Dust trails fly in the air behind my speeding 4×4 minivan. My driver, Gary, speaks fast and drives even faster. I have my feet firmly planted on the floor of the van and my left hand grips the small handle above my window in a meager attempt at control. Gary has obviously driven this dirt road many times. As he talks, his eyes spend more time looking at me than the road ahead. “What do you think about Obama?” Gary asks, cranking the steering wheel to the right, the back tires briefly losing their traction.
Rounding the corner, the view opens and forgetting his question, Gary proudly announces, “Welcome to Middle Earth! Sweet as eh? This was one of Peter Jackson’s favorite spots to shoot during the Lord of the Rings filming.” I try to respond, but can only grunt as he hits the gas pedal approaching a narrow one- lane bridge. My grip on the handle above the window tightens.
Gary has lived in Wanaka, New Zealand for the past thirty years. His company, Alpine Adventures, takes backpackers like myself to the trailheads of many of the treks in the Otago region. Today he is driving me to Raspberry Creek and the Rob Roy trail.
While other travelers in NZ opt for the quick thrills and adrenaline highs of bungee jumping, skydiving, and jet boating, most of my adventures have involved “getting out amongst it” as the Kiwi’s say. I prefer spending my days in nature- and NZ delivers big time.
Gary slams on the brakes and I lurch forward, losing my grip on the handle, but thankful that I remembered to buckle up. “Sweet as mate! That there is Mt. Aspiring!” Still recovering from the abrupt stop, I slowly follow Gary’s finger out to the left. A daunting, jagged, snow-capped peak rises skyward high above the many other impressive summits. “That’s Mt. Aspiring- the highest peak in the Wanaka area. Most Yanks like to have a photo of it. Sweet as eh?” I lean back as Gary reaches over to roll the window down for my impending picture.
Twenty minutes later we arrive at Raspberry Creek and as he departs, Gary reminds me, “If you’re not back by 3:15, you are on your own mate!” When the dust from the minivan’s departure finally settles, I gaze up at Mt. Aspiring for a long time. What a fantastic name for a mountain!
This mountain, an earthly temple of the grandest scale, humbly rests in stillness. Like the hands of a great artist – tectonics, weather and time have sculpted this goliath into its present glory. As it reaches towards the sky, striving towards the heavens,”Aspiring” to transcendence, it is also serves as my teacher, my inspiration.
I believe my love of the mountains, and most cultures reverence for mountains in general is directly related to this idea. Mountains are points on the earth that put us physically closer to the heavens. For some, this situation can also help to connect us to the heavens within ourselves.
As human beings, we have a built in mechanism that causes us to seek out this experience of the transcendent. To find it, some bungee jump, some go to church, some do drugs, some meditate, and some take long walks up mountains.
The movie, Lord of The Rings, was so successful in part because it’s fantastic story put us in touch with a piece of ourselves that screams for attention, but is normally buried beneath layers of habituated routine.
Peter Jackson brilliantly used NZ and Mt. Aspiring specifically for the setting in the film to unearth this latent feeling of inspiration that we all seek and share. Inspiration leads to aspiration, and vice versa. This is why I am in NZ; in aspiration of my own little piece of transcendence.
At 3:15, I am back at Raspberry Creek after an encounter with the Rob Roy glacier. Gary arrives a few minutes later and I load my gear into the van. “Beautiful day eh mate?” Gary says as I strap myself into the seatbelt. “Inspiring!” I respond giving Gary a nod that I’m ready to go.
As we head back down the dirt road towards Wanaka, I can see Mt. Aspiring in the rear view mirror. I turn to Gary and say, “That Peter Jackson was on to something.” Gary, with his head turned and eyes fixed on me hits the gas pedal and says, “Mate, this here is my little piece of heaven. Sweet as eh?” I gesture in agreement and tighten my grip on the handle above me.
Little piece of heaven indeed.