We started our epic road trip in Auckland. After a month in Australia sightseeing with my husband Kevin and toddler Claire, I was traveled out. Tired of the hotels and flights and tours. Tired of the expensive food. Tired of all of it. The first night in New Zealand we ate pizza in our hotel room before crashing, completely unaware that we were about to fall in love with an entire country.
I asked Kevin to stop the car three times within the first two hours out of Auckland so we could take photos. “Everything looks like a Windows 8 screensaver” he commented. It’s vibrant, bright, almost mystical in its beauty – a place so untouched between each small city that photos don’t do it justice. At nearly every turn there was a new waterfall-like something out of the Avatar film. Wild greenery, sharp cliffs, and water gushing into an Eden-like paradise.
I grew up in Utah, a place renowned for its beauty. But New Zealand is a place to be homesick for.
I was hesitant about coming on the trip. Six weeks is a long time to be in a foreign place – even longer when you have a small child and an even smaller bank account. We took out a loan (on top of crushing medical school loans) to afford to travel there, and I began to feel an insurmountable pressure to be as cheap as possible, skip meals, just survive until we got back home. But in the face of all of this beauty, it was difficult to maintain that mindset. We had just landed, just begun, and already I felt desperate not to leave.
Our first stop was in Waitomo, popular for their glowworm caves. Our guide picked us up from our rental home and we were on our way. He talked about the landscape – always changing, thanks to the continual earthquakes. The regular shifts in the land cause sinkholes where cattle and sheep fall into the center of the earth regularly without warning. The glowworm caves were discovered that way. A farmer’s cow wandered off, falling to his death right before the farmer’s eyes into the cave below. Since that discovery several hundred years ago, the caves have grown in popularity to the point that I was skeptical about them. I’ve traveled enough to recognize a tourist trap – but these were something else.
It took nearly 15 minutes for our eyes to adjust inside, but once they did, I felt like the stars were cocooning us, swaying gently though, instead of shooting. It was both beautiful and haunting. The water beneath our raft was pitch black, and I held onto my daughter tightly, both eager to keep her safe and preserve the memory of the moment.
Years ago I read Cheryl Strayed’s popular book, Wild. Pieces of it kept coming to my mind on that drive afterward. “That my complicated life could be made so simple was astounding,” she wrote. When I think of that day now, the road before and after that stop at the caves, those words are the ones I conjure.
Kevin and I committed to learning all of the words to Hamilton’s Non-Stop over those 8 days. I was Alexander Hamilton (naturally) and Kevin was Aaron Burr. We passed rolling green hills. We stopped countless times for snacks and diaper changes and photo ops. And always, in the soundtrack of my mind, I heard, “After the war, I went back to New York. A-After the war I went back to New York. I finished up my studies and I practiced law – I practiced law, Burr worked next door.”
By the end of the 8 days we could do it all. Voices, hand gestures, all of it. Came in really handy for the church talent show six months later.
We spent an entire day hiking the Tongariro Crossing, waking at 4 AM and using flashlights until the morning rays broke through. Some of our fellow hikers blasted The Lord of the Ring soundtrack, since Tongariro Crossing is home to an active volcano, and most of Sam and Frodo’s journey to Mordor was filmed there.
Marshland pocked the wooden steps at the beginning of the trail. Eventually, it morphed into steep switchbacks, complete with rickety metal chains. We entered a valley that was otherworldly. Kevin joked that if you were to blindfold him and drop him there he would wake up and truly believe he was on the moon. Crater-like holes were surrounded by volcanic ash and rock. The summit is so high it looks like you are above the world, with clouds blocking the view of the cities below. Emerald lakes pooled at the bottom of the valley, our reward for a day-long trek. I wanted to cry then, not out of relief, but out of sheer gratitude for this world, and my body, and this experience. It was a dichotomy. Both light and darkness. Quiet and loud. A place I hoped millions after me would visit, all of us summiting the same mountain, forging the same path.
We ditched the car in Wellington and took a flight to Queenstown, in the south of the south island and began our road trip towards the center – but not before we went a little further south. If we thought the north was lovely, the south was striking. The overachieving, better-looking brother to the north. Steep cliffs rose from crystal blue lakes, skimming the clouds with sheer rock and power. Canyons took us to the crest of mountains that housed picturesque valleys, small towns twinkling in the reflection of the moony lakes.
With hours of driving ahead of us to get to Milford Sound, we had a chance to talk for the first time in what felt like years. Kevin had just finished four years of medical school. I was a working parent who had just survived nearly two years of in-the-trenches motherhood to a colicky baby who famously never slept. We had so much to say, with years of unspoken memories and feelings and tensions. When you spend so much time alone there is a lot to unpack.
My memories of road-tripping through New Zealand will always be mixed up with my feelings about my marriage. We left medical school a different couple than we entered it. Not worse, but more calloused. Not the fresh, baby-faced kids we were before. I remember specifically, descending into Wanaka though, after hours of talking and thinking that I would do it all again. The hard days, the nights alone, the debt. I would do it all again to be with him and our daughter, doing this.
If you have thought about visiting the Milford Sound you should keep thinking about it again and again, until you visit it – preferably on a road trip, because the drive there is as cool as the place itself. The closer you get to it, the more waterfalls there are. There must be hundreds on the drive in, the rocks surrounding the roads like veins, water trickling down into rivers and eventually the ocean.
It was pouring – it usually is in Milford, but that didn’t stop us. Our first glance at the fiords drenched us so we just embraced it until Claire was shivering. We got hot chocolate inside the visitors center and then ventured back out until we were all shivering and then we drove home.
The drive back to Queenstown was mostly silent. Claire fell asleep. Kevin and I had said what we needed to say, and after five weeks of traveling together, and nearly a week of road trip talking, we settled into a comfortable quiet. I put my wet shoes on the dash of the car and we listened to Damien Rice on the speakers and we watched the drops of water on the window until they evaporated into the glass.
There are dozens of small memories. The beach stop where we got assaulted by a band of kamikaze mosquitos. A bakery in a small mountain town with banana bread so bad we fed it to the ducks. The winding roads with crazy drivers – most of whom were teenagers in rented vans. I sat next to Claire one whole day because she was finally rebelling after weeks of being schlepped around by us.
We returned home broke. But that’s not what I remember. It sounds cliche I know, to say “Take the trip! Go now! Figure it out later!” But as someone who took out a loan to take a 6-week trip because we had the time, I have to say, I don’t regret it for a minute. Life has gotten more complicated in the past few years. We have another child. My husband gets two weeks of vacation a year. We have more money now, but not more time. Those 8-days road tripping through New Zealand were therapeutic – even necessary for us as a family.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the place. It was the close proximity, the miles of land ahead, and the time, the no-agenda, get there when we get there, pull over again time with the people I love the most.
That’s why you’ve got to take the road trip. Because there’s no way to simulate the experience of daily exploration, uninterrupted conversation, and the silence – the comfortable silence that comes only when you are with the people you love, doing something you love.