I landed on the North Island of New Zealand in November 2008. I was alone, except for a mammoth North Face backpack, stuffed to capacity with Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap and two dozen chocolate-chip Clif Bars.
I planned to spend the next four weeks by myself, farm-hopping, if you will, as a participant in an organization called WWOOF (“Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms”).
For seven nights, I slept in a trailer on the lawn of a couple in their sixties, who sold produce at local farmers’ markets and ate only raw food. Bedtime came early at this particular household, and I spent hours each night reading by flashlight in my bunk, a hot water bottle nestled at my feet. I felt fragile—emotionally, because the quiet made me nervous, and physically, because I was too unsettled in my new surroundings to stomach the mountains of raw vegetables that were served for dinner each evening.
The next ten days were spent on a small family farm so implausibly lush, I was certain I’d found Tolkien’s Shire. There, I met Jo, a single mother who—on a daily basis—baked bread, practiced yoga, milked goats, trimmed roses, tended an unwieldy flock of chickens, and kept a vegetable garden. She taught me to make pavlova and strawberry jam, clean chicken coops, care for the animals. And at the end of each day, I retired to a cozy cabin in the backyard. I was alone, but exhausted. My body ached in a way that felt satisfying, even pleasurable. I slept soundly.
I ended my trip on Great Barrier Island, where I washed dishes at a local fishing lodge in exchange for a bed and free meals, many of which happened to include lobster. The people there were patient, generous, relaxed. The fishermen—who wore rain slickers and thick white beards, just as I expected fishermen would—took me to sea and taught me to properly cast a line, never batting an eye when I ultimately chose to eat gingersnaps on the boat’s deck rather than participate in the unsavory task of gutting the day’s catch.
One morning before I left, the lodge owners allowed me to take their station wagon to the beach (a terrifying experience, as I’d had no prior experience driving on the left-hand side of the road). When I finally arrived, nauseous and a little shaky, I found the sands deserted, with not a single other beachgoer in sight. And so I spent that afternoon alone, with a book and a sandwich and a sweater to guard against the wind.
I might, at one time, have found this solitude frightening. But on that day I felt adventurous. Like a daring traveler. A wanderer. A pioneer.
Today, as a writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time alone. Depending on my mood and the rhythm of the day, I find this both liberating and lonesome—there are times when I can’t stand the quiet; there are others when it’s nothing short of sublime.
Solitude, I’ve found, is its own kind of wilderness. Becoming familiar with the terrain requires a certain amount of exploration, and a bravery I can’t always find.
But what a pleasure it can be to surrender sometimes—to wander, to get lost, to accept the challenge.