journey.

1 May

Middle-Earth,

Image

 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

When you go looking for Mordor you are bound to find yourself on the way. Frodo and Sam were certainly subject to this inevitability, but the final scene inside Mt. Doom lets linger a message of community— a need for loyal friends in dark, perilous times—rather than the moral of self-discovery. But, what if Frodo had to go it alone? What happens if he doesn’t rescue Sam from the river Anduin at the breaking of the fellowship and take him along on the quest? Can you imagine it? Maybe the LOTR (Lord of the Rings) would be the story of a singular hero. Maybe the job doesn’t get done at all. Nevertheless, Frodo and Sam do have each other and, with tears in our eyes at the close of the Return of the King, we recognize that a loyal companion makes all the difference in the end.

I recently played the role of Frodo-without-a-Sam for a week this Easter. My mission: Visit LOTR filming sites stretching from Auckland to Queenstown. That’s a drive of 1500 kilometers (935 miles) over sacred Middle Earth ground. Kicker: I did it alone.

I began my journey with a 7am flight to Wellington, with great excitement to re-explore my favorite NZ city. A friend made on the road provided lodging for the weekend, The Embassy theatre provided a screening of The Hobbit in HFR (48 frames per second!), and the city itself was in no short supply of coffee for early morning adventures and late-night kindle hours. Windy Wellington allowed me a visit to the forest, with the kind direction of two ladies, where Frodo and friends hid from the Black Rider in the Fellowship of the Ring. It was a nice walk indeed, but the spot itself had been beaten down by time, weather, and visitors like myself. With some disappointment and shortly before my flight I made stops at Weta Cave (the tourist portion of the CGI and props studio for LOTR) and Stone Street Studios (indoor film sets) before gliding into the starry Kiwi sky.

Now, I would like to tell you three stories from my journey, but you must know in doing so I will have to leave out many other details that are very worthy of telling, however, at another time and place. These three stories find their importance in both their prominence in the LOTR story and the effect they unwittingly exerted on me.

The true beginning of my Middle Earth trek began outside the small town of Matamata. On a sheep farm set in the hills and vales of the North Island sits the Shire, Hobbiton itself. I drove my campervan an hour from Auckland with a freshness that comes only with keys in the ignition, beginning a road trip. As I finished humming with the ode Concerning Hobbits, I  pulled into the parking lot of what looked to be just another tourist-ridden, albeit certainly worthwhile New Zealand gem. It was tourist-laden, but soon enough that didn’t matter. Only the charm and subtlety of the Hobbit world was of any importance. After an hour lunch and a bumpy bus ride onto the actually property that served as the film set, we entered Hobbiton. For those of you who are new to LOTR—Hobbiton is home to Hobbits (as you could have guessed!) and serves as the departure point for Frodo and friends on their preliminary journey to Rivendell. Hobbiton is painted as a simple, unbothered home of rather agoraphobic little people called hobbits. Gardening, drinking, and social drama are hobbit occupations and they accomplish all three quite well in their hillside homes.

I feel as if I both lived at the film set for a year and only got to see a glimpse of it in a passing moment. We walked through Hobbiton village listening to our guide talk about Peter Jackson quirks and local knowledge, but the scene spoke for itself—maybe that accounts for the lack of questions we asked our guide. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I was standing in front of Bag End, Bilbo and Frodo’s iconic and lovely abode. Then, I caught up to the group after taking a panorama of Sam and Rosie’s two-doored hole. Across the bridge and into the Green Dragon we went for a half pint of ale. And that was it. The tour ended and I was left dreaming about feeling the Middle Earth sun on my face and visualizing the vegetable patch at the bottom of Bagshot Row.

Not long did I tarry in Matamata, for a long drive I had ahead of me. My next destination was Mordor, Mt. Doom—known in New Zealand as Mt. Ngauruhoe and the ever-famous Tongariro Crossing. This part of the trip was less romantic, more sweat, fog, and the eeriness that accompanies volcanoes. I hiked into Tongariro National Park early in the morning, walking toward a row of volcanoes shrouded by fog and tales told of a flying rock zone. My trip up to the Tongariro crossing was easy-going, passing by a group of mocking high-school boys and a trio of American outdoorswomen. My decision for a Mt. Doom summit bid was preceded by a short conversation with a couple at the base of the unmarked journey up. I remember saying, “A 3 hour trip, that seems generous”

The man replied, “That’s return trip. . . Mt. Doom, eh? I really want to get one of those lava rocks from the top, you know?”

My eyes fixed on the trail leading into the fog, and unintentionally snubbing his remark I ended with, “Well, here we go,” and I walked away from the only humans I would see in the next two hours.

The climb started gently, as all do I suppose, but quickly turned into a sandy, 45-degree haul that stayed true to its warning—“No marked path.” I was soon scrambling with feet and hands, using rock outcrops to gain ground when I wasn’t stopping for 30-second breathers. Higher I climbed, the fog stayed, and no summit was in sight. When I finally stopped for lunch, I heard sliding rocks and German being spoken from not too far off. Investigating, I climbed up a slope on my right, and sure enough ran into two German guys that gave me the good news that the summit was just a few minutes away. I scrapped the lunch plan and pushed for the top. Five minutes later I found myself standing on the edge of the summit crater of Mt. Doom looking into the foggy innards of the place where the ring of power was forged. It was only at this point that I congratulated myself on a hard-fought climb and, at the same time, become utterly and hilariously aware of my LOTR nerdiness. But, standing in the lifeless austerity of Mordor, I was completely ok with it. And that was that. And then I ate lunch. And then I ran down the volcano just like we all used to leap down those Lake Michigan sand dunes. Absolutely amazing.

A day after my stay in Mordor, I traveled to the filming site of Rivendell, known to the elves as Imladris and to the Kiwis as Upper Hutt (northernmost suburb of Wellington). The same location was used to film the river Isen, chief water supplier to Saruman’s fortress of Isengard. This locale was much less impressive than the previous two, but not so in my appreciation of it. I drank in the forest setting with the same mouth that has drunken from the stream in the woods behind my house in Indiana. In fact, the forest of Rivendell (actually Kaitoke Regional Park) reminded me much of home, touching the part of my heart that will be eternally a young boy in his forest kingdom.

I hope you can see what I saw. Obviously not with your eyes, but with your imagination and in your own tales of self-discovery. I found different pieces of myself along my journey, or rather merely read the words that were already inscribed on my soul—the part of me that surrenders to other-worldly charm, like a hobbit village set in a grassy hill; an awareness of my strange prerogatives and the volcanoes I will climb to pursue them (also quite a testament to my determination, I think! You would say so too if you saw that slope.); and a deep, abiding love for my home that, simply put, is who I am.

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One Response to “journey.”

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