Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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The path climbs up out of the rimu, through rata and kamahi, the forest an impenetrable green; dark, misty, wet without rain. Thick, ropey aerial roots of the rata trees twist into loops and arcs or cling to their host trees in close, entwining embrace. The trail is defined by ferns, moss-covered rocks, puddles from earlier rain, straight-sided boulders at switchbacks requiring mantling to surmount. Where a fallen tree blocks the path, I follow footsteps insisting their way upslope, through vegetation clawing at my feet, my arms. Rounding the top of the tree twenty feet above the path, I slide through mud on the downslope back to the trail.

I’m glad of the footsteps, glad to know someone else has been here. In the hour I’ve been hiking, I’ve seen no one. I started late. Anyone serious about getting to Alex Knob would have started earlier. It is 17.2 km there and return. A bit under 11 miles. I’m not considering doing the entire route, although at the rate I’m going, there won’t be time for me to do much at all.

When hiking alone in a place I don’t know, I’m more cautious than I am if someone else is there. On this trail, at each new challenge, I tell myself I’ll just do this one, then turn around at the next. But these little tests are fun and it’s hard to stop. At each “next one,” I can’t resist trying whatever move is necessary, figuring it out, doing it. Besides, even if it’s too late for Alex Knob, I really want to get some distance on the trail. If there had been sun, if I had seen anyone else on the trail, I might not have given the small challenges a thought. Sun makes possible things that seem foreboding in this damp, grey mystery. A few people around means there is someone to alert the outside world if something happens.

There would be no way to even remember the outside world, so deep, so dark, so complete is this forest if it weren’t for the sightseeing helicopters ferrying tourists to close-up views of the glaciers. In rare moments between helicopters, the silence is huge. The helicopters flying up the valley to the glacier are lower than I am, although the forest is too thick to see them. But their sound vibrates through me like a seismic event. In the U.S., so many people have fought so long to keep helicopters away from pristine landscapes. Like snowmobiles in Yellowstone, it is probably too late to do something about helicopters once they’re established. In New Zealand, a lot of people would be out of jobs if helicopters over wild places were cancelled, but all the people walking through those wild places, and the myriad of birds who live in them, would be grateful. And probably saner. (This is not scientific. I have no idea whether birds go insane from constant noise. I, however, would.)

A man appeared, descending the trail. A German in his 20s. Disgruntled, he’d reached Alex Knob early, but the promised view of the Franz Josef glacier never materialized out of the thick fog draping the mountain, removing the valley, the glacier, the rest of life.

An hour later, more Germans -- a couple in their 20s -- also passed, going down. “This trail is too hard,” the woman said, as she tripped over a root in front of her and landed at my feet. “We’re going back to try something else.”

Three more German men in their 20s, passed me on their separate ways down. I was the only person climbing up the trail, the only non-German, the only person over 30.

I should have asked one of them the time, I thought, feeling hungry, wondering if it was late as I approached an ancient tree forming an arch across the trail. On my side of the arch, a flat, mossy bank seemed a good place to eat. But drawn to the arch, I continued on, walking through it, then a few yards further up the trail. Now, really hungry, and finding no place to sit beyond the arch, I retraced my steps back through it, returned to the mossy bank, took off my pack, pulled out my lunch, sat, ate. Finished eating, I packed up and simply started down the trail, for an instant wondering whether I was wimping out. At that exact moment, the sun came out for the first time all day. Pouring through a space essentially clear of trees to my right, it spilled in brilliant light on the trail. So, I was supposed to turn around, I thought. I’m doing the right thing. Sun glittered on water drops on leaves, on moss, on rock. The entire forest seemed covered with diamonds. Where sun fell through trees, backlighting them, or streaming in rays between them, the forest became a luminescent place.

It was the briefest of suns. Existing only for that stretch of path, it disappeared entirely as I entered uninterrupted depth of forest. It was only for me, a personal message from the universe that turning back was right. As the forest darkened, I became aware of the absence of helicopters, late enough, apparently, that they were retired for the night.

Descending is harder for me than climbing up. Going up, you have the thing, whatever it is – a trail, a rock, a wall -- in front of you. Going down, you have open space in front of you. I was concerned about getting down all those places I’d found challenging on the climb up, but everything was far easier than I’d imagined. Even the fallen tree was not a problem. From this –higher – side of the path, I could actually crawl under it. Except for occasional glimpses of light in the western sky, the trail, the forest, became increasingly dark.

By the end of the Alex Knob trail, at its junction with the broad Wombat Lake Walk, there remained a wan light that stayed with me along the descending, gravel path. It was still present as I walked along the road from the small trailhead parking area toward the village of Franz Josef Glacier – almost an hour away by foot. I imagined that David (who had spent the day with the photography group he was leading) would somehow intuit when I would get down from the hike and simply be there, waiting to give me a ride. This has happened before.

He wasn’t there. I held out my thumb to hitch a ride as the only two approaching vehicles on the road passed. Neither stopped. (Uh oh . . . I guess one needs to be younger to hitch . . . I never used to have a problem . . .). Something drew my eye to mountains on my right. Turning toward them, I was in time to see the top edge of a huge moon emerge. Rising quickly into sky, it was smiling. So, I’m supposed to be making this walk at this time, I thought, as cheered as I had been by the appearance of sun on the trail, as convinced now, as then, I was being given the message that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

I continued on toward town, crossing-- on a footbridge attached to the vehicle bridge-- the Waiha River issuing out of the Franz Josef glacier. By the time I was across, it was total night. Halfway through the village, by now quite tired, I saw the vehicle David had rented coming toward me. It drove past. I stopped where I was, staring after it, not believing it had just gone by. A short way down the road the vehicle made a u-turn.

“Glad you recognize me,” I said to David.


Copyright © 2013 Ruth Rudner