Queenstown, New Zealand—
I am sitting on a strip of grass with Ward, Paulina, Wiebke, and a few others. Scraps of wrapping from the locally famous burger joint Fergburger are stowed in a pile and compressed into a wad so the breeze off nearby Lake Wakatipu doesn’t take the paper a-tumbling. Paulina takes out her phone to show videos.
I’d met Paulina and Wiebke a few hours earlier through Ward, a mutual acquaintance, although I’d seen both before. We had passed each other at Nelson’s bus stop going to the Heaphy and then again on the track going opposite directions. I remember Wiebke especially because she has a school child’s serene yet precocious face. I had to ask her, “How did someone who looks so wholesome come to get such a prominent nose ring?” Paulina has a similar young and eager face, always reacting like it’s the recipient of a wonderful piece of knowledge.
The first video Paulina shows is of Ward standing ankle deep in rushing water while advising hikers behind him of sturdy stones. Ward is eighteen, rambunctious, and infectiously likable. He is on exchange from southern Holland to play field hockey. We met at the Nelson bus stop, crossed paths on the Heaphy, and ran into each other in a hostel in Westport. He makes a typical athletic figure with washed hair that puffs like a soufflé when he removes his Duff Beer cap. Universally recognized as handsome, he has what can now be called an international reputation for being a ladies’ man. When Paulina was in Dunedin, she by chance met a couple from Ward’s home town. The wife taught Ward’s younger brother, and neither she nor her husband had met Ward but were able to describe him as a bit of a trophy for the young women at home. Ward doesn’t have the bravado to admit or bask in this. He smiles and tries to mutter off the characterization. I suspect though that the occasional rings from his cell phone come from one of the many love interests he’s cultivating. I doubt he’ll return to the Netherlands and settle with any of them. When we discuss relationships later in a bar, he yells out to an empty space as if it’s inhabited by the phantom of the girl whom he broke up with at 18: “Woman, you stole my youth!”
Paulina swipes to a video of a smiling Wiebke hefting her bag farther up her back and treading through coffee brown water. “This is insane,” someone says.
When I’d seen Ward on the Heaphy it was after our second night. I was wet and furious. My clothes stank of wet wool, and I had nothing warm in my stomach. My fingers were furrowed and tipped with the thalassic white of excess water exposure. Ward sat under a hut awning prepping tea and eating oats. He’d slept inside on the floor of the DOC hut.
I couldn’t control myself. “Fuck this rain,” I said.
He was more chipper, “We’ve had some sun. Today will be better we hope.”
The night before and that morning I’d had no satisfactory way to pass time except write in my journal far past the point of enjoyment. I wrote:
On the Heaphy. On a wood platform for tents. Been raining all day. Water is starting to come up from the bottom of my tent since it never had a chance to dry yesterday. Forecasted to rain all tomorrow with thunder as well. Did 21km today. Right foot going to fall off. Have 25km tomorrow with one hut on the way, so will do what I can to dry…I think this may be more glorious in the re-telling, but at the moment, if I am being honest with myself, I do not enjoy multi-day trips hiking long distances and living out of a backpack.
“Maybe it is always like this,” Ward says, “That you always don’t like doing it at the moment, but you are glad to have done it.” That was true. The Heaphy—wet, long, miserable—was euphoric, and the seedling for that euphoria sprouted years earlier without my knowing in Midtown Manhattan.
New York, New York—
We wanted to know what they did in life, those people who were outside on weekdays. They were high on our list of fascinations. Middle aged women sipping rosé from vat glasses on Remi’s front patio on 53rd Street at 2 pm on a Tuesday. We saw them while we were out hustling to grab a fast bite—chopped salad, to-go wrap, hot food buffet, whatever was quickest just so long as it was something—because we’d neglected lunch: a conference call might have gone over, a partner rang us while we tried to quick-step out at noon, or we’d just plain forgotten. We wanted to know about the middle age women and we wanted to know about the people in Central Park. There was just a colorful mass of them on their blankets, all spread out across Sheep Meadow like so many spilled jelly beans. We sometimes stood at our office windows looking at them. We were on the 47th floor facing north, so we overlooked the remaining eight blocks of midtown. Clear days allowed a complete viewing of the tetris building rise beyond Central Park: Yonkers, the Bronx, Washington Heights, all in a kaleidoscopic blue with a mess of gray and tabby buildings in the basin. And when storms came in from the north we could watch their evolutions. They lurched gray over the park, broad ribbons of rain tied off the distance from view, and underneath the city wouldn’t even move, it was just muted temporarily, the sounds went into a wet receivership.
What do they do? The people in Central Park snacked and picnicked. The women sipped. Their present situations were obvious, but that told us nothing of where they came from and where they were going to. One of my co-workers would get particularly indignant over this. She’d come to my office with an exasperated huff poised and ready in her voice, and it (her voice) would get higher when she talked, each word like the last word in a question, “What the hell do these people do? Why aren’t they working? They can’t all be on their weekends, can they? They can’t all be tourists.” Then she settled her voice down. If I’m being dramatic about this story I’d say she turned somber. “I want to be them,” she said, “I want to go up to them and say ‘take me with you.’” Then this co-worker would turn and leave my office.
These conversations stemmed from the well of existential angst that the privileged have in excess, and for me they also came from an entirely physical craving for movement.
One unadvertised aspect of office work is the constant sitting. There is no training for it, and the combat against it is only in alleviating or ameliorating its ill health symptoms. I had to take short walks. Usually inside. I memorized the modern art work on the beige walls of our law firm and have imprinted when I close my eyes the gray tuft carpet that had a geometric design on it that was likely ripped from an 80s necktie pattern. Two hundred steps at a time combated the chronic lethargy that sitting brought, and on some occasions I’d walk outside when it was still daylight. The people outside represented the idea that having an unfilled day was possible. That I could take an hour or two jaunt or wake up in the morning and look at a day and its component parts and fill them with special possibility. In my and my coworker’s minds the people had the kind of diurnal freedom that working people lust for and job searchers are terrified of.
At my first firm I MacGyvered a fix for the sitting situation. One day with sore back and weighted legs I descended to office services and asked what banker boxes they had left over that I could permanently acquisition. On the stair walk up I toted three and stacked these on one side of my u-shaped desk and used them as a cardboard kind of podium on which I read and edited documents. My second firm had a long shelf that was above my hip level so I could lean, ass sticking out to the hallway, and edit documents. The downside was that it was across the hall from my office on the other side of a row of secretary desks, and my mere presence I could tell rankled the furtiveness of the secretarial sorority. They assumed I cared enough to prevent their games of bejeweled and their FB chats, each of which I saw minimized into desktop tool bars the moment I crossed their desk row’s threshold.
Until my preference for standing came to be taken more or less for granted, it attracted a fair amount of ridicule. My response each time was, “Sitting is going to be the next smoking, you’ll see, you’ll be sorry.” With one exception, I seemed to be the only one bothered with such long periods of sitting. Seven, eight, up to twenty four hours a day in some cases. The one was a co-worker who’d message me a daily, epithetic lament: “So. Much. Sitting.” Everyone else could sit long and without complaint in their sitting styles, working at their computers with unique flourish: Cameron slouched so low that his body slid under his desk in a way that made his chin actually rest on his chest and put his eyes on level with the keyboard; Bob hunkered over his keys and tapped them like they were on a type writer—he was larger than the chair, he not sitting on it, but it resting under him; Justine sat upright with shoulders parallel to the wall in front of her so she had to turn her head slightly to face the angled screen that she had offset to her right—her fingers didn’t prance across the keyboard but banged on them, her internal turmoil evident on her finger tips; Sarah was always in a C form, usually with one hand flat on her face like in a constant act of self-solace, her face in turn either one of exasperation or confusion; Michael sat to one side of his chair, his petite body languid in its repose, fingers dusting the keyboard.
Despite my attempts I couldn’t stand to work for as long as I wanted because law, despite its associations with paper and leather bound books, is a profession that depends on constant computer use. I would even liken the physical practice of law to playing the shittiest computer game ever developed. I was constantly clicking. Always dragging and dropping, utilizing short cut keys to file emails, chatting with multi-player teammates, opening browser windows and closing them, waiting for documents to render open, cursing shitty ping, etc. Of course each legal practice is different, and everyone’s days are lived differently, but this is my own story, so it is of my own story that I will speak.
My computer driven days were the result of my being a transactional attorney. Law firms herd their associates into one of two legal areas at the beginning of their careers: transactional and litigation. Like so many broad designations these belie the nuances particular to the many species of lawyer that practice under each category. For our purposes it is enough to explain the difference by saying transactional attorneys handle matters that fall outside a courtroom, i.e. transactions. Corporate compliance, real estate purchases, the pitiable people who write the fine print for iTunes updates, these are transactional attorneys. They spend their time behind desks working towards a tangible and satisfactory end to a project. Litigation attorneys spend their time behind desks and, on some supremely rare occasions, will go to court (sometimes on behalf of a client). Litigation’s natural conflict is what makes the litigator the lawyer of the public’s imagination and the court room law’s most fertile ground for drama. The Karate Kid’s cousin Vinny was a litigator. Atticus Finch was a litigator. I cannot say that I know off the top of my head a fictional transactional attorney who holds either an esteemed or reviled place in the American pantheon.
Now what type of transactional attorney I was is important here, and the exact phraseology is one that underwent many revisions among coworkers and myself because our official title, “Associate in the Global Transportation Finance Group” was a bunch of corporate fluff. We came up with titles for when we wanted to be dismissive of our job (“Transactional attorney”), haughty about it (“International finance attorney who represents governments and multi-national banks in the aviation sector”), or suave for the hottie at the bar (“Buyer and seller of airplanes”). It was a mix of all the above with various additions and subtractions of truth. We did represent governments and multi-national banks. We did represent clients who bought and sold airplanes or who lent money to those who did. Hotties mostly turned away from us. The work was sometimes Wall Street Journal stuff, and not-at-all-interesting journalists did drop business cards in our pockets at annual conferences, and, once, after completing a deal securing the purchase of a new Boeing for a client, a partner dropped a magazine on my desk where the magazine cover was a picture of a plane belonging to a well known European carrier that the partner had overlaid with a post-it, “Our plane!” But the word I am going to put a sustaining emphasis on is “international.”
My law school alma mater had included, with my permission, my name and contact information in its alumni database should any law students wish to reach out to network or learn about my practice. They’d email me and I’d suggest a time when they could call. On one second of either side of our scheduled time my phone would ring. Invariably during the call the student would volunteer how much they liked international law. “Oh really,” I’d say, “What aspects of it?”
“That it is so open,” they’d struggle out, “How there is really no such thing as international law.”
This is the customary line professors deliver, and, to an extent, it is true, except as it applies to the aviation world. I do not tell them this. The phone call is not a classroom for me to explain the existence and requirements of the Cape Town Convention on International Interests in Mobile Equipment, because in my mind the law is what they will learn when they begin working and everything they say vis-à-vis the actual practice of the law at this point is a dumb re-hash of the very wrong lessons they learned from professors who might never have seen the inside of a law firm in their lives. I do not blame the students for this. I was the same. The partners who hired me were the same too I reckon. The law students couldn’t know yet, but what they could know, what I wanted them to realize or at least think about is what affect an international legal practice might have on them. I don’t mean affect them in a political, intellectual, or existential sense; I mean I wanted them to think about what logistical realities they’d have to adapt to in order to practice international law. “Do you happen to know what time it is in Seoul?” I ask. There is an “uh” and then quiet. They cannot get to Google fast enough.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s 2 pm in New York so that means it’s 3 am in Seoul.”
“Oh,” they say.
I’m unsure whether they register the point. “If you’re working on a deal with an attorney in Shanghai who wants a 10 am time conference call, that means you’ll have to interrupt your night at 10 pm Or, what happened to an associate here last week, his closing required that money from Singapore be wired by 2 pm SGT, or 2 am EST. But there was a problem with the wire so it didn’t go through, and when the wiring-window closed this guy had to do it again the next night.” I fear I’m pushing them away. “All I’m saying,” being placative now, “Is that international work has additional considerations that people don’t think of.”
“Thank you very much, that is a very good point.” I would imagine that the note pad they inevitably would have in front of them has a few lines and now a circle being drawn around the scribbled note “international law—many time zones.”
The affect of working in a practice that spans the globe is an obvious one, one so obvious it’s easy to overlook, and that is I was always connected to a deal that was active somewhere in the world. An active deal meant near constant email traffic. To me 3 am EST to 1 pm EST meant England was online. 2 am EST to 11 am EST meant that the French attorneys who’d finally used up their months of vacation time would respond to one of my document requests, and was the time South Africa started up. 1 am EST, Azberbaijan. 9 pm EST, Shangai. 8 pm EST, South Korea. So it goes. Emails without cease, beginning before the Earth could rotate that portion of the globe into the sun’s path. The time before emailing existed is impossible to picture because it’s a time that’s impossible to experience now. Elder attorneys tell these stories with a “Can ya believe it!” exuberance. Picture this, they say to me, coming in each morning and reading the newspaper and actually not being able to work until the first mail drop comes in and then working until the final mail pick up comes. The closest I got to this was on those rare quarterly dates when IT shut down email for maintenance in the middle of the night. I’d want to log in just to see the radial wait symbol render and an error screen pop up.
The constant connectivity altered how I perceived and lived each day. What senses I used to feel the body I inhabited and experience what was in front of me diminished. My world was computer screens and the requests and entertainments put on them.
I think this is the case where to show how I perceived and lived each day it’s best to present part of a day anecdotally, you understanding that what I’m describing is just an amalgamation of real incidents that I’ve cherry picked from across weeks:
My alarm is always set to go off at 8 am EST. The alarm sound is the “George Valentin” track from the motion picture The Artist. It had been Mickey Avalon’s “Jane Fonda,” but after months of waking up to a keyboard instrument and a drug frayed voice speak-singing, I had a baby named Jane she should shake that thing…I determined maturity demanded a switch. Despite my alarm I am awake daily at 5:30 am EST and lie in bed and listen to traffic fill the cross-town street. I browse Reddit and text chit chat with my friend Cassie who lives in D.C. and who is invariably on her way to work or is still at work or is in bed up early doing the same kind of fretting about work that I’m doing, so we discuss work and the impossibility/total lack of interest to date anyone while holding down a law job. I listen to music in phases that last about a week: Bob Dylan, the Pogues, Charles Bradley, Wu-Tang, Ella, et. al. The entirety of genres really. Or I get fixated on a song. Tove-Lo’s “Stay High (Hippie Sabotage Remix)” was a multiple week number one song contender during my pop week, and then I discovered this brilliant nostalgia throw-back, a YouTube edit of Blink-182’s “I Miss You” that was just Tom DeLonge’s solo on a 10-hour loop. I also use mornings to put into temporary effect the midnight promises for self-betterment that have a shelf life about as long as a tub of home-made mayonnaise put out at a St. Louis summer BBQ. This means pulling the Merriam-Webster Dictionary I keep bedside, choosing five words, writing their definitions, and then working them into a sentence, or pulling the MW Usage Dictionary, also bedside, and reading five entires. What my routine is building to—musters—is the ability to open the mail app on my phone. When IT set up my work IMAP email account I immediately changed the settings so the app wouldn’t automatically pull emails from the firm server. I need to open the app to see what emails I’d received, so each morning I face a very real, very strong feeling of dread. The dread is heightened when a deal is approaching its culmination point because there’s a chance a partner will have sent an urgent, late night email after I’ve gone to sleep requesting I send ASAP a particular document or provide him with a piece of information, and after thirty minutes of no-response from me he would have either decided to complete the request himself and be mum about it/say, “Never mind,” via email or he’d leave the task for me but send another email—I guess I would call this a benevolent email—that says, “Don’t worry, you can get to this first thing in the morning.” (Benevolent though strikes me as the incorrect word because the situation I’m trying to describe is one where a person of power grants what is meant to be a charitable allowance, but what gives the allowance its charitable feel is the fact that the grantor has outsized influence and power over the grantee, so the allowance is charitable only in the sense that it is, by comparison to all the grantor’s other acts, more gracious and more benevolent; e.g. an extreme example, to which you should not draw an equal parallel to the above email example, a dictator is not being ‘charitable’ or ‘benevolent’ when agreeing to distribute bread to combat a famine that is the result of the dictator’s narrow minded and self-enriching agricultural policies that unduly burdens lower classes.) The dread also comes from knowing the sheer volume of emails that are possible. 30 is the average. 60+ is a day ruiner because as the young associate representing the lender, it’s my job to prepare the majority of the documentation and certify that the closing processes are in place to run smoothly, and this means that the majority of emails require some action or response from me. I open the mail app, and the way it works is that at the bottom of my inbox a line says “Updated at [Time].” When the app connects to the server, the line changes to “Checking for Mail.” While this happens my heart is at a higher than resting 90 bpm until the line changes to “Downloading [Number] of [Number].” My heart doesn’t only have a bpm tick up but also treats my lungs like a boxing speed bag, especially when the second bracketed number is ungodly high. My mind scans the emails in order to perform triage as to which to respond to first (those from a partner, ones that the client sent to me where the partner was cc’ed, and ones requesting time sensitive information take top priority). I get up to respond and put the laptop on my coffee table. It’s before 6:30 am EST and my billing clock is recording seconds. (There was a short-running joke that I was one of the firm’s more dedicated employees due to the ungodly early hour (for lawyers) that I’d begin responding to emails. The substance rarely went above “will do,” a fact that the group leader picked up on and shared over Coors Lights. He openly questioned whether I was the one responding or whether I’d programmed a bot to send off my replies.) The period of shower, breakfast, walk to the NRQ at Madison Square Park, N or R ride to 49th, elevator wait/ride, good morning I know only X number of days till Friday or good morning thank god it’s Friday is an interlude between emails, which I pick up again on a new screen in a new setting, a rectangular one since this is New York and everything seems to be a rectangle. Those buildings that are not rectangular are architectural landmarks noted indirectly for being not very rectangular or for using rectangles in a grandiose, imposing way, a way that rectangles have not been used in before. There is Times Square, Madison Square Park, Empire State Building, Central Park. My office is a rectangle and it in turn is made up of many other rectangles and those rectangles have components that are other rectangles. My rectangular doorframe has three long rubber borders that are long rectangles. There are three rectangular bronze hinges screwed into the wall and there is a wood matted, rectangular door on which grain pattern chevrons that lack any woodsy feel are pointing up. The door handle, not rectangular, is the shape of a comma and the handle is smoothly buffed so that the bronze enamel is a lighter amber than the color of its base, which still shines with the factory’s patina. I sit at my desk, which is comprised of two rectangular pieces met in a 90 degree angle, and log onto my computer, which has two rectangular screens. Once booted, I begin the email marathon, which is a non-stop parade of inbound requests. Answering them is an electronic whack-a-mole. Example 1: Last night I’d put documents on a partner’s desk. “Reviewing these now,” he responds to the email I sent him. My subject: “[Deal Name] – Financing Documents”; the email body: “The full set of deal documents is on your desk. Let me know when you’ve had a chance to review and would like to discuss.” He emails me five times in three minutes: (1) What does the indemnity clause in the inter creditor agreement say?; (2) Didn’t our client reject this change last week?; (3) Is there a clawback provision in the Participation Agreement?; (4) Reader, you get the point; (5) Id. Answering 1 and 3 requires me to open documents that the partner not only has access to, but physically has on the desk in front of his face, and do a Ctrl-F or table of contents search. Each request takes 3-5 minutes to complete. For question 2 I search my email inbox and find the email that shows the client only asked a question with regards to the point. I attach this email to the partner’s email and hit send. Example 2: A client emails, “Have we had sight of the insurance certificates?” I search my deal folder. I find the email I sent to him a week earlier that has the insurance certificates; I attach this email to his veiled email request and hit send. The illustrative purpose of Examples 1&2 is that higher ups have utilized email as an outsourcing option for questions they could easily answer for themselves in far less time than it does for me to read their email, find the answer, draft a coherent and understandable response, send, and then for them to read. They just don’t want to because the ease with which they can push their requests down is slightly easier than completing the task themselves. What my attitude is about this doesn’t matter because regardless the email interruptions will happen and I will have to respond to them. They distract me from the long-term tasks that need to be settled into and require a degree of acclimation to satisfactorily complete. The requests switch me over into a sprint mode. I burrow into an electronic tunnel as I click my way through files to find an answer. The requests take as little as three minutes to complete, but there are multiple requests each hour. Five or ten even. After each request I need to spend a minimum of one minute re-acquainting myself with whatever I’d been working on before. In a random one hour period I may spend 30 minutes responding to email requests and 10 minutes re-focusing. From when I wake up until 6 pm EST (when U.S. business day emails taper), I struggle to find blocks of time when I can engage in real work—a.k.a. pushing ahead on deal progress. On certain weeks that 6 pm respite doesn’t come until Friday. So each day I work for hours past the business day, inevitably into dark, and punt what work remains over into the next day. In this way work accumulates. My habit is to watch the sun go down past New Jersey (again, like standing, people find this comical, so it always draws comments) and then order dinner and eat in my office with the door closed and work without interruption. The sense I lean most heavy on here is sight. The office space itself only requires sight to know its characteristics. The office environment is so benign that it offends me out of its pure neutrality: the light is a twitching florescence; the windows hold the unfettered world beyond in a sound and odorless panoramic; the computer monitors are a placative blue; and even the Times New Roman font required in law firms is made to polarize nothing.
At this point, you as reader likely feel as I do, a bit bored with the tediousness of the tone and quality of the above writing as well as with the profusion of immaterial facts and anecdotes, and you are perhaps wondering why I could not have gone back to the beginning of the above paragraph, highlighted it, pressed delete, and then substituted the dull minutiae with macro-observations that are easy to appreciate and relate to: “I received a lot of emails,” “I worked late,” “I didn’t interact much with the world outside.” Fair. I have not yet mastered the mechanics of making narrative entertainment out of a day that is boring while at the same time being terrifying and sensorily holocaustic. What I was hoping to accomplish, I’ll just tell you, is that maybe the paragraph would be a composition that could lull you into a dull complacency similar to what I felt each day, and act as a juxtaposition to the sensory jolts in the next section for which you’re unprepared or unwilling to read so deep is your stupor. The purpose is for you to think, Why am I bothering to read this. I felt this way up until I left the office each day and, it’s maddeningly dramatic to say this, for a long time I could not pin down how I actually felt after work days until I realized I didn’t feel much of anything. I was too exhausted and within the tunneling electronic labyrinths I’d constructed at work to feel involved with the world I stepped into on 51st street. I saw and recognized it the way one might see a movie scene, but be unable to touch what was in it or be enraptured with its characteristics. The cars, streets, buildings, and people were tangible, the air, especially in the summer, felt like melted wax I’d slipped into and treaded through. Sounds were all of a sudden amplified; distant ones like sirens that were so loud people around me put their fingers in their ears drums to mute mixed with quieter, nearer ones, like the sound of newspapers pushed curbside being stomped. I assume. Those descriptions came from other days when I was not leaving the office. On my way home I sometimes stopped at the Globe, which was a bar popular with the after work crowd. The ones still there when I arrived were happy hour inebriates; the drink and dash crowd were gone. The people were exuberant, and I didn’t know how to handle their vitality so I stood at a space at the end of the bar and ordered a Stoli with ice and two squeezes of lemon and sipped this until all the liquid was gone and I’d eaten the ice. I’d leave the lemon rind behind and pay my bill and get out. I went home and vegged and this was pretty much it, every day for a few years until I felt my senses atrophy to a point I thought no longer compatible with how I wanted to live. There were many more factors: a confluence of external events, internal pressures, and a lining up of elements gave me the push I needed to leave, but what was in my mind when I stepped onto the Gouland Downs on the Heaphy Track were these days.
Heaphy Track, New Zealand—
The Heaphy Track was like something primeval.
The trail the first day was cut along the Tasman Sea’s edge and mostly went through palm forest. The trees were nikua palms. They were abundant, and their fronds sprouted from their tops like flak bursts. Most often they formed a dense, rigid line that was an obvious demarcation between beach and forest, but occasionally they extended to the beach sand in loosely scattered groves. Off my left shoulder was surf that receded fast down a steep beach slope. The rush made giant rip currents that were lace highways leading to sea. I’d heard rumors that a German girl had paddled near the shore to cool off but the tide swept her out and no search party could find her body.
The sea had risen high over the trail in many sections. These places were marked off with red warning signs that recommended not loitering too long since the sea’s recession had left denuded hills and these threatened shedding more debris downwards. Giant rocks had been pilfered from centuries lodging places and tree roots were exposed and ripped apart. The combination of these grandiose destructions made passing the sections a fast and weary experience.
Other than dodging these obstacles the track was flat and easy. The air was tepid; clouds were loosely clotted cotton balls that compressed throughout the day until their undersides squirmed with the precursor to rain. Light drops were floating down by the time I arrived at the campsite in early evening.
The campsite was a north facing grass field with an undulation that would take a rolling stone to the shore of a fresh water river. It came out of a notch of highland and met in a sling-shot of space with the brackish water, and the meeting place was a conflagration of foam. Backpackers stood on the shore to watch the brown water trough and roll over with its brackish cousin. The river was above normal height. Rapids formed in its center and carried loose branches and the broken remains of trees that high-elevation rains had either swept from the forest floor or claimed from the failing river bank’s sides. Other trees that been carried by numerous, earlier storms lay densely scattered on the soft pan of sand and rock that made the river margin. These trees were bleached white by sun, their barks were smoothly polished by water and wind. They were massive, and along with the various smaller branches, had washed up in odd contorted fashion so from afar they could be mistaken for the shattered bones of whales.
I set up my tent. My dining company was two Kiwi girls who were sodden but in high spirits because the next day would come with the promise of chocolate bars and hot showers. It was their last night. The trail looked like it’d physically defeated them. The Heaphy Track is the longest Great Walk, and each of its 78.5 kilometers were blistered on the girls’ feet. One removed her boots and damp wool socks. Silver dollar rounds of pink skin oozed and bled while she tried to patch the flaps of skin that hung from them. “Every step was a nightmare,” she said.
The sun retired late. Because of clouds we had no dramatic sunset, just a fade from gray to crepuscular light until the surroundings were no more than shades of dark blue. Wekas, flightless birds the size of large chickens with raptor movements, wove into the campsite and poked our bags, threatening to tear into them for food stuffs. Shooing the wekas away was our side activity. We talked until we could not make out each other’s faces and sandflies swarmed us more heavily since the wind had died. I went to my tent, and with the illumination of my torch saw that a dozen sandflies had followed me. I slept in long pants and long sleeves, but even with these coverings and with my exposed skin rubbed with deet, my feet were banquet tables for the nuisances. Not until they bore in your skin do you notice that they’ve landed on you. If they manage to bite without detection then you may look down and see the fruit of their pincer: blood hardened into a crimson bead. The itch is awful. Maoris claim that spitting on the bitten area moments after contact tempers the after effects. I question this. I think they want to spread this rumor so they can watch bus loads of white people spitting on themselves.
Rain was falling when I woke. The DOC warden reported multiple days of heavy rain. The densest would be in two days.
I packed up and set off. Regardless of weather or what happened the night before or how badly my body aches on waking, the first hour of hiking is thrilling. Whatever mood I am in changes to joy when I tighten my pack’s final arm strap and hear the twang of my walking sticks on the path. With my first step comes the first line to Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” and I sing through three more lines before my knowledge of the song is exhausted. Hiking makes for great therapy since the more the body moves the less the mind does. It’s clarifying and mediative because nature provides the views and terrain for mental and physical atonement. Hiking an entire day makes me learn what gears my body has, and hiking for multiple days makes me realize that every muscle and piece of clothing has a feel that can assert itself. Every day is a new feeling. There is no limit to them, so I’m envious of the people who trek months and can become calibrated with nearly every ounce of muscle and bone they have in them. And once I accustom myself to the aches that arise, my mind becomes fertile province for day dreaming. And when that, too, exhausts itself, there is nothing to me except moving and concentrated breathing.
Three hours into day two and the landscape had changed entirely. I’d heard this about the Heaphy—that no two days were alike. During the first few hours I walk through a forest with a dense canopy. There were large tree trunks, the largest belonged to pohutukawa trees, a protected species of evergreen that produces, in addition to its green foliage, clusters of brilliant cranberry red flowers that cover the entirety of the tree’s top so that from afar it looks as if it’d been made into a candy apple. The flower bloom occurs in summer, and I was hiking the Heaphy shortly after summer’s peak. When I began a mountain ascent and looked back at the forest I’d walked through, the tops of the pohutukawas were bold crimson balloons that towered above surrounding trees.
Making it to the mountain that I would spend the rest of the day climbing required that I cross multiple suspension bridges. One was no more than mesh metal held together with thick cable wiring, and on one bridge I watched as a torrent of water made a tree on the river bank tip its mast into the water and then get swept away.
The uphill hike put a valley to my right apparently, but there was such a dense plug of fog that I could see no more than twenty meters in that direction. I had to rest frequently as the ascent was constant, rocky, and I had no way of knowing how much farther to the campsite, so the waiting seemed excessively long. The Great Walks have no markers on them except 1km on either side of a hut, so I had nothing to meter my progress except the steady reduction in the heights of trees.
It had not stopped raining, and once the forest canopy opened I got right wet. The water found open channels in my neckline and made a failure of my waterproofing. By the time I arrived at the campsite I was near soaked through. The DOC hut was open, and a conspicuous sign guarding its front said that the hut and its facilities were only for hikers who’d paid hut fees, no campers were allowed. I open and notoriously disregarded this. It was around three in the afternoon, and the idea of spending the next six hours wet in a tent battling lassitude and boredom was perhaps worse than the reality would be. I wasn’t willing to test the theory though.
I stripped my wet clothes and changed into what dry ones I still had. For three hours I sat in a hut corner reading and eating my ration of chocolate bars. There were warm and dry goings on between family members and other hikers who’d arrived earlier from the opposite direction. Each person who came in was similarly licked by rain, and soon the floor and the pegged wall around the hot iron stove was choked, every centimeter occupied with flocculent socks and dripping merinos. The hut smelled of feet and tea and clothing, and the wood floors and steel wall sidings reverberated with the sound of happy and relieved chatter and running children. Rain and fog outside rushed at the hut windows.
The break was restful. Three hours with no rain on my head was respite enough to be able to go outside and set up my tent. The campsite was a collection of wood platforms the DOC had built upon stilts since the ground was too rocky and bushy to make a comfortable go of tent sleeping. My luck had turned so by this point the rain was a drizzle, allowing me to set up my tent without soaking myself. At night though the weather was unsteady. The wind was a set of hands that italicized my tent. When I looked outside at the pitch dark with my torch turned to a spot, the rain was a blur of multi-direction static. Most of the night was spent waking up and wiping with quick dry towels the space under my sleeping pad since my weight on it let the water under the tent filter through the tent pores.
By dawn the sky looked like gray ash soap, and there was no showing that the clouds had let loose all they had.
I collapsed my tent and packed my belongings. This is when I ran into Ward. He admired that I’d slept on the platform instead of the hut floor. He said no warden had come to see his papers.
As always, despite body and mood being wet and groggy, my disposition changed the moment I began walking. I was going in the opposite direction from the people in the hut, so for the next few hours I knew I’d have the track to myself.
The next few kilometers would excite my imagination like no other stretch did on the Great Walks. Fog was slathered on either side, and the trail was vibrant from the rain. A freshet ran in a gully in the track center, and two strips of verdurous clover bordered the trail edge. When I looked out the fog veil hid open grassy spaces, but in these spaces were the silhouettes of large shapes. They were trees, certainly, but in the empty solitude, and with tricks of light, I imagined that minute eyes were fused in them and to either side were massive, sciatic shadows too large to be paired with the eyes, and as I walked these forms seemed to slink into the mist like they were beasts whose sizes would allow them to fear no one yet they feared men. The Earth itself was a ghost. It was granular white and hid the knotted knuckles of red trees and the looming pierce of rocky ledges. There was a tree whose branches in the glooming looked like the severed heads of bearded men with tails of hair pulled in the back.
These imaginings risked detracting from the beautiful reality. As I carried on farther the trail sides became festooned with cinnamon moss and pearl, pin-wheel flowers. These plants smelled thick of herbs and bore the imprint of my finger’s lightest touch after I raised it. At times the ground on one side of the trail rose in a slight ledge. Water drained from over this ledge or else trickled from out the ledge’s porous rock side and filtered through moss and poured into the channels that had been formed by spades onto the shoulders of the trail. The more I walked the more everything became covered with a green moss. It was as if the green had metastasized from a single pore and every life form that paused in that place risked being covered. It seemed that nothing new grew and what had been there was preserved in this soggy enamel.
I was still at a high altitude, but the trail quickly descended through forest. At the other end was a plain of tussocks and bunch grasses that had low and isolated hills rising here and there. Where rivers crossed at a distance I couldn’t tell except by seeing the top poles to high bridges.
Before I’d emerged from the forest the heavy rain that the DOC warden had forecasted came. My trekking bag was protected as best as it could be underneath an orange rain cover, but I was saturated. Flood water had annexed the foot path. A brook ran in the center, so I chose to walk on the sides instead of through the ankle high water. The next hut was near, I passed the 1km and ran the rest of the distance. I was the only person to start out, so I stripped except for underwear and hung my clothes. I did what I could to drip dry my tent and sleeping bag, both of which were wet from the night before. I shivered while heating water for tea, and I ate lukewarm noodles as other hikers began to arrive from the other direction. Men and women stripped to their skivvies and wrapped themselves with whatever dry apparel they had. All the clothes we hung on a spiderweb of ropes that crossed the narrow part of the hut’s interior. It was a small hut though, one room, and the puddle underneath our clothes grew so large that it developed a slight current that went in the direction of the floor’s downward grade. We mopped the water and wrung out our clothes the best we could and left them outside.
The talk was of weather. The rain would not abate until evening, if at all, or so we had been told. The people were concerned about the trail conditions from where I’d come. The trail literature they’d read cautioned it was likely to become impassable during heavy rain. I said I passed without incident but that the level was rising at a clip that the eye could see. They said I’d have multiple river crossings. Each was above ankle height, but one came up to their waists. “Don’t take off anything,” a man said, “If you’re alone unbuckle everything you have so that if you lose your footing or the water takes you, you can slip right out. You don’t want to spend your last breaths fighting off gear that could be replaced cheaply in comparison with your life.”
We stayed in the hut for an hour. The roof was metal so it sounded like pennies clicking above us. When a squall came we had to raise our voices to hear one another. When we were thinking of leaving we stood in front of the windows or at the doorframe and watched the rain fall. We had to convince ourself to make the first step. We also had to dress again. We donned our clothes together and moaned while we did. The clothes had stayed cold and wet, and we goose pimpled up and shivered a bit once they were back on us. When that happened we had to start out to stay warm.
I left with the highest spirits I’d been in on the trail. I embraced the rain and tramped through the puddles. The entire trail was a muddle of pathway, rock, and flooding, but I felt absolute joy fording through washes that had water going so fast through them that I couldn’t see through the two feet of murk to the bottom. Bush thickets covered the view of the landscape for a kilometer or so after the hut, but when they ended I came out into the Gouland Downs.
Gouland Downs was wide open grassland with distant mountains that were barriers to entry. All the plants were beset with rust coloring. The most common were pom-pom tussocks that were being toiled by the wind. Wind streaks were visible in them like how a draped blanket shows what’s underneath, and there were thousands of tussocks bunched together, so when they moved the landscape teemed. The space between ground and cloud was moving too. The clouds were high and light, which allowed for near total visibility from where I stood to the distant ranges, and what I saw was rain coming down as clear as legions marching across a plain. The rain was warm and freckled the puddles in the ground with walloping pats. The wind gripped and tried turning my bag. I yelled out. I felt like I’d been tossed into a competition to withstand the elements. My senses were bent to their full heights until I saw another hiker, alone, walking towards me. Her face was in ecstasy. Eyes open as if pulled and held there but still blinking off the rain that sprinkled them. “This is amazing,” she yelled. I couldn’t do anything but laugh. My senses were too consumed to do anything but.