January 18, 2013

Getting Your Feet Wet

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“I hate to break it to you, folks,” said the guide who no one liked, “but it’s raining. This is rain. You’re gonna get wet.”

My team was backpacking through a rainforest in New Zealand, and the weather was what might best be termed as “biblical.” Flooding, hail, lightning, and small rivers where there should have been trails through the canopy: this would be my life for five days. We were wearing jackets and had plastic on our bags and thought that the advice, to be wet, seemed strange; one wore jackets and had plastic on his bags so that one would not be wet. Lindsay, a muscled-up old Kiwi who consumed probably five thousand calories a day, who carried three backpacks at once but hiked faster than anyone, and who would two days later swim close to naked in a lake of barely-melted glacier while howling at the sky like a crazed force of nature drunk on his own improbable self, watched me watch the river that was once a trail and smiled. Like, look at this silly effing hobbit.

“You have to get your feet wet,” he said. For the third time.

He was standing shin-deep in water and seemed to be enjoying it.

“I’m sorry, Lindsay, but I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “I don’t think that’s this kind of obvious thing that people should just do.”

“Huh?”

“Stand,” I said, “in water,” I snapped, fully sure that this was self-evidently ridiculous.

Because I did not have to get my feet wet. There was no such thing as one “having” to get his feet wet. Why would I walk in the river that was once a trail? I was down for hiking Mordor. I was not about to complain. I was in New Zealand that looked like Middle Earth, and I was very happy to be there. I was that kid who wore the Ring of Power around his neck in college (and who didn’t get laid, but for other reasons so shut up), and I was very, very aware of the fact that I was in the thick of what was, somewhere through the fog of storm, one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But dry feet are better than wet feet, I thought, and there was a ledge above the flood. Also, I was a smart person. Smart people didn’t stand in water when they didn’t have to. I shook my head, climbed up, and began to cross, dry. Well, more dry than I would have been. We were thirty minutes into day one, a seven-hour hike, and it would flood well into the next morning.

“No thanks,” I said.

Then, I slipped. Right foot — soaked. Lindsay threw his head back and laughed.

“There you go, laddy!”

Really, he said this. “Laddy.” This was a thing that was said to me.

I pulled my foot out quick, hopped back onto the ledge, hurried to a clearing in the trail, and landed. It wouldn’t happen again, I thought, and it didn’t. For about ten minutes. Then, I slipped on some moss and almost fell, but tried for balance in another river that should have been a trail. With my left foot — soaked. This time, mercifully, my only company was the guide who everyone liked. She was petite and curly-haired and would on the following day add a splash of milk to my instant chicken soup at the top of a mountain and tell me that “it gives it sort of a nice, velvety texture.”

“It’s good to get your feet wet,” she said.

I didn’t know what she was talking about, what any of these people from New Zealand were talking about. I wanted to avoid the water, which seemed sensible. The water was in my way and I resented it. There were pretty things to take pictures of beyond the weather. If only I could shove it back, push beyond it, defeat the water — then I would see what I had come for. Nature!

The guide that everyone liked sloshed through the trail that was a river, indifferent to the absent solid ground, and we talked about writing and science and the spot where only two days back there grew an orchid the size of a toddler. We liked each other. We traded stories, we talked about our cities and our countries, and then she climbed into the bush and vanished. I looked around while I waited for her, and took it in: fallen trees, rivers that crashed over mountain sides, a burst of light, for a second, and a rainbow, before it clouded over, and a trail from the canopy that led to a great clearing, with mountains in every direction, and thousands of waterfalls that snaked through the towering earth like cuts of silver in the dark. When the guide reappeared, she looked at my feet and smiled.

“That’s better, ay?” she asked.

I looked down and saw that I was standing in the water. I hadn’t even noticed. It was a little cooler, maybe, but I was warm from the hike, and it felt… good. I wiggled my toes, and my guide handed me a feather that she found by the cliff. It was from a blue duck, I think, but we pretended that it was from an eagle, and I bound it in the laces of my boot like Hermes’ sandals, my fingers working at the knot in the stream, my hood down, and the rain in my hair. The mud, the wind, the scream of parrots overhead, and thunder. The water was, of course, the nature I had come for. To stand in it was to become a part of it, and only then could I see beyond it. I breathed the forest into me. I would hike for six more hours that day, with various people along the way, and by the time I approached the bridge that led to our lodge I was not surprised to find that a flood had washed it out, and that I would have to cross a rapid.

My feet were already wet, though, and I was not afraid. I was excited. I hopped in the water, and I began to move beyond it. Being wet, I found, is not so bad a thing at all. It’s getting wet that’s sometimes difficult, and yet it’s only from the middle of the river that you’ll hear the truth, as if whispered softly to you by a deranged — but wise — Kiwi: crossing a rapid isn’t even half as bad as just the thought alone of standing in a puddle when your socks are dry.

Get your feet wet. TC mark

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