I left New Zealand 27 days ago and now I’m staying in the spare bedroom at my Mom’s house in Virginia.
I made a desk from two saw horses and a door I found in her garage and I’m reading through my journals. I thought I was going to be able to write something from all of this. I wanted to write a book or a series of short stories but this is hard. There is too much. I can’t process this. My brain is weak and I can’t get the big picture. I want to smoke weed to help guide me, but I need to pass a pre-employment drug screen so I can get a menial job because I’m in America.
I’m not even close to when the good stuff started. When I left the hostel and started traveling with the Irish girls and the California girl and the guy from Uruguay and the Kiwi busker we picked up. We would camp out and play music and get dirty and swim in the rivers and eat cous cous and vegetables. But I’m not there yet. Baby steps. Crawl before you can walk, right, Chris?
I’m sorry I haven’t updated my blog in a long time but I’m working on it, OK? This is going to take some time. The word document I wrote from my final month in New Zealand, when I was hitch hiking and camping and communing with nature, is 65 pages single-spaced. Most of it is word vomiting but with a bit of refinement, I believe that vomit can be turned into gold. But I’m not even close to cracking into that document. I’m at the point right now where I start to read my journals and take notes and find themes and I end up with even more hand written notes and that is just making even more work to do and then I have to stand up and walk around the house and look in the fridge even though I’m not hungry and then I go back to my “desk” and I can’t control the demon inside of me that opens up Facebook and the Reddit and then I check my e-mail but nothing has changed.
I know what I need to do, what I need to write and what I need to focus on but I don’t want to say it until it is done. I feel the compulsion to read everything I’ve written in chronological order and not just jump to the good parts because I don’t know what I will have missed. And then my guitars distract me and then my Mom gets home from work.
Meanwhile, I’m broke and I need to get a job so I can buy a car and move somewhere new because I don’t want to stay here.
At first I was hesitant about Virginia. Then I watched the Washington Nationals play baseball. It’s like nothing has changed. F.P. still says, “And there goes the no-hitter” at the first hit and Bob still says, “SEE, YOU, LATER!” when we get a home run. I sat down and watched my first game in two years and I felt a sense of belonging and community with my hometown. The team has barely changed. Life goes on. I can be happy here for the summer but this is a means to an end. The Drifter in me needs to stay on the move.
Don’t fret, loyal readers, Stories From A Drifter is still running. The resident Drifter is just working out this whole life thing and trying to live while also trying to re-live the past and show people what I have experienced. I have changed. I am different than I was two years ago. Even one year ago. My year in Australia revolved around working. My year in New Zealand was about learning and growing and being a soul rebel, soul adventurer, soul capturer. I’m here. I’m working on it. I promise (eek!) something good will come. But I can’t say when.
Everything was so easy in New Zealand. I had my rucksack on my back and my guitar in my hand and all I had to do was stick out my thumb and after a few minutes or a few hours I would summon a car. Some kind soul would give me teleportation, conversation and positive vibrations and then I would end up at the next campsite, pitch my tent, eat my oats and breathe the air. Constant high speed Internet, cable television and hot showers didn’t distract life in New Zealand. Life was simple over there. I was a wild animal. We all are.
From sunrise to sunset I am required to traverse New Zealand’s narrow, winding roads and stop at every scenic overlook for at least a half hour and watch the endless supply of travelers cycle through to take a quick selfie.
The three Canadian girls in a rented Jucy Campervan at Hot Water Beach are touring the North Island in just two weeks. Poor souls. A Honda Civic hatchback with a couple from Switzerland and Germany appear. He is here for a year but she is going home tomorrow and we all groan and tell her not to leave. Never leave.
I stop at the next spot and I think I’ll just stay here for a bit and put on a cup of tea and cook up some noodles and drop in a few eggs and the organic kale I picked up at a booth on the side of the road somewhere along the Coromandel Peninsula. I might as well read another chapter of the Hobbit and imagine I’m traveling with Bilbo and the thirteen dwarves. I wish there was more danger and adventure in this world, but I am content being armed with a camera instead of a sword.
I can do whatever I want. I have no obligations and no one to worry about but myself. I can’t imagine being in the group of six Germans divided among three minivans at the campsite last night. It’s hard enough deciding how to spend my day, where to sleep and what to eat for myself.
The boots I bought in Ireland two years ago have betrayed me. My feet feel the morning dew as I walk through the Wentworth Campground. Useless. I spring for the leather Kathmandu hiking boots with Vibram soles. They make me look like a weekend warrior. In a few years the leather will be seasoned and they will have taken me to places I can’t imagine.
I sling my hand-me-down Canon over my shoulder and stick my GoPro in the cargo pocket of my brown travel pants and walk though the thick, fern-covered native bush or maybe I’m strolling along a serene beach where the local elderly have been admiring the same sunset for seventy years. The beauty of this place is never ending. And everyone says the South Island is where all the amazing landscapes are found.
I feel the compulsive need to sift through the hundreds of pictures I take everyday and pick out the 42 best shots to share on Facebook. What did travelers and writers do before social media? How did they share what they were doing? Talking? Photo albums? How arcane. What would Henry David Thoreau Tweet from his hut on the Walden Pond?
So many thoughts cloud my mind as I drive down the expressway to Te Puke. I haven’t blogged in eleven days. Wait a second, I’m pretty sure this side of the four lane divided highway is one way. Is this cunt driving on the wrong side of the road? Jesus. The station wagon in the lane next to me pulls behind my van to let the Idiot pass. We give each other bewildered looks once he’s gone.
Bugger Auckland, I can barely stay in a small, coastal city like Tauranga for more than a few hours. Anywhere that forces me to pay or parking is too big. I like Te Puke, where a sign in the library reads:
Dress Code: No gang patches. No gang insignia. No pyjamas.”
Two Maori’s sit next to me playing rap music from their Samsung.
Wait a second, you may be asking yourself, I thought Sean was supposed to be covered in cow shit and breaking fence posts with the tractor. How every perceptive of you, Dear Reader, and thanks for paying attention. Let me take you back to the penultimate day of August…
It’s 5:15 in the morning and I’m sitting in the international arrivals area of the Auckland Airport. A little girl yells “Daddy” and runs to give him a hug. A group of Chinese business men stop to take a picture in the area marked by yellow lines that reads, “STAND CLEAR.” Leigh’s flight is delayed by an hour so I have to sit here and watch families and loved ones reunite. OK, she should be here by now. I get a text:
Sean, I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. My luggage is still not here :(“
After nearly three hours, she sneaks up behind me and grabs my beard. It’s weird seeing her after 73 days apart but after a few hours together it’s like nothing has changed.
She is from the Philippines but she recently earned her Australia permanent residency, thanks to her skills and reliability as a chef at the Casino where I was a barista and bartender. Dating a girl from a third world country is exciting and full of surprise. I never know what to expect and she makes me burst with laughter and joy without knowing why. Tagalog, the Filipino language, doesn’t use gender specific pronouns so she regularly mixes up her he’s and she’s.
Once she finishes the two years left on her contract with the Casino, she will be an Australian citizen with a blue passport. Apparently people from third world countries have maroon passports, which restricts travel. If you have a blue passport, you can enter many more countries without needing a visa or extra paperwork. I’ve never thought about the color of my passport.
The Philippines is corrupt, she says. After typhoons, for example, the government receives international aid money and most of that money doesn’t actually go toward helping people in need. Also, the wages are abysmal compared to Australia. Instead of a solid hourly wage, workers are paid by the day.
In order to travel, she went to culinary school for two years and then applied for an internship in the US, and then in Australia. Now she has accrued six weeks of holiday and is spending one with me and five with her family. It’s good to have an excuse to leave the farm behind and travel around this North Island of New Zealand.
First we went to Northland to camp on Uretiti Beach then down to Waitomo to take a tour of the famous glow worm caves. There were options to do adventure black water rafting, tubing and abseiling but I just wanted the simple tour of the caves guided by a soft spoken Maori who ended every sentence with “aye.” He says it takes 500 years for a stalactite to grow one inch, aye. Then he takes us on a twenty minute boat ride through the glow worm cave, aye. The American Dad in front of us with crew cut and brand new hiking boots — Now I’m like him — sits the wrong way.
“You’re facing the wrong way, mate,” he tells him, aye.
The glow worms will stop glowing if we make any noise, but the Spanish family that barely speaks any English keeps chatting and our guide says, “Shhh.”
The boat comes to an opening with nothing but green, glowing orbs above us, and our guide stops the boat for ten minutes and we all sit in silent awe. It is peaceful.
I realize now that it’s a losing battle trying to write about every day and every experience we had on this trip. I could write thousands of words, but no one wants to read that. So here are some pictures:
On one of the last nights we had together sleeping in my van, she asked, “After I leave, is this the end?”
It was like she was reading my mind. We had already said goodbye when I left Alice Springs and it was really hard. I didn’t think we would see each other again. She has two years left in Alice Springs and I am living a life of travel and adventure. I need to be free.
I feel like I’m a puzzle piece in your life and one day you will be complete and I will be so happy for you.”
People underestimate her because her English isn’t perfect and she is small and soft spoken. But she is smart and intuitive and cheeky and funny and when she says things like this I realize how incredible she is and how lucky we are to be with each other right now. She understands me and she believes in me.
She is 23 and she is young and she wants to be free. After two years of learning and developing her skills as a chef, she will be a talented Australian Citizen with the entire world and all of it’s food ready to be diced, sautéed and plated. One day I will dine in her 5-star restaurant.
She asks me if it is hard to always be leaving. The emotions come in waves. I’m anxious in the process of making my preparations and saying my goodbyes. But once I’m packed and charged and on the road, it’s pure euphoria. I can stop at hostels to find work if I want or I can keep camping and traveling.
As we drive to the airport, she says, “It’s so hard not to cry because that’s all I can do.”
The second goodbye was easier for me. When I left Alice Springs I was leaving a steady job, my best friend from back home, an easy life in the outback and my girlfriend and I was heading to a new country where I had to start all of that over again. This goodbye is different. She is the one who is leaving and I know what I’m doing.
I’m not sure if this is the end, but I’m so glad you joined me.
…And now I’m alone with the road and the wild chickens and the travelers and the sunset. This is where I’m supposed to be.
I never expected to encounter religious zealots or political conservatives in Australia and New Zealand. I thought they could only be found in the wilds of America. But somehow they always manage to find me.
Josh and I weren’t prepared for the cold and wet of the Adelaide hills. We had been living in the desert for months, where the perpetual dry heat makes life easy. We sought refuge at a holiday park to dry our clothes and gear. I made the short walk to the facilities to put in a load of laundry.
“Good morning! Where are you from?” a middle-aged woman immediately asks me, as if she has been waiting for someone to talk to.
I say the States and she says that’s amazing. She spent time with some ranchers in Oklahoma and loved it. I try to shake her off and get back to my washing, but she appears to be brainwashed or maybe she is a robot because her wide eyes seem blank and her smile is way too big.
Yeah, I love America,” she continues, deadpan. “The only problem is that the military is controlled by the devil.”
The crazy inside of her is no longer able to contain itself and I take that as my invitation to stop giving her my time. I tell her to have a great day as I walk back to the site with a great story to tell Josh.
Then there was the old man in the Auckland CBD who found me on a cold Monday morning. It was my third day in New Zealand and I was sitting on a bench smoking a rollie and drinking a flat white between opening a bank account, registering for a tax number and applying for my driver’s license.
“Mind if I join you?” he asks.
I always welcome a random conversation, so I invite him to take a seat. He hears my accent and tells me I must be an American. He says he’s a born again Christian. I get really excited and tell him I’ve studied you, what do you have to say?
I have something very bad to tell you about America,” he tells me, grimly.
Great! Lay it on me. I realize he isn’t the type of person to be straightforward as he begins his exposition. He says in the New Testament, there is a story of the sign of the devil, 666, marked on the right hand of sinners. I finish my cigarette and become impatient. He produces a small copy of the New Testament full of dog-eared pages and annotations and tells me to read the line he is referring to. I finish my coffee. Yeah, that’s great, man. What is this terrible thing you have to say about America?
He reaches into his coat pocket again and gives me a printed off article about Obamacare. It’s from some religious blog and it says as part of Obamacare, all Americans will be required to have a tiny microchip implanted in their right hand. And there you have it, folks, certified proof that Obama is the devil. But he’s not done yet. He tells me Obama is a Muslim at heart and there it is again, my queue to leave.
Looking back on these interactions, it would have been much more fun and interesting if I egged them on agreed with them. I should have taken it further, donned my tin foil hat and thought up some ridiculous conspiracy theory that would make them uncomfortable.
Now I’m in a rural farming town in New Zealand where Christian Farmers don’t pay any taxes and racism toward the Māori, Chinese and Indians is casual. And conservatism is king. Digger’s Father stopped by the farm yesterday morning and we had a little chat.
So, Sean, who do you have for President?” the typical American question.
The first thing I have to say is how the Republican race is a reality show with Donald Trump fear-mongering to get the support of angry old white people. Then I say I’m not a big fan of Hillary, she is too establishment and too boring. I don’t trust her. I’m a big supporter of Bernie Sanders. I’ve been a fan of his for a while now but I never expected him to blow up like this. He is the first politician I’ve ever seen who actually tells the truth and focuses on people, not money.
We talk about this for a bit and he asks me what I want to do when I go back to the states. I tell him I want to be a journalist. I want to talk to people and ask questions and write. That’s the dream, for now.
He says all of the journalists here in New Zealand and way too far to the left. It takes me back to the days of Sarah Palin repeating the words “lame-stream media” on Fox News. I nod and think about how I’ve fallen in love with Susie Fergusen, host of Radio NZ’s Morning Report, and the way she ruthlessly attacks politicians and speaks truth to power. I don’t think of her as liberal. I think of her as trustworthy.
This is the way I see it: It is the job of the journalist to seek out the truth. If the majority of journalism is “liberal,” does that mean that journalists have a liberal bias or does it mean that the truth has a liberal bias?
Next we arrive on the issue of climate change. First it was global warming, now it’s climate change, now they say we are going into another ice age.
I don’t buy it.”
He has read a lot about the issue and looked at it from both sides and decided that it’s all a bunch of bullshit from the UN and Obama to make money. He mentions a guy from NASA who retired and wasn’t on the payroll anymore so he could finally write about how climate change isn’t manmade, it’s just nature. I nod my head and remain silent but what I really want to do is yell in his face.
Then it’s on to Labor Unions, which are huge in New Zealand. Digger’s Dad is an engineer and was on a job one day with a truck driving union member. The union guy assumed they were both on the same page and brought up some recent issue. He said he wasn’t a union supporter.
“Well, what would you do if you thought you weren’t getting paid enough?” the truck driver asked.
“I would talk to my boss and tell him to pay me more. If he disagreed, I would go find another job,” he replied.
That shut him up.”
I think to myself, Wow, what a ridiculous oversimplification of the role of unions. What if you can’t just go to the job store and pick out a new job? And of course Digger was sitting there agreeing with everything his Dad said.
It doesn’t matter what country you are in. People in rural, less educated areas will mostly be conservative. Digger has often told me that he didn’t get into farming because he was good at school. They resent the big university boys from Auckland and Wellington who never worked a “real” job, who take their hard-earned money and give it to the Māori and the other dole bludgers. There are often racist undertones to their political thoughts.
On my first night drinking with real Kiwis around a giant bon fire, these white farmer guys and girls kept talking about Niggers. I had to stop to ask, who are the Niggers? The Māori.
I have heard jokes like: “What’s the best place to hide a Māori’s dole check? Under his work boot.” Māori’s can often earn more on the dole than they can working, which creates a lot of resentment, but calling them Niggers seems a bit extreme. That word has a lot of history to it.
I thought I was traveling through one of the the more enlightened areas of the world, but I guess there are different types of people everywhere. I’m kind of glad though, it keeps things interesting.
I want to be free and drive south to Taupo, with her beautiful lake and mountains, or some quaint coastal town. Everyone else is traveling around the country and having fun and I’m slaving away on a farm communicating with one human and 200-something cows and 30-something calves. I want to go skiing. I want to live at a hostel. Work at a cafe. Meet new and exciting people. I want to drive my van around the countryside and sleep in the back. No Internet, read books. Go on adventures. Go tramping. Get into silly situations. Drift and create the stuff from which stories are made.
After a day of traveling and facing strange encounters, I immediately feel the need to write and it flows out effortlessly. They are novel and interesting, I think, but the best stories take patience. Some stories evolve and get better with time, like chili in a crockpot. Maybe your feelings change. Maybe you develop a new perspective. Some stories never end.
I wanted to leave the farm because I felt like a burden. When I first met Digger, he didn’t want to hire me. This story started when I met Jeremy…
I stayed at a hostel for my last month or so in Australia. I had moved out of my flat and needed an easy place to stay until my visa expired. The receptionist recognized me from the Wide Open Space music festival and knew I was “cool.”
I’ll put you with Jeremy,” she says as she looks at the hostel notebook.
I get my key and enter a dark room with a small TV playing Spiderman on DVD. There are three bunk beds covered in dirty sheets, candy wrappers, empty coke bottles, and one outline of a human body underneath a blanket.
I hear a raspy, cigarette voice come from the top bunk in the corner.
“Hey, bro. I’m Jeremy.”
I set my bags on the bottom bunk bed on the opposite side of the room and introduce myself. I tell him I’ve been living in Alice for about 11 months, just came back from a three-week road trip to Adelaide and Melbourne, and I’m going to New Zealand soon.
He slowly lifts his fist into the air and says, “New Zealand,” with as much enthusiasm as his hangover can handle.
Jeremy works at the hostel as the maintenance guy. His job consists of fixing shower heads and repairing the table he broke last night when he was on the piss. He can usually be found around the hostel, barefoot and shirtless in the desert sun wearing raggedy denim shorts with a black peace sign bandana holding up his unwashed blonde surfer hair. Just yell his name and you will probably hear a response. He walks tall on the balls of his feet with his chest puffed out. And he is loud. Very loud.
When I come back from work and step out of my ute I hear his booming voice greet me from the other side of the hostel.
I wave because I’m too soft-spoken to yell across the hostel courtyard.
I’m not sure where the desire came from, but something told me I should work on a dairy farm in New Zealand. I didn’t know why or how, but that was my goal. Luckily, there are heaps of Kiwis in Alice Springs. They are drawn to the easy lifestyle and high wages. I had been talking to Jeremy and Matt, both from the Waikato, about farming in New Zealand.
Don’t work for an Indian,” Matt advises me.
They tell me I’m coming at the perfect time — late June — because the farm season begins on June 1 so everyone will be looking for help. They say some farmers prefer hiring new workers because they don’t have any bad habits. They say it’s easy to find a job. They say to expect a weekly salary of about $800, free accommodation and a freezer full of meat if the farmer kills a beast.
It seemed like a great gig, almost too good to be true.
I asked Jeremy if he could help me find a job on a dairy farm. He is from Matamata, right in the middle of some of the best farmland in the world. The next morning he tells me he called his old lady and she said I have a job starting on June 31. That would give me 10 days after I fly into Auckland to buy a car and make my way to the farm.
Once I made it to New Zealand and talked to his Mum, I found out he lied and there was no dream job waiting for me.
I thought I would have to try something else and give up on my farming pipe dream. The dairy payout in New Zealand is the lowest in ten years and most farmers are set to lose at least a quarter of a million dollars this year. Farmers are culling their animals, laying off workers, and not spending any money. That means no one wants to hire a completely inexperienced American guy who used to work in sterilized Washington, D.C. offices and tourist town bars in Australia.
Jeremy’s parents let me stay in his bedroom for a few days while I figure out my next step. On my second night they invited Digger, one of Jeremy’s best mates, over for dinner. He seemed like a very genuine guy. I told him my situation. He said he couldn’t hire me. He has been on his farm for less than a month and he doesn’t have a budget for me. I told him I’m looking into WWOOFing and willing to work for free. I just want experience.
Digger decided to give me a chance. The next morning he picked me up and we drafted his cows. The next day I put up a fence. The next day we lit some big bonfires and I took the thin foam mattress out of my van and onto the floor of one of the four empty bedrooms in his cold house.
For the first few weeks it was easy work and I would come and go as I pleased. Preparing the farm for calving, fixing fences, readying the milking shed. I was learning something new every day and I enjoyed being outdoors in the beautiful Waikato.
Once calving started, he said, “Well, I guess I should start paying you.”
Now we were talking hours and pay and everything was confusing. I didn’t want to be a burden and every time I fucked up and dropped a tape gate or let a cow escape I felt like I should be paying him for lost time.
He said he likes working alone because if something goes wrong he only blames himself. I could tell when he didn’t want me around.
I would work with Digger during the week but he said he would quiet happily work alone on the weekends. So I would sit in my cold room and smoke and watch movies and TV shows and browse inane travel blogs, not understanding how something so trivial and boring could muster 400 followers and 20 likes on every post. Just because you are somewhere noteworthy, doesn’t make your 200 word listicle post noteworthy. I would search for the bloggers who write with passion, who actually have something to say besides the best place to get a coffee in Queenstown.
I am happier when I’m on the farm, but the new rules about money and time relegated me to only being needed at certain hours. It’s a strange relationship having your boss, roommate, workmate and friend all rolled into one. It takes time to get a feel for how to communicate with each other.
After being in a funk all weekend, I perform my morning tractor duties and when I return to the farm Digger drives up and skips the greeting and says a heifer jumped a fence and can you stand here and be on traffic control duty. My mood immediately picks up and I remember that I have a place here and everything is right with the world.
I’ve realized that Digger and I both like having our own space and being alone, but we need each other. It’s getting busy now so there is always work to do. I am more confident and independent and we know how to work with each other. Digger can go into town to buy Mastitis drugs and I can milk the first two rows myself and hopefully not fuck anything up.
I can’t believe I wanted to leave this place just a few days ago. I love being here. I did so much badass shit today. I drove a tractor down the highway with a full load of silage. I taught two newborn calves how to drink and fed eight buckets of milk to the heifer calves. I shoveled soiled sawdust from the calf pens into the bucket on the tractor and then changed to the forklift to dump the rubbish bins into the trash pile. I rode a two-wheeler around the farm and chased cows and set up temporary fences. I got poo flung in my eye. My finger was caught between a cow and a metal bar. A cow kicked my arm into a beam. A cow stood on my toes while I was wrestling her back through the gate with her head in my arms grimacing, “Fuck you, cunt,” through my teeth. I’m sore and I’m tired but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This story isn’t over yet. I can’t just cut a story short because of a brief period of doubt. I have to see it through. It’s OK to be uneasy. It’s ok to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to move on and leave everything behind. I always want to travel and drift, but right now my place is here on the farm.
There is no right time to write. Everyday I become a new person. Sometimes I read back on what I wrote in my journal last year and I wonder how I ever thought these thoughts. I think that is the purpose of writing. To make yourself immortal for a day. Maybe there is no write time, it’s just right all the time.