I stared at a paper map spread out across my thighs, as he drove on the left side of the road, on the other side of the world. I felt like a little girl again, before GPS navigation, but there had always been a bigger hand back then to point out the street and find the way. In New Zealand there was only Stephen, sighing as he circled another roundabout, but it wasn’t frustrating to me. It was freeing. We could go anywhere.
I ordered a vanilla latte at the first coffee shop we found. “Where are you from?” the barista asked. When I told him the States, he laughed.
“I knew that as soon as you ordered. No one here orders those. They drink flat whites.”
That’s the drink Stephen ordered after we failed our first Great Walk. I woke up the second day, after hiking with a heavy bag and a head cold, and couldn’t bring myself to turn over in my sleeping bag and look at him. We had nearly 13 km to hike ahead, and 8.5 km already behind us, stranding us at a campsite on the Tongariro track. It didn’t matter that the second day was said to be the most beautiful, or that we’d already paid for our next campsites, I knew one thing. I would not make it. I sat in a nearby carpark with our bags, feeling watched by the hikers passing by, as he had to trek all the way back to our rental.
Traveling together became an ebb and flow, and we swayed like docked boats floating in a harbor. I had to hope that the good moments would outweigh the bad, and keep us tethered. As we drove across the country’s winding roads, slowed down only by carsickness and a speeding ticket, the days slipped by. One night we were drinking wine in a hammock in Lake Tekapo, waiting for the sun to set so we could take night photos. “Whatever you do, don’t spill the wine,” Stephen said as we rocked, watching the sky’s changing colors reflect onto the water.
I awoke with a start, and looked down at my phone. 1 a.m. lit up the screen, next to my overturned wine glass on my lap. “Don’t be mad,” I said, as Stephen stirred beside me. But how could he be once he looked up? Once you have seen the Milky Way, undiluted from city lights, stretched out across the dark night sky, nothing else feels significant. We stayed up, in the cold night air, until 3 a.m., with our heads and cameras facing upwards.
Soon a month had passed, and we had one last activity on our itinerary before we were to fly out–the Routeburn Great Walk. We needed to be at the bus by 8 a.m., but when I got ready that morning, I found that my toothpaste had exploded all over my bag, slowing me down. As we rushed in the door after speed walking across Queenstown, the girl at the front desk looked up from her phone. Apparently, I had read the email wrong. The bus was picking us up a few streets over. By the time we arrived at the right place, out of breath, we were the last ones there.
“Where do we leave our bags?” I asked, only to be informed that the luggage storage was at the first location we went to that morning. Without time to walk them back, and unable to bring them on the 4-day hike with us, we had to leave our bags there, filled with expensive electronics, and hope the staff would move them to the luggage storage we had booked. I sat, hunched over, and hugged my legs the whole ride, worrying this Great Walk would be as unsuccessful as our first.
It started to drizzle as the bus dropped us off at the Routeburn shelter. Gathered underneath with the other passengers, we met a man who had gone to a rival Florida college. “I graduated in 1965,” he said with a laugh as he adjusted his pack. “I’ve hiked three weeks in New Zealand every year for the last fourteen years.” Stephen and I talked about him as the rain turned to a downpour while we made our way along the track. If he could do this at 70 years old, so could I. I hoped.
That’s the thought I kept coming back to, as I set up our tent in rain-soaked leggings, colder than I have ever been, or ate oatmeal the next morning while I scratched at my bug bites. It was that second day, as I hiked over 13 km uphill with a heavy bag, that I saw why he did it. The sun had emerged to a blue sky that left us with endless views of the mountains we walked over. I can do this, I thought again, as we kept going without an end in sight, or huddled in our tent on the third day while rationing our food supplies. “Should we eat the raisins tonight, or save them?” became a serious question. I can do this, I thought to myself again, as we hiked the last 12 km on our last day.
It was then, as we peered around every switchback in the trail with the hope it would be our last, that I felt why he did it. When we made it to the pavement of the bus stop, and I tore off my pack to sit down, I felt sore, tired and hungry. But I also felt that place deep inside where memories of starry nights and dreams are stored, where you fill yourself with the knowledge that you’re capable of climbing mountains.