July 22, 2020
I was mourning my mother’s death, mourning her giving up on life when esophageal problems left her only one option for nutrition, a feeding tube. She refused that recourse—didn’t ask my opinion, didn’t want it. She never had needed anyone else’s opinion. Even a few days before she died, her brain was acute, still probing. She proclaimed her political beliefs, remembered details of my girlhood, asked questions about a conversation we’d had a year ago. She said a petty aggravation I was feeling was not worth fighting about. She herself never had given up a fight. Neither loud nor aggressive, my mother first stated her beliefs and then used silence for argument, and it always worked.
Putting her already orderly affairs into final order took me only several weeks. Her house sold immediately, without being listed, so I decided to live the coming month of March as I had intended, four weeks of travel in New Zealand, an adventure I had longed for. I’d lose myself in beautiful landscapes, meet a people who lived remote from other countries, take notes.
All of my previous explorations of nature had been on foot, alone. I’d walked the five-hundred miles of the Camino de Santiago by myself in twenty-one days, reveled in the steep rise and fall of England’s and Ireland’s coast paths, adventured along the Danube, and hiked trails in the Alps. This time, my husband came with me. Long-distance walking was not an option. Instead, we’d rent a car. But I proposed we schedule nothing, book no motel, no restaurant, no boat tour, use no cellular service and no GPS. We would read maps. We expected a week on the North Island would be enough time allotted because we had read that the South Island was a place of spectacular scenery and sparse population, and both appealed to us. We flew into Auckland, drove up to the North’s far tip, enjoyed the Bay of Islands and Coromandel Peninsula. We eased south across Cook Strait by ferry on a calm March autumn day and began to drive down the west coast of the South Island; stopped for a walk in Abel Tasman National Park; surveyed Punakaiki’s “Pancake Rocks,” limestone stacks set on a coast battered by a wild pounding sea; explored Hokitika, its nearby gorge and mineral-blue river. We appreciated apple orchards, hops fields, the varied blues of the sea, centuries-old sequoias, fern forests, beaches both sandy and rocky, and people as curious as they were helpful. We set a goal of arriving near Milford Sound in two days. We would partake of short hikes throughout Fiordland National Park, cruise Doubtful Sound, witness the sparkle of waterfalls.
But in the little town of Wanaka, our adventure came to an abrupt halt. On March 23, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced lockdown at the highest level would begin in forty-eight hours.
Situated on New Zealand’s fourth largest lake, a deep glacial expanse of blue arms and elbows jutting into mountain terrain, Wanaka could not have provided us a better environment for quarantine. Stormy winds rattled old poplars’ leaves—green, then golden as autumn progressed. Chains of mountains encircle the town, some sand- and straw-colored, and some peaked and topped with snow. The Kiwis were extremely strict and successful with their lockdown. (As of my writing, there are zero hospitalizations and twenty-two deaths in a country of just under five million.) In mid-March borders were closed to all tourists. Everyone in the country was told to stay home and stay local. There was no take-out food, no access to vineyards or wine shops. No businesses were open other than supermarkets and pharmacies. No one was allowed to drive more than a few miles. Offenders were presented tickets, up to several thousand dollars. Hiking trails that require rigorous effort were closed, but easy ones remained open. Biking and walking were permitted with those in your household “bubble.” I marveled that a people who seem free-spirited and accustomed to wide open spaces could conform so thoroughly to lockdown procedure. Perhaps their physical isolation from other lands promotes cooperation in dire times. Many households taped homemade signs in their windows encouraging Kiwis to be strong, be kind. Others decorated their lawns with flags of countries experiencing the worst of COVID-19. A bear hunt kept young children interested in family walks. All over town people propped toy bears in their windows. Children competed to count the highest number.
Some residents of Wanaka organized family calisthenics. When I walked by the big-windowed houses, I saw two or three generations bending and squatting to music. Everyone polished their window panes and spruced up their flower beds. Many houses I saw were modest, but almost all looked out at one of the mountain ranges. Usually longer than wide, the homes all appeared to have picture windows, and some, multiples of them. If the windows didn’t frame mountains, then a hedge of roses or a flowering tree or the flawless blue sky must have come within their borders.
When I encountered other walkers, we kept to opposite sides of the street, but they often greeted me and stopped to ask where I was from and to share information about their region, Otago, and stories about their own lives. I met a former nurse who moved with her lawyer husband to Wanaka, opened a flower-arranging business and planted her garden to provide all the flowers she desired for her work and home. We exchanged email addresses and soon were corresponding every day. She had written a novel set in the mid-1800s during New Zealand’s gold rush. She asked me to critique it. We talked each day for a few hours. She insisted on reciprocating in some way and offered us a rental house she and her husband had recently refurbished. She was far too generous. We learned much from her and her husband, about law and birdlife, about gardening and history.
At cocktail hour we saw couples sitting on lawn chairs at the end of their driveways or at the edge of their yards chatting with neighbors across the street. One household stepped up the evening activity with costumes, dressed up as Roaring Twenties gangsters and cartoon characters.
As April came to an end, quince, apples, and pears ripened. On my walks I saw straw baskets of these fruits next to mailboxes. Signs invited passersby to help themselves. Under the glass roofs of bus stops, where no buses stopped during lockdown, gardeners left sheaths of lavender freely given.
When lockdown was stepped down from the highest level to one below, we were able to book a flight back to the US. I returned to my mother’s neighborhood to see the young family who had moved into her house, my childhood home. We met on the sidewalk. I saw their newly solemn but joyful faces. Keeping six feet between us, I heard how their daughter, Stella, loves her sunny room, about their picnics in the nearby park, their arrangement of work schedules. I heard how they were making the house their home. I could visualize the miniature porcelain swan, once my girlish prize, I had given Stella. It would be swimming in its porcelain pond, paddling atop Stella’s chest of drawers, afloat on a blue as vivid as Lake Wanaka’s.
Adam, I wish you the best of luck,
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Gunkel’s contribution will be directed to Savannah Classical Academy.