Portraits from New Zealand / by Caroline Van Hemert

A travel van the size of an American suburban. Two boys with joie de vivre that never stops coming, and with it a steady stream of shouting, tears, laughter, and chaos. Four sets of toes touching in the night. A Christmas spent hiking over a remote mountain pass, my two-year on my back, my four-year-old discovering how far his legs can carry him. A front seat office crammed with duffel bags, Legos, water bottles, and the clothes we’d recently shed. Eight hour trail runs that took Pat and me (on alternate days) into the mountains and forests, where we could think, and feel, and sweat in the privacy of our own company. The Bar-tailed Godwits that flew from Alaska in the ultimate test of endurance. The lakes that were impossibly blue, even without rose-tinted sunglasses. The backcountry huts where we hushed our boys to sleep and I bivvied when a mountain run turned epic. The Morepork owl that chased moths in the dim porch light of a neighboring cabin. Days spent mostly outdoors in an island nation with so much to see. This was our New Zealand.

Perhaps I could write a guide on how to travel with children if you care little for personal space, quiet time, or locating a pair of clean socks on any given day. Ironically, I care a lot about all of these things, and yet I’m learning, little by little, to let them go. Our year of travel as a family has been less one of indulgence than restraint. Don’t yell, once again, about the fact that our clean spoons are being used as earth movers. Don’t groan when Huxley says he needs to use the toilet five minutes after we’ve stopped for a bathroom break. Try to ignore the messes and noise while typing a professional email from inside of a cluttered van or a tiny sailboat. In exchange, I’ve been offered the gift of watching my boys create imaginary worlds with sticks and mud. I’ve been humbled when Huxley notices birds before I do, and instructs me on how to avoid a slippery root in the trail. I’ve been privy to Dawson’s running commentary about trees and sheep and the dried figs he loves as he chats happily on my back. These are rare moments, I know. All too often, I’m guilty of forgetting the fact that childhood is short, and our time as parents to young children even shorter. On our multi-day backpacking trips in New Zealand, we met few families but many parents whose children are now grown. In those encounters, nothing and everything was said at once. The eyes of a mother lighting up at the sight of our chubby, towheaded toddler told me that I was fortunate, indeed. The grandpa who smiled at Huxley’s shyness, much like his own son two decades earlier, reminded me of the virtues of patience. The parents who said, again and again, “You will never regret this. Time passes much too quickly.”

Our trip to New Zealand is over, but our year is not. We’ve spent a couple of weeks in the Methow Valley of eastern Washington, staying in a lovely cabin that has allowed us to get our feet on the ground again, play in the snow with friends, and enjoy the fact of not packing up the van each day. Soon, we’ll head back to our cabin in southeast Alaska to see what winter on Lynn Canal might bring. We also have more travel in store this spring, in part due to my forthcoming book.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Sun is a Compass will be released in late March and I’m looking forward to celebrating, in Anchorage and elsewhere. I have an event at the Anchorage Museum on March 20th: Book launch.  I hope you can join me, and, if you’re interested, please consider pre-ordering: The Sun is a Compass. (I apologize for this shameless plug, but pre-ordering really does help authors as the strange algorithms that control the buying and selling of everything these days apparently do much of their work before a book has even been released into the world.) Thanks so much for the support and I look forward to seeing many of you soon!