Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
I gazed over the steep embankments to my left and right as they tumbled down a fall of at least thirty feet. From my solitary spot, I could see Lake Hawea laid out with its undulating coast and ski jump mountains set against a turbid blue sky. The wind cut over the ridge, and I had to anchor myself in, hunkering against the tumult should I become one of “those hikers”—the ones who thought they could, but from their remains definitely couldn’t.
I had approached the ridge easily, but as I breathed in the rushing air, I considered the descent. I had just finished Into The Wild, a literary exploration into the life of Chris McCandless and other daring adventurers, of whom an unfortunate number met a heart-wrenching death alone, far from home, starving on a barren tundra with nothing but a remarkably unpointy stick to fend off the circling, definitely-not-vegetarian wolves.
For most, such impressive scenery and such irresistible majesty inspires, and even the most timid of us fantasize about wandering off from day-to-day life. It is tales of people like McCandless that enthrall us, telling of the tenuous line between life and death the daring adventurer flirts with.
We admire the people who adventure, who scale mountains, who travel to faraway places with nothing but optimism, peanut butter, and probably not enough experience. Or at least we bear a sense of awe and bewilderment as to why someone would do something like that.
You want to go to Siberia with a pet grizzly and then hitchhike to Southern Sudan? I find myself thinking from time to time as I skim over the books at the last of our dwindling bookstores. Do you realize that bears EAT people and that Sudan is one of those countries where people value your life less than a good hammer?
Recently I had a conversation with my friend Petra about such adventures, and specifically about crossing Australia on foot. The conversation started when she mentioned a documentary about a woman who did the same with three camels and her dog. Later I saw the movie, which featured a lot of walking, a lot of sand, and a lot of mental breakdowns.
“Imagine all of that time to think,” Petra mused. “You would figure out so much about yourself.”
But would you? Or would you end up more confused than when you started? I’m not sure if self-knowledge is the main result of these adventures; sure, some may come along in the process, but in the end, are pathless miles of sand and the bare desert sun the best route for introspection, or is a therapist?
And yet, I was enthralled by the proposition of doing something like that (which might mean I’m insane or really don’t like therapists). But even if such an adventure didn’t reveal to me “do _______ to ensure your future happiness,” I was captivated—okay, probably not in the desert and definitely not with camels.
So why? Why are we driven to achieve these things, to escape the normal, to turn our back on what’s comfortable when there’s no real practical use to our actions? If it isn’t the nature, the introspection, or money (none of which the camel lady did the Australia trek for), what is it? I doubt we can give an answer good enough for ourselves. In the end, we come to the declaration: I simply don’t know.
And in that, we may find the answer. We do it because we have a primeval impulse or feeling that we simply can’t explain. Maybe this impulse allows us to tap something more fundamental to our human nature, something to reel us back into the tenuous present in a blaze of recognition, even if it is only why did I do this?
Turning from my promontory, I hesitantly inched my way across the slippery shrub grass, clutching at the clumps and digging my feet into the spare patches of dirt. It took longer than the way over, and I did not look like a Ranger or a wise philosopher (who I assume float). I looked like an idiot. It doesn’t help that half of the hiking trails in New Zealand cut through farmland, where you can encounter anything from a cow to a sheep and pretty much nothing in between.
They make paths that look tempting and stable until you realize they are nothing but a rather ramshackle collection of volatile turnings and slippery mud washouts. I clung to grass tussocks, dug my feet in, and with a final step, I was safely back on the correct path. Seeing that the rest of the way up the peak was blocked with snow, I decided to trudge down the long descent to my car (which, by the way, is for sale and comes with a free TV).
Not far from the outlook, I came to a stream cutting across my path, part of the spring runoff from the tops of the mountains. I lined up my course and hesitantly judged the distance. My record with anything involving water in New Zealand and crossing it has been, in so many words, depressingly awful.
Shrugging off my doubts, I bolstered my courage and made a blitzing dash over the gurgling stream. It was a great effort—an effort fit for minor deities mind you—but my foot caught on the other bank. My left hand reached out to arrest my fall and initiated its foundation in a foul, reeking mess of cow shit.
I quickly struggled to my feet and looked aghast at my hand and forearm, covered in fetid black ooze. As I did, my gaze turned again to the view, still as majestic and inspiring as ever. The wind buffeted my hair, sounding its siren whisper.
Not now damn it.
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/