Quitting your job and selling your house and all of your possessions to travel the world is something many people find themselves daydreaming about when they feel their lives have fallen into a state of predictable motion. A fair number of rather reasonable arguments typically dissuade most people from pursuing the notion.
But the feeling of being an alien in a foreign land is intoxicating. I often thought of leaving California behind and breaking with my routine to embrace the unknown and in so doing becoming an alien to everything, including myself. The fire continued to rage in my mind, and when I spoke to my partner about it, I learned that the same fire burned inside her as well. Within two months, we sold our house, all of our belongings, quit our jobs and bought four one way tickets to Australia; two adults and two children.
I felt embarrassed telling my friends and family about our decision and worried that it would make me seem irresponsible. The idea of leaving a great job and uprooting our family was met with as much judgmental condemnation as one would get for choosing to drink or gamble with abandon. I avoided speaking of our intentions again until we were just about to board a plane that would take us away from California. I updated my status online that described our exodus, and with 40-liter backpacks strapped on our respective backs, our three-year-old boy gripping tightly to my hand and our five-year-old boy gripping tightly to my partner’s, we boarded the plane and never looked back.
We spent the summer in Australia, surfing Bondi Beach, walking Graffiti Alley in Melbourne and sunbathing along the Sunshine Coast. After three months, we had exhausted the amount of time we were permitted on our Australian visas. With summer transitioning to fall, we set our sights on New Zealand.
Much of our time in our previous life was spent losing ourselves in Yosemite and Lassen National Parks or trail running the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes. We often hiked through the pine forests of Tahoe or the redwood forests nestled behind the Mendocino coastline. We made a pact before the trip that this particular quality of our lives would travel along with us, and we did just what most outdoor adventurers would do upon landing in Nelson airport: salivated at the thought of conquering the great tracks of New Zealand’s South Island.
Our first hike with the boys began with exploring a pocket of nestled beauty called the Abel Tasman, located on the northeast coastline of the South Island. We took a water taxi that dropped us off on a small exposed sandbar in an estuary that existed for only a few hours, expanding as quickly as the tide receded into the Tasman Bay and disappearing upon its return. We ferried the boys across one at a time on our backs, moving slowly through the surprisingly crisp, knee-deep water that bridged the exposed and isolated raft of yellow sand to the thin Tasman coastline.
We approached this tramp with our boys with a sink or swim attitude, wholly accepting our punishment of having to carry them on our backs should they not rise to the challenge. Our parenting style had always differed from those in the community we left a few months prior. We allow them to fall and scrape their knees, to make their own mistakes, to concede defeat in the face of a valiant effort. We pushed them to try before they could accept their own presumed limitations. My partner and I controlled the wind that passed across their boughs in a manner meant to strengthen their branches but not break them. They would, more often than not, surprise themselves upon rising up and working through their own challenges.
We assumed the 22-kilometer hike would be a pretty strong gust, but to our surprise, we found that the adults were trying to keep pace with the boys. We were evidently the weak links in the chain. Was it their center of gravity that made tramping come more easily to them or the efficiencies of their metabolic engine that constantly turns over calories for energy like a Ferrari turns petrol into horsepower? Their enthusiasm and seemingly endless supply of energy that remained, even after concluding the day-long tramp with burgers at The Fat Tui, motivated us to tramp progressively longer and more difficult terrain. Soon we felt confident in our plan of tramping across New Zealand with our sights set on accomplishing an expert-level overnight hike up Mt. Robert to the Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park.
* * *
I peered across the shifter to my partner and said, “There’s only one direction we can go and that’s forward.” We were all alone on the one-way road that hugged Mount Robert. Just ahead of us, the gravel gave way to mud, stretching a quarter mile ahead of us. I scanned ahead and saw that the first half of the road had a forgiving upward slope, but then a handful of orange traffic cones were scattered in front of a section of road that appeared to go vertical. I slammed the shifter into first gear, revved the engine of the rented Honda Fit and held my breath until we reached the other side. My quads were on fire from riding the clutch while lifting my body above my seat to be able to see the road. When we summited past the cones and fell back onto level and graveled road, I turned to my partner and saw her hands wrapped white knuckled around the “Oh Shit Handle” that had been previously dangling freely just above her head.
“It wasn’t that bad,” I said as her dilated pupils relaxed and her eyes rolled in that special way that lets me know I have no idea what I am talking about.
After we parked, we collected our gear and tried to focus on the moment instead of on what lay ahead of us: 24 kilometers over 36 hours. We moved quickly through the small section of beech forest that separated the car park and the start of the aptly named Pinchgut Track. A thick canopy of beech trees retained the water in the air, humidifying the organic plumes of earthy aromatics emanating from the detritus scattered across the forest floor. Microbeads of water sat atop green carpets of moss blanketing the decaying stumps and fallen branches lining the trail.
Exposed tree roots snagged the boys’ boots more times than I could count. My shoulder ached from having to reach my arm out quickly and grip whatever fabric I could to prevent the boys from falling flat on their faces several times, so I called an impromptu family meeting. My partner and I established a rule that we have repeated on every hike since and have now woven into the philosophy we teach the boys: Every step matters, every step is important, every step counts, and how you take that step directly affects the outcome of how you move forward towards the next one. A rock is a rock, whether it’s in the car park, on the trail, in a river crossing or on top of a mountain, but the consequences of tripping over it can vary depending on the circumstance, from insignificant to deadly.
The mid-morning sun began to penetrate the canopy ahead of us, revealing the exposed path leading us to the start of the serial switchbacks that would carry us up 800 meters over 90 minutes. Under our boots, soft earth turned into coarse and dry gravel. The flora transitioned from green ferns to mountain wildflowers and the clear blue sky stretched out towards infinity overhead. Purple and red foxgloves began to fill the empty spaces along the trail.
As we made our ascent, Lake Rotoiti’s blue expanse beckoned us, offering up its cold and crisp waters to rinse the sweat off our skin and resolve the dryness in our throats. My muscles began to burn again. The day hikers that had passed us expanded their distance, while the ones we had previously passed were reducing it. This expansion and contraction between the groups persisted, and in this way, we all accordioned our way up the mountain.
We reached the start of the Robert Ridge Track with another shift in climate and terrain. The wind gusts were strong atop the ridge, and with our guts pinched from the switchbacks, the cold and crisp alpine air cooled us down while also taking some of the weight off our tired legs as it pushed against our backs. We reached the Relax Shelter and exchanged pleasantries with day hikers taking a break before heading back down Paddy’s Track on the opposite side of the ridge. Children on the ridge, we grew to learn, were an unusual sight, given the reactions we received. Responses were split between admiring the boys’ courage (and our patience) and skeptical optimism.
We split from the group and continued along the ridge, not knowing that that would be the last time we would see another hiker while on the ridge. After a few hours, the trail grew narrow and slowly began to recede into the mountain beneath us. The sky continued to reflect the blue from Lake Rotoiti; however, quickly shifting light grey clouds could be seen swirling further up the ridge, waiting for our arrival. We were approaching the Julius Summit, nearly 1,800 meters above sea level, when a drop in pressure and temperature caused the water in the air to suddenly condense all around us. We stopped and became mesmerized at witnessing the birth of a cloud. A wisp of white candy floss suddenly materialized from nothing, swirling in a funnel created by two disparate pressures colliding in a moment. The nascent tuft of white air released and drifted like a leaf trapped in a whirlpool, fixed in constant motion, until its mass grew large enough to be ejected from the turbulent air.
After stopping for lunch to let rain pass ahead, we pressed on. The clouds gathered and dispersed for several kilometers, occasionally releasing their contents upon us but never enough to hinder our momentum. We summited the mountain and found being positioned above everything around us, including the clouds, allowed the trail markers to be easily visible as we scanned ahead. The ridge began to slope downward and our legs felt the relief of not having to work as hard; however, the recent rains made our descent more difficult than previously presumed.
Over the next kilometer, I realized the risk my partner and I took in bringing the boys on the tramp. I accepted my punishment by moving a few meters ahead, releasing my pack from my back, then returning back to the boys in order to ferry them one at a time across the difficult and dangerous terrain, only to collect my pack and start all over again at the next sign of apparent risk. We moved in this way until we reached an expansive scree field that buried several trail markers in its path. I turned to my partner and we discussed the risks of moving forward or turning back. Having already experienced the difficult terrain as I ferried the boys down the wet cliffside, I was worried how much more difficult it would be to repeat it while working against gravity. On the other hand, the terrain ahead of us was unknown, offering a variety of unknown possibilities. “A rock is a rock,” we reminded ourselves.
This fractured landscape wouldn’t let me move ahead and ferry the boys across it as I had before. We had to move slowly, as a unit, across the scree field, lifting the boys to rocks they couldn’t climb onto and holding their hands as they jumped down from ones they could. To the boys, it was fun to rock climb. But we had not come across another human since we started on the ridge. The boys didn’t realize that if something happened, a response would not be immediate, but we did. To compound our worry, the sun seemed to drop faster across the horizon than our descent on the cliff, and should another scree field lie further ahead on our path, we would have to cross it in the dark.
The mantra that we established at the start of our tramp carried us across without incident. We breathed a sigh of relief and silently hoped that we wouldn’t need to cross another scree field on our path to the hut. The boys, on the other hand, were excited at the prospect of scrambling across another. In the end, we ended up going past several more, and fortunately they were only a few meters across. We didn’t hesitate when we scanned ahead to find boulders had collapsed the trail ahead of us; we were still riding off the adrenaline from having successfully traversed what ended up to be the longest and most difficult scree field on the ridge. We discovered that this irregular trail — solid ground with sections of scree intermixed — carried a rhythm in its terrain. We glided swiftly across the wet rock and loose gravel as our steps harmonized to it, moving back up the ridge and arriving at the top of the valley as twilight fell across our shoulders.
When the boys asked how much further until we arrived to the hut, I lied. “It’s just passed the next trail marker,” I replied, buying us a few hundred meters of silence before they asked again. “I meant to say past the next trail marker . . . or the one after that,” I said, all the while, secretly wishing that my non-answer was true. My stalling wouldn’t last, and their motivation could dissipate when they realized I had no idea how much further until we arrived at the hut.
We tramped with the clouds above our heads and below our feet, and fortunately, everything at eye level was clear, albeit damp. We stopped as a gust of wind pushed us off the trail, and after allowing it to pass, we stepped back onto the ridge and saw that the wind pushed the clouds away from the valley to the east, exposing a series of ponds spread across the mountain. It was getting darker. Although it was becoming more difficult to see the worry on my partner’s face, I could feel it radiate off of her body. What was even more troubling was the sudden awareness of the boys’ silence; there were no more questions about when we would arrive, no brotherly banter, just silence and their pace had slowed.
The boys were tired and needed to take a break. The weight on my shoulders grew heavier. The air was transitioning from dark blue to purple, and I knew that taking a break would all but ensure we would be tramping in the dark. I sprinted into the fog to scout ahead, leaving my pack behind.
I returned in a few short minutes with a smile from ear to ear. I threw my pack over one shoulder and instructed the boys to get up and muster as much courage and energy as they could because the hut was in the valley just below us. A hundred or so meters ahead of us was the trail that led down into the valley. As we sprinted towards the branch, the sky opened up, basking us in a light that had previously fallen beneath the top of the alpine ridge. The air quickly transitioned from purple to blue carried by strands of yellow that shimmered off Lake Angelus and poured over the edges of the hills that bordered the valley. We ran to the edge of the ridge and peered down over the valley below; the momentary silence was broken by laughter coming from the boys.
“Every step counts,” I said, as we broke from the ridge and moved down the loose gravel trail that would lead us to shelter.
Tired, hungry and cold, but filled with relief, we slowed our pace, knowing there was nothing more to worry about beyond securing a bunk space. I looked up and saw the yellow lights growing bigger and brighter the closer we got to the hut. The light began to leak from the windows and illuminate the porch, then the wire boot brush on the ground next to the steps to the deck, then the last few meters of the trail. The dark receded to reveal a dozen smiling faces watching our every step as we drew closer to them. I heard the people clapping as the yellow light illuminated the face of my youngest and then his brother. The boys stopped, unsure of what was happening, and looked back at us with both confusion and surprise in their smiles.
* * *
The next morning, we joined a table of fellow hikers for breakfast. The boys spoke of their courage across the wet scree and informed the table of our mantra, “Every step counts.” Over the course of the next half hour, the hut began to empty. Our brief respite needed to come to an end.
We took the track down the mountainside, winding back and forth across several arteries flowing with water; our socks that had dried overnight were drenched within the first kilometer. We followed the water through mud and marshland, ferrying the boys across rushing streams and carrying them over my head across waist deep rivers until the path brought us to the edge of the beech forest that we started from. The forest canopy brought respite from an unrelenting midday sun but blanketed the remainder of the trail in a persistent twilight.
As we passed another kilometer deeper into the forest, the temperature began to drop and the boys began asking how much longer again. Our youngest was becoming more vocal with his narrative of the status of his body and mind. We encouraged them to keep moving by distracting them with topics in mammalian and plant biology, zoology, philosophy and English. This worked for a spell, until the discussion began to grow exponentially more complex with every “but why?”
I could hear whimpers from our youngest. I stopped to lean down and asked him if he was OK, if he needed to be picked up. He said he did, that his legs hurt, but he thought he would be able to continue on if he only had his “Buggies” — two ladybug snuggle toys he has slept with every night of his life. We carried our sleeping bags, food and water on our backs; “Buggies” had been deemed nonessential and remained behind in the car.
Before starting the hike, my partner and I agreed that if the boys could no longer go on of their own free will, we would accommodate their needs, either by picking them up or ending the tramp and turning back around. We wanted them to hit their wall, feel their boughs creak and bend, and let them decide for themselves. My son brought something different to the table: a quid pro quo. I wondered how far he would be willing to take it. We decided that my eldest and I would sprint ahead until we reach the car, drop our gear off and retrieve the Buggies to motivate him to finish the tramp.
I reminded my eldest son of our mantra: “Every step counts.” We took a deep breath and started sprinting up the trail while my partner kept a walking pace with our youngest. We ran two kilometers up through the forest, jumping over rocks and exposed roots that crossed our path, until reaching the car park and finding leaf litter blanketing our rental car. I threw my pack in the trunk and opened the back door, finding Buggies next to a half-eaten leftover carrot cake in the rear cup holder. I grabbed Buggies, stole a bite of cake and handed the rest to my son. “Don’t tell your brother we ate his cake.”
We ran down the path, two plush ladybugs in hand, and I trusted my eldest to keep his own pace as I began to sprint back to meet the others. Only a kilometer away from the car park, my youngest son dropped my partner’s hand and began screaming and crying with joy while running towards his long lost friends. After he settled down, he kept repeating, “I can do this now, I can do this now.” He squeezed one bug in each hand and picked up his pace as he started to move up the path. The three of us continued, collecting our eldest son along the way. The boys fell silent; they were focused on finishing now. My partner and I were silent too, astonished at the resolve our boys displayed. We reached the car park and turned back towards the forest, sharing a collective sigh of relief and pride. With little fanfare, we returned to the car, dropped it in gear and slowly drove past the head of the trail we had conquered, the momentary silence broken by a voice from the backseat: “Hey, where’s my cake?”