Ruth and I acquainted ourselves with one another. We did not battle with each other as I expected we would, but worked in a kind of tandem terror.
We left Auckland late because Ruth was playing nice with a mechanic who replenished her low-level fluids and ran diagnostics to determine why she had been stalling on me. Like any pestilent granny she showed not a smidge of obstinance when being observed by strangers. Actually she behaved like a goddamn mannerly princess, so much so that by the end of the tune up both the Lebanese mechanic and Kiwi shop owner were oohing over her, commenting—these were grown men by the way with mustaches and the Lebanese mechanic at least was telling me how great smoking weed is—how darling Ruth was.
So, dolled and properly complimented at a $170NZD rate, Ruth happily went over Auckland’s truss bridge on the four lane north 1 and behaved so until we hit hills. That’s when she got stingy about RPMs, refusing even to sound like she was considering working when her accelerator pedal lay flat against the floor board. (NB: Ruth has three things on the dashboard—speed, odometer and clock—so driving her feels a bit like thinking you’re being filched by a bank teller who counts your money under the counter.) But whatever ill will I had towards her I diverted to the weather.
Day one of the trip rained. Frequent, isolated pockets that were more torrents. Being in them was like being in a funnel where drops swelled and went up. And there was a stern wind that wrangled and swayed the box cars on semis. In one town kids stood on a hill ledge and leaned into the wind with their arms extended, each kid seeing how far they could lean, forming acute angles with the ground with the wind as their prop. Trees had a permanent bend to them, the branches and foliage looking like serrated edges because of the wind’s constancy. Waves sort of stalled just as they were about to curl, and their loose bits of water got blown back and up like tossed veils.
I was prematurely inducing arthritis by firmly and diligently keeping my hands on the wheel’s 10 and 2 o’clock. I kept a tally of the head shakes as people passed me, and there was frequently a line of cars behind me waiting for just that privilege. What I realized is that Kiwis regard road safety with casual disdain and may only reluctantly be aware of road safety as a concept. It’s not actually necessary to see Kiwis drive to guess that traffic fatalities are a problem in New Zealand. Every fifteen or twenty kilometers I saw a department of vehicles sponsored billboard with a cop on it holding a radar gun and grinning under a quote similar to, “Slow down to stay alive!” or “Speeding…Think Twice!” In my mind the most effective signs were the blue ones with white lettering that matter of factly stated, “High Fatality Area” or “High Crash Site.” Then to actually see Kiwis drive makes you realize the suddenness with which you can become a statistic. Kiwis pass on solid yellow lines. They straddle the medians. Once the highway narrowed to two lanes and passing lanes occurred every 5km, northbound cars used southbound traffic’s passing lanes, more than once forcing a southbound car to swerve to avoid a collision. And the highways apparently do not have vehicle weight restrictions. So two and three box semis or trucks laden with un-hewed lumber passed each other like missed high fives.
Body in tact, mind frayed, I pulled into the first camp site in Waipu, a beachside agricultural town whose main point of pride seemed to be its Christmas Day parade, which was advertised on no fewer than eight billboards. I’d been paranoid about not having a place to sleep so I made a reservation online. When I arrived at the campsite entrance and rang the doorbell for service a lady who I assumed was Mrs. Clause in the Christmas Day parade hobbled in from an attached trailer. I said, “Hi, I made a reservation.”
“You must be Antonio Perez.”
“I take it you didn’t receive many reservations?”
“People in these parts just show up.”
Okay. I’m in these parts now.