I n the fall of 2004 I took a writing class at the University of Colorado. It was my first year at the university, having graduated the previous spring from a high school in rural Colorado. My instructor, Charles, was middle-aged poet who wore an opal ring set in yellow gold and carried a briefcase with a sticker labeled “Keep Boulder Weird.”
I was inspired most by the one he told that winter’s night – the one of his own hero’s journey in New Zealand where he trekked up volcanoes with nothing more to eat than a sliver of pineapple and a piece of dark chocolate.
The course was a freshman introduction to writing and rhetoric, but I remember it less for the academic lessons and more for the stories. Interspersed between lectures on composition structure and logical-fallacies, Charles would delight us with tales of his travel experiences, the students captivated and grinning.
In masterfully theatrical language, he told us about when he learned to make camembert cheese in Normandy by stirring cow’s milk with a splintered wooden spoon. He dazzled us with accounts of his adventures in the dusty Sahel, and when we heard that he swam with sharks in the warm waters off New Guinea’s Louisiade Archipelago, we bit our nails in fear.
Since most of us had never traveled outside of the United States, these intermittent diversions from the drudgery of schoolwork were highly anticipated and warmly welcomed. And after class, we’d all gather over coffee to talk about whether the narratives we heard were true.
In late December, when the semester was over and the grades were entered, Charles invited me over to his place for dinner. I had recently broken-up with a girlfriend of several years and wasn’t in the best of moods but agreed to meet anyway, thinking that it would be a nice change from my normal college routine.
Walking into his townhome I was swept away by enchanting music, tall oak bookcases packed with rare volumes, and exotic plants with long vines that snaked their way over doorways and across antique wooden masks brought in from West Africa. We chatted about cooking and my hometown while big snowflakes fell outside the kitchen window. At last the conversation turned to travel: “Have you ever traveled on your own?” he asked me, dishing up my plate with creamy pasta. When I responded sheepishly that that I hadn’t, he pulled a charcoal colored book with a warn-out spine from the top shelf. It was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Over frosty mugs of inky-black porter, we read about the hero’s journey and recited lines of Homer’s great adventure epics. We discussed at tremendous length the metaphor and symbolism of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. In each of these poems, Charles told me, a man leaves his home and world of safety to face his personal demons and take responsibility for his own life.
Of all the wonderful stories that I heard Charles tell, I was inspired most by the one he told that winter’s night – the one of his own hero’s journey in New Zealand where he trekked up volcanoes with nothing more to eat than a sliver of pineapple and a piece of dark chocolate. Intoxicated by his skillfully timed pitches and perfectly chosen words, my imagination followed him as he plowed through thick brambles and glided over deep snow and glaciers.
Refusing to let me off the hook with passive listening, however, he suddenly asked me when I was going to leave home. Stunned by the question, I answered defensively that I didn’t have much money and couldn’t possibly take time off school, especially during my first year. “It’s easy to find ourselves hemmed-in by our own hands,” he said with a slight smile, his eyes drifting toward The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
I met Charles the weekend after Christmas for a hike in the Colorado foothills. Setting out on what I thought was to be a leisurely mountain stroll, it was quickly apparent that he had other aspirations in mind. After we’d scrambled to the top of Boulder’s First Flatiron without safety ropes, terrified the whole time, he reminded me that most of the fears we have are our own; and that we tend to live our lives paralyzed and crippled by them.
Two weeks later I booked a flight to New Zealand.
Backpacking in New Zealand on The beach
I stayed a couple days in Auckland, and then traveled north by bus to embark on a backpacking trip along Ninety-Mile Beach. From there, I had planned to cross over onto Twilight Beach, an isolated and pristine cove just a short distance from the Cape Reinga lighthouse. When I purchased the food I thought I’d need from a convenient store an hours’ drive from the trail, the cashier-boy mentioned to me that it’s always bone-dry at the cape this time of year, and I’d be wise to bring along an extra canteen of water.
Thrashed on the first night out by a mighty Tasman storm that wouldn’t fade, I wished he had been right. Pools of cold liquid soaked my books, my clothes, and my food ration. Cocooned inside a damp sleeping bag, I scribbled drippy paragraphs on soggy diary pages until night became morning with no sun.
Cursing the hellish Tempest, I pumped drinking water from sandy craters and forced a box of cheddar crackers down my throat. I greeted the new day with a frown and a raised middle finger and began walking, just stumbling really, dragging my body along winding cliff trails and across raging creeks.
For several hours I slogged through rows of rain, until at last I felt a tingle of warmth in my chest when I caught glimpse through the fog of a lighthouse in the distance, the famous landmark that would mark the end of my journey. But when I glanced down at my map to get my bearings, however, it struck me that I was wrong; disoriented by the elements and by fatigue, I had made a critical navigation error. On an island a ways off the coast this lighthouse – what I later learned was Cape Maria van Diemen – represented a hope that was out of reach.
And then I thought of dying, of dying alone out here away from everybody else. I sat down with my back against a mossy rock, pulled out my knife from my purple backpack and started drawing little smiley faces with curly hair in the wet sand.
As a Black-Backed Gull dipped for fish in the murky sea, my nose full with the smell of iodine and salt, I moved to erect what was left of my tent and crawled inside. Protected from the weather but disheartened and emotionally shattered, I nibbled on some mustard sardines and spent the night reading by the flickers of a birthday candle I’d placed in an abalone shell, my breath rising like frosty cotton.
Then suddenly a blanket of yellow and tangerine light covered my shelter with an effulgent glow. The rain had stopped. The wind had calmed. It was a clear morning, and I was fine.
Cramming my tattered tent into the rucksack and hauling the thing onto my back, I marched onward – this time with a sense of good things to come. I saw blue sky, the first time in three days, and spotted a white lighthouse on the horizon. When I finally made it there I stripped off my plaid shirt and leather boots, slipped into a pair of flip-flops, and dropped onto my back with my belly towards the sun, thankful that my skin could finally dry.
Cape Reinga marks the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea, the northernmost tip of New Zealand’s North Island. In Maori mythology, it’s a mystical and hallowed place where spirits of the dead travel to begin their journey to the afterlife.
As I stared out at the ocean and watched the translucent bodies of saltwater collide, glad that I was safe, I heard the puttering sound of an old vehicle making its way up to me. Sam, an aging Maori man, had driven here from Christchurch. It was his first time on the North Island. His best friend and brother had recently past away, and he had come to track his spirit as it left Aotearoa.
“How ya going, mate?” he asked me in a thick southern accent, his hand reaching out to shake mine. We split a stale roast beef sandwich and talked until it was dark. When our discussion had ended, Sam reached into his coat pocket and produced a bag of loose tobacco. He took a little pinch from the sack, rolled a cigarette on the hood of his truck, and offered to give me a lift back into town.
In his rusty Toyota pickup, we cruised slowly along Ninety-Mile Beach while long pipes of waves crashed into the sand. Neither of us said a word. And then, after some time in silence, he began to whisper sounds I couldn’t understand. Soon the whispers turned to soft singing – a Maori prayer. Looking over at him I noticed tears falling from his eyes, and then they fell from mine, too.
He dropped me off at a hostel in Kaitaia, a quaint and sleepy town in subtropical Northland. After warming up with a shower and changing into fresh clothes, I was invited to a meal of New Zealand lamb, mashed potatoes, and wine with the hostel’s owners. Since I was their only guest for the evening, I rambled over dinner about my adventure on the beach and recounted the trying episodes of the past few days.
Before I went to sleep that night, full of nutritious food and in good spirits, I lay down in my bed and wrapped myself in woolen blankets. I thought about Charles and the poems we read. I recalled our conversations and the rock we climbed together. It was the end of my journey on the cape and the start of a trip that I’ll never forget.
Jason Barry traveled in New Zealand for several months, where he worked on Stevensons Island researching the Buff Weka with The Department of Conversation (DOC). He also picked kiwi fruit in the north island, pruned grape vines in the south, and generally had a blast. He has traveled widely since then, and currently works as a book editor in Boulder, Colorado.