A week and two days ago today I was dressed in gumboots and a blue onesie, flying through snow and mud on the backof a quad bike, squashed between two dogs, with one hand clenching fencing wire and the other holding the jacket of a woman I had been wanting to find for almost 20 years.
It was my last few days in New Zealand. There was a closet of hoarded paperwork to sort through, furniture to give away, a car to sell, fines to settle with the Ministry of Justice and the Invercargill Public Library. But seeing Andrea again - this woman I hitchhiked with for two days in Ireland in 1996 - was something I would have abandoned pretty much everything else to do ever since the penny dropped, in a tent, in the middle of a field in Glenorchy last November, and I realised this is the hitchhiker and the mountains all around us that night were the same peaks in three photos that she carried around with her in her wallet when I first met her at age 18. Andrea was 35 that year- the age I am now.
I wrote about how we first hitched together, lost touch, then re-connected here for the Southland Times in December - and I've probably told the story a hundred times in person to many of you in the last seven months because it made a really tumultuous season of my 20s make more sense.
Who knows what drives us to seek out certain places to be at war with ourselves in. Maybe that landscape - an ocean, a mountain range, a desert in New Mexico, a dusty, scrub-covered hill outside Bakersfield - simply resonates with something inside us some years. Meeting Andrea again in Glenorchy - which had only been a nameless mountain town she described to me as the backdrop for the worst kind of betrayal and the end of her marriage, as we stood by the side of the road thousands of miles away in County Cork with our thumbs out in '96 - made my time there seem less of a mistake. Maybe I was just fated to work myself out in that same place too, years later.
After we met below those peaks again in November, as visitors simultaneously returning to a favourite haunt - a meeting that spooked both of us I think - she invited me out to her farm in Canterbury whenever I had a spare weekend. Just as I was buying my one-way ticket back to the States, she wrote to remind me the offer was still there and said she had a pair of gumboots that would fit me.
So before flying to California, I made arrangements to get a car and head out to this farm that she had described on that November weekend as the next best thing to Woodbine Station in Glenorchy which she and her ex-husband had managed in the early 90s before everything unravelled.
The farmhouse, just off a gravel road that led to Mt Hutt helicopters was covered in snow - I couldn't even get the car entirely up the driveway. The doors were flung open and it was late afternoon. The sun was out; the peaks that framed her farm were so white you could hardly look at them without feeling your pupils blister.
We sat in these white, deep chairs, covered in soft blankets and looked out to the snow and the mountains. Andrea's husband, Wayne - who she met at a Herbert Community Hall birthday party after she came back from our hitching adventure in Ireland, and married the year I would have rolled into Glenorchy - brought us whiskey and ice with mint leaves in these goblets and left us there to sit like snow queens surveying our kingdom until it was nearly dark. Andrea got up and threw me a Russian fur hat and we headed out on her quad bike to check on the cows. Flying through the night, I didn't care that my good office boots that I had worn to work nearly every day for the last 13 months were getting wrecked. I haven't been able to zip them up since that night, which kind of feels like one less decision I have to make right now.
Wayne had a roaring fire going and a glass of merlot for each of us when we got back. He made venison and potatoes, something I probably wouldn't eat for a long time - it was a perfect last winter meal. He kept refilling our glasses then retreated to watch the news on TV.
From a big chest in the living room, Andrea pulled out an album of her years at Woodbine. They were all valleys and mountains and rivers that I knew well. The children at picnics and barbecues in her pictures with 80s haircuts would all grow up to be hellraisers riding their horses through the pub and hanging from the rafters in my photos years later.There were some of her on the back of trucks, working in the yards, riding her favourite horse in the Glenorchy Races, hiking up near Glacier Burn with her dog, and my favourite one of Andrea - her laying in the tall grass, hair in braids, chin on hands, looking up to the Humboldt Range. Many of the photos had been torn in half but then at some point she had made peace with them and they had been taped back together and placed in this album.
After we came in from the farm the next morning she showed me her art/writing studio out back. On the walls were sketches, paintings, and pictures of all the places she had lived and worked in. Africa, islands in the South Pacific, the Snowy Mountains in Australia. Somewhere near one of portraits of Glenorchy, I saw she had this quote from Karen Blixen, who would have been writing about leaving her farm in Kenya after her divorce, then death of her lover, Denys in a plane crash, and then finally the financial collapse of her coffee plantation (I know all of this because I was obsessed with Blixen when I was 12). Blixen went back to Denmark and never returned to Africa. I don't remember the first part of the quote or if it came from her book or her letters, but I remember peering into words Andrea had written the wall - “You must not think that I feel, in spite of it having ended in such defeat, that my life has been wasted here, or that I would exchange it with that of anyone I know” - and knowing what Blixen was trying to say and why almost 100 years after Blixen arrived in that spot that would haunt her forever, two women were looking at that quote and thinking ''yup''.