The next morning I was in no rush whatsoever to go back down, nor was I equipped to continue on to the pass, so I decided to just take a leisurely walk in that direction and see how far I could go. Nothing is better than being able to trek without your pack after you've been hiking with it on your back for days on end!
The trail followed a narrow river valley upstream. I trekked perhaps two hours, seeing no other soul. At some point I spotted a large flat boulder that had obviously tumbled to the river's edge from somewhere far, far above, and decided it was the perfect spot to stop for a rest.
As I sat there, looking upstream at the river twisting its way up into the mountains as far as I could see, and the same in reverse as I turned my head and looked downstream, I was suddenly awestruck, blown away by the sheer immensity and raw beauty of the vistas surrounding me.
At that point in my life I'd never done any kind of yoga or meditation before; I'd never even thought about those kinds of things really. But there I sat for some time, in a state of complete clear-mindedness, dwelling entirely in the present moment, free from the mental chattering that more often than not accompanied me on my solo treks, and with the burbling of the river before me as the soundtrack to my contemplation.
I came in and out of it for a while, and then my mind took full control again. “This is it!” was my first coherent thought. Not just this immediate setting or feeling, but this whole thing, this independence, this trip, this lifestyle. It wasn't going to just be a “gap year” for me. I wouldn't go back home to finish university (well, I would do that), but I mean after that I wasn't going to get some office job and waste away my days making money and remembering that one time I was so free. Nope, my life's purpose was to travel. I knew it with all my heart, in that exact moment. If this is what people call “finding yourself” or “finding your calling” then I guess I found myself right then and there on that rock, in that gorgeous valley, and the moment, the feeling, the surroundings, all of it will forever be etched in my memory.
It couldn't be an entirely selfish quest, though. I had to share my experiences with others. I would continue to travel alone, but I would get a better camera, learn how to take better pictures, and write more, so I could share all my experiences, all these beautiful places, with anybody who wanted to hear about them. It would take several years, but this is where blogging would come in down the road, and later still, writing a book and contributing to travel magazines. My passion for these things is as strong today as it has ever been before.
As I made my way back down the mountain, my mind was totally preoccupied with planning out the years to come. I felt so at home in those mountains, so my next trip had to be to a mountainous place. But even taller ones. Go big or go home. The Himalayas!
This decision kick started another equally important decision around the same time: to focus my anthropology major (I'd already completed a year of college at that point) on Tibet and write my thesis on Tibetan Buddhism. In my last year of university, I even established and became the president of a chapter of Students for a Free Tibet at my university.
As soon as I graduated (I mean this literally; I dropped my thesis off at my professor's house on the way to the airport), I got on a plane and flew to the Himalayas. I went to China, India, and Nepal. The next time it was Southeast Asia. After that it was Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Ethiopia. Then Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. Japan and Korea. Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and on and on. I was unstoppable.
But I did slow down eventually. I've been in Taiwan for ten years now. Staying in one country has allowed me to get to know one place better. I've had more time to think and write. Looking back, I've been so busy since that first New Zealand trip (15 years ago!!) that I'm only just writing about it now! I've got a wife, car, house, and kids. But in my mind, I'm still traveling. That's Taiwan outside my bedroom window! Every day is an adventure. Every breath is a journey. Things change. Life is change. I must embrace it.
But I will never forget that all of it, this whole crazy series of events that has brought me to where I am today, started right there on that rock in New Zealand.