After spending most of the day trekking through the breathtaking scenery of Milford Sound, we were exhausted, “I can’t wait to get home,” I sighed.
The four-hour drive between the inlet — home to seal colonies, penguins, and dolphins — and our rented apartment in Te Anau, New Zealand, afforded panoramic views as we meandered through the wind-swept mountains: one of the most beautiful places on earth. We were lucky. Even though it was a late afternoon in February, summer still clung like a persistent suitor to this island nation, gifting us with late sunsets and impeccable weather.
As our SUV chugged up the steep canyon road, leaving the glistening fjord behind, we were enveloped by a kaleidoscope of changing colors that left us speechless. We gazed in awe. The mountain, haloed in the light of the setting sun, was sublime. Nature’s cathedral is a sacred place; out of respect, we were silent as trees bowed in adoration to the granite peak. No wonder the ancient Greeks believed their gods lived on Mount Olympus.
The mountain has a pulse. It is bold, confident, almost aloof. Its stark silhouette has demanded allegiance for millions of years. Time is static here — an illusion. The slumbering giant has witnessed the death of dinosaurs and the birth of aviation. It is not easily impressed.
The majestic scenery was mesmerizing, but it was competing with my fatigue. The car’s engine, oblivious to nature’s palette, droned on like ambient noise, eventually lulling me to sleep.
Before dreams could come, I was awakened by a more disturbing sound, unfamiliar and threatening. The awe-inspiring landscape had been replaced by tangled trees, dancing haughtily in the shadows, their low-hanging branches scratching the roof of our car, as if to gain entry. “Don’t worry,” Dad grinned through the rearview mirror; “We’re low on gas so the navigation system rerouted us. We’re almost there.”
Being stranded on the mountain, especially on this moonless night, was a prospect too forbidding to contemplate.
The last vestiges of sunlight gave shine to my father’s three-day beard as he focused intently on the narrow road. Weeds conspired at gravel’s edge, privy to what lay ahead and daring us to proceed. For the first time on our trip, the weather threatened: ominous black clouds rolled in from the west. The car groaned. Before I could express my concern about our creepy surroundings, the GPS chimed: “You have arrived at your destination, Gunn’s Camp.”
My dad braked suddenly when a frolicking dog darted into our path. As we skidded to a halt, a dilapidated house came into view behind a veil of thick, dark foliage. Nearby, abandoned motorcycles were stacked like melancholy dominoes against a rusted flagpole. A swarm of shirtless bikers, many emblazoned with tattoos, milled in front of us, adding to our unease. A night alone on the mountain suddenly seemed more inviting.
I glanced at my sister and mother, their foreheads furrowed in a mixture of disgust and disbelief, “This place is a dump,” my sister finally opined. The prosecution rested.
“Maybe we should turn around and find . . .” My mother’s voice trailed off, undoubtedly frightened by an old man who materialized five feet from our car. He sported bib overalls and a brown, sweat-stained hat, which probably began life white. A tuft of gray hair crawled over his ear and spoke of the past — mercifully in words too faint to be heard. I had no desire to get acquainted. Stealing glances, I noticed he was nursing a chaw of tobacco, nestled snugly aside his few remaining teeth. The old man’s wrinkled face was a tale of the macabre. I had never seen a more stern, sinister-looking figure.
My dad searched feverishly for options. Finding none, he slowly rolled down the window, “Hi,” he said; “We’re running out of gas and our navigation system sent us here. Do you sell gas?”
The old man’s face churned, then exploded into a warm smile, belying our first impressions, “We don’t have gas,” he chuckled, “but we sure do have petrol.”
We were all relieved — more by his hospitality than the gasoline. After “Martin” fueled our car with enough gas to get to the next town, where he said it would be cheaper, he motioned us into the house. We were greeted by a nature museum and a charming gift shop, resplendent in orange hues. The colors cascaded across an old wooden floor that felt spongy with every step.
A bit of self-flagellation seemed in order. Never had I been so deceived by first appearances. To borrow a phrase that has become rather trite: it was a rush to judgment. In reality, this old man, who moments earlier had kindled such apprehension, was a jovial fellow. He percolated with wit, roaring at jokes he had told countless times, now threadbare from laughter.
Martin held court well into the night, regaling us with an endless stream of stories. We reveled in his hospitality, made friends with his dog, Ayla, and learned that many of the menacing bikers outside were professional people who liked to challenge the meringue-peaked mountain on weekends. We had paused to listen — and we were the richer for it. Martin’s burlesque was delightful, but eventually our exhaustion returned and the night beckoned. It was time to leave.
One of the bikers, a school teacher named Jordan, walked us to our car. The air had cooled. Midway to the vehicle, he stopped abruptly, his face suddenly somber, “Martin is dying,” he said softly; “He has cancer.”
The words took forever to digest. Jordan walked back to the house and we took the few remaining steps to our car. No one spoke. When the end comes, I thought, even the mountain will weep. As we made our way up the steep road, quietly waving goodbye, the car spitting gravel in our wake, a yellow sign bade us farewell: “Leaving Gunn’s Camp. Drive carefully. Come back soon!”
It wouldn’t be the same.
Alex Zhai is a junior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA. He is fascinated by American and French literature and enjoys writing poetry about the natural world. At school, he is a Junior Co-Editor of the literary magazine. In his free time, he enjoys reading linguistics books, creating mixed-media sculptures, dancing on his school team, and watching Wes Anderson movies.