One eye on the dashboard, one on the road

My song came on the radio as I drove away from the last six months of my life.
It was the morning after the end of season staff party at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, so my decisions were not mine to make, and choosing music to listen to as I drove was beyond me.
So instead of the usual mix of Father John Misty, Kendrick Lamar, #1 Dads, Every Time I Die and Run The Jewels in the recently played music in my iTunes library, the ramblings of the Stoke FM’s morning duo accompanied me into town.
Their mood reflected my own as they spoke of the roller coaster season which had just come to a close with two incredible powder days and boxes of chocolate granola ‘Mojo’ bars; a parting gift from the Resort as skiers exited the gondola for the last time this winter and which now littered the DJ’s studio just as they littered the back of my van.
And as I struggled to keep my eyes on the road and my mind on the many tasks I had ahead of me which would accompany my next great adventure, they played Dashboard by Modest Mouse.

Well we scheme and we scheme but we always blow it
We’ve yet to crash, but we still might as well tow it
Standing at a light switch to each east and west horizon,
Every dawn you’re surprising,
and in the evening one’s consoling
Saying “See it wasn’t quite as bad as”
Well, it would’ve been, could’ve been worse than you would ever know.

With it’s allusions to the best laid plans failing despite our greatest efforts it was hardly the most auspicious start to this great west coast road trip I have envisioned, but now with over 1000 kilometres under the belts and cogs of Laika the Van, I’m treating it less of an omen of certain failure and more of a warning to exercise caution – and ignoring it entirely.

A careless attitude and enthusiasm for warmer weather in tow, I stowed the essentials of my winter gear in a friend’s basement and made for the aptly named Summerland – where two friends who had made early exits from the Revelstoke season due to injury were living, like myself, in the in-between phases of life.
Having fractured three ribs, two vertebrae and her pelvis rolling an ATV in early March, it was with a flood of relief my Revy housemate Diana greeted me at the door of her parents’ home on both feet and without the aid of a walker when I arrived on Monday evening.
It was her first full day without morphine since the accident and her elfish grin spread ear-to-ear as it always had, and laid to rest any of my lingering worries for her recovery.

With her enthusiasm for life returning to normal as soon as possible, she, Laurel and I took a wine tour of the Okanagan the following day, baulking at the prices of cellar-door cases (minimum $17 per bottle) and club “deals” which afforded the member six bottles of the winemaker’s choice for a mere $150.
Bloody great wine – but coming from Margaret River where you can walk out of the cellar door with a case of 12 decent clean skins for under $100 the pricing didn’t exactly allow for the plans of stocking up on wine for ten people and two weeks in Tofino.

And after 24 hours in Tofino, having burnt through another few hundred clicks on the road, a night in Vancouver and a ferry trip to Van Island, it looks like this tiny, rainy town may be home for the Summer.
Surf shops, cafes, restaurants and beautiful people line the main street and although the surf is blown out and tiny today there is sun and swell in the forecast for the first day of our two week island holiday.
Although the promise of sun is optimistic in one of the rainiest places on the planet, and enthusiasm for surf is daunting given the necessity for a 4mm wetsuit plus hood and booties, with a group of good mates the stoke factor will surely remain on high.

And even if it doesn’t – if the surf doesn’t come and the fish don’t bite; if the rain persists and the sun never shines; if the bars aren’t hiring and Laika the van dies; if I can’t fix her and charm won’t pay parking fines; if my body breaks down and I have to leave this land behind; if I get stuck on a bent of accidentally rhyming the last paragraph of a post – I’ll still have Isaac Brock letting me know that it could have been, would have been worse than I could ever know, the windshield was broken, but I love the fresh air you know.

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If there were no survivors, where do the stories come from?

If you find yourself bent over double, one hand wrapped around the binding of a snowboard buried tail deep in snow to the side of the sub-peak bootpack at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, you and I might have a few things to chat about.
If you’re out of breath because today is Wednesday and on Tuesday night you racked up a bill at the Village Idiot you can in no way afford, before attempting some questionable dancing at the Regent Hotel’s ‘Tooneys’ Tuesday night, you and I have probably already had many a chat about many a thing.
Though it is possible neither of us remember any such conversation.
Take a look around; enjoy the sight of a particularly gnarled pine tree weighed down with a winter’s worth of snow, framed against the backdrop the most spectacular mountain range you and many of your fellow hikers have ever seen.
But if you, like I, have done this hike so many times over the course of the winter you have stopped casting your eyes to the horizon to fully appreciate the circumstances of your situation, take your arse back to the base of the hike and start all over again, because you deserve the pain you ungrateful little shit.

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Take a deep breath, exhale.
Evoke your inner Englishman and utter a stream of swear words so obscene it’s like you’re actually Richard Hammond on a bicycle in peak hour traffic.
Take a deep breath, exhale, and realise in a moment of clarity that this is one aspect of a life you have dreamed of since first discovering snowboarding more than ten years ago.
You will begin to enjoy the mountain air in your lungs a little more than you are struggling with the tequila fermenting in your gut; potentially so much so you will stop forcing your sense of guilt onto an imagined audience in the third person and I may start referring to these non-problems as my own.
So I took a deep breath, exhaled and continued on up the face of Mt Mackenzie, following in the footsteps of three friends and thousands of powder pigs and hungry hounds working for those turns, burning for those turns on the bowls and ridges surrounding Revelstoke Mountain Resort.

Karine and I had hired avalanche beacons and along with Max and Jeff’s back country experience, fully specced gear and avalanche training, we were able to lull ourselves into a sense of security.  
The boot pack was well laid out on the face ahead of us, as the many sunny days of this Spring/Winter had given many a punter an opportunity to search out fresh tracks, so it seemed to be simply a matter of following that to the peak and hoping for the best – with an awareness of the worst.

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With one eye on the bootpack and one on the many cornices over hanging the 50+ metre drops to the bowl below, we reached the summit of Mt Mackenzie  in t-shirts and, in my case, a boozy-sweaty mess.
After a breather and Geoff’s participation in the #whereismoke Instagram hashtag, we strapped in and headed down the ridge for the entrance of the Brown Shorts chute which would lead us back to the inbounds area of the resort.
It would be a bittersweet descent; without fresh snow since the previous Friday it was unlikely we would find any new tracks down the chute, but any avalanche danger was substantially lessened for the same reasons.
So there wasn’t much more to it, but to eye out a line, keep my weight heavy on my back foot, keep my ears open for any unusual rumblings from on high, lean over the edge and take the drop.

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Getting myself into hot water on the way to Aguas Calientes

You pass through the town at the peak of the mountain and the road ahead is suddenly blanketed in cloud and a recent rockfall forces all traffic on to the muddy shoulder which overhangs a hundred metre drop.
You look to the left as your driver makes the sign of the crucifix on his chest.
This may bring peace to the driver but to you it says “we’re going to need divine intervention to get through this alive.”
Inside your head you’re screaming at the driver “mas despacio, por favor” but outwardly you’re attempting to remain calm while the speedo creeps past 80 and he overtakes a ute in the pouring rain on the edge of a cliff again making the sign of the cross.
You reason that he has probably done this drive hundreds of times before and he’s still here to do it for you and your fellow passengers, but the creeping pessimist in your conscience speaks up at this point.
“That just means he hasn’t killed himself yet, doesn’t mean he hasn’t killed anyone else…”
The pessimism doesn’t trail off because it’s finished detailing the reality of this mortal test you paid good money for, but because the blind corner you are now navigating is suddenly occupied by a very much sideways travelling truck and, and much like a computer still running Windows XP when it attempts to do too many things at once, your brain has simply shut off.
You emerge from your lucid blackout somewhere on down the mountain road, and you wonder if the hangover you are nursing through this experience may be your last.

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Aside from the time I made a public announcement to inform my mother I had had a goat tattooed on my ribcage in San Diego, this was the first time I had legitimately (sarcastically) feared for my life during my travels through North and South America.
I hadn’t entered in to a shady cocaine deal and ended up being held up at gun point.
I hadn’t wandered off in to the wilderness unprepared and come across the local wildlife.
I hadn’t even attempted to surf the gnarly northern Peruvian coastline.
(In defense of my mortality, I had been hit by a car while skateboarding through traffic in Lima, but only my ego was damaged in that exchange.)
My only crime was to get raucously drunk losing at beer pong against a girl I had met on Tinder and clamber on to a bus hungover and sleep deprived for a seven hour journey to see my first of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Yeah, that second week in October was a week of firsts.
So it was not a punishment; it was not a torturous journey I had entered into unwillingly, it was simply a part of a journey which I had not so much planned as fallen into, hoping it would culminate in an experience worth having, or at least worth sharing.
But it was that 12 hour microcosm of my travels throughout North and South America that, for me at least, would act as a metaphor for the entire journey: entering willingly, and unpreparedly, into the unknown in the hope that I could come away with an experience worth sharing.
I envy those who can travel for self-exploration alone, feasting on the experiences as nutrition for their own soul.
But I have to share these experiences; arrogantly, self-deprecatingly and honestly, as validation that they are experiences worth having.
I see that as a weakness, but if I use skills I know I have, can that attitude in itself not become something from which I can draw strength?

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Am I really going to end this post with a rhetorical question?

Would it not be more interesting to finish on a hypothetical situation?

Checkmate.

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An open letter, an apology to my Mother

Throughout my life, two things have been certain.
The first is that one day, somehow, I will die.
The second is that if I ever got a tattoo, the first would be at the hands of my mother.
Despite being an artist herself, she has never seen the human body as a suitable canvas.
So it was with 24 years of accumulated trepidation that I found myself lying on my back with my t-shirt off and multiple inky stab wounds in my torso in San Diego on Thursday night.

Dearest Mother,
There is now an angry goat below my right nipple, and he’s going to be there a while, feeding on the lush pasture that is my abundant chest hair.
No kidding, I goat a tattoo.
I have shown Goat to pretty much everyone I have met in the days since going under the needle (four days partying in San Diego equals plenty of witnesses and new friends) in an effort to prepare myself for your reaction when you inevitably find out.
It hasn’t worked; literally everyone has laughed and high-fived me, and I have a feeling you’ll do a better job at containing your excitement.
So I have decided to man up, and from behind a keyboard 12,000 kilometres away, safe in the knowledge we probably won’t actually see each other for another year, confess to you that I now have a tattoo. You raised me a brave man.
To help you come to terms with having a delinquent, inked up son, I want to share with you the story of how the decision came about and the deep symbolic meaning behind the resulting tattoo…
I got drunk with some friends and was like, huh that goat is pretty adorable.

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And now it is on me. Forever.

Forever ever?
Forever ever.

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The Alexander Beetle

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There has been a few times, and they’ve stuck with me, that I would look down at the dash and all three dials would be pointed directly ahead.
Really they point directly up, but I like to think it is ahead.

The smallest gauge on the left was for fuel, and it seemed to perpetually indicate I had around half a tank left.

The speedometer hovered around 70 miles per hour for the lion’s share of the journey and with cruise control set it rarely wavered from its 12 o’clock setting.

And the tachometer matched the pace of the speedo, and at 70 miles an hour the little engine would be spinning her guts out at a rate of around 3300 revolutions per minute.

Driving in the centre lane of a three lane highway I smiled as I drove through Orlando and past Disney World, glancing at the dials which were arranged in a sort of inverse Mickey Mouse head formation, using the dash to placate any worries I had that forward and further away was not the direction I should be heading.

In reality, the dials are probably designed as a caricature of the car itself, given how much character the VW Beetle has garnered over the years, and how much it relied upon sentimentality when they released the new models in the late 1990s.

And what with my innate pretentiousness constantly bubbling away, I was probably rebelling against that sentimentality and cringing slightly at the idea of driving around the US with it hanging over me that I went for an inverse Mickey Mouse. Much less sentimental. Dickhead.

But after 3,000 miles, damn near 5,000 kilometres in the new money, I’ve entertained the thought of never driving anything else in my life with fairly worrying conviction.

Aside from the built in character of the new Beetle, my particular model, which was apparently the first of the new models off the assembly line in Cincinnati in 1998, has plenty of character from bits falling off.

There is no air conditioning, so climate is sweating-your-tits-off with the windows up, or sweating-your-tits-off with a nice breeze but zero conversation as wind rushing by at 70 miles an hour sucks all human interactions back out on to the highway.

The passenger side window switch also fell out of the door the other day, so if you’re in the passenger seat you’ll need to voice your climate requirements.
The stereo volume control is also questionable, as it doesn’t work, turn it a little more, doesn’t work, turn it a little more, doesn’t work, turn it a li- MAX VOLUME OH GOD TURN IT OFF.

The ceiling cloth has also lost all contact with the body of the car, and is held up with a combination of thumb tacks and bulldog clips, both of which fail at more than 100 kilometres an hour.

But those three dials are still pointing dead ahead, leading me and all that character around these great United States of America, and I will continue to follow their lead.

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New York by the numbers

I could quantify my time in New York in a variety of different ways.
I could create a bar graph and plot the actual physical time I spent in the state against the number of bars I visited with a correlating set of data points denoting the number of drinks consumed in each which would invariably fade into obscurity due to my propensity to not remember anything past the third or fourth drink.
I could, theoretically, count the number of total Instagram photo likes I’ve received since landing against the number of photos and compare it to previous likes on previous photos and record how much social media cred I have gained on my travels and therefore how much cooler/more interesting I may be perceived to be since becoming a hashtag traveller. But hashtag fuck that.
I could put the number of places I’ve slept at night (or not slept) against the dollars I’ve spent on accommodation but it would come out at something like [eight beds:zero dollars] because apparently I’m a bit of a legend when it comes to convincing strangers to let me sleep in their house.
Or, more accurately, I met a few legends who felt sorry for me and let me sleep in the house.
But ultimately, what any numerical gauge of New York will do is fall short of justifying the absolutely wild time I’ve had here.
And that’s wild in the animalistic, explorational sense, as I’ve never been heavy in to the party scene, and many things I saw sober during the day were as personally confronting as those I saw (or did) buckled by night.
The number of great cafes I found doesn’t go any way to indicating the number of good conversations I had with the people in them.
The number of kilometres I walked doesn’t in any way describe the things I saw, heard and experienced as I walked them. Though it does go some way to driving home my refusal to use the imperial system to measure distance.
The subway rides and the tickets bought; the concerts seen and sing-alongs sung; the crosswalks crossed and the taxis dodged; the spare change given and the spare change not; the rooftops dancefloors and the basement clubs; the forever from the skyline and the claustrophobia of the street; the individual beauty and the collective criminal; it’s all greater than the sum of its parts.
I won’t exercise any of my considerable arrogance to try and reflect on my time in New York on a broader scale, because I’m still overwhelmed at the size of the city and any advice I could give would be fairly obscure and specific (When staying in Bushwick take the M-train from Wyckoff-Myrtle to Essex Street for the skate shop on the Lower East Side that sells Vegemite.)
But I will say that if you’re going in to New York City and you’re anything like me, ease yourself into it. Give it a week and get out.
I did two weeks straight up, and as someone who hasn’t lived in a city, a couple of times I needed to find the centre of Central Park and lie under a tree where I couldn’t see the sky scrapers and pretend the noise of the city was the crashing of waves at the beach.
I also went to the beach at Far Rockaway, and I get the feeling that may have been comparable to a New Yorker going to Adelaide to experience a city again.
I’m about to board a bus for a ten hour trip to Columbus, Ohio for the next leg of my journey, and I’m excited for a horizon that isn’t skyscrapers.

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Sitting alone on a sold out train

“This is a sold out service from Penn Station to Niagara Falls, so today is Make A Friend day at Amtrak.”
And so I snapped back to reality while boarding a train in New York City to head upstate to Albany.
To this point, the 40 odd hours of travel (at least 25 of which had been spent in the air) had been a sort of suspended reality, as the extent of my human interaction was robotic at best and symptomatic of a brain injury at worst.
It’s not unusual on long haul travel for people to operate at a bare minimum, shifting a total of three to four smiles an hour, dealing in fewer words and moving only enough to not have the occupant of the window seat drag their crotch across your face as they make for the bathroom.
But even still, it took another train ride, several exclamations about my accent and a terrible chicken sandwich to liven me up to the point where I could laugh at our conductor’s jab at New York residents’ famed hostility toward strangers.
It’s bizarre how the same hundreds of people who had no understanding of the concept of personal space 30 seconds ago while forcing their way through the queue to get on the train could be so uncomfortable about being required to sit next to someone.
Symptomatic of the jet lag worn traveller and the early morning commuter then; not of a city.
I’m probably just bitter because on this ‘sold out’ service there was still an empty seat… next to me. They’re just feelings New York, they’ll heal.

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