TRIPPING THROUGH TIME WITH BEN: A Preface of Unscripted AdventureFiled Under:
I’ve been kicking along since ’89, man and let me tell you, it ain’t all been easy. Coming from a semi-wealthy white boy home, a private school education and a talent and drive for elite basketball glory that landed me a scholarship for my final years of high school, it all seemed pretty simple. The teenage illusion of entitlement was in full swing, baby: the road to a free college education in America and a successful career was an easy stroll paved with gold bricks and orange basketballs. But, needless to say, I was a teenager. It was all a big masturbatory daydream, a fantasy that required life to happen just the way it was happening, which it wouldn’t, because despite what teenagers think they know, they don’t know shit.
I was 15 and over the course of five years my parents would split up, I would quit basketball entirely, becoming more occupied in sucking down whippets and chasing pussy with my friends, and my old man would die from an acute form of oesophageal cancer. Before I knew left from right my deranged daydream was over and the gold bricks that paved the way looked more and more like cinderblocks.
For a lot of my early life my family travelled extensively, to the point I was used to it. It was part of my identity. When I was 12 I had more stamps in my passport than most people three times my age. I was halfway to Honolulu before I was one year old. By the time I was 21 I was onto my fourth passport (not including the emergency one issued in Kuala Lumpur, or the new one to replace it).
It became natural; travel was a way of life I was accustomed to and felt connected to whether I fully understood how to travel, why to travel or where to travel to. The important thing was I grew up believing the boundaries that are too often associated with overseas travel did not exist for me, it was viable reality always within reach.
The road must eventually lead to the whole world.
The semi-wealthy white boy suburban home and my jet setting childhood were brought to you by the dream-team business partnership of my parents. Before they split they had the first bottled mountain water in Australia, “the only other water on the supermarket shelves then was Evian Still and Perrier Sparkling,” my mum tells me. People laughed at them. “Who’s going to buy bottled water? It comes from a tap,” they said. But they did it anyway and laid a platform for all the other brands to come.
They were just too far before their time. How many kinds of bottled water do you see on supermarket shelves nowadays? That’s what I thought. What, you’re still not impressed? Well this was the 80s man and they boasted five flavors: sparkling, natural, twist of lemon, twist of lime and twist of orange. So think about that next time you’re sucking down a Mizone or Mt Franklin.
By the time my brother and I came along at the junction of the ‘90s they were moving past water and onto their next, more carbonated, endeavour: soft drink. It started in the states for a few years as New York Seltzer, which moulded their follow-up, Pub Soda: the soft drink with great head. It wasn’t long ‘til Pub Soda was in bar fridges and supermarket shelves across America, operating out of an office in Southern California by the mid ‘90s.
After five years in OC we migrated to England for a year sourcing international distribution, eventually returning to Australia, visiting Hong Kong, New Zealand and France on the extended trip home.
After a few years back home I was ballin’ harder than Kobe Bryant on ‘roids (post-Shaq, with the whole team on his back) and hitting the textbooks pretty hard. It was pretty smooth sailing for a while, but when it started to unravel in mid teens I felt empty and lost interest in everything, turning to punk rock, hours of isolation and quasi-teenage philosophy to fill the void and to answer my internal questions as to what life really was about, who I was and where the fuck do I go from here.
I was without direction and without a clue. The masturbatory daydream was over; it was like your grandparents had walked in on you right at the point of orgasm, yowling like out of tune trumpets at convulsive episodes of hot, slopping sperm.
I started smoking weed, pretty much moved into the garage and found my refuge in punk rock and the beatnik drivel of 1960’s America: a general disdain for authority and embrace of free thinking and a spontaneous life of adventures and escapades on the road, whether in the back of a van next to a base drum or the front seat of a ‘49 Hudson Commodore Six, chain smoking cigarettes with Dean Moriarty. I was so used to being on the move, seeing the world and livin’ it up, but sitting in my garage, reading Kerouac and rolling joints to Dookie all I was doing was realizing how much I’d either lost or thrown away.
Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.
I was 18 when I started my first business: an evolution of my road trip fantasies, my business background and combination of my punk rock influence and tenacious new ‘fuck the hand you’re dealt’ attitude. A way of filling the void left by a static existence of community college and perpetual perusals through the TV guide, assuming some televised gem would suddenly appear if I looked at it again. There was nothing new, man, I was getting bedsores from bong-pulls and it was boring as a broken Etch-a-Sketch.
The old man always used to say, “you have to speculate to accumulate.” Truer words never spoken, especially in relation to business or travel. So I threw myself and my savings into touring bands around the country: a full service promotions company booking the venues, the bands, the vans, the motels, the hostels and provided complete tour management (which meant, most importantly, I’d be a passenger on every tour).
By now I’d graduated high school, warmed enough basketball benches to be pulling splinters out my arse for a year and done my time at a local community college. Usually, in Australia, there is an unspoken rule – a rite of passage validated by travel blogs and guide books – that one must take an obligatory gap year between high school and university to see the world while they can, figure out who they are and what they want to do, then return home to be consumed under its blanket of depression and despair every day from 9 to 5 for the rest of their life. But my vision for a life of travel, a fast life that didn’t submit to a lone gap year and two weeks holidays every Christmas, was fueled by driving up and down the East Coast of Australia in someone else’s van and watching bands play every night.
Diving head first into my business and spending less time in my garage, I dropped out of business school after completing two of the three years required for graduation. My sense of self was invigorated by driving up and down the Australian east coast in my Kombi between tours, regularly stopping in Nimbin or Byron Bay, or speeding through Wollongong in my ’79 fastback Torana, spending nights sleeping in cow paddocks, teepees or the back of a random Toyota Corolla Hatchback.
I found who I was and what I loved without having to walk the well-worn path of my peers. The spontaneity, the escapism, the total immersion of the new and unknown all came with a certain sense of eternal reassurance that everything was gonna be just fine.
Soon enough my business music gig graduated into something more. I was knee deep in hippie-pulp propaganda and slick street journalism, and as a way of cross promoting my tours, hustling bucks in my pocket and experimenting with my own notebook scriptures, I started an online music magazine in ‘09 called Noise Magazine.
Two years later, a few failed relationships, an ignited passion for prose and all the money I made touring, I took it to print, as hopelessly optimistic as a blowjob-virgin taking his sweetheart to the drive-in for the first time, releasing bi-monthly and establishing a distribution network of 5,000 copies across the east coast of Australia.
As far as I knew it was the country’s first completely independent full gloss A4 music-orientated street magazine. I put it out for free, gambling on advertising to cover printing costs. Which in retrospect was where I fucked up: print was dead and I was putting out a magazine that was free. You do the math. Though the experience meant I operated a handful of contributing writers, interviewed somewhere around fifty musicians and gained valuable insights and experience into the media world and on top of it all, I had a new grand idea of how to fund a life of indefinite travel: the subterranean, raving and unruly batshit-mad world of alternative, gonzo and music journalism.
My goal was clear: learn my craft, rack up a journalism degree then take on the world; the path would eventually lead to infinite crossroads. I backed myself and started freelancing, churning out reviews and essays like a man possessed for an array of different print and digital outlets. Some got published, some didn’t, and most all of them came with little-to-no pay and a whole bunch of criticism. It didn’t matter. For the first time in a long time I was determined to sit still, stop acting like I had a constant case of ringworm, and commit myself to something that wasn’t as reckless as a punk-rock-pilgrimage chasing blurred highway lines looking for personal validation.
Though before I made the long-haul commitment to the real-world of super-serious and self-important undergraduates, mechanical-minded professors with a hysteria for grammar and intellectual conformity, I needed my dose; like a junky eyeing the blossoming rose at the end of a needle I wanted a feel good hit only travel could fix.
The freewheeling pace of the road was something I hadn’t experienced for close to a year and I missed the force of its rollin’-and-tumblin’ energy. Noise Magazine had preoccupied my time and significantly slowed up my lifestyle, so I packed up n’ pissed off to Japan (a country I would go on to visit three more times and eventually work in) with my best friend for two weeks. It was the first overseas trip I had taken without the attentive and diligent eye of my parents to prevent an arrest for public nuisance, and it taught me more about who I thought I was then any road trip or university class.
We chose the most foreign and different place we could imagine for good reason; experience in the unknown and the complete isolation and liberty that comes with being an English speaking westerner on the other side of the world.
When we get out of the glass bottle of our ego and when we escape like the squirrels in the cage of our personality and get into the forest again, we shall shiver with cold and fright. But things will happen to us so that we don’t know ourselves. Cool, unlying life will rush in.
After a fortnight of bullet trains, three-days-here-two-days-there, an immeasurable amount of 9% alcohol cans, raw fish, Sukiya rice bowls and culturally contrived niceness I returned to Australia with an education I wasn’t gonna find in any text book or written on any lecturer’s blackboard. See, the world might seem like an unusual place from the other side of the globe; bustling with different cultures and customs; a colourful palate of personality, people doing and searching for different things in this death-by-installment-plan life. Though the truth, and what travel never fails to teach me, is we are all vivid animations of caricatures battling against the dark and unpredictable energies of a fragile and contradictory world, looking for answers and hunting for happiness in a mysterious landscape layered with confusing paradoxes and deep-seeded ironies.
Four subjects into what I was learning would be a horrifically boring and humdrum degree I was on the road again, this time with my brother, and we hit Europe for five weeks. Dad had passed the previous year (about six months before my Japan trip) so we had some excess cash to burn. I was 22 and Nick was 20; we’d barely had our training wheels removed as fully functioning “adults”. Shit man, we barely knew who we were anymore and we had a dead dad, a distant mother we hardly spoke too (a relationship we would later come to patch up and cherish) and a whole stack of cash.
The chaotic cosmopolitan causeways of Europe and its historic reputation for philosophic nihilism and frankness concerning sex and drugs seemed like the perfect place to experience the sensations of the Western world. And boy-howdy it was a game-changer: a free-for-all-fuck-up of a trip that led us down dead-end alleyways one week and wide-open highways the next, before we’d even reached our destination.
I hadn’t even left the airport in Kuala Lumpur on our stopover and I’d already lost my passport. Just what the hell was I supposed to do in a time of unexpected crisis like this? On the way out of the airport I’d stopped to drain my mainline, walked across the street to get a hotel for the night and when they asked for my passport to check-in it was gone. Poof! Nowhere to be seen amongst the pile of clothes I’d thrown all over the reception floor.
It was a Friday afternoon. We were stuck in Malaysia at least until the Australian Consulate opened on Monday, even then it would depend on whether the casual working attitude of my homeland stretched overseas.
By Monday afternoon my emergency passport was issued and by Tuesday morning we were go, arriving in London near-on fourteen hours later only to be confronted by the fact our entire itinerary for London was now redundant. Our planned stay over for the weekend had expired and passed us by while we were smoking shisha, getting drunk and waiting for a passport in Kuala Lumpur (which explains why this fact had slipped our minds).
So, sitting on our backpacks in Stansted airport at ten-minutes-to-midnight with nowhere (and everywhere) to go, we would wait ‘til dawn; get the first bus to Kings Cross station and the first train out of London, non-stop to Amsterdam.
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.
Travel had again taught me another lesson that traditional university could not: how to deal with your own fuck-ups. Things like this are bound to happen, shit hits the fan and despite whether you’re at fault or not, things are out of your control. It’s how you learn to deal with these things, and what it does to your character, that makes travel so beautiful. There’s something very Zen about spontaneous travel. Letting go of everything and realising the positive and the negative go together, one can’t exist without the other. Sometimes, despite your best intentions to try and change, you just have to lend yourself to the situation at hand, go with the flow, look through the peephole and enjoy the view.
In retrospect eight days in Amsterdam was too long. But at the time, going in-and-out of coffee shops, getting high on mushroom truffles, and watching young women smoke cigars from their innocuous little twats and veterans-of-the-trade showing their saggy tits at a Sex Palace peep show for a few Euro, it didn’t seem like long enough for a couple of brothers existing in a daily haze of marijuana smoke. It was exotic and foreign, in a far different way than I had encountered in Japan. Even their hamburgers were weird, man, No buns! Here I was thinking some things are the same everywhere you go.
Most of the people I’ve met on the road all have one thing in common: they embraced the idea of travel rather than letting it scare them shitless, and if they were scared, they never let that fear hold them back from taking the leap. What made travel a reality was what the simple Nike tagline implied: Just Do It. Without trying to sound like a condescending douchebag gifted with a small fortune, book a ticket somewhere, scrounge together what you can and leave. Don’t waste time thinking about the reasons you can’t, or the imaginary boundaries you put up for yourself.
Bet on yourself, throw caution to the wind and give yourself up to the endless possibilities of the road. You might even be gifted by unlikely circumstances from the universe, like a decent inheritance check or a free couch to sleep on.
Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.
Hunter S. Thompson
By the second year of my degree I cared very little about a career in professional journalism. All we were taught was how to develop good ethics and how it’s necessary to sell them out if you were one of the lucky ones to land a gig in this dehydrated profession.
Contradictory to my ideas, beatnik reportage wasn’t high on the curriculum; neither the philosophical idea of truth and all I could focus on was traveling. In addition, I was being taught that News – and truth for that matter – was either black or white (normally white, representing the colour of the rich who owned it), though what I had instinctively known is that, like the identity you think defines you, truth is shades of grey and was always different based on where you stood, which way you were facing and what direction you were travelling.
That was the problem with professional journalism: to the rich and elite the truth was controllable; something manipulated and owned, with no room for any doubt. But you don’t learn that in a classroom, and you don’t realise how little the rest of the world cares unless you go and see for yourself. It was all an illusion, the masturbatory daydream I’d checked at the door as a teen was a playing field for the rich and powerful, and the truth belonged to the highest bidder.
I focused my study on that manipulation and how I could use my own writing and subjectivity to invert the truth and provide a context of objectivity that wasn’t taught or bought. I didn’t want to end up another know-nothing robot, just another fly-on-the-fuckin’-wall. It was a major shift of direction for me; fusing all I had already known from rock and roll, Noise Magazine and beat literature with the dirty and crooked underworld of the media landscape. University was energized with this renewed attitude, infiltrating the opinion mafia like a silent fart in the night, potent and swift and always threatening to leave a filthy mark on their clean sheets.
I’d been cruisin’ down the pot-gateway at a steady speed for a while now, but I took the next exit, pulled in the parking lot of psychedelics and chemical concoctions and ransacked the aisles for all I could carry. The real-life surrealism and insightful energy from mind-expanding drugs led me further away from any sense of traditional journalism and buried me in a conflicting tirade on the existential nature of truth, the illusionary identity of my own sense of self and the imminent consequence of turning on, tuning in and dropping out of a hegemonic society dictated by dirty money and politics, reinforced by its media backdrop.
Uppers and downers were different kinds of candy and acid was my guidance councilor. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism – ways of liberation that didn’t conform to the acknowledgement of authority or ego – was my required reading and Will Faulkner’s theory that the best fiction was far truer than any journalism influenced the word sperm I was spewing out in my university assignments, drug-addled, a day late and still substantially passing. Conventional journalism was a joke when you knew how to play the game and no one was there to challenge you otherwise.
At the time I was working one day a week at a boutique home-wares store that sold overpriced cutting-boards to rich, white, round housewives and senior citizens with a fiery zest for restoring caravans. Naturally, it paid like shit so I had to blow most of my inheritance on rent, food, daily living expenses, trips to Japan, Europe and the inside of my own mind with my guides, LSD & Co. Drugs are deceptively cheap when you’re buying a bag of pills or sheets of Sid for as cheap as chupa-chups, so more by force of circumstances than by choice I got a job flippin’ patties for minimum wage at an “artisan” burger-chain that just opened up.
With some bucks in the back pocket I succeeded in charming an enchanting brunette named Claire who worked on the floor above mine when I was flogging home-wares. Best part was she wanted to travel as much as I did. So I pulled my finger out, changed my lifestyle and flipped more burgers than a trainee Ronald McDonald could brag about. After a year of going steady and hustlin’ enough money to blow on a holiday, we were goin’ to Fiji, baby!
Somewhere between sneaking in and out of five star resorts we couldn’t afford, renting snorkeling gear and charging drinks to some rich schmuck’s room and trekking through Fijian jungles, getting high on Kava with kind strangers in desolate mountain villages, we realised not only were Claire and I compatible as travelers, we were partners in crime and fuck man, we made one hell of a team. Powered with a shared and intense desire to move we lived in two different share houses across the next year, flippin’ the shit outta those burger buns to pay rent and keep propelling that piggy bank for our next big trip.
A seven week trip across the United States of America; home of the brave, land of the free, playground for the privileged and a middle class as visible as Caitlyn Jenner’s cock in a pair of size 10 skintight Wranglers (you couldn’t see it, because it wasn’t there anymore).
America: the arbiter of the Western world; a country too selfish and stupid for capitalism to ever work and to threatened by socialism to ever learn why it wouldn’t; a global hegemonic force dictating an economic and social imperialism, standing behind a star-spangled defense of patriotism and freedom for all those who threaten their discourse of national and international inequality. (In saying all that, I’ve never met an American I didn’t like, only the ones on Fox News). Yeah, there’s a lot of things wrong with America, and as cliché and as ‘murican as it is, you got to salute the liberal cultural freedoms citizens have come to expect. And those freedoms were a major fabric of my childhood.
So when I visited again, over a decade later, on a great American road trip in a $34-a-day Toyota Corolla, those personal freedoms would be at the forefront of my journey across the country. What started as lamentations of an outsider vehemently opposed to patriotic freedoms as an illusion of personal identity slowly evolved into an acceptance that those freedoms allowed you to be whoever you wanted to be at any given time, and I lost myself in them. If you wanted to eat a pile of pancakes drowned in maple syrup and ice cream at 2am on a Monday morning, you could do that, and good old ‘murican freedoms would accommodate it. With the feeling of driving on the wrong side of the road at 140km/hour passing barren landscapes one moment and urban-desert-jungle-gyms the next came an ontological expedition into the human condition: who we are, what defines us and where we find our identity.
If America taught me anything its freedom is an illusion, a deception, a realistic daydream powered by self-definition and external validation. Ego and identity are an artificial creation. Sure, America gave you the freedom to choose, but on the flipside came the consequence of losing yourself in excess and losing who you want to be, or think you are, to the influence of your surroundings. This radiant roadside meditation dawned on me in some truck-stop diner chowing down a cheese burger, after we’d driven from L.A, south through San Diego, east across Arizona, along the Grand Canyon and 5 nights of gamblin’-n’-good times in Vegas, circling back to the progressively-radical-beatnik-haven of all my favourite literature and home of my nomadic heroes, San Francisco.
After a week looking for car parks in the winding and coiling one-way hillside streets, hitchin’ trams past evangelic hobos on Market Street, buying cheap dope from hippies out front’a Haight-Ashbury record stores and smoking it on top of our apartment looking over the Eastbay, we left and headed south down Highway 1, along the coast, through Big Sur, then straight across the guts of motherland to New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston shacking up in roadside motels and AirBnB’s along the way. It was a long, exhausting and mind-altering trip.
We returned flat broke with a credit card full’a debt, an unfinished uni degree and a thousand notebooks full of fury. It was worth it. So worth it, six months later after another semester of uni we blew our wad again and flew to Japan (where I met the Dalai Lama at a Tokyo train station). This time I quit my job at the burger chain and let the concerns of the commercial world go, trusting my crooked and eternal reassurance that things were gonna work out.
Whether we were flat broke, in debt, loaded with inheritance or actually had an income, we were hooked. Regardless of our situation we were gonna go, and baby there wasn’t anything in the world that was gonna stop us.
All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.
Two months back in Australia and I hadn’t landed a job, despite three or four prospects no businessman worth his wallet is ready to hire a twenty-something overgrown-beatnik-punk with a burning desire to pack up and leave whenever he had the money or the chance. I wasn’t writing as much either and Claire was working in a prison cell of an office writing professional resumes so we could pay rent and eat cup noodles and crackers.
Eventually I scored a gig at Vans that Christmas selling discount canvas shoes at an outlet near the airport on the outskirts of town. It was fun at first: Vans was the perfect place for someone like me. In fact, the brand welcomed people like me. But after a while, like my degree and my businesses, it came to define me. At parties people would ask, “so, what do you do?” A question so loaded with connotation and social significance it’s hard to navigate an honest and personable answer without the looming threat of peer-to-peer judgment. “I work at Vans,” my stock standard response. An answer, which like the question, completely dodged what I actually did or defined who I really was.
The next year in my last-leg of study I met three of the most influential teachers of my degree. They put the pages of Vonnegut and Orwell in my hands and personally took interest in my way-left perceptions of media and culture, helping ground them in academic principle, evolve my creative boundaries and assert an identity, however illusionary, for my future. My journalism must’ve impressed the right people because that year I worked alongside media outlets covering the Brisbane G20 and as an intern for a national street music magazine and Brisbane Fringe Festival. It was all cookie-cutter content feeding the PR machine, but hey, it was work.
With the help of my creative writing professor I was in Ubud, Bali, later that same year working inside the media office and writing stories for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival and by the end of 2014, after my remarkable run of journalism and writing gigs, I graduated as an official journalist specializing in cultural criticism and creative writing.
I spent the next three or four months watching basketball, selling shoes and riding a skateboard. I was well over Vans and listening to planes pass over me hourly while I toiled for no good reason, I had enough money by now so why I was still hanging on? I quit on the spot mid-shift on a Monday went home, bought a ticket, got a visa and sold all my stuff at suitcase rummages. I had my degree should things go astray; I was a decent job prospect as a “qualified” word-slinger and truth-teller. We had a one-way flight to Tokyo, there was nothing to talk about anymore; the only thing left was to go, and trust that eternal reassurance.
So here we are, the open road, wandering the world like hermit crabs, our backpacks our conch shells, riding our grand illusions toward a growing acceptance of our strange, unintentional and unexpected adventure of ourselves. Tripping is like everything, but there’s nothing like tripping – life is the trip. It isn’t about money or fancy things or following guide-book-gospel-trails; it’s about giving yourself up, opening your mind to any possibility, letting go of yourself and being completely absorbed and fascinated by what is happening without attachment or expectation; seeing life as it as, not what you want it to be or how you’re told it should be.
Through my mistakes, misfortunes, adventures and escapades I’ve learnt nothing is as hard as you think it is and life is not as serious as a newspaper tells you. The road can be easy or hard, and you can be whoever you want to be, ’cause the real story is about becoming. It just all depends where you standing, which way you’re facing and what direction you’re heading – that’s the real truth, man.
The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.
William Least Heat Moon