Goodbye, 2009

If the height of summer has arrived here on the South Island, someone forgot to tell Mt. Rosa.

I spent the last day of the year hiking up the lesser-known peak, around 4,000 feet/1322 meters. I thought it would be a challenging but short hike, yet my never-useful DOC pamphlet neglected to mention the trailhead was at the end of a road suitable only for high-clearance 4WD vehicles. I took one look at the road and knew Bill couldn’t do it, so I parked him at the bottom and added about six miles extra to my hike, getting up to the trailhead on foot.

The entire hike to the summit was uphill, but gentle enough that it wasn’t difficult, just a little boring. The views would have been lovely most any day, but today the weather felt more like December in Wisconsin than December in New Zealand. Cold, blustery, overcast.

The most exciting things about the hike, by far, were the exploding sheep carcasses.

In the last kilometer to the summit, I saw at least four distinct sheep skeletons spread over a large area. I’m sure that the sheep died of natural causes and their remains slowly rotted away, leaving the wind to scatter the bones. But the way it looked, they could have just as easily spontaneously combusted. I’m just sayin’.

On the way down, I thought about 2009 and all that’s gone on, and starting coming up with a list of memorable moments (memorable for a good reason… I’m trying not to dwell on the other kind!). I thought “oh, I should put that on the blog…” Then I realized in nearly all the moments I was alone.

So if you read the list below, don’t be offended… I am fortunate to have so many people in my life who are good, decent people, interesting and interested in me, and who care about me even if they think I’m a little nuts. It’s just that, if you know me, you know I’m an introvert. I wouldn’t say that I’m getting more introverted as I get older, but I do feel I’m embracing my true nature more instead of trying to force myself to be a perky social butterfly.

In addition to the moments below, please know that there were also many others that involved reconnecting with so many of you, whether over an enchilada in Palo Alto or a coffee (lots of coffee) or mojitos in Milwaukee, sneaking extra-boozy sangria into Epcot (and drinking it in the Morocco Pavilion of all places! Oh yeah, we bad...), going to see “Star Trek” (again… and again…), talking to the animals at the Toledo Zoo, obsessing over “Ashes to Ashes” and DCI Gene Hunt or rediscovering Sandy Hook on the Jersey Shore… and even finding each other on, dare I say it, Facebook.

Wherever you are, in whatever time zone, when the clock strikes twelve tonight I hope it’s the end of what was a good year for you and the start of something even better. Happy New Year, everyone!

My Favorite Moments of 2009

Arriving in New Zealand. After wanting to come here for so long, getting off the plane in Auckland felt like an achievement even before I did anything. My arrival was made all the more exciting when I was designated as a BioSecurity Risk and pulled into Secondary. (Because I had camping and hiking gear with me, they had to check it over for exotic plant and animal species that might mess with the country’s unique flora and fauna). Five months later, having seen nearly all of both islands, I feel I can safely place a checkmark beside New Zealand on my “places I must see” list… that moves Mongolia up to the third position. Spots one and two remain unchanged, as they have been since 1978, but I don’t see myself getting to Iran or Afghanistan anytime soon.

Roaming in Rohan. Oh, I’m cheating here, combining two moments into one, but getting my LOTR geek on both on the Fields of Pelenor outside Twizel (“Death! DEATH! DEEEEAAAAATH!”) and on the summit of Mt. Sunday, two key locations that served as Rohan in the movies, left me giddy with delight.

Walking the Causeway to and from Holy Island. When I was in England for a couple months early in the year, using up my frequent flyer miles to see the spots I hadn’t yet seen, I found crossing the low-tide-only causeway to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) on the Northumbrian Coast to be a really moving experience. There is such a sense both of history and of spirit in the place, and it was easy to imagine the pilgrims walking over the sand as they did for centuries. It was also rather easy, at least for me, to imagine the Vikings pulling up in their longboats to wreak havoc on the island, ushering in the totally awesome Viking Age (well, not totally awesome if you were on the receiving end of a battle axe, but you know what I mean).

Walking Hadrian’s Wall. I spent a couple dark, dreary, lonely days in January hiking a chunk of what’s left of Hadrian’s Wall in Northern England. The route I chose followed the best preserved parts of the wall, with the foundations of many watchtowers still visible. As with Holy Island, you could feel the history of the place and ponder what it must have been like to be some poor centurion, far from home, stuck out in the middle of a wild and unforgiving, apparently sunless land, or what it might have felt like to be a local, watching the wall go up and divide land your people had considered home for generations. I felt like every stone I passed had a story to tell. Also, the historic Roman toilets at Housesteads were fascinating. And so well-preserved!

Camping Illegally at Rievaulx Abbey. I arrived at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire on foot late in the afternoon on a cold January day with barely enough time to take their excellent audio tour. The ruins are huge and fairly well-preserved, and even rushing a bit, by the time I was done the sun was low in the sky and the caretakers were closing up. The nearest hotel, pub and hostel were miles away. The only other sign of civilization was a farm nearby that had a big TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT sign on its front gate (I’m sure they were kidding, but the place had an unwelcoming look to it). There was nowhere I could get to before dark to spend the night. So I hid behind a wall in the carpark and, once the Abbey grounds were closed for the night and the caretakers left, hopped the fence and set my tent up in an inconspicuous corner. It was a cold night, and a long one, but I like to think the spirits of the abbey kept me cozy and safe.

Hiking to Dunstanburgh Castle. Right about now you’re probably thinking “I’m noticing an awful lot of walking on this list…” What can I say, some people drink, some people smoke, some people watch reality TV. I walk. I’m not the fastest, but I’m reasonably good at it, it’s good for me and it’s how I figure things out. I fell in love with Northern England, Manchester replacing London as my favorite English city, the Lakes District taking my breath away (partly because it was the dead of winter and hella cold… and yes, I camped through the record snowfall there last year) and, most of all, the Northumbrian Coast living up to all my expectations. I waited for years to see it, especially the rugged, lonely ruins of Dunstanburgh, and to finally stand there in the old bailiwick gave me shivers.

Setting Foot on Dartmoor. Right up on my wishlist of seeing Northumbria was visiting the famous moor, which I did in February on my extended hike around England. The beauty and wildness of the place fulfilled all the expectations I’ve had of it since childhood… getting buzzed by an army helicopter on one of my hikes because I ventured onto a live firing range (much of Dartmoor is used for training by the Ministry of Defense) was just a bonus.

Communing with the Dead at Cape Reinga. Standing in the presence of the giant Kauri trees in Northland was an amazing and emotional experience, but visiting lonely Cape Reinga on a gloomy day, when the pohutukawa tree believed to be the gateway to the afterlife was being battered by surf as it clung to the black rocks, mist swirling all around, touched my soul.

Climbing the Slopes of Mt. Doom. Sure, I could call it Mt. Nguruahoe, it’s actual name, but we all know why I hiked there… to walk in the shadow of Mt. Doom!! While the South Island locations used as stand-ins for Rohan in LOTR were my favorite places, actually treading across Mordor and climbing the slopes of Mt. Doom was my favorite LOTR geektastic activity.

My Sixth Triathlon. Every time I do a tri, I feel a tremendous sense of euphoric achievement, even though I am incredibly slack about training for them. The fifth one I did in May, in Florida, was exciting because there were reportedly alligators in the lake we swam across, but the sixth one, in Wisconsin in July, was special for a lot of reasons, including that it marked the return to the site of my very first tri. It started disastrously… riding to the event, I crashed my bike in the predawn darkness and bent the handlebar at a near-90 degree angle. I also got a lovely spread of road rash on one arm. It was tempting to walk my mangled bike back to my car, declare myself an invalid and go back to the nice, comfy bed at Julie and Ev’s, where I was staying. Instead I fixed the handlebar as best I could (the on-site bike mechanic helped straighten it a little more, but ultimately I still had to replace the handlebar), got back in the saddle, so to speak, and went ahead and did the race, logging my second best time ever.

Swimming. Cheating again, combining several moments, but swimming provided me with much excitement this year, whether it was with alligators in Florida, through a lightless cave in Waitomo or giant flesh-eating eel-shark monsters in Lake Wakatipu (I know they’re there). I just learned there’s a place on Stewart Island, off the south coast of the South Island, where you can swim with Great White Sharks. It’s pricey, though. I’m thinking of having a bake sale for a fundraiser…

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