Grabbing the Reins While on the Road

By Ethan Maurice | March 2, 2017

This article is a follow-up to last week's Letting Go While on the Road. Then, I was in the midst of an experimental road trip, aiming to just let go and drift without plans or control for a couple weeks. Near the end of the road trip, though, and after publishing last week's article, I blatantly broke the rules of my experiment.

To explain why, I have to back up to ten days before the incident to a conversation that planted the seed of dissent in my head.

It had been raining all day in Queenstown. In a packed campground kitchen, I sat down next to a guy I'd briefly talked with weeks before in a hostel in Greymouth and in striking up a conversation, quickly realized we were kindred spirits. A teacher and writer, Jeremy was in the midst of a backcountry exploration of the South Island on foot while documenting the journey through his website. A remarkable conversation ensued for a couple hours, most pertinently exposing one major difference in our approaches to travel. Both Jeremy and I held no rigid plans, but I had literally no knowledge of my surroundings while Jeremy was loaded with more information than any traveler I'd ever met.

To express what I was missing in intentional ignorance, Jeremy showed me a photo of a backcountry hut perched atop a ridgeline looking out on Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak. A couple weeks before, he had watched the sunrise over these incredible snow-capped mountains from the porch of this hut, making the point that my ignorance caused me to miss such surreal experiences.

I couldn't argue. The landscape was stunning. I wistfully envisioned myself waking up to a hot cup of tea and watching the sunrise from that hut's porch. However, I was having a great time with this whole bohemian, no knowledge or expectations experiment. I wanted to see it through.

I continued the road trip in blissful ignorance, enjoying my French companions and the effortless style in which we traveled. I often had no idea what we were doing. We'd be cruising down the highway and pull over suddenly to which I'd ask, “What are we doing here?” I'd then learn that penguins nested nearby, that sea lions wallowed on the beach below, or that a hitchhiker another one of our cars picked up earlier knew of caves to explore. Always a surprise, it was random, it was exciting, it was great fun.

The thought of that backcountry hut and Mount Cook never quite left my head, though. And ten days after that conversation, I realized our three-car caravan was going to pass right by Mount Cook if I didn't do something. I broke the golden rule of my experiment—don't touch the reins—and worked to convince everyone that we had to stop.

For the first time in two and a half weeks, I grabbed the reins and steered.

Arriving at the Mount Cook National Park Visitor Center, we discovered to our dismay that the backcountry hut was booked full for the next week. However, the mountains that loomed over us were staggering. We decided to stay. We'd hike out and back to the hut the next morning even if we couldn't stay the night.

Entering Mount Cook National Park.

Entering Mount Cook National Park.

Moved by my surroundings, an irrepressible urge to steer swelled inside me once again. That afternoon as I walked back from a glacial lake at the base of Mount Cook, I mentally rehearsed a short impassioned speech to convince everyone that we shouldn't start hiking tomorrow morning, but rather at night with headlamps to catch the sunrise from the hut in the morning.

My idea was met with groans of resistance. We'd never successfully set our alarms before 9am the entire road trip, but I persisted:

“We are here in this ridiculously beautiful, breathtaking place for 24 hours—that's it. We'll probably never return since we're all from the other side of the world. Yes, we could get a full night's sleep and see it in daylight tomorrow, but we have the opportunity to create a moment—a moment we might remember for the rest of our lives. And yes, if we start at 4am tomorrow, the rest of our day will probably be shot. We'll be exhausted and our cars will probably be too hot to sleep with the sun beating down on them. But for all the pain and inconvenience, I'm confident not a single one of us would ever regret it.”

This was far from the letting go approach of my experiment. I saw such potential and was now fighting for the reins to reach what I envisioned. Nobody wanted to wake up at such an hour, but I kept working on my buddy Millet and he finally agreed. Once he was in, it wasn't long before everyone else was too.

At 3:45am we awoke with hushed excitement. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while my French companions drank coffee (French people love coffee almost as much as I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches).

Then, we walked into the darkness.

Our flashlight situation was bleak. Other than my headlamp, we had my half-charged cell phone's flashlight and two of those manually powered flashlights that require constant winding to keep lit. Though we were short of man-made light, the brightness of the Milky Way was enough to make out the white of the massive snowfields on the mountains overhead.

For the first five minutes the trail was flat, then it became a vertical staircase. It was the coldest part of the night, but I shed layers down to a mere t-shirt as we climbed. Time blurred. After what I'd guess to be an hour and a half the stairs ended, giving way to sheer rock and dirt. It was challenging to climb, let alone follow the obscure trail through the dark. My French friends armed with a now low-battery cell phone and wind up flashlights abandoned hope of staying on route, scattering across the mountainside. Thinking it was important that somebody knew the direction we were supposed to go, I continued to struggle to stay on the trail.

I kept losing and finding the path, but it was still easier than climbing without one and I crested the ridgeline first. It was still dark, but my eyes were well adjusted. Elation washed through my arms and legs as I leaned forward to let out the loudest, most shrill “YHEEEEEEEEEEWHOOOOOOOOO!!!" I could muster across the revealed landscape of starlit mountains and snow and glaciers.

The trail cut back along the top of the ridgeline in the direction of my bold, trail-less French friends still climbing and winding their flashlights below. In short time they reached the ridgeline and once again were all back together. We found that mystical hut but decided to climb higher still, perching ourselves a couple hundred of feet above.

The eastern horizon was aglow in anticipation for the sunrise to come. The lightest tones of yellow darkened and grew into oranges and pinks. The valley floor thousands of feet below was as flat as could be, glacial rivers snaking across it with heavy fog collecting over a lake farther out. More than 6,000ft above us still, Mount Cook and the rest of the Southern Alps somehow still towered above us to the west.

My awareness shifted to the bright orange glow sliding down the highest of peaks and but a moment later rays of sunlight burst upon us from the far side of the valley. Time stopped as an exhale left me in breathless awe... I never thought I'd see such an overwhelmingly epic, otherworldly sunrise in my entire life. When my body reminded me it was time to breathe again, I grabbed my camera, clamored a bit further up the rocks, and took the photograph atop this article.

Later that afternoon, our three-car caravan was parked at the edge of a chalky blue lake. We were hours by car away from that hut, that ridgeline, and that moment.

Everyone else was asleep and I was lying in the shade of a pine tree, thoughts drifting from the book in hand. We were nearing the end of our road trip and, looking back, I realized that of all the moments of this experiment in letting go, the best moment of all was the one I broke the rules of the experiment for—a moment I deliberately sought and engineered. A moment I'd fought and sacrificed the rest of the day for.

As a warm, gentle breeze rolled across the lake and through the pine boughs overhead, it couldn't have been any clearer to me: blissful ignorance can be lovely, but nothing compares to deliberately striving for and experiencing the best of the things you love.




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