Age, sickness, and the new normal

Just after Christmas I visited my father. I only had a handful of days before work started again, so the schedule was tight. I drove for nine straight hours into the Oregon mountains, through forbidding white walls of fog and lashings of rain, and spent the next two days with him and his wife in their cozy home, sharing stories and looking through photo albums, and tag-teaming crossword puzzles. He’s not as mobile as he used to be, but he sure can murder a crossword.

During the visit I realized that I had reached a strange milestone. Just a few weeks ago I celebrated my 42nd birthday, and now I was exactly half my father’s age. I pointed it out to him while I scanned the crossword clues.

“Congratulations,” he said dryly. “Feel any different?”

“Well, … starting to feel a bit old,” I said.

“Hah! Just you wait,” he said, and snatched the crossword back for another go.

Of course it was true. However old I felt, I had nothing on him. I could take all my aches and pains and multiply them by two – no, five – and throw in misbehaving bowels and Senior Moments, and I’m sure it still wouldn’t match the sheer annoyance of being 84. I would just have to wait. (And hope to make it that far.)

But on the 9-hour drive back out of Oregon, something happened that gave me a shot at real perspective: I came down with the flu. By the time I was back in Oakland I could tell it was going to be a really nasty one.

My body felt like it had been run over by a truck — one of those harvester trucks that creeps through an orchard in first gear while the farmers fill it with fruit. I could almost feel the way the tires had rolled up my chest, and pushed every joint of my body into the ground. I kept thinking that a few hours rest would make it stop, and I kept being wrong. Go for a bicycle ride? Forget it. Do a load of laundry? Forget it. Eat a hard-boiled egg and go lie down? Okay, let’s give that a try – but no promises.

(The most I managed to eat in a day was half a bowl of noodle soup. I set it down on the counter and wandered off, and the ants got the other half.)

For the next week, the limit of my mental capacity was playing video games and petting the cat. Forget working — even answering emails. I couldn’t read more than a few lines without forgetting where I was. Part of my brain was floating overhead in a balloon, doing its own thing, and there was no way it could participate in waking life. To keep the few appointments I had – one with a contractor, one with a mechanic – I clutched my phone like a spool of thread in a labyrinth, and set a dozen alarms.

I needed hot water bottles to stay warm, and it took every ounce of my concentration to avoid burning myself with the tea kettle. The act of filling them was usually so exhausting that all I could do afterwards was go back to bed, where I would sleep for two or three hours at a time and make hideous patches of sweat on the mattress. The week passed in a myopic, pointless haze. I might have felt depressed over the waste of time, if the feeling could ever get strong enough to displace the massive indifference that filled me like sticky tar in a railroad tie. Every ambition beyond mere existence was gone. In a way that was a blessing because if I tried to do anything ambitious, I’d probably cause an accident.

Partway through this ordeal, while laying semi-comatose in the bathtub, an idea occurred to me that was so alarming I had to say it out loud to the empty room just to get some distance from it:

“What if this is normal?”

What if the ambitious, lucid person I remembered being a week ago was just a shell, and I got so sick that it broke? What if I don’t just magically get that part of my personality back when I’m feeling better, and instead it’s in little pieces that I’ll never find? What if my brain’s been permanently cooked by fever, and my chance to do anything complicated with it is gone?

I felt panic, but even that feeling was weak. I couldn’t manage a strong feeling of any kind. My heart was already racing just from disease, so no change there. But as I shambled around the house, slowly recovering, the idea kept jumping out at me. My feeling of alarm grew in parallel to my recovering strength, and became a kind of motivation. “If I’m ever going to do big things,” I told myself, “I better do them while I have the ability – and the desire. I just hope I get them back…”

It was sobering to know I could so easily lose the ability. It was appalling to know that I could also lose the desire. … Not just for specific things, but for everything. Take my current state of health, and instead of corrupting it with the flu, corrupt it with time instead; add ten or twenty years … Where’s that line, between attempting something really ambitious and surviving it, and screwing it up and freezing to death over some dumb mistake or losing concentration at the wrong moment and getting mangled in a ditch? How long before I put a huge plan together and then have to tell myself, “No, I better just stay home,” and how long before that becomes my preference anyway?

I don’t want to wait and see.

As I worked on my recovery – cleaning the house, washing my sweaty laundry, hocking up the remains of the flu – I tried to reset my perspective.

42 isn’t old age. Well, it isn’t these days, at least. If I were living in 19th-century England, I’d probably be dead and buried by now, and have several sets of grandkids scratching around in the fields, but in this modern world I can probably go another 42 years, and retire to a cozy house in Oregon sometime in the middle of the century if that’s what appeals to me.

No, I can’t be in tip-top physical shape any more, but how much does that really matter? With the passage of time I’ve been exchanging that physical ability for improvisational skill and situational awareness. My position in this modern world depends on knowledge and connections – things older people accumulate – rather than my ability to dig trenches and chop trees all day. Plus, I’m better at distinguishing between stuff that will permanently injure me and stuff that will just be annoying. And I’m a lot less afraid of dealing with strangers.

Yes, I can do things. I just need the will.

My little pep-talk to myself dropped into the background as my flu symptoms vanished, and I was grateful to see my sense of ambition return. Old is definitely a state of mind, and I felt very lucky to leave that state behind. Maybe I’ll end up there some day just from sheer wear and tear. But dammit, not yet!!

NZ Day 28: Taking off

We had a little time to kill, so Kerry and I walked downtown to a cafe and snacked while it rained outside. Eventually we moseyed back to the hotel, and the shuttle to the airport arrived. The driver knew the dimensions of the boxes ahead of time and the van was large enough, so that went smoothly.

The attendant at the airport was another matter. She argued with us for quite a while about whether we could get our boxes loaded on the plane and how much it would cost. She could not believe that the rules allowed it, and I had to patiently make my case over and over again until she kicked it up the food chain, and her boss waved us through.

The transition can be jarring sometimes. I work in an industry that is obsessed with optimization, in an area teeming with startups all wrestling to eat each others’ lunch and be “disruptive”. Meetings and deadlines and design specifications fly fast and furious and you can damage your reputation by being just a few minutes late, or not knowing your area of expertise down to the fine details when someone needs an answer. But I have to take that entire mode of thinking and shove it into a luggage compartment, and just go with the flow: If five people need me to explain the same thing five times, in a reasonable and patient voice, then that’s what I’ll do. If it takes all day, I’ll just get myself a sandwich and pace myself, and chop doggedly at the red tape until it stretches just enough. That’s just the way it has to go. No use getting imperious or upset.

The transfer to the international flight in Auckland was even more hurried than the first one. The design really was a bit ridiculous and I hope they improve it. The flight itself was just as cramped and uncomfortable as before; a kind of endurance test. Apparently I smelled so much from my earlier exertion with the bike boxes that the woman seated near me asked to transfer to another seat. Well, she didn’t tell me as much, but the way her face wrinkled up when I shifted around was all the signal I needed.

I know it’s a miracle that we can cross around to the other side of the Earth in less than a day, but even making the journey in first class is extremely uncomfortable, for the simple fact that you cannot lay down anywhere, for even a moment. Unfortunately, it’s not economical to build a plane that offers that kind of space. For every three stacked compartments where a person could lay flat, you can insert at least six seats. Airlines would have to double the ticket price at least, and no one would pay the difference. Plus they’d have to completely retool the interior of the plane to use it for shorter trips.

I can see the reasons it sucks. But yeah — it still sucks.

Anyway, we arrived in San Francisco without incident, unloaded our boxes in a haze, and called a shuttle. About an hour later we were standing in the driveway, and shortly after that we were attending to our respective cats, and starting to relax.

Time for a trip wrap-up!

What were the highlights of the trip?

Kerry and I both agree on the three highlights of this trip: Matapouri Bay, Hobbiton, and the Whanganui canoe trip. We could have spent an entire week just hanging around totally relaxed in Matapouri and another entire week on the Whanganui, canoeing and camping and hiking in those amazing woods. But the schedule didn’t allow it.

Below that top three I’ll add three more things: The Tongariro crossing, the Whangarei kayak trip through the mangrove forest, and the day we spent meandering around Waipu on our bikes, bothering the horses and sheep and picnicking and enjoying the unbelievably great weather.

Seriously, there are so many amazing natural activities all over New Zealand. We didn’t even go bird watching, or skydiving, or see the dolphins, or White Island, or go into any of the big caves, or go surfing, or walk through the Goblin Forest, or ride the old train tracks, or see ANY of the icy terrain of the South Island…

So how was it, cost-wise?

Kerry and I both had plenty of savings. What we were short on was time. This is probably typical for software developers wanting to travel. The upshot is, we paid for a wide variety of experiences, and crammed them all into one month. Snorkeling, boat rides, kayaking, canoeing … all things that required custom equipment and/or transport that we had to rent. If our bicycles hadn’t been highly customized we would have probably rented those too.

Camping in New Zealand is easier than in neighboring Australia, though it still varies by region. That was irrelevant though because Kerry and I didn’t even bring tents or sleeping bags. Our route lined up consistently with towns large enough to sport hotels, and since it was the tail end of the tourist season we booked almost every stay well in advance. Between food and lodging, and with the currency exchange, we averaged about 1.5 times the amount we’d pay back home. The quality of the rooms varied wildly, but the food was always good.

If we’d brought camping equipment and used it, New Zealand would have been less expensive than any European country — even the ones like Denmark and Sweden where camping is cheap, because of the reduced cost of food and other supplies. But without that camping element, New Zealand was pretty darned expensive.

Also, there was the paradoxical effect of the shuttle system. We had to pay oversize luggage fees to get our bikes into the country, and spend extra days at the beginning and end dealing with them. Between the fees and the hotel stays, and the extra food we surely ate because of pedaling around, it probably cost us more to travel through New Zealand by bike than it would have cost us just arriving on foot and taking the shuttle between attractions. The shuttle network in New Zealand really is quite marvelous, and if I’d known that in advance I would have taken the following advice:

Bring two folding bicycles to New Zealand. The kind that fit inside an ordinary suitcase. Plan on taking the shuttle between every town with every attraction you’re keen to see, and once you get into town, unfold the bikes and ride them around. Then fold them up again at the end of the day and proceed to the next town.

That way you get the mobility and range of the bikes, but you don’t have to deal with the endless hills between cities.

Would you go again if you had the chance?

You bet! If I was doing the North Island again, I’d bring folding bikes like I described in the answer above. If I was doing the South Island, it’d be a toss-up. The middle section of that island is flat enough to be pleasant biking, and there are a lot more places to camp so we could bring camping gear and enjoy it. But there is also a train that runs the length of that island, and we’d probably use shuttles to cross most of the mountains between the interior and the West coast, so bikes might not be the best call there either.

There is just so much variety in New Zealand that it’s silly to spend the majority of one’s time there bicycling. Yes, I would totally go back — but not primarily as a bicycle tourist.

Kerry agrees with this. She’s been to Europe and India, and was impressed at how different New Zealand was from those places, but aside from a few days that were truly enhanced by having bicycles, she could have enjoyed New Zealand just as much by renting an RV or taking the shuttles on foot.

NZ Day 27: Disassembly

Today was a day off, at least from traveling. We spent most of the daylight hours slowly disassembling our bikes and packing them into the Crateworks boxes, along with the rest of our gear.

For anyone curious to see how two tandem bicycles can fit into three Crateworks boxes – one long, two short – and still pass the airline weight requirements, this hyperspeed video shows exactly how we did it:

Packing Recumbents

In the afternoon we took a break to walk to a truly horrible French restaurant – our first seriously bad dining experience in New Zealand. Perhaps the country was throwing a tantrum because we were about to leave!

NZ Day 24: Tongariro Crossing!

Up at the crack of dawn with our backpacks and snacks! The weather was looking ominous but the shuttle driver claimed it would clear up and get warmer later in the day, so we boarded the shuttle with a handful of other explorers.

When we unloaded at the base of the trail, we immediately met a park ranger. Her purpose was to quickly examine the people starting the hike, and stop the ones that looked like they weren’t prepared well enough, and sternly warn them to turn around and leave. She was not as optimistic about the weather as our shuttle driver had been, and her information was more up-to-date.

“With wind chill, the temperature up there will drop below freezing,” she said. “And the wind will be blowing all the time.”

A few people turned around. Plenty of other people hurried by, as if they were trying to sneak past the ranger without being noticed — as if they were sneaking past a bouncer to get into an exclusive club. I spotted a young couple dressed in shorts, the boy charging up the trail with selfish bravado carrying only a water bottle, and the girl trailing nervously behind him with a fanny pack. She threw a glance back at the ranger but clearly didn’t have the guts to stop her boyfriend from making them both miserable.

And they surely would be miserable. Hours later Kerry and I would pass by clusters of people hunched behind rocks, their exposed skin turned purple, trying to decide what to do now that they were miles from civilization and anything warm.

We didn’t want to interfere with the ranger’s work, so we chatted with her just long enough to get news about the weather. Then we stepped onto the causeway and began the hike!

The causeway zigzagged to the east over alpine tundra, across tiny slow-moving streams and clusters of fragile-looking succulents and grass.

What manner of plant is this??

Most of the rocks were rough and porous, and they quickly became boulders as we went along.

As the route got steeper, Kerry and I remembered all our conversations with the locals about roads and bicycling and hiking trails. We decided that New Zealanders were so used to going up and down hills that they eventually stopped noticing them, and only remembered that a given route involved climbing when it went straight up an actual mountain. A while back we asked one of them to describe the Tongariro Crossing and he actually used the words, “It’s flat all the way up.”

Flat all the way up. That’s some serious “ancient Greek philosopher” logic, there.

While pondering the terrain’s obvious non-flatness, we posed for a couple of dramatic photos with Mt Ngauruhoe – a.k.a. Mt Doom – in the background.

The trail continued towards the left-hand flank of the mountain, and soon the stairs began.

At first it was little sections of stairs, a dozen steps at a time, and then we reached a rest area with some pit toilets and beheld one extremely long staircase that went lurching up the shoulder of Mt Ngauruhoe towards an unseen plateau to the north. Small groups of people were standing around trying to reach consensus over whether to continue, or turn back. Other people were just hunkered down eating snacks.

It was interesting to see how people dealt with the extreme weather. By this point most of the people with inadequate gear had been filtered out. We spotted a trio of older ladies who looked like they were in their late 60’s, each carrying a heavy pack. They had thick clothing but it was too porous to block the intense wind, so they compensated by moving quickly. I was more the plodding, cautious type, and spent a lot of time standing aside so other people could pass by without breaking their pace. It was a constant reminder that I wasn’t nearly as in-shape as I imagined.

The trail split, offering a partial route up the side of Mt. Ngauruhoe for the especially brave, but Kerry and I skipped it. A while later we met up with a group who made the climb, and they expressed disappointment that the peak was drowned in mist when they reached the top.

We followed the trail straight ahead, across a wide, flat plateau. The wind was still bitterly cold. Ahead of us we could see a hillside scattered with the bright dots of people in hiking gear, zig-zagging up to the top of a ridge, then following the ridge to a peak way up on the left.

Here’s a line showing the route:

Once we got up on the ridge we took a few shots looking back:

We climbed, then rested for a while in the shelter of some boulders on the ridge. Anyone around us who wasn’t resting out of the wind was getting more tired instead of less, and we heard plenty of tense muttering around us as clusters of people tried to decide whether to turn back. It was safe to assume that almost every one of the hundreds of hikers around us was doing this hike for the first time – like us – and wasn’t completely sure how much rough terrain lay ahead. (In retrospect, we were about a third of the way along the crossing.)

The trail got narrower and more hazardous. Cables were attached to the rock wall in some places, and we used them gratefully.

When we followed the ridge all the way to the top, we could see the Emerald Lakes down the other side, to the north. The trail also split off to the west, and to the east we could look down into a steep crater — the remains of a huge volcanic explosion.

We were standing on the top of Mount Tongariro – or at least, the highest remaining peak of it, after the top was blasted off long ago. The Tongariro crossing is actually named after this mountain, and the volcanic complex surrounding it. Even the much taller Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom) behind us – is technically just a vent of the Tongariro complex.

Even before the view, the first thing we noticed was the wind. It was up to 40 miles per hour, and it blasted us continuously from the north. We had to be careful to lean in that direction no matter which way we were actually walking.

Whoooooooooooooooooooosssssh goes the wind!

In the distance we could see the shimmering, chilly surface of Blue Lake. What a view!

Some hikers were taking the more ambitious western trail, which continued along the top of the ridge and bent around to the south, eventually returning them to the brutal staircase and the shuttle station. We followed the majority, stomping and slipping our way down the loose rock towards the Emerald Lakes.

This descent was tricky. Kerry couldn’t go four steps without slipping, and some other people were slipping and falling constantly, dropping their butts and hands into the soil. It looked painful. I went down the way I would on the chalk hills near my childhood home: Turned sideways, planting my heels very heavily to dig in each step. I didn’t fall over but I got a huge pile of gravel in my shoes!

The lakes grew more enchanting as we approached them. Soon we could see their strange coloring and watch the mist percolating and oozing out from the hills around them.

We went right down to the shore, then sat around resting and drinking the water we brought with us. I gobbled a bunch of snacks from my backpack. Kerry discovered that there was exactly one boulder in the whole area large enough to provide cover to pee behind, and when she went around it she found wads of toilet paper everywhere. Eeeew.

A fellow hiker snapped this nice photo, just before we set out again:

Fortified by the rest, we made good time across the plateau to the north, and then climbed another hill to arrive at the edge of Blue Lake. It was gorgeous; the kind of rugged-looking primeval terrain that an artist might put on the cover of a fantasy novel to grab the reader’s eye.

We took the opportunity to make silly poses in front of it. Kerry’s fantasy novel is called “Space-Queen Of The Freezing Teapots.” Mine is called “I Can’t Believe How Silly Kerry Is.”

Kerry: "I'm a little teapot ... COLD and stout!"

Kerry was making a really ridiculous face just before she snapped this one!

I couldn’t help asking myself, why would this terrain be so inspiring? As I walked along I came up with a pretty good theory: It inspires dramatic tension because it’s exposed. Unlike a dense forest or the crowded streets of a city, this terrain is composed only of things that are gigantic – the lake, the ridge, the sky – and things that are tiny. Anything medium-sized that you construct in it, or send wandering through it, can only look fragile and insignificant by comparison. … Or it will be so far away that you won’t see it at all.

So either you’re lost, or you’re totally exposed and vulnerable. Quite a setting for drama! There isn’t even a single bush growing around the shore of the lake that you could hide behind. About the only way you could surprise someone would be to bury yourself in rocks and wait until they wander past you on the trail. (I bet some treacherous bandits in Mongolia have done just that!)

Eventually we passed around the side of a hill, losing sight of Blue Lake, and discovered one good hiding place:

… So we took another pee break and ate snacks there. The wind was not as bitterly cold as before, but still cold.

This is how we keep warm in 35mph winds!

Eventually we passed around to the north face of the Tongariro complex. From this point the trail only went downward. It felt like we were more than two thirds done with the crossing, but for the sheer distance we had to walk, it was closer to halfway.

We were treated to another lovely panorama, this one quite different from the last. We could see Lake Taupo in the far distance.

The track below looked easy enough to walk, and we thought we were right on schedule to make it to the shuttle stop at the end by 5:00pm. We didn’t reckon that most of the remaining path was hidden in the forest beyond.

We'll be walking every inch of that track to get down ... and then a bunch more that's hidden in the trees below.

Along the way we saw some more geothermal activity, and a sign sternly warning us to keep our distance.

After an eternity of foot-numbing descent, we arrived at the Ketetahi cabin, a structure that used to offer overnight stays and cooking equipment to hikers before it was damaged in the 2012 volcanic eruption.

In 2012 an explosion shot thousands of rocks high into the air, and one of them came down right through the roof of the cabin and smashed one of the bunk beds. Thankfully, it was not occupied at the time!

Now the cabin is only good for temporary shelter and bathroom breaks, while the forestry service decides what to do with it. The current proposition is fix up the cabin but seal off the damaged room – including a plastic plate over the hole – and turn it into an exhibit showing the power and unpredictability of the volcano.

We got a good look at the bas-relief map on the table and saw that yes, now we were more than 2/3 of the way. Sheesh!

We walked as fast as we could, very conscious of the time. The trail finally leveled out and the forest closed around us. Soon we passed this sign:

Okay; can anyone tell me what a lahar is? Ah. The USGS website has answered my question. It's an "Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys."

So what in the world is a “lahar”?

The USGS website has an answer: It’s an “Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of a volcano and (or) river valleys.”

Basically a flash-flood of cement that comes roaring down out of the mountains without warning and half-drowns, half-bulldozes everything in its way. Terrifying!

At this point we were almost jogging, trying to make the 5:00pm pickup. For the last half-hour we did jog, when our sore feet would allow us to. I still paused to snap a few pictures of the amazing foliage around us — I couldn’t help it!

Those leaves do not belong to the tree - they are actually yet another parasitic organism. New Zealand is crazy.

Whoah. I don't think I've ever seen such a huge specimen of this type of lichen anywhere before... ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudevernia_furfuracea )

The shuttle driver waited a few minutes after we arrived, since there was one more group behind us on the trail that hadn’t appeared yet. If we’d known that the driver would wait past pickup time, we wouldn’t have taxed ourselves so much on the last few miles. Oh well.

Back at the hotel we exploded our luggage and took the longest showers ever. Then we rode to the restaurant for a huge dinner:

MY LATE-NIGHT BREAKFAST IS LOOKING AT ME! I'M NORMAL I'M NORMAL I'M NORMAL I'M ( kaboooooooom )

The banners in a restaurant. We just did these! HAH!

We checked the weather for tomorrow, and the transportation out of National Park, and decided to do one last day of cross-country riding, all downhill to Taumurunui!

NZ Day 23: A much needed day off

When we got back from the canoe trip we had to make some hard scheduling decisions. We had only six days left before our flight in New Plymouth.

According to the original itinerary, we should have already done the Tongariro Crossing, giving us plenty of time to cycle towards Egmont National Park, and check out the Goblin Forest hiking trail. But now we had to choose between the two: Tongariro Crossing, or Goblin Forest?

We were absolutely exhausted, and we really wanted to spend a day resting instead of traveling. Also, the hotel offered a shuttle ride directly to and from the Tongariro Crossing trailheads. I poked around and discovered a bus connection from Taumarunui to New Plymouth, and that gave us a pretty good plan: Rest up today, do the crossing tomorrow, and then cycle downhill out of National Park towards Taumarunui the next day. The ride would be nothing but easy downhill, so we wouldn’t be taxing ourselves for two days in a row.

With the decision made, we booked another day at the hotel, then rode out and stuffed ourselves silly at the restaurant.

While eating I saw this in the newspaper rack:

Looks like we finished our river trip just in time! Now here’s hoping the weather stays clear for the next day, while we’re doing the Tongariro Crossing…

It’s funny… I think if we’d only spent a week or a few days in New Zealand we wouldn’t have seen enough to realize how much we missed. But a month is enough to see and try many things, and pick up ideas for many more along the way… We skipped the dolphin encounter, White Island, skydiving, Sanctuary Mountain, Frying Pan Lake, various caves, and all the museums along the way so far…

We could always see more on a second trip, but if we do come back, it will be to cross the south island. Oh well. Life is too short!

Inside the paper I found this editorial:

1080 is a poison that is formed into large pellets and dropped into the forest by helicopter.

First they make a “feeder batch” of pellets that contains no poison and drop that into the woods, to get the critters used to eating it. Then they drop a load of 1080.

The idea is to kill possums and other mammal pests that are terrorizing the native birds, without the invasive process of setting traps. There are concerns about the poison creeping into waterways, about other animals dying from eating contaminated corpses, and about kiwi birds eating them directly and dying.

What I like about this editorial is that it claims the people opposed to 1080 are an illogical “brigade”, and then fails to present even a single referenced fact as counterpoint – just a lot of angry bluster.

Good job, Richard Steele! Not.

Where do I stand on this issue as a tourist? Am I even allowed to take a position, given the contradictory nature of my presence here? I was drawn to New Zealand in part by the native wildlife, but by tromping around I contribute to its degradation. I guess I’m on the side of the 1080 users – it seems to be better than doing nothing – but poisons are always nasty things and I sympathize with those who are alarmed to find trace amounts of it showing up in unexpected places.