Postcard from New Zealand,The Ruakuri Caves

We enter the cave, the sunlight disappearing behind us. Our guide tells us to take the spiral to the bottom: the spiral is a ramp that descends twenty metres to our first check-point inside the Ruakuri Caves. These are limestone caves near Waitoma, New Zealand.
Our guide is Jim, a good natured, white-haired Kiwi, who clearly loves these caves. Water falls from the distant roof onto a block of limestone, made porous by the dripping water, and Jim has us rinse our hands in the stream, a symbolic cleansing to honour the Maori people who discovered these caves four centuries ago. Then, we begin our descent.
We follow the path, a metal grating that takes us over chasms and along the wall of the cave as we move deeper under the hill. The metal sidewalk has a rail—not high enough, as far as I’m concerned. Jim tells us about the different limestone formations, the stalactites and curtains of stone that festoon the walls. In dryer sections, the limestone hardens into coral-like patterns, but here, the water drips from the roof and sometimes pools on the floor. It’s all owing to the action of water, says Jim. And one day, he says, these caverns will collapse, leaving a deep gorge behind. But for now, the water drips and runs, adding to and changing these flowing walls. As we move, the sound echoes from all around, the air sometimes going dead as we crouch to shuffle through a narrow passage from one cavern to the next.
Jim brings us to a platform, cantilevered over a twenty metre drop into the main cavern. Here, he shows us the glow-worms that live in these caves. As he turns out the lights, the ceiling looks as though it’s dotted with stars. Fully 99% of these creature’s lives are dedicated to feeding and cocooning. Once they emerge, they have less than forty-eight hours to mate and begin the cycle over again. I stand in a corner of the platform. I grip the rail to either side, listening to Jim’s enthusiastic account of these insects, simultaneously hearing the rushing of water from far below and half-imagining the drop and what lies lower down.
Again, we go deeper, until, finally, we stand on another platform over a stream, one-hundred and sixty metres deep. I think of the caves of which I’ve read—places where dark things creep, or unnameable creatures hide in corners and listen to the silence. I listen, too—listen hard. Down here, I’m away from every familiar sound I know, save the sound of water. Without the water, the silence is absolute. It’s then that Jim tells us about the giant eels that live in the stream—more than two metres long, that have names, and that are sometimes fed by the guides. I want him to be kidding.
I’ve lost track of time down here, but finally, we begin to make our way back up. Jim keeps track of us. He shows us the Mirror Pool, where Andy Serkis of LotR fame learned how to be Gollum; he tells us about the ghost walk, where your shadow runs ahead of you into the darkness. On and on, through narrow twisting passages where we have to bend nearly double to avoid the stone of the ceiling. Finally, we arrive back at the limestone block beneath the falling water and the spiral that will take us back up into the sunlight. We emerge from the caves and everyone exclaims at the light. The sun shines brightly in the cool, winter air. I hear birds, the sighing of trees, and feel the wind on my face. The familiar world demands our attention, but we won’t forget the Ruakuri Caves.

A Postcard from New Zealand, The Man on the Mountain

We follow a path and steep steps going up the side of the hill. A tall, fibrous plant grows everywhere here. The educational centre at the parking lot tells us that the Maori peoples used this plant to make baskets, mats, and clothing. After passing a soccer field, we begin the climb up the side of the volcano.
My daughter and I are climbing Mangere Mountain, an extinct volcano near Auckland, New Zealand. This is one of nearly fifty extinct volcanos in and around Auckland. We climb higher along the rim, and we can see the remains of the terraces the Maori people built around the inside of the ancient crater for growing food. As we get to the highest point of the rim, we can see down one side across the city to the harbour, and on the other down into the centre of the volcano, where the lava dome is visible as a hummock of land.
As we stand, a man joins us on the rim. He walks with a staff, a twisted length of wood that he says was gifted to him by a Maori friend. He shows me the staff.
“My friend made this,” says the man, “and he just handed it to me and said it’s yours.”
The man has a long beard, with eyebrows to match. He is full of information about this place, this long-dead volcano that was sacred to the people who lived here.
He stands and explains the view, the harbour to the south and west and other volcanos in the distance. He says the lava dome at the centre of the volcano, with the two smaller craters to either side makes the inside of the crater look like a face.
“they call it the face of the god,” the man says, and he shows me the Maori symbol he wears around his neck. He tells us he is from the English midlands, and came to New Zealand eighteen years before, following is sister
We thank him and shake hands. We tell him our names, and he bids us a good journey. And as we walk away down the rim, we look back, and the man is no where to be seen. It occurs to me later, he never told us his name.

From One Island to Another

Two weeks ago, I walk out of a hotel in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to find the ground covered in wet snow. today, I’m standing on my mother’s deck on Vancouver Island in sun and twenty-seven degrees. It’s not just the difference in weather that strikes me. There’s a fundamental difference in the people and landscapes on these opposite sides of the country.
I’ve come to think of Vancouver Island as a second home. I first came here as a boy in the 70s, brought here by my parents with my brother and sister on a family holiday. My father was a steam engineer, which meant little to me as a kid. He worked hard, every week of every year, save the three-week holiday in the summer. My mother would pack enough boxed and canned food to last the trip, and off we would go, with a tent trailer in tow. We camped and drove, drove and camped, getting as far as Regina one summer and all the way to Long Beach the next.
I never thought about those trips from my dad’s perspective. He had to drive most days, fight with the trailer, listen to squabbling kids, and put up with us asking him to buy expensive junk he couldn’t afford. But he took us—and we saw the mountains, bighorn sheep perched at the edge of cliffs, ravens that were bigger and blacker than the crows back home, and finally long sandy beaches, where we explored over the rocks, discovered sand-dollars, and gathered shells that stank of the life they once housed.
Now, four decades later, I’m a regular on this island—I could become an islander, if I wanted, just by moving here, something I couldn’t do on that opposite coast. Once, in a store out here, I said I was from Alberta. Flat-lander, said the clerk. It took me a moment to decide if I was being insulted or not. I decided not—teased, maybe, but in a relaxed sort of way. These islanders are perhaps more relaxed than their east coast cousins, but they aren’t wedded to place in the same way: for one thing, most people here come from somewhere else.
I love both these coasts, but the wash of prairie that runs down from the Rocky Mountains until it spills over the Canadian Shield has always been my home, the place where I grew up and where my roots go deep into the glaciated soil. But if you ratchet back the clock far enough, the prairie, too, was once a sea—the vast inland Bearpaw Sea where lived the stuff of nightmare and textbook. You can still find them there. Just take a drive down to the royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller and you’ll get your fill of those creatures who once inhabited what we call the prairies.
I think about these places I visit and the ways in which they alter over time. People move away; people die—something of which I’m reminded every time I walk by the tiny Brethour Family cemetery that stands beside the Victoria airport. I used to walk here with my brother, Don. He would read the inscriptions on the stones, and we would talk about who these people were and what they were like. He died here last March, after a long struggle to overcome cancer. And now when I come to this island, I think of him, how he brought Christmas to this little street, with his endless strings of lights and blow-up Christmas characters. He lies out here in a quiet cemetery outside of Victoria, a lovely natural area planted with trees and wild shrubs. And when I think of my brother, I also think of my father, whose ashes we left a thousand kilometres inland, in another cemetery just outside of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, amid the flat, expanse of the prairie and far from the sound of the sea.

Visiting The Rock

Driving up from the ferry terminal, we are quickly surrounded by rocky hills, some still covered in snow. We finally feel as though we have left the land we know and have entered something foreign. Halifax and Nova Scotia felt familiar; Cape Breton was important to us because of the stories of Alistair MacLeod. But there’s something imposing about Newfoundland—maybe it’s the distances neither of us were expecting, and maybe it’s this landscape that’s like and unlike anything either of us has encountered.
It’s a two-hour drive to Corner Brook. We have a hotel, a room with two double beds squeezed into a small space. I need to smoke, so I find my way downstairs—down a spiral staircase to the lobby. The staircase is an odd feature for such a basic hotel. I stand outside and smoke, listening to the hum of neon as I text my children. This is what we do whenever we stop for the day—text those at home, keeping open a thin line of communication with those thousands of miles away.
In the morning, we pack hurriedly and check out. We want to get to our next destination. We have to make a decision at Deer Lake. It’s a Tim Horton’s where we stop. Snow is in the forecast. Before leaving Sydney, we were asked several times why we were visiting so early in the year. Now we understand. This place feels more northern than anything I’m used to. It’s the landscape, but it’s also the incessant wind that bites my face and dries my hands.
In the Tim Horton’s over coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we talk about what to do. It’s four hours up the northern peninsula to our original destination—the Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows. If we turn east to try and outrun the snow, it’s almost seven hundred kilometres to St. John’s. Tom’s the driver; I’m the passenger. We make the decision to outrun the snow.
***
Three days of driving across Newfoundland. We are never far from the sea. We climb to the summit of Blue Hill, only to find the distances shrouded in fog. We drive through Terra Nova national park and take note of the signs to watch for moose. We spend the night in cabins facing Bonavista Bay, the sea pounding and pounding against the shore. We are off again the next morning. We drive, we talk, we stop for coffee, talk to as many people as we can.
The snow catches up to us in St. John’s. But we make it to our hotel, where we will stay for three days, exploring the city and area. We drive then walk up to the Amherst Lighthouse in a screaming wind, and we drive to Pouch Cove, where an iceberg sits in the distance. Icebergs are few this year—that’s what they tell us. The iceberg in Pouch Cove breaks up after another day.
We arrive at Cape Spear on our last full day in Newfoundland. This place has impressed itself on us. We have driven across this island, we have talked to its people, we have wandered the streets of some of its towns. But we are still foreigners here—we always have to be. We are “from away,” which sets us apart.
We climb the wooden stairs from the parking lot towards the lighthouse. There are two of them—the old lighthouse that one family for nine generations tended, and the new, automated lighthouse that stands lower down the headland. The stairs are uneven, and we climb and climb.
At the top, we come to the end of the headland that looks out over the North Atlantic. This is the most eastern point of North America. the water heaves and swells three-hundred feet below; the wind tears over the headland from the sea. We wonder at the people who first came here, four-hundred years ago—fisherman, trappers, seekers after adventure. And standing here, exposed on the headland, we can feel ourselves being altered by the wind. It strips our faces and hands, peeling away flecks of who we are to scatter behind us and down over the landscape. We are going to leave something of ourselves here on this island, flecks of DNA that will find their way into the water and soil, picked up by plants or mussels that cling to rocks or outcroppings of stone. This landscape has become part of our imaginations, but we are becoming part of it, too, even if only a little.

A New Piece, Traveling Blind

By nature, I’m mostly a hobbit. However, like Bilbo Baggins, I do travel, sometimes more than I want. And I mostly travel alone, which means I rely on the kindness and assistance of people who work for airlines and in airports. And these people are amazing—helpful, good natured, efficient, and friendly. I couldn’t travel the way I do without them.
“Traveling Blind” is a nonfiction piece about getting there—where ever that is. I hope you find it funny, in a neurotic sort of way. The piece first appeared in Wanderlust Journal, and I want to thank Sarah Leamy for being interested enough to accept it for publication. Enjoy the piece, and make sure to check out the magazine.

A New Venue for Edmonton Writers

Next time you fly out of the Edmonton International Airport, check out the new Short Edition, short story dispenser. This project, conceived and organized by Edmonton writer #Jason Lee Norman, brings a range of Edmonton writers to a new venue in a new way.
If you want some stories or poems to read while you wait for your flight, you stand at the dispenser, make a selection, and the machine spits it out. I haven’t seen it in action, but apparently the dispenser works like an ATM. You will find a range of seventy-odd Edmonton writer’s from which to choose, including Jason Lee Norman, Thomas Trofimuk, Jessica Kluthe, and Don Perkins—and many, many more.
I have a piece in the machine as well, called “Superhero of the Supermarket.” Thank you to Jason for thinking of yet another way to promote Edmonton writers. His projects such as 40 Below and #yegwords Coffee Sleeves show his commitment to the city and its writers. Next time you check in for a flight, give yourself an extra few minutes, visit the dispenser, get yourself a couple of stories, and take a little of Edmonton with you.