Tuesday, April 16, 2013

New Zealand journal

(Above: Milford Sound, New Zealand)

In one week, I'm leaving New Zealand, flying back to Massachusetts, and driving to Colorado. Shortly after, I'm quite excited to announce that I'll begin work at the High Country News, a magazine covering the environment, land use and culture in the American West.

Instead of posting on this blog in the past month or so, I've been trying to find a wider audience for my writing and have been submitting to various publications – hence the apparent lack of output. Once I begin my new job writing and blogging for HCN, I'll try to post links to my work here as often as possible, but in the meantime, some notes from my journal in New Zealand.

14 November 2012

Leg three of my trip to New Zealand, and time is becoming irrelevant. I nap, I wake, I eat, I drink, I read, I write. My legs feel twitchy, the muscles tight, and so far I've only driven to Boston, spent a mostly sleepless night in a hotel, and flown to Philadelphia. Now we're somewhere over the West, the earth below barren and cracked, looking uninhabited and inhospitable. There's an old Asian woman next to me who has done absolutely nothing but stare at her hands for the past five hours.

Soon, I hope – I am watchless at the moment – we'll land in LA. Then I'll have an eight-hour layover, followed by a 13-hour flight to Auckland, two more hours to Christchurch, an overnight layover, a 9-hour bus ride and, finally, a 2 hour drive to Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. The world suddenly falls very large indeed.

15/16 November 2012

We've just crossed the international date line over the Kermadec Trench in the Pacific Ocean, southeast of Fiji. Outside the plane window, a strip of blood-orange meets a strip of deep turquoise over a bank of clouds. The last stars are dissolving from the sky, and 10,000 feet below, the islands of the south Pacific are waking up.

Cottonball clouds retreat to the horizon and a neon orange sunrise suddenly shatters the vista like a basketball thrown through a wall of glass. Shards of light and color pierce the sky. Flight attendants come through with coffee as though nothing extraordinary has happened.

The Air New Zealand plane whisking me across the world is brand new, with touchscreens at every seat and a first class section that looks straight out of a spaceship. Information abounds: my screen tells me that the outside temperature is -54 C, our altitude is 10,972 meters and our ground speed is 761 kilometers per hour. We've traveled 9,891 kilometers so far, with 624 to go.

17 November 2012

New Zealand, so far, is much like my memories of Australia – clean, modern and full of charming people with charming accents. Steve, the bus driver on my trip from Christchurch to Te Anau, talks over a PA system about the Canterbury plains through which we're passing. They stretch 200 kilometers north and south of Christchurch, he says, and 80 kilometers to the east and west. For the past couple centuries they've been mixed-use farmland, mostly crops and sheep, but within the past few decades forests have been cut and many farms converted to dairy, which is more profitable. Steve is regretful that sheep farmers are losing out to the dairy industry, and while I suspect he's driven by nostalgia, he's also armed with plenty of reasons why sheep farming is culturally and environmentally superior.

Half a world away, in Vermont, sheep farming was replaced by dairy well over a century ago, and while no one alive today laments the loss of sheep farms, nearly everyone mourns the demise of small scale dairy farms as factory farming in the midwest runs them out of business. A hundred years from now, I wonder, will Kiwis be mourning the loss of dairy farms as well, as yet another change rolls in? Is it simply that we humans resist change, while simultaneously finding it inevitable? I'm no different, I suppose, seeking out change and adventure while quietly longing for comfort and familiarity.

There are yellow bushes blooming everywhere, huge clumps of them lining flat green fields that stretch on to distant craggy mountains. The bushes look like forsythia, and the landscape like Idaho. It is all disconcertingly familiar. I have a bad habit of trying to wrap my head around new places by comparing them to places I've already been, but here, flying across the international dateline and into another hemisphere, I half expected the plants to all be as if from another planet – wild, Dr. Seuss-shaped leaves, surreal flowers, Jurassic Park-like sizes. But it's all rather mundane. We pass by rows of yellow flowers, small neat houses, a river braided with gray cobbles spilling from the mountains.

A group of teenagers boards the previously-quiet bus, wearing sweatshirts that say Santa Cruz and Waikiki – places they haven't been but that are synonymous with sun and surf. Girls in Costa Rica and New Zealand wear the same sweatshirts, look at their cell phones with the same practiced indifference. Teenagers are teenagers the world over.

In another small town now – Timaru is it? They all look the same, safe and clean and modern with lots of green space, very pleasant – and yet there's something stubborn in me that rebels, wants a bit of dirt, some rough edges, grit. Something old or crumbling or neglected. As we continue south, the sky turns to a low gray and rain streaks the windows of the bus, making things look dreary, a bit Irish. Good. That's better.

It's green here, green as shit, with fat white sheep everywhere standing in the rain like dirty woolen cherubs. I have never in my life seen or thought about seeing so many sheep. There are 4 million people in New Zealand, and 64 million sheep. It rains and rains and rains, and I'm glad to be on a bus.

20 November 2012

Milford Sound first impressions: there's been a high pressure front sitting overhead since I arrived three days ago, and the weather has been stellar, all blue skies, 65 degrees and an afternoon breeze. No one wears shoes, ever – there's nothing dangerous, no spiders or snakes or even thorny plants. The scenery is spectacular, and the living conditions good – Jesse & I get our own room with double bed and views, and the rest of the house is stocked with every piece of kitchen gear, household good, outdoor gear and electronic device you could desire. It's luxurious by guide standards.

26 November 2012

It's a rare quiet morning, with a gray rain dripping outside and a few tuis and bellbirds singing from a tangle of wet branches. Doors open and close – this place has a million doors, it seems – as my housemates get ready and go off to work. As soon as they're gone I sneak out of my room, a quick barefoot hop across wet rocks to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, then back to bed with a book. It's my first morning off in New Zealand.

Most mornings, I pull myself out of bed at 6 a.m. and carry kayaks to the water in the early morning stillness. Then the customers come, 20 or 30 at a time, mostly international travelers speaking in all sorts of different accents. My body readjusts to padding 20+ kilometers a day, and I learn about the fiord, its geography and wildlife, absorbing yet another new place into my skin and bones.

The weather had been ideal until yesterday, when the afternoon forecast was northerly 30 knots and heavy rain. I led my first solo trip in the morning, got soaked, and was settling in for a cozy afternoon of movies when Horey comes in and tells me to get ready to paddle. There are three strapping young German lads keen to go out despite the storm blowing in, and while we'd normally just call it off, Horey wants to show me what the outer fjord is capable of.

The boat ride out to sea is stomach-lurching, and as the Sea-ka slams into yet another trough beneath a curtain of water, I think, really? I'm kayaking in this?

Horey assigns me the lone single kayak while he and the Germans get into doubles. And then it's full-on. The wind is gusting 50-plus knots, I am surfing waves, bracing, surfing, bracing, being blown down a channel that feels more like a whitewater river than an ocean. By miracle and luck, I manage to stay upright. I can't keep up with the boys in their doubles and fall behind, which is even more nerve-wracking, but after a while what began as terrifying becomes normal, and I'm able to look up and see that the sheer granite walls are streaming with more waterfalls than I ever imagined possible.

At one point, I catch up with Horey, and he shouts to me over the wind, spitting rainwater out between words: “If you ever. (gasp) Come out. (gasp) And it looks like this. (gasp) You know you've made. (gasp) A bad decision!”

10 December: Tutoko valley

It never gets old: hiking on a shitty trail as evening descends and rain drizzles through the trees, nothing to see but green – green moss, green ferns, green trees. Smaller ferns growing on larger ones, six or seven different species of ferns in a square foot of forest. The trail is wet and muddy. I'm glad to be wearing Chacos and not boots until I over-confidently step into a mud puddle and sink to my thigh in the only pair of pants I've brought.

We walk on and on, not tiring so much as growing tired of the repetitiveness, the constantly stepping over roots and rocks and puddle and streams, seeing nothing but rainforest. But here, the temperate rainforest abuts alpine splendor, and suddenly we break out of it and the clouds are just lifting, the forecast right for once, and as we walk over a meadow toward a river we begin to see snowy mountaintops and waterfalls emerging through the clouds.

At 11 p.m. it's still not dark but we go to sleep anyway, and in the morning we bury our heads from the brightening sky. The sun takes its time reaching this valley – it has 5,000-foot peaks to climb up first – and we don't rise until it reaches our tent at 9 a.m. Then we sit up and are blown away. Our tent is surrounded by mountains and glaciers and snow – there is a luminous turquoise river flowing outside the tent, waterfalls dripping from cliffs, the sky a brilliant blue. We spend the day following the river upstream to the glacier that's created it.

15 December

At what point does the sacred become mundane, and what do we lose in the change?

The first time it rained here – really rained – I was enthralled, raptured, awed. You've been told that thousands of waterfalls will appear in a heavy rain, but how do you prepare yourself for that? You've seen a waterfall, and you can conceptualize thousands as a number, an amount – but try as you may it is impossible to imagine the dry cliffs you've come to know covered in literally thousands of waterfalls. It is majestic. It makes you want to run outside in the rain, hands in the air, letting water pool in your palms and trickle down your arms.

And then... several feet of rain later... days later, when you realize you can never count on the clear skies to last, that you've chosen to live in one of the wettest inhabited places on earth and that this rain is costing you your livelihood, when you run out of things to do on rainy days and you start to feel old, run down – then what? Someone always puts on the TV and it's all downhill from there. There is no sacred when the TV is on. Not even when you look out the window across the river and see water cascading into the sea.

So it was with the monkeys. I was beside myself with excitement the first time we spotted howler monkeys in Costa Rica earlier this year. It was like a scene from a movie – Jesse and I on the wraparound porch of our jungle cabin, monkeys and bats and lizards in the trees – but after a few days of hiking, we glanced up, saw monkeys on the trail and kept going, feeling slightly superior to the tourists who stopped in their tracks with cameras pointed at the canopy. Is this how it is, then? Must nature present itself in ever new and exciting ways to hold our attention? The natural world as a whole still entices me and drives me and amazes me, powerfully or subtly, but the individual phenomena are becoming like items checked off a list. Thousands of waterfalls? Check. Manta rays? Check. Now how about some whale sharks...?

24 December 2012: Routeburn track

I do not stop and write as I'm walking, because the sensations are too multitudinous to describe. They come and go quickly, each turn of the trail bringing a slight change in the feeling of the place. As the sun travels across the sky, we travel up a valley, through mature southern beech forest, alongside a turquoise river dropping into pools, into open meadows flanked by alpine peaks. With each bend, the light changes and brings a different kind of magic. Who has the words to describe this?

I know I do not. I walk on, sometimes in silent awe, sometimes exclaiming to myself out loud. At the top of a valley where large, scattered boulders and clumps of purplish fern mingle with a sea of golden grasses – where the river deposits itself in pools and cascades before spreading itself wide and braided across the valley below – here we stop for a swim and lie naked in the tussocked grass. There is nothing that could be better than this. The air, the light, the scenery, the solitude – drinking water from the river when we're thirsty, walking barefoot in an alpine valley – we are surely spoiled for life, because nothing else could compare.

13 January 2013

Today I read a passage in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in which Annie Dillard leaves her cabin on a winter's night to walk in the dark over frozen grasses, and I am suddenly struck with remembrance. Last year at this time, that's exactly what I was doing. I would walk out into the frozen fields of New Hampshire in the moonlight, head bent against the cold, tears dried on my face, until I would realize where I was and stop to look around: tiny stars in an enormous sky glittering above, crystals of frost sparkling on the grass below, my kitchen light glowing yellow in the distance, reminding me which way was home. Which way is home? I still haven't figured it out.

But how much changes in a year. I quit my job and have been living out of a backpack, making hardly any money but nonetheless living richly: traveling in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Costa Rica, Panama and New Zealand. Now, it's 10 p.m. and the sky is still an approximation of blue. A bird still sings. Jesse, tired, sleeps by my elbow; I can see his pulse beneath the skin of his neck. Outside our bedroom door, people are moving around – finishing the dinner dishes, walking to the bathroom to brush their teeth, a quiet laugh. Sounds of life being lived. It doesn't occur to me to be lonely here. But therein lies the paradox – I also do little in the way of reading or writing or being creative. I watch movies, hang out, go places with people. It's all good until weeks pass and my blog is stagnant and my journal blank. Must it be one or the other? Or can I write and create without being lonely and alone?

18 January

I sit in the back of Harlan's car on a gravel road while Jesse and Harlan scout the river. It's windy, and cold for the middle of summer – wind whips the million-hued leaves – all green – and pulls the clouds and sun apart and together, creating bursts of cold sunshine that quickly fade back to gray.

Driving. Flashes of trees punctuated by slivers of light, the open vistas of valleys and rock walls misted with waterfalls, caught in glimpses. My bare feet stretched out in the flickering light. The roof of the Mazda gouged from kayaks and paddles, the floor littered with rocks and pine needles, hats, sleeping bag, atlas.

22 January

Yesterday will be added to my memory as one of those days that define my time in New Zealand: Jesse and I exploring in the wild, free outdoors, scrambling up rocks, following a crystal river to its source in the snows. We crisscross over waterfalls, bend to our knees to drink from a cupped palm, swim naked in a deep pool, walk with the sun on our shoulders. On these days, there is nothing in the world to worry about. Following the Tutoko, the North Routeburn, Bowen and now the Gertrude rivers through valleys and up to their source in the mountains have been among the most carefree days of my life.

This morning, Jesse and I were up at 5 a.m. to go deep sea fishing with Thor. I managed to pull up a shark, two barracudas and a groper before becoming terribly seasick and hurling my breakfast into the Tasman Sea. Back to work tomorrow.

2 February: Catlins coast

This is the kind of ocean I like best: cold, lonely, windswept. We drove all day across the South Island to the Catlins coast, a place where sea lions flop ashore at long sandy beaches, rolling farmland laced with rutted roads abuts the ocean and surf from the Antarctic pounds and swells against cliffs. The kelp forests pulse in the endless rhythm of the sea and penguins walk across pockmarked rocks like flat-footed old men.

The skies are overcast and the evening light is all purple and gray. Jesse and I cook dinner on the grassy bluff where our tent is, and below, along the crescent beach of Porpoise Bay, a handful of lights come on. Four days off here, then back to work, a short road trip, and Jesse goes back to the states. I try not to ask, then what?

6 February

Jesse and I got in a fight last night after downing beers with old men at the one pub in Kaka Point. We turned down an offer from one of the fishermen to stay at his house and pitched our tent on the beach instead, fell into an uneasy sleep. Now, Jesse stays in bed while I make coffee – a peace offering. We are among the first people in the world to see the sun rise today, what little there is of it. Far east, and far south, camping among low dunes with a lighthouse in the distance, the ubiquitous sheep pasture behind us and a sweep of ocean in front, stretching unbroken to Antarctica. I can feel Antarctic winds in the spray of sea salt on my face. This place feels like it's at the end of the world.

27 February

There is less to write about – or so it seems – when I stay in one place. Perhaps that has fed into my apparent aversion to it. New experiences force me to open my senses, to observe – to write. But when life becomes routine, I lose that drive.

Guiding in Milford is dynamic. Every day the wind and weather and light change, but the mountains stay locked in the same positions, towering landmarks that stay constant as the moon and sun and stars travel around them. Surely, there is enough to write about here. Surely, there is much I will forget otherwise. But the days go by quickly, seemingly the same, and the season passes with little to say.

4 March – Haast Pass

Yesterday was Jesse's last day in Milford, and today we left for a whirlwind tour of the South Island. We're camped a few hundred meters off the road by a braided, cobbled river, and summer is on its way out. Days are shorter, nights cooler, and driving today, piles of tiny, golden beech leaves swirled in the wake of cars like glitter sparkling in the autumn sun. Time as flown – I can hardly fathom that I've been here for four months. I'm ready to move on, but at the same time I've grown accustomed to life in Milford, that strange intersection of wilderness and scenic beauty combined with heaps of tourists and the daytime drone of boats and cars and helicopters. New Zealand hasn't quite captivated me the way it has so many others – for all its beauty it often feels packaged, too organized, too tidy and homogenous compared to, say, Alaska. But nonetheless, I'm glad I came.

8 March – Abel Tasman National Park

We drove for three days to get here, and to see the country along the way, since it's so far from home and we may never find ourselves here again. Each night we slept by a body of water, falling asleep when the stars came out and waking up with the sun. We drove for long hours, but slowly, stopping wherever interested us. It sounds romantic, but the reality was long and tedious – the old Corolla we've borrowed won't stay in fifth gear, the front windows won't roll down, and the landscape was certainly nothing worth driving three days for. But at least now we know. And the nights almost made up for the days – finding a quiet spot to camp alone with the waves and stars – until Jesse forgot to put my tent back in the car at Gillespie Beach and no one noticed until we went to set up camp that night in a pine grove overlooking a harbor in California-wine-country-esque Mapua. My tent that I've had for seven years! I loved that tent. So we slept on the ground at the end of a residential street and were woken by retirees on their morning walk and I had a slight breakdown because I'm 28 years old and felt like a homeless person and am sick and tired of always being so broke.

But now we're in Abel Tasman, and it's the first time all week we haven't had to drive anywhere. Yesterday we kayaked to a place called Mosquito Bay, a boat-access only campsite in the national park, and spent the evening drinking good beer and whiskey and playing canasta. Unbelievably – in one of the smallest and most-visited national parks in New Zealand – we have this gorgeous, gold sand beach with a lagoon all to ourselves. Last night we spread our sleeping bags on the beach and while stars swirled overhead, an Australian possum tiptoed around us and the tide slipped out and back in again.

13 March

Back in Milford. The road trip was fairly bland – the scenery uninspiring, the driving long, the towns and cities all seemingly alike. We drove and camped, drove and camped, until Jesse lost my tent and I had a minor breakdown. After that we stayed in hostels and motels for three nights. Once, in our $80 private room at the hostel in Kaikoura, we were woken up by loud drunken backpackers who set off the fire alarm, and we had to stand outside in the street until the firefighters came to shut it off. It's funny how quickly things change – not long ago, I used to think backpacking foreign countries and staying in hostels was just about the coolest thing ever, and now all I want is to camp somewhere quiet and beautiful and unregulated away from the noisy backpacking crowd.

I left Jesse at the airport in Christchurch and drove 11 hours solo through the heart of the South Island to get back to work in Milford. I wanted to stop and record my impressions of this country, but I also wanted to make it home before dark and so I drove on, one landscape blending into another, green pasture to golden hills to craggy mountains, and now I've lost the words, the fleeting impressions. Now I'm back in my own bed, and of all I've seen of this country, I like Fiordland best. It's good to be back. The water is clear and the stars are brilliant and at night I have to go outside to pee, which is something I rather enjoy because it forces me to look at the night sky.

Paul Theroux on ocean paddling: “Sailing the sea was a monotony of doldrums interrupted by windy periods of nightmarish terror. No desert was ever deadlier or more tedious than an ocean.” So true.

3 April

I am a person who thrives on change, and nothing makes me happier than the changing of seasons. Tonight it is fall. The sun sets early and we stay in, those of us left , steaming up the windows while Tex fries up steaks and potatoes. My room is so cold I dive for the blankets, but I won't shut the window yet. Just as the frost arrives, I will walk aboard a plane and fly back into spring in New England, just as I did when I came here in November. I met a girl from Oregon last week who has skipped 11 winters in a row, but it throws me off, settling in for the winter like this and then being yanked away – twice. Tonight, though, I don't care. One by one the guides trickle out of Milford, and those of us who remain grow closer. I have a glass of wine in the evenings, sleep with the windows open and wake up warm and well-rested under a quilt breathing in cold, fresh air. The days are short and brilliant. There is nothing right now that I crave or desire.

For more photos of New Zealand, check out these links:
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