No Heaven on the Frankford El, by Mike Fabey
The smoke blended
with the early morning mist that swirled above the firs and pines
what in these parts they call an "unsealed road" - a nice way to
describe the minefield of ruts, ridges and rocks that pockmark the
mountains of New Zealand’s Corromandel Peninsula.
For three hours I had been pedaling, pushing and wrestling my bike
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
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
time ago. Talk about quitters .
I bent over the handlebars and studied the road as it disappeared under
tires of my Raleigh. The old Jackson Brown song "Running on Empty"
rolled through my mind. Song lyrics, book excerpts, covnersations with
-- they had all become my companions over the past months of traveling
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,
I had been through so much since I had first heard these lyrics seven
before, in 1978, as a sophomore in a Philadelphia Catholic high school.
song, and others like it, had been my salve through my battered boyhood
I found comfort and kinship in their lyrics, and release in their
I’d run and ridden many so miles since then -- to escape. Now, I was
and on the run.
What a scenic place to call it quits. Ferns hung down the rock like the
fringe covers of my grandmother's couch. The mountains fell off toward
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
A “graceful chalice” – that’s what Mark Twain said of the fern tree
adorning the New Zealand hills. The beaches back home on the Jersey
seemed bare by comparison. I would have rather been camped out in front
old gray Atlantic that moment instead of an isolated South Pacific
this untamed bush.
Ancient mammoth kauri trees once towered here and long ago the native
warriors hunted moas -- ostriches on steroids -- in the trees' giant
bit north and dead east on Route 25, on the other side of the
mountainous hump, sat Mercury Bay and Whitiaganga, a name thought to be
bastardization of Te Whitianga a Kupe, the crossing place of Kupe, the
Riding north on the highway earlier that morning I had ridden along the
River - first called the Waihou River by the Maoris and later renamed
Cook who thought it had reminded him of the waterway of the same name
native England, from which he embarked on his globe-changing sea trek.
see how this South Pacific widerness could be reminiscent of London.
The peninsula has always been a special place. Just over a century ago
discovered on the shores here, near what is now Corromandel Town. The
region was once alive with fossickers and fantasies. They soon fell off
face of the earth.
At that moment I felt like I had ridden off the end of the planet, like
suspended in time -- or out of time.
Even the large logging trucks that had chased me off the Corromandel
of the morning in their trails of diesel and dust had disappeared to
to my despair. If anything happened to me, who would care? Not I. Not
I couldn't remember how long it had been since I had last cared if I
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
visitor's guide had no handy tips for this particular situation.
What had driven me to this insanity? Salvation? Understanding? Thrills?
honestly could not say how it started. Now I was just trying to get to
other side of this peninsula. I struggled to pedal up the hill. Below,
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,
and atrocious crimes." In other words -- "not a pleasant place."
Sailors and soldiers feared and respected the islands’ tribes of
Spartans – the Marines -- of the South Pacific, whose warrior legends
long survive their deaths. Dutch sailors commanded by Abel Tasmen
land on New Zealand shore in the mid-1600s because they were so
One scene from Cook's journals stuck in my mind. As soon as as the
withi a stone's throw of the ship they would there lay and call
hareuta a patoo age -- 'Come here, come ashore with us and we will kill
with our patoo patoos,'"
Centuries later it takes no small amount of imagination to see
ghosts -- or kehua -- in giant waka canoes paddling across the water.
something about the South Pacific that fuels such thoughts. It’s wild,
exotic –something that invites the mind and spirit to wander and
something that makes you feel disconnected from all that you were
Travelers and warriors share the same ethos, battling the elements and
Months before I had braved these New Zealand hills,
Australian buddy Gary Fumeaux had suggested I pedal my way through the
Pacific. "Aw mate," he said. "What a trip."
Gary had climbed mountains, motorcycled Australia's coastal highways
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
We were mates.
But to ride my bike through jungles, backwoods and other areas safer
Humvee than a 10-speed … that sounded like my mate had a death wish –
Of course the conversation that spawned my trek involved no small
beer. All of my “serious conversations” did back then.
"You've hitched west and south,” he said. “Why not just take your bike
"Ride to where?"
"Put the bike on the railway up to Cairns. You could ride back here to
"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
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
over. I’d escape it all for good.Such is life. Only luck and wits had
alive thus far.
The days, weeks and months rolled by under my two wheels at about
same speed that Capt. Cook had surveyed the coasts from his
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,
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
carried me here. Could it save me again? Would my luck finally run out?
yearning for a gypsy's journey finally done me in? The desire to travel
drift -- had lifted me out of Philly, a place that would always be
in my mind with busted bones and broken spirits on cracked concrete --
of asphalt and assholes. Surviving that city had made me strong in ways
only appreciate much later.
But now, on this New Zealand, mountain, the fire, smoke and heat had
strength and will. I needed to recharge. I stopped for a bite. A warm
fanned the giant ferns around me into a kind of primitive dance over
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
fire to flax and under cover of smoke, advanced with great
Such thoughts filled my head as I watched the smoky blaze. The
pass through your mind when you've been mostly alone on your bike for
nibbled away at a peanut butter and grape jam sandwich, washing it down
swallow of water. I lifted the bottle and poured some water on my face,
back against the side of the mountain and looked at the sky. "To let
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
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
burn. A total cleansing. Fire destroys, reshapes, alters. The
Darwin said, gave New Zealand its desolate aspect. It's a place the
Along with the devil came his legions of demons. I knew all about them.
indeed. I did. I could use a Maori powhiri welcoming ceremony to chase
evil spirits that had nested in my mind. I needed a mental patu – war
to fight them off.
"Greedy fire, demons ... wind-whipped wind crashed
whirled." Would someone one day tell stories about me like they did
There could worse ways to die than being roasted alive – I had found
hard way. I did not fear the reaper.
Neither did the Maoris. Col. Alexander, wrote about the Maoris' oath:
will fight forever, ever, and ever and ever – ka what wahi tonu – ake,
In their wero, the warrior challenge, – or the women’s plaintive
– greeting, they would call out:
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
Alexander says the Maoris would bake the heads of their enemies -- if I
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
The Aussie Aborigines had a Fire-and-Flame God who could only be
a human sacrifice. Pillars of smoke, some of the Aborigines believed,
people. Maybe that’s what I should have done in Australia – sacrificed
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,
have themselves a ready-made BBQ dinner. The Talking Heads
way into my head. BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE!
Maybe that's what I was searching for - what I had traveled so far to
burn down my house.
The fall of the Philadelphia House of Fabey. We were all strange – and,
another, mostly strangers.
Memories of my father, what he had done or failed to do, haunted --
me and drove me to my restless and reckless ways. I should have died or
killed more than a hundred times in a hundred different places long
was lucky to have survived the previous weeks.
Maybe the Maori mythical sea-beast Taniwha would
save me -- or devour me. As I choked on the smoke, my mouth moved
semi-silent prayer in his honor: “In the name of the father, and the
of distilled spirits …”
Like father, like son, or so the old commercial
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
pedigree, indirectly and so very directly, that had put me on this
lovely New Zealand mountainside.
And he, of course, was the sum of the parts of his