I don’t think about the Direct Tui all that often these days. I talk about it in the abstract whenever I meet new people, but when I do it always functions as a symbol rather than as a lived experience. The other day I was walking down Pine, though, somewhere around Belmont or Summit, when I smelled something that evoked the familiar antiseptic smell of that little bathroom, and in a thousandth of a second the sensation ricocheted around my head from neuron to neuron like a bugler waking the troops for a surprise attack until I found myself back in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a simpler time in my life, not entirely sure what lay ahead of me but ready for anything.
The tui is a small, colorful bird that’s endemic to New Zealand, and the Direct Tui was the cargo freighter that carried me across the Pacific Ocean in early 2004, after I left Seattle the first time. It was the beginning of the trip that I called The Big One; it was the salty, undulating womb in which I turned my attention inward and prepared for the experience of emerging back into the world fully under my own power; and when I finally stumbled off the boat in Tauranga into the wild, overgrown playground of complete, unadulterated freedom, I was ready in a way that I wouldn’t have been if I’d just gotten on a plane and flown.
I’ve never particularly liked flying as a mode of travel—it’s great for getting from one place to another quickly, but it fundamentally separates you from the world in a way that no other form of transportation does. The idea of crossing the Pacific Ocean the slow way occurred to me before I ever thought about trying to travel all the way around the world without flying, though—it was one of those thoughts that emerges, fully formed and unchallenged, from the primordial, modernity-fighting, pre-linguistic part of ourselves. Once my mammal brain got ahold of it and wrapped it in language it manifested itself, roughly, as “The next time I cross an ocean I’m going to do it on a boat,” and it came to me a week after graduation as I peered out the window of a Japan Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Osaka at a cargo freighter churning its way down a shipping lane like a lonely truck on a watery Interstate.
At some point after the end of that Southeast Asia trip, once my eyebrows had grown back and I’d started my life over from scratch as a car salesman in the Pacific Northwest, I started looking around to see what my options actually were when it came to crossing oceans on freighters. I realized pretty quickly that working on one wasn’t going to happen, but I did discover the world of freighter cruises—they’re essentially a way for shipping companies to earn a bit of extra money from unused officers’ quarters by renting them out to travelers with a lot of time on their hands, and in this case their interests and my interests were perfectly aligned. The booking company that I ended up going with was Maris Freighter Cruises (see the Hugo Schulte route here if you’re interested in making the passage yourself—it’s the same one that I took, just on a different boat), and at the time I paid about $1300 all told for 12 days at sea, which included 3 meals per day and the full run of the ship. Freighters had been part of my northwest life from the beginning—when I had lived in Tacoma I’d been able to hear their foghorns coming and going just down the hill from my apartment, and now that I was commuting to Burien from Seattle I’d usually go via the viaduct, which took me right by Harbor Island and added further fuel to the fire of my anticipation of the point of departure, the moment when I would leave the U.S. with no idea how long I would be gone and only a rough idea of where my journey would take me.
When I boarded the Direct Tui in late January of 2004 I’d been planning the trip, in one form or another, for at least a year and a half—I had the loose framework of the journey sketched out all the way to re-entering Texas on a Greyhound bus from Monterrey at some indeterminate point in the future, but my focus had been at the level of border crossings and my perception of how interesting different countries would be to travel across overland. I didn’t want to bog myself down with too much overly detailed planning; staying light on my feet and being flexible were really important to me, so I didn’t even buy my first guidebook until the day before I boarded the ship, and I didn’t open it until we were already out at sea. There wasn’t much to do during the crossing, but that was the way I liked it—I spent a lot of time reading novels and planning out a draft itinerary for New Zealand, talking to the Eastern European officers and the Burmese crew, and getting to know my fellow travelers. It was also, to this day, the longest I’ve ever gone without any kind of access to the Internet.
My fellow travelers, in this case, were Kent, a native Montanan en route to Melbourne to get a Master’s in creative writing, and Ruth and Lyle, a couple of retired Queenslanders who taught me everything I needed to know about animals in New Zealand vs. Australia (in New Zealand, nothing can kill you; in Australia, everything can) and who I described in my journal as follows (from 1/27/04):
“Back from dinner, and dinner is the meal of the day where we linger, where we stay afterwards and talk, and Ruth and Lyle are usually the focus of the conversation, the centerpiece if you will, an active older Australian couple, late 60’s, I’d say, or early 70’s—two people who you talk to and interact with and you think ‘grandparents,’ and this is them on vacation, breathing life into the package tours and Italian villas and cargo ships of their past, weaving together the facts and figures and claims to fame of their different experiences, stitching them together with their thick Australian accents, snapping at each other just a bit over the details, because the details are what’s important, they bring the people and places to life, and that’s why it makes sense that Ruth and Lyle are grandparents, that they must be grandparents, because they’re so full of life, of living, and the more or less routine nature of the day-to-day life that you imagine for them does nothing to diminish that life, that vivacity with which they approach you and the ship and, presumably, the world as a whole.”
They weren’t grandparents, as it turned out, but they were definitely the life of the party, such as it was. Ruth had been a race car driver and a nationally ranked equestrian dressage competitor in her younger days; I forget what Lyle did before he retired, but a near-death experience when he was changing the channel on their TV in 1971 had convinced them not to wait for retirement to get out there and see the world, and they’d been doing one big trip per year ever since. When I met them they were on the penultimate international vacation of their long career, and they were really planning on doing the last one right. They were cargo freighter junkies, because the price was right and they liked the peace and quiet, but their swan song was going to be a month-long all-inclusive cruise on one of the most luxurious boats ever constructed—a 6-star (out of 5) Russian vessel that would take them from Japan to Alaska over the course of a month and that was small enough to be able to go into all of the little rivers and inlets in Alaska that the bigger boats couldn’t touch. The floors were all made of marble, Lyle told me; the faucets were made of gold; and the cooks that were on call 24 hours a day were some of the best in the world. It only had room for 375 passengers, it cost $600 per person per day, and this was to be its maiden voyage. Clear rituals around beginnings and endings have always been very important to me, and I loved everything about their plan (from 2/1/04):
“It seems almost like a myth, or a legend—a cruise ship of unimaginable opulence, smaller, faster, and more nimble than all the rest, materializing in Tokyo harbor for a single historic voyage, completely unknown to ordinary men. And this secretive, indulgent ghost ship will be the culmination of Ruth’s and Lyle’s travel impulse. Beautiful.”
There’s a concept in Hinduism of four different phases that one passes through over the course of a lifetime, and the final one, the second stage of old age, involves becoming an “ascetic renouncer”—leaving behind friends, family, and all worldly possessions and attachments and wandering the earth alone, trying to achieve enlightenment. After college I thought of the rest of my 20’s as front-loaded retirement, and the idea of ascetic renunciation was one that appealed to me in that context; it was appropriate, then, that my 24th birthday was the only one that I’ve ever lost to the International Date Line. Clear night skies were few and far between out on the open ocean, but when they came through they were absolutely amazing. The first time I ever saw the Southern Cross in the sky was an hour before sunrise the morning of February 3rd—I sat on the highest deck in the ship, which Lyle had christened the monkey island, for two hours watching the stars and then the sunrise, and when that night was also clear I spent several hours watching the sunset and then admiring the clear night sky again. I knew that once I went to sleep I was going to wake up on February 5th, and part of me was disappointed at the lack of ceremony to note my transition from 23 to 24, although I recognized that it fit the general theme of homelessness and wandering that marked the phase of life I was entering into. I was just getting ready to head back to my room for the night when one of the brightest shooting stars I’ve ever seen fell in a long, slow arc right in front of my eyes. I took it to have been the universe’s artistic interpretation of my birthday, smiled with every fiber of my being, and went off to sleep feeling totally content.
Three days later we reached Tauranga, a little ways down the coast from Auckland, and I was ready for it—we had reached land at last, and I had as much time as I wanted to explore New Zealand at my leisure. Stepping off the boat and onto dry land brought with it an extremely powerful burst of travel euphoria, a very specific sensation that I’ve only recently realized has always been associated with my being completely and totally focused on and present in the current moment. My plan had worked—I was in New Zealand with a messenger bag, a bank account full of cash, and not much else, thousands of miles from my friends and family, and I’d gotten there from southern California without leaving the surface of the earth. The Big One was off to a good start.