Women from Argentina are not “ladies.” They are strong and beautiful and they tell dirty jokes. I am constantly mesmerized and infatuated by their version of Spanish. It is passionate, flowing, comical and improvisational. They love to laugh and share. English is a buzz kill. Clumsy and awkward. Just look at these words. Gross.
Juan asks Juli if she wants some yerba mate, a popular South American tea.
“Yes. I always want mate,” she says matter-of-factly with a furrowed brow.
“[REDACTED], why are you traveling?” she asks abruptly.
We are sitting on the grass by my van and their tents on a small, tiered campground in Frankton. There is little privacy here. There is nothing to stop anyone from unzipping a tent and stealing passports and other valuables. Large houses flank us on either side and only a small apple tree serves as a barrier to State Route 6. We must look very out of place to the cars driving by on their way to Queenstown. But that’s why I chose to stay here. It’s interesting.
“That’s a big question,” I say.
“No, it’s a long answer,” she says.
I give a convoluted explanation about my Dad kicking me out of the house, my temp job ending, and my girlfriend breaking up with me in the first week of June 2014 and then moving to Australia to live with my best friend in the middle of the desert and then not wanting to go home so I came to New Zealand and then I somehow ended up here.
My journey chose me—I never planned this—but Juli was more deliberate.
“I was spending my day going to work and then at the end of the month I get a paycheck and then I save it. Why?” she asks. “I thought I would come to New Zealand for six months but now I want to travel the world. I don’t care if I don’t have any money.”
A month later I’m standing on the side of road a few kilometers outside of Motueka. I’ll tell you how I got there some other time.
Two tasty-looking Porches with empty passenger seats scream by and I fully extend my arm but they ignore my thumb.
A small blue sedan stops in front of me.
Bronson asks where I’m going. He is wearing a black baseball cap and has a few days of growth on his face.
“Takaka,” I say.
He shoots me a hang loose surfer gesture and says hop in.
Bronson is forty-years-old and has four kids. The oldest is 19 and he is off traveling the world. Bronson looks after his three younger children and works three days a week.
“I work to live,” he says. “I don’t live to work.”
He is heading to Takaka on this beautiful Sunday morning to play in a football match, a sport referred to as soccer where I’m from. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t make any sense.
He lived in Portland, Oregon for a couple years and loved it.
I say you hear a lot of bad stuff coming from the U.S., but traveling is all about the people you meet. There are nice people everywhere you go.
The conversation drifts to U.S. politics and of course, Trump. I say there are a lot of Americans out there who are conscious about the world but there are also lots of Americans who rarely leave their home state or hometown. Maybe they are uneducated or live in poverty but they are more likely to support Donald Trump. The system has failed and Trump is bringing out the worst in people.
He asks if I smoke as we pull over. He rolls a cigarette and says you can have a cone if you want. He already had one this morning.
He shows me the “Sneaky Toke” he’s had for years. It’s a self-contained metal tube with one end to light and one end to inhale. It works like a charm and I thank him for brightening my day.
We drive on and talk about some deep shit, most of which I have forgotten.
We crest a hill and a wide valley opens up between green mountains and the coast. There are pine forests and dairy farms with a few houses dotting the landscape. I talk about how there are so many landscapes in New Zealand. Otago is a sub-alpine desert. The Fiordlands, in the southwest corner, reminded me of Jurassic Park.
“Isn’t it just,” he says. “A land lost in time.”
I mention that I’ve spoken to a lot of people about the ecosystems in New Zealand and how introduced humans and animals have changed the country over the past 1,000 years.
New Zealand is known for its clean and green environment, he says, but that’s not the reality. It seems like every Kiwi I’ve talked to would agree. Tourism is New Zealand’s No. 1 export, so the whole “clean and green” thing gets repeated ad nauseam, especially from Australians. But if you get off the tourist track and spend time observing and talking to locals, you realize the entire country has been sold off to the dairy and logging industries to the detriment of the environment. Stay tuned for more on that, my loyal readers.
Bronson talks about how there needs to be a big change in the way we view the world. I feel you, man.
The conversation drifts and I talk about a Bob Marley interview I saw on YouTube. He is asked if he is rich. Marley replies, what do you mean rich? The interviewer says, do you have a lot of possessions and money in the bank? He responds, “My richness is life, forever.”
With one week left in New Zealand and my Australian savings pretty much depleted at this point, that’s how I feel right now. I don’t have a lot of money, but I feel rich.
“Rich with experience,” he says.
We’ve been driving for a while and Bronson starts to worry that he has taken a wrong turn. He doesn’t want to be late for his match.
“Isn’t there only one road?” I say.
“I just thought we should be there by now,” he says. “But yeah, when you said that it reassured me.”
Now we are getting close to Takaka.
“So you’re heading back home in a week,” he says. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know, man,” I say.
“I thought the point of traveling was to figure out what you want to do,” he says.
“No, traveling just makes you want to travel more,” I say.
I take my time in the mornings because I know everything will work out.
If I need to cross the entire south island on a deadline, I will be thumbing by seven but today I just need to get back to civilization. Three days of oats and cous cous is enough.
I start walking the two and a half kilometers from the campsite to the road out of this isolated national park under the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
I put down my guitar and take off my backpack and take a seat on the side of the road with my flannel jacket over my head to block the sun and I wait for a kind stranger to take me somewhere I’ve never been. I was freezing last night in my $30 tent from the Warehouse and my $107 sleeping bag from Macpac. The alpine chill woke me at four and couldn’t go back to sleep so I got dressed and took a brisk walk to Kea Point, under Mount Sefton, and listened for avalanches and waited for shooting stars. I was not disappointed.
I’m thinking about how this mountain range looked one million years ago and what it will look like one million years from now. When will the next earthquake hit? Time feels different here. Short and long all at once. It is difficult for humans to comprehend the infinite peace of nature. The aboriginals of Australia learned the truth from the desert. The mountains and the forests don’t care what happens to them but they can teach you everything if you are open.
In 1991, the year I was born, the top ten meters of Mount Cook fell off in an avalanche. I always thought mountains were sturdy and stable. But the longer I sit here listening and watching, I can see that the mountains live. They radiate energy. I am not alone here. Woah. Now I can see it. Those long white scares are waterfalls. The mountains are crying. Their mighty tears slice through the delicate Earth. The water roars because it knows it always wins.
The mountains swing and sway with the wind. Ice and rock waxes and wanes. They scream in ecstasy as the time finally comes for them to jump and crash and break into something new. Entropy. Chaos. Order.
Yesterday, I sat here and observed the blue grey slurry of the glacial lake. But some pockets of water are a vibrant, bright blue, untouched by the dirt. Red rocks create islands and green moss grows in random patches. I can hear the camera shutters of tourists. I sent my camera back home when I sold my van and started hitching. It is non-essential. I used to look at landscapes through a viewing hole but now I watch people look at landscapes through a viewing hole. It is a new perspective. I look at everyone I pass in the eye because I might see someone I know. It’s a small world. They are loud, these humans, I can’t wait for them to pass so I can listen again to the bird songs.
The purples, oranges and yellows are peaking out now as the sun rises. No sign of the humans yet. They always come when the sun is poison and the colors are hot. Everyone cares about sunset but what about sunrise, moonrise and moonset? You can see them all come and go out here. It’s one big cycle. It never ends. But it might break if the humans keep reproducing, consuming and destroying. They never learn.
There is a cold, eerie silence at this hour. I hear another rumble—a chunk of ice or rock falling—and I can’t believe humans have climbed these mountains. They can be brave. Or stupid. They mock the power of nature. Thinking they are above it. The clouds are long, pink strands and the stars are pulsing. The skies have been miraculously clear while I’ve been here except for a few during sunrise and sunset. The sun wanted something to splash its color upon. They dance and swirl above the mountains.
I climbed up a rock wall to get closer to the mountains. A young man appears and then a small woman a minute later. They sit on the wooden platform overlooking the glacial lake and the mountains. We watch the soft light slowly conquer the snow and the ice. The eternal fight between night and day rages on. The light changes from red to yellow and the sky is blue now. The stars are gone.
I walk down to the platform.
“I don’t understand why no one comes out here at this time,” I say to the two strangers.
“I think it has to do with waking up in the dark and walking up a big hill,” the small, trim English woman with short grey hair says with a big smile. “I don’t mind being the only one out here.”
I linger for a moment in silence and smile at her response. We all look to the mountains again.
“Well, have a good day.”
Everyone driving by nudges their passenger and gestures at the hippy on the side of the road sitting behind a sign that reads, “HOME.”
It is slow out in the middle of nowhere at Aoraki.
A station wagon pulls off after a half hour wait.
“Hi, Where are you going?” a young woman asks as I gather my belongings.
“I’m not sure exactly,” I say. “East.”
“Well, I’m going to Lake Tekapo,” she says.
“Sweet. I’m happy just to get back to the main highway.”
She speaks fluent English with an American accent because she lived in Idaho and Alaska for nine years but she is German. It becomes obvious when she says Stutgart. No way of hiding a German accent when speaking German.
She shares this car with her friend, a French guy, and she wanted to go off and be alone for a day—but I don’t think she minds random company.
She says she knows how it is to get out of an isolated place like this. She’s hitched before and she loves it. She says it’s so exciting and everything always works out. You can wait for a while but then you get picked up and you think of course this had to happen.
“Yes! Exactly!” I say. “No matter what happens everything always works out.”
We drive to Twizel—which she pronounces like the licorice candy but it is supposed to be Twizel like in twilight—because she needs food.
“I need food too,” I say. “I’m getting really tired of cous cous and oats.”
Twizel’s size is deceptive. You can’t see much from the highway but the suburbs are expansive. We stop at the Four Square and I stock up on oats, nuts, seeds, bananas, carrots, dark chocolate and a couple tins of baked beans.
“I feel like I’m buying way too much food,” I tell her when she rounds the corner and I’m looking at something new called flaked rice which intrigues me but I decide to not take the risk.
“Yeah, I put some things back,” she says. “I had to say OK, Anna, you don’t actually need this.”
And now I know her name.
I run next door to the camping store to buy a fuel tank for my stove and we meet back at her car.
We drive to Lake Pukaki and pull off at an unmarked free campsite on the lake with a view of the backside of the mountains. It is warmer here.
She says she is going to make some lunch. Boiled pumpkin and fried onions. I grab my guitar because I always try to repay people who pick me up. Music and a sense of humor is all I have to offer right now.
She was playing Neil Young in the car so I play a couple of his tunes and then play some more classic rock and Bob Marley. We don’t talk much.
“Thank you for the music,” she says as she stirs the onions. “I’ve always wanted someone to play and play while I just sit here.”
“It’s my pleasure. I could play for hours.”
“I know,” she says.
“Well, I think I’m gonna stay here for the night, now that I have enough food and this place is free. I was thinking I need a shower and to do laundry but…” I point to the lake.
“See! Everything always works out,” Anna says.
She eats her lunch and I grab my bags and walk up the small hill into the pines. The sun is poison. I need shade. There is so much more freedom in not having a car. I can go places no one else can go. I can hide among the trees. There is a toilet here and even a water spigot so I don’t have to drink questionable lake water. I would if I had to.
I set up my tent and the stakes go in easily in this soft ground covered in pines needles and cones. I find a few of pieces of human shit and toilet paper scattered about even though there is a toilet about 150 meters away.
“If you are using this toilet, you are not one of the people shitting everywhere, THANK YOU,” says the back of the latrine door in black magic marker.
It’s dark now and I’m reading the Bible in my tent. I think it’s time to go sit by a fire. I’m on top of the world hidden among the pines and I can see at least eight campfires by the lake. Most are small and meant to be shared by a couple in an RV, but one fire looks like it was made for company. It is on the pebble beach with long flames reflecting off the deep blue water.
I walk down with my guitar and there are two men cooking by their van a few meters away. I ignore them and sit by their fire. I start to play.
“Ahh, you bring music!” one of them says.
“You make a fire, I bring my guitar,” I say.
Leor sings along to some ’70s classic rock and Amit says, “This is what we needed, some soul!”
They are brothers from Israel.
Everything comes in threes. I have been reading about Israel in the Bible and then I meet an Israeli woman and now two Israeli brothers. The trinity is sacred. Jah Rastafari.
A few days ago I hitched with a young woman named Dekel Goldstein, she is short with chubby cheeks and rusty brown hair. She told me people all over the world believe the Israelites are the chosen people so they give them free accommodation and food. She just came from a three-night stay at a lodge in Wanaka. I was just reading about the Israelites and the Egyptians, but I didn’t know people out there still believe this shit.
“Dude, I’ve been reading the Bible,” I say to the brothers. “And God is a total dick.”
I explain my take from reading Revelation, Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus: You gotta get over all the weird shit like people living to be 800 years old, slavery being totally cool, woman only seen as beautiful pieces of property, Abraham getting circumcised at 99 and you gotta just try to take the story for what it is. A bunch of really old, dumb stories.
First of all, I have to say God was such a petty asshole that he caused one of first two sons of Adam and Eve to kill his brother. Cain is a misunderstood, pissed off vegan. And rightly so. Seriously. Cain was a farmer so he brought God a bunch of fruit from his fields and God was like, WTF is this bullshit? Abel was a shepherd so he killed a bunch of animals and God was like, Yes!! This pleases me very much! Thanks for killing all those nice animals I created. So Cain killed Abel and God cursed him to be a wanderer forever on the Earth, so there is a really pissed off vegan to this day wandering from place to place, never finding satisfaction. Thanks, God.
Let’s talk about the Israelites. Can we talk about the Israelites? A new King of Egypt thought there were too many Israelites so he enslaved some of them and then God went absolutely crazy ex-girlfriend revenge status. He did super evil stuff like turning rivers to blood, unleashing plagues of frogs, flies, locusts, sores and boils and killing the livestock, oh yeah, and killing all of the first born sons in Egypt.
Here is a loving, totally not racist excerpt from Exodus, Chapter 11:
“5. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the female slave, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. 6. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again. 7. But among the Israelites not a dog will bark at any person or animal. Then you will know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”
That shit is hardcore. We’re talking Trump level racism here. What kind of God is this to worship? He’s also really jealous and he demands that everything in the church be made out of gold. In Exodus 25, God uses the word “gold” 17 times to describe all the materialistic bullshit he wants and if you don’t make it then you are going to suffer. Seriously, God really likes gold on everything. Damn, Trump is God. God is Trump.
I ask Leor about Exodus and he says, “Yes, Passover is a very happy time for us, but looking at it from the outside it is not happy.”
“They are just stories though,” Amit says. I ask about the free accommodation thing and he says there are “crazy religion” people that will give Israelites free accommodation. They have used it before, and they know a few people who jump from free spot to free spot for months.
Amit is the younger brother. He practices Poi, the glowing balls on the ends of strings you hold in each hand and spin. He works as a builder and looks much more laid back than his older brother. Leor is an officer in the Israeli army. They did a long hike today and are rolling their backs out on a wooden plank with an odd shaped ball that relaxes muscles.
Amit says Leor wanted the fire closer to their van but Amit told him there is already a fire pit on the beach and it is more inviting over there. I tell Amit thanks, that’s why I came here, you guys have the best spot. All the other fires are not inviting. Everything happens for a reason.
Leor goes to sleep but Amit and I stay up and talk for a couple of hours.
He tells me about Israel. There are about 8 million people in Israel. Around 6.5 million are Jewish and the remaining 1.5 million are Muslim. It is like apartheid.
“I remember the age when I realized my parents are brainwashed,” he says.
He says he hopes Donald Trump is elected as president so he will give all the Israelites a visa.
Amit tells me more about the “crazy religion” people. The religious people in Israel are very intelligent and philosophical and they can quote people from 300 years ago. Here in New Zealand there is a website for free accommodation for Israelites. You sign up and they let you in their house and they say Jesus loves you so I want to help you. It is very simple.
He says humans abuse drugs all the time. He likes to take LSD and dance. It can help you tell you who you are. It can be very powerful.
Amit doesn’t believe in politics because it is all bullshit and nothing is going to change. I disagree with him and say I have hope for the future. I say climate change will make us realize we have to change. At least that’s what I said when this conversation took place five months ago. I don’t know what I believe anymore.
Amit says it’s not enough to go green and recycle.
“We need to realize that all life is the same,” he tells me as he picks up a handful of beach pebbles. They fall through his fingers. He looks into my eyes.
“The Earth will be OK. But we won’t,” he says. “The Earth will take care of itself.”
“Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I go peeing into the wilds?”
The German hitch hiker asked as she placed her bags next to my van.
My van is overheating so I pulled over on the gravel car park at the bottom of the Cardrona Ranges to let her cool down. I’m practicing some songs to pass the time. The hitch hiker came over to ask if she can borrow a piece of paper and a marker to make a sign. She is headed to Cromwell to start a WOOFing job on a farm in two days.
“I wish I were just a backpacker like you,” I say and explain the problems that come with owning an old van.
“I wish I had a van like you,” she replies.
“What color are your eyes?”
The French violinist asks before he leaves and I take off my sunglasses.
I’m busking at the grocery store in Wanaka and they stop to listen with their big backpacks. They are carrying everything they own. He has a slim and shiny, jade-green hard case.
They emerge with food ten minutes later and he approaches me.
“Can I play with you? I don’t want any money,” he asks.
“Actually, I have a problem. I’m going on a hike tomorrow and this is too heavy,” he says as he reaches into his pocket and drops a couple of coins in my case.
“Do you need to know the chords or do you just want to follow along?” I ask.
“I’ll figure it out,” he says with confidence.
“All right, how about Jammin by Bob Marley?”
I start to play the chords and he immediately picks out the melody. I sing the verses and the chorus and he follows along like we have been practicing this song for years. I play the chords and he has a solo then I sing again.
There’s a Kiwi family standing in front of us with smiles and the father gives his daughter a few dollars to put in my case.
I thank him. He is Xander from France and I’m [REDACTED] from the States. I give him the pack of milk chocolate biscuits that someone left in my case because I don’t eat dairy. He says, we will probably see each other again, I’m the guy with the violin. And I say, Yeah, New Zealand is so small.
He turns around and a couple has been watching us. The man says, “Xander?!” And they can’t believe they have met again. They share a kiss on either cheek. It has been ten years. They are friends from back home in France and Xander tells me he knew his friend was in New Zealand, but he forgot to message him and he can’t believe they met right here.
New Zealand is so small.
“I usually hate guys with a beard and that hat but you are fucking inspiring standing there with your guitar.”
The drunk tourist from Denmark says as we share a six pack of Blue Moon on a bench on the Queenstown Mall late on a Friday. He starts to punch an imaginary douche bag in front of him. I’m wearing my plain black beanie that holds my hair up out of my face.
It is my first time playing late in the night like this and a group of 18-year-olds from New Caledonia are sitting on the bench next to me drinking tall cans of beer. They have been listening to me for at least a half-hour and they throw in 20 cents and then offer me a beer.
The man from Denmark sits on the end of the bench and when I finish a song he leans forward and asks, “Can you play Stairway To Heaven?”
I start to play and sing and when I get to the third verse, I start to fumble the lyrics. He says, I knew you couldn’t play the whole thing, but I am going to buy us a six pack because I want to drink with you.
“Ok,” I say.
It’s a much different scenario busking at night. Instead of being ignored, everyone wants to request a song.
“What can you play?” Uhh.
“Can you play any Ed Sheeran?” Who?
“Do you know any Bruno Mars?” No.
“Play us a love song!”Ok.
I stop to look at the set list taped to the back of my guitar and a woman with frizzy hair and a green stone necklace stops with a big drunken smile and asks if she can pick a song.
I start to rock out and when I start singing she dances and smiles and then she walks away.
I’ve been playing for over three hours today, with a break in the middle, and I decide to call it a night. But it’s a dangerous game sitting on the Queenstown mall with a guitar case and beers.
Three gray-haired English men walk up and ask what I’m doing and where I’m from.
“The States. Virginia.”
“Ahh, that’s John Denver country.”
And now I have to play Country Roads.
They give me five dollars and I think this is a pretty good life.
“Do you know how to play Wonderwall? I knew a busker once who could play Wonderwall.”
The Kiwi chef asks after he welcomes me into his car at midnight on a Friday.
“Uhh… I mean I know the chords but I haven’t memorized it,” I say. “Wait, are you taking the piss?”
“Fuck yeah I’m taking the piss!” he laughs.
I thought I might struggle to get a ride this late on a Friday night, but I stuck out my thumb and he was the first to drive by. I knew from the second I saw his shitty little sedan that he would stop.
“I fucking hate it here. I hate everyone. I don’t want to talk to any of these people. Everyone is eating Fergburger and drinking some strangely-colored-concoction from McCafe or Starbucks and ice cream from Chocolates Patagonia and they are constantly shoving shit in their mouths and they are carrying shopping bags from expensive clothing stores and they’re fucking glued to their stupid smart phones and selfie-sticks and they are all so fucking self-involved and fake. I saw this fat little Asian boy waddle around with a two-liter bottle of coke. Like who the fuck gave that to him?
“I had one of those nights last night. I was just walking around sober, well I was kinda stoned, but I was sober and I just realized I need to leave this city. It’s so different to sit by the lake and watch everyone walk by at night. You realize everyone is trying desperately to get laid. The guys walk in groups of four with skinny jeans and collared shirts and man buns and undercuts and one of them wears a tie and sunglasses and they smell like an orgy of cologne. The girls are slathered in makeup and squeezed into tight dresses. They all look like fucking Barbie dolls and I don’t understand why a human would want to look like that. Everyone had a shower this morning and everyone is fucking smiling and laughing all the time.”
“[REDACTED]. What are you talking about?” she says.
“Fuck this place. I’m leaving as soon as my van gets fixed. And what are you doing?”
“I’m just hanging out.” She shrugs.
“You’re completely broke. You have no money and no job and only Adara is working and she has to pay for everything for all four of you. What are you going to do? Resort to prostitution?”
“[REDACTED]. Stop. Don’t point your anger at me. I didn’t do anything to you. You need to let the anger go. Just close your eyes and just forget about it. Just accept everyone. Everyone doesn’t have to be like you.
“We like being here. We never went to university. Going out and drinking in a city like this, this is all new to us. I had a soy chai latte yesterday and I sat on the green and just looked around and the sun hit the clouds by the mountains and I just thought it’s so beautiful here. I like it here.
“I spent a lot of time in nature back home and I would just be with the mountains and the trees and fields and be there all the time and I would love the world and love everything and when you love nature you realize that people are the product of nature and then you learn to love all of them too. You need to find an element you connect with, mine is the sky.”
“OK, but what about reality? You spend so much money here and you aren’t making anything. You can’t keep this up and just rely on Adara providing for all three of you. That’s not fair. She is cleaning toilets and businesses and shops and driving everyone around and that’s not fair to her.
“Fuck, you’re so much younger than me. We are so different. We need different things.
“I’m so selfish. I always come to you with my asshole thoughts and my shitty moods and I bitch and complain and you always know exactly what to say to calm me down. I’m just frustrated with myself.”
She rests her head on my arm. And we stay silent for a few minutes.
“You can’t do this to me. I don’t feel good after talking to you. This doesn’t feel good. Maybe it’s time. Like we talked about last week.
“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We talk about it every week.”
“Ok, I’ll leave on Monday.”
I return to the city the next day to busk.
It’s Saturday after five and the best spot in town, by the wharf in front of Pog Mahones, is vacant. The outdoor tables by the pub and the café next door are all full. The Kiwi guitar player and singer who plays with a microphone and amp is laying in the grass with his purple-haired girlfriend. Maybe he played earlier or maybe he wants to play soon, but I’m taking the spot. Convoys of Korean and Chinese tourists in brand-new, brightly-colored walking shoes and rain jackets walk by armed to the teeth with cameras around their necks and in their hands.
I’m feeling alone and confused with my life. My twenty-eight-year-old travel mate, Pam, is overheating and she will only let me drive her around town so that means I will have to hitch-hike back to the Rafters Road campsite 30 kilometers out of town. And I was pretty nasty to Serena last night. I think we might actually part ways this time.
Great time to play music and sing for a bunch of strangers.
I start to play “Coming In From The Cold” and I’m thinking too much. About everything. I miss a chord change because it’s busy here and it’s Saturday night and people are drinking at the pub and the other busker who usually secures this spot is lying in the grass and he can hear me and I’m sure he is judging me. I’m tense. I power through it and I’m probably the only person who realized I missed a chord. I’m too self-aware. Playing and singing requires complete focus and detachment from the world. There is only the music.
The purple-haired girl walks by me and then circles back and says, “You sound great.”
I keep playing and playing. I get to “Waiting In Vain” and a well-off looking businessman in a collared shirt walks by like he had a few beers. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a 20-dollar note and casually drops it in my case without making eye contact or breaking his stride.
I start to play “Jammin’” and a stag party group staggers up and they all start dancing. The rest walk away but one keeps dancing next to me and a child drops in a dollar and he says, “See! I’m helping.”
I finish the song and he gives me a five-dollar note and a fist bump and says, “Cheers man. You play that pretty well.”
I count 15 Asian tourists who take a picture or video without dropping.
After an hour or so, a couple from the pub walks up with a fiver and the woman says they really enjoyed listening to me and the man says, I like that you don’t use a mic and amp. None of that fancy shit.
A man walks by and throws a cigarette into my bag even though I don’t smoke.
The bagpipes guy shows up down the wharf and he’s so loud you can hear it from the other side of town. He drowns out my voice and my guitar and the balloon tying walks up to me with a brown club he just made and he says, that’s for you to take that guy, out and he does a bashing motion before he tucks it into a strap on my guitar bag.
Even if I play well and get a decent amount of coin and compliments and funny interactions, I usually finish a busking set feeling defeated. There’s always an excuse. Maybe my voice is feeling gravely and strained or my calluses break and I wince at the pressure from the steel strings grinding against the now delicate flesh of my fingers. Sometimes I can play for a half hour and be completely ignored. That’s just part of the game. But today I finish in a better mood than when I began and I decide I deserve a burrito from Caribe.
My mouth burns from the delicious blend of beans, rice, veggies, sauces and spices. I head to my van. Pam is parked down by the lake until I can get her fixed, and I exchange my guitar for my backpack. Now it’s 9:15 and I realize if I want to get a lift back to the campsite, I need to hurry the fuck up. It’s Saturday night and it will be dark by 10. Summer in the south.
I walk away from the center of Queenstown, where it is easier to get picked up. I stick out my thumb and wait. After ten minutes, Bruce picks me up.
He has a trim build with grey hair and a tidy moustache. I’d say he’s in his fifties. He has the cleanliness and attention to detail of an ANZAC veteran. He’s headed to Frankton, about six kilometers. That’ll do.
He says he lost his wife in Fiji three years ago and he just remarried last year and he is finally starting to find happiness in life again. I tell him my story including that I lived in Alice Springs for a year and he confirms my earlier suspicion and says he used to be in the New Zealand Air Force and they used to fly into Alice Springs before heading to Korea. As I get out of his sedan, he says, Let me give you my book. And I say, Oh, cool, let me give you this. I reach into my backpack in the same pouch with my weed, grinder, rolling papers and knife and I look inside and think this is a bad pocket to reach into in a stranger’s car but I give him one of my shitty business cards with http://www.storiesfromadrifter.com scribbled in sharpie.
I head to the end of the roundabout. I stick out my thumb and wait.
I take a look at the book Bruce gave me. It’s more like a pamphlet. It says, The Rescue and has a picture of a helicopter on the cover. I think it must be about his career in the Air Force but, no, it’s about how everyone sins and Jesus is like a rescue helicopter that saves you from burning in a lake of fire and brimstone for eternity. Accept him as your only God, or else. It’s terrifying.
Now it’s dark and I wait for fifteen minutes until a ute pulls over. We didn’t bother with exchanging names but he tells me he is an arborist.
“Yeah, mate, I cut trees,” he says.
I say, Ahh, perfect, maybe you can answer a question for me. There is a huge line of trees down the road with, “SAVE ME,” signs taped to them. It would be a real shame to cut those down. They really make the road.
He says, Yeah, there’s a power line over them and it would cost ten-thousand-dollars a year to maintain them and the property owner doesn’t want to pay it and neither does the council. I think they are getting saved though. And yeah, they do really make the road.
He’s only going to the Arrowtown turn off, about five kilometers more and I tell him I’m going to the campsite on Rafter’s Road and he says, Oh yeah, I heard there’s a 21st birthday out there tonight, you gonna get pissed?
I say, Nah, that’s where I live.
He says, Yeah, I was invited but I’m not gonna go. All those guys do heaps of drugs.
I wait at the Arrowtown turn off and try to catch a ride but after about 30 minutes it’s getting properly dark and cold and windy all I’m wearing is a T-shirt, trousers and ill-fitting, slip-on sandals and no one is stopping because it’s 10:30 on a Saturday night and I have long curly hair and a beard. I’m 17 kilometers away from home.
It’s too cold to just stand there, so I start to walk to keep warm and I try to stick my thumb when cars drive by but it’s a highway with hills and curves and no streetlights and it’s 11 on Saturday night if anyone see’s me, I will only be a strange flash in their headlights and they will think I’m a crazy person. Maybe I am.
I arrive at the second turn off to Arrowtown and there are two streetlights, the first on the road, and I sit under them and thumb for a ride now that I am partially illuminated. But there are no takers. I take another look at Bruce’s book:
Where will you NOT go because of sin?
“Surely you know that the wicked will NOT possess the Kingdom of God. Do not fool yourselves, people who are immoral or who worship idols or are adulterers or homosexual perverts or who steal or are greedy or are drunkards or who slander others or are thieves…none will possess God’s kingdom.’ 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Maybe you also get drunk sometimes. Do you?
Because God is so holy, just and righteous, He has to greatly punish those who disobey His Commands.
The Bible, for example, even tells us exactly how many liars will face this terrible punishment. Would you like to know what this punishment is, and who is to go there? We will have look.
What the fuck? This is weird, Bruce. I thought God was supposed to love everyone.
I have to keep walking because I’m getting cold standing here in my T-shirt. Up ahead I see cars switching back and forth down the hill from the Cardrona ranges. The junction is just ahead with two more streetlights. I sit there and wait for cars but no one stops and now it’s midnight on Saturday and I roll a joint because I don’t think I will be getting picked up tonight. I’m still 12 kilometers from home.
I walk down State Highway 6 into the darkness and the stars glow above me.
The Milky Way is a mirror image of the road and I am following the burning gas balls in a journey through space and time. The silhouettes of the hills make everything seem so simple. Just a black foreground and a clear sky full of present and past space gods to accompany the sliver of a moon. There’s Orion and the two pointers and the Southern Cross. I’m in the Southern Hemisphere. I’m far away from home. I’m alone with the night.
My frustration and anxiety of not getting picked up starts to fade away and I think this is actually quite pleasant.
I light the joint and no cars go while it burns.
I’m lost in thought and suddenly a space ship zooms past me with a burst of light and wind and sound and I stumble into the brambles.
My senses are supercharged and I realize that I have now entered survival mode and I have to walk 12 kilometers because now I smell like weed and it’s 12:30 on a Saturday night and no one is going to pick me up and what if a cop drives by and see’s me and then stops and smells me. No more thumbing.
The road dips into a valley and I walk down into a bubble. Cold air creeps up from my exposed feet up to my exposed arms and my face. I’m walking into a lake. I’m underwater and it’s chilly down here.
OK, [REDACTED], survival mode. This is what you live for. This is exciting. Lets take inventory. I have one-liter of water, a bottle of wine, three bananas, four figs and a chunk of baguette. Plenty of water and food. I’m wearing a T-shirt, trousers and sandals. I’ll have to keep moving to maintain body heat and I wish I brought my running shoes or hiking boots and then I take off my sandals and walk on the smooth part of the road where the tire tracks wear down the rough asphalt and I realize that feet are the best shoes ever made because they are a product of millions of years of evolution.
Oh, look there’s a trail. The Queenstown Trail. Bruce told me he rode here on his bicycle today. I get off the road and disappear into the forest and foliage and trees surround me and the stars are out tonight. They pour over the tops of the black hills and I feel like I’m in a video game. This must be Fallout: New Vegas. The ground is dry and the plants are brown and prickly. All I’m missing is theme music.
Critters scatter into the trees as I make my way down the path. Rabbits, possums and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs are my favorite. They scramble around our tents at night and they wander around and they are spikey but so gentle and calm and they have the cutest little faces and when you get close they tuck their head in like a turtle.
Something growls at me from the woods and I’m scared for a second because it’s dark. Luckily, this is New Zealand. There is nothing dangerous here. This is not Australia.
The Queenstown trail starts to turn away from the road and I think I need to get back to the highway. But first I should pause to drink water and eat a banana because maybe my brain isn’t working properly and I’m just running on adrenalin and survival mode. And I have cottonmouth.
Once I’m back on the road I see that I have come face to face with the AJ Hackett Bungy Bridge. I have to cross this monstrosity and I don’t want to get caught on there with a car coming so I take off my sandals and run.
I walk by the sign that reads, “You are now entering Gibbston: Valley of the Vines.” I expect thematic music to greet me into the new realm. I’m back into the video game and my morale is high because this is fun and I never do a nature walk like this at night unless I put myself in an extreme situation. It is beautiful and I don’t feel cold at all. Now I’m on top of a plateau and it is flat and the stars are really out tonight.
This is a perfect night.
I hear party music ahead and the trees are illuminated on the right side of the road and I think it might be the 21st birthday party because I’m stoned and I forget that I still have miles to go and that’s on the wrong side of the road. I run down the smooth tire groove on the road and my feet feel like they are being used how nature intended them to be used and my legs are happy.
I get close to the music and two men are walking down the path toward the road. They are talking loudly and using a flashlight and if I keep walking will walk right into each other and this is a very strange coincidence on this highway at this hour 30 kilometers out of Queenstown.
I hang back for a few seconds and slow my pace and let them go in front of me. Their flashlight blinds them and they can’t see me. They turn it off once they are on the road and I soon I catch up with them.
“Hey guys,” I say from behind and try not to sound like a weirdo. Which I am.
“Hey!” one of them says with a slight slur. “Who is that?”
“I’m Random Guy walking down the road right now,” I say because that seems like a normal thing to do.
“Hey! Random Guy!”
I tell him I’ve been walking for about 15 kilometers so far. Since the first turn off to Arrowtown.
“Shit. You’ve done well, Random Guy.”
“I’m Timbo and this is Ant. And besides Random Guy, who are you?”
“I’m [REDACTED],” I say.
“Well, this is strange to see on a New Zealand State Highway. What a great night, Random Guy. Look at these stars. Wow.”
Ant chimes in.
“Want me to tell you some stuff about the Southern Hemisphere?” he asks and I say of course.
He says the top star of Orion’s belt is called Puanga in Māori and it was a very important navigational star for the Polynesians who first sailed to New Zealand.
“Where are the two pointers?” asks Timbo. We look around at the perimeter of the sky because that’s where it is found early in the night. It’s somehow always the first constellation I see. Now they are directly above, at the apex. “There is it.”
The Southern Cross.
I tell them I’m used to seeing Orion the other side up. In the Southern Hemisphere you see more stars below the belt, like the Southern Cross, and in the Northern Hemisphere you get more of the top half of Orion and constellations like the Big Dipper.
They ask me what I’m doing here.
“I’m traveling. Busking for now,” I say.
“Oh, what do you play?” Timbo asks.
“I play guitar and sing,” I tell them. “Bob Marley and classic rock.”
“Oh yeah! We saw you today. The guy with the bagpipes was drowning you out,” Timbo says and I want to ask them what they thought about my playing but I don’t.
We are getting close to my campsite and we hear voices.
“No way are there more people on the road! This is a fucking New Zealand State Highway not a footpath!” Timbo says.
There is a group of six ahead. They look like the type of people who just went to a 21st birthday party.
Timbo greets them all.
“Did you guys come from Rafter’s Road?” I ask.
“Huh?” they reply in unison.
“The campsite?” I clarify.
“Yeah, Yeah, are you going to the party?” they ask us.
“No, I live there,” I say.
“Well, there’s a rave in your house, bro,” one of them says with an accent that is not kiwi but I can’t place it but I think it sounds European.
They all chime in at once and bitch and complain about how there are no drugs and they ask us if we have any drugs and they say drugs at least ten times all together. The arborist who picked me up was right.
Now there are nine people standing on the side of State Highway 6 at 2 am.
“Sweet, there’s our taxi!” one of the partygoers says.
“No…that’s a cop,” Timbo says exactly what I’m thinking.
He swings around and rolls down his window.
“Do you guys have a ride?” the police officer asks.
He must be a magical policeman because at that very moment the maxi cab pulls up and the party people say, Yeah, right there and the cop says, Ok, Have a good night. And then he drives off.
“Ok, Random Guy, let’s go,” says Timbo. “What a night! We got random guy, druggos, a cop, taxi and these stars.”
I pull out my bottle of wine and say it’s time for celebration. I pass it around a couple of times.
“Thanks,” says Timbo. “That’s very kind of you.”
I get to my turn off and we part ways.
I hear the music coming from the campsite and I’m so happy to be home I run down the gravel track.
The Irish girls are sitting in front of their tents and Aoife says, “[REDACTED], where did you come from?”
I tell them about walking 17 kilometers and about hitch hiking and Timbo and Ant and everything.
Two guys sit down with us and it appears that they have been taking to the four girls all night because the drunk Canadian acts like I’m blowing up his spot.
“Look at all these long-hair cunts,” he says. “Fucking hippies.”
Then he pees right next to our tents, a very long drunken pee, and I say, “Hey man, that’s kind of rude to pee right there.”
And he says, “What are you gonna do, fuckin’ American.”
“I’m going to tell you that that’s rude to pee right next to our house,” I say and then he tells me to fuck off.
Serena and I don’t have a tent because we usually sleep in my van but she is taking a holiday so we just pull out our sleeping pads and bags into the middle of the campsite and fall asleep together. Sleeping under the stars is refreshing.
The sun comes up and we move to the other side of the tree to escape the early morning heat.
I tell her that the Canadian guy was a real dick last night and she says, He was just taking the piss and he’s really funny we were talking about Trailer Park Boys earlier. But she doesn’t understand. He was talking to four girls all night and then I show up at 2 am and sit next to Serena and I know what he was thinking.
We drift back to sleep and Tarik says, “Hippie.” I look behind me and he is crouching by his tent under the wire clothesline.
It is Sunday and we are sitting on our blankets making coffee and porridge and talking and laughing.
I show everyone the book Bruce gave me.
Tarik reads a page aloud in his German accent and asks me how to pronounce adulterers and, What does covet mean?
Ivan says, “Sofie, Corazon,” and Sofie replies, “Ivan, mi amor cerido.” And she’s wearing a black bikini top and denim shorts with her short blonde hair because it’s a beautiful sunny day and they are making bracelets and necklaces and earrings out of string and seashells and beads.
This campsite is so beautiful. All of us here together. This is a special moment.
We are sitting in the shade on the hot day and we all say we aren’t going to town today and Tarik holds up The Rescue and reads, “Remember and keep the Sabbath Day Holy.”
“HVD,” Serena says. “It’s an acronym. Translate it.”
“Oh shit, it’s Valentines Day! Do you want to walk to the river?” I ask, but I’m pretty sure she broke up with me the other night but we are travelers and everything is fluid and we are together right now and that’s all that matters.
We sit on our favorite rock cliff overlooking the intensity of the crisp, clean and green Kawarau River. We drink her water untreated and swim and bathe in her glory.
“It’s so true what you said about finding happiness in nature. When I was walking last night and being in nature and staying at the campsite today an just hanging out with friends and making food and sitting outside. I am so happy. Everything is perfect right now. It’s impossible not be happy out here. When I’m in the city it’s always costing money and everything is confusing.
“I’m sorry about what I said the other night. I was stuck in Queenstown for three days and I was going fucking crazy and I missed the freedom of driving Pam wherever I want.”
“Do ya know, like, that’s what’s wrong with cities,” she says. “Not enough nature. Nature is so important. It reminds us of life and our meaning.”
She is five years younger than me but she is wise and compassionate and grounded and beautiful. She cares about everyone and she talks to everyone and listens to everyone’s’ problems and is full of love.
We hug and sit there embracing each other even though I think we sort of broke up and we might not be together after this.
I need some time alone with Pam and she needs time alone with her friends. Just some time alone. To think and digest life.
“It’s like you said,” she tells me. “It’s not sad. It’s happy because it’s a new beginning.”
I remember those feelings.
You get in the car and everything is packed and organized and charged and clean and you can’t wait for that moment when you say your last goodbye and give your final hug because all you can think about is the new adventure waiting for you. It’s sad, but you will make new memories and meet new people and see new places. I don’t want to leave my friends. But I need to be alone.