel is tuned to Carly Rae Jepson and Owl City’s hit. It’s always a good time.
I do have a nice conversation with a man in the sporting goods shop I stop in to look for a replacement to the $30 sleeping pad I lost my first day at the Kona airport. (Their only offer is a deluxe Thermarest for $249, so I pass.) He spent some time living in Longview, the armpit of Washington (his words) and working at Jantzen Beach in Portland. The adorable kiwi accent doesn’t hurt. “Where are you headed?” asks the woman behind the desk at the hostel shortly after I arrive. “Just to the grocery store,” I say, but am not heard properly or at least not understood. “Oh, it would be nice to walk down by the waterfront,” she replies. “Just for a wee stroll. And don’t forget the supermarket’s on the corner so you can bring back any goodies. Yep, just for a wee stroll then,” and it’s decided. I stick out mostly because of my accent. It’s funny, because sometimes it takes a beat for anyone to understand anything. We speak the same language, but not really.
The hostel scene is pretty impersonal if you’re traveling alone, with so many people coming and going and I can’t believe this one has some of the better reviews in Auckland. The bathroom stalls are so narrow even I have a hard time getting in and out of them and the pillowcases are nearly threadbare. The kitchen is well outfitted though, and everything is clean, just very well used. So many backpackers come through New Zealand.
There’s something about being completely alone in a city full of people that makes one feel especially lonely.
My third night I plan to spend in another hostel that might be even grimmer–before I can finish paying for it a little silverfish bug hops aboard my wallet and crawls inside. It’s not to be though because as I check out of the first hostel and set up my New Zealand sim card I text Belgium, who’s been posting to couchsurfing about his plans to road trip around the country. They are headed out of the city “directly,” (who’s taught Europeans to say this whenever they mean “now?”) and offer to pick me up on the way.
We are Philippines, our driver who’s been living in Auckland for eight years, Spain and Colombia who are traveling separately but both fresh from Australia, and Belgium who’s on the first legs of a round the world trip. Later I learn they are also to meet up with Spain II, and then we will be six, which is too many for the car and too big a group for me anyhow. I can’t quite picture how it will work out and sort of volunteer myself to be the odd one out, but not before we drive to Paihia and cruise around the aptly named Bay of Islands where we see dolphins and schools of fish off the side of the boat and of course the beautiful scenery of the mostly undeveloped islands in the bay. The highlight of the trip is a ride through the “Hole in the Rock” of 478’ tall Piercey Island where the bay opens out into the Pacific Ocean. We also stop to enjoy the sandy beach on the largest island, Urupukapuka, and it’s covered with shells of all colors and shapes, way more than I’ve ever seen before.
At some point Belgium looks at me and says, “You are quiet. You are the fish, maybe?” He’s talking about astrology, and yes, it’s the fish. I’m on the cusp of Aries and Pisces, all fire and water, with the drive and ambition of the Aries ram mixed with the watery uncertainty of the fucking fish.
Time does not exist at the airport. It is perfectly acceptable, at 8am, to order a burger and fries with cocktails or fish and chips with beer. Fluorescent light, day and night, with nothing to mark the hours– the endless coming and going, boarding calls and no smoking announcements. TSA employees shuttle a never-ending stream of plastic bins from here to there for people who would rather be anywhere else while bleary-eyed clerks behind their counters provide a last refuge for the bored.
Are all flight attendants matronly blond women? With names like Patricia and Susan, never Patti, or perhaps it was Patti in the 1960s, when being a flight attendant was glamourous, when flying was glamourous, before the discount carriers and the add on fees for checked baggage and hot food. Would you like a complimentary mai-tai?, Carolyn asks an hour before we land. Am I breathing?
Kona’s airport is the cutest thing in the world. There I meet up with Olga, my Uzbeki-German traveling companion, and today we visit a farm owned by Diana, a New Yorker, macadamian nut farmer, and self-described “spoiled bitch.” She’s the kind of person who says things like “they just love me,” or, “she adores me,” all the time, and you could even believe her, could sit for hours listening to her stories. Which we almost do, and thankfully so– I don’t think the human body was meant to be propelled 2600 miles in six hours, +40 degrees and minus two hours. I sleep forever all night on an air bed that’s less forgiving than almost anything.
We see so much our second day. The black sand beach at Punalu’u is perfection. The background features coconut tree-lined ponds while Hawaiian turtles sun themselves on the sharp, black sand. After an hour or so we head back to Na’alehu for breakfast sandwiches from Shane, our gracious airbnb host. Up next is the Road to the Sea, at the end of which is South Point, the southermost tip of the island and of the US, where we spy a whale in the ocean and where the brave jump off a fifty foot cliff face. The water is so, so blue, and perfectly turquoise where the white of the swells crash against the rocks. At the other end of the point is what promises to be a 4x4 road to the green sand beach. We don’t have a 4x4, and it would be a beautiful walk, although an hour each way while completely exposed to the wind and sun. Luckily, we spot a shirtless dude bounding out of a Jeep and up the hill. “Are you going to hike it?” I ask. “Yeah, can we?” he says. Yeah, you can, but I mention the hour or anyhow bring up the possibility of driving it. “Why, do you want a ride?” he asks. Let’s not worry about the sign that says no off-roading, this is a road– it’s marked on the map. They ask me later what “Kapu” on the sign means. “It means ‘forbidden,’” I say in that matter-of-fact way that makes everyone laugh.
Before we embark I ask who the better driver is, wave off the local in a beat up Suburban who offers us a ride for $10, and jump in with Marc and his bros, who are old high school buddies here from all over the US. Our ride is a red Geo Tracker whose four wheel drive is broken, along with the glove box and any sense of responsibility to professionalism its owner may have once had toward his rental business. We’re followed by a much nicer rig, albeit with a much more cautious driver. Ours is very able, and when the road turns out to be a series of tracks through dirt, sand, grass, mud puddles, and some pretty nasty looking a’a lava rocks with no discernible route, he picks and chooses amongst the options, sometimes picking ones that look more safe, but mostly the ones that look like more “fun.” And it is fun, I’m just so glad I’m not driving. I’m also glad I’m not walking, once we get to cliff face that affronts the beach, you wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for the sort of parking lot that’s formed here. The sand is, predictably, green, and it’s a pretty fantastic spot. More so for the adventure that’s in it. The boys head in for some body surfing and I work up the nerve to ditch my clothes and head in in my skivvies, but I’m useless in these waves, trying to pull up my underwear that threaten to fall down instead of swimming with the current. It’s so windy on the beach that the sharp sand stings, and there’s sand everywhere now. When I find some in my ear later Olga says she is going to shake all hers out into a plastic bag to save– it is illegal to remove sand or rocks from Hawaiian beaches. We ride back out, and at one point it’s a little hairy, so we watch the driver behind us do it in his brand new rig, and it looks just like a Jeep commercial. We drive through a mud puddle that’s so deep it’s a wonder no water comes in under the doors, and some of the ruts are as high as the vehicle. I don’t worry, because I know we can just walk the rest of the way now, but we make it. We say goodbye to the bros and promise to see them at the volcano, but we don’t. Later I learn they blow a belt in the Tracker, but it’s fine for now. On the way to Volcano we take a side road through the mountains recommended by our airbnb host and we’re the only ones driving through these range lands with sweeping views of the sea. Our cabin just outside Volcanoes National Park is rustic but much nicer than expected with clean beds and warm blankets, light, an outlet, and a bathroom next door with hot showers. For sunset we watch Kīlauea’s Halema’uma’u Crater: I’m no geologist, but you can see the orange glow and steam from the lake of lava bubbling beneath the crater floor.
People tell me they admire me, they think I’m incredibly brave—for leaving it all behind, for traveling by myself to somewhere new. Leaving is the easiest thing in the world. It’s completely selfish, it’s Howard Roark in hippie pants. It’s saying: I’m not attached to any place or any person or any thing enough to care to stick with it. Leaving is easy. True bravery is going to work every day, fulfilling responsibilities, daily stuff.
“Aren’t you scared?” an older woman asked after I revealed the plan I was hatching. “Scared of what!?” I replied. Fear is the last thing on my mind. I worry, sure, about money mostly. But when you send a wish out into the universe, whatever comes back is perfection.