I often muse on the great paradox of travel: That I can leave pieces of my heart and soul scattered in quiet longing over mountains and across oceans and in little quiet corners of the world where I've been, yet each time I return home more a whole, with a greater capacity for wonder and adoration than when I first began. This is the story of a journey that devastated me, brought me to unexpected heights, and gave me new eyes through which to see the world.
At the end of November 2017, Caleb and I were set to embark on the trip of a lifetime to the wild home of Middle Earth and the curious little Kiwi bird: New Zealand. My first exposure to images of this impossibly beautiful island nation came in the form of celluloid. From the moment I saw the sweeping panoramas in the Fellowship of the Ring on the big screen at age 14, I was entranced. Having only ever lived my short life upon the unvaried terrain of Michigan, I could scarcely believe that one small country contained all of the landscapes of Middle Earth in a nutshell just barely twice the size of my own state. So it was that, 16 years later, I found myself packing my camera gear and my best exploring clothes to board a plane and make my acquaintance with that magical place. Though I knew I was in for a special kind of adventure on this trip, no dream in the world could have prepared me for the roller coaster of fear, uncertainty, self-discovery, divine providence, and breathless beauty that I would experience over the next 9 days.
Caleb and I left our house at around 4 in the morning to catch a flight out of Toronto. The flights to New Zealand were the most expensive we’ve ever bought, and we didn’t want any risk of being late for boarding. I had asked Caleb to carry a few of my things that wouldn’t fit in my own bag. Grabbing his backpack as a last minute carry on, we rushed out the door. Little did either of us know that the handgun he is licensed to carry in our home state was sitting, loaded, in the pocket of that same backpack. A bit of backstory on Caleb. He comes from a family of law enforcement and military, he graduated in the top of his class from the police academy, and he is an active member of the security team at our church. He has trained extensively with firearms, and he has had a concealed carry license for many years. So you can imagine the complete and utter shock on both of our faces when Toronto airport security officers took Caleb into custody after scanning our baggage, informing us that there was a loaded handgun in his backpack. I remember looking at Caleb’s expression and watching every bit of color drain from his face as he heard the officer’s words. For about 10 minutes before that, we thought all the hubbub at the security scan was over some camera flashes we’d packed. The trip took a quick nightmare turn after that. One of the officers, a stout and aggravated man, approached me to question me while they took Caleb into an interrogation room nearby. I rushed to acknowledge the severity of the mistake that had just been made. “I am so sorry to cause trouble. I know this is a big deal, I can assure you that neither of us had any idea”- “You’re damn right it’s a big deal! Even in your own country it’s a big deal!” I nodded my understanding, and elected to bite my tongue for the moment until things calmed down a bit. After another ten minutes and thorough examination of my things, I was told I could take the rest of the baggage and continue on to my gate. One of the officers sympathetically tried to give me some hope, meager though it was. “Hopefully he’ll be able to get on a later flight and catch up with you when this is all over.” Walking toward the gate alone, the grim nature of the situation began to set in and I felt my heart began to pound against the very walls holding it in. What if he doesn’t catch up to me? I’m going to be on the other side of the world, with a wedding to photograph, by myself. Once I reached my gate, I called dad on the phone. He answered with his usual chipper, “Well hello, beautiful!” And that familiar comforting voice was all it took for the floodgates to burst and the tears to begin pouring unhindered. While the other passengers sitting around me looked on in curious pity, I babbled and sobbed out the story of what had just happened. Dad listened, prayed with me for peace and strength, then told me not to worry; he would take care of things with Caleb. Comforted that I had a lifeline, I went on to call my best friend Lina. Ready to spring into action to help in any way she could, she told me to keep in touch as much as I could over the next 24 hours that I would be on planes and navigating layovers. With a promise and a deep breath, I hung up the phone and got on the plane to begin my long journey.
On my first layover, upon touching down in Vancouver, my phone exploded with texts and phone calls. Many of these were from a number I didn’t recognize. I had several texts from a detective who introduced himself as the one in charge of Caleb. He asked me to “give a call ASAP with regards to your husband”. I hustled myself and my four heavy carry-on bags to my next gate, fingers burning from the weight of everything. I found a seat, and quickly dialed up the detective. After he had introduced himself, the detective went on to explain that Caleb was doing fine and eating dinner in his cell. He told me that Caleb’s greatest concern was for me in all of this. While I silently cursed back the tears that threatened to spill again, the officer filled me in on the entire situation, the next steps that would be taken, and best and worst case scenarios. He said he was convinced that Caleb was completely innocent and had no intention to do anyone harm. He said that he was hopeful for the outcome, and encouraged me to do my best to enjoy the trip despite the circumstances. Try this for irony: The detective himself had gotten married in New Zealand years earlier, and said it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. Once I got off the phone with the detective, I called dad. It was looking pretty clear at this point that Caleb would not be allowed to continue on to join me. I asked hesitantly if dad might be able to help fly Lina out to help me photograph the wedding. Without a second thought, but still hopeful for Caleb’s quick release, dad said he would happily pay for a ticket. Next, I called Lina. Understanding that my best friend is very much a small-town girl and happy to be one, she has always been terrified at the thought of navigating airports and foreign countries alone. That’s my dream, but something that never really had a draw for her. When I asked her if she might possibly be willing and able to come help me on the opposite side of the world, I could practically hear the breath catch in her throat at the prospect. With only a slight waver in her brave voice, she told me that she would confirm with work, but that I could go ahead and book the tickets and she would be there for me. In that moment, juggling multiple critical situations at once and all of them up in mid-air, I boarded yet another plane. This time, I would be without phone service for 15 hours. As we were taxiing along the runway, I furiously navigated the flight booking website to get Lina’s ticket reserved. The internet service was spotty and cut in and out at intervals, as if teasing me in my hour of dire need. As I finally got to the end of the payment screen and clicked “submit details”, the internet cut out and my payment was unprocessed. Lina was to fly out only one day later, but I would have to book her ticket when I landed in New Zealand. It was a fitful night of sleep over the Pacific Ocean. The feverish dreams filling my head only woke me to a more frightening reality.
Just before 6am, the plane finally began to descend over Auckland. As I got my first glimpse of the rugged green mountain peaks and hazy puffs of mist hanging over the valleys, my heart swelled with glad excitement for the first time in days. At last, here was the place I’d dreamed of for all these years!
I had no trouble picking up both large checked bags at baggage claim. Priority one. With 6 bags in total, I schlepped it all to a corner of the room so I could sit down with my laptop and book Lina’s flight. Priority number two. I was once again met with a great deal of trouble from the internet, and I finally gave up after 30 minutes and almost as many tries at waiting for web pages to load. Frustrated and tired, I guided all of my bags into the line to clear customs and exit the airport. The customs and baggage scan attendants both greeted me with huge, warm smiles. After applying a stamp to my passport book, the customs guy sent me on my way with a cheery, “we’re so glad you’re here! Enjoy yourself!” Oh, that heavenly accent. Out in the terminal, a towering, stern-faced dwarf of stone stood sentinel. If only Caleb could see this! I thought, He’d be just as giddy as I am!
Making my way out into the warm sunshine of New Zealand’s November summer, I waited for the shuttle to my rental car. At the desk of the rental office, I was finally able to get Lina’s plane ticket booked. With my car secured, luggage loaded up, and directions to my Airbnb house pulled up on my phone, I began to feel like things would be alright. I could breathe again. Then I drove out onto the road to be met with the red glow of the car's dashboard lit up with warning lights. A quick stop back at the rental office got me set right in a matter of minutes, and I learned that the parking brake was a third pedal down next to the brake pedal, engaged any time the car was in park. Rookie tourist mistake. Laughing at myself, I took to the road again, this time successfully. It was around 2.5 hours’ drive from the city of Auckland down to Waitomo, where my Airbnb house was located. The drive was mostly freeway, and the surroundings were subtropical, with swaths of palm trees and giant yucca plants lining the roads. I could see great mountains far in the distance, excited to be heading towards them. I stopped at a grocery 15 minutes from my destination, and was amused to see the shopping carts under a sign that read, “trundlers”. I decided this was a much better word than “carts”. I stocked up on every sort of junk food imaginable, including my guilty pleasure, Lindor truffles. Of course I also grabbed some fruit – mainly kiwis – and fixings for sandwiches. The food I saw was surprisingly similar to what I’m used to back home. Adding grocery bags to my bags of luggage in the tiny Nissan rental, I continued the last leg of my drive home. Winding up and up into the mountains, past an ostrich farm and several cave exploration tours, through the little village of Waitomo with their glow worm caves, I climbed as the road grew more narrow. The dense tropical trees and vines surrounded me on both sides, and the sun streamed through the greenery with its afternoon warmth. At last I came to the sign at the side of the road, “Rock Retreat”. Taking this little gravel path up a steep incline, I climbed even higher through the middle of rolling sheep pastures The hills were adorned with natural limestone pillars jutting out of the green earth, and clusters of purple lupine flowers. Halfway up that road, I was met with such a stunning view over the distant mountains that I couldn’t help but stop the car to get out and stare.
Even on such a bright and sunny day, the expanse of plains and mountains before me went on for so many miles that the most distant peaks were shrouded in a haze of blue mist. Of all the unexpected blessings, I was soon to discover that this magnificent view would be the sight outside my window for the rest of that week. Just above me on the top of the hill, my Airbnb house sat perched like the tiny slice of heaven it was. Perfectly appointed within the minimum amount of space, the little house somehow managed to feel spacious with its large windows and high ceilings. The house runs exclusively on solar power, and boasts a covered patio that runs the entire length of the building, overlooking the rolling hills and mountains toward Waitomo.
After unpacking my things and soaking in the view from the patio, I fell into an undeterred deep sleep for hours. The bed was so soft, the air so warm, and the bird songs just beyond the patio were so sweet. By the time I woke up, it was dinner time and a storm had rolled in. At the invitation of my host family, I groggily wandered next door to introduce myself, looking more disheveled than I cared to acknowledge. I met the whole family, including their two sweet girls, their dog Leif, and their cat, Mr. Tumnus. The girls showed me their drawings and thrilled at the travel pictures on my Instagram. After a cup of tea, I said my goodnights and headed back to my house at dusk. In a surge of jet lagged madness, determined to squeeze every last drop of adventure out of my time here, I went a little crazy with the itinerary that night. I booked quite a few excursions and tours for the days to come, including a private helicopter charter to an active volcanic island the next morning.
I woke naturally at 3am, since Michigan time is a day behind, but 6 hours ahead on the clock. I took my time getting started, eating my bowl of cereal at a glacial pace as I mulled over and over my thoughts. By this time, Lina, Rich, and dad had begun the grueling 7-hour drive through the night to Toronto to pick up Caleb from the Toronto jail. Lina would be taking off shortly on the first flight of her journey, and I would be picking her up the following morning. It was a 4 hour drive to the helicopter charter, and I decided to get an early start so I could do some wandering in downtown Otorohanga on my way there. I came upon several unexpected beautiful spots along the drive that had me occasionally pulling off to the side of the road just to appreciate the view. The 4 hour drive became more like a 5 1/2 hour drive with some incredible sightseeing.
Arriving at the hangar for my 2 O’clock charter, I met the other two passengers who would be accompanying me on the trip. A father and son, fellow Americans from Orlando. The three of us were given hard hats and ventilator masks before setting out along with our pilot for a 40 minute flight over the shimmering waters of the Pacific.
From the cockpit, I spotted a pod of dolphins below us, easily visible in the crystal clear water below. As we got within half a mile of the imposing shape of “Whakaari”, the White Island, I observed columns of insidious-looking white smoke billowing a mile high. The unmistakable tang of sulfur filled my nostrils and slammed the back of my throat as if with physical force.
We flew a perimeter around the island as we made our descent toward the landing pad in the crater. Around the back side of the volcano, we could see hairline cracks all along the wall – a herald of the impending mammoth collapse of the volcano wall into the crater. Setting foot on that barren, sulfur tinged earth was surreal. Not a speck of life in sight, plant or animal. Tiny rivers of acidic water snaked along the ground, bordered with crystallized orange and yellow deposits as bright as any hue I’ve seen. Pits of bubbling liquid gave off clouds of smoke from below, some clear liquid and some muddy and thick like boiling chocolate milk. We were sternly warned not to step too close to the pits, lest we fall through the thin ground into the scalding hot liquid. It was a more post-apocalyptic scene than any I’ve seen in a movie.
The skeletal remains of a turn-of-the-century sulfur mine still sit near on the black sand near the beach. The misguided attempt of an operation was cut abruptly short when the outflow of a volcanic eruption wiped out every one of the workers with its rapid consumption of everything in its path. 100-year old metal machinery sits wasting away in an impressive state of decay, looking about eight centuries older than its true age. Rods of steel used to fortify cement walls have long melted into orange stains, leaving the cement to crumble in on itself. The relentless salt from the Pacific that lingers in the very air gives no rest to the metal elements in its domain. In stark contrast however, the wood inlays and doorways of the structure look as if they’d been erected only days ago. Just as firm and smooth as the day the mine opened.
Approaching the massive heart of the volcano's crater, I spotted two small lakes of milky turquoise at the very bottom. Our guide explained that this water often fills the entirety of the crater, around 300 feet deep, and other times is just small ponds like we were looking at. The water level fluctuates almost as much as its color, determined by the diverse cocktail of minerals and micro-organisms it contains at the moment. At all times, the water is so extremely acidic that it could completely dissolve a human body within minutes. We’re talking a pH level of about 1. As we processed this information with hard gulps, my eyes caught a small black speck on one of the islands in the crater. Our guide explained that a Canadian goose had unwittingly flown into the crater a couple days before, tired and malnourished, and further hampered by the harsh surroundings, he eventually died there. What possessed that bird to do such a thing? Poor little airhead.
I drove home that evening in a maelstrom the likes of which I have never seen before. The rain pelted the roof and windshield of that little car so hard that the roar of it was deafening. Among the mountains to my right, blinding splinters of lightning illuminated the rugged landscape in white-hot bursts. Such a fiercely beautiful display of creation. I slept the rock-like sleep of a world weary traveler that night.
Meanwhile in Canada, completely unknown to any of us, Caleb was clad in an orange jumpsuit keeping his back to the wall in Maplehurst prison. He had already spent two days in a holding cell, and Canadian law doesn’t allow for a suspect to be held any longer than this. Since dad had not yet arrived to pay bail and escort Caleb back into the United States as required, Caleb was transferred to Maplehurst until dad arrived to collect him. To make the situation even more interesting, Caleb was placed in the cell block assigned to house convicted violent offenders. Due to the strict nature of Canadian gun laws, all gun crimes are treated as violent offenses. Hence the unlikely story of how my straight-laced, preacher husband found himself bunking and lunching with murderers in a Canadian prison for 24 hours. Though he described the feeling of the place as miserable and dark, he was given the incredible opportunity to preach the gospel to the men there with him. The entirety of his cell block heart about Christ that day, and many brought questions and objections that Caleb was able to interact with. He says this alone was worth the discomfort and uncertainty he had experienced over the course of those turbulent 48 hours.
Before the sun rose over the mountains of Waitomo on Thursday, I was up, showered, and eating my breakfast of fruit and cheese. I had intended to be waiting by the giant stone dwarf at the Auckland airport when Lina got off the plane that morning, but a traffic jam on the way to the airport thwarted those plans. What a merciful sight for sore eyes she was! Standing there in the busy terminal with determined, red-rimmed eyes and her hair in a disheveled bun on top of head, Lina was the picture of an unyielding warrior in a pink sweatshirt. After huge hugs, she filled me in on the chaos and confusion of her journey to reach me. She was brimming with gratefulness that the worst of it was behind her, that she had faced and overcome one of her greatest fears to come rescue me. We scarfed down some airport sushi in grateful silence before hitting the road for the 2.5 hours back to Waitomo. Entering the little town of Otorohanga, Lina pointed out a billboard with a giant photo of an ice cream cone advertising “real fruit ice cream”. We both commented simultaneously how good it looked. It might sound like an odd time, but I remember feeling a rush of mixed emotions in that moment: The implications of Sunday’s disastrous turn, the fading adrenaline of the past 72 hours, and a swell of happy contentment now that my dearest friend was beside me to help me navigate the journey. Smiling to myself, I mused out loud, “why not.” With an twist of the steering wheel, I turned into the gravel lot. We wandered into the farm store, soaking in the warmth of the sun. We sniffed and sampled their locally made lotions and admired their fresh fruit stands before ordering a couple of ice cream cones. Lina got kiwi, and I picked raspberry. We watched them be made, tasty little seeds and all blended into the perfect soft serve texture. Absolutely the best ice cream we’ve ever had!
Cones in hand, we wandered out to the pasture behind the store, where about a dozen baby calves stood drowsing in the shade of a palm tree. Refreshed and content, we finished the short drive to our place just up the road. Lina was by this time already a huge fan of the lush landscape, but she was decidedly OBSESSED with the little solar house on the hilltop. If she could choose a type of house to live in, this would be it. Simple, quiet, cozy, and with a view to beat any in a magazine spread. Add a dash of balmy sub-tropical weather and a refreshing shower, and Lina was completely settled in and ready to do some more exploring. I had booked us a tour of the Glow Worm Caves for that afternoon, since these little blue guys are Waitomo’s claim to fame. I figured we may never get a chance to see glowing worms again, and they’re right up the road. Again, why not? When we got the tour site, a sudden rainstorm hit with a vengeance. Much like the storm I had driven through the night before, it came on with massive raindrops and mighty gusts of wind that bent the palm trees low under its weight. Apparently tropical rain falls a bit differently than we’re used to in the Midwestern plains of the United States, who knew? Getting caught in that powerful, sudden storm was a new kind of exhileration.
As we headed into the dark caves with our tour group, we were unsure of what to expect from this expedition. Two minutes later, standing in an open space with cathedral ceilings and an elaborate maze of limestone tunnels around us, we were dazzled. We took in the spectacle of massive stalactites that stretched from the high ceiling down to a foot above the ground in front of us. These mammoth formations grow at a glacial pace of about 1 cubic centimeter every 100 years. Suffice it to say, we were forbidden from touching any of the limestone around us, wall or stalactite. Nearing the end of our cave walk, we were given a brief crash-course on the life cycle of the glow worm. These little creatures, most accurately called maggots, live 9 months in their larval stage. During this time, they dangle a small silk string out of their bodies, similar to a spider’s web, to catch insects that they attract with the blue glowing light of their bodies. The food is what gives them energy to glow, and the glow is what in turn brings in more food. Once this 9 month stage is finished, the worm finally becomes a fly – with no mouth and no stomach. The fly is only alive for a period of two days, during which its only purpose is to reproduce. It lays about 100 eggs in groupings of 20, and only one egg from each grouping survives to become a worm. This surviving worm then eats the rest of the eggs around it for energy, giving it the ability to glow. And so begins the cycle anew. In the next dark room, tinged with the scent of musty damp, we filed onto a tiny, slippery rowboat with the rest of our 25-person group. We were packed so tightly onto those narrow seats that we were nearly sitting on top of one another. We were instructed to keep very quiet so as not to disturb the life in the cave. All lights were extinguished as we pushed away from the platform into the still, black water. We heard nothing but the hushed breathing of our neighbor passengers and the echoing drips of the cave around us. The boat moved slowly into a cavernous space, lit only by the pale blue glow of thousands of tiny blue lights above us. Even the previously disinterested pair of gangster-looking guys in their snapback hats gasped their profanity-laced amazement at the sight overhead. The boat lingered for a few minutes in the cave before continuing around a bend and up the river where a bit of daylight could be seen. Thoroughly impressed and satisfied with our day’s accomplishments and discoveries, Lina and I headed home to rest up before the big wedding in New Plymouth the next day.
December 1st: The date that had been marked with anticipation in my calendar for nearly a year, and the purpose of our trip. Photographing a wedding is no small task. There is a great deal of pressure that comes with capturing memories which will be treasured and shared and framed and admired for a lifetime and beyond. When that wedding is in a country far from your own, and the couple have done you the honor of paying for your specific skills and artistic perspective to document their day out of hundreds of other photographers in their own country, that pressure is compounded a hundred times. For this reason, whenever I wake up for a wedding day abroad, I’m somewhat beside myself with nerves and disorganized thoughts. Lina and I were up around 3am, prepping equipment and loading up the little car for the three hour journey to New Plymouth. The drive was unexpectedly breathtaking, and took us through a landscape far different from what we’d seen so far. The first hour had us climbing and dipping along a winding mountain pass, with panoramic views of jagged cliffsides above rainforest, or sweeping peaks and valleys draped in mist and the first golden light of dawn. We must’ve gasped in amazement about 30 times that first hour. One of the most spectacular drives of my life. Once we emerged from the mountain road, we continued on a straight highway that hugged the expansive shoreline of the western coast. We had wanted to pull over to take pictures several times that morning and had kept going out of our determination to be early. But when we caught sight of the sparkling waters of the Pacific tumbling on a stark beach of mirrored black sand, we could resist the urge no longer. Standing on the beach was like something out of a dream! The sand was so dark and smooth that it had the look of polished marble. I could see the white clouds above me reflected perfectly beneath my feet. I made sure to scoop up a little bit of the sand in the water bottle I was holding, to keep a piece of that place as a memory.
Promising ourselves we would return to the beach the following day, we reluctantly headed back to the car to continue down the coast toward New Plymouth. Far ahead of schedule, we turned onto our destination street. The address was meant to be a salon in urban New Plymouth, but we were pulling up to an abandoned looking house on a run-down residential street. Uh ohhhhh…. This was not good. I checked the directions again. Kings Street. Same name, same building number. No way was this the place. Then I saw the problem – we weren’t in New Plymouth at all! We were in a neighborhood about 20 minute outside of the city. Wiping sweat from our foreheads and chuckling nervously, we restarted the GPS and continued on. From that point, the day was a wonderful blur of excitement and chaos. We met up with the sweet bride and her posse in the bustling metropolis of New Plymouth. We scoped out the incredible venue in the middle of the city’s vast nature preserve. We saw a real live meerkat sunning himself. We found a secret waterfall, watched dusk fall over Mt Taranaki, and I got the worst sunburn of my life. Exhausted and feeling accomplished, we headed home under the darkening sky.
First on our itinerary for Saturday morning was an 8am tour of the Hobbiton movie set. This was the part of the trip that I had been most excited about! I’d booked the earliest tour spot available in order to beat the crowds, and to chase that beautiful golden early morning light. We were one of the first cars to arrive to the tour office in the rolling green hills of Matamata. Even though there were two 8am tours, our bus was the first of the day. I didn’t yet know how much of a great thing this was, until later when we were nearing the end of our tour. Looking back across the site, about 10 separate tour groups were visible at different points along the path, spaced out only a few minutes from each other. Maximum number of tours, maximum amount of money made. Seeing this, we were so grateful for the chance to get the feel of the place as it might have been on an early Saturday morning in the Shire – peaceful and sleepy with nothing but the noise of the streams and the singing birds to convince you that you’re standing in a real place and not simply staring at a photograph. This wide-open piece of paradise was hand-picked by Peter Jackson because of its lush rolling hills and absence of modern distractions. Not a road or a telephone pole sullies the horizon as far as the eye can see. It’s truly as if you’ve been picked up and placed in the middle of a little universe untouched by the modern age.
The land was, and still is, owned by a generational family of sheep farmers who run their operations around the movie set. Full of our usual curiosity, Lina and I trailed behind our tour group, photographing everything in sight and squealing with delight over the tiny baskets of pastries and miniature mailboxes outside each hobbit hole. The detail of the set is painstaking and authentic, from the hand painted flower borders on rocking chairs to the little hobbit-sized garments hanging on the clothes lines. If you look very carefully into the windows of each home, you can see the occasional little glass vase containing a single daffodil, or a loaf of bread cooling on the sill.
Our enthusiastic tour guide regaled our group with stories of the filming of the movies and the antics of the cast and crew that even my extensive geeky research had not informed me of. We were especially impressed to learn that the tree at the very top of Bag End was once a real tree which Peter Jackson selected and had brought to the set in several pieces, then reconstructed for the filming of the Lord of the Rings. Years later, for the Hobbit movies, he needed to replicate this tree exactly. He had his crew use the footage of the real tree, analyze and create a 3D digital model, then convert that model into a lifelike acrylic and polymer copy of the tree. Wait, it gets better. Once the crew had completed this task down to the last detail, Peter Jackson decided that the color of the leaves was not the exact shade of green he needed it to be. So back to work the crew went, hand painting every last one of the leaves on that tree with meticulous care. That same tree stands atop Bag End at this moment, an homage to the dedication of the people that helped bring Middle Earth to life in our world. We were delighted to have the chance to actually step inside the doorway of one hobbit hole.
Most of the doorways of the constructed dwellings were only made large enough for one or two people to fit inside, since filming of hobbit hole interiors happened mostly in a studio. The foyer of Bag End, on the other hand, needed to have the capacity to fit 140 of the cast and crew, along with all of their video and sound equipment. The last stop on our tour was over the bridge and past the old millhouse to the fabled Green Dragon pub. Shamelessly, Lina and I scurried over the bridge ahead of the rest of our group to reach the door first. Inside, we were given cold mugs of ginger beer which we took to a table in the back of the room beside a tiny window in a patch of warm sunlight.
On our walk back to the tour bus, we passed Hobbiton’s quintessential lake and its row of three tiny hobbit holes situated beneath Bilbo’s party tree on the hill, all reflected in the lake’s glass-like surface. What an iconic sight! I’d seen this very image countless times on a movie screen since age 14. “I have to go stand over there, just for a moment,” I shout-whispered to Lina as I took off running toward the hobbit holes. Lina photographed my mad dash to the opposite bank of the lake and back again as several other tourists watched in amusement. Now, whenever I see the image of that lake and trio of hobbit holes, I’ll remember my adrenaline fueled sprint, and I’ll smile to myself with satisfaction. Another life goal checked off the list with a flourish.
On the way back home, we took a pit stop at the Waitomo grocery to grab some snacks. We planned to try the Vegemite that our hosts had stocked in the fridge for us, but we weren’t ready to take the bet that we’d want to fill up on the curious stuff just yet. Taking some advice from a Hugh Jackman interview we’d seen on YouTube, we lightly toasted a couple slices of bread before applying a light skimming of the dark and pungent spread to the surface. The verdict was unanimous - salty yet satisfying! Once we’d had lunch, we set out to drive the same stunning mountain pass we’d taken toward New Plymouth the day before. Our hope was to take the drive slow and soak up the views along the way, ultimately ending up at the same ethereal black sand beach we promised we’d return to. That beach ended up becoming our holy grail, and a seemingly unattainable one at that. The GPS took us a different way toward New Plymouth than it had the previous morning, and we spent an hour and a half driving about on nameless dirt roads among the sheep pastures, getting no closer to beach regardless of which way we turned. Eventually we came within dangerous proximity of an empty tank of gas. A simple gas station then became our holy grail in place of the glorious beach. We passed a hot spring to one side of us, all vibrant turquoise and beckoning. Onward we forged, knowing that our few drops of gas probably wouldn’t sustain a re-ignition of the engine. We came at last to a crossroads at which sat a beautiful little petrol station and convenience store.
After filling up the tank, conversing with the friendly station attendants, and stocking up on all sorts of exotic flavored soft drinks to sample on our drive, we got back on the road to return home. I had booked a massage with a local therapist for 6pm, and we had used up all our beach time getting lost on the back roads of Waitomo. The therapist arrived at the door of our little bungalow right on time, setting up her table on the sheltered patio and queuing some ethereal spa music. When I lay down at the beginning of the hour, the sun was shining and birds were singing. When I sat up at the end, black clouds had rolled in and a light mist had begun to shower the landscape. Much to our sorrow, Lina and I realized that there would be no chance to return to the beach. Even so, we were determined to fit in one of our signature adventurous photo sessions before this most epic journey of ours came to its end. Not sure where we were headed, we picked a direction and struck out once more into the rain in search of a striking mountain horizon to use as our backdrop. We found just such a horizon lying beyond the borders of a fenced-in sheep pasture. The sun was hanging low in the sky and blazing bright orange through a gap in the clouds, illuminating the fine mist as it fell on the green hills. Perfectly still and silent, but for the gently pervasive whisper of the rain settling onto the earth. Everything glowed with a soft golden radiance. The sight was nothing short of magic. For a moment, it was as if we’d discovered a place too perfect to belong on the earth we knew. Too untouched and peaceful to be part of an industrialized modern world. With hushed admiration and bare feet, Lina and I carefully crept underneath the pasture’s electric fence, through a wooden gate, and out onto the open hillside to take in the view of the distant shadowed mountains.
We spent as long as we could on that hillside, until the sun left us standing beneath a quickly graying sky. Drenched and blissful, we returned to our car and drove home.
Sunday morning: THE BIG road trip day. I had planned a guided tour through the bowels of WETA workshop’s top-secret bunker, and a stop at the national park which served as the set for Rivendell in Lord of the Rings. Only catch: all these gems are located 6 hours south of Waitomo in the seaside town of Wellington. At 3am, the alarm sounded its obnoxious squawk. We sprang out of bed and demolished a couple of bowls of cereal before running to the car to start our long trek. Though we began in the dark, the sun rose less than two hours into our drive. The rich and diverse scenery around us, as expected, made the journey a thoroughly captivating one. Between conversation, Lina furiously worked to take photos of the passing landscapes, doing her best to capture the snow covered peak of a mountain in the distance, or the way the dawn’s light fell between the dewy branches of trees.
Around 9am, two hours before tour start time, we stopped to fill up on gas and cream filled donuts. Further down the coast, we began to see glimpses of the rugged shoreline and crashing waves, signaling that Wellington was just ahead. Our route into Miramar took us along the edge of the city, with its colorful harbor and abstract sculptures. Miramar, an upscale suburb of Wellington, is the Beverly Hills of New Zealand. This is the heart of the filmmaking industry in the country, and where many studio owners and actors have permanent residence, including the famed director Peter Jackson.
But before you start envisioning grand mansions with gates surrounding perfectly manicured acreage, let me tell you that Miramar is much more sensible. The homes are beautiful, but not gratuitous. The streets are manicured, but not showy. In fact, as we pulled onto the street where WETA sits, we felt as though we were in a typical suburban neighborhood. WETA’s exterior looks something like an auto repair garage on a sleepy street, modest and inconspicuous. But for the giant trolls outside the entrance, I would have questioned the address. Inside, the workshop proved to be anything but inconspicuous! A hulking, life-size likeness of Lurtz the orc stood in the entryway, muscles flexed and sharp teeth bared in a menacing sneer. Above the service desk, a frighteningly lifelike Moria goblin crouched with a bow and arrow, ready to pounce.
Glass cases displayed actual props, prosthetics and wardrobe from movies like the Hobbit, King Kong, and Narnia. The helms of Sauron and Aragorn were of particular interest to me. We saw dozens of the most intricate set models and figurines, each in such a state of graphic re-creation that they looked as if they might awake into movement at any moment. And if I stared long enough, was that a bit of movement I saw in that cloak caught up in the wind? Lina and I were like frenzied children in a toy store, running this way and that, losing each other and nearly bumping into each other again as we rushed to show the other something new we’d found. This was only the home base of the tour, and we had yet to discover the inner secrets of the studio’s workshop.
At 11, we were herded onto a little bus to be brought to the back of the warehouse. As we entered a side door, we were welcomed with a screen the size of the wall in front of us, showing a montage of scenes from the studio’s most illustrious movie projects. My stomach was up in my throat at this point, and I could barely contain my giddiness. The guide, a petite little Kiwi with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, told us that we may under no circumstances record or photograph anything beyond this point, since some things are not owned by the workshop and some projects are still in top secret development. Wide-eyed and nearly shivering with anticipation, we moved with our group into the first room of the warehouse. At the center of the space, three life size dwarves appeared poised in ferocious battle stances, fully armed. One of them was seated atop a large boar with his axe raised above his head and an adrenaline-induced snarl on his face. The incredible lifelikeness and exquisite detail of the scene had us mesmerized. The guide went to the opposite wall of the room and picked up the first in a line of about 5 dwarf helms at different stages of production. She explained each stage of armor creation, from concept sketches to 3D printing, to the painting and manual distressing of each piece to make it look worn and dirty. We moved into another room called the armoury, a large warehouse space with a window overlooking the machines that help create the many swords and other weapons used in WETA’s projects. Boromir and Aragorn’s broad swords hung on the wall with many others, and Gandalf’s staff among them. In the corner of the space loomed a scrupulous “bigature” model of Caspian’s castle from the Narnia movies. In the opposite corner sat a massive, functional replica of the Warthog combat vehicle from Halo. This was apparently such a hit with the WETA staffers that one of them recently used it as transport on his wedding day. My favorite stop on our tour was a narrow, L-shaped room that looked something like a storage closet for the most awesome backstage props known to man. Rows of shelves held scraps of silicone “skin” that the workshop uses to transform their mechanical creatures into convincing humanoids. Realistic eyeballs, hair swatches and hands complete with fingernails lay on the shelves in organized chaos. A robotic bust of a soldier with stubble facial hair sat next to a red button. Only the front of his face was completed and concealed with silicone skin, while the sides and back exposed all of the mechanics inside. I tentatively pushed the button down and watched as his face changed expressions and his eyes blinked. I peeked around the corner from the shelves that had caught and held everyone’s attention for the moment. There, towering over 9 feet tall against the far wall, stood the full body armor of Sauron, complete with menacing spiked helm and claw-like gauntlets. I gasped out loud and made my way slowly closer to it, as if hoping not to wake the Dark Lord from slumber. Though the armor was crafted of dense foam, it looked every bit like a sinister black iron belonging to a different age. Moving into the last room of our cave tour, a charging figure of Azog the Defiler stood over the entrance with his sword raised to strike. Thankfully we were permitted to take photos in this room, since I’m sure I would have gotten myself in some trouble otherwise.
After tour number one, we were famished. We wandered just a block up the street from the workshop to a little corner café that was bustling with lunchtime patrons. We claimed a little round table by a sunny window and filled up on fabulous pasta, musing on how close we must be to Peter Jackson’s house and his private collection of movie memorabilia. A second warehouse tour and some extensive souvenir shopping later, we’d spent almost two hours longer than expected at the WETA site. Thoroughly inspired, we headed on to our second and final destination for the day; Kaitoke Regional Park, the lush, forested site of Rivendell from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The afternoon weather was bright and the heat intense, but the trail through the trees provided the perfect canopy of cool shade. The forest and trail were marked with signs and maps bearing information about the site, along with photos of the surrounding trees as they looked during filming. I carved my initials into this same tree using a sharp little rock:
Across from the trail in the forest, a river wove a wandering path through a rugged gorge. Lina and I discovered a footbridge that stretched over the gorge from the woods to the sheer limestone cliff on the opposite side.
The late afternoon heat made the water below exceptionally inviting. Lina made a joke about jumping in for a swim. I shot her a mischievous look. “It’s our last day in New Zealand…why not go for a swim?” Without hesitation, we grabbed our backpacks and forged a path through the trees and across the rocky shore to the edge of the river. In shorts and tank tops, we waded into the refreshingly cold water til it was deep enough to go over our heads if we bent our knees a bit. The way that water felt is hard to describe. It was simultaneously the most refreshing and invigorating feeling in the world. I suddenly recalled memories from third grade, when I first read about Ponce De Leon and the fountain of youth. I thought to myself that if there was a fountain of youth somewhere, it probably felt just like this. And when we finally climbed out onto those sun-warmed rocks, the cool sensation on my skin remained. Like all the showers in the world could never make someone this impossibly clean. Feeling that we’d had the most wonderful day ever, we contentedly began the long journey back to Waitomo and our bungalow. We had made it about 10 minutes from Kaitoke, singing along with my 90s Spotify playlist, when the GPS directed us to turn right into a residential neighborhood. The sign at the entrance read, “Birchville”, but someone had added their own revision of the sign in black spray paint, changing it to “Bitchville”. As I was turning onto the street and pointing out the sign to Lina in amusement, I completely didn’t see the car barreling toward us in the opposite lane. A split second before the car reached us, Lina screamed out to warn me of the impending collision. I slammed the gas pedal to the floor as hard as I could manage, but the little 4 cylinder engine only hesitated, leaving us sitting dead in the center of the other car’s path. The driver didn’t slow at all, and the car slammed into our broad side at a full tilt of 80 kilometers. Everything moved in slow motion. Lina and I both screamed in terror, Lina bracing herself to lean as far away from her door as possible as the other car slammed into it. A deafening crunch of metal, then everything was silent as our car seemed to drift sideways for an entire grueling minute. I remember seeing so much hair, a tangle of both mine and Lina’s hair, suspended in midair along with shards of flying glass intermingled. Our car settled to a stop and I couldn’t move for a brief moment. I first considered the possibility that I might be dying, or that my body might be mangled in some horrible way. I heard Lina’s shaky breathing beside me. A hissing sound came from somewhere nearby. I forced myself to move, and my right shoulder made a sudden deep thudding noise as it popped back into the socket. I gasped at the pain, and a hand touched my head to brush the hair out of my face. A gentle voice came from the backseat, “do you girls know what day it is? Can you speak? Stay still, help is coming.” A sweet woman from one of the houses facing the street had seen the collision and come running out to help. I muttered something about how we needed to get out of the car before it exploded. I was feeling the door and the surfaces around me deliriously. Lina told me firmly to stop moving. I looked at Lina and the door caved in beside her. The pavement outside was visible through the hole in her door. A large chunk of her long hair was pinched between the crumpled metal of the door and had been ripped out of her scalp. Some obscure 90s ballad was still playing through my phone’s speaker from somewhere in the car. Lina was moving and speaking, but tears ran down her face as she repeated over and over again, “we’re alive. We’re alive. Thank you God. Thank you God!” I grabbed hold of her arm weakly and leaned my head on her shoulder. “I could have killed you. Lina, I could have killed you. I’m so sorry.” The ambulance and fire truck arrived. Our comforting visitor in the back seat disappeared, and cops and firemen came to our doors to see if we were alright. The girl in the other car was completely fine, pacing up and down the sidewalk on her cellphone. One officer asked Lina if she was able to crawl over her seat to get out through the back door. She did without much difficulty, fishing one of her shoes out of the sea of glass shards on the floor. My door was pinned shut against the Birchville sign, which they had to rip out of the cement to get me out of the car. Glass shards were everywhere. One had lodged in my right ankle and caused quite an impressive stream of blood, which concerned the medics at first glance. I remember seeing a long streak of white skin on the console from skinning my knee during impact. Lina also had a nice chunk of skin taken off the top of her hand, which has left her a nice scar to this day.
I was helped out the door and to my feet by two of the officers, and I immediately started trying to gather up my camera stuff and WETA souvenirs to bring them with me. The officers stopped me and told me they would take care of our things, that we first needed to be looked after in the ambulance. I joined Lina in the ambulance with two female medics.
They took our vitals and helped remove the larger glass shards with tweezers and peroxide. Lina was explaining to her medic that she thought she might have blacked out for a moment after impact. Clear worry in their eyes, the medics advised us that we had the opportunity to receive care at a hospital, and strongly recommended that we take that option. Lina and I shot each other looks of concern from across the ambulance. My mind reeling with thoughts of foreign hospital bills and the fact that we had 6 hour drive ahead of us, plus a 3 hour drive to the airport before our 7am flight the next morning, I numbly shook my head. “We’ll be fine. Thank you.” My shoulder and neck pain was about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, but I could push through to get home. After about 20 minutes in the ambulance, an officer stuck his head in to ask how we were holding up. He went on to explain gently that I had been at fault in the car accident, and that there were a few possible outcomes from the situation. Oh gosh, I hadn’t even thought about this angle of the repercussions yet. He explained that, at most, I could face charges for reckless driving. A second, more lenient option, would be a traffic infraction with a fine. I mentally crossed my fingers for that one. He continued, “There’s one other option. But I’d need approval from my chief first. We could issue a written warning and let you go on your way.” I nodded my understanding, trying not to get my hopes up for that last option. While the officer stepped outside to make a call to his chief, someone handed me my cell phone that they’d fished out of the vehicle carnage. The pockets were filled with glass shards and the wallet cover was bent in half, but the phone hadn’t acquired so much as a scratch. Lina took the opportunity to call Caleb and fill him in on our situation. She was very concerned at the way I was acting, sort of in a haze and emotionally distant. Caleb was beside himself in his own cool and calculated way, urging us to go to the hospital to get checked out. I told him we wouldn’t make it home in time if we did that, and promised to go to the doc as soon as we reached home. By this time, the officer had returned, looking somber. Oh no. More bad news. He explained, in a roundabout way, that he’d been given permission to let me off with a written warning. No fines, no repercussions whatsoever. “This is the only way we can get you home on that plane tomorrow…otherwise you’d be required to stay in New Zealand to resolve this.” A brief wave of relief swept over me and I thanked the officer profusely. He offered to drive us to the tow yard where our totaled rental was being taken so that we could claim our things. Lina and I signed health waivers for the medics, and slid into the back of the police car. I called the rental company to ask them what our next steps should be. My next biggest concern was finding a new rental car on a Sunday evening. The man who answered the phone gave me all the details on how much my card would be charged and asked me how I was going to return the vehicle to them. Frustrated and frantic, I snapped that the car was totaled, and there was no way I could return it. And because I had waived the rental insurance for the first time on ANY trip, I knew I would be responsible for all damage charges. I told him I need a new rental ASAP, so I can get back to my rental house and make a flight in the morning. “Well, if you can reach our Wellington airport location by 7pm when we close, we can get you into a new rental. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow when we open.” I looked at the clock. Just before 6pm. The airport was about 45 minutes away, and we still needed to collect our things from the wrecked car. The race was on. The cop had some trouble finding the address where the car had been towed, but we eventually got there. The car was sitting in the bed of the tow truck, and we couldn’t reach the suitcase and photography equipment in the trunk, so the tower had to get the keys and pull it forward slightly. Lina and I did our best to retrieve the rest of our things from the front seats by leaning through the windows. Without any other transportation option, I quickly downloaded the Uber app and requested a driver to take us the 45 minutes to Wellington’s airport. A driver showed up within minutes, and helped us load our myriad of bags and wet clothes and camera equipment into his car. We explained our predicament and our race to get to the airport in time, and he did his best to get us there fast. I sat silently in my seat, overwhelmed. Lina did her best to make small talk with the driver, until she too fell into an overwhelmed silence.
We reached the Wellington airport after 7pm, but I knew that Hertz would be open later. After hoofing all of our stuff across the large parking structure and through the airport entrance into the rental terminal, Hertz informed me that they had no available vehicles. About to lose my cool, I moved to the next rental desk to ask if they had anything available. Yes, the lady informed me, but it will be quite expensive to rent here and return at the Auckland airport location. I told her that I had no choice, and braced for impact when she told me the total for the rental. The computer seemed to be giving her fits and she had to call over a supervisor for help. I reached up to wipe sweat off my forehead and felt a fine coating of glass shards greet my hand. Lina asked the clerk if we could help ourselves to the bottled waters that sat behind her on the counter. A few minutes later, looking bemused, the clerk stated, “It will be $1 for the rental.” Shaking my head in confusion, I asked her to explain. “Do you mean $1 for the collision waiver?” “No,” she reiterated, “One dollar is the total cost for the one day rental. I guess we’re in need of some more inventory at the Auckland location.” Lina and I looked at each other in disbelief. How was this possible? I’ve never heard of a rental so cheap! I started laughing an unhinged cackle that was a hybrid of confusion and relief and sheer madness. When the clerk looked at me with growing concern, I suppressed the laughter to the best of my ability and signed the rental agreement. On our walk across the parking lot to our new rental car, in full view of the terminal windows above us, I started to cry. All the emotion of the accident, gratefulness, fear, stress, anger, all culminated into powerful sobs that shook my whole body. I stood there leaned over the luggage cart while Lina held me comfortingly and the people in the terminal above watched curiously. Our new rental was pristine with only a few hundred miles on it. Even though we’d only be driving it through the night, I still purchased the full insurance coverage. I was not trying to tempt fate a second time. As we made our way out of the terminal and onto the road north, we were still thoroughly shaken but bursting full of thankfulness. Now that we were at least moving in the direction that would lead to the beginning of our long journey toward home, we finally began to recap the events of the past few hours and compare perspectives. About three hours into the drive north and many tears shed, adrenaline began to wear off and reality came crashing down in the form of intense exhaustion and aches and pains from the impact of the accident. Once the sun had set, the glare of approaching headlights from vehicles in the opposite lane had Lina jumping out of her skin with flashbacks to the collision. The narrow countryside lanes didn’t help much with the fear factor. My dry eyes would barely stay open, and the shadows were playing tricks on my vision so that I almost went off the road a few times. In an attempt to get us through the last push, Lina pulled up Spotify on her phone. We sang along with every conceivable Disney song for nearly two hours straight at the top of our lungs until we couldn’t sing anymore. About 30 minutes from the house, I was feeling faint and very nauseous. I could tell I was at my crashing point. Without explanation, the accelerator suddenly stopped working, and the car, though still running, wouldn’t allow me to give it any gas. We were on very hilly roads at this point, with lots of uneven surface and gravel in spots. I thought maybe the engine was overheating, but the dial showed that the temp was normal. An icon was flashing yellow on the dash display, but I had no idea what it meant. I tried pulling over to the side of the road, killing the engine for a few minutes, then starting it up again. The engine stalled again within a minute of driving, and the car coasted slowly to a stop in the middle of the road. The clock read 2am at this point. I thought to myself dismally that if we had to leave this car on the side of the road and walk to the house in the middle of the night, it would take us far longer than I even wanted to consider. Not to mention the wildlife in the dense wilderness around us. Lina hunted down the car’s user manual in the backseat and began flipping through the book to find out what the flashing icon was trying to tell us. Within a few minutes, she had determined that it meant “unsafe terrain, collision imminent”, and that the car was preventing acceleration to keep the vehicle from spinning out of control. Considering that we were only going about 40 mph, this seemed like a pretty ridiculous safety feature. I found that if I slowed to around 30 and kept the tires toward the center of the road, away from the uneven edges, that the car didn’t stall as much. We crept the last 15 minutes home like this, until at long last, our headlights came to rest of the “Rock Retreat” gate at the base of the driveway. A curious looking furry mammal sat atop the gate’s post, glowing eyes fixed on us in the darkness. He looked like a cross between a fox and a possum. Lina carefully made her way toward the gate to unlatch it and let the car through. As she did, the animal watched her with unmoving interest. Now came the tricky part – getting up that treacherously steep gravel driveway. As Lina latched the gate closed behind me, I accelerated as much as I dared to gain momentum for the climb. Miraculously, the car made it the entire way to the top, spitting gravel the whole way without stalling. One more small victory! Inside the bungalow, the warm lights and soft bed beckoned with astounding allure. We had now been awake for over 24 hours straight. With a three hour drive ahead of us and a flight to catch on the other side, we were forced to acknowledge that there was no time for a nap now. We packed up our things in relative silence, with Lina shooting concerned glances my way. She could tell I was at the end of my rope and feeling worse by the minute. She loaded all of the suitcases into the car and proceeded to tell me, in her firmest voice, that she would be driving us to the airport so that I could rest a while. Under any other circumstance, knowing Lina’s fear of driving in a foreign country with different laws on the opposite side of the road, I would have refused. But I was beginning to doubt if I could actually get us anywhere safely in my condition. My shoulder was beginning to throb with intense pain, and I felt like I might pass out at any moment. With a resolute deep breath and a click of her seatbelt, Lina threw the car in reverse and headed down the driveway. It was almost 3am at this point. I only remember a few minutes of the drive before I completely zonked out with my head rolling back against the seat. I woke up exactly an hour later, and the first thing I saw was Lina’s hands clutching the wheel tightly as she leaned forward toward the windshield, straining to see and to stay awake. Just beyond her tense hands, I saw the gas gage bouncing on the E line. Out my window, the dimly lit sign of a petrol station. “GAS!” I croaked. Lina first looked at me with surprise, then at the sign, then quickly gave the wheel a few turns to go back toward the station. The sign advertised 24 hour machines, so I popped a credit card in and followed the prompts. It kept declining the transaction, no matter how many different cards I tried. Frustrated, we continued up the road hoping to catch sight of another station. Our route was uncannily scenic, with nothing but an occasional passing car every 5 minutes or so. With no stations ahead on our route that I could see, I pulled up Google for the nearest station in any direction. Google took us off into a little town that promised a 24 hour station. This one too declined my payment, and we had no choice but to continue driving. Around the time I realized that we were now going to arrive at the airport too late to check in for the flight, Lina said she felt the car sputtering. We checked yet another station that was diesel pumps only. One breath away from going into full panic rage mode, we caught site of flashing cop lights ahead of us – what appeared to be a routine traffic stop. “Pull up to him!” I barked. Hesitantly, Lina slowed and I rolled my window down. Waving both arms out the window and apologizing profusely for the unorthodox approach, I explained that we were on empty and needing a station. With one hand on his holster and a wary expression, the officer pointed to a roundabout behind us and told us to get off at the second exit. We thanked him and Lina pulled the car across two lanes to do a U turn onto the opposite side of the road. I’m sure the cop noticed, but thankfully he let it go. On fumes and wracked with anxiety, we pulled into the gas station to the welcome site of lights on inside and a clerk at the counter. Lina shed tears of relief while I sprinted inside to empty my enraged bowels that had been threatening to burst for the last 30 minutes. With a full tank of gas, I relieved Lina in the driver’s seat, and we sped back onto the freeway toward Auckland. Now to address the next obstacle standing between us and home: I calculated that if I was able to shave 15 minutes off the projected travel time by speeding, there was a chance I could still make check in time. Lina’s flight was set to leave later that afternoon, so she would be left with the task of returning the rental car herself. I put the pedal to the floor and sped past every car in my way, darting between lanes like a test track driver. We were gaining time quickly until we hit traffic on the highway closer to Auckland, to the tune of exasperated sighs and fingers drumming nervously on the steering wheel. We flew into the terminal drop-off zone a few minutes after the hour that marked the end of check-in. Lina helped me get my myriad of large bags out of the car, since my useless left shoulder was threatening to slide out of the socket again at the first sign of strain. Like some sort of gruesome, disgruntled zombie, I hobble-jogged my cargo through the terminal doors and to the check in lane for Air New Zealand. I was directed to the service counter first, since they wouldn’t allow me to check in Caleb’s additional bag under my name without paying for it. Fantastic. With desperate rage written all over my face, I schlepped all of my things to the desk across the hall and waited in line. A man with a thick Eastern European accent tried to strike up a conversation, and I’m afraid I wasn’t very amicable to the poor man. Once my turn came at the service desk, I paid for the extra bag and was also informed that I’d need to apply for a Visa in order to make my layover in Australia. This too would cost extra. As the clerk was processing the paperwork, several other service agents came to check on my flight itinerary I had set on the desk. Judging from their puzzled looks, there seemed to be something wrong with my information. One of the clerks made a few phone calls to United, who owned the flights. He then informed me that United had cancelled my flights without notification. I think I actually laughed out loud at this point. He was very concerned about the error and was quick to assure me that they would work to put me on the next available flight once they found out when that would be. I moved all of my stuff to the end of the terminal to sit in the corner of a crowded McDonalds and wait. My phone signaled a call from Lina. Her frazzled voice cracked on the other end of the line: “I just crapped my brains out. Where are you?” The intense stress and rich pasta from Wellington hadn’t sat well with either of us. Once she found me in the terminal, we camped out in the McDonalds for around 45 minutes until Air New Zealand had made arrangements for me on another flight – mercifully, it was scheduled for 3pm that afternoon, close to the same time as Lina’s. With another six hours to wait until we could check our luggage, we scanned the terminal for a spot to hunker down for the long haul. Every seating area we saw was completely packed with people, even this early in the morning. Wearily, we headed for the escalator to check upstairs. In attempting to fit both large rolling suitcases with bags stacked on top onto the moving steps, one jerked forward and pulled my shoulder with it, sending shooting pain down my arm and a volley of choice words from my mouth. Lina rushed to my aid and we made it to the top of the escalator in one ragged, gasping piece. At the center of the terminal upstairs, we spotted a seating area with two open chairs beside a loud group of people speaking a foreign dialect. We arranged our suitcases in front of us so that we could place our travel pillows on top and lean forward to rest our faces in the hole of the pillow. Sort of like sleeping on a toilet seat, but softer. After about 20 minutes like this, the crowd next to us got up and moved on. “Quick!” I elbowed Lina, “spread your stuff out!” We took over the whole row, two seats each, and made a little wall in front of us with our bags. Clutching our pillows, we curled up in the fetal position on those sticky vinyl seats and found a bit of sleep in the middle of that loud, bustling terminal. I don’t know how long we had been asleep, certainly not more than an hour, when a shrill female voice abruptly roused us out of our slumber: “Excuse me, you need to make room for other people. You can’t sleep here. You need to move.” It was like we had found a stream in the desert, only to realize it was a mirage. Wordlessly, Lina and I pulled ourselves upright and pushed our luggage to one side of the chairs to satisfy the disgruntled woman. With no option but to stay awake, we pulled out our laptops and began uploading and going through our photos from the trip. I got us tray of breakfast (sushi and lo mein noodles) from the nearby Asian buffet, which actually did a lot to help calm our stomachs and give us strength. We had a coveted electrical outlet next to our chair, which was a complete godsend. Without that, we would have had no charge in our phones or for our laptops. We got a little more sleep leaning our heads together while sitting upright, but not much to speak of. When 2pm finally rolled around, we decided it was time to split up and head to check in. After the apocalyptic trials we faced together over the past week, going our separate ways felt like trying to finish a marathon without one leg.
We did not anticipate getting much rest on our first and longest flights into LAX, because neither of us can get relaxed sitting up while sandwiched between strangers. It was an unexpected blessing for both of us then, when we were greeted with nothing short of miraculous provisions on both of our separate flights. Lina was assigned a rare window seat that allowed her to build a little pillow plush to lean into. She was out like a light before dinner was served. I was seated at the very back of the plane with an open seat on either side of me, which has never happened to me in all my years of flying abroad. After takeoff, I stretched out across the empty seats covered in blankets and slept for much of the 12 hour flight. Each time I woke, the pain in my shoulder and neck had grown, and I became increasingly stiff. By the time I reached LAX, my left arm was pretty much unusable. I had to ask another passenger to get my bags out of the overhead bin and put my backpack on for me. Upon disembarking the plane, I was herded into a long line behind a couple with a screaming infant who had freshly pooped his pants. The line to clear US customs took just under two hours, and many passengers in the line were missing connections and throwing angry tantrums in line. I got to my gate to find out that my own flight had been delayed a few hours. This was the story the rest of the way home. Lina and I kept in contact via text between flights, and she arrived in Toronto just shortly after I did. We claimed our luggage, picked up the car, and headed onto the highway for the 6 hour drive back to Traverse City. A heavy rainstorm hit just as we were leaving Toronto, making it difficult to see in the dark with the reflective pavement. The going was slow, but we pressed on. We got a call from Caleb and Rich letting us know that they were driving down to the Michigan/Canada border to meet us and drive us the rest of the way home. We were grateful for the rescue, particularly in our bedraggled state. We mused in tired irony that it was still December 4th – the same day that began with us driving through the night to get back to Waitomo after our accident in Wellington. It was the day from hell that never seemed to end. And yet here it was, at last coming to a close. As was our week in that beautiful corner of the world that so deeply bonded us and altered our perception in so many glorious ways. Never had God’s intricate purpose and relentless, merciful faithfulness been so plainly evident in every step we took. I think more than the indescribable beauty of the landscapes and unforgettable experiences, the best part of that week in New Zealand was the ever-present knowledge of being held firmly in God’s hand for his own perfect purpose. At some point, the fear of another disaster striking and the pain of uncertainty gave way to contentment just to be part of a story bigger than ourselves, and for a more glorious purpose than we could foresee.
Update, July 2018: After hiring a Canadian lawyer and making multiple trips to and from Toronto regarding his pending criminal charges, Caleb appeared in court for his sentencing this month. The prospect of huge fines, suspension on our ability to travel abroad, and even possible prison time had been looming over us like a black cloud. In April, the prosecution offered Caleb a plea deal that they would drop the larger charge of unlawful possession of a firearm if he agreed to plead guilty to the reckless storage charge. This is just what he did at his appearance early this month. He was mercifully granted an absolute discharge, which is essentially no more than a warning. The judge made a lengthy statement about Caleb's obvious upstanding character and many examples of selfless conduct. He has no criminal record, no fines to pay, and any evidence of the arrest is expunged after a year's time. 7 months after the mistake that threw us into a tailspin, all fears and doubts are finally put to rest. We have at last reached a point where we can smile about the physical and emotional scars we carried out of that ten day crucible. By the grace of God, those temporary hardships have yielded some of the most wonderful changes in us and in the way we look at life. Not a day goes by that I don't thank God for everything that happened in New Zealand.