Monthly Archives: June 2010

get up and go.

My mother left this morning for St. Louis. She’ll be gone for just three days, attending a conference, meeting with editors, and pitching projects and proposals. But as she packed last night, folded two changes of clothes neatly into the space of her carry-on suitcase, and filled miniature bottles with two showers’ worth of shampoo and conditioner, I was surprised at the thought that came to my mind:

I want to travel domestically.

I had a sudden desire to buy luggage built to the precise measurements of 22″x14″x9″. I wanted to trade in my bonus sizes of body wash and hair spray for the 3 oz. versions you can buy for a dollar. I felt suddenly weighed down by having to carry my life with me every time I move.

Awaiting my family in the airport after arriving home from six months in London

Is this some far-fetched, overdrawn metaphor for my life right now? That this summer spent at home has shrunk my world, a reality augmented by the fact that, without a car, I can stray even less from the immediate surroundings of my neighborhood? I walk to work, bike to babysitting jobs, and pester my brother to borrow his car when the need arises. Has the reduction of my life to a one-mile radius suddenly made travel to the most commonplace of US cities seem like an escape?

But perhaps a recent viewing of the Oscar-nominated Up in the Air has romanticized the notion of domestic travel in my eyes. George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, makes flying into locales like Omaha sexy…although I suppose there isn’t much he couldn’t. When he meets Alex, played by Vera Farmiga, in the bar of a Hilton hotel in Dallas, the lounge seems dark and mysterious, even swanky. I work in one. It isn’t.

As banter flies and the chemistry builds, Ryan and Alex compare their “elite-status” lifestyles, flinging around US airport abbreviations like multiplication tables and flipping through their dozens of loyalty cards, the elite traveler’s equivalent to a proud parent’s concertina of school portraits. From Des Moines to Miami, from Detroit to Las Vegas, a series of voiceovers in Clooney’s cool tone unfolds the unusual patterns of his life:

“To know me is to fly with me; this is where I live. When I run my card the system automatically prompts the desk clerk to greet me with this exact statement – “Pleasure to see you again. Mr. Bingham.” It’s these kind of systemized friendly touches that keep my world in orbit. All the things you probably hate about traveling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I am home.”

A deleted-scenes version offers an alternate script that opens with the same line:

“To know me is to fly with me. I’m the aisle, you’re the window – trapped…Fast friends aren’t my only friends but my best friends. Sad? Not really…We’re a busy bunch, I’m in my element here. I suppose I’m sort of a mutation, a new species. I live between the margins of my itineraries.”

I had this crazy smile on my face as I watched him, falling in love with the way he passes through security with the swift and familiar motions of routine, of showers and driving and setting the alarm. Bingham’s every move is marked by perfect precision – grey bins laid out, jacket folded just so, slip-on shoes deftly removed in two quick steps that resemble a moonwalk. Throughout the film, he clicks the pull handle of his suitcase up and down with such purpose and I think to myself, I’m tired of checking baggage (not to mention having to pay to do so). I’m tired of carrying my life on my back. I want to live within the limitations of the TSA.

Bingham teaches Natalie Keener's character to streamline her belongings into a carry-on.

The hotel I’m currently employed at caters to the Ryan Bingham’s of the world. Just down the street, an “evolving technology corridor” in the city (as described by a news release here) has attracted such names as Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, and even the US Joint Forces Command, which in turn keep an ever-steady stream of military and businessmen flowing into the area. These are the majority of the guests we serve, so much so that the presence of a family, especially if there’s small children involved, now seems out of place in the restaurant.

Talking to these business travelers day in and day out, men and women who hail from undistinguished places like Baltimore, Tampa and Minneapolis, makes me want a breather from the global galavanting I’ve undertaken as of late. To return to what it’s like when traveling isn’t always such an ordeal, when every departure doesn’t require a week of goodbyes, a month’s worth of packing, and a lifetime of dreams…when there isn’t so much riding on each journey. To fly in on a Monday morning and out on a Thursday evening, knowing the job’s been done and your work complete.

Yet even as I write this, I’ve started to accumulate a pile of autumn clothes, a duvet cover, favorite trinkets, all on hold for life in London later this year. The large duffel bag that is soon to carry this growing collection rests under my bed, as if on sabbatical or home leave, taking a hiatus before being re-commissioned when the summer ends. My backpack, as well, won’t go unused…and what about my guitar? I may bemoan the bulky collection of “stuff” I can’t do without – here, there or anywhere – but that’s not to say I don’t live for this, for this shifting of  the stuff that is our lives. Even still…

Sometimes, I just wanna get up and go.

What I'll look like one day... (photo courtesy of iStock)

First night home from New Zealand...and how I'll most likely look departing for London again in the fall.



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looking for juliet and the forgotten republic: day two on the north island.

I woke up in New Plymouth with no particular inclination to spend more time there than needed. If the schedule had allowed, I perhaps would have ventured closer to Mount Taranaki, a 2,518-meter active volcano that appears on maps as an almost alarmingly perfect sphere. Like Mount Fuji, Taranaki – known also by its pakeha name of Mount Egmont – is a stratovolcano, and lends its steep, snow-capped cone of a shape to brochures and graphics for the area.

But the city itself left me uninspired. Despite the motto of the region, “Like no other,” I found New Plymouth to be very much a twin of Nelson, lying just across Cook Strait at the top of the South Island. Both are built on the water and share moderate population sizes, making them the center of their regions, as well as a reputation for being a home to the arts. The way the cities are laid out is strikingly similar as well, with grid-like streets lined with the same shops, diagonal parking spaces and pedestrian crossings. Of course New Plymouth has Puke Ariki – Maori for “Hill of Chiefs/Kings” – a well-designed one-stop shop of sorts, holding a museum, library, and visitor center, but as I was unwilling to part with the money for the museum entrance fee, I settled with a glimpse of the replica of a prehistoric shark hanging in the foyer.

Even if New Plymouth had been filled with enough charm and class to win over the Queen, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. The night before, I came across a brochure in my hostel for the Forgotten World Highway, supposedly one of the country’s oldest touring routes. I had initially planned to continue past New Plymouth up the west coast to Awakino, where SH3 would take me directly to Waitomo, my destination for the night. Simple and straightforward, just how I always liked my math homework. But this newly discovered SH43 would take me inward, almost retracing my steps towards Stratford, to where the Forgotten World Highway begins, carrying me through to Taumarunui, and from there, SH4 to Waitomo. Not only would it give me a chance to see Stratford – which would have otherwise been out of my way and impractical – but I’d even be able to put my passport to good use with a visit to the Republic of Whangamomona… well, not quite, but you’ll see what I mean. So what were a few kilometers (and a few more hours of driving time) compared to the lure of an unknown, self-avowed “forgotten” road? Bring on the mystery.

Inglewood, population 3,000, did little to bring it, unfurling yet another show of American flags for “AmeriCARna” that were distinctly unmysterious. Wikipedia describes Inglewood as a “typical small town,” and as any travel writer knows, that’s no way to make the cut. Give me crazy, give me bizarre – give me more bad puns, if need be – but don’t give me typical. Inglewood gave me rain and the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum, an impressive-sounding distinction, yet one brought into question by the not-so-central location of the museum to the national population. I didn’t stay long.

To the literary-minded, the name of Stratford most likely conjures up images of Shakespeare and his humble beginnings in the English countryside. This is most likely what Stratford, New Zealand, wants you to have in mind as you visit. By bringing your perhaps more pleasant associations of quaint England, chances are you’ll find a greater amount of charm and appeal in its Kiwi counterpart. I can’t help but pick up on a touch of wry humor in the Wikipedia entry for the town as it explains the original title was Stratford-upon-Patea, after the “supposed similarity” between the two rivers, given by William Compton of the Taranaki Waste Lands Board, a man “known to have a literary turn of mind.”

There’s no beating around the Bard – the similarities end with the name. Nothing but Shakespeare’s image hanging from the street lights, an abstract portrait designed from light tubing on squares of wire mesh that normally feature Christmas trees or candles during the holidays. Signs bearing the town’s name outside the city limits are built from what resemble cobblestones and feature a metal likeness of the Bard himself, looking especially devious and holding a plumed quill pen – naturally. Sixty-seven of Stratford’s streets are named after characters from 27 of Shakespeare’s plays and the town boasts in having New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clocktower that performs the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet four times a day.

Regrettably, I missed the glockenspiel’s morning performance and found myself with an extra two hours on my hands before the fated lovers were due to make their next appearance, so I did what anyone else does with that amount of time in Stratford: headed down the road to the Taranaki Pioneer Village. Conceived in 1978 and officially opened in 1990, the village is a sort of open-air museum, home to some forty furnished “heritage” buildings, which, while not original, provide a somewhat realistic glimpse into the past of the region.

My footsteps echo loudly on the hardwood floor of the village’s entrance, a sort of cafe-cum-office building there to welcome visitors. The two people standing at the front desk look up, whom I take to be the office manager and groundskeeper, and I am greeted by a smile typically reserved for any attraction’s sole customer for the day, filled with that special exuberance of “Thank God you’re here!” Happy to oblige, I hand over the ten-dollar fee and follow out the back door into yesteryear. As always, there’s an unspoken scale in my head that weighs out what I will and – usually – will not part with money over.

A railway circles the village, where a real train line once stopped at Tariki Station. Nowadays, the tourist train operates twice a day on weekends but Monday through Friday “only when train driver is available.” The track runs directly behind the entrance building and I step over the crossties and onto the main gravel street. Just across from me is the sort of picture-perfect scene you see on old-time postcards: four buildings – library, post office, police station, and the office of the Egmont Settler, a local newspaper published in the late 1890s – standing together in their clean, coordinating paint jobs and Wild West-esque, settler charm with a distinctive red British postbox for a bit of Commonwealth flavor.

The absolute perfection of the village’s replication rivaled that of a movie set. While walking the grounds alone, I half-expected crews to rush in, swinging round their cameras and hoisting up lights, and a costumed cast of characters to take their place. There was a village forge, a cobbler, an old photography studio and a one-roomed schoolhouse, with its portrait of Queen Victoria hung respectfully over a shield painted like the Union Jack.

A sheet of paper posted near the door of the schoolhouse left me speechless:

Rules for Teachers (1915)
1. You will not marry during the terms of your contract.
2. You are not to keep company with men.
3. You must be home between the hours of 8pm and 6am unless attending a school function.
4. You may not leave the city limits without the permission of the chairman of the board.
5. You may not loiter down town in ice cream stores.
6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
8. You may not dress in bright colours.
9. You may not under no circumstances dye your hair.
10. You must wear at least two petticoats and your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.

I am not entirely convinced joining a convent would put you in a stricter environment, but I suppose one should never underestimate the negative influence of ice cream and bright colors.

One of the pride and joy’s of the village today is another cottage named the Okato House, a simple structure with a pale yellow exterior and corrugated roof the color of green rust. Built by the Julian family, it dates back to 1853 – remarkable considering the Maori wars in the region that left hardly an original building standing. I found most of the house to be as expected – the faux fruit set out on the dining table, the delicate lace on the fireplace mantle, and the rickety wrought-iron furniture you see in so many of the bedrooms in such cottages. And yet, tucked away in a narrow hallway at the end of the house, a picture hangs on the clapboard wall, that of three camels, a red-and-yellow bedouin tent, and a cluster of slightly-arched palm trees. A watercolor sky is tinted with golds and pinks and it’s unclear if the sun has already set or is only just about to crack its shell open and spill out over the horizon. But one thing is certain: that desert image was the last thing I assumed I’d find, a small glimpse into the exotic, into a world about as far removed as you could possibly get from that of the Julian’s.

And then, in the same hallway just by the backdoor, three old leather suitcases sit propped against the wall. The details of this antique luggage – the aged metal clasps and the battered handles – strike me: where were they going? where had they been? Suitcases imply movement and travel, concepts not often associated with the everyday life of colonial settlers. I was touched by the presence of both the painting and the suitcases in such a rural location; that in the smallest of small towns in a country like New Zealand – which at the time of the Julian’s in the mid-1800s was truly the end of the world for its settlers – such hints at another world and another way of life existed.

I continued round the grounds, taking a gravel path that follows the lake at the center of the village and listening to the stillness of the morning. The sky was overcast and the lake dark from the heavy foliage growing at its edges. A water wheel spun slowly and fire trucks looked out from inside a fire brigade station. What kept drawing my eye in, though – from the top of the hill where a church sat to the lowest point of the lake – was a particular flower, in shades of white and cerulean blue, growing in all corners of the village. Each flower was comprised of delicate bunches of florettes, little funneled trumpets that grew together into a stunning globe that rested atop a tall stalk like magic on a wand. I’d seen them all along the highway and here I found them again, bringing life to a walk through the past.

Back in the entrance at the end of my time in the village, I asked the shop attendant about them. “Agapanthus,” she explained, writing the bulky name out on a yellow post-it. I tucked the note away in a back pocket, where it was to stay for at least a week until finding its way into my notebook. Despite the ever-shifting course of my schedule over the months that followed, I somehow managed to keep track of that little slip of paper and now, whether by design or by chance, it’s a wonder I am able to accurately report it to you. I wonder further at the unexpected knowledge that agapanthus, a South African bloom known also as Lily of the Nile, is formed from the Greek words agapē, love, and anthos, flower. First brought to Europe by explorers in the late 1600s, the “flower of love” I stumbled across must’ve had quite the journey of continents to find its current home down under. Is there anything that doesn’t have a story?

Stratford doesn’t think so. I arrived back from the heritage village just in time to park the car and find the glockenspiel for its next performance. In New Zealand, the standard small town gives you the impression of being rather one-dimensional. Despite the interest of history found carved in the old art deco facades, the buildings never venture towards the heavens for more than a story or two, and certainly never past the heights of streetlights. So to approach Stratford is to be baffled by the presence of a clocktower standing head and shoulders over the rest of Broadway Street, built in the style of a black-and-white English timber building so unlike the rest of the town.

And the puzzlement persists when the clock strikes one. To watch a glockenspiel come alive in Prague is one thing – where the Apostles hiding inside the city’s astronomical clock draw quite the crowd at the top of every hour – but I was utterly at a loss for words standing next to two German couples – one young, one old – when Stratford became the latest backdrop for Romeo and Juliet’s fateful balcony scene. Panels of the clocktower opened like hidden doors and the star-crossed lovers appeared in three scenes, their painted wooden bodies moving stiffly along their track to a crackling loudspeaker symphony. Yet again, I felt that sense of displacement from the day before in Foxton. Amused, for sure, and glad for the photo-op but no less out of place.

But while the glockenspiel had been what first drew me to Stratford, what got me moving around the town itself were the street signs – all sixty-seven of them. I began at Prospero Place, located just behind the information center on whose windows another bust of Shakespeare had been not surprisingly painted. I held the steering wheel in one hand, a brochure for Stratford in the other, and relied on its map to guide me to green sign after green sign across town.

Talk about a visit from the ghosts of English-major past. Suddenly it was spring of 2006 and I was back in Wilson Hall, listening to Professor Kinney lecture on madness in Macbeth and draw lessons from The Winter’s Tale on the power of forgiveness. Maybe it was my overactive literary imagination, but I couldn’t help but note that Hamlet and Claudius Streets were located on opposite sides of town, locked in their eternal dispute, and that Claudius lay directly across from Elsinore Street – the king in his castle, whether rightfully or not. Although Cordelia Street led right into Lear Street, Goneril was nowhere to be found, as if five hundred years of bad karma had banished this evil eldest daughter from recognition, and I imagined the sort of domestic disturbance that must take place at the corner of Montague and Capulet Streets. Each intersection seemed to invite a further reading into these road-sign relationships.

From Juliet Street, I turned left onto Celia Street and then right on Orlando to get to the top of Romeo Street. I stopped the car briefly, letting it run while I snapped the requisite picture and tried to ignore two construction workers there on the corner, buried in what looked like a messy water works project. I am forever riding the fence between brazen photojournalist and sheepish tourist, embarrassed and emboldened all at once, always half-conscious of how my curiosity might be interpreted. I had nothing to worry about in Stratford, however. “You looking for Juliet?” the workers ask, egg-yolk yellow hard hats perking up at the sound of my shutter. “Nah, I found her already,” I say appreciatively and they smile as I get back in the car. There were no other cars around when I pulled up to Lysander Street, so again, I left the door open and the car running in the middle of the street. A police car drove by and I froze for a moment, but the officer simply smiled and drove by. Maybe they found me crazy, or perhaps were simply chuffed to see someone enjoying their town.

It was soon well into the afternoon and I knew if I didn’t get going on the Forgotten World Highway before long, there was no telling if and when I’d make it out before nightfall. State Highway 43 begins neatly on Regan Street in Stratford, a little too neatly for my liking. Such a name for a road demands a little edge to it, a sense of passing into something unknown, but as I passed the sign announcing the start of the highway, a Google Maps Camera Car drove past heading away from me into Stratford – and so it would seem SH43 is forgotten no more.

The highway is marked by a series of saddles with names like Strathmore and Tahora, passes that lead me up gentle slopes through the mountains of the Tararua Range. The land seems remarkably Tuscan, undulating hills of dark golden brush and rows of cypress trees that stand like sentinels. There’s a mystique to the iconic Lone Cypress of Pebble Beach, but these are different – tall, towering over forty meters, and thin, their rounded scruffy leaves looking like the mark of quick, thick brushstrokes, going up, up, up in the wind. It’s all bush in these parts, civilization hours and a world away, with only the remains of a few villages and an old flour mill to remind you of the settlements that once were.

That, and the village of Whangamomona, population – at last count – thirty-three. Like so many small towns, there wasn’t much to Whanga on first approach, nothing but a few heritage buildings and a large, two-story hotel, but there’s more than meets the eye to this quiet town. In 1989, a series of reforms changed the way local government looked in New Zealand, streamlining over 700 ad-hoc committees into sixteen new regional councils. As a part of this process, Whangamomona was shifted from the Taranaki Region to the Manawatu-Wanganui Region. This didn’t sit well with the locals.

I didn’t get it first. It wasn’t as if the town was suddenly being governed by far-removed English officials…or God forbid – Australians, from just across the Tasman. Yet the regional council is apparently the top-tier of local government in New Zealand and seemingly equivalent to the role of state government in the US. I suppose in that light, it’s as if an unassuming town near the border of Wisconsin – say, Dickeyville or Cuba City – suddenly found itself shifted to Illinois or, worse yet, Iowa, like a seventh-round trade in the NFL draft.

In protest to this betrayal, to such a loss of geographical identity and belonging, the residents of Whangamomona – no matter how few and far between – declared themselves an independent republic…facetiously, of course, but officially unofficial nonetheless. Since the republic’s inception in 1989, they’ve taken the idea and run with it, now issuing fake passports from the bar of the hotel, constructing corrugated “border control” huts that look more like old outhouses, and celebrating their “independence” once a year with a Republic Day festival in January.

The life of Whangamomona – if you can call it that – revolves around the hotel and its first-floor pub. A large balcony extends along the length of the second story, painted white with red accents to coordinate with the roof. I walk inside and ask where I can purchase a passport. “Here,” she says, somewhat shortly. “And you can stamp my passport, too?” I ask, feeling like I should have a small child or two with me to justify this foolish excursion. It’s an extra dollar for the stamp, apparently, but I suppose they could use the business. I’m the only one in the pub and the silence is awkward as I wait for her to…well, I’d say “process the paperwork,” but that gives the whole exchange too ceremonious of an air.

hoping for curious looks from the UK border control on this one...

“It’s quiet,” I comment, taking in how the dark green ceiling and floor of the same color make the large room seem small, confining. Advertisements for Tui, a New Zealand-brewed beer with blue-collar branding, are hung next to wall-mounted antlers. The place seems cluttered and dark.

“Won’t be later.” Touché.

I nod my head, assuming the standard run of tour buses must stop through often. She says no, though, leaving me at yet another loss as to how such a place could ever stop short of deserted. The walls of a room off the side of the pub are lined with pictures and newspaper clippings featuring stories of Whanga’s colorful history, a little black sheep of a town that’s kept itself alive. There’s even a “National Poem,” penned by poet laureate Jack Curtis, that begins:

There’s a little piece called Whanga

Way inland from the sea,

It’s stuck out in the hills

Of Eastern Taranaki.

The poem’s rhymes are often questionable, but the final line leaves no room for error: STUFF THE MANAWATU! On the way out of the hotel, I noticed a piece of paper in the corner of a window: Whangamomona Hotel is FOR SALE. Freehold land and buildings. Plants and chattells in excellent condition. Profitable business showing Positive GrowthPopular Destination. I wouldn’t have guessed, but one never can tell.

Rain starts up and I continue towards Taumarunui. It isn’t hard to see why the highway was forgotten. The twists and turns of each stretch are unbearable, not because they’re “hair-raising” as one brochure described it, but because they’re annoying, slowing you down and making any real progress difficult to achieve. The sheep only augment the road’s serpentine ways. Just past Whanga, a herd crosses my path as if they have all the time in the world. Which they do.

I pass through tunnels and past a turn-off for the Bridge to Somewhere, twin to Wanganui’s Bridge to Nowhere. I leave the Manawatu-Wanganui District and all of its bureaucratic bumbling and enter the Ruapehu District, land of the Sacred Peaks – three of New Zealand’s active volcanoes. Like the trains that used to run through the region, credited for connecting the burgeoning settlements to the rest of the country, I keep moving, rolling through the green-brown hills, ridges that fold into each other like coils on a zipper and stretch out as far as the eye can see, punctuated by a single bush here or there. The landscape isn’t striking, but its melancholy leaves you quietly impressed. At Nevin’s Lookout, I write in my notebook, the hills have endured.

Nine hours after leaving New Plymouth, I arrive in Waitomo – again, unsure of how a supposed four-hour drive more than doubled itself throughout the day. As if hands keep reaching down and stretching the road out beneath my very feet, I am learning to kiss ETAs goodbye and get used to saying, “I’ll get there when I get there.” A sign for the Waitomo District invites those passing through to “See what you’re missing.”

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do…

highway inspiration.

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puns, mugs, and the open road: day one on the north island.

Hometown, NZ. It’s a tall order for any small town to attempt to fill, but along an unassuming road just over a hundred kilometers north of Wellington a little place called Foxton, population 2,700, dares to make such a claim. Maybe it was an instinctive desire to prove it wrong or just the obscurity of the attractions it offered – from a river cruise to a Dutch windmill, from museums devoted to such items as trolley buses, flax strippers and dolls to New Zealand’s only clydesdale-drawn tram (presumably there to transport visitors from museum to museum) – but something drew me in, forcing me to turn off the state highway and venture closer to the town’s main street area.

Over the roof of a building whose art deco facade read “Municipal Chambers 1923” in burgundy and blue, the sails of a 17th-century style Dutch windmill turned slowly, deliberately. Three people gathered under the shade of a red domed awning hanging over the entrance to the building, whose municipal function has since been transformed into the town’s information center. I took a step back to the other side of Main Street, trying to capture the days-gone-by architecture of the Chambers and the unusual presence of such a windmill in a single shot.

It’d been a while since such latticed sails had floated across the frame of my camera and I was transported instantly to a visit two years earlier to Zaanse Schans, an open air heritage museum just outside of Amsterdam. There, friends and I had wandered along the banks of the Zaan River, stopping at each of the thirteen, centuries-old windmills, and taking pictures of each other standing in gimmicky, oversized clogs.

But today, instead, I found myself continents and oceans away in Foxton, New Zealand, and I felt at once the sense of displacement that comes when any symbolic structure – be it the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or a Dutch windmill – is removed from the place of its origins and replicated in a markedly different locale. For these structures carry with them certain associations linked specifically with their original homes. La Tour Eiffel is Paris, it is tied inextricably to the romance and wonder that is all things French, and I can only imagine the disjointed feeling of stumbling across its likeness in Vegas or even – God forbid – Paris, Texas. Goodbye, continuity..

So, too, inside Foxton’s De Molen windmill – literally “the mill” in Dutch – I scratched my head and found myself asking, “Huh?” Rows of colorful magnets on a refrigerator spelled HOLLAND and were made in the shape of Amsterdam’s famous row houses or bunches of red and pink tulips stuffed into yellow clogs. I could’ve bought any number of Dutch delicacies on sale or sent a postcard as if from the Low Countries themselves, with only the postmark to betray me. While I contemplated bottles of Maggi sauce and pancake mix, an aged volunteer running the gift shop explained this is no mere tourist showpiece, but a working windmill since its grand opening in 2003. As if to prove his point, he motioned to a series of shelves displaying brown paper packages that contain the mill’s very own stone ground maizemeal.

I picked up a bright orange brochure that featured the outline of a tulip next to a silver fern – “Samen staan we sterk!” it read, “Let’s create a stronger community of Dutch Kiwis throughout New Zealand.” Having a friend from Christchurch currently living in London on a Dutch passport courtesy of his father’s lineage – with even the standard “van” prefix to prove it – I perhaps didn’t laugh off such an endeavor as quickly as I might’ve otherwise. There’s a lot of emphasis placed on Asian-Pacific groups now settled in New Zealand – Samoan, Fijian, Tongan, etc – but Kiwis of European descent are often lumped together under the umbrella term of pakeha, a Maori word that generally means white or non-Maori. So to learn of an individual European culture earnestly asking such questions as “Who are we?” and “Are we relevant?” was quite the unusual discovery…almost as unusual as stumbling across a working Dutch windmill in small-town New Zealand.

I left Foxton perplexed yet thoroughly pleased that such an outpost of Dutchness exists and soon continued through the Manawatu District, where the motto is “Young Heart, Easy Living,” and a town named Sanson tempts passer-bys with its “Amazing Maze ‘n Maize.” Barely half an hour down the road, I passed quietly into Bulls, population 1,750. A black sign reading “Welcome to Bulls” featured a large white cut-out of a bull but did little to entice me off the road. New Zealand is full of towns with giant kiwis, giant sheep, and giant carrots, and as Joe Bennett writes in A Land of Two Halves, the humor behind these oversized landmarks is questionable: “It’s a form of branding for the tourists, one that I would like to believe was tinged with irony, but I am not confident” (12).

But a life-size bull parading as a Dutchman does catch my attention. Painted on the side of a Dutch deli, he stands upright, sporting a blue peacoat and black pants, a red scarf tied around his neck, and of course, the unmistakable yellow clogs. He’s placed in front of that old familiar windmill and a trail of hearts drifts away from his head as if leading to a thought bubble, no doubt a result of the permanent position from which he gazes longingly at the saucy little heifer in a mural on the opposing wall. As to be expected, she does all the work, carrying two milk buckets suspended from a yoke like a Victorian milkmaid.

I turned left at the next stoplight and parked along a side road. As I got out of the car, I was delighted to find an official rubbish bin shaped like an old-fashioned milk can. What’s more, the town’s logo had been painted on the side of the can with the words, Respons-I-Bull, printed underneath. I laughed to myself and congratulated the town on such a display of cleverness. It didn’t end there. I looked up to find the public restrooms directly in front of me. Obviously, not something incredibly noteworthy, except when a small white sign posted near the building read: Reliev-A-Bull.

It was like breaking a code, finding the legend to a treasure map, or the moment when after staring cross-eyed at an autostereogram, the hidden image finally pops out at you. I knew not only how to look, but where, and soon spotted white sign after white sign, all filled with their shamelessly entertaining puns. Outside the New Zealand Fire Service of Bulls? Extinguish-A-Bull. The Bulls C.A.L.F. Playschool, short for Childcare and Learning Facility? Love-A-Bull. The Plunket Society, an organization that provides health services to babies and young children? Non-Return-A-Bull. It may not have been the finest display of verbal irony, but I ate it up nonetheless.

I walked back towards Main Street, passing by the Dairy Bull, where apparently a range of products is Avail-A-Bull, and came to a sports bar named, for whatever reason, the Rat Hole. There was no sign to be seen at first, so getting into the spirit of things, I thought “Drink-A-Bull” or even “Imbibe-A-Bull” might do. A second-hand bookstore was named Trash and Treasur-A-Bull, prices at the electronics store were Unbeat-A-Bull, and the Candy Cottage absolutely Irresist-A-Bull. I browsed further through town, picking up momentum like you might in an Easter egg hunt after finding that one egg with paper money inside. A sign on the ATM at Westpac Bank read Bank-A-Bull and the Bulls Museum, with all its antique sewing machines and phonographs, was sure to be Memor-A-Bull. Although I found several establishments lacking in creativity – Mr. Sharp Sharpening Services could have certainly done better than Sharpen-A-Bull – many were quite original, with even the Anglican church taking part in the fun: Forgive-A-Bull.

After close to an hour of sign-chasing, from the Indispense-A-Bull Platt’s Pharmacy to the Cure-A-Bull medical centre, from the List-A-Bull real estate agency to the Restock-A-Bull 4Square Market, I turned to the information center – Inform-A-Bull, of course – to help me trace the history of such an inimitable marketing campaign. Inside, a man named Roger tells me the town itself wasn’t even named after its four-legged counterpart but James Bull, an English carpenter whose first job in New Zealand was to build a chair for the Parliamentary Speaker in Wellington. Roger calls on a coworker to remember exactly when the signs first appeared, sometime in 1991 it seems, and they were based off a book called A Load of Bull, naturally. To date, there are well over a hundred signs and ten alone have appeared in the last six months. All it took to get started was the support of local businesses…easily Achieve-A-Bull, no? Bulls, a self-proclaimed “town like no udder,” proved truly “unforgettabull,” just like the brochures and websites profess. Even on the road leading out of the town, there was a banner to see me off: “Bulls – Where anything is poss-a-bull.”

I can describe my departure from Bulls as nothing short of regrett-a-bull, but there was still plenty of road left between me and where I planned to be by the end of the day. Much of the traffic that passes through Bulls comes from the fact that the town is located at the fork of two state highways. SH1, the route I’d taken from Wellington, continues north through the center of the island, but I “steer”ed left (pun fully intended), following SH3 towards Wanganui and Hawera, where I’d continue on SH45 to New Plymouth. The region I was entering is home to Mount Taranaki and a sign, “Welcome to the Horizons Region,” marks your arrival. I liked the sound of that.

I approached Hawera rather indifferently. With a population of 11,000, the town seems to be known for little more than having the largest dairy factory complex in the Southern Hemisphere as well as an iconic water tower built in 1914. As I pulled up to the tower, though, my attention was diverted to a series of American flags hanging from the light poles that lined the streets. It was more what I would have expected to find in small-town America on Memorial Day or Fourth of July, not here of all places. I found the information center and walked up to an attendant, asking vaguely, “Any reason all those American flags are hung?”

I was unsure if I needed to locate someone on the town council and let them know – gently – we’re not in America anymore.

“Oh, yes,” she replied quickly, “AmeriCARna.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that? Of course the arrival of 700 antique American cars over the weekend explained such a display of patriotism…for a country not their own.

In Manaia, I was greeted by a giant loaf of bread, in honor of the town’s self-avowed status as “The Bread Capital of New Zealand.” There was a charming roundabout in the center of town, with a clocktower, gazebo and war memorial, as well as the Taranaki Country Music Hall of Fame. Yet it is bread, not banjos, that seems to be key to this township’s success. The Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand describes Manaia as the “hub of a thriving baking industry” and a brochure on historic Manaia lists the Yarrows Limited’s factory as the country’s largest privately-owned bakery. When a flour mill was first built in 1882, it was even thought “Taranaki would become the grain growing area of the South Pacific,” yet the mill’s remains today might suggest otherwise.

I began to wonder if I would ever make it to New Plymouth. The trouble with the open road, open not only in space but in the sense that it is yours for the taking, is when do you stop stopping? Driving solo is the pinnacle of independence, with not even a fellow passenger to insist, not another small town…enough already! I had a feeling all my calculations of driving times and estimated arrival times to destinations would swiftly grow irrelevant as the North Island unveiled the best it had to offer in both the quirky and quaint.

But something I have come to love about New Zealand while driving around it is the character and personality so many of its highways take on. Because of its relatively small size – its land area roughly the same as the United Kingdom’s and not even 3% of the United States’ – the highways in New Zealand are fairly straightforward. No messy exits, no confusing clovers, just one road in, one road out. And for sections of the highway designated as official touring routes, they are marketed as such: the Great Alpine Highway on the South Island, the Twin Coast Discovery Highway leading from Auckland to the top of the North Island, and – what I would be taking from Hawera to New Plymouth – the Surf Highway, otherwise known as State Highway 45, that wraps around the coast circling Mount Taranaki in a shaky half-moon.

Opunake, a little town of 1,300 and “Home of World Famous Surf,” lay along the Surf Highway. In town there was an Opunake Hotel and the Surf Inn, complete with a kayak hung on the roof, but I turned down a side road and headed towards the coast. There was a small walkway I took that weaved through the bush and brought you out on a cliff overlooking the main beach, its black volcanic sand shimmering in low tide. A single vehicle had been parked at the water’s edge and two figures worked their way across the sand. I walked back to my car and drove down to sea-level, where a campground and holiday park had been built. Two hexagonal picnic tables were placed in front of the Opunake Beach Camp Store and a family sat on the grass in the waning sunlight. It was a sleepy sort of place, a thin layer of algae floating on the campground’s pool, but I had the feeling those who visit don’t mind.

The highway continued and I settled in for what I thought would be a final hour of driving before New Plymouth. That is, until, a hand-painted sign in a yard outside the town of Rahotu caught my eye and offered an invitation: “Welcome to view, wander around.” View what? I asked, taking in the picket fence that stood between the road and a small, plain house with white siding and a red, corrugated metal roof. I walked closer and found that the two pieces of wood holding up the sign had hooks in them and from each one had been hung a coffee mug. There were easily twenty cups on either side. Additionally, the entire interior of the fence was covered with mugs, as was the base of a wishing well, the sides of a chest freezer, the mesh around a chicken coop, and even a retro mini RV standing in the yard. On one side of the house hidden from the road, the same hand had painted “Krafty Cups” in large red lettering,  right next to a wooden lattice holding more mugs. The cups were everywhere and I wondered if I stood still long enough, if even I would soon have some hanging off of me.

I crossed the yard cautiously, with that certain hesitance of trespassing yet intensely curious. What would behoove someone to do such a thing? For someone to go to the effort of not only collecting an obscene amount of coffee mugs, but to then take the time to string the wire and secure the hooks from which to hang each cup. And to what end? As some bizarre protest against conformity? A schoolteacher with nowhere else to store the mugs she’s given year after year? Or just a simple attempt to bring a smile to each passer-by and give them a story to take with them? “You’ll never believe what I saw…”  In the roughest of estimates, I figure there are thousands of mugs, hung with the greatest of care just like the stockings in The Night Before Christmas. It’s easy to think someone has way too much time on their hands…but then again, why not, right? I, for one, was grateful for whatever questionably-sound mind was behind it. It’s not the kind of place you can plan to visit, as it’s not exactly the kind of place you know even exists until you happen to chance upon it.

When I finally arrived at the Sunflower Lodge in New Plymouth nine and a half hours after leaving Wellington – still not sure exactly how a five-hour trip turned into that – I settled in in peace. In the kitchen, an old man who worked for the hostel was helping two young Dutch guys cook paua in a frying pan, a New Zealand standard that tastes similar to abalone (or so I’m told). They’d bought them off a guy on the side of the road and didn’t know how to open their shell, let alone cook them. The man tells us that when he was our age, “You got straight to work. I got a job at 20, was married at 21, and by the time I was 25, I had four kids. I think what you guys are doing is a great way to get around.”

I got to know my Finnish dormmate briefly back in the room. A feeling of contentment washed over me – not the exhilaration of a crazy adventure, but that quiet satisfaction of knowing what I’m doing and knowing why I’m here. This day was exactly what I had hoped for and perfectly justified every cent I was spending on a rental car. I thought about the fact that this trip didn’t exactly have any edginess to it and it’s not as if I felt I was driving off into the great unknown, even if I had been referring to the North Island as my ‘terra incognita’ the past year. But it did feel like a journey of exploration. I thought of Captain Cook on voyages around the world, armed with painters ready to record the new sights, and I felt it was much the same for me and my camera.

The thing is, I expected quirkiness. So when I stumbled upon something out of the ordinary – be it a Dutch windmill, an oversized loaf of bread, or a cache of coffee cups – I laughed out of excitement, not surprise, as if to say, “Ah, so here’s where you’ve been hiding.” As I fell asleep that night, I couldn’t help but feel like the promise behind Taranaki’s “Horizons Region” was true…

New horizons indeed.

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