Under Construction

I’m struggling.

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.

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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.

Ahh, it feels good to write.

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Strangers

“Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I go peeing into the wilds?”

The German hitch hikers asks as she places 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?”

“Perfect.”

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.

“Lonely Boy!”

“Good choice.”

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.

Shiny, new cars never pick up hitch hikers.

Just Relax

I’m at a hostel for the first time in a long time and all the smiling young people are clustered in little groups speaking alien languages.

The soft, pink boys with fashionable haircuts are laughing with the girls who have nice butts. They aren’t like the French girl sleeping in her car with her greasy ponytail at the oceanside campsite at Owhira Bay. Here they are clean and polished and talking about going out tonight. I haven’t showered in three days and my beard is unruly. My face is sun and wind burned, tired and creased. I feel like I don’t belong. I’m exhausted. For the past month I have been driving, cooking, cleaning, and finding a place to park my van every night, all while taking the time to go on walks to admire the beautiful New Zealand landscapes and watch my bank account dwindle. (Don’t worry, Mom, I’m doing fine.) There’s so much to think and worry about. I don’t know if I have the energy for anything anymore.

I came to a hostel because I’m tired of fleeting human interactions lasting only a few hours until we drive on. I have no friends and no one to fuck and no one to love and no one to care about.

I’ve been in the South Island for five and a half hours and I feel defeated. If the roads were straight, the drive to Nelson would have been quick and painless. But this is New Zealand. They cut through mountains, narrowly, switching back and forth. The Kiwi drivers have been zooming around them for years and they cut corners and ride the lines like assholes while I stay in my lane like a sane person and take the steep turns at a reasonable pace.

Good views, though.
Good views, though.
Like a painting.
Like a painting.

Twenty-eight-years-old and just cracked 415,000 kilometers, my van has plenty of oil and the thermostat is steady but I think she is wanting more coolant because she just started to give off puffs of white smoke as we head up a hill that lasts forever. I renewed her Warrant of Fitness last week and they said the engine was fine, I just had to replace a tire. Still, my stomach sinks and I start to sweat with an annoyed line of cars behind me. I just hope she isn’t going to eat more of my money.

Why do I think about it so much? Money. It rules our lives. Everything I do costs money. I can’t go anywhere or do anything without it. People work everyday of their lives to save it and never think they can pick it all up and travel because they need more.

I go back to my room and take a shower. I emerge feeling refreshed and there’s a group of eighteen-year-old Germans sitting in cheap plastic chairs smoking cigarettes and a tattooed French guy standing by them. I intrude on their circle.

“Hey guys, I’m Sean.”

The French guy asks me where I’m from. I’m American.

“American! Texas?” he asks and I crack a smile and say, Nah, Virginia.

Suddenly the alien monsters turn into cuddly teddy bears and they start speaking my language and we are all the same.

I return to the kitchen to cook my chicken thighs and red kidney beans and everyone is full of life and excitement. I can barely squeeze around the island to grab a frying pan. Apparently it’s pizza night. Groups from every European country are spreading flower on the table, throwing down their dough and rolling it out. Plates and cutting boards covered in sliced capsicum, onion, sausage and peperoni occupy the tables. Someone plays “Stolen Dance” by Milky Chance on a portable speaker and the Italian guy sitting on the arm of a wooden end-chair starts to fist pump.

Now I’m writing these words on the patio outside of my dorm and suddenly a familiar scent fills the air. I sniff and turn my head. The lounging Germans say, “You want a joint?”

Yes, please.

I’m the foreigner among friends from Berlin so they ask me questions about America and we talk about international news media and Merkel, Obama and Putin. They are fascinated by American news from Vice.com. Especially a story about rednecks tricking out diesel trucks to emit huge clouds of black smoke at unsuspecting victims.

“I hope they are just stories,” he says.

Coming to a hostel was a good idea. Maybe I’ll stay here and work for accommodation while I find a job. Or maybe I’ll leave tomorrow. It’s all good. In the mean time, I can relax and enjoy the town and the people. I’ll take a walk to the “geographical center” of New Zealand and admire the bay and the far away mountain range with peaks reaching above the snow line. The world isn’t such a scary place after all.

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It’s not really the center, but that doesn’t bother the Kiwis.
But they make it precise.
They make it precise.
Nelson.
The town of Nelson with The Twins, Winter Peak and Mount Arthur on the distance.
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Devil River Peak and the Anatoki Range.

Farm Frustration

There are bright, sunny days where everything is smooth and I let the cows over the road crossing and drop the tape gate in perfect time for Digger to ride through on the two-wheeler with his aviator sunglasses and we feel like badass, bearded lords of the cows.

Then there are days like today when I lose count of how many times I yell fuck.

It started going downhill once I maneuvered the tractor down a hill into the paddock with the milking cows, ready to feed out the load of grass and maize. As I start the routine, I realize that everything is wrong.

One of the farm owner’s lackeys took the tractor into town yesterday and attached all of the hydraulic plugs into the wrong sockets when he brought it back. I’m no expert when it comes to farm machinery, in fact I’m pretty useless. I do what I can and use trial and error to get the door to raise, the chains to move and the blades to rotate, but I can’t figure out the latter.

I ring Digger and he tells me to drive the tractor to the cow shed and he will take a look at it. Really, man? I know you’re my boss but that is no simple task. I have to squeeze through three narrow gates — jumping out before and after to open and close — and up three hills.

I forgot I was in third gear and I stalled out going up the hill in the paddock. I back up and try again, but then I’m too close to the gate to make the sharp turn. Then I bumped the fence post and pushed the heavy gate off of its hinges, which I would later spend five minutes and five expletives trying, and failing, to lift back in place. I reverse and make a wide loop to approach the turn at a more favorable angle. Then I make the same mistake and underestimate a smaller hill and stall out and roll back down and nearly take out an entire fence.

Oh yeah, and this is the paddock by the road so everyone driving by — mostly farmers — are making fun of the idiot who doesn’t know how to drive a tractor.

I finally make it to Digger and he fixes the problem in a matter of seconds. He tells me to make sure I spread out the feed evenly this time. You always do it too thick, he says. Great. Now I have to drive back down to that paddock and open the gates and close the gates. Then spread the feed. Then drive back to the shed and open the gates and close the gates.

Eventually I make it back and have to feed the calves. Digger still hasn’t set up the big calf feeder with the trailer — it’s been “on the To-Do list” for two weeks now — so I have to carry 12 twenty-liter buckets of milk over to the calf pens everyday and try not to spill much on my overalls or on the ground. There is one calf feeder that is too fast and one that is too slow and the calves — growing stronger and fatter everyday with the massive servings of protein — constantly push and shove, jockeying for position. It’s an impossible task to get them all to drink the same amount and if I mess something up, they could die.

And he hasn’t given me any Colostrum milk — the “liquid gold” produced just after birth that is essential for new-born calves — in over 24 hours so I feed the babies the regular calf milk, which apparently makes him liable for a $200,000 fine, because it contains penicillin, if they are collected by the bobby truck. They are randomly tested for antibiotics and he decides he will take the odds. Strange, I didn’t take him for a gambling man.

Eventually we meet up for a team huddle and I tell Digger that everything went wrong this morning. He said he’s had a good one too. The heifers escaped and scattered all over the farm. He had to collect them and walk them back in groups of two.

Digger always seems to handle problems calmly. I’ll be sweating bullets and yelling fuck because the cows jumped a fence and I’m trying to keep them off the road and George rocks up and says, “Ahh, yeah, did they pull a sneaky on you? I bet it was number 12.”

He’s used to this and I’m not. He says farming will give you a whole new level of patience. You just have to accept that shit happens. You have to bottle it up and let it go. That’s why he smokes.

His response reminded me of the interviews with inmates in solitary confinement I watched last night during a New York Times video binge.

George Franco — who spent 20 years in the shoe in Pelican Bay State Prison — said if you have anger or frustration, “What do you gotta do? Just hold everything inside.”

Farming and owning land is the ultimate freedom, but it’s also the ultimate responsibility. Having all of these living things under your name. You can’t just leave them.

After my morning duties are finished, I walk back to the house for breakfast. I decide to do some yoga in my sun room — one of the four empty bedrooms — to stretch, relax and decompress. As I’m sitting there focusing on my breathing, I start to laugh uncontrollably thinking about how awesome it is that my biggest frustration in life is that the hydraulic plugs were attached to the wrong sockets on a tractor on a dairy farm in New Zealand.

The Country Wave

The school boy rides his bike down the country road, flanked by dewy green paddocks, to the sheet metal bus stop. He stares at me in the cockpit of my tractor, transfixed. He waves admirably. He can’t wait until his Dad reckons he’s old enough to drive one of these awesome machines.

I continue on to the goat farm and meet the familiar face of the ancient farmer standing by his ancient tractor. He momentarily stops cutting the twine off the bale of hay, faces me and waves his blue-handled knife with a gap-toothed grin.

The local butcher shoots me a wave as we meet on the rural highway. He is making his morning deliveries and I am picking up silage to feed the cows. We both have places to be.

The bobby-truck driver — who takes the 4-day-old male calves to the slaughter — and the milk-tanker driver salute with solidarity as they make their rounds. They started out as farmers but now they have auxiliary roles, less responsibility and less excitement.

It’s a slow and dangerous game when we cross paths on opposite sides of a one lane bridge. He is faster and more experienced, so I stop to let him go first. He flashes his brights to say thanks for waiting.

If I catch a wave from someone in a car, ute, van or SUV, I know they are farmers. Ever eager to return to their animals and paddocks and fresh air.

I am an alien in this small town in this small foreign country but when I don my overalls and gum boots, I’m one of them. I’m only a visitor, a pretender trying to gain insight into this life, but the country wave makes me feel like I’ve lived here my whole life.

I’ve seen another side of the country wave with some casual work for the local furniture moving company. They ring me when they have a big day and need an extra set of hands. I love sitting in the middle seat and watching the interactions between the truck drivers. There’s another world above the cars.

Gary, the business owner, is a short man with a grey goatee. His beer gut is just a ruse to hide his old-school Dad strength enhanced by 15 years of lifting furniture. He loves to give me advice. It’s not about being strong, it’s about technique.

Nah, nah, nah, mate,” he says as I awkwardly lift a mattress. “Hold it above your nuts so you’re not waddling around like a penguin.”

On a Saturday morning — after driving 14 hours from the South Island the day before — he shows up to the yard with bags under his eyes.

“Fuckin’ Nic rang in sick,” he says. “Useless cunt.”

If he finds out he was on the piss last night, he will tear him a new arsehole.

Gary has been waving to other truck drivers for years and he is a no frills type of guy, especially today. He gives a dutiful raise of the hand straight up and then straight down. If he recognizes a driver, he will give a little extra motion to signal he’s a friend. As we cruise by his mechanic’s shop or another friendly business, he gives a toot of the horn.

The personality of the driver is reflected in their wave. The young gun, Noodle, a well-built 20-year-old with sleeve tattoos, gauges and an undercut throws up an over-the-top “west-side” style wave in front of the steering wheel. It mostly annoys the more mature drivers but there are always a few who match his enthusiasm.

On a sunny day, driving through the town centre is exciting. Everyone in town knows the furniture boys and people stop to wave. Gary lets out a quick double tap on the horn to greet his mates. It’s comfortable here.

I will always be grateful to the those generous souls in small town New Zealand who taught me how to farm and move furniture and be a man and to those who were simply friendly enough to recognize my existence with a wave and a smile. The country wave is a way of life. It says, You’re my neighbor and I will always have your back. We’re in this together.