On those days when work is getting you down, you close your eyes and imagine traveling to exotic travel destinations. What do you see? Yoga on the beach, coffee on the patio of a resort overlooking the ocean, a hike or mountain bike ride on a rainforest trail, an afternoon swim in tropical waters, a delicious dinner served on glass plates with a glass of wine. Adventure! Great food! Beautiful accommodations! Fresh cut flowers, massages, a maid who cleans up your room.
I live in a van. I was talking to my Dad a couple days ago and he says to me: “I keep seeing pictures of your van, and it seems like it's just a mini-van." Yep. It’s not a motor home or a camper. It really is just a minivan named Sister Mary Francis. (More on that, later.) Usually this life choice does not phase me, but In the midst of our third week here, my tenacity for this life decision flagged.
It started our first night in Lake Taupo. We camped in the free “camp” with approximately 100 other mini vans spread out across a space called “Reid’s Farm.” Everyone was polite enough, we were all spread out cooking behind our vans on the floor, sipping beers and listening to a large river flow by. I watched German 20-somethings wander about wearing colorful headbands and pants that dangle from their waists like sacs until their ankles, where only then the fabric is separated into two legs and form an elastic band around each ankle. These pants look like a giant, colorful, saggy diaper. One traveler comes flying down the hill on a skateboard only to fall off and skid along the gravel laden, but paved driveway for about 250 feet. I cringe, feeling the phantom pain of his scraped off skin. There were no showers at this camp, and far fewer toilets than appropriate for this number of people. Toward the end of the evening, garbage began over flowing the bins and it just felt crowded.
In the morning, we headed off. We checked out Huku Falls, then headed to the Lake Taupo Mountain Loop. Rated the #1 single track trail in New Zealand, we were excited to see what the hype was all about.
Stopping at Lake Taupo’s edge, we discovered the rocks are light as a feather. They even float! Natural, real pumice stone (you know the kind they use to smooth your feet) laid about on the beach.
That night, we camped near the trail head all by ourselves. We clambered into the forest and showered by pouring a water bottle over our heads. It was chilly, but the smell of redwood pines and eucalyptus made up for it. Camping alone in this spot felt better than the farm, but as I slurped up my soup behind the van, I realized I was traumatized from the free farm experience. “Am I an exotic traveler? Or am I just homeless? What is the difference?” I ask Myself.
Myself rolls her eyes and huffs as if it is the most ridiculous question she has ever heard posed. “The difference is you chose this life, and you have enough money to get out if you want to. If you are going to be such a baby, gather up your crap and go find a fancy hotel.”
I scowl. “Fine, don’t be a jerk. I just feel out of sorts.” I say to Myself.
The next day, we drove through strange New Zealand desert brush to end up at Mount Doom! It has an unpronounceable Maiori name, but it is the volcano grouping that was used to film part of Lord of the Rings where they hike Mount Doom! so that’s what everyone calls it now.
The hike was long and steep. We heaved ourselves up thousands of stair-steps built into the mountain side until we arrived at the saddle between red crater (a volcano decorated with red rusted soil) and Mount Doom! itself (a cone shaped volcano, the kind that lives in my imagination as “Volcano”.) The view would have been spectacular. The ridge of volcanos drop off the other side and head back down into the valley here. You should be able to see two more volcano craters filled with water called the Emerald Lakes, because they are a brilliant green. But, instead, we are smothered inside a big, black cloud. The winds are blowing 50 knots, and at the ridge it feels like we might get blown off. Andrew politely tells me water from the cloud is accumulating on my face, but what he really means is my lady mustache. (I can’t help it, my ancestors are Eastern European!) “I need to invest in a better mirror for Sister Mary Francis (the van).” I think.
With the weather turning sour, we decide to get out of the wilderness and drive Southeast to the dry, sunny side of the island - wine country! Andrew is excited because there is another free campsite in Napier, on the beach. Sounds good. We pull into the free parking lot located on the edge of a black, pebble beach. We set out our camp chairs on the beach, nestle our toes into the warm black pebbles and crack open a beer with our new Kiwi beer opener. It was pleasant. But, when you turn around, there are a line of minivans packed within arms length of each other. There is no reason for me to develop a bad attitude, but my vibration of anxiety starts buzzing again.
A hippie in his 70s, with long scraggly hair and a friendly black dog sits down next to me. “This is his beach, he just likes to share it with you.” He says, and I nod. The hippie throws a stick for the dog, and he retrieves it over and over again.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Donald Trump.” The old hippie responds, laughing at his own wit.
Donald Trump and his owner wander down to the edge of the sea and play in the water until Donald Trump turns around and gallops, soggy stick in his mouth, straight toward me. He throws the stick at my feet with a toss of his head, slinging foamy slobber into my dinner. Well, I was finished with that anyway. I pick up the slimy stick holding it with as few fingers as possible, pinching it between my thumb and my forefinger. I give it a throw.
“You are the chosen one.” The hippie explains, “Are you German?”
“No, American.” I respond.
“Hm.” He says, “Donald Trump usually loves German girls.”
Andrew and I end up throwing Donald Trump’s stick for hours. He never gets tired. In the meantime, his owner combs the beach, looking for campers needing to purchase some of his “organic plant fertilizer.” As I walk along the string of minivans to the toilets (remarkably clean considering) I pass a couple engaged in fully clothed coitus, with their minivan doors swung wide open for all to see. “They must be French,” I think, and carry on as if I saw nothing.
A few minutes later, I double back on my own thoughts.
“How is it that none of this seems strange to you?” I ask Myself.
“What? What do you mean?” Myself says, shrugging.
“You are a fancy pants lawyer with the ability to stay in a five star hotel tonight if you so choose. What the hell are you doing in a crowded parking lot, talking to a burned out old hippie trying to offer us “organic plant fertilizer” while we throw a stick to his dog named Donald Trump?” I say.
Myself makes a face. “Uhg. What are you complaining about? Look! We have the oceanfront suite!"
“Donald Trump, get your black ass over here with that stick!” I hear, an interruption to my inner monologue.
The next morning, I am charged with preparing myself to look reasonably acceptable to visit a winery or two. I lean in close to see my reflection in the polished plate of aluminum hung over the bathroom sink. I splash water, rub in some coconut oil, sticky product, and other hair management paraphenelia to try to tame the disorganized curls twisted up from New Zealand’s strong wind, humidity, and sleeping in a van. My efforts are not strictly successful. There is a kink on one side that turns one of my curls at a 90 degree angle right behind my ear.
I give up, and pull it back with an elastic band. I climb into the van, pull the curtains around the windows and wriggle into my jeans while laying on mattress/platform thing. I pull my shirt on, ruffling my hair out of place again. I dangle head first over the mattress edge to reach my socks, hidden in the duffle bag below. As I bend over, I feel a funny cool brush of air on the inner part of my thighs.
I look down only to discover that my pants have given up their primary job of concealing my legs. They have not split at the seams. No, they have rubbed together so many times that the fabric has turned into fuzz and worn away. Two symmetrical holes mirror each other on the inside of each of my thighs, my squishy flesh peeking out.
The panic/rage/tantrum begins brewing and Myself starts trying to talk me out of it. “Breathe, breathe! It’s okay! Just breathe! We have other pants you can wear, it’s ok!” But we don’t. I left my other pair of jeans in Utah because I didn’t have enough space in my duffle bags and jeans aren’t comfortable in the tropics anyway. I have one other pair of pants, but they are camping/hiking pants that have been melted on the back of my legs when I inadvertently leaned up against a campfire grate.
“It’s ok, It’s ok! Let’s go SHOPPING!” Myself says boisterously, waving jazz hands on either side of her body to cheer me.
“I hate shopping. Especially for pants.” I tell Myself. Her smile fades and her jazz hands drop. “I should not have to dig around in a big rubber duffle bag to find that the only two pairs of pants I own are each unfit for human socialization?”
A small girl, speaking a foreign language wanders passes the van as I am considering my feelings on the matter. Her hair is long, untame and wild. She is wearing the funny diaper pants. I smell her walking by before I see her. Suddenly, I do not feel like a minimalist carefully crafting my life to embrace all the things I want while leaving behind the comforts I don't need. I feel homeless. I grab my makeup kit, flop down the passenger side visor and carefully apply some makeup. Thinking this will make me feel better, I methodically brush my lashes with mascara, marveling at the self improvement made by adding length, darkness and thickness. "Yes, yes. This is better," I think to Myself for a moment. Then, I realize, “No. It is not better, it is worse.”
We pack the mountain bikes back into Sister Mary Francis, and I break the news to Andrew that we need to buy new pants. Andrew drives through town, quiet as a church-mouse trying to avoid further exacerbating my already touch and go mood. We go to the camping store the New Zealand equivalent to REI where I try on pants. $150 for the pair I want. Ugh. I can't bring myself to do it, so we relocate further in town and try on some cotton pants for $40. I buy them in a huff, and I return to the van to struggle out of my melted camp pants and into my new pants, a dainty black shirt, and a pretty scarf. My makeup is done, my hair is…well, it’s my hair.
One last thing, and I’m ready to go. We pull into the winery parking lot as I smooth the waxy strip onto my upper lip. RIP!
Ok, I'm over it now. I'm ready to go.