Amongst the hotels, whiskey and sad-luck dames Tom Waits sang about in his 1985 hit Blind Love, he also told us that “if you get far enough away, you’ll be on your way back home.”
For many years, I never thought that point could possibly be reached. There was, of course, a big, beautiful, scary, interesting world out there to explore. There were people to meet, stories to hear, seas to cross and mountains to climb.
When home for you — a bookish farm boy who proudly counts Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Whātua as his iwi — is somewhere like a farm in the Rangitaiki hill country, and your curiosity about that too-big world dripped like a tap that was so damn hard to tighten, you must go far enough away.
Let me tell you about my home: turn left at the old Crown Road turnoff, a half-hour down the Napier-Taupo Road, past Ohope, past Iwitahi, past the pines of State Forest 70, past the dairy farms and the Rangitaiki Tav.
Go into the last green hills before the Waipunga and the windy gorges to Te Haroto, the Summit, Te Pohue, Eskdale and the Bay.
Let me tell you: ko Taupō-nui-a-tia te moana. Ko Tauhara te maunga. Ko Rangitaiki te awa.
Home is a sheep and beef farm, out there on the Plains. It’s Dad’s binoculars on the kitchen bench, Mum’s bacon and egg pie in the oven, the dogs barking out by the tractor shed, and the last five minutes of the latest Hawke’s Bay Shield challenge on the telly.
Home is the woolshed and yards, the old maimai, the paddocks and the bush beyond them, the deer and pigs, the bellbirds and the tui. It’s the pumice, and the rain.
Home is George Wilder’s Rangitaiki. Home is Mona Blades’ Rangitaiki. Home is my Rangitaiki.
Right now, I sit writing this dispatch from Memphis, Tennessee. My Rangitaiki River has been replaced by the mighty Mississippi. My cold Tui, by two knuckles of Kentucky bourbon. My homekill mutton, by a rack of pork ribs, glazed in BBQ sauce.
I’d never doubted why I left. I was looking for something I couldn’t find in Aotearoa, not in Rangitaiki, Taupo, Hamilton or Auckland. In the last two stops, following a two-year stretch as a labourer, I picked up journalism, turned out to be pretty decent at it and was able to use it as a reason for my searching.
I tracked down David Dixon (Waikato, Ngāti Te Rangi) in Minneapolis, his volleyball-playing daughter Te Tori and Hitro Okesene in a Cumbrian mining town. I found Peter Arnett (Ngāi Tahu), New Zealand’s finest war correspondent, finally at peace, in suburban Los Angeles.
More recently, I traced the story of Aaron Hopa (Ngāti Wairere) through the Waikato. One of the last true blue-collar All Black heroes — a true Chief — taken too early.
In all these stories, and so many more, I sought out our people, and asked why they sacrificed what they did to be who they were. In short, I asked the question I was asking myself.
The answer, in almost every case, was the same — and it was the one I always feared.
For a time, that frightened me and I figured it an unreasonable trade. Why must we give up that thing that shaped us most, and, even at a distance, provided an echo of comfort and direction that drove us on?
Aroha would finally provide the answer. Three years ago, I met a beautiful redhead called Lauren in Memphis and slowly fell in love.
Love in Memphis meant home remained far away over the Pacific. We married last October here and home came to me. My whānau, my friends. They brought with them all the aroha they had. Somewhere, somehow, a tap finally stopped dripping.
If you get far enough away, Waits said, you’ll be on your way back home.
Have I gone far enough yet? No, not yet. I’m excited for my future here with Lauren. For the life and family we will create together, the challenges ahead of us and my aspiration to push myself as far as I can go as a journalist.
I seek to find the stories that matter, not only to us as Kiwis but to all open-hearted people, everywhere. I seek home in others’ hearts, and ask their permission to write of it. I look for aroha in their stories, for it is love that helps light things up when darkness threatens.
After Friday in Christchurch, I can think of nothing more important to do with my life.
And yet I know one day the wind will whip through the bush up on the hills and down into the Rangitaiki Plains. Wherever I am, I know I’ll feel it on my face and in the heart, too. My river will reach the sea, and I’ll be headed home, for good.
But, until then, there are so many stories yet to tell.
Ben Stanley is an award-winning freelance journalist, who calls Rangitaiki home. A former Waikato Times, Sunday News, Sunday Star-Times and VICE Sports staff writer, Ben has won multiple Qantas and Canon Media Awards for his feature writing, often focusing on sport. His work has also been published in the Guardian, North & South, NZ Listener, The Age, VICE NZ and NZ Herald among other New Zealand and international publications. Ben, 35, is currently based in Memphis, Tennessee.
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