Armed with a borrowed backpack and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I set off to New Zealand flanked by a specific set of travelers. Next to me, an elderly couple (locals I presume) presented a corollary between raising sheep and the joys of economy air travel. A few rows behind, but well within earshot, sat a group of tittering teens reveling in their first unchaperoned adventure. Populating the remainder of the cabin was a slew of middle class quarterlifers, predominately male, many of whom would return stateside with a regrettable Maori tattoo to show for his time.
There’s something both charming and cliché about searching for yourself in an exotic land. The burden of American unexceptionalism is a heavy cross to bear. My entire generation joined the work force expecting the gold stars our parents and teachers bestowed so liberally in our youth. I was failing, or at least flailing, through adulthood and on the brink of some sort of crack.
Hell, half of my girlfriends were becoming yoga instructors, so I knew I wasn’t the only one grasping for consciousness or at least limping away from a life of denial. I had left San Francisco with a lot on my mind. The remnants of an old relationship were failing to fade away gracefully. My art career was a sinkhole. A curated online persona may have fooled some, but unfortunately, I still new the truth. Instinct and popular fiction indicated I was bound for a life dulled by antidepressants and pacified with designer handbags if I didn’t right my course. Travelling alone when navigating the choppy waters of existential crisis gives you a lot of time to think. Or in my case, blink back tears under your scarf while pretending to sleep.
A prison of politeness, economics and engineering, the 747-400 lumbered across the Pacific through the night. I sat trapped by a tray table of half eaten swill, looking up with hopefulness every time a stewardess passed by, shifting restlessly until the refuse cart finally came to relieve me. California law protects poultry against similar confinement.
Thirteen hours later I awoke in Auckland in time to sprint outside to the domestic terminal. All the while, earning new blisters in my recently acquired hiking boots, clammy under the weight of my pack and three layers of outerwear. In a state of relief at having made my connection, I barely had time to marvel at the general lack of security and the flight attendant’s nonchalance as my bag overhung into the aisle, too large to fit in the overhead compartment of the tiny prop plane.
Jessica, a family friend, awaited me in Nelson. She had been removed from our pastoral upbringing for fifteen years now and was no stranger to the perils of maintaining one’s mythology. Several years my senior and a closer friend to my late older sister, Jess had always been a reference point as the one that got away. We had grown up in a ranching community so small it didn’t warrant classification as a town. In a tiny K-8 schoolhouse, my affections volleyed between her younger brothers intermittently. I can assure you, at least two of their names were scrawled in my little pink diary and guarded under lock and key.
In the years since leaving Ruby Valley, Jess had worked as a wardrobe stylist on a few mystical film sets adjusting loincloths, cloaks and prosthetic feet. Bouncing from LA to New York to Sydney to Bali and probably a few other places in between, she was, to an onlooker, the perfect expat.
Though Jess appeared to have her shit together, she too was at an impasse financially, living in a turquoise motel with a good natured but unambitious surfer and ignoring letters from the IRS. A TV project she was working on had just wrapped, and with nothing new on the horizon, it was the perfect time to respectively waste our savings on a monumental trip.
Curbside, I tossed my pack into her station wagon already smelling of patchouli and damp wetsuits. It would be our home for the next few weeks and would undoubtedly smell a lot worse by the time we were finished with it. Several hours winding through emerald hillsides brought us to the northern reaches of the South Island, a strip of land called Farewell Spit, or to the Maori, Tuhuroa.
We made camp at Wharariki Beach which touted itself as the Eye of the Kiwi, acknowledging the coastline’s resemblance to the beloved national bird. The holiday park was maintained by a red faced German in his early 30’s, likely a backpacker who stayed on in Neverland to reign over the Lost Boys.
As it so happened, I was contemplating such a move myself. Abdicating on a distant island seemed just the remedy for all that ailed me. Returning home to work on the ranch resounded of failure, though, disappearing into the ferns to live peacefully held much of the same appeal without the prodigal shame. New Zealand was a hemisphere away from my problems, but as Jessica’s experience verified, it would not entirely solve them.
A dinner of campfire lamb was made palatable by a minty smothering of jelly and gulps of sweet local wine. Perhaps it’s just semantics, but where I come from, the term lamb isn’t bandied about so loosely; that sheep tasted a bit long in the tooth if you ask me.
Perched in the tall grasses of the dune, Jess and I drunkenly recounted the antics of childhood hooliganism and zany relatives. Strange, upside down stars emerged, and our drunken giggles faded into quiet reflection. There’s an unspoken understanding between friends who have known all versions of each other, in the same moment humbling you and setting you free.
The abyss of adulthood still loomed before me, but I found comfort in knowing that I wouldn’t be alone out there. Unburdened by the necessity to do our own PR, Jess and I sat in silence staring up at the southern sky.