conversations in rapahoe


September 25, 2016

I feel very lucky and very fragile. The past few days have held so much and I'm terrified that I didn't do enough—that I didn't pay close enough attention or ask the right questions or that I'll fail to remember every detail. Nothing is replicable and everything is precious.

I borrow a sedan to get from Christchurch on the East coast of New Zealand to Greymouth on the West coast. I learn to drive on the left side of the road and sing along to Nahko at the top of my lungs and feel fully alive and free. The road through Lewis Pass introduces me to the South Island's magnificent mountain ranges and continues to show me the variety of NZ's landscape. Farmlands, rivers, mountains, forests.

From Greymouth, I come north to Rapahoe where I stay with a couple for two nights. I arrive late because their house is across the road from the ocean and the beach and the sun is setting and beautiful sunsets take priority over most things. Will and Karlene understand. Will's eyes even twinkle when I tell them. They are an older sort of people—not in age necessarily although Will was older, but in their manner of being—in their steadiness and slowness and calmness. Their surroundings are simple and rustic and they don't own a cellphone or microwave or personal computer. They have built their house, which is somewhat like a shack, and nothing matches and many things are dusty. There is a lot of unfinished wood and eclectic assortments. Outside, there grows a mighty garden patrolled by chickens.

Will tells me so many stories—teaches me so many things. His eyes are so shiny. I've never seen eyes so bright. He has a long grey beard and long grey hair and both are wild and matted like cobwebs. His smile is large, boisterous, and semi-toothless. He tells me that there was a time when people called him a guru and tried to follow him (though he would have none of it) and I believe every word.

Here is what I remember:

Will is from England and travelled the world for many years (maybe eighteen without stopping?). When asked why he left, he answered that he wanted to see what else there was.

As a young man visiting Yellowstone, he came across a crowd of tourists stopped in the middle of a road who were all watching this huge bear sauntering across. Will had only ever seen bears in cartoons back in England. He naively strolled past the crowd, walked up to the bear, and patted it. The bear didn't do even react. Will thinks this is because the bear could sense that he had no fear or aggression, just innocent curiosity.

He had been living in Rapahoe for many, many years and had watched it change from a booming mining town to a depleted collection of suburbs. It was surrounded by the forests, mountains, and glaciers a little further south. Will tells me several stories from when he used to disappear into the woods for days. Although it doesn't sound like it makes much sense, he says that "the only time you really know where you are is when you're lost (because you're actually noticing what's around you). It's when you think that you know where you're going that you're really lost." Life feels like this too, sometimes. Will states, "If you're lost, all there is to do is to sit down and wait." When I ask what for?, he replies (with a playful roar), "Inspiration!!"

Once, he vanished into the mountains and went somewhere he wasn't supposed to and the rangers found out. They discovered footprints of his bare feet in the soil and snow. Will roared again with laughter as he declared that "they thought they had discovered the YETI!!" But this tale nearly ended badly because Will, for one reason or another, lay down on the ice of a glacier and felt his body cooling and calming and becoming sleepy. He realized with a start that if he remained there much longer, he would die of hypothermia. He would just drift away. That was enough to get him to his feet and some rangers (in a helicopter) found him and scolded him and took him out of the park. Will talks about how easy it would have been for him to stay on the glacier and fall asleep, how peaceful it would have been. And he resented the rangers for not minding their own business.

The words that meant the most to me came from one the wildest stories involving two South American countries, a border crossing, some angry guards with guns, a flag raised, a perceived disrespect, and a proud young man. With a gun pointed to his face, Will realized a very important lesson: "It doesn't matter if you're right. If you can't win, gotta move on. It ain't gonna work." Will still doesn't understand why the guard didn't shoot him.

Will and Karlene have hosted many wanderers before me. Will has told his stories to many others and shared what he has learned of the world. He recalls a conversation with an American woman that left an impression. He told her, "I tried to change the world once!" "How did that go?" she asked. "Not very well." And she gave him a consoling hug while saying, "There, there..."

Will has seen much. He and Karlene are both troubled by the troubles of 2017—of the environmental damage, the economic inequality, our obsession with technology... But Will still laughs like no one else I have ever seen. And he has so many stories. When I am old and grey, I hope I have as many tales to share and a laugh just as loud and eyes just as shiny.