Reclining on cushions I had wrested from my couch the previous morning, I stared out the open hatch of my Subaru past my outstretched legs. Somber clouds descended down; the undulating peaks faded to grey in the distance. Soft rain came in bursts, gently washing the earth and my car (and it is very possible he hasn’t ever had a car wash), and tatted on the metal roof. A sweet earthy smell effused from the waving yellow grass, like the nature had just shampooed and rinsed but was still wet from the shower.
The cushions, I’ll admit, were a flicker of brilliance on my part. Previously, before tramping the Routeburn Track (a multi-day hiking trail), I had slept in the back of my car with nary but a spare comforter for a blanket and that… well, that was just hell. It took at least two and a half hours to walk out the obtuse angles beaten in my system by what felt like a tire iron. Now, I can’t say the cushions made the hatch exactly like a bed or even a mangled futon, but it was infinitely better than nothing.
I was near Mount Cook National Park, a fantastic spew of mountains, receding glaciers (yes, climate change is still a thing much to the chagrin of my conservative relatives), and valleys centered around the towering Mount Cook. It’s near the middle of New Zealand’s south island, about a two-hour, two hundred kilometer drive from Wanaka.
Was camping in this exact spot “legal?” Well, maybe. There’s a fatwa on camping on either private land or national parks, and this was in a grey area between both. The road had sprouted off perpendicular to the main highway and looked to be one of those types that farmers used to haul across their land at frantic speeds to sing lullabies to their sheep or whatever the hell they do.
But I had an explanation ready to go if any Department of Conservation (DOC) officer or farmer with a cattle prod should poke around my car, and I was sixty-eight percent sure I was right.
“This place didn’t have any ‘no camping’ signs or nasty fences,” I would contend, “and the national park doesn’t start until the sign designating ‘Mount Cook National Park…’ So I win… [in a whisper] Please don’t sic the rabid sheep on me.”
But it seemed suspiciously perfect—hidden in the scattered, head-high scrubland with a clear road leading towards it—and there was no one else there. This above all else was the most likely sign that I was flouting some sort of law because the countless camper vans putzing around the island would have surely found it, parked, and immediately started stringing out their laundry, plucking ill-tuned guitars, and caressing their matted dreadlocks.
From the diminishing sounds on the roadway, however, I guessed I would be alone for the night. As dusk descended, it was as if the outdoor thrums and hums, which are relegated to the background in a normal day, gently padded out to the front stage after everyone had left the main concert, and the background played their music, picking up tempo and becoming louder as time went on and their confidence grew.
I readjusted my back on the cushions and pulled up my blanket a little more. The light outside was fading, and specked gnats fought against the unopenable back windows, trying to get out. Every once in a while, an anxious fly would do a circuit around the car and then fly back through the hatch. The gnats were just idiots, I guess.
It’s odd—what we think about at times like these, when flies buzz and mountains abide. Our thoughts touch on subjects like a bee to a lilac then yawn off to another, spreading and mixing pollen. Maybe this is what the great ancient philosophers did—sat, stared, and thought in silence. Every Aristotle must have had his winding, tumultuous Greek shores to watch as he or she deliberated over the surrounding people.
I could almost feel the peace fall like a blanket—peace essential. Perhaps I appreciated this moment more for all the people I had stomped past the previous day; perhaps because I had been trundled up in work, barely appreciating the bright blue, for too long; perhaps because I could finally think in silence. But probably, it was simply a pure moment, where the present brushes eternity and leaves a faint aroma of godliness.
I breathed in. The rain whispered, and the grass ruffled. Gnats crawled wearily up the side of the glass. I exhaled.
Ben Rietema (’14) lives in Wanaka, New Zealand at the moment. Besides staring at and running in mountains, he makes a wicked hospital corner and can clean a bathroom like Gandhi (if he were a housekeeper) at his job at a local lodge. He also enjoys saying “HOUSEKEEPING” in the highest pitch voice he can muster before entering a room to service it. benrietema.wordpress.com/