I never consciously set out to explore the meaning of solitude. It was thrust upon me by being the only way I could continue roaming the mountains. After years of constant travel there accompanied most often by Nigel, and at times others from further away, I was forced to re-examine my love for the Ruahines by the simple reality that Nigel moved away, first to Australia, and later to his new home in Korea. This was a difficult period for me. I had always traveled with Nigel, had come to rely upon a finely developed communication and decision making ability we had developed. I learned the rudiments of navigation, map reading, and began the more intuitive relationship with the ranges I now possess. Nigel and I could, and often did, tramp for hours saying few, if any words, yet with no sense of disconnection between us. Often this was due to the fact Nigel was often much fitter and his pace much faster than mine, and I took no offense to walking on my own. When he left, however, I realized how much I had come to rely on that relationship to pursue my own love of the Ruahines. The planning, the gathering of supplies, the fine details, all were now left solely to me to work out. More importantly, the courage and will to go out on my own, to challenge myself and see what my skills allowed me to do and develop into. For if I wanted to now roam the mountains I either had to wait till John was available, which was a few times per year, or the even more infrequent trips with visitors from overseas, or simply go on my own. So it was a new chapter of solo travel which I had to accept or decline. Perhaps even more troubling then was the fear of discovering my blossoming love of the Ruahines was not really connected to my soul as I thought. That without having someone else, particularly an excellent partner like Nigel, that I was not capable of mountain travel into remote tough country. I knew this was a real cross roads for me, for who I was as a man, and what I stand for and believe about myself. Looking back now, it was a challenge on many different levels I knew I had to accept.
"Observation on the River"
Your flawed elegance astounds me
as if proudly displaying
Scarred by Time
Battered by countless storms
Your very Soul
Eroded by what also
Sustains and Nourishes
Yet Possessing a Strength and Depth
I cannot fathom
And You Hold On
Living Each Moment
Until You are Claimed
To Finally Join the Dance
of the Endless Flow
It is Me
written outside Ngamoko hut on the Pohangina river, November 2005
There are many moments of significance I recall while being on my own in the mountains. The above, for instance, I distinctly recall the river rushing by, the wind rustling overhead, standing out in front of the hut with a cup of tea, and I noticed across the river this huge beech tree clinging to the bank high above the water. Yet it did so with such dignity and hidden strength, in spite of it's relative precarious hold on life. I strongly identified with that tree in that moment. Synchronicity to my own life, at least as it was back then, and is never far away from being again. I suspect that tree is still there, and will be for some time. A measure of the things we cannot see in nature, or in ourselves. Had I been with someone else that moment might possibly have escaped me, on my own I recognized it and relished it.
My flaws as a man are many. Just ask my wife. My anger, impatience, and selfishness never seem far from the surface, though I try to keep it all in check. I do believe, as a man, I have grown to accept my flaws, to recognize them and at least some of the time, grow beyond them. Much of what I am becoming I owe to the mountains, what I have learned there, the people I have traveled with, observing and growing. Even more so, for me, is the time I have spent there by myself. Taking responsibility for my own actions and choices, overcoming fear of something new, and simply slipping deeply into my own self. Who, after all, am I to get angry with, or impatient with? Nature? The Ruahines, as much as I would like them to care, are completely neutral to my presence. A beautiful day, or a stormy day are simply the results of the weather patterns, not my wishes or desires. How I deal with that result is my choice, to travel, to find a route in cloudy conditions, to stay put, to find some other useful way to utilize my day, these are all my reactions to something I have no control over. There is no place for anger, impatience, jealousy, hatred, or intolerance. What I have learned there is that I love myself and the world I am in while there. The hard part is bringing that back here to the world I spend far more time in. I am a work in Progress.
"Alan Watts Blues" by Van Morrison
Well I'm taking some time with my quiet Friend
Well I'm taking some time on my own
Well I'm making some plans for my getaway
There'll be blue skies shining up above
When I'm cloud hidden
Well I've got to get out of the rat race now
I'm tired of the ways of mice and men
And the empires are all turning into rust again
Out of everything nothing remains the same
That's why I'm cloud hidden
Sitting up on a mountain top in my solitude
Where the morning fog comes rolling in
just might do me some good
Well I'm waiting in the clearing with
my motor on
Its time to get back to the town again
The air is sweet and fresh in the country side
Well it won't be long before I get back
The first solo trip I ever undertook was back in September of 2002. I recall some stressful times at work being the catalyst, exactly what those were now escape me, and I felt a need to get some perspective. I had a new tent and climbed high up onto the Hikurangi's to camp. It was rainy, windy, I was feeling unfit and tired, and happily climbed into my tent hoping it would not blow away in the gales. I woke up before the dawn, and in the grey mist packed my tent and made my way to Mc Kinnon hut, glad to see it in the enveloping cloud. I cooked up a huge breakfast and with the rain beating down on the roof climbed into my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep. I awoke a few hours later, to virtual silence, no rain, no wind. I stepped out the door of the hut and literally had my breath taken away, first by the view, and also by the fact it was now a superb brilliant blue sky shining above me. I was content to stay there in this magnificent alpine setting and enjoy the day and evening, when for the first time I heard this voice inside my head speak to me, and say pack up and go! I have since learned to listen to this voice without question, but back then I was not so sure, either of what I was hearing inside my head, or of any inclination to go! Yet this sense of something else waiting for me was very insistent and after a few cups of coffee I did indeed pack up and left. I went down into the forest, the play of sunlight on the bush and trees illuminating the way, the gentlest of breezes stirring the beech leaves, and soon I could hear the river below me. As I climbed down to the Kawhatau river I could see it glistening in the sunlight, its flow reassuring and welcoming on this day. I got to the river and sat on a moss covered log for quite some time drinking in the scene of a dark gorge below me - which I have since climbed out of - and a sunlit path leading up the river. It was a serene moment. I then traveled up river to Crow hut, a stunning location just above the river, and spent the loveliest afternoon in the sun, swimming in the river, writing my thoughts, and brimming with an energy that flowed through me. Everything I did seemed very deliberate and focused and my presence here was part of the moment. As the afternoon progressed and the sun began its journey over the wide valley and to the west, I sat still and watched it paint the mountains above me, the greens fading to first a darker green, then purple and majestic, the brown tussock of the tops painted in brilliant golden hues. I was nothing, yet I was everything as I moved and swayed with the breeze, heard every note of the rivers song, and relished a rare connection with a perfect moment. Later on, I started a small fire outside the hut, set up my tent, and continued my celebration. When I awoke in the morning the storm had returned. It seemed like a dream.
I have since learned to welcome that voice and these moments. This, for me, is the Spiritual side of my mountain experience. Some may scoff at such a notion, travel for days amongst the mountains from point a to b and never get beyond, or want to, the physical aspect of the journey. That is fine, but my experience is mine alone, though I choose to share it here with the few who care to read it. I do not seek these moments out, do not attempt to define or name it beyond my own reasoning, and I suspect, would still enjoy mountain travel even if I never had experiences like I do. But I do, and that is my benefit!
"Wonderful how completely everything in Nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us but in us. The river flows not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell and the substance of our bodies making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love" John Muir
Above is the view from the door of McKinnon hut, looking out towards Rongotea on the Mokai Patea range.
The experience of solitude invokes many emotions through out the journey. Unabashed communion with Nature as above, feelings of freedom and choice, heightened awareness of what is around, and also heightened sense of what is inside of ourselves. Which is really cool when all is well in our lives, and fairly intense as well when things are not. Yet both types of that sort of solitude offer value. I have had times fleeing to the Ruahines when my personal life has been under tremendous strain. Those have been the hardest journeys to undertake, as along with the normal anxieties of solo travel, is the emotional weight hanging around my soul. The fear I may not find the serenity I seek, the calmness in which to sort my feelings and emotions, or find the same beauty around me. Yet I always do. Nature, and the mountains seem to have a way of both soothing my wounded soul, and pointing out the mere processes I am part of and under going. My life will continue in spite of other things, and when it ceases I am merely part of the whole. Simplistic it may be, and does not solve problems, or even make hurt disappear, in and of itself, but it helps, and has helped me more than a few times.
For I have never truly been alone in my solitude. Perhaps in moments lonely, but never alone. Whatever I carry inside of me is there with me, good or bad, the memories and thoughts of my many loved ones are always with me, that "other" voice inside my soul my constant companion. And even on the mountain breeze are the echoes of those who have loved these ranges as much, or more, than I. My own voice, I hope, will one day flow with the mountain rivers and wind as well.
Above is a self portrait I took this past August late in the afternoon at Top Maropea hut. It was minus 7 Celsius in the hut, and a blizzard outside was raging. While I had managed to get up high enough through the forest to get a text message to Tara, there was no way I could go any further. I had seen no one for over 4 days, and I discovered my digital camera did have a self timer function. So I snapped off this photo, which I think aptly reflects my dilemma and my solitude. My first priority was to build a fire, and with no wood readily available, and the scant supply around very wet, this was no easy task. So I ventured out into the blizzard and forest in my wet gear to gather what I could, and with a candle stub and wood shavings eventually built a big roaring fire, enough to dry my clothes, and while not warming the hut exactly, certainly warmed my soul. I have spent over 23 nights in this place, it is special and familiar, the thoughts of many also warmed me. I was never truly alone.
My footsteps are left here for the first time
The solo journey always adds to the Remoteness
Yet I know deep inside I am not alone here
That for various reasons
This rugged valley in the mountains
Has touched many
Their voices echo off the steep valley walls
Their succint memories etched briefly
Yet Beautifully and Poignantly
As they return here
After far too many years gone by
As if knowing Time grows short
And so return to the places in their lives
Which meant the most to their Youth
Listen to the River!
Listen to the Wind!
Their Voices Dance with Mine
And though I have seen no one for days
Only Ranted and Raved
And Spoken the Truth
I have never felt Alone
How could I?
The Echoes are all around
Nov. 2005 Pohangina valley