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.

the last frontier

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:

…we’re not
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
for itself…

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.

South, to the future

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

the Coromandel

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 and escape

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.

in Hawaii

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.

A note on bravery

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.

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