Subantarctic rain forests, kiwifruit pickers, New Zealand, enviable vestibules, spun kilometers, greenstone blades, temporary townhouses, orienting bagpipes & the handiwork of weaponry.
I t had been an unusually dry and warm day in Te Anau; there were no westerly winds off the Tasman Sea, and there was a bluebird sky. Windsurfers and fishermen came in off the lake later than the usual dinnertime, but it was midsummer, and the days were long.
At 8 p.m. the sun was still two hours from setting, and I collapsed in my tent for a nap after reading and logging the day’s mileage into my journal—60 flattish kilometers from Mossburn, adding to the 2,300 I’d already cycled in New Zealand. Stretching out on top of my sleeping bag and with my hands behind my head, I looked at the warm orange glow on the tent walls, which I didn’t always get to see because of cloud cover. I thought I’d wake up later and wander around town at midnight to bring in the new year.
I had given no thought to where I was from until I came to New Zealand, which was physically so far away from any place remotely like a home—with a soft pillow, a familiar kitchen, shelter from the wind, and people who looked out for me—that I did not know what to say.
I had been cycling around New Zealand for two and a half months, and the rhythm of touring had become second nature: wake up early without an alarm, shower and put on the same cycling shorts and T-shirt, break camp and load the panniers—everything in its place—eat something (usually some sort of bread or a pastry in town, and coffee) and ride. Later, I did it all in reverse: pull everything out of my panniers, pitch the tent, cook dinner in the campground’s community kitchen, walk around town with other campers and tell stories of our travels, read, write and sleep. Some days I logged only 20 kilometers, and others 130. It was my routine, day after day.
When I met new people, there was the usual exchange: “G’day, mate! What’s your name?” Then, “Where are you from?” I was tongue-tied at first and didn’t know how to answer this second question. I didn’t know if I should say I was from Minnesota, where I’d lived and worked as a theater costumer for three years, or if I should say I was from Colorado, where I’d grown up. I had given no thought to where I was from until I came to New Zealand, which was physically so far away from any place remotely like a home—with a soft pillow, a familiar kitchen, shelter from the wind, and people who looked out for me—that I did not know what to say.
Was home where I would live when I returned from my travels? I had assumed I’d go back to Minneapolis because I had put my things in storage there. Maybe I was from there at this point in my life, but I could not say that or feel it wholeheartedly. I had wonderful friends in Minneapolis, but I didn’t have family there, I didn’t have a steady job and I didn’t feel any sort of connection to the flat land and the lakes. The sky was always gray, and snow and ice didn’t melt between November and April.
I had grown up in a very unstable family with an alcoholic dad who couldn’t keep a job or friends or a house. We moved a lot, usually on a whim. First we rented, then we bought in a different neighborhood where he could be close to friends. Then he qualified for a VA loan, so we moved into a modern, round house far away in the foothills west of Denver, but then he lost a job, so we moved back down the mountain into a townhouse. When that didn’t work out, we moved into another townhouse just across the parking lot. With each move, my circle of friends changed. Sometimes my schools changed. By the time I graduated high school, I’d lived in seven places, all within about thirty miles of each other—not counting the three places I had lived the first three years of my life in Illinois.
They don’t carry their homes with them the way I carried my tent with me.
Now, in the southern part of the South Island, south of the South Pacific, I was still on the move. I didn’t know any other way. By the time I had reached Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand, when people asked where I was from, I had replied, “I’m from the US.” Sometimes I said I was from the town I had last cycled through: “I just came from Napier” or “Oh, I was near Dannevirke earlier.” It was a simple answer to a much more complicated issue. I was a vagabond, a nomad, a gypsy. Somehow, I had convinced myself I was a traveler, but travelers, I thought, have homes to return to. They don’t carry their homes with them the way I carried my tent with me.
From Te Anau, I planned to cycle through Southland to Invercargill and then to Bluff, which was the southernmost city on the South Island, where I’d board the ferry to Stewart Island, off the southern coast of the South Island. My goal was to go as far south as I could in the Southern Hemisphere before returning north.
I looked up at the ceiling of my tent, reflecting over the past months and envisioning the future. If I went to Stewart Island, I wouldn’t be able to cycle because there were only eight kilometers of paved roads. There were cabins, but I hadn’t read about any campgrounds. My money was dwindling, and cabins would be more expensive than I could afford. I would need to make money somewhere. A few travelers I’d met had stopped along their routes to pick kiwifruit, but that was on the North Island.
I’ll figure it out later, I thought, and as I started to doze I realized I hadn’t noticed the rain clouds building. When a few large drops splattered against the tent, I sat bolt upright.
“Not again!” I yelled to no one.
The rain fly stretched and sagged from being pulled taut and windblown. It was like older skin that had lost its collagen.
Te Anau hugs the east coast of Lake Te Anau, which is the largest lake on the South Island and the entrance to Fiordland National Park. The park gets at least 300 inches of rain a year and is one of the wettest places in the world. I was camping at the edge of not a tropical rain forest or a subtropical rain forest, but a subantarctic rain forest. Because I had encountered rain everywhere I’d been in the country, I was actually giddy to feel the dry air earlier when I’d cycled into town. But here I was with a poorly designed tent that was ready to be thrown out. It had been with me in the Alaska wilderness and along the North Shore of Lake Superior, and I had taken it camping in Colorado.
Most evenings in New Zealand, when I lay in my tent before nodding off, I studied its design the way an architect studies a building or an engineer a bridge or a costumer a Renaissance sleeve. Why did the rain fly sag and brush against the tent walls? Shouldn’t there be a gap between the fly and the tent to prevent condensation, or, worse, leakage? My tent had two long shock-cord poles that crisscrossed at the top, but why did other tents have a third pole that bowed the tent in the middle? And the fly didn’t have a vestibule, which meant that if I unzipped the rain fly’s door, it would rain inside the tent. All the newer tents had vestibules.
The rain fly stretched and sagged from being pulled taut and windblown. It was like older skin that had lost its collagen. I couldn’t massage it or block it back into shape without grabbing the excess fabric with a clothespin, or without putting tucks or darts in it. I would have used my emergency sewing kit to do that, but any time you puncture fabric with a needle, you create a passageway for wind or water, which was the case with the tent floor that had a seam across the middle.
Why was there a seam in the middle of the floor? With even the slightest rain, water always leaked in through this seam. Now my seam sealer was running low and my rain resourcefulness thin.
Here, they slammed headfirst onto Himatangi Beach, tumbled over themselves through farmland and sheep paddies and crash-landed on my tent near the Wanamatu River, bending the tent sideways to the ground like a thumb-push puppet.
One time, the rain fly—and my whole tent—had nearly ripped away from the stakes in a southerly that hit Palmerston North on the North Island. A few errant 150 mile-per-hour gusts departed from Commonwealth Bay in Antarctica—directly south of New Zealand and the windiest place on Earth—and twirled northward across the cold and rage-filled Southern Ocean, through the area known to sailors at the Screaming Sixties at 60°S latitude. In the Furious Fifties, the winds whipped up speed, churned iceberg remnants into their gales and left violent waves in their wake. Then they bulldozed over the Tasman Sea into the Roaring Forties, toward South Taranaki Bight Bay near Wellington, which was the first landmass the winds encountered in their 2,500-mile journey. Here, they slammed headfirst onto Himatangi Beach, tumbled over themselves through farmland and sheep paddies and crash-landed on my tent near the Wanamatu River, bending the tent sideways to the ground like a thumb-push puppet. Once the winds passed, my tent popped back upright.
I was inside and could hear the roar of the winds approaching. I laid as still as I could and listened and then felt the tent flatten against my face and body—the walls pushing into my nose, my mouth and my arms and legs. And then it passed. The winds churned on across the Manawatu Gorge toward the town of Dannevirke, then to Napier and then out to sea again.
In the campground’s stillness in Palmerston North, I unzipped the door and crawled out.
“What the hell?” I said to myself, picking up my bike that had blown over and looking around for remnants of the storm. I saw no other signs of damage—no downed branches, no lingering wind, nothing else toppled. There was no one camped near me. The quiet was loud, like a black hole sucking out all the traffic of the sky. The trees and bushes were intact, yet it surprised me that the rain fly was still attached to the tent and that the tent was still pegged to the ground. I had survived a southerly.
The light inside my tent at Lake Te Anau faded and I sat up, worrying about even the slightest rain that might cause the center floor seam to leak or rivulets of rain to seep in through the rain-fly seams and then down the walls inside the tent. I decided I’d crawl out and assess the weather as soon as the rain let up. It was probably just a shower. Then, faintly in the distance, over the sound of splats against the tent, I heard the familiar drone of a bagpiper. When I was a kid and roller-skated down the street from our house, I could always hear the drone and flat notes of my dad’s bagpipes, even when I was two blocks away. I imagined Dad couldn’t wait for my sister and me to go play so that he could dress up in his kilt, get out his pipes, which he didn’t know how to play, fill the bag with air and take himself to Scotland for just a short while. By the time we returned home, he had changed back into his pressed khakis and had neatly folded the pipes back into the box in his closet. I don’t think he planned it, but hearing his bagpipes always helped me know how far away home was and in which direction.
It rained harder. Being inside a tent in a rainstorm is worse than being outside in a rainstorm. Rain beats on all sides. You can’t sleep, you can’t hear yourself think. Everything gets drowned out. I was sure it couldn’t keep up; the weather had been so nice earlier. I had to pee, and I wanted to be around my Kiwi friends, my campground people, my iwi. Any minute, it would let up, I knew it. And with a keen ear I listened, and I waited for fewer drops to fall against my tent, but it only rained harder.
I always listened to sounds outside my tent. Traveling alone changed how I heard things. A splash in the lake could be a stranger taking a wrong step, but it was most likely a beaver. If something neared the tent door without becoming quieter, it was wildlife—a squirrel or a mouse or, back in Colorado, a bear. If it sniffed or panted, it was probably a dog. In New Zealand, a scraping in the wee hours was a possum cleaning out my panniers that weren’t brought inside the tent for the night. Sheep or cows grazed between the tent and the loo, chewing and snorting endlessly. On the North Island, honking and chortling all night at Lake Tutira were a thousand happy black swans in their sanctuary, floating from one end of the lake to the other and back again. And a deluge in Te Anau next to Fiordland National Park wasn’t a Colorado afternoon monsoon, nor was it the socked-in type of storm you’d find in Greymouth on the West Coast. This rain wasn’t passing through; it lived here. The storm began with a few big drops splattering onto the tent six inches apart and continued until I couldn’t pick out one drop from the next. I felt like I was among a thousand washing machines, and I didn’t dare open the doors while the machines were operating.
I tried to find things to do to avoid worrying about my tent: housecleaning, wrapping things in plastic. I stuffed my sleeping bag back into its stuff sack and then into its plastic garbage bag, refolded all my clothes and maps, repacked the panniers, stacked them in a corner so I could lean against them like I would the back of a chair and wiped dust off the foam pad I sat on. I zipped my passport inside its plastic bag. I would have paced the floor if I’d had the room. Mostly, I felt the koru spiral. The darker the night became and the harder it rained, the more the koru closed in on me, or, rather, the more I felt myself descending deeper into it.
Back on the East Cape, which seemed ages ago, I met Maevine and Ted Ingram, who camped near me at the caravan park in Te Araroa. In the morning, after I packed up my tent and loaded everything onto my bike, Ted invited me over for coffee. They had been watching me from inside their van. We went through the usual introductions—where we were from and where we were going—and coffee soon expanded to sausage and eggs. I learned they were a retired couple on a golf-course-tour holiday. Ted would golf all around the North Island for the next month, while Maevine would cook and keep the van tidy. Besides being a golfer, Ted also carved traditional Māori weapons out of the swamp kauri wood that was native to the North Island. He was eager for a captive audience and was excited to show me his handiwork of weaponry, the few pieces he would never sell. He picked up a box from the floor of the van and led me outside while delivering a nonstop elaborate discourse on Māori symbolism.
“The koru spiral,” he said, “which is a double spiral, is a leitmotif in Māori art and weaponry. It represents life. People begin life at the top of the spiral, you see, and with life’s experiences, they circle their way down. The load and the weight of our daily lives and the energy drained from it brings us down and down, and we continue circling deeper into the spiral.”
Ted spread his collection of weapons on the picnic table, gingerly unwrapping each one from newspaper as if they were pieces of expensive crystal: a pokopoko (walking stick), a fish carver, a bonker (mallet) and a hunting knife with the blade carved out of jade—greenstone, as Kiwis call it.
The quiet was loud, like a black hole sucking out all the traffic of the sky.
“Then,” he continued, “the spiral circles back up without a break in the continuity. This is because the wisdom obtained from these life experiences lifts people out of the doldrums, helps them see the light.”
The koru spiral is at the center of all Māori art, from weaponry to body art and jewelry to carvings in building rafters. It is modeled after the large silver fern tree that’s native to New Zealand and grows in the rain forests, mainly on the North Island and the northern part of the South Island. In spring, the tree’s curly fronds burst with life and are ready to unfurl, and in winter they shrivel up and die, only to come back to life again in spring.
“That’s the circle of life,” Ted said. As he described it, the Māori believed the koru spiral was more than just a representation of the physical plant. It was a metaphor for intellectual and emotional growth. As we experience life, we learn and grow, but the tradeoff is this growth happens only after we’ve sunk as far to the bottom as we can. We might take wrong turns or make wrong decisions, and we’ll keep doing that until we switch it around and learn from our mistakes. Once we hit bottom, because we can’t take it anymore or because we can finally stand back and examine our lives more objectively, then and only then can we grow and learn and stretch our brains again.
I thanked Ted for showing me his treasures.
I imagined Dad couldn’t wait for my sister and me to go play so that he could dress up in his kilt, get out his pipes, which he didn’t know how to play, fill the bag with air and take himself to Scotland for just a short while.
“Good on ya, mate,” he said, shaking my hand.
Then I returned to my bicycle and hooked the panniers on the back rack, strapped the foam pad along the top of the rack and rolled up my raincoat and stuffed it into the handlebar bag, where it would be easy to get to. Maevine rushed over to me from her van and handed me a small plastic bag with an apple and an egg sandwich.
“You’ll want this later,” she said, smiling.
I held out my hands and she placed the sandwich in my palms, then wrapped her hands around my wrists. We stood like that for a few seconds, looking each other in the eye. Then she backed away slowly, waving to me. I unzipped the handlebar bag, placed the sandwich on top of my raincoat, zipped it back up and set off down the road toward Gisborne.
I pedaled slowly out of Te Araroa as my legs woke up against the slight head wind, and I thought a little about the koru spiral. I was a bit spooked because, according to Ted, I was going to cycle into hell and back. I understood the symbolism and the cycle of life and death and life again. It made sense that people could “hit bottom,” something I guessed my dad hadn’t yet done. Or if he had, I supposed he could relapse and head back into the depths of the spiral. Ted hadn’t mentioned relapse, but perhaps there are times during the New Zealand springtime when a silver fern tree stops unfurling its fronds and even reels them back in momentarily before opening them up again completely.
I had noticed the koru spiral design in newspaper ads, on Air New Zealand planes and on posters and postcards. It was almost as prevalent as the maple leaf the Canadian cyclists and hikers plastered on their helmets, backpacks and panniers. I had admired Ted’s hand-carved Māori weaponry that was covered in koru spirals. The circle of life was everywhere, but I didn’t think much more about how it might apply to my own life.
N ow, two months later in Te Anau, I realized my koru wasn’t a physical path that I cycled around, like circling a mountain or winding down into a valley. Ted had said it was more of an emotional path, which could have meant surrendering to the rain, shoddy gear and no money. The rain had isolated me, not just now, but throughout the entire trip. It left me alone when I didn’t want to be. It left me powerless and immobile. I pictured all the other travelers I had met downing pints in pubs along the West Coast or in Christchurch or cajoling in the community kitchens at campgrounds. Maybe kind families had taken in some of them, or maybe they stayed in hotels and celebrated with other travelers. I couldn’t do that because I couldn’t afford anything more than my four-dollar-a-night campsite, so I was stuck in a leaky tent in a downpour.
Nor was my koru about me running away from my alcoholic family. I did run, though, the same way the Antarctic winds had bulldozed their way up through the South Seas. I had started as an errant gust three years earlier when I left Colorado and moved to Minneapolis, and I was still running, twirling as fast as I could and as far away them as I could imagine, and crash-landing onto the other side of the world. And now I was running out of land.
On the North Island, honking and chortling all night at Lake Tutira were a thousand happy black swans in their sanctuary, floating from one end of the lake to the other and back again.
Here, in the Te Anau campground, there were no trees to shelter under, and there were no vacant cabins to move into. If there were, I would not have been able to afford them. The tent floor began looking like the Land of 10,000 Lakes; all the seams leaked, and the puddles grew bigger. I tried mopping up the water with my quick-dry towel, but there was no place to wring it out. I double-checked that my passport and sleeping bag were dry, moved everything into the least wet corner and huddled up alongside.
When water started dripping from the ceiling, I put on the oilcloth raincoat I’d bought in Hamilton, and I cried. I had never sat inside my tent wearing a raincoat.
W hen I thought it was finally midnight, I toasted my water bottle and hummed “Auld Lang Syne” and made resolutions I didn’t know if I could keep: to make some money somewhere, anywhere; to embrace the rain; to always seek a good adventure; and to learn how to construct a tent when I got back home—one with a vestibule and a sturdy gap between the rain fly and the tent. I decided not to go to Stewart Island, but to cycle out of the rain forest toward a drier place, though I wasn’t sure where that was. Dunedin? Probably not. Cromwell? Maybe. When the weather stops you, I thought, you get better gear or you move on.
Faintly, long after midnight and half dozing against the panniers, I could hear the bagpiper again through the rain, this time playing “Amazing Grace.” Or maybe I was dreaming. There are moments when all your heart and soul are full, and you think there is no room for anything else, when suddenly you stumble upon the most perfect thing. It comes at the perfect time and in the perfect place. I listened to the music with my eyes closed and thought of my dad, and I felt myself breathe.
Ted hadn’t mentioned relapse, but perhaps there are times during the New Zealand springtime when a silver fern tree stops unfurling its fronds and even reels them back in momentarily before opening them up again completely.
It had taken me two months to figure it out, my koru. It was as simple as knowing to ride on the left side of the road—something that confused me in the beginning but eventually became second nature. I knew there was no longer a tether keeping me attached to my dad, but there would always be a more powerful one that pulled me back to Colorado, not to Wanaka or Westport or Minneapolis. Colorado was where I was from; that would always be the answer.
I listened keenly to the piper play the tune all the way through. Then, as is traditional, I hoped a few more pipes would join in for the second round. The third time through, there would be an army of bagpipes, and I hoped to hear it that way, but it was only the one piper. I pictured him wearing a kilt and tapping his foot to keep the beat, and I did not feel lonely because his music was leading me out of the koru spiral. I knew the piper was only a couple blocks away. It was time for me to find my way back home.
Lori Hobkirk has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Colorado Boulder and a master’s degree in the teaching of writing from the University of Colorado Denver. She also has many hours toward an MFA in writing and poetics at Naropa University, where she studied the writing process with Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg. She lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado, where her preferred method of travel has changed over the years from bicycling to walking. This story was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2021 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Tobias Tullius
- Iwi is the Māori word for tribe, people or kin. ↑