In the middle of the winding ride south to Queenstown, I flashed back to my senior year art history class.
My gaze hung on the mountains, seemingly larger and closer than any I’d ever seen before. A lake at the foreground shimmered in the last slivers of sunlight. It and the mountains seemed to turn colors as the sun skimmed over them in its nightly farewell: blue to gray to purple, then, finally, to black.
The word I’d remembered from my art class was the concept of the sublime. I remembered specifically a painting we’d studied where a man stood on a beach while the black night sky rose up above him, dwarfing his presence. The sublime is equal parts pleasurable and painful, which makes it so confusing.
“It’s…beautiful,” I said to Brendan as I studied the mountains. “But it’s also kind of scary.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s just nothing around. There’s no one.”
Winding our way down the steep path to Milford Sound a day later, the snow-covered mountains cornered us. I felt like I’d been plunked inside a stormy snow globe. These mountains would still be standing after I died, after my kids died, after my grandkids and their kids died.
It was so weird for me, a person who needs a lot of alone time, to be unnerved by the lack of human presence. I have always loved nature and being outside, but New Zealand’s naked beauty left me bewildered. It was all so in your face. And it was all so much bigger than me.
Then there were the times we hit small scraps of civilization.
Tiny towns, like something out of a movie, out of Middle America, but even more rural, would dot the highway every couple hundred kilometers. Houses stretched far apart, though sometimes they were huddled, a compact, sustainable community far from the city.
I stared as intently at these small towns as I did at the mountains. I wanted to know how their inhabitants lived, what they did for fun, if their kids loved the outdoors more than the TV. The tiny churches and school houses drew me in the most. Functional buildings in which people educated and preached, but they stood so small and alone.
But that’s the thing: these buildings were big to the small groups of people who used them. They were the epicenters of remote lives, as important and captivating and humbling as the mountains surrounding them.