New Zealand’s dramatic Southern Alps are the ultimate playground for adventure seekers and mountain lovers alike. It’s the reason why I long ago traded my Chicago business casual wardrobe for my coffee covered barista apron in Wanaka. My goal was to live in the heart of the mountains and be surrounded by people who also feed off the adrenaline of that sweet mountain-top high. With a backyard of rugged terrain and quiet trails, I’m often disheartened working inside all day, staring longingly through the window at the lucky summer-clad tourists soaking up the afternoon rays. As soon as the clock strikes 5, I grab my running shoes and a few layers and head out the door, determined to put my legs to work and take full advantage of the long summer days.
I try to dodge the puzzled looks and disbelief from my workmates as they wonder where I get the energy to run up mountains after 9-hour shifts in a busy cafe. I do my best to explain that the same mountain runs that often physically defeat me somehow also manage to fill me with the energy I rely on to carry me through the week. My time spent running trails rejuvenates my tired mind and resets my sense of balance from the chaos of the day.
A short drive to the far side of Lake Hawea lands me at a favorite trail that provides ridge-line views within an hour. As I get going my legs speed up and my mind slows down and I begin to gain perspective as I slip between the beech forest and navigate the razor-sharp ridges of these colossal mountain giants. I’m reminded of what it means to be small yet powerful, extraordinary yet insignificance. The trails have a way of rooting me in reality while simultaneously catapulting me into a celestial alternate universe far from the real world. I run against a backdrop so extraordinary I have to remind myself it’s actual reality and not some Hollywood CGI green screen work.
I let my legs spin freely beneath me and slowly let go of my insecurities that have been weighing me down. The mountain doesn’t care about my frizzy hair or unkempt appearance. It’s not concerned with where I come from or what I do. The mountain only cares about existing exactly as it is, providing peace and solace for those who seek it. It’s the place I go to think about everything and the place I go to think about nothing.
I run harder and faster until I can feel my heartbeat throbbing in my fingertips and the burn of the cool evening air in my lungs. I stop on the ridge to enjoy the quiet and stillness of the mountain top, enjoying the private light show as the sun slowly tucks away into the folds of the western ranges. I’m euphoric and buoyant and capable and proud but more than anything, I’m humbled. I’m grateful for existing exactly as I am at this moment. I’m grateful for the freedom I have that allows me to pick a mountain and run to the top. How fortunate I am to have this world at my feet, a luxury not afforded to many.
I close my eyes and take one more deep breath in, doing by best to cement this feeling of surreal happiness in my long term memory. I give quiet thanks to the trail for once again asking nothing of me and giving me everything in return. Putting on an extra layer to fight off the evening breeze, I coast back to my car, completely satisfied with how I spent my post-work happy hour.