A B O U T  M I K E  F A B E Y
I N V E S T I G A T I V E  W O R K  A N D  A W A R D S
A U S S I E  Y A R N S
B O O K S  A N D  R E L A T E D  W O R K
F O R E I G N  C O R R E S P O N D E N T
E L  S T O P
F O R  T H E  D E F E N S E

No Heaven on the Frankford El, by Mike Fabey

Chapter I

The smoke blended with the early morning mist that swirled above the firs and pines bordering what in these parts they call an "unsealed road" - a nice way to describe the minefield of ruts, ridges and rocks that pockmark the seaside mountains of  New Zealand’s Corromandel Peninsula.
For three hours I had been pedaling, pushing and wrestling my bike along the coastline of the country’s North Island. The smoke filling the sky meant a fire somewhere. A big one. If I failed to get down from these hills before too long, I’d be one roasted rider.
Fine with me. I was tired of riding – tired of running.
Dad would call me a quitter. But he’d forfeited any right to judge me a long time ago. Talk about quitters  .
I bent over the handlebars and studied the road as it disappeared under the tires of my Raleigh. The old Jackson Brown song "Running on Empty" rolled through my mind. Song lyrics, book excerpts, covnersations with myself -- they had all become my companions over the past months of traveling and journeying, mostly alone. Bits and pieces -- they'd flit through my mind and be gone before I had a chance to hold them. I sang softly to myself, between grunts.
I had been through so much since I had first heard these lyrics seven years before, in 1978, as a sophomore in a Philadelphia Catholic high school. That song, and others like it, had been my salve through my battered boyhood years. I found comfort and kinship in their lyrics, and release in their rhythms. 
I’d run and ridden many so miles since then -- to escape. Now, I was numb. Numb and on the run.
What a scenic place to call it quits. Ferns hung down the rock like the frayed fringe covers of my grandmother's couch. The mountains fell off toward the gulf, ending with strips of shaggy green bumps like the snouts of giant crocodiles. I spied the silhouette of a house perched on a cliff's craggy brow.
A “graceful chalice” – that’s what Mark Twain said of the fern tree fronds adorning the New Zealand hills. The beaches back home on the Jersey shore seemed bare by comparison. I would have rather been camped out in front of the old gray Atlantic that moment instead of an isolated South Pacific cliff in this untamed bush.
Ancient mammoth kauri trees once towered here and long ago the native Maori warriors hunted moas -- ostriches on steroids -- in the trees' giant shadows. A bit north and dead east on Route 25, on the other side of the peninsula's mountainous hump, sat Mercury Bay and Whitiaganga, a name thought to be the bastardization of Te Whitianga a Kupe, the crossing place of Kupe, the legendgy Polynesian explorer.
Riding north on the highway earlier that morning I had ridden along the Thames River - first called the Waihou River by the Maoris and later renamed by Capt. Cook who thought it had reminded him of the waterway of the same name in his native England, from which he embarked on his globe-changing sea trek. I didn't see how this South Pacific widerness could be reminiscent of London.
The peninsula has always been a special place. Just over a century ago gold was discovered on the shores here, near what is now Corromandel Town. The whole region was once alive with fossickers and fantasies. They soon fell off the the face of the earth.
At that moment I felt like I had ridden off the end of the planet, like I was suspended in time -- or out of time.
Even the large logging trucks that had chased me off the Corromandel road most of the morning in their trails of diesel and dust had disappeared to leave me to my despair. If anything happened to me, who would care? Not I. Not anymore. I couldn't remember how long it had been since I had last cared if I lived or died.
Alone. Riding a bike on an unsealed road in this weird woodland. Scaling some remote mountain. Watching smoke rising from some far-off fire. My pocket South Pacific visitor's guide had no handy tips for this particular situation.
What had driven me to this insanity? Salvation? Understanding? Thrills? I honestly could not say how it started. Now I was just trying to get to the other side of this peninsula. I struggled to pedal up the hill. Below, to the west, was the shiny sheen of the Hauraki Gulf. This was cannibal country in the days of old. Indeed, Darwin called New Zealand "land of cannibals, murder and atrocious crimes." In other words -- "not a pleasant place."
Sailors and soldiers feared and respected the islands’ tribes of Maoris, the Spartans – the Marines -- of the South Pacific, whose warrior legends would long survive their deaths. Dutch sailors commanded by Abel Tasmen refused to land on New Zealand shore  in the mid-1600s because they were so scared of the Maoris.
One scene from Cook's journals stuck in my mind. As soon as as the Maoris got withi a stone's throw of the ship they would there lay and call out:'haromai hareuta a patoo age -- 'Come here, come ashore with us and we will kill you with our patoo patoos,'"
Centuries later it takes no small amount of imagination to see  the Maori ghosts -- or kehua -- in giant waka canoes paddling across the water. There’s something about the South Pacific that fuels such thoughts. It’s wild, so exotic –something that invites the mind and spirit to wander and wonder, something that makes you feel disconnected from all that you were before. Travelers and warriors share the same ethos, battling the elements and themselves.
    Months before I had braved these New Zealand hills, my Australian buddy Gary Fumeaux had suggested I pedal my way through the South Pacific. "Aw mate," he said. "What a trip."
Gary had climbed mountains, motorcycled Australia's coastal highways and hitched anywhere else he could when he wasn’t skipping classes at the University of Wollongong. We met at the “dorm” there.
We had surfed, skied and even survived Sydney's infamous King's Cross together. We were mates.
But to ride my bike through jungles, backwoods and other areas safer for a Humvee than a 10-speed … that sounded like my mate had a death wish – for me.
Of course the conversation that spawned my trek involved no small quantity of beer. All of my “serious conversations” did back then.
"You've hitched west and south,” he said. “Why not just take your bike and ride?"
"Ride to where?"
"Put the bike on the railway up to Cairns. You could ride back here to Wollongong."
"That's got to be a thousand miles."
But the idea hatched, grew and ran riot in my fermented brain.
I had run away to Oz just before I had turned 21. Here I was on the run again. Maybe alone, on the road, I would finally escape the haunting pain.
And if it turned out to be a death wish – well, at least the running would be over. I’d escape it all for good.Such is life. Only luck and wits had kept me alive thus far.
 The days, weeks and months rolled by under my two wheels at about the same speed that Capt. Cook had surveyed the coasts from his white-sailed ships. I’d swum with crocks, surfed past sharks and biked though the gushing Queensland floods of “The Wet.”
I lived for the next curve in the road, the next adventure.There I was, on a smoky New Zealand mountaintop, on the verge once again,  And my bike – my means of escape from alcoholism and abuse all of those years in Philly – had carried me here. Could it save me again? Would my luck finally run out? Had my yearning for a gypsy's journey finally done me in? The desire to travel -- to drift -- had lifted me out of Philly, a place that would always be associated in my mind with busted bones and broken spirits on cracked concrete -- a city of asphalt and assholes. Surviving that city had made me strong in ways I would only appreciate much later.
But now, on this New Zealand, mountain, the fire, smoke and heat had zapped my strength and will. I needed to recharge. I stopped for a bite. A warm wind fanned the giant ferns around me into a kind of primitive dance over what James Edward Alexander, a British Army colonel, had called a "broken, rugged country" covered by a "wonderfully dense and tangled" bush.
The army officer had more to fear than I did. Maoris, he noted would "set fire to flax and under cover of smoke, advanced with great determination."
Such thoughts filled my head as I watched the smoky blaze. The damnedest things pass through your mind when you've been mostly alone on your bike for months. I nibbled away at a peanut butter and grape jam sandwich, washing it down with a swallow of water. I lifted the bottle and poured some water on my face, leaned back against the side of the mountain and looked at the sky. "To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way, hiding they brav’ry in their rotten smoke ..."  Bill Shakespeare sure knew how to write pretty.
The smoke was thicker. It rose above the mountains in front of me. I could even see flickers, here and there, of flames in the distant hillside.
Sometimes, they set parts of the bush on fire to clear the land. Slash and burn. A total cleansing. Fire destroys, reshapes, alters. The fire-clearing, Darwin said, gave New Zealand its desolate aspect. It's a place the devil wouldn't mind.
Along with the devil came his legions of demons. I knew all about them. Oh yes, indeed. I did. I could use a Maori powhiri welcoming ceremony to chase away the evil spirits that had nested in my mind. I needed a mental patu – war paddle – to fight them off.
    "Greedy fire, demons ... wind-whipped wind crashed and whirled." Would someone one day tell stories about me like they did about Beowulf?

There could worse ways to die than being roasted alive – I had found out that hard way. I did not fear the reaper.
Neither did the Maoris. Col. Alexander, wrote about the Maoris' oath: "We will fight forever, ever, and ever and ever – ka what wahi tonu – ake, ake, ake."
 In their wero, the warrior challenge, – or the women’s plaintive karanga – greeting, they would call out:
Haeremai, haeremai
Mauria mai o koutou tini mate
(Welcome, welcome – bring with you the sprits of your dead.)
Ko te manawarere
Ko te manawarere
Kia u, kia u
(Trembling hearts, trembling hearts, be firm, be unshaken.)

Unshaken. Unstirred – just well-done, if I failed to outrace this blaze. Alexander says the Maoris would bake the heads of their enemies -- if I didn't get off this mountain soon, I'd save them the trouble.

To be consumed in a fiery death, at least, would require you to die only once. The Aussie Aborigines had a Fire-and-Flame God who could only be appeased with a human sacrifice. Pillars of smoke, some of the Aborigines believed, became people. Maybe that’s what I should have done in Australia – sacrificed myself to the Abbo gods. Then I could have remained there for good, embarked on a much different kind of journey.
Were than any cannibals let here in this New Zealand wild wood? Soon, they’d have themselves a ready-made BBQ dinner.  The Talking Heads drummed their way into my head. BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE!
Maybe that's what I was searching for - what I had traveled so far to find. To burn down my house.
The fall of the Philadelphia House of Fabey. We were all strange – and, to one another, mostly strangers.
Memories of my father, what he had done or failed to do, haunted -- shackled -- me and drove me to my restless and reckless ways. I should have died or been killed more than a hundred times in a hundred different places long before. I was lucky to have survived the previous weeks.
    Maybe the Maori mythical sea-beast Taniwha would come to save me -- or devour me.  As I choked on the smoke, my mouth moved in a semi-silent prayer in his honor: “In the name of the father, and the son, and of distilled spirits …”
    Like father, like son, or so the old commercial said. No wonder I craved a beer. It was in the DNA. I was a product of my father, and an indirect byproduct of generations of those before him. It was his spirit and pedigree, indirectly and so very directly, that had put me on this lonely and lovely New Zealand mountainside.
    And he, of course, was the sum of the parts of his own parents.