Hiking the Pebble

Before I moved to New Caledonia in 1999, I was a connoisseur of roads and paths. Interstates and back roads. Forest trails and city sidewalks. Michigan, California, Arizona. The states in between. America has an infinite supply of lines on maps. You can spend a lifetime exploring new routes and never see them all. But my road-tripping days came to an end.

Most of Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, is uninhabited and inaccessible by vehicles. I exhausted the supply of road within months. I turned to the trails. So many landscapes to traverse. Beaches, of course. The arid ranch land north of Nouméa. Along the flowing waters of the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. I could gaze at the two round peaks of the Monts Koghi from my home. I learned those trails by heart. Few images exist of these wanderings. I carry them in my body.

The famous trails are marked, others are discovered by word of mouth. You must find your own way there and back. Hidden water holes. The strangest flora, much of it endemic. Primeval silence. I was not the first person to tread there, but it sure felt like it. But beware. Wandering down the wrong path can cost you your life. The boundaries of tribal land are invisible. In 2002, a Japanese tourist was the victim of a ritual murder on the Isle of Pines. Nothing was done about it. Nothing ever is.

I don’t understand why people like hiking. I’ve heard this remark on more than one occasion. Voices tinged with disapproval. Walking for hours and hours. No people around. How boring.

How to convey this communion with nature? Every step a sweet kiss on the Earth’s exquisite face. The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. And I guess I just don’t find my own company boring.

This pleasure came at a price. That picturesque red earth is made up of metals. Toxic metals. Nickel, chromium, cobalt. New Caledonia is the third largest source of nickel in the world. Dust kicked up by my boots, dust emitted into the atmosphere from the nickel smelters. The local produce is grown in this soil. Nickel is a known carcinogen. I am allergic to nickel jewelry, but somehow I didn’t make, or didn’t want to admit, the connection between this and the debilitating aftermath of any sort of physical exertion. No one else that I knew had this problem. For them, Le Caillou, The Pebble, was paradise. The longer I was there, the more severe the consequences of these jaunts became. I lost count of the nights I spent on the bathroom floor, throat shredded from vomiting, transcendent pain in my head. It took at least one more day to fully recover. Yet I persevered.

No way I was going to pass up an ascent of the Plateau de Dogny with my sister, who had come in search of Amborella, the oldest known flowering plant still in existence. Found only in New Caledonia, Amborella was the subject of her master’s thesis in genetics. Such a delightful morning that was. A German shepherd from the hotel at the trailhead trotted by our side, a gentle guardian. It is the only time in my life that I have been unable to complete a hike. Blurred vision, churning stomach, an ominous tremor in my cells. Just before the summit, I collapsed on the side of the trail and waited for my sister to return.

The Mt. Mou trail

A few months before my departure from New Caledonia in 2006, I did the infamous Mt. Mou ascent. My friend Lo and I were prepared for the inevitable bruises and scrapes. These are considered badges of honor. You haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou. Dust underfoot morphs into moss-carpeted cloud forest. Tree roots transform into a staircase that disappears into the mist. Every step must be contemplated. Sometimes the only way forward is flat on your stomach through the decaying carcasses that have fallen across the path. Just beyond the peak, the wreckage of a WWII-era American military plane lies on the slopes. The exhilaration and relief that I felt at this place. No sign of any discomfort. Maybe this time would be different. But it crept up on me during the descent.

Photo taken by Lo Cherbeix

After I left New Caledonia, it didn’t take long for the symptoms to dissipate. I learned that they are indeed signs of nickel poisoning. Strength and endurance returned. It remains to be seen if permanent damage lurks in my cells. Even so, I don’t regret any of those explorations. These days, every hike is done with gratitude. Without pain, it’s impossible to experience the bliss of its absence.

The Light Man

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Muschu Island, Papua New Guinea – September 1995

It’s okay to wander off on your own here. The pandemonium of the mainland is nonexistent. So I do. Down the beach, away from Maya and Phil, who are lost in word communion. A tree branch hangs out over the water, as welcoming as the crook of a protective arm. I shimmy up its length, curl up on my side, and peer into the rising tide. A soft breeze blows. The branch sways so gently. I surrender to its comforting embrace. Cradle of daydreams.

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It’s not how long someone is in your life, but how profoundly their light illuminates. Out of the maelstrom of color and sound, the mass of tribes at the Goroka Show, Phil materialized. Camera in hand. He drifted towards us, his steps as ethereal as a phantom’s. Maya and I laughed when he asked if we were part of the group of expat high school students. Maya was twenty-one, and I was twenty-six. Both of us would turn one year older in PNG, in just a couple of days. If all went well. He threw his head back and laughed. There is no place like PNG.

Where are you from?

Michigan.

Me, too. Which part?

Midland.

I gasped. No way! I grew up in Auburn, but my family lives in Midland. I spent as much time as possible there when I was growing up.

I don’t believe you.

The Tridge, the Boulevard Lounge, Dow Gardens. My first job was at the Sweet Onion.

Woah. I’ve never met anyone from Midland outside of Midland.

Me, neither.

Phil was a biologist who was conducting research on elephantiasis in a village in the Sepik region.

I giggled at yet another synchronicity. We’re going to the Upper Sepik after this, after we drive back to Madang.

You drove that highway? Are you insane? He scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper. You’re staying at Ralf’s in Wewak, right? Ask Ralf to call me when you get there and I’ll come into town. And be careful driving back to Madang! He shook his head and vanished into the crowd again.

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The island chief and his wife bring us a dinner of fish and sweet potatoes. Phil chats with the chief in Pidgin for a few moments and then the couple disappears into the jungle again. The village is on the other side of the island. Malaria has struck. A woman is dying. She is taking fansidar, a nasty drug. Chloroquine rarely works anymore. The disease has mutated. Phil’s had malaria twice. I walk to the edge of the veranda and look towards the wall of green. A hush has fallen. The empty space before the final gasp.

After sunset, we hang a mosquito net over a corner of the veranda and settle ourselves in. Bathe in the glow of a single lantern. Phil steps into his room, and reappears with his guitar and a joint. The joint is passed around, sucked into oblivion. Phil strums the guitar, plays a few chords. The darkness gathers around the mosquito net. In the distance, over the sea, a single point of radiance.

Phil speaks. A night fisherman. They believe in UFOs here. They say it’s the Light Man. I believe in werewolves and vampires. He launches into a tale about his travels in the Carpathian Mountains of Poland. A village where he was the only foreigner. Everyone watched him with feral eyes.

I really want to visit Poland. I still have family in those very mountains.

He bows his head. Of course.

Random chords become rhythm. He plays a song that I know. One from my parents’ generation.

I love Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Do you know Helplessly Hoping?

Yes. Sing it with me, Julie.

I stiffen. I’ve never sung in front of people. My voice is terrible. I shake my head.

C’mon. Sing with me.

A long exhalation. My fragile little self dissipates. No one is going to hurt me here. Words pour out. Immaculate. My heart breaks free and soars. He enters the harmony. Our voices intertwine, transmit deep into the shadows. I venture into dangerous lands, but cower at the thought of exposing my spirit to anyone. It’s only love. It won’t kill me to open up to it.

The last chords of the song resonate into the night. Phil’s eyes blaze. You are one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met.

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9-23-95 (from my journal, written sometime during that evening)
This is my paradise. I’m surrounded by palms, stars, and sand. I am restless in my peace. I am empty in my joy. And right now, I’m the freest I have ever been. Yet I’m stifled. This island is the perfect ending. I look like a grungy dork and I feel beautiful. I am tired and I feel alive. My ass is kicked and I’m victorious. Gentle storm in my soul. Rocky sand between my toes. Phil is the universe at this semi-microcosmic level. He is a gift to us. Saying yes, wonderful girls, I hear you.

Remnants of storm. My dreams are swept away with the waves. A savage itch on my backside. A quick look reveals a dense constellation of mosquito bites across both buttocks. I parade this masterpiece in front of Maya and Phil. Their eyes widen.

Phil reaches into his backpack and hands me a tiny bottle of Chloroquine. You must have slept too close to the net. They will bite through it. If you feel a fever at night, take these immediately and get to a doctor.

Okay, I say. But I know I won’t get sick. Never before have I felt so clean. Oh, but the itch.

We consume a breakfast of rolls and Nescafe. I grip the coffee cup to keep from scratching. Maya and Phil enter into conversation. I’m not ready for words. I’ve got to go.

Sunbeam smiles in reply. Then go, Julie.

As I approach the beach, I hear, Hey! I turn around. Phil has aimed his camera my way. Stick your butt in the sea. The salt water will help the itch. I burst into laughter and dash away,  across the storm-swollen sand and into the waves.

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**Not long after our departure, Phil sent us a long, poetic letter written in his ornate script. Dispatches from his hut in the jungle. From Papua New Guinea to Guam. We each received a personalized mixtape of music and spoken word. Hidden messages to be deciphered within. He had a lot of time on his hands between drawing blood and scrutinizing scrota. In the days before email and social media, such thoughtfulness was more common, but even so, I was deeply touched. He had made the effort to uncover my essence. Maya kept the letter.

We all moved back to America a few months later. Different cities and new lives. I spoke to Phil a couple of times on the phone. He was overjoyed with his new life in San Francisco. He was a big fan of the internet. I had just bought my first computer. Do you know that you even can look people up? He told me. Find people you’ve lost touch with. The last time I heard from him, in the form of a letter, he announced that he was getting married. I smiled to myself as I read it. May you be happy forever, my friend. As with all of my male friends who get married, I sent him a note of congratulations and then let him go. People have a tendency to drift away when they enter a relationship and very few spouses have the ability to comprehend platonic friendships with the opposite sex.

Every once in a while, I search for him online. Just to see how he’s doing. He has an original last name, so it shouldn’t be difficult. He has not turned up. It is an ominous absence. I’ve been able to track down almost everyone I’ve searched for. The ones I haven’t been able to find, I later learn that they’ve passed on.

Wherever you are, Light Man, may you shine forever.

Paradise Prison

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Prony, New Caledonia – March 2005

The locals of New Caledonia often refer to their island as “the island closest to paradise”. I find it ironic that many of the people who use this phrase, those who call themselves Caldoches, are descendants of people brought here by force. Exiled to a faraway land to serve out their debt to society. One of my friends, a Caldoche, once told me that she grew up believing that her ancestors were sent here for stealing a piece of bread. Boatloads of Jean Valjeans victimized by the unjust French system. For that is what the elders say. As an adult, she was disappointed to learn that, in fact, the worst criminals were sent here. Murderers, rapists, political agitators from the Paris Commune. Women criminals were sent here as incentive for the men to settle the territory after they were freed. These women were convicted of infanticide, prostitution, or other crimes. Over the generations they intermarried with each others’ offspring. The attachment to this far flung archipelago grew fiercer with each generation. What was once a prison became a paradise.

One individual’s paradise is another individual’s prison.

Here, where the rust-colored dirt road meets the sea, we have come upon the deserted village of Prony. This excursion is a temporary balm for my hysteria. Please, let’s just drive somewhere. Anywhere new, I asked my husband, who understands my disposition. Since I’ve lived on this island, I’ve rationed those precious few lines on the map. Much of the island is inaccessible by road. It’s going on six years now. The supply has dwindled to dregs.

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New Caledonia was supposed to be my escape from the tedium of nine to five and one-hour commutes on packed freeways. From a hamster wheel existence without end. I stopped spinning all right. However, isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind. I never knew how much of my identity was based upon that action and noise. On this distant rock, time is sluggish, elongated. I feel as if I am lying flat on my back, a boot pressed firmly on my sternum.

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We walk around the tiny village. We are alone, except for the meaty, fist-sized spiders that dangle from the trees like ominous fruit. Their massive webs undulate in the soft breeze. Most of the structures have been totally shackled by banyan roots. A prison imprisoned.

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I stand at the edge of the earth. This sand under my feet is the color of corrosion. Some of those long ago convicts managed to escape. Those who had no writing instruments used charts scrawled in blood.

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