“Do you know which mountain that is?” the man whose legs I was sitting between asked, as the rickety biplane neared its final cruising altitude.
I played dumb even though I’d spent two days at the foot of it; the warmth of his body made me feel giddy, although he was simply pressed up against me as part of his job. Contradiction morphs into comfort easily when you’re on the brink of falling toward the Earth from 15,000 feet.
As we plummeted down through the sky together, streams of sub-zero air rushing into my nose and out of my mouth so fast I couldn’t tell if I would drown or suffocate, I did my best to heed the advice he’d given me. Look toward the horizon, he’d said several times, more often than any other phrase he’d uttered during the 10 minutes or so we’d known each other—yes, even the safety-related ones.
Indeed, this image—New Zealand’s Southern Alps rising above a spectrum of jewel-toned lakes—is permanently burned into my mind’s eye. But what I remember most about the descent (or, perhaps, a close-second to the feeling I’d soon asphyxiate) is how seldom I’d lived in any particular present moment up until that point in my trip.
I’d been capturing pictures of New Zealand with my camera (I’d been captured, to be sure, by the plethora of forms its fierce beauty takes), but I’d always been somewhere else. Truth be told I guess I’ve been that way most of my life; it just didn’t seem as big of a deal when I was 20-something as it does now that I’m staring down 35.
New Zealand had been trying to open my eyes to this since the moment I’d landed 10 days prior. I’d been strapped into the window seat of an Airbus A330 then, of course, without an attractive man anywhere in my vicinity (let alone so close to me I could feel his heartbeat in my spine). But the contrast of the Tasman Sea’s surreal aquamarine with the pure peridot and emerald tones of the North Island landmass stopped my thoughts from wandering, at least for a few deep breaths.
On the other hand, I had to force myself not to make too much of the moments of elation that would overcome me, often during the middle of lonely drives that would last hundreds of kilometers at a time. The emo songs I shuffled through as I sped between Lakes Taupo and Rotorua, or from Tekapo down to Queenstown and over to Franz Josef, would make me think of the failed relationship that so badly fucked me up during the final months of last year; it was tempting to shoo away these ruminations with the most reductive reasoning.
Everything happens for a reason, said my inner voice, but with a tone and tenor that wasn’t mine. I quickly corrected this bullshit line of thinking: The scars of the past dull future sensation, if anything.
Certainly, the last thing I want these photos of New Zealand to do is to make you as moody and contemplative as I felt passing through the real thing. Really, I just hope you set flight alerts for Auckland or Christchurch—or, if you’ve already been considering a trip, that you get the hell off that fence.