I was hoping to blog my Sideways NZ: The Road Back novel research road trip, but every day has been so filled – exhilarating, exhausting, thrilling, dismaying (at times), wondrous, magical (yes, lucky breaks) – that by the time I called it quits for the day I had nothing left in the tank. And then mornings brought me a whole new round of challenges.
After an extended preparatory stay, I departed July 12th from Prophet’s Rock Winery guest cottage just east of Cromwell in Central Otago (south of the South Island of New Zealand). I had been checked out on a beautiful camper van loaned out by Maryann Liddell of Pacific Horizon Motorhomes. The camper van is outfitted with everything from a shower/bathroom to a two-burner stove to two sleeping compartments, tons of storage, satellite WiFi and TV. It was surprisingly easy to drive down the washboard dirt road out of Prophet’s Rock to the main highway. Unless you’re close to a major city, NZ is almost exclusive one-lane roads with minimal shoulders, and sometimes no shoulders at all. The camper van probably weighs five tons, is taller, and wider, than you think.
En route to Oamaru and The Tough Guy Book Club (yes, you read that correctly) I stopped at a gas station to fuel up on diesel. It was raining. It was cold. At the gas station there was a flurry of activity. I heard voices talking about the pass being closed. Cars and trucks were coming down the mountain, not going up. A guy named Rob pointed up at the pass I was about to ascend. It was whited out. With snow! I told him I needed to get to Oamaru and The Tough Guy Book Club and he looked at me strangely. He told me unless I had a helicopter I might as well return to Prophet’s Rock and light a fire. This was not a good start.
Fortunately, there were problem solvers. My driver and co-captain on this first leg of the trip was hunkered down with a woman named Zara (who might go down as the savior of this trip!) and they were working Google Maps on their dueling iPhones. I eavesdropped on what they were strategizing. There indeed was another route, albeit twice as long. They kept scrolling along the route looking for potential road closures. I learned later we had begun the trip in a beastly storm that would drop 4” of rain in one day on a very arid Central Otago (avg. rainfall about 15”).
After the strategizing session revealed no road closures on the alternative route, we turned around and took the “Pig Route” to Oamaru in savage winds and freezing rain that fell intermittently between snow flurries and slanting rain. Sharing driving, I braved 30 mph wind gusts that perilously buffeted the camper van from left to right on those narrow roads and made it to Oamaru, a charming town on the east coast of the South Island of NZ. Charming if it’s in the summer! Feral in the winter. Desolate streets. Rain that hits you like projectiles from a cluster bomb. I honestly believe had I not had an asst./driver with me I would not have braved the six-hour alternative “Pig Route” and the trip would have been off to such a disastrous start that there might be no Sideways NZ: The Road Back. It was that barbarous of a start, and I kept thinking dark thoughts about how I was ever going to make it to Cook’s Strait and the North Island.
But, we made it to Oamaru and stopped in at Star & Garter restaurant, a charming British-style country restaurant and warmed ourselves over some terrific country fare. My brain was fried. Glancing outside, I had serious doubts about staying in a camper van. But before we could decide whether to break down and get a hotel, it was off to Fat Sally’s Pub & Restaurant where a dozen of the lone NZ chapter of The Tough Guy Book Club were waiting for me, a hearty group of guys, half of them ordering ales as if they had bought vouchers for infinite refills.
The Tough Guy Book Club began in Australia and bills itself as the “fight club for your mind.” When I had heard about the event from one of my publicists, the name alone made me cry out: “Sign me up!” Little did I know …
First, some context: Over two years ago I was contacted by a gentleman named Youssef Mourra, a Kiwi now, via Australia and Lebanon. He is a big Sideways fan, and he wondered if I had any thoughts about bringing my iconic characters Miles and Jack, or at least my alter-ego Miles, to NZ. Due to Covid and other factors it took over two years for it to happen. But once it was appearing as though it was going to become a reality I automatically started ideating the novel. Would Miles get an assignment to go to NZ? Or would he begin there, as writer friend Marco Mannone suggested? I decided to go with Marco’s idea as I wrote about in my previous blog. I then came up with the idea that Miles gets some shocking (not tragic, but shocking) news and he has to return to California. But before he returns he has to go on this promised book tour for this Kiwi, or Aussie, publisher. However, instead of the Stagecoach bus and the five-star hotels Miles has been promised, Jack shows up in a … camper van. And the camper van idea was writer friend Kate Sabin’s brainstorm. Now, Youssef (Youie) had to get me a camper van. He didn’t disappoint. Now, in order to research the ideated novel, I had to drive it! All the way up NZ and maybe across the Tasman Sea to Australia.
All my life’s work has been road movies or road novels. It all started when I saw Wim Wenders’s Kings of the Road, a 3-hour road movie that blew me away. There are times I wish I had never seen it. Road movies are hard to make, especially on low budgets. Road novels are easier to write. Unless you have to research them from the ground up!