“Do you have your elevator story down yet?”
By elevator story she meant the three minute version of the last five months I spent hiking the Te Araroa. I had landed in the US the day before and, although I was already making the rounds to see family and old friends, nothing was all that cohesive in my mind, let alone a charming, pithy synopsis of this experience that contained so much. Shooting from the hip, I talked about the differences between the two islands, how much we walked each day; I might have told an anecdote or two, but I can’t imagine that I built a picture in their minds that did the trail any justice. The next night my mom invited a few family friends over for drinks and story time – a casual welcome home. They were attentive listeners, asked a lot of questions about my experience – the highlights, the hardships, the mosts, bests, leasts and worsts. It was a fun evening but I felt my responses were disjointed, rambling, interrupting and running all over each other. It is the duty of the adventurer to sail off to the far-flung realms of the dragons and return home with jewels and gold, or at least stories. I have returned home empty-handed and tongue-tied.
The morning after I finished the trail was cold, grey, and Good Friday, which frankly meant nothing to me beyond my inability to locate a cup of coffee. My mission became a ramble and I ended up next to the ocean, where I stood for a while watching the waves and thinking about nothing in particular. Before I turned to go I happened to look down at my feet (a habit cultivated over many many miles) and discovered a broken paua shell. You would probably recognize one if you saw it – they are iridescent green, blue, and every other color. Hold out your hand, fingers together, and slightly cupped as if I am about to hand you a few of something; that is how big this paua must have been before it was crushed on the roadside. I picked up a few of the larger pieces and, given the time, location and the pleasing fact that they were beautiful, attempted to impose some meaning on them. As I started to walk back to the hostel I thought about where in my pack I could keep them safe. “It’s okay, ” I thought, “I’m done. I can carry things now.”
The thing is, there was nothing about those jagged pieces of shell that symbolized the trail to me. It was broken and I was whole. They were shiny and pretty, while the trail had been dirty, scrappy and handsome. Although I could carry things without much concern for weight now, did that mean I had to carry everything? I started at Cape Reinga with a pack I swear weighed 70 lbs. With work, traveling, and rafting the Grand Canyon right before leaving for New Zealand, I had not packed my bag once before I packed it to leave for the trail. I also thought I knew what I was doing. Five months later I had whittled my possessions and food down to 30 lbs and given up the ghost of my assumed expertise. Now that I was lighter, unencumbered, I realized I want to be much more selective with what things, people, emotions, and expectations I chose to carry. I left the shell and its absence in my life now has been much more meaningful than its presence would have been.
I do not have an elevator story yet because I am still carrying the entire trail. It’s easy to feel-here in my childhood bedroom-that my time in New Zealand was one long, lucid dream. Aside from the roughness of my feet, persistent pain in my shoulder and tingling in my back (we called them “air hugs” but I think it’s really benign nerve damage) I feel very far removed from it. So I’m not ready to sift through my memories to establish the mosts, bests, leasts, and worsts. I have learned enough about how memory works to know that if I do that now, that’s all the trail will become to me. I’m not ready to discard a single piece. So, when you see me on the street or in the elevator, please forgive my lack of eloquence in the telling. For now I am carrying it all.