Sharing laughs with three strangers in the alpine meadows in the shadows if the snow covered mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom)
While camping alone I haven’t really missed laughter. I haven’t thought about it’s absence in my life. I have moments when I laugh at myself of course, when a snot rocket fails while hiking, tripping on a root, or mistaking a tree for a human, then I’ll chuckle in my head. I didn’t think about missing the sounds of laughter and sharing laughs. I’ve been pretty content having my internal conversations and laughing in those, but then I heard laughter from others and I remembered what I was missing.
When I got to the first campsite on the Northern Circuit, which is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, I woke up from a afternoon nap from laughter. It was two women from Oregon that use to be college roommates. One tall and with thick hiking legs, the other small and petite with a pack that had more on the outside then the inside. After two years of not seeing each other they were finally reunited in New Zealand to travel for two months together. Laughing in their tent. Their innocent giggles seemed to echo through the valley like the winds that billowed down Mt.Doom. Radiating noises of happiness bouncing back and forth against the valley walls, always passing through my one woman tent. All of the sudden I remembered what I’ve been missing. Shared laughter. I’ve been happy. I love traveling alone, seeing people come and go, smiles in polite conversation but after a month I realized I missed laughing so hard that my eyes are forced shut from cheeks that pushed up from a smile so deep that wrinkles pour from the corners of my eyes, my stomach so tense it hurts, laughing so hard I have to gasp for air in between each loud laugh. The most hideous and also most beautiful laughter. A kind of laughter that you don’t have by yourself very often or with strangers.
Another group came to the camp ground, a group of Israeli’s, they all laughed as they struggled together to put up their tent. I sunk into the yellow walls of my tent that I miserably struggled to put up against the josh winds earlier that day. I wanted to laugh too. The Oregon girls were nice and so were the Israeli’s, we talked hiking plans, travel plans and inevitably about food but only polite chuckles where exchanged. I was traveling alone and they had all their friends and inside jokes with them. I was happy to be alone but something about being alone around people is harder. I wanted to retreat to my remote jungle camping spots where laughs didn’t taunt me and just silence accompanied me.
I got out my cooking things for a dinner of instant chicken noodles. My single pot, small bowl. I looked over at the Oregon girls and they had the same brand pot as me, light weight with a rubber handle to protect you from the heat, but theirs was one serving size bigger. Made for two. As I made my dinner one of the Israeli girls came to talk to me again, ask me if I was really all alone, what that was like, commented on how small my tent was and I told her the now scripted response adding that my tent is just big enough for me and my pack to snuggle. She laughed one of those obligatory laughs and went back to her friends to share some uncontrollable laughter.
I didn’t have someone to laugh with but I did have snow capped mountains behind me to share my instant noodles with. As I ate my dinner I had nothing to do, no one to talk with so I just stared at the mountains letting my eyes and mind get lost in their depth, snow fields, ridge lines, dark black volcanic rock, and staggering peaks. Their intensity cradled me in the valley that was in the shadows of Mt. Doom. Eating above tree line felt normal, no more jungle, no jungle noises, just the noise of the alpine winds that danced the clouds through the peaks. When I looked up at the peaks there was a sense of calm that ran through me because for the first time in awhile I could look up and see a point to navigate with, I could pin point exactly where I was. Knowing where I was and knowing I was in the right spot.
The hut near the campsite had sinks that were fed from rain water. I washed my pot and bowl properly for the first time this trip. On the deck of the hut I saw three guys that looked pretty familiar but I couldn’t decide where from. Then I made eye contact with one of them as I stared at them too intensely trying to figure out where I had seen them. He pointed at me with a smile and I suddenly remembered, the bus! That morning on a blurry eyed 7am bus ride from Turangi to the trail heads I saw them in the front rows. They got off at the first stop, the one no one got off at, and I was getting off at the last stop, which no one else got off at. The 30 or so other people who were also on the bus got off at the Ketahi car park, the start to the most beautiful day hike in the world the Tongariro Crossing. I got dropped off further down the trail where the circuit starts and the guys got dropped at the other end of the crossing, to cross the crossing going the wrong way and adding some miles. They came over to me at he sink as if like old friends. We chatted and shared plans but we all spoke and smiled more genuinely then traditional passing conversations of travelers or hikers.
They went to go set up their tents and I sat my mine writing and doodling; back to hanging out with the mountains. They made their dinner and then after we all sat in front of my tent. I was proud in a way of my little tent and myself, thinking the tent looked nice enough to sit in front of the kind of joys the host of a dinner party must get but this in alpine meadows. The four of is sat and laughed, became those people that I dislike at campgrounds. That laugh too loudly. I couldn’t stop though. Genuine, honest, sarcastic humor came unfiltered out of all of us and my laugh couldn’t quiet.
The sun set over the farmland horizon, the white peaks behind us, and a sky full of color in front of us. The sun seemed to linger on the horizon for longer then usual but finally it dropped and woke up the night. Throughout our conversations, banter, and laughs more and more stars began to pop up and much later a almost full moon rose to illuminate the mountains in a different light. We kept talking and talking and shaking from the cold that comes with a clear sky. I had all my layers on, would intermittently do core exercises and push-ups to get warm. Finally, I couldn’t laugh because I was so cold, so I had to wish everyone good night. I slide quickly into my sleeping bag, zipping the rain fly, then tent, then my bag; cocooned again.
I never got warm that night. The wind that chilled my legs while talking late into the cold night never left my skin. It was worth it though, I got to see the night sky again. The jungle made it impossible to see beyond the bush and being alone made it too scary to sit outside an watch the dark. Even though I had a cold night sleep I got to laugh again and see big sky like in the Sierras again.
The next morning we all had made breakfast in front of my tent, reunited in front of it as if it was something we had done for years. I packed up my bag and had to say goodbye. I could stay for longer and laugh but that would just be postponing the inevitable and I love my early starts. So I said seeya and made sure I thanked them for the laughs.
That day I hiked over the Tongariro Crossing and found myself smiling as I climbed the steep mountain. Smiled as I got stuck behind the line of people on the beautiful day. Smiled as I turned off the main trail to get to my next campsite and heard silence again. Sharing uncontrollable laughter boosted me in a way. Having silence again and walking through a deserted volcanic field with only my thoughts felt perfect. Happy to be alone again but the noise of laughter close to me again.