Swagman – The End of the Line
Queenstown, New Zealand
It was raining in Queenstown when I arrived, which tainted the subsequent search for a hostel. Throughout the city and up in the hilly streets of the city, all of the dorm rooms had been booked by more considerate travelers. I walked down to the lake and followed the road around the bank until I came upon a beautiful large house just across the street. The woman inside gave me a key and set me loose inside.
I woke several hours later and walked into town, where I met up with my new friend from Franz Josef. He was sitting at a dark wooden table with three young Germans who seemed genuinely glad to have me join them. We killed away the day talking and had some sort of cigarette smoking contest, which I’m still not sure if I won or lost. I left drunk and lightheaded and fell asleep happy that I had no plans for anything the following day.
Since most of my decisions are unwise and ill-timed, I woke up with a slight hangover and decided to punish myself by hiking up to the top of the nearby mountain. It was so beautiful, I felt I could honestly lie down and die happy. Or perhaps that is because I felt like my brain was trying to escape through my ears and my lungs had holes where there had been none before. Either way, I made it to the top and celebrated by spending half of the day on the go cart course, weaving through the turns like a kid playing hooky.
This was the end of my travels, and I had absolutely nothing left to do but jump 440 feet with a series of rubber bands attached to my ankles. This is the main reason why I came to Queenstown in the first place. But I still had a few days to kill, so I spent my days drinking beer and reading on the balcony of my hostel. It seems strange to say that I wanted to unwind in Queenstown, a place probably best known for its unyielding array of adrenaline activities. But many of the activities are so expensive that you just have to pick one and stick with it, so I had little to concern myself with.
I had the strange sensation of the desperation of continuing and yet the excitement of heading home. Before I left New York, Australia and New Zealand seemed so far away. Now, thinking in New Zealand, New York felt like it was just around the corner. I took record of what I had done, and what I was heading home to. I had quit my job in New York, forfeited my apartment and left at a time when I was supposed to be focused on a career and courting a woman for the ultimate marriage and kids. Such is American life, which seems to make a lot of sense when you have grown up there and view everything from the inside. You’re born, go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, and retire. To break from this straight and narrow is, well, irresponsible. I actually have friends who told me they wish they could quit their jobs and travel, like they had been fitted with an electronic collar when they were hired.
If you opened the gate to a prison, how many of the prisoners would be frightened to leave? As much as they may not like it, as constricting as things can be, Americans tend to stay with that direct, familiar line of what they are supposed to do and when they are supposed to do it.
The American bubble – everyone seems to think it is arrogance, but it is actually growing up with what you see around you. I think a lot of it has to do with culture – we mainly export. Even when there is an immensely popular foreign movie or TV show, we tend to make an American version (they are actually releasing an American version of “The Office”!). I certainly don’t agree with this, but I can understand how someone who may not know better would think that The Ring was a great American horror movie and Quentin Tarantino certainly has some very original ideas. It is easy to be content in the bubble when you can go your whole life without ever having to peek your head out.
This is not to say that traveling bursts the bubble. I’ve seen Americans create a mini-American life of friends and McDonald’s overseas. It’s not even fair to say this doesn’t apply to travelers in general – I’ve met people who get too caught up in the “traveler” lifestyle of the where-I’ve-been/how-long-I’ve-been-going thing and may have created their own little bubble as well. Frankly, I don’t remember where I was going with this, but such is the train of thought when you’re gazing off into equidistant beauty for most of your day. I guess when you reach the end of a road, there is nowhere to look but back.
The day before I left Queenstown I walked into town and bought my ticket to the Nevis and waited. By the time we departed we had accumulated a small raucous crowd of 20-somethings. We left the city, made a few long turns and went bouncing down a dirt path. The bus pointed up and slowly skirted along the side of a small dirt mountain. Any shift in the earth could have probably sent us tumbling end over end to the ground below. Come to think of it, the ride to the Nevis was actually scarier than the jump itself.
Up top there is a small building where you fasten into a spider web of straps and harnesses, get weighed, and watch a stream of video footage of those who have jumped before. You walk out to a small platform that overlooks the tremendous valley and feel somewhat amazed that someone actually snapped their fingers and said “Hey, why don’t we run some cables across, build a pod in the center and jump off it?”
They run you over to the pod in small groups – the first goes over and everyone jumps one by one. From there on they continually swap people from earth to pod. Inside, the floor is made of a thick glass, lest you forget what you’re up here for. You stand around in the back half until someone yells out your name, you make your way up to a dentist-like chair and watch as they strap you in. The instructions are fast, but fairly easy to grasp – waddle up, jump, and after the second bounce you reach up and pull some lever, no, not like that, like this, and you will become right side up. Eventually the talking sounds like the “Wa wah wah” voices the adults use in Charlie Brown television specials. You stand, you waddle, you’re on a small platform, literally walking a plank, and then you’re at the bottom of the valley. It’s that fast. Blood rushes to the head, you reverse, and then fall again. Once you realize you’re done, you go to work trying to flip over, all the while absolutely sure that if you pull the wrong strap you will plummet to your death.
And much like a stretch of travel, it feels like it was over quickly. Any nervousness, any fear, any uncertainty winds up a humorous memory. A few hours later we were back in Queenstown, and two days later I was on a plane heading for Los Angeles. On a long flight, when you’re sick of reading your book and you’ve seen the in-flight movie already, there is nothing to do but think. Everything had happened so fast. Sydney had been home, and I would miss it. The early morning coffees, the late nights at Quarryman’s, where every night was like a fantastic car wreck and everyone survives with little more than a headache, and the apartment with a constant come and go of interesting people. I would miss the feeling of living by the sunlight – setting up a tent and settling down when the sun goes off to the other side of the world, the side I was now returning to. The hot mornings in Queensland and the long drives through the sugar cane fields to our various destinations. On the other hand, I would no longer have to cover every toilet seat with a layer of toilet tissue, and there just has to be something said for that. Everything seems more legendary in hindsight.
There would be no more hostels, no more excitement of moving on to a new city. I was essentially going from the complete unknown to the complete certainty. I knew everything and everyone would be the same in New York. It’s like being abducted by the most wonderful alien spaceship and returned. I couldn’t explain any of this to anyone. If someone asks “How was it?” how do you possibly respond in less than three days of constant talking? You smile and try to explain things in a way that would entertain everyone, and then listen to the inane things that happened while you were gone.
Being home is novel for approximately two weeks, then your mind decides to wander on its own and eventually you will have decide if you’ll follow.