“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 Sean 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.”
“Sean. 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?”
“Sean. 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, Sean, 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 Sean,” 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, “Sean Dolan, 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.