- Tim Mathis
New Zealand Is a Force That Makes Us Dirtbags
My upbringing in Ohio had the features of an idyllic rural dream - the type of experience that could make a young boy fall in love with the outdoors and nature. We lived on four acres on the outskirts of a small farming community, on the very northwestern edges of the Appalachian foothills. Being a child there meant doing country things like looking for frogs in the crick, and getting into trouble for sneaking into the neighbor’s field to dig holes. (The owner prowled his property with a shot gun because he was paranoid about trespassers.) My uncle was our Boy Scout leader, and took us camping in southern Ohio’s State parks and canoeing on the muddy Great Miami River.
Growing up was collecting bugs and building forts in hay bales, but it was also a local economy that had transitioned from farming to manufacturing, and was beginning to become a school to minimum wage pipeline, with Walmart, fast food and customer service providing the bulk of the new local employment opportunities. Monsanto was purchasing the old family farms, and the factories were closing. It was a culture defined by a classic protestant work ethic, which had served it well when there were options for private ownership of productive land, or long term, well-paid manufacturing jobs. By the mid-90s, the same ethic was being channeled into jobs with little opportunity for advancement and no long-term possibility of escape. The Midwest was becoming a machine to make money for people who didn’t live there, my neighbors grist to somebody else’s mill.
My parents were both the owners of small family businesses that closed out of economic necessity in the early 2000’s, and even as a child I could see a future full of pitfalls. I played outside a lot, but I was also a bookish nerd. I spent hours sitting on the type of heated waterbed that everyone inexplicably purchased during a certain pre-millennial era, reading fantasy novels and doing my homework. I liked to learn as a kid, and I recognized, at least vaguely, that pouring energy into education was a lifeline that I needed to grab onto if I wanted to survive.
Through high school and college, academics became the center of my identity and the place where I directed my own protestant work ethic. You work those customer service jobs after class and on breaks, with a view towards educating yourself enough that you won’t be stuck doing them your entire life.
I’d fallen in with a girl though, and during our third year of college, she signed up for an exchange in Australia and bought me a ticket to visit while she was there. She paid with literal blood money, saving up $40 at a time from plasma donations. I felt that I couldn’t spare the time because for some stupid reason I thought I needed to spend my summer working at a grocery store, but I also couldn’t argue. The trip was white sand beaches patrolled by saltwater crocs and Great White sharks, Steve Irwin in person at the Australia Zoo, Argentinian backpackers on a dingo infested island, and a vision of a bigger world than we’d realized existed.
In the aftermath of that trip, we decided to travel more, but rather than taking time off to do so, we worked for a year in Louisville, Kentucky to save money, then moved to New Zealand where I would channel my anxiety into higher education - a Master’s Degree, something that seemed outside of the scope of possibility when I was growing up.
Our time in New Zealand was the peak of my bookish nerdiness. Even during breaks, I worked on research projects and tried (unsuccessfully) to teach myself German so I could read the great philosophers. By the time I was finished with my degree, I’d burnt myself out on academics and scrapped previous plans to continue on to a PhD and a career as a Religious Studies professor.
However, while my values were pushing me towards their inevitable conclusion, New Zealand was also teaching subconscious lessons about what is important in life. Experiences there shaped me, even if they were seeds that wouldn’t fully germinate until years later, after I’d burned myself out again and again.
Utopia isn’t real but there is a better world somewhere.
We arrived in New Zealand with next to no money and we purchased a $500 yellow 1985 Ford Laser sedan. It was the cheapest, oldest car we’d ever owned, but we didn’t stand out from our neighbors. Kiwis keep old cars in good repair because it is cheaper and easier than buying new. We drove our Laser to Milford Sound, snow-capped mountains soaring directly from the sea, perhaps the most beautiful place in the entire world. We camped in the rain using borrowed gear, which we hung out the windows to dry on our way home. The Laser never broke down on us, and we sold it two years later for a few hundred less than we’d paid. You’re sad to see that type of car go.
We lived in a town called Dunedin, on the southern end of the South Island. The latitude is similar to Seattle and Portland and Vladivostok, and the weather reflects it. The houses and businesses are covered in moss, not insulated properly because the people there are Scottish. Most of the year things are cold and damp, inside and out. Electricity is expensive, so people put on a wool jumper rather than turning on the heat. Wool jumpers are expensive too, so they wear the same one every day. Nobody cares. No one mentions the fact that you wore the same thing yesterday. Life is fine in that same wool jumper.
Our first apartment in Dunedin was the worst place I ever hope to live. The carpet had been eaten by moths years prior to us moving in. The floral wallpaper didn’t match the carpet, the other walls were painted cinder block, and we furnished the place buying dead peoples’ things from the local auction. A whole lot of people in Dunedin lived in places like this. Our place was nicer than most other students’ because we had a full time income to survive on. People recognized that the places were shitty, but it wasn’t a thing. It was a shared joke. We all lived in shitty places and we managed to enjoy it. It just seemed normal because that’s what Dunedin was like in 2003.
There was a bald, rotund Kiwi gentleman, no one’s vision of an athlete, who told us that “if you can walk, you can tramp.” I’d had a few brief backpacking trips in high school, but otherwise we’d never done any real multi-day hikes. We borrowed some gear and headed for the Rakiura Track, a loop on Stewart Island off the southern coast of the South Island. He was right. We could tramp, as could the hobbling man with a knee injury who we shared the track with - our first Great Walk. “I won’t get there fast,” he said, “but I’ll get there.” In New Zealand we sorted out that most everyone tramps, and so did we. Angel’s favorite hiking partner in Dunedin was a seasoned woman in her late 70s who, after we moved away, sent us a postcard about a heli-tramping excursion. She took a flight with a group of friends to the top of a remote, snowy pass in the Southern Alps. She walked out herself, but some of the “oldies” caught the chopper back.
New Zealand’s gross domestic product per capita is about two-thirds that of the United States, so there are a lot fewer resources to spread around. It is harder to make a lot of money there than it is for us at home, and it’s a relatively expensive place to live. A third less cash doesn’t translate to a third worse life though.
Blame it on Gauguin or Rousseau - there’s a popular ideal about the Pacific. It’s meant to be a place where life consists of laying on the beach, catching fish from the ocean, and pulling fruit from the trees. You’re meant to be able to sleep in a hut and live a good life without much proper work at all. This isn’t a reality, but there is something of that vision in the New Zealand Dream. In the New Zealand Dream, people don’t have to work all the time, and they don’t need a lot in order to be happy. She’ll be right, because they’ve organized their society in order to help the population achieve those goals.
Kiwis believe in time off, instinctually at their very core. There is a government mandate that all workers, whether full or part time, be provided with four weeks annual vacation, plus an additional eleven public holidays. You may not believe this, but it’s true - Kiwis, regardless of income, receive six weeks paid vacation a year. When they are working, it is not normal to have more than one job, or to work more than forty hours a week. Kiwis aren’t the richest people in the world, but their society is organized in order to provide them with a lot of time to lie on the beach eating fruit, and catching fish. At her first job, Angel received a lecture from her HR department because she hadn’t taken enough time off that year. When she requested six weeks to go to Indonesia for tsunami relief, they didn’t bat an eye. There’s a cultural recognition that there are things in life more important than your job.
I took workaholic values to New Zealand, but the lessons that you learn are that the important thing isn’t money, it’s time. The outdoors is for everyone. Fancy things don’t matter if you don’t let them. You can put together a good society and a good life without much. Human happiness is more important than wealth or status, and an enjoyable life should be a human right. Time off matters, and a beautiful beach is pretty much all you need. If you can walk, you can tramp.
You can go home again, but you’ll want to change it.
We moved back to the United States after two years of absorbing those values. It was difficult to feel at home in our own culture, but across a decade we immersed ourselves in a more American way of life. We worked two jobs each, or worked one job while rotating studying at university. Our lives until 35 were work and a mortgage and education. It was financially productive. We paid down debt and built up a nest egg. We did still manage to get outside, the hard way. Fueled by America-induced anxiety, we became ultra-marathon runners, and regularly covered mountain distances in a day that normal humans hike across four.
Somewhere though, in the back of our minds, we had a nagging sense that there is a better way. We had experienced it once, and knew we had to figure out how to get it back. I worked in a warehouse for two years, putting bottles in boxes. I listened to a lot of BB King and really felt it when he said that “there has just got to be a better world somewhere,” thinking of New Zealand.
In 2015, at the front end of a fantastic mid-life crisis, we quit our jobs and traveled for a year and a half. We went on a much longer tramp than the Rakiura, and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. My father passed away, and we vowed not to let our jobs eat the rest of our lives.
We started the process of hacking the system in America. We took part time and per diem work as nurses, and temporary contracts. We started side businesses to make small amounts of extra money. We set up a sustainable strategy for taking long periods of time off from work when we wanted to. We backed our way into a dirtbag dream life because we wanted to recover the feelings we’d had in New Zealand.
For those who have eyes to see, New Zealand can show you what’s important and what’s not. Once you have a taste of a better world, even if you leave, you’ll never quite be able to go back. It’ll sink in and work its way out eventually, whether you like it or not.
For more stories about how travel and the outdoors can change your life, check out The Dirtbag's Guide to Life.