Everyone needs to get away from it all now and then. Often this results in some isolated location where one can find quiet and calm. For me, the high desert expanses of Polecat Bench address this occasional need. However, finding a suitable replacement in New Zealand wasn’t easy but I did find it, in the strange form of a racetrack—Addington Raceway.
Living in a major city like Christchurch and not having an automobile translated to a restrictive status when it came to “getting away from it all.” I was fortunate to have the famous racetrack practically in my backyard. In five minutes or less, I could walk from my flat to the abandoned venue and contemplate every sad country song my mind could drum up. The visits weren’t often, but they were meaningful. Days when I was homesick, days when work got the best of me and days when there was the need for major soul-searching, I would gravitate to Addington Raceway—always at night when it was empty and still.
Sometimes I would sit in the stands and look out beyond the fenced-in racetrack—into the heart of the Canterbury’s famed city. Other times I would meander along the one mile plus dirt track and despite the emotional weight I was carrying, I would contemplate the ghosts of famous horses that had stirred the same earth I was trekking over—Lyle Creek and Farlap were two that always came to mind. When I was on the other side of the gigantic oval, I never felt further away from Wyoming.
During those introverted moments, there was usually a camera along for the ride. It seemed like the thing to do with my hands as my mind processed whatever it was that brought me there in the first place. When the horses or dogs were in town, I never went near the premises because I feared its sanctuary would transform and take on a different meaning in my mind and thus, I would never seek its refuge again.
Addington Raceway will always be my getaway while everyone else in Christchurch will just think of it as another racetrack. And now, each time I return to Polecat Bench and its isolated sanctuary, I always think of Addington and that faraway bend on the other side of the track.
If you go to New Zealand, take plenty of black with you because it is everywhere—women in black, men in black, kids in black, black trousers, black tops, black jerseys, black shoes and socks and I can only guess, black undies too. At first I thought it might be only an Auckland thing, but not so, I’ve seen an abundance of black in Nelson, Wellington, Rotorua and Christchurch. Maybe I’ll come to know the rationale in wanting to look like a relative of Johnny Cash before leaving the country next year.
Maybe the popularity of black attire has to do with Rugby—New Zealand’s favorite sport (I know, sounds like a stretch already). The national rugby team of New Zealand is known as the All Blacks—and as one would expect, their uniforms are nothing but black. Yet I have to wonder if rugby fans and fashion fanatics go hand-in-hand. Perhaps its a fashion from years past that has evolved into a low-grade New Zealand custom—some color trend that carried over from New York, Paris or London awhile back—kind of like a fashion “hiccup.” I’ve some nerve; writing about fashion after coming from Powell, Wyoming, where flannel is king.
In all of this fashion for the dark side, there are the “black shops” (as I like to call them). These stores cater to the darker dressed individuals and are everywhere in Auckland. For the most part, black shops all look the same too—a stripped down shop staffed by a twenty-something, black-clothed fashion victim with a bare-bones selection of, you guessed it, black clothing on the shelves. All accessories are black too. I just can’t figure out if this minimalist environment for a clothing store is considered sheik or is it the result of a limited bankroll that keeps inventory to this reduced state. I find them absolutely fascinating, yet I can’t say why. Seldom do I ever see customers in such stores, but surely they find their way in as I consider all the black on the streets. From my multiple observations, the clerk is always sitting at the front counter for a good part of the day mulling over fashion magazines or sending out email to friends because there is clearly nothing else to do in the store. Maybe these stores are a front for some kind of illegal operation.
If I had my way, I’d loiter in one of those stores for the good part of a day as an invisible man so I could be mesmerized by the listlessness of activity; contemplating the under appreciated, dressed-up clerk while enjoying the tranquil setting of a store stocked with a thinned selection of black attire.
I said goodbye to John a few hours ago at the bus station in downtown Auckland. John was one of the first Kiwis I came to know here in New Zealand. We met up in the TV room of the hostel where we were both staying at the time. We connected as a result of our mutual interest and humor found in professional wrestling.
In some ways I feel as though I’ve known John for years and in other ways, he still seems a stranger to me. Perhaps we never came to know each other’s peculiarities as good friends often do, however I think there was an understanding between us that such details weren’t that necessary. All we needed to know is that we both enjoyed professional wrestling and movies—good and bad ones alike.
As we were walking to the bus station this afternoon, I still felt a need to know more about John despite his knack of evading questions that revealed too much information about himself. So, I asked him to tell me about a favorite childhood memory. He spoke of a cousin that came to visit his family one summer when he was eleven. She was from Australia. He told me how he developed the biggest crush on her and acted like a typical goofy kid—trying to be interested in the things she was interested in just so she’d be impressed. He never saw her again although he still hears about her through his family. He recounted a Saturday afternoon when they attended the local movie house—“Jaws” was showing. He hid on the theater floor during several scenes because he was so squeamish despite her ability to watch the entire film without a blink. His voice was sincere and confident when he told me that there was no better place to grow up than Nelson—his hometown. We compared notes of our childhood and once again found we had other things in common as we recounted our earliest memories.
John kept odd hours at the Ponsonby Backpackers. Most of the time, he would stay up well past 3:00 a.m. and he didn’t think it unusual to stay up until dawn. I think he was disappointed that I could never make it too far past midnight before I felt the need to retire. As a result of his late-night TV vigils, John was never seen during the normal breakfast hour around the kitchen—not even during the later morning hours of the day. He usually appeared after 1:00 in the afternoon. I would often join him in the early evening hours for a walk to the market where he would often purchase a box of Choya tea and Watties Baked Beans for his evening tea. John told me that he probably drank up to 12 cups of tea per day—always with milk.
John’s knowledge about America was impressive. I don’t suppose it is that unusual for a Kiwi to be fairly informed about the United States due to its high profile in the world, but John seemed especially interested in America and my life as an American—as if he was comparing the things he learned from me and my life with what he knew (or thought he knew) about the States. A couple days ago, I was stunned when he made a reference to Montgomery, Alabama, as the capital of that state. Less than a year ago, I couldn’t have told anyone whether Christchurch was on the North or South Island of New Zealand.
I suppose John doesn’t have much money. Although he is staying in places that are associated with travellers, he only appears to be living day to day with little resources—doesn’t have the look or the talk of a true traveller. During my days spent with John, I only saw him in one other pair of pants, which was a ripped up pair of jeans—he would wear them when he was washing his regular pair. John always wore the same sweater too but he never appeared dirty as I’m sure he bathed and shaved almost everyday. Not long before he left, his sweater had ripped where the sleeve meets the chest-area of the pullover. He struck me as odd in his determination to have it repaired as opposed to purchasing a new one. I would later learn that such resolve in resourcefulness is a common and admirable trait in many New Zealanders.
John’s shoes were also very worn and when he had them on, they were seldom laced—or only half laced—as if he was never going anywhere too far. However, today when we left the hostel for the train station by foot, his shoes were as they always were—half laced—just as if he was going out the back door to have a cup of tea or going down to the market at the bottom of the hill.
Because I suspected he was on a tight budget, I bought a six pack of beer on occasion and shared it with him—opting for Mac’s Ale, one of the domestic beers that is brewed near his hometown of Nelson. He was always grateful anytime I “shouted” him a beer or some other treat like a Ponsonby pie or a Memphis Meltdown ice cream bar. Upon handing him one of these items he simply responded, “Cheers.” I’ve never known anyone to express their thanks so well and so simply as John. For this reason alone, I’m grateful to have known him.
John expressed having mixed feelings in leaving. I’m not sure why he had to leave or if he even had to leave at all. I didn’t press him for more information, I just accepted it from him. He caught one of the busses going north toward the Bay of Islands. He would go as far as Orewa for the $7 bus fee and then hitchhike farther north to Whangarei. From there and further north, he told me he would be looking for work at one of the many organic farms found throughout this country that hire general laborers for four hours per day and in return supply them with free room and board. I think John will do well since he is a man of simple means and requires little to keep himself going.
I don’t know when or if I’ll ever see John again. I’m hoping to catch up with him someday—maybe up on the North Shore before I make my way South; and if not there, perhaps down in Nelson when he returns home, whenever that is. More than anything, I hope John will have the opportunity to visit me in Wyoming. I think deep in his heart, he’d like to visit America and now that he has a friend there and in—of all places—Wyoming, I suspect it is even more desirable for him to travel there.