This post has been transcribed from my notebook. It was originally handwritten on 26/04/2017 but has been edited somewhat upon transcription, on account of my travel-weary brain-dumb.
I’m sitting here in the Auckland airport as I write this. My forty-five minutes of free WiFi has been all but used up, and I find myself disconnected. I do have my laptop with me in my Backpack of Holding, but somehow it feels right to write this in longhand.
I’ve spent the last five days traipsing around New Zealand. It has been absolutely wonderful. I simultaneously don’t want to leave, but I also can’t wait to get home to Bruce and Vincent, my furfeather children.
This trip has been an incredibly emotional experience. A powerful, motivating experience which I will treasure forever.
I’ve never really been single as an adult. The moment my first serious girlfriend and I broke up, my now-ex-wife called dibs. If there was a break of single-life there, it was mere days. But I’ve been single now for eight months, and I’ve never really gone on a huge adventure like this by myself. I’ve never done anything just because I wanted to. New Zealand has been on my list of places that I’ve wanted to go forever.
I was originally meant to go to New Zealand this time around with one of my besties, but circumstances changed. Suddenly I was facing the prospect of going by myself, and that scared the everloving shit out of me.
I almost pulled the plug.
The original plan was a two-week trip to the North Island, but I just couldn’t afford to do that solo. So I cut down the duration of the trip, booked the flights, and figured I’d work all of the rest out as time went on.
There was only one thing that was absolutely non-negotiable. I needed to visit the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata.
I self-identify as an overgrown Hobbit. I’ve loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy since The Fellowship of the Ring hit cinemas. I bought the VHS when it came out, and watched that motherfucker every morning before school. Not the whole thing, mind. Just the beginning. The bits set in The Shire.
I loved everything about The Shire. To a kid growing up unsure of his place in the world, it felt safe, and it felt like home, in the way that only the greatest of fictional places can.
So it had to happen. I booked a day tour from Auckland to the Hobbiton movie set and got a little bit freaked out when I saw that it involved a three-hour walk. Three hours of walking turns me into a horrid sweat monsters, and I was afraid that I would be too slow. I’d embarrass myself in front of a whole group of tourists.
Fuck it, though. It was happening, damn the consequences.
My cousin-in-law Kelly, a local Aucklander, graciously played the part of hostess and tour guide for the duration of my stay. We visited the Auckland Museum, the Auckland Domain, Murawai Beach, and the Auckland Zoo over the first three days. She also taught me what jandals, chilly bins and Georgie Pies were, and I will be forever grateful for that education.
I wore my FitBit Blaze, and was also was keeping a keen eye on my step count. Not only did I want to see the sights, but I wanted to see that step count rise too.
Last time I went on a big overseas holiday was in 2014, when my ex-wife and I visited Sydney, Saskatoon and Chicago over the course of a month. It was an embarrassing time for me. I was at my biggest, and my most unfit. We visited the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains, just to the north of Sydney, and I had to bow out of going through the caves. I couldn’t even make it up the steps that led to the cave walk without feeling like I was going to die.
I sat outside the caves, by myself, for an hour and a half as everyone else went through the caves. I was alone, cursing myself. It was one of my absolute lowest points.
During our time in Saskatoon and Chicago, I just physically couldn’t keep up with the pace. Between every active day, I needed a day to recover. It was embarrassing, and even though I was halfway across the world, I wanted to hide away in my hotel room and not face up to the shitty situation I was in. A situation of my own making.
So in New Zealand, the first three days were a whirlwind. The museum, the domain, the beach, the zoo… Kelly and I both chilled out after we finished at the zoo, but I was surprised at how great I felt. The Hobbiton set tour was the very next day, and I actually felt like I could tackle it. Not just tackle it, but I was excited about it.
I thought about the last holiday in 2014, and how terrible and miserable I felt. I remembered how I felt like such an utter failure as a human being. I realised then that I didn’t even know who that person was anymore. That person who only saw their failures and never acknowledged their success was still there, but he’d kept mostly quiet.
The day came, and it was one of the most powerful, emotional experiences of my life. We were greeted on the bus by a pre-recorded message from Sir Peter Jackson, welcoming us to The Shire. I didn’t know what to expect. It was just a movie set, right?
Walking from the bus into the Hobbiton set was truly like walking into another world. My conscious, analytical mind told me that the whole place was fabricated. A fake. A very good fake, but a fake nonetheless. Which was, of course, true. But my heart leapt for joy because I was in The Shire. It was real, and I was actually here, walking the same paths that Frodo and Bilbo walked before they were whisked off to adventure!
I looked up to Overhill from the vegetable gardens and saw Bag-End. It was up a hill. A really quite large hill, and a moment’s fear caught in my chest. Could I make it up the hill without feeling like I was going to die? I was much fitter than I had been, but I was in a group and people would expect a certain speed of ascent and what if I couldn’t keep up, I would embarrass myself and I would be judged and suddenly I wanted to run very far away, back to the bus, maybe I could just wait there until the tour was over.
When I panic, my mind thinks in run-on sentences. So while our guide was explaining how the tour was going to work, I was having the starting moments of a silent panic attack at the prospect of trying to keep pace with the group while climbing the hill.
My fear dissipated as I forced myself to pay attention to the things that were right in front of me. The vegetable patch. The scarecrow. The backpacker from South America with the easy smile. The cute Tolkien fan who’d travelled all the way from England to visit the set. The giant pumpkin in the wheelbarrow just near the farmer’s Hobbit Hole. My panic vanished. I was safe, here. This was The Shire, and nothing bad ever happened in The Shire.
This was The Shire, and nothing bad ever happened in The Shire.
So we went on with the tour, and by the time we came to the hill, I was half way up it before I realised we had even started the climb. Our guide talked about the five Hobbit Holes in the distance, and that they were only in the film for about four seconds. We walked up a small set of stairs, and there it was. Bag-End. A grin split my face so swiftly that my cheeks started to hurt. Is it possible to sprain your cheek muscles from smiling? It must be, because I’m pretty sure I did it.
I am not too proud to admit that my eyes welled up at the sight of Bag-End. It was a strange kind of magic, standing in a place that came from the imagination of one great artist, then brought to life through hundreds and thousands of human hours of others through the singular vision of another great artist. I turned around and looked out over The Shire. The Green Dragon inn sat on the other side of the Brandywine River, accessible by a great stone bridge. The Party Tree sat before the river in a field, just next to Bagshot Row, where Samwise lived.
I recognised it. I knew where things were. I could imagine tiny little Hobbits walking these same paths amongst the lush green hills. But I didn’t have to imagine it because, for just one day, I was one. I turned my back to the Party Tree, the field, the Brandywine River and the Green Dragon to take a selfie from the top of the hill. In that moment, I never wanted to leave.
Everything was perfect.
Bag-End sits at the top of the hill, and it was only on my descent into the party field that I realised that I had climbed that bastard hill like a mountain goat. The fear I felt at the bottom of the tour had been vanquished like the foul beast it was.
We moseyed along the path towards The Green Dragon for our frosty beverage, and I knew the tour was coming to an end. I had experienced real magic, and I knew I would miss The Shire when it came time to leave.
I sat down in The Green Dragon Inn with a frosty mug of ginger beer and a Hobbit-sized beef and ale pie, thinking about all of the things that fear had stopped me from doing in the past.
I almost didn’t come to New Zealand because I was afraid that I couldn’t do it by myself.
I almost ran away from the tour because I was afraid I couldn’t keep up while climbing a hill.
Back in 2013, I came really close to not finishing Metro 7, and never becoming a published author, because I was terrified at the thought of being judged and found wanting.
I have let fear have the final say in my actions too many times to count. This trip proved that the only power fear has over me is the power I give it.
After my thirst was slaked and my appetite sated, we headed back to the bus. We walked by the river, and just as we were about to leave I was treated to the perfect vision of The Shire.
So now as I sit here in the airport, I think about how far along my road I am. I just dropped my suitcase off at bag drop, and it was 14.8 kilograms. My carry-on bag is just under 7 kilograms, so combined, I’m carrying around an extra 23 kilograms(ish). I was carrying less extra weight than the amount of weight that I’ve lost since I started on this journey. And suddenly I am infinitely grateful for everything that has happened that has put me on this path.
A quote from The Fellowship of the Ring comes to me, more poignant than it ever has before.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. Your step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”
Fear has taken me to places that I never wish to visit again. There are roads that I have walked that I shall never return to. I will keep my feet, and stay the path.