By Michelle Polizzi
When I landed in Queenstown, New Zealand on New Year’s Eve, my plan for the evening was to walk into the woods and be alone. I’d been travelling the world for seven months and I’d long since traded my champagne flute and sparkly dress for something different: solitude.
I had my doubts. I wondered what my friends were doing, and about all the memories they’d be making without me. But I also knew the world had lured me away from the comforts of home for a reason—even if I didn’t know why.
Clarity came to me, as it always does, in the mountains. Any uncertainty I had about why I was travelling or what I sought evaporated along a section of the Greenstone Track on my third day in New Zealand.
It didn’t carry the fame of the Routeburn Track—a nearby trail internationally known for trekking and one of the country’s nine great walks—but that’s exactly what called me to it.
I decided on the Lake Rere loop, a 14-kilometre hike that boasts views of sweeping farmland, alpine lakes and snow-capped peaks before intersecting with the Greenstone Track. It was overcast the morning I started and, despite the promise of rain overhead, I was eager to get my feet on the trail.
The route began in the trees, then led over a footbridge and opened into wide, spacious farmlands. After walking through the alpine meadow, with Lake Wakatipu on the right and flocks of sheep to the left, the trail led into a hollow formed by a stand of ancient trees.
The sky began to darken; a fleck of rain landed on my cheek. I pulled out my raincoat and stood for a moment, looking up at the trees and the sky beyond them.
I was well over an hour into the hike and I hadn’t passed a single soul, yet I felt less lonely than I had when I was surrounded by people. In fact, I felt like myself again.
Why was it that I didn’t feel free until I was thousands of miles away from the roles and material things I was told to covet?
Is the only difference between solitude and loneliness that one is intentional?
The trail took me deep into the woods, through more sheep pens and past massive, uprooted trees that I nearly expected a hobbit to be hiding behind. Soon after I got to Lake Rere, I stopped for lunch, grateful to go at my own pace and rest when I needed.
Staring at the alpine lake, mesmerized by the fact that I had it all to myself, I remembered how a woman named River had compared nature to God on my first day in New Zealand.
She didn’t look at me when she said this, but instead was staring out at the shores of Lake Wakatipu as the sun slowly set, bringing the new year closer with every darkening minute. We’d been talking for hours after meeting at the Kinloch Lodge. Despite my intentions for solitude, River had offered me the kind of conversation I could enter without having to leave myself. We talked about life and love and the wilderness until well past 10 pm, as the final rays of daylight clung to the sky.
I thought I’d known what she meant at the time (that nature is beautiful and therefore created by a higher power didn’t seem to me particularly avant-garde).
I contemplated River's words as I moved along the lake’s edge and followed a thin, winding path into a grassy valley. Out there, staring up at the blue ridges carved against the sky, it clicked: if nature is an embodiment of the divine, then hiking is an act of prayer. For those who see it this way, there are few things more holy than a stretch of dirt trail and an entire day to see where it leads.
I descended upon the last long stretch, a thick forest of beech trees rising through blankets of electric-green moss. The white trunks leaned every which way like fraying broom bristles. To the right, a wide, shallow river ushered past. The clear water beckoned, and I sat on a rock to peer at the emerald world around me.
I liked that this hike was a loop because it didn’t have a summit to aim for. I’d lived my whole life trying to fit into certain molds and check specific boxes only to find more hurdles between worthiness and me.
Here, I decided that a great life is a looping one. It will lead through rivers that are hard to cross and passes that it hurts to traverse, but eventually you’ll reach fields of respite in which to lay your body down.
Easily and often you will think that you should be somewhere else, that perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn. But then you will remember: if the path has led you there, it’s where you belong.