I’ve had a rare day of rest. It’s late afternoon, and for the first time in my recollection the sun is shining directly into my homely student apartment, across a short arc of clear sky in between the imposing edges of the parking garage and the dense thicket of the Auckland domain outside my room. Laurinda Almeida’s acoustic samba guitar is wafting through my headphones and I’ve done little other than breathe for the last few hours. As I am graduating in December, I had the last class of my collegiate career today, and my flight back to the states is in a little over a month. The farewell dinner for my study abroad program was last night. I’m entirely comfortable in Auckland now and even pose as a local when I recommend restaurants or give a stranger directions (although my accent always gives me away). I’m at peace in a place that’s become home.
Peace is certainly welcome, as today falls neatly in between a hectic past few weeks of tests, projects, and weekend adventures, and the coming weeks of final exams and longer excursions. I recently returned from a 3-day backpacking trek around Cape Reinga, the dramatic peninsula that marks the northernmost reaches of New Zealand. I traversed sand dunes, coastal scrub, rugged ridgelines, and windswept beaches, all punctuated by the lighthouse at the tip of the cape. The rocky outcrop beyond the lighthouse marks the spot where the entirety of Aotearoa converges and slopes into the ocean, and out beyond the rocks you can see where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, two slightly contrasting shades of blue brushing up against each other like oil and vinegar. In spite of the daunting basalt faces and the onslaught of salt and surf, a lone ancient kahika tree has managed to take residence on the rocks, and for centuries its step-like roots have guided the Maori ancestors into the underworld before their journey to Hawaiki, the spiritual home.
Arriving at the Cape on foot, I perhaps appreciated it a bit more than the hordes of tourists coming and going on buses, and this ethereal place reminded me of my own journey across the Pacific. They are not my ancestors, and it was not my tree, but despite the vast differences in struggles and triumphs between my own world and Te Ao Maori, my trek around Cape Reinga truly emphasized the human monomyth. Traveling on foot, sleeping on the ground, at the mercy of the sky, and living off what I could carry on my back is a truly human experience. And although things did not always go according to plan (as things never do), the only way forward was to keep walking. A Labour Day downpour dampened spirits on the final leg of the hike, and after I accepted the fact that my pack was soaked through and the warmth of the rental car was still miles away, there was nothing left to do but listen to the forest drink in the rain and take the muddy trail step by step. On the highway later that night, my friends and I marveled at our “step counts” we had accumulated over the weekend, as recorded by our iPhones. However, the thousands of steps we took were but a grain of sand on the great dunes of Cape Reinga, and I considered the magnitude, the significance, the utter weight of the steps that had come before us. Ours were one layer on the deep earth of those trails, but our layer has become part of the history nonetheless. I’ve noticed that my days in New Zealand with more steps have often been the more fulfilling ones, and I wonder why I haven’t always been as keen to explore and mark the world with my footsteps. I guess I’ve had to learn to trust my own feet.