Take Me Home

Seven years ago I became a New Zealand resident on a whim. Thank God.

Empty bliss on the North Island     Photo: Photo by George Simhoni/Gallery Stock

THERE'S NO ONE ON THIS BEACH, a wide crescent a half-mile long. Headlands at one end, sacred ground. Maori land. Exposed dark South Pacific rock, lush growth, tree ferns. I've seen the mist spill down over gaps in the ridge on early mornings, but it's later now, and all is bright and clear and blue.

Taupo Bay, Northland. My wife, Nancy, is in the waves, twisting for tuatuas. Small clams. You go for them by wading into the sea and digging fast with your heel or toe. She's laughing, going after a digger, doing the twist, and dips down with her hand just as a wave hits. She can see it coming, but she reaches down anyway, turns her face at the last moment, and I can see her smile. The wave passes over, white foam, and she holds up the white shell triumphantly.

What I'm seeing is a gift, my wife returned, the way I first saw her a dozen years ago, that same simple delight. And I remember now that this is why I love her, because she's ready to be delighted by the world. And I know that this is why we're planning our future here in the far north of New Zealand, because here we can remember who we are.

I've become too caught up in work and deadlines, and I've had to live in places where I didn't want to live, in suburbias, suckling on pavement. I've felt locked up as tight as one of those clams, grown past the age of any sudden joy. But New Zealand always brings me back.

Partly it's the land we bought seven years ago, 17 acres of grassy knolls and native totaras like perfect bushy Christmas trees along a hillside not far from Taupo Bay. We came here on a whim, but now I can't imagine our lives elsewhere. I've thought of that land every day, longed for it, longed for the life we imagine, kept from it by work in the U.S.

But it's more than that. New Zealand is the entire U.S. West Coast flipped into the Southern Hemisphere. When I hiked a ridge on the Kepler Track, in the extreme south, I saw the Alaska of my childhood, with snowy peaks, alpine lakes, exposed rock above dense forest. I was traveling light because of the great hut system, which provides a bunk and stove and water, and yet the entire time my wife was a small speck far ahead, because I just kept stopping and looking around.

On another trip, near Ninety Mile Beach, in the far north, we surfed giant white sand dunes with no other human present. There were cattails along the river, and then just a 20-foot wall of sand, with far larger dunes rising beyond. It was so unexpected, we laughed. "Our own Sahara," Nancy said.

In Rotorua, we soaked in hot springs and hiked along bubbling mud and sulfur pits, a vacation on Mars. In Abel Tasman National Park, we paddled endless bays and coves with dolphins all around. And when we lived for a year on Waiheke Island, off Auckland, we sailed our small catamaran close along banded rock. I had one foot on the tiller, lying back on the trampoline, looking at the pohutukawa trees with their red blossoms, growing right from the cliff faces.

When I go to New Zealand, I feel the world has been remade—or, more accurately, that I've found the original land from which others were formed. It's a sense of peace that goes beyond the fact of no snakes and no poison oak. New Zealand is a place of very little population, of an earlier friendliness, where fences are only for sheep and cattle. The kids here walk around without shoes, even in the colder regions. Most families own their house, and despite the two-decade onslaught of tourists and expats like me, hardly anyone locks their door. When my wife cycled around the country for six months, she couldn't take a rest break without every passing car stopping to see if she needed help.

The only fear we've felt was of Lappie the sheep. He's a legend on Kahoe Farms, the hostel our friends run a few miles south of Whangaroa Bay. A wicked head butt to the knees and not afraid of people at all. Once, Lappie was brought to another farm to get a ewe pregnant, which he was happy to do, but unfortunately someone brought another male. Instant fight. They were separated, but in the night, Lappie broke through the fence and killed his rival. A few years ago, my wife and I were on a hike and Lappie was waiting for us on our return, right on the path. Like cowards, we crossed a stream to the other side and ran away. Since then, though, the Great Shepherd has come for Lappie, and we've been given his skull. It's currently drying on our friend's roof, and we plan to erect a shrine to him on our land.

There's a nearly immutable law in the world that everything gets smaller as you step closer to it, but that law is suspended in New Zealand. When my wife and I first arrived, in 2003, we were already residents, our applications having been approved while we were still in the U.S. And we were a little anxious. We'd done some stupid and impulsive things before and paid a price. But when we stepped off the plane, the immigration agent said, "Welcome home."

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