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See ya on the flip side,


September 2009

I return to Charlotte from Mexico on August 31st sunburned and burnt out. With nothing left to give my firm I struggle with the severity of the consequences that will arise from running away from almost eighty thousand dollars of debt.

“You’re being ridiculous, Kay! You can’t just up and move to a city when you have no idea how you are going to pay your credit cards off. What if you can’t make the payments? You think that’s OK? To be part of the massive problem infecting the American economy? More defaults, higher rates for those that paid their bills on time. Do you realize almost all of my rates have been jacked up to twenty-five percent because of other people defaulting? I pay my fucking bills on time. You can’t just walk away from your responsibilities like that. Do you want to destroy your credit forever?”

My past warning to my best and least responsible friend is laughable and a resigned humpf of a laugh escapes my chest as I think back to how much everything has changed in the last year. And now it is she on the other end of the line, reminding me about the responsibilities I am throwing to the wind. The next seven years flip slowly through my head. I will not buy a house. I will not buy a car. I will not move into a fancy apartment building or get any job that requires a credit check. But I don’t care. And it liberates me. That flip book isn’t my life, it is someone else’s, and the more I think about all of the things I am supposed to want, the less I want them. Suddenly the three thousand dollar bag on my arm and the seven hundred dollar shoes on my feet that I once coveted and adored metamorphose into the dull, greyed steel of infallible chains. I am going mad with a desire for freedom. Nothing can possibly stop the inevitable string of events that one sunset somehow set into motion. This massive decision that has only frustrated and petrified me in the past suddenly makes me dizzy with excitement. I could be free. But what will I do? I don’t want a mortgage or a car payment. I don’t want to sit behind another corporate desk for the rest of my life, and every molecule in my being knows this. As with every action and reaction in life, there are reactants, catalysts, and conditions required to yield the final product. After four years in a city I ended up living in by an inexplicably fucked up string of unpredictable events, I now find myself leaving in the same fashion. The dominoes of the universe that will inevitably tumble, that I cannot, or will not fight. It no longer feels like a choice, but a fate to which I have submitted. And with each day that passes I search only for the excuse, for the catalyst, for the way out. I am coming into work an hour or two late almost each day. I do as little work as possible. I am hungover every day. Wine and bourbon seep from my pores into the tautly conservative air of the War Room. But they will not fire me. Nothing I do will ever lead them to risk the lawsuit with which I could possibly destroy them. An illicit affair with a superior. Threatened bonuses, a notebook full of sexually harassing comments. They don’t pay me enough to make laying me off worthwhile. I’m cheaper to keep on than to risk as a liability.

I am scared. Or, maybe, I should be. I am not. All I know is that everything I thought was right for the last four years has been wrong. Perhaps the dreamed stereotype of a well-manicured lawn, and a nice car, and a few properly educated kids will bring happiness to most. Perhaps my lust is an anomaly in a sea of people that fit a bill I was never meant to pay. Regardless, as it is yet again, I don’t know what I want, but I know without a doubt what I don’t. It is crazy, I am crazy, so they tell me. But not a second of these four years has been wasted if it took all four of them to cement in me the knowledge that none of this is anything I want for myself. The large majority of people, including my friends, especially my family, think this is the most wildly irresponsible decision I have made in an absurdly long string of wildly irresponsible decisions. Despite this, and surprisingly, most of them understand. This is not for me.

The moment it happens, despite every wild unwoven thread of my poorly sewn plan, I know there isn’t any other way. I don’t have time to bide reason or responsibility. Responsibility will cost me a decade. And so, with seventy-five thousand dollars in unpayable debts, I cash in the last five thousand dollars of someone else’s money I will ever be able to, and flee from the Cackalack like the fugitive I am.

There are many choices in life you can’t unchoose, but few to which are given the grace of a second thought, the respect of a shred of a regret. This is the all the former, and none of the latter. I am finally free.

Journal – August 2009

I sit in the airport on the floor, my back resting on the window with the suffocating Cancun humidity fighting back, unsuccessfully, against the thick plate glass. Hoards of obnoxious Americans with neon t-shirts announcing they had been in Mexico mill through the enormous duty free market. My hands shake as I attempt to open the packet of Pringles I picked up, not having eaten all day. Weak and exhausted, the maudlin tones of Heypenny’s Use These Spoons serve only to exacerbate the deep sense of regret that sits like a brick in my belly. Such a small and silly regret: just for not having followed that stranger on the beach in Tulum. And the sick sadness at the thought of returning to my life in Charlotte only weights me further. There is something alive in me that I am scared will die if I stay any longer in this materialistic, bullshit job pretending to be something I am not every day. Being in Mexico with Carlos opened my eyes and made me believe it really is possible to pick up and go. My student loans and credit card debt have been a prison from which I know I cannot escape in my twenties, or even my thirties. I don’t have that much time. None of us do. The weight of the life I am living is suffocating me like the humid August heat and I have got to get out from under it. I have made a decision. Instead of paying off as much debt as possible, I am going to save as much as possible. Once I have enough I am leaving. I don’t know where yet, but it will be somewhere beautiful, somewhere cheap, and somewhere new. Perhaps I will take my car and drive through Central and South America. Perhaps I will move to Playa del Carmen and find a job tending bar, learning the language as I go, become a part of something unfamiliar. Sitting in seat 17E I stare longingly at the azure sea as we leave the vast turquoise behind. Tears sit waiting behind my eyes as I try to reconcile the life I want with the one I have, growing ever harder the more I understand who I am. I am applying to school in November. If I can get into Adelaide or Vancouver I will find a way to get financing and my student loans will defer. If I don’t get in or I can’t afford to go, I will take as many cash advances on credit cards as possible, get in my car, and hit the road. Drive through the country, head out west, see what happens. Hopefully I can find odd jobs as I go, maybe settle somewhere for a few weeks at a time. I could follow the road across Tennessee, then out through the fly-over states, then up towards Vancouver and back down the coast to Mexico, down to the winding tip of Central America into South America. I would stop and stay in any place I wanted to explore and get a new tattoo from every place that feels like a home to me. Anything but this.

After six days on the Yucatan, I know I could live there for years and the Mayan sun inked on my ankle will remind me of that every day. The pilot has just announced that we are flying over the East Coast of Florida. At thirty thousand feet I am back in America. The thought that I may be able to follow the incessant pull in my belly to run away calms some of the sadness that Mexico is in my rearview mirror, and I will have to sink back into the hurried and soulless world of finance like jumping on a merry-go-round as it whips quickly past you. I don’t know what my plan is, I don’t know what will calm this ever-rising pressure from my soul, I only know that I have got to get out of this place, and I’ve gotta do it fast.

February 2008

He picks me up by my waist, roughly, recklessly, and sets me on top of the copier. My tweed pencil skirt tightens against my thighs as he hurriedly pushes it up my legs. The plastic of the copier creaks with my shifting weight. We laugh with abandon. I unbutton his shirt deftly, though one-handed and blindly as our mouths can’t find enough of one another. With his chest bare I run my hands over his broad shoulders, down the contours of his back. He is a runner. I momentarily stop only so he can lift my blouse over my head, thoughtlessly tossing it into the recycling bin next to the fax machine.
“Taylor, do you have that model finished for the investment committee meeting?” I am snapped faster than a falling dream from my almost painful reverie. Fuck.
“Yeah, it’s almost done.” I lie. “I’m still working on it, but I’ll email it out as soon as I’m finished.” I am nowhere near finished. I hate this job.
I glance over to the man about whom I had been dreaming, sitting engaged and focused at his desk. He looks up, as if able to feel my stare on him, and the familiar glimmer of our eyes meeting pulses a quick shiver through me. He is married. He has left his wife. No one knows. We are in love.

I struggle through the model to the last minute, frustrated with the same errors time and again. I have never been trained in the work I am doing and wonder on a daily basis why I was ever hired. What the fuck is a sociology major doing working in a major asset management firm anyway? I still don’t have the answer to that question. I hurriedly paste the model into the presentation and wait while the copier dutifully spits out my thirty copies. I like my idea for the copier much better than this. From my place across the office I can see the entire team is already sat at the long, formidable table. I am late for my own presentation, yet again.

I stumble through my investment recommendation with the sole hope of not sounding like an idiot at any point in time. I have worked for this firm for over a year now, and am only just beginning to understand what I am doing. I come out of the meeting to several comments from colleagues congratulating me. It is not that I have done such a great job, just that I didn’t fuck anything up, which I assume is expected from me at this point. I sit back down at my desk, a sigh of relief releasing itself from my chest. Back to trying to figure out what I am actually going to do with my life.

I am twenty-five years old. I have just shy of fifty-thousand dollars of student loans from my bachelor’s degree. In addition to that I have anywhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars of credit card debt, depending on how good I have been. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and other than a few close friends, and my sister, I hate this city. Hate it like getting lost down a dead-end. Like waking up in a stranger’s bed. The large majority of my good friends live in Washington, D.C. and despite my desire to join them I know I won’t be able to find a job to support myself and my debt in a more expensive city and Charlotte happens to be one of the cheapest in the country. I sigh the sigh of futility knowing that even here, I can barely afford to pay my bills, and my only comforts lie in the one room crack den that is my apartment, and the three bottles of wine I know I have waiting for me at home. Every day of my life is the same.

Despite the massive amount of work I know I have to be doing, I leave the office at six thirty, most people still toiling away at their desks. My twenty minute walk home through uptown is spent with headphones in my ears and lets the work day slip away slowly from my mind. It is the exact antithesis of driving home in rush hour traffic. Opening the door to my four-walled first-floor efficiency I kick off my shoes and immediately remove the shackles of my business casual attire. In my underwear I head straight to the kitchen and pour a large glass of cheap red wine and let the remainder of the day wash through me with the bitter crimson. Despite the books pouring from my bookcase and stacked in careless piles around my bed, I never have the energy to read for pleasure after spending ten hours reading credit documents and legal contracts. I turn on the TV and flop onto my bed/couch. I spend the remainder of the night in this position. My boyfriend is at home. With his wife.

Before I know it I am drunk. I am drunk every night. My sleep is sporadic and fitful, waking up each hour on the hour until I see the number starts with a seven and it is time to get up again. My Groundhog Day nightmare, my broken record existence, my lifeless life.

At eight thirty our morning investment committee meeting begins yet again, the same meeting, every morning, and I immediately begin sending dirty texts to my paramour on my blackberry. He is the only thing that makes coming to work worthwhile. We go on this way for ages. I feel a decade has passed. It has been another year. He gives his wife the house. He puts me up in a fancy apartment. I am his love. I look like his whore. Eventually we are found out and he is inexplicably fired for unrelated reasons. There is now nothing getting me up in the morning. But what choice do I have? Two hundred dollars to my Stafford, three hundred and twelve on the AMEX, a hundred and fifty to Capital One, two hundred to Citibank, three hundred to Sallie Mae, six hundred to rent, a hundred a fifty to Time Warner Cable, seventy-five to Sprint, and barely enough left to get drunk. My life is swallowed by the debt I am in. The debt I cannot control because as soon as I pay my bills, I have no money, and so I run up more debt. I am making sixty thousand dollars a year and I can barely afford to live. It will take me fifteen years in this job to pay off my debt at this rate. I do not sleep. I am a shadow of a woman. My only hope lies in the possibility of going to graduate school for my writing. My student loans will be deferred. I will come out with sixty thousand more dollars of debt and a masters in something that will make me no money. I toil over applications regardless, finding that even browsing the programs and dreaming of another life offers me quick breaths of relief from this career I never wanted. There has to be another way.

Journal – March 2009

It is the second day of our safari into the Serengeti and amazement is painted on the faces of everyone in our oversized crew. After four flat tires in one day, we are finally headed towards the Ngorongoro Crater. The sun is setting behind the crater rim, its golden rays piercing, unfalteringly true in every direction, a glimpse of something beyond the temporal. The plains stretch in infinite freedom beyond us. We are standing in the pop-top Jeep and suddenly I am overwhelmed. Tears fill my eyes and my breath is both shallow and great. At twenty-five years old I feel something I have never felt before. Everything inside me rises; my wide smile will bridge the hemispheres. I will swallow the world. I will absorb these lands, my skin is a billion cells, everything is possibility. So much beauty will suffocate me. The yellow of the sun brushes the crater rim’s horizon and I have no words, no voice, I am nothing in the vastness of this planet. I will devour it all. I am a human again. I am a human for the first time in my life. The purpose of life surges through me in one instant, electricity, a tangible change, the weight of a knowledge that levitates. I can never go back to the life I lived before. She no longer exists. I am born.

Back in Charlotte the change is imperceptible. Eight a.m., another meeting, another daydream. I have nothing left to give to them. The meeting is over and I head back to my desk to begin another day of doing as little work as possible. The man I loved moved to the other side of the country. We believe he was fired for fucking me. They never knew he loved me. I spend my days trying to get laid off. I have nothing left for the company that told me my apartment wasn’t nice enough. I have nothing left for the boss who told me my bonus would be bigger if I stopped wearing crazy jewelry with that grey tweed pencil skirt. I read the New York Times. I sit on Facebook. I plan trips to anywhere, to everywhere. This will not be my life for long.

August 2009

I am traveling for the first time on my own. I have no idea what I am doing. I have a cheap ticket to the Yucatan Peninsula, my backpack, and a few hundred dollars. I spend a week reveling in all the possibility there is in the world. In a strange twist I find an acquaintance who has quit his job and moved to Playa del Carmen, a city on the way to my destination. He invites me to come and stay with him and I know there is no such thing as coincidence. He lives here now on almost nothing, on money he had saved. He and his brother own only two forks. No one wears shirts in the streets. He smiles with the ease of a man who knows what he wants. I fuck him maybe hoping he will give me whatever it was that got him. I think he does.

Despite the ease of his place in Playa, I venture alone to the beaches of Tulum. I don’t know how to travel yet, but I am learning. Find the cheapest hostel. Be willing to accept kindnesses from absolute strangers. Be spontaneous. Be open-minded. Be careful. I spend these days walking the beaches in a solitude that somehow comforts me. I am alone, I am not lonely. I watch a couple raise their glasses over the candlelight, in front of the moonlight, with a soft clink. They laugh. I smile. I will never know them. The ocean has always held a strong influence over me, and with the days the quiet turquoise of this ancient place pulls me deeper into it. I need it. But I know this is not my life. Waiting at the bus stop back to Playa I meet a fellow traveler. An American boy, ripe with the dirt and grime of the sweaty country that we share, open to everything else we might. I will never know why, but when he asks me to return to the beach with him, I turn him down. I have just trekked the four miles with my pack. I can barely stand I am so dehydrated. I have just purchased my ticket back. A million reasons why not. Sitting on the air conditioned bus on the way back to Playa I think of only him. I want to tell the bus driver to stop. To run back to the beach through the stifling heat with my heavy pack on my weary shoulders just to have a beer with him. Just to learn his name. As soon as I make it back to Playa del Carmen, I turn back to go find him. I learn how to ask for the American traveler with a red pack and curly hair in Spanish. We are vanished. I never say no, but this time, I did. Whatever path that boy represented gasped its last breath as the unfamiliar words fell exhausted from my thirsty lips against his protesting invitations. I will never let caution, exhaustion, or apprehension overwhelm desire. I will only ever regret the things I don’t do.

Two months later, I quit.

I wake in the familiar haze of hangover. I have been back in D.C. for less than two months. In two more months I am moving to South Korea. And two weeks from today I am leaving D.C. to head to Charlotte. I let the next two years flicker through my head, a series of still frames in which I am always alone. I roll over sleepy in his silent bed. He is an old friend. We have been fucking since I got back from New Zealand. It is new and fun and perfect. We are both leaving. It is always only sex and we know this. He tells me about all the horrible things he does to his girlfriends. We laugh. I am attracted to him. I am fucked up. I slide my panties back on realizing he is going to break his promise to fuck me again in the morning. I didn’t get to come. He is late for work. We sit in strange silence on the way to the metro, everything still, we are paused, suspended. The same stoned silence the night before. Something feels different. What is different? Why is he being so strange? He didn’t touch me the same way, I know it. I am crazy. Everything is fine. I am positive he doesn’t want me anymore. Or maybe it is the other way around. My eyelids drop and flutter with the hum of the beat-up van and the breeze swings warm and soft on my face. Something has changed. I can feel it in every piece of me. I am often wrong.

“I have a strange feeling that was the last time I’m ever going to fuck you.” I shatter into the silence. Only silence follows.

We arrive at the metro and he kisses me on the cheek chiming, “Have a nice day, honey!” some sick twist on the domestication our once weekly sex sessions so flippantly mock. We were always friends. We are only friends. “Have a good day at work, dear” is my usual response. Today I mutter “see ya” and hop out of the van. What is wrong with me? I do not look back.

I push headphones immediately into my ears and let the weight of whatever it is push me deep into the ground. Was he really the one being so strange? For over a year this is all I have known. An endless string of boys who I leave or who leave me. Always running, keep moving, don’t get stuck, don’t let them get you cause you know you have to go. Two weeks here, six more in Charlotte, one in Denver with the boy I know I could fall in love with. Maybe. I think I could. But I won’t. He thinks I am perfect. He is wrong. I won’t let him find out. Gone again. What happened to the girl that threw herself on the tracks at every chance, begging for a train wreck? Since when do I push them all away? Now cautious, cold, and calculating. I say cruel things to remind him I don’t really care. Our affections are only for the sex, for the show we are putting on. I like kissing him. We do not care. He will never get to me, no one can catch a girl running so fast. But he is perfect because he will not try. He’s a runner too. We laugh broad and free at how little we care. We are invincible. It is perfect. No strings, no emotion, fuck whoever you want, play house when you like and never call. I want him to call. It is just sex. It is all I want.

But now I am sinking stones. The ground breathes and heaves beneath me. It is swallowing me whole. I let the maudlin strums of Nico Stai drown me. I am enveloped. I am invisible. I am suddenly made of sorrow.

He is not the only one I will throw away. Not the first, not the last. Another name, another month, another dick, another run. Another year of garbage to collect, of hearts to discard, of self-inflicted wounds. I will tell him when I fuck other men so he knows he is not the only one. He tells me when he fucks another woman and I don’t care. Fuck her the same day you fuck me. Give her the tights I leave on your floor by mistake. I do not care. I remind him what we are. I remind me what we are. He is not the one that needs it. I can’t get stuck, can’t let anyone change my plans. Not this girl, I am stronger than that, I am independent, I am utterly alone. I will tell myself this is what I want. I will travel the world. I will meet boys and kiss them and fuck them and love them and leave them and hate them for leaving me. I will run until my bones are dust, until I am the only one left alone. Because that is the only thing I know how to do anymore. Leave.

When I rolled my throbbing head over on the unwarranted light of morning attacking through the half-drawn curtains, I saw it was already past eight. “Kirra, wake up. We should have left already,” I mumbled unconvincingly. In typical fashion we hadn’t done anything we needed to prepare for the trip returning me back to the states after a year in New Zealand. I was barely packed. Our beat-up and lovable van had not been cleaned out since the last excursion to the east coast. Our dishes were still covered in sand, the sheets still dirty with days spent living on the beach. My laundry sat wet in the washing machine. Today we headed to Arthur’s Pass in the heart of the Southern Alps. I had only five days until my flight was to leave from Christchurch to Los Angeles and the desire to find adventure one last time in this epic nation boiled in me.

Four hours of melee and tearful goodbyes later, we found ourselves on the road north from the tiny lakeside town of Wanaka. With the windows down and the Southern Hemisphere summer sun shining on our February faces we made our way to meet two unendingly endearing Aussie boys. They had stayed with us a few weeks before, couchsurfing as they cycled around the country with a cheeky and entertaining American boy, all in search of Kiwi hospitality and the chance to experience something bigger than they were. We opened our doors to them and fell in love. Reuben, Tom, and Dan were sweet and easy as a day in bed. Their effortless humor sank into flawless rhythm with ours and we found ourselves convincing them to stay another night, and another. Reuben and I were instantly attracted to one another, but only the taunting prologues of an affair began with the young Aussie before it was time to bid them farewell. Unsure if we would ever see them again, we kept in touch as they made their way around the South Island. Once again frustrated that every boy who sparks something in me always has to leave, I was filled with giddy excitement that we found a way to cross paths again before we all had to depart from this astonishing place.

Six hours from Wanaka we threw the boys and their gear into the back of Billy the Red Dragon and hit the road further north to Arthur’s Pass. As the sun began to set behind the crumbling grey peaks, we pulled into a campsite on the banks of Lake Pearson, just outside the entrance to the national park.

Moonlit Lake Pearson

With a fire burning brightly and the near full moon reflecting in the winded folds of the lake, we relaxed quickly into each other’s company. A box of wine, a fire pulled dancing in the wind, and three good friends made me smile the way you only can when there is nothing to want for in the world. Soon our trips were coming to an end. The boys were headed back to Melbourne just a few days after my flight back to the States. We recalled the moments that coruscated like comets, and the people who had indelibly chiseled us on our journeys. Reuben sang and played the mandolin while we sat in round agreement that the current company was by far the best we had found, and knew that this excursion was undoubtedly going to make the list.

The next morning we enjoyed a brisk swim and bacon breakfast around the fire before continuing on to the pass. Unsure of our plan, as ever, we headed to the Department of Conservation to find an overnight hike that would lead us to the hot springs, plentifully sprinkled across the geologically unstable landscape, straddling the very fault line that created its overwhelming horizons. With half the maps we needed and a vague idea of where to go, we continued on north following the subtle turquoise that belied the power of the forceful Otira River. As we found the car park at the entrance to the Taramakau Valley, we enjoyed sandwiches and cider while we packed up the gear for the seemingly simple overnight trip. With a late start and the energy of excitement pushing limbs earnestly forward, we followed the trail across some farmland as Tom chased sheep across the field with childlike abandon. No more than two hundred meters into the walk was the first of, what we didn’t know would be many, epic river crossings. The glacial water pushed and pulsed, careening around rock beds and tossing stones half my weight with the unforgiving carelessness only nature can bestow. How were we possibly supposed to cross?

"Many have fought the Otira, and lost..."

We took off our socks and boots, prepared to ford the icy waters. Tom, fearless to the point of stupidity, was the first in and across the daunting river. Kirra and I watched him struggle as the water rose above his waist and the current buckled his knees beneath the surface. Holding footing was impossible as rocks were pulled away beneath our feet, sharp and uneven on soft soles, and the water began to numb my shaky legs. I was scared. On a bed of rocks halfway across the river, we struggled to find a place to cross. As we stood, trapped and barely able to stand in the thigh-deep water, Reuben quickly returned and told us we wouldn’t make it. Less than half a kilometer into the hike and we were already stuck. Almost a foot shorter than the boys, I knew I couldn’t withstand the strength of the current. Over an hour had passed and it was time to man up or go home. I wasn’t going to let this trail beat me before we ever even got to it. Realizing it would be impossible for us to cross barefoot with the unbalancing weight of our packs, we put our boots back on with a fresh determination. We were overcome with relief. The crossing was still difficult, but manageable, and we waded slow and steady across to the other side without issue. Waiting for the boys to meet us from up river I rolled a much deserved reward of a cigarette as the last minutes of our second hour passed by. Onwards we went into the valley with sun-warmed shoulders and smiles on our faces.

Summer Sun in Taramakau

Along the valley through the edges of the forest, we crossed deep streams, clear to the floor and enjoyed the serene beauty of unblemished nature as a chorus of native birds whistled their unique songs around us. This was New Zealand. The one you miss on the frequently traversed Great Walks. This seemingly untouched trail was sometimes barely visible beneath the thick twisting roots and carpeted moss. The track progressed on through the valley until we came to a creek. Unsure of which way to go, we cursed ourselves for buying only the lower two maps, and kept our eyes sharpened for any orange trail markers to guide us. Trying to recall remnants of directions from the information desk, we followed the unknown creek upstream, hoping to reach the Otehake trail before nightfall. The sun still high in the summer sky, we continued on, Kirra and I lagging and finally submitting to the knowledge that we could never keep up with two boys that had been cycling a hundred kilometers a day for the last three months.

After a few hours steady tramping with relatively few mishaps, we made it to Lake Kaurapataka. A small clearing opened up to the midnight blue waters, surrounded by lush evergreen forests blanketing the surrounding peaks. We stopped to simultaneously catch and lose our breath. The moment we stopped moving, however, the sandflies began their descent. Kirra and I, exhausted and skeptical of the boys’ plan to continue on, quietly voted to set up camp at the lake for the night. “The trail down to the river is only about a kilometer from here, eh?” Tom announced as he held the only piece of map we had, “and another k to the hot springs. It’s only seven now, we’ve got plenty of time to make it before dark.” Already frustrated with the sandflies, we conceded to the boys’ endearing accents and eager faces.

As we winded our way up the mountainside the track became more and more difficult. Uncertain we were on a trail at all, we stumbled as we climbed through fallen trees, and carefully hoisted ourselves up mazes of roots. The sun continued its daily descent towards the horizon and the water in our boots squished and gurgled with each step. To my right was a tangled mess of dense forestry clawing itself into the mountain. To my left was a near vertical drop through the same gnarled bush four hundred meters above the sound of the ever-rushing river and the rocky ravine below. I was beginning to get scared again. Despite my life as a city girl, the last year I developed an insatiable taste for adventure. An overwhelming need to challenge everything I thought I knew about myself pushed me to test every boundary of my fragile, aging body. But the fearlessness I once felt as a reckless teenager had somehow faded to a cautious calculation of risk that once again aged me in the face of my twenty year-old companions. Knowing we would never make it to the hot springs before nightfall, we climbed and crawled through the non-existent trail, relieved each time another orange triangle appeared to remind us we were still going the right way.

The sun had gone and only the diluted light of the moon through the clouds illuminated the now menacing forest. With only one head lamp and a small lantern between the four of us, finding footing was difficult and slow-going. Each time the sheer trail descended toward the river, I let relief rise in my chest, until it chopped its way back up in elevation as the longest half-kilometer of our lives. Finally, sometime around ten p.m., we came across a steep creek bed with a little orange arrow pointing down. We had finally found the way to the river valley. Wondering how anyone could possibly navigate the unsteady rocks when the rain and snow flooded the creek in spring, we carefully made our way downwards with stones tumbling down in the darkness beneath our feet. Ecstatic to be back at the river, we refilled our empty water bottles in the clean, fresh water and re-hydrated from the exhausting trek. But walking on the river was no easy task. My legs were tired and every third step I rolled my ankle on the unstable stones in the unrelenting dark. Luckily the moon was almost full and, through the haze of clouds, cast a glistening grey on the steady flow of the river. I would have camped anywhere, given anything for the chance to rest my heavy legs and withered constitution. But with only the cold, unsheltered river bed beneath our feet, and the unapologetic cliffs to our right, we continued on. Reuben and Tom bounced merrily along, hopscotching on the shadows of rocks like school children, and the guilt of my own frustrating exhaustion silently embarrassed me. But as we trudged on through the two kilometer walk, the pungent scent of sulfur began to penetrate the air. We were getting closer, and hope-filled adrenaline fueled my acid muscles.

In the stone glow of the cloudy moon, we finally saw the island. Knowing this would be our last river crossing before the hot pools, we went without hesitation into the waist-deep water. Tom crossed first, with Reuben second, as always, to test the depth and strength of the current. Reuben remained, just under a third of the way from the bank of the island with his arm outstretched. Kirra went before I did, and as the freezing water reached her thighs, I saw the current unbalance her from below. I grabbed her arm to keep her from collapsing into the pumping river, and Reuben instinctively did as well. “Taylor, let me go!” Kirra snapped, as my pale-knuckled hands pulled her counter-productively against Reuben’s stronger arm. Always the last to cross at five inches shorter than Kirra, and closer to ten than the boys, I carefully continued on, glad to have Reuben there to bring me through the deepest part. There was something about this boy, a kindness and earnest honesty that I found rare and compelling, and ever wanted more of. But four people camping in a van does not a recipe for romance make, and so we settled for occasional glances and fleeting comforts as we winded our way around the South Island.

Once we all made it across, we were flabbergasted to discover a huge group of high school students were on their first tramping trip here. It was eleven-thirty at night and the island and opposite shore were speckled with spots of yellow and red tents glaring against the darkness of the midnight bush. With the embers of their fire still crackling in the stone-lined pit, we hurriedly stripped our soaked socks and clothes and made our way to the hot pools. Glad I had decided to bear the weight of a box of wine; I pulled out the plastic bag and followed behind in my underwear to find the hot stones emanating the geothermal heat from the fissures below. With shallow pools dotting the opposite side of the island to the shore, we realized we had done almost everything the hard way that day. And then we found it: steam rose tempting in the chilly night air and the four of us lowered ourselves into the scalding water. The heat instantly loosened my screaming muscles and my body sunk into the soothing weight of relaxation. Keeping the water the right temperature took constant adjustment with some burning while others froze. But the miracle of a natural, steaming, hot tub was beyond worth the journey. We spent over an hour enjoying the rewards of our perseverance while we passed around the bag of goon, opening the spout into our eager mouths.

With Reuben and Kirra respectively too hot and too cold, they headed back to the camp to start dinner. Tom and I stayed behind beneath the starless sky and spoke of the adventure we had endured that day. Tom was utterly fearless with the pale, pink-cheeked face of a mischievous cherub. His youth-filled vigor was like a drug I had forgotten how to be addicted to. I admitted how scared I had been on the mountain that day.
“I can remember the time I didn’t care if I died,” I said in reminiscence. “And now in every adventure, I’m tangibly aware of each danger, conscious of my body’s instinct to stay alive. I feel more scared now, but more determined to overcome it than ever before.” As the words left my lips I realized the power of their veracity, and thought on the things that had brought me through the seven year difference in our age.
“I think, if I were out here alone I would have been scared, but as long as you’re with someone, it’s easy not to be, eh? It was an adventure!” Tom countered excitedly. Knowing I live heavy with regret only from things I don’t do, and never from chances I take, I continued to discover through articulating,
“I guess you don’t have a choice when you’re alone. It’s too late to turn around so you just do it. But with someone else leading the way I think I let myself be scared. Maybe because I know there is someone to be fearless for me?” I questioned to no one, “or maybe I am just always scared no matter what.” I laughed as I thought of how many times I had been petrified on my own in this world over the past year, and how I got through it.
“You’re like a Norwegian,” Tom began, somehow both playfully and seriously, “they have this untranslatable word that means to have to do something to prove it to yourself. And so in their culture, they are always testing themselves. It’s why they’re all so bad at team sports.” I laughed, agreeing, and realized how different we truly were, and from where our strengths come. We curiously discussed how we come to be the way we are, and why we were driven to lead the lives we lead. I had felt heavy with the knowledge I was heading back to the real world soon knowing I was going to struggle to continue to live the life I had found here. People were different in New Zealand: desiring a life on the road, devoid of make-up, judgment, and high-heels, where living in a van doesn’t mean homeless, and showering in the ocean counts. But Tom reassured me that I could always make the life I wanted, and as we made our way back to the campfire, I felt confident in the knowledge that D.C. could never take away what New Zealand had given me.

Reuben had the curry almost ready when we returned, and we bundled ourselves close to the struggling fire. The instant the nourishment touched my stomach, exhaustion took over. My body was too tired to be hungry and I made my way to the pile of three sleeping bags, two mats, and no tent we were pretending was a bed. We cuddled into a people pile and I curled myself close into Reuben, contented in the spark of companionship between us. He was the first boy in a long time to offer me the comforts of love in a transient life. I let myself revel in it knowing in just four days we would be nine thousand miles apart. It was already past two in the morning when we finally lay down and the sleep was restless and cold.

Before I felt my eyes had even closed, the highschoolers and sandflies began their buzzing with the dawn. We tried, unsuccessfully, to keep our faces covered from the incessant insects, and remorseless light. I turned around to rest my head on Reuben’s chest, and pressed myself closer once again, knowing what we both wanted, but couldn’t have. “Think anyone would notice if we had sex right here?” I laughed suggestively at the absurdity of the comment on the tiny island packed with bustling campers. We surrendered to the inevitability of our frustration and took simple pleasures in the joy of each inch pressed against another. Unable to get back to sleep, I got up and tried to make a fire for some peanut butter toast, unsuccessful with the rain-soaked wood. Bringing a slightly warmed piece of bread spread with peanut butter, I enticed the others to rouse from their fitful sleep, save for kirra, who could soundly sleep through an earthquake. We were alone on the island again and after a quick breakfast put our freezing, wet socks back on our tired feet. We had the favor of daylight today, and the knowledge that the track through the river valley was far more manageable than the flood trail we had navigated the night before. In the light of day, the muted turquoise of the river over the pale greywhacke distinctive of this side of the Southern Alps was unimaginably and quietly beautiful.

Island on the Otehake

Playing on the Swing Bridge

Five More Crossings = Puddles for Boots

This time, we crossed the river with ease, growing accustomed to the cold water and quick currents. We hopped playfully along the rocks laughing and taking pictures until we reached the swing bridge. Our little orange arrows pointed us upwards and so we ascended, assuming the trail took us up from the base of the bridge. The climb we began was more frightening than anything we had attempted the night before, but I was ever more determined to overcome it. The mossy mountainside was an almost completely vertical ladder of gnarled roots, each upward movement testing the strength of dead and dying braches. With barely enough room to find a footing, the drop down to the ravine exceeded thirty meters, and grew quickly as we climbed. Again, I was scared, but kept it to myself trusting in the boys’ fearlessness to guide me, and knowing how silly I always feel once I make it in one piece.

With Tom leading the way he turned back and called, “Hey guys, I don’t think there’s a trail up here, eh?” Sure enough, we hadn’t seen a reassuring orange triangle since the bridge, and the pseudo-ladder we were on became impassable further up. With my heart quietly pumping mortality through me, I began the even scarier descent. Being last, I was now in the lead to head back. Looking down the sheer drop to the river bed I focused only on maintaining my delicate footing and checking the strength of each and every branch. Suddenly, the sound of dead wood cracked loud and sharp like splitting thunder. I turned upwards to see Reuben falling from at least three meters above me. His head hit a tree and twisted his body as he continued to contort in free fall. Swiping Tom’s shoulder on his way down, I knew I would never be able to brace his weight with mine and only a few inches of footing between me and the edge. If something didn’t stop him we were both going to fall to our deaths in the thoughtless surge of the Otehake. I held out my arms as Reuben twisted in the air, his back now racing straight toward my open embrace. Then, the unbelievable happened: just two feet above me, a twisted branch extending from the cliff caught Reuben’s leg. With the tree supporting the majority of his weight, he landed softly in my petrified grasp. He was safe. We were safe. I immediately kissed his head, frantically stroking his face, “Oh my God! Are you OK? Jesus, Reuben! I thought we were both gonna die!” A small scrape marked his forehead and his hand was bleeding, but through it all, he was unfazed. “Holy shit, that was crazy. How far did I just fall?” We stopped and each recounted our vantage point of the miraculous event. Kirra seeing the weak branch just before it snapped, Tom and I both believing nothing would be able to stop Reuben as he accelerated towards the ravine. Once we made our way back to safety, I hugged Reuben tightly once again. “I can’t fucking believe that just happened.”

I couldn’t stop repeating it. The moment ran, seconds stretched to minutes, in my head again and again. It was unfathomable. And that moment recalled a blind acceptance of death that I couldn’t remember when I had lost. Throughout the last careless decade of my life, standing drunk with arms spread wide from a high-rise rooftop just to feel the thrill of the drop, I believed I cared not for when or how I died, so long as I was really living. Somewhere along the way I had become more aware of my own mortality, and missed the freedom that confidence I once had had given me. Death is an inevitability for all of us, so what is the point of living in fear? There are too many things of which to be afraid in this world. I was afraid of my friend dying, and afraid of dying myself, but we didn’t. And remembering that if I was gonna go, falling off a cliff in New Zealand was a pretty spectacular way to do it, I smiled knowing my reckless youth was still tucked within me, even if tinged with the knowledge that I had a lot more living I wanted to do.

We headed back on the proper trail this time, knowing we were all meant for at least a little bit more on this planet. The trek back was quiet, and tiring, but far faster than the trek in. As we came through the clearing in the Taramakau Valley, we knew we would soon be facing the awesome Otira once again. The river we were warned was “not to be taken lightly” stood before us in a massive plain of dry river beds sliced by intertwining arms of seizing waters. Unsure if the crossing would be as menacing as the first time, we went in without a second thought.

Us vs. The Otira: Round Two

The Otira, however, was far stronger than any piece of the Otehake, and as the water rose above my thighs, the current began to pull my feet from under me. A rock was sucked from my footing, my balance wavered, and I felt the rushing water winning out against my weakened, frozen legs. Reuben, seeing me struggle, stepped back into the icy waters to offer his arm to me. Instantly stabilized, I forced my legs through the powerful pull of the river, and found myself safely on the other side. We had done it. With the van in sight, we excitedly began talking about the salami, cheese, and crackers we were going to eat, and the joys of clean, warm, dry clothes. The last river crossing was the end for me. My ancient limbs were wobbly as Jell-O and sore as if I hadn’t moved in months. I had nothing left. When we got back to Billy, I stripped to my underwear and collapsed on the mattress in the back. I could barely move.

This night was to be our last night camping with the boys. We headed out from the pass to find a spot to set up camp. Most of the DOC sites just parking lots on the side of the highway, we decided to look a little harder for the perfect place. A solid twenty kilometers and five campsites later, we took a left over a bridge crossing the Waimakariri River into a vast valley of flat, featureless plains. There was no one in sight for miles in any direction. The plains followed the massive, braided river bed to the peaks that surrounded us on all sides. As we parked the sun sat hanging just above the rugged horizon and the soft yellow glow overwhelmed us all to silence.

Epic Freedom Camping in Hawson Valley

Full Moon Campfire

How could this place continue to stun to speechless? How could anyone take such majesty for granted? In a country the size of California with fewer people than metropolitan Los Angeles, it is the only place I have been where you can feel truly alone and at peace with the world. We collected driftwood from the river bed and parked the van to block the sweeping winds. The fire consumed the dried wood quickly as the flames contorted high into the whipping winds beneath the finally full moon. We shared laughter and the last few beers over the last of our food. Reuben lay his head on my lap as I ran my fingers through his hair, and over the small abrasion on his forehead from his brush with death earlier that day. We were leaving this place in the morning, and I leaving New Zealand just two days later. Despite the stone-sunk sadness that enveloped me at the thought of returning to America, and having to leave the loves I had found here, I knew that no part of New Zealand would ever leave me. And when I returned home, it was only time to find another adventure to scare me enough to remind me just how incredible this life can be.

On Wednesdays they clean out
the fridge. Milk, two days expired.
A jar of homemade cranberry sauce,
unlabeled for the taking but you will
never eat. The bread dusted with
mold like an early snow won’t hurt
you. Be kind to the travelers. One gives
you peanut butter before he
leaves. They will always leave
their scraps behind with bigger
things to eat out there. Read long
books and sleep as much as your tossing
thoughts will let you. I know without
the wine restive feet will churn the sheets
to butter but you still will wake up
hungry. Toast peanut butter toast
free jam. But only enough for one
PB&J. Free tea, sugar, steal someone’s
milk, just a bit. Talk to strangers and
give up smoking. No, not when you’re
this lonely. I’d love a glass of wine.
Bitter velvet chill too soon passed.
Can I bum a smoke? But never take
their last. Call the one who always
understood this brand of poverty. Steal
his affections cloaked and stashed
like the squirrel who knows
there’s always a winter next. But those
won’t keep for long. Best if Used By:
someone else. Grilled cheese
grilled cheese grilled cheese peanut
butter toast clean the toilets make the beds
take a hike but you don’t have the right
shoes for that. Maybe steal hers
she’s left them out. What a foolish
girl to trust this world like that. No,
you aren’t that famished yet. Watch only
your tattered feet as you walk
sharpening ragamuffin eyes
to the elusive spark of change
on pavement. Stack five dollars and forty
cents into piles by your bed like discarded
trophies and watch them not go
anywhere. The very first thing you
have managed to save in your life.

Last October I thought I fell in love with a poet. Pieces of our costumes lying scattered as words across an ever messy bedroom floor he spoke to me artful and quiet and breathed me in nanometers. Though I couldn’t have known it then, it was the last night it might have all been true.

I spent the month of November pretending it was.

December brought the one I broke. My saccharin pawn, unwitting elastic, I let him play a part I didn’t know and kiss the scars he couldn’t see. He did everything he could, except the one thing he couldn’t.

January stumbled over a jazz saxophonist in San Francisco. The awkwardness arrived before the dawn and didn’t have the decency to leave as I did when the sun breached the stranger’s bed. I ran for a taxi forgetting his name with the cliché on the nightstand, holding only to hope that he wouldn’t remember mine.

February was the best friend of December who so wrongly had me rapt. Despite whatever could never have been the staining raze of its inescapable impossibility had me longing for the graceless unknown of that shy San Franciscan saxophonist…what was his name again?

March took me to New Zealand and the original domino of an Irishman. But again I missed, kissed the wrong friend first, and found myself swimming surreptitious in disaster, impossible as it is for a girl with no self-control to exercise something she doesn’t have. Despite slight glints of his wavering willpower, ultimately we were a stalemate: an immovable object against an unstoppable force.

April gave me the first tense tease of satisfaction: a painfully sweet Scot who made it the way I remembered. But with just a few fleeting moments of that long elusive comfort his ticket took him home. When he left for Glasgow, I left for Wellington, and the promises we made lay stuffed at the bottom of our backpacks.

In May I met the Irishman who stayed. Handsome like a lonely streetlight, he and I wandered the same alleys. But when it came to the thing that everyone’s after, it consumed and escaped me in inexplicable flashes. Too scared to break another, I left. But made a promise to come back that I still intend to keep.

In June it was a Scotsman in Malaysia. Though lacking the syrupy brogue that paints itself round every word and buckled my knees back in April, he was effortless as a day in bed. But as camaraderie began its inch around the corner, he had his ticket home as well. His last three days on the island were the only three days it could never be more, and so the universe continued its creative torture on my wearily addicted limbs.

July held the worst of Asia and of the Irish. Fucking me the wrong way, he saw the taut, shadowed cells of schleroderma that have rested between my shoulder blades since I was six. His mouth a rictus of fear at this memory of a burn or a childhood scar I barely recall, he lost it. As I was forced to assure the horror of a boy I hadn’t “given it to him,” he walked out of the room to my shamed stone glare and I twisted my skin and bones back to the door in used, unadmittable, regret.

August brought me to Vietnam and found an Irishman who enveloped me sudden as a syringe with possibility. But sunrise rooftop sex is far more romantic in notion or ideal than after six hours of whiskey buckets. When he left in the morning, he kissed me as if to tell me it was only one night because it had to be, and I sighed like a sinking brick with the trying futility of it all.

In September I made my way to Laos and found a group of friends I liked too much to leave. In the eleventh month of the curse of wasted fucks, forgettable boys, and half-loves gone awry, I finally didn’t kiss the boy I wanted, the one I knew I shouldn’t. Thinking, knowing, there must be a purpose to eleven dead ends. Watching the fastest heaving through the ribbon I realized this isn’t a race I’m meant to run right now.

Yet as the leaves are again turning tawny reds back home, I find myself keeping a promise to a streetlight, lonely as we are together. And while the buds are greening above our grins, beneath our hemisphere, I suddenly see the nature of such seasons, and know, at least for now, that I can only cross this bridge as it’s crumbling beneath me.