A roadtrip invariably begins with expectations. Whether a caravan of campervans or a solo expedition, the decisions you make before setting out are what set you up for the journey ahead – who you’re with, where you’re going, just how you plan to get around. “To expect” comes from the Latin expectare – to await, to hope – and what is the road but hope? It’s what kept Kerouac moving and what led me to spend a month traveling the North Island of New Zealand.
To conduct a little “market research” for my own New Zealand project, I recently began reading A Land of Two Halves: An Accidental Tour of New Zealand, written by Joe Bennett about his journey hitchhiking around the country. Although he departs from Christchurch with a vague idea of certain sights and regions he wants to see, he writes, “I’ll leave the rest to chance. It’s best that way when you’re hitching…I want my first lift, assuming I get one, to determine my initial direction. From here I could go north, south or west” (pp. 4, 8).
As I followed Bennett making his way first from Geraldine to Timaru and then further south to Dunedin, there was a certain edge, an excitement of sorts, to his laissez faire approach. With his thumb in the air, he let the journey come to him and left his hopes largely undefined. But as the end to my time in New Zealand grew closer, the clock ticking on each day I had left, I felt the pressure of a looming deadline, the need to take a more involved approach. It was time to intervene.
I had questions that needed answers. The majority of Kiwis I’d talked with lauded the superior beauty of the South Island, even those from the North. Surely, I asked myself, they’re overlooking something? And as to the hype around those places on the North Island that are frequently recommended – typically the Coromandel Peninsula and Bay of Islands – just what is the fuss all about? This was no time for waiting for a ride – I kept my thumb unfurled, instead pointing a finger firmly down on the maps of my New Zealand Travellers Road Atlas.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: “Edgar Allan Poe declared, ‘All experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely.’ Poe is consciously juxtaposing the word ‘calculate,’ which implies a cold counting up of the facts or measurements, with ‘the unforeseen,’ that which cannot be measured or counted, only anticipated. How do you calculate upon the unforeseen? It seems to be an art of recognizing the role of the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculating, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us.”
Despite discovering Solnit after returning to the States, I couldn’t have found a better mission statement to retroactively describe my month around the North Island. A week before my roadtrip departure, I sat at a desk on the sixteenth floor of the Wellington office of an international accounting firm, where a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the city’s sailboat-laden harbor and stunning hills. It was the first temp job I’d gotten all summer in an office environment and I took advantage of the opportunity to plan my forthcoming journey. Juggling my time between Google Maps and jotting down notes on the company’s official letterhead (and answering the occasional phone call when I felt so inclined…) I found myself embracing the very paradox Solnit extols: striking that balance between calculation and chance.
Because with my must-see-must-do list for the island rivaling a run-down of Obama’s campaign promises, I knew I needed some kind of skeletal outline to keep me on track. Bennett might have had the luxury to let others shape his time around New Zealand, but I was on a budget – when it came to both time and money. What kind of distance could I feasibly expect to cover every day? How many activities would I be able to afford? How far could 30 days and $3000 realistically get me? While Bennett relied on the kindness of strangers, I would rely on my own kilometric estimations and the future price of petrol.
And so on the first day of March, incidentally the first day of autumn as well, I caught a bus to a rental car office outside of central Wellington, loaded up my backpack and a week’s worth of food, and pointed my white, economically efficient yet questionably reliable Mazda Familia north. Is there anything more exhilarating than the first moment you finally get on the road?
But I felt like I’d barely left the sprawling suburbs of Wellington behind, twisting my way along the harbor of Porirua and through the towns of Paekakariki and Paraparaumu where place names roll off your tongue, when I came to Waikanae. If it hadn’t been for a sign that read “New Zealand’s Top Small Town 2008,” I would’ve hardly been tempted to stop, but such a claim to fame literally invites you to test it. I didn’t want to pull over, having barely got into a roadtrip rhythm, but here’s where Solnit’s words come to life: you calculate to a point, you estimate distances and driving times until stumbling upon that small town that offers itself to you, asking to be discovered. There is no choice but to comply.
Certainly dental centers, real estate offices and the Woolworth’s along its main road did nothing to build Waikanae’s charm. But tucked away, east of the railway, lay the original town center, where the diminutive Kapiti Coast Museum encourages your visit (bearing in mind it falls between 2 and 4pm on Saturday or Sunday) and the art deco façade of Matenga Auto Services dates the building to 1923.
Nothing won me over, though, like the Eastside Foodmarket, where the side of such an unassuming dairy was covered with a mural of unexpected color and detail. Featuring twelve labels of original New Zealand products – Bell tea, Wattie’s canned vegetables, and even the Kiwi shoe polish that first lent its name to the country during WWI – the mural was a gentle reminder: this is why I’m driving.
I’ve come to find there’s a time to save and a time to spend. This roadtrip, I kept telling myself, was the latter. Every dollar I reluctantly let go of was simply an investment and Waikanae, in all its unexpected Kiwiana glory and touches of an Art Deco past, was just my first taste of the return.