Night Walk to Nowhere
GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR - the Desperate Measures Episode. My name is Glynn Washington and today on the show we're exploring what happens to a person when they feel the walls crashing in. And our next story comes to us from our very own Julia DeWitt. SNAP JUDGMENT.
JULIA DEWITT, BYLINE: Rain falls outside the window of my hut quarters. I'm 18, in New Zealand alone, working at a national park called Tongariro. I'm at the beginning of a five-day stretch in the field, and after only an afternoon in my hut, I'm gripped by the panic that I said the wrong thing to Nathan. I had fallen in that kind of love that you can only experience once, usually when you're young. Nathan's another hut warden, built like the rugby player he is, standoffish at first, then hilarious and gentle when you get to know him. The night before Nathan and I were standing in the kitchen of the warden house. I said something stupid, and I hadn't found the right words to fix it by the time we had to pack our bags and go into the field.
The park is where one of the most popular day hikes in the New Zealand is. You walk down a long valley in the shadow of a totally vegetationless volcano and then up to a pass where you look down on to two turquoise lakes. There are no trees - not even scrub brush - just pumice and two milky, emerald lakes. Nathan's hut is on one side of the park, and mine is on the other. Sitting in my hut, I wonder, what's he thinking, sitting there alone in his hut? What will he think about me until I see him? I can't stand the idea of him ruminating without knowing I'm sorry. I have to go say I'm sorry. It's 10 p.m. Nathan's hut sits a day's hike away. I have to pass through three valleys and up over and exposed pass to get to him. The hike I know well. I do it almost every day. Outside, rain falls heavily in the pitch black. The moon and stars are blacked out by the thick cloud cover, but I can do this hike with my eyes closed. It'll be pretty uncomfortable, but I figure it's a small price to pay. So I put on my government-issued rain jacket, shorts and hiking boots, put a water bottle and my radio in my backpack, and I stepped out into the rain. Oturere Valley, where my hut is, is where they wanted to shoot the Mordor scenes in "The Lord Of The Rings." It's this huge expanse of sand that has these big, black volcanic rock formations scattered through it. But in the dark, I can only see about 10 feet in front of me. As I walk up the valley, I pick my way between track poles, these poles with reflectors on them. They're the only way to know where the trail is in the sand. Get one, scan for the next one, I walk out to it, and so on. As I scan, my light picks up the raindrops that make this kind of shimmering veil that I have to squint through. I'm driven forward from one pole to the next by the image of Nathan in his hut quarters washing the dishes and thinking about what I said. Sometimes I can be too snarky with people that I love. What if he decides he can't date a girl like that? Who would ever want to date a girl like that?
Nathan is a Kiwi, older than me. He barely acknowledged me at first. But then one day he just kind of started talking to me. We sat in the back of a 15 passenger van. He wore this sort of lycra hoodie that I would come to know as a staple of his. For the first time, I felt that feeling of crossing over - that feeling when the world beyond each other gets a little bit blurry - just you and him and nothing else.
As I come up out of the valley, picking my way up a scree slope, I wonder if he's mad or if he's sad. God, what if he's sad? I lose the trail and find it again - lose it and find it, all the time imagining Nathan alone, that intense no-one-else-in-the-world bond slowly breaking. When I crest to the lakes, the wind coming straight from the ocean hits me for the first time. Suddenly the shimmering raindrops are streaking sideways. There's nothing to block the gusts between me and the ocean, four hours away.
At the same time I'm hit with just how bad I must have made Nathan feel. He has to know that it's not him. It's me. I'll tell him when I get there. It's me. Up ahead of me now is just this next part, the hardest part. If I get up and over Red Crater, the place where I will stand the most exposed, I can drop down into the second valley. It's more protected there. I'll know exactly where I am. Red Crater is a beautiful formation in daylight. It's a deep, red circ that you can walk into. The trail takes you up and over the rim. To me, though, there at night, it's just a narrow ridge of deep, red gravel - maybe about 10 feet wide - that points my way. I start walking up it, and there is where I feel the fullest force of the wind. I stumble and lean back at it, feeling the wind like some kind of punishment. What kind of person says hurtful things to the people that they love? Not good people - that's who. Bad people - bad people do. If I just could hold my tongue sometimes - if I just wouldn't get so involved in that one moment. As I walk higher and higher, I can't lean any harder into the wind, and I stumble towards the edge of the crater. I can see the edge, but in my mind's eye I can see the steep drop-off beyond it, where now there's only black. So I drop to a crawl. Now my light is only a couple feet off the ground so my vision shrinks to the pumice under me and my red hands digging into it. I manage to get to the top of the crater and then to a high gravel field where I can stand. I can't see the trail anywhere. I start getting cold. But I figure if I just keep moving, head across the field, I'll find it on the other side just right beyond my light.
As I march I think, you know, maybe Nathan did say something a little bit brash too, but who cares? Was it even that hurtful? Maybe I just projected that onto the situation. Why do I always have to make things so difficult? Who will ever love somebody that makes things so difficult? Probably no one - yeah, no one. No one would. No one will ever love me because I make it impossible, and I'll just keep getting myself into these messes over and over and over until after a long and loveless life, I finally die. And then suddenly I hear a skittering. It's the rocks under my feet, and I stop. I look ahead of me, and all I see is black. This is not the trail. This is the edge of the cliff. My heart rate quickens, and I turn around immediately, running from the black abyss beyond the drop-off. And then I get this sinking feeling because if that is not the trail, then where is it? I retrace my steps back - sometimes hundreds of people sit at this spot during the day, eating their lunches in T-shirts and sunglasses, looking out onto the lakes and the crater down below them. So many people walk here that there's no defined footpath. I turn off my headlamp, hoping my eyes can adjust to the darkness so I can find a familiar far-off landmark, but all I can see are back silhouettes against a dark, dark grey sky. There's no way to tell the difference between a pile of rocks right in front of me and the volcano that I know looms out there somewhere. I turn my light on - streaking rain. I turn my light off - nothing. I turn my light on - gravel at my feet. I turn my light off - nothing.
And then I leave my light off. I stand there alone in the dark - maybe for a few seconds - maybe for a few minutes. I think of my soaked-through rain jacket, and I think of my core which is now chilled through. I think of my backpack where I have a water bottle and a walkie-talkie. But at the other end of my walkie-talkie in the middle of the night, I know there's no one there. And then I stop thinking anything. My mind goes totally blank, and I just start moving. I find something that looks like a trail. I follow it until it turns into a ravine, and I go back to the field. I find another promising divot. I follow it, and I come to another cliff. I guess and test over and over - every time coming back to the empty, dead field. Then, finally, I actually find it. I'm moving as fast as I can, but I'm not getting any warmer. This is when I remember that hypothermia can set in in a matter of minutes in the right conditions, especially when you're wet. So when I get to a rock formation, the only cover on this exposed ridge, I crawl into this crack. I pull my knees up to my chest, and I consider waiting out the storm until the morning. Then I realized that I know this crack. It's the same crack where last year a day hiker, like me, sought cover - probably also figuring he'd wait out the storm. A hut warden found his dead body in the morning. I have no idea what time it is, don't know how long I've been hiking or how long it will take to get down, but I know I can't stay here. So I crawl out and do the only thing I can do. I just go. The wind whips up again. I keep getting colder and colder. So when I hit the next valley, I pick up my pace. But as I walk, I start to notice this thick, creamy smoke creeping along the ground.
I've never seen anything like it. It's creeping from the edge of where my light shines and rising as I walk. And as it does, the track poles leading me through this empty expanse of sand start to grow larger and larger, until they're towering above me. I don't yet understand why, but I do know that I'm hallucinating. I've slowly been losing all sense of time and space. So I start walking faster, understanding now that if the elements don't get me, my mind might.
Heading down into the valley below, I'm losing my coordination. When I hit the boardwalk, the final stretch down to Nathan's hut, I start running. My boots are clapping against the wood. And then as suddenly as I lost sight of my hut back on the other side, I come up on Nathan's hut. I walk up the steps towards his door, but I don't knock on it. I sit on a bench instead, where I finally have time to realize that I almost died.
Looking back at it now years later, I remember that feeling so clearly. What I don't remember is what I was even sorry for that night. I would go on from there to do this many times. I would find myself in situation after situation where I created problems in need of solutions so immediate that it would create real problems. But back then, sitting there, staring out into the rain, I had no answer to the question why did I just do that?
If Nathan even was mad at me, he forgot the minute he opened his door and found me sitting there, soaking wet, looking back at him. After hiking for hours, crawling over a crater, verging on hypothermia to get there, all he could think to say was hey. Once I was in his quarters, though, my apologies and sorry's came pouring out. I didn't even bother taking off my wet clothes. I was so busy blathering that I didn't notice that he was pulling off my wet clothes for me. In fact, I don't think he was even listening. I don't even know if he cared why I did it, or maybe he was just too busy making me a sandwich and tea and digging out dry clothes to hear me.
If I hadn't come that night - if I had waited even until just the next day, maybe he would've been mad at me for a second, but he still would have kissed me on the cheek, wrapped his arms around me, and that night we would've fallen asleep. He still would've taken me cliff jumping and watched me while I hung out the laundry and cried when I left to go back to the United States. But when we went to bed that night, I stayed awake listening to his breathing and to the wind blow. Every time it did I shook, and I pressed back into his arms for more safety, wishing he was still awake too. I didn't realize, even then, that I didn't need to press back further. I could rest there quietly on his shoulder, accepting the warmth coming from his body and fall asleep, too. Then finally, right before daybreak, I did.
WASHINGTON: That was SNAP JUDGMENT's Julia DeWitt. To learn more about Julia DeWitt and her world, listen to SNAP JUDGMENT.
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