Why did I lose the trail? And why, having lost it, did I not want it back right away?
Disaster narratives always begin with scenes of exaggerated innocence. On my day off from work on this New Zealand trip, I made a dash for the Coromandel rainforest. It was a brilliant day, and as the road weaved through the screaming green, every babbling creek and towering rata [pic at right] announced I was in well-earned paradise. When I stopped quickly at a roadside rest area, I didn’t intend to stay, but then noticed a little path into the woods.
Not a real trail, just a quick trace of brief roadside adventures. It led quickly up a hill, diminishing as it went. Men climb hills, so I climbed.
Finding not much of a view from the top, I started down, and lost the trail at once. Going up it was one of those not-really-a-trail trails. Going down it wasn’t there at all.
Of course I should have been more careful, as trails are harder to see downhill than up. Surely I could have stopped at once, taken stock, retraced my steps.
But I was delighted. How young it made me feel to have made a reckless mistake so characteristic of someone younger – or at least of more reckless men than I. This was much more fun than the usual pursuits of men in their 40s, like buying ridiculous cars and driving them too fast. Of course, my delight was reckless too, in the same vein. Isn’t delight always reckless? And is self-observed recklessness dumber or smarter than the more innocent kind?
For a few fateful minutes, such thoughts and their echoes bore me downhill. Feeling sure of the general direction, I let the forest lead me. I could still hear sounds of the road, and felt briefly sure that any path I struck would return me to it.
The delight had another source. To me at least, the New Zealand rainforest feels comfortable and safe. [Photos here are not from the adventure, as I carried no camera.] Compared to other temperate rainforests I've known (Oregon, Australia, Chile) New Zealand’s is remarkably free of hazard. No dangerous animals. No stinging plants. Ensaring vines, of which more in a moment, but nothing like Australia's Calamus vines, which grab you with small, sharp hooks and don't let go. (Hence their common name: lawyers.) The only way you can kill yourself in a New Zealand forest is by exposure to cold or by falling, possibly impaling yourself on a sharp dead branch or going over a cliff. And lacking other ways to perish, rash adventurers take these options more often than you'd think.
But it was a sunny day, and why would I fall? Well, now that you mention it, the downward slope was getting steeper, footing more uncertain. In this waterlogged, deep-rotted ground, how far would my foot sink? Is that a solid log I’m stepping on, or a log rotted to the consistency of a sponge?
For hikers, downhill slips are a koan brought to life: When your foothold betrays you, you can only save yourself by stepping quickly even further down, with even less surety of your footing. In this moment, the universe says: Because I have betrayed you, you must trust me.
The first betrayal came soon enough. My foothold slipped so completely that I simply slid down the steep hill, feetfirst, through the deep layer of decaying plant matter. The friction pulled my shirt over my head, so that I slid blind and caressed by warm, wet, sawdusty hands. I knew I might be impaled at any moment, but the sensation was deeply pleasant, and I was almost sad to come to rest, one leg on each side of a tree fern.
At once, plant-recognition was surety. With a glance at the tree-fern’s trunk, I thought "Cyathea medullaris!" At once the fern was a friend, and thus a more reliable support. But as I got to my feet, leaning hard on my new familiar, I looked up to see the brilliant silver undersides of the fronds. "No!” I thought. “Cyathea dealbata!" The fern that launched 1000 rugby teams! And with that, the fern trunk seemed firmer still, even more ready to be relied on. This pleasure of recognition shoved aside a less encouraging botanical fact: Tree fern trunks are not solid structures so much as artfully thatched piles of dead, wet leaves.
Recognition implies friendship, which implies reliability. That’s metaphor rather than logic, but doesn’t everyone long for these metaphorical friendships – with cities or landscapes if not with plants? The thing named is a thing that’s in its place, not likely to surprise you.
For years I’d studied forest flora on my trips to New Zealand, so this forest felt familiar. It featured a low canopy not much above the shrub layer, with only isolated trees punching higher. So between the shadows there was some sun, efficiently recycled on shiny leaves. About half the plants were known to me, mostly species of Hebe, Coprosma, Leptospermum, Metrosideros, and Phormium as well as the abundant feather-duster shaped Nikau palms.
Those plants, left to themselves, would have formed a pleasant and manageable forest, like the overgardened “rainforest” of Auckland’s central park, the Domain. But the true antipodean rainforest begins with vines. North American rainforests have nothing like the entangling complexity of their southern peers. Here, two human-scale characters were there to cling and confound.
Supplejack (Ripogonum scandens) presents endless stiff, black stems, about 2 cm wide with bamboo-like joints every 20 cm or so. There is no hope of cutting or breaking them. Supplejack wanders around the forest, growing up, over, and down in no particular pattern, hanging itself casually from trees. Now and then it branches to construct open framelike structures. If you move a piece of it out of your way, all the attached pieces move in unison, usually placing another stem in your way or raising a new bar for you to climb over or under. Moving through supplejack is like bushwhacking while solving a Rubik’s Cube.
A more intimate challenge is bondage fern, my term for Lygodium articulatum. Imagine a typical fern frond, but with the stalk growing indefinitely. The result is a vast entanglement of these thin, twisting stalks. Bondage fern's stalks are barely a millemeter thick but surprisingly tough, capable of taking much of my weight as I tried to break through them. Over and over I would push forward and suddenly find myself bound, ankles inseparable or a hand held behind my back, always at angles where brute force was hopeless. There was nothing to do but back up very slowly, as though from a threatening snake, until it released me.
I keep telling myself, and keep forgetting, that on rainforest hikes I should carry small pruning clippers.
All this went on for far too long. I vaguely sensed that I’d gotten a bit to the left of my original path, and sought to bear right, but the steep slopes confounded my navigational sense. Almost the whole adventure happened on slopes of 45-70 degrees. (Adventurers’ tales often exaggerate slopes, so I kept checking: Yes, the land in front of my eyes is the same distance away as my feet, which means 45 degrees. Now it’s only half as far, which means close to 70.)
Finally, I noticed the sun. For an hour I’d been groping downhill in what felt like a westward direction, encouraged by sounds of the road that seemed to be that way. But it was midday. I was in the southern hemisphere. The sun was on my left.
This was a problem.
What’s fascinating is how early I noticed this, how easy it was to deny at first, and how long it took to truly register, as though I were an oil baron hearing vague reports of climate change. Alarm grew slowly and distantly, like the input of junior interns, easily brushed aside in the vigor of my thrashing. As the alarm grew louder, how easy it was to slide into denial! Suddenly I was thinking intently about declination, the difference between magnetic and geographic north. In the North American west, this difference is over 20 degrees, enough to be an issue when navigating by the sun or stars. Somehow it must be at work here, I thought, because the sounds of the road are in front of me, so this must be the right direction!
Finally there came the tipping point. Which is more likely to be an illusion: the direction from which the road sounds seem to be coming, or the position of the sun?
In an instant, my thrashing stopped like a shorted-out circuit and I nearly collapsed in a cocoon of green. Taking a deep breath, and aware that technology was best left out of this tale, I sadly pulled out the Blackberry. Its primitive GPS feature usually works only on hilltops where it’s least needed. As I’d thrashed, I’d glanced at it now and then, usually to see whether it would say “GPS is temporarily unavailable” or “Waiting for GPS” -- messages of identical meaning that the Blackberry gods vary for our entertainment. Now it gave me a location, but not a direction. It showed me alarmingly far from the road, but not which way would take me there.
Yes, but I had the sun, saying something I didn’t want to hear. So I rang a colleague in Auckland, asked him to poke around my environs on Google Earth, verify whether this valley really was leading down eastward, away from the road. He did, while also reminding me, gently and constructively, that yes, at midday, the sun really must be in the north. I had descended the wrong side of the hill.
When we don’t like the facts of geometry, we keep collecting data (a common phenomenon in my profession, and one that I’m often commenting on). There was no need to call my colleague, really no reason to pull out the Blackberry at all. Midday in New Zealand the sun must be in the north. Declination might throw it off by 20-some degrees, but that won’t put it on the other side of the sky.
The last hour of thrashing, back up the hill on a new sun-guided vector, was less delightful, more confronting, yet inside those feelings, serene. The vector’s interface with the topography was appalling: I was told to climb 70-degree slopes (yes, the ground before my eyes was that much closer than my feet) and through ever-thickening tangles of supplejack and bondage fern.
Several watercourses were to be crossed, including a deep one bridged only by a high, algae-slimed log bathed in continual mist. This must be a scene of suppressed trauma, as my courage has always cratered in log-over-creek situations. Partway across, I slipped. The slip was my reward for not trusting, of course: I’d been unconsciously positioning (i.e. unbalancing) myself so that if I slipped my legs would go down on opposite sides of the log, preventing a total fall. Sure enough, I ended up not just embracing the log with my legs but sliding partway off on one side, so that I hung from the crook of one knee and some desperate slippery handgrip. My water bottle fell and tumbled well down the creek, far beyond my reach. I slid the rest of the way across, a lizard minus the grace, feeling at once humiliated and relieved.
Eons (20 minutes) later, I approached the road. It was far above me, and the bank grew steeper as I climbed to it. The slope was held together by New Zealand Flax, a plant with long, straplike leaves that clings with remarkable firmness to near-vertical earth. At times my entire weight hung from a single plant as I hauled myself upward. The leaves were lightly serrated, delivering continuous cat-scratches on my hands. But I'm used to cats.
It was the very end of the adventure that looked most like an adventure film. The slope curving upward toward verticality, partly bare rock and partly spiking masses of flax. The raggedness of my flax-scratched hands. The grandiose (when not flailing) heroics implied in climbing such a structure. The certainly that with my water bottle gone, I really must get out soon. And of course, the sad banality of the road itself, where an adventure film would have cut away to the hero celebrating with friends.
But the story is still a comedy, and not just because it ended well. In comedy the ridicule of the hero is gentle and continuous, rather than stored up, as in tragedies, to crash down at the end. I could have gotten killed of course, and the New Zealand Herald (on page 9 below the fold by an ad for panel beaters) would have called it a tragedy. But a middle-aged guy who perceives his foolishness as evidence of vigor, who lectures professionally about the reliability of geometry yet briefly resists the position of the sun, who constructs counterfactual realities rather than admit that he’s spent a hour in vain, who slides happily out of control down steep slopes yet cowers before a creek-crossing log, this is not, thank God, a tragic figure.