As soon as Steve proposed, I started planning. To clarify, not the wedding—that happened eventually, much later. At the time, all I knew was that I didn’t want to spend a month’s salary on a dress I’d wear once. I didn’t want to pick out flowers or place settings. I didn’t want to ask my friends to buy matching outfits. Etc. Having ruled out most of the activities a wedding tends to entail, I focused on the honeymoon first.
A Plan All Binded Up
Soon, I had my dream vacation booked: an epic adventure that would begin on a Hawaiian beach and end on a Coloradan ski slope. My bride-to-be impulses were well-satiated in that I’d found ways to waste money (I mean, when would we do such a thing again?) and details to keep me up at night (could I be 100% sure our packs would pass the carry-on restrictions for all 10 different flights?) Etc.
By the time we left for Honolulu, I had in my luggage, nestled amongst my hiking boots, bike helmet, and snowpants, a binder. Not just any binder, it was the culmination of months of planning a once in a lifetime event to an absolute T.
For our month-long journey, in case of poor reception, I had a printed copy of every plane, train, and bus ticket; every hostel reservation; every admission ticket; a map of every path we would travel, no matter how short; and projected weather forecasts and emergency contact information for each leg of the trip. Each printout was meticulously placed in a plastic slip, and each slip was appropriately ordered and tabbed.
For a couple weeks, as we made our way from Hawaii to Australia to New Zealand and then, by bike, down the southern island of New Zealand toward Queenstown, everything went very much as planned. (And it was awesome.)
At Queenstown, we geared up for a three-day hike and headed off to the Routeburn Track. (The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s “great walks” that lives up to the claim. It is a beautiful, magical place, for which you must book your campsite or hut many months in advance.) The morning we left for our hike, I had our maps, bus tickets, and campsite reservations tucked safely away in a waterproof bag.
What Happens When Plans Get Lost
That evening, as we set up camp after our first day’s walk, we met Xander. A Canadian, Xander had quit his office job some years prior to travel the world. He was living in the moment, starting a blog, carrying most of what he owned on his back and his bike. At present, life had taken him to the Routeburn as the shortest path from Queenstown to Te Anau, where he planned to meet up with a friend for his next adventure.
Xander did not have a binder. In fact, rather than holding a confirmation number to camp on the Routeburn that night, his plan was the following: stash his gear amongst ours at our campsite and hide in the woods, with the bike (strictly forbidden on the trail), until the park rangers had retired for the evening.
I wasn’t super keen on this idea, but Steve was more willing to help out a fellow traveler with a friendly smile and an amusing story. We agreed to no outright lies, and otherwise became his co-conspirators.
That night, as we chatted around what would have been the campfire (sadly, not allowed), my approach to this vacation came up. Xander was horrified. Where was the fun of spontaneity? You need to leave space for the real adventures, he said.
I disagreed. Sure, I hadn’t seen nearly as much of the world as he had, and our night on the Routeburn was costing us 60 US dollars more than his. But I also hadn’t, until 30 minutes ago, been hiding in the bushes.
As if I needed reassurance I was going about things the right way, the next day, shortly after we headed out, we ran into Xander hiking back toward us, whence he came. Traveling now with a young female companion, he seemed in good spirits as he explained that he (or, more accurately, his bike) had been unceremoniously evicted from the Routeburn Track. We snapped a photo and wished him luck as we parted ways.
The following day, Steve and I finished our hike according to plan. When we reached the bus stop at the trail’s end, we were satisfactorily tired and thrilled with the adventure we’d had. As we waited for our bus for the three-hour drive back to Queenstown, we ate the last of our food and celebrated our accomplishment with our fellow hikers.
We only started to worry when the bus station was mostly empty, which happened all of a sudden, after a large bus quickly came and went. That bus had pulled up around the time ours was supposed to come, but because I didn’t recognize the logo from my paperwork or the shuttle we’d taken to the trailhead, I assumed it was not ours. We watched it come and go, and no one called our names.
As it turns out, although I had highlighted pertinent information in my binder such as the essential nature of being on time to the bus station (there is limited service, only by advance booking, and no reception to make calls), I missed that our return trip would be fulfilled by a different service provider than the initial one. We had, in fact, totally missed our bus. I was devastated.
Time passed, and our hopes of catching another bus slipped away. The few hikers that passed through left to hitchhike or had private transportation waiting. One couple offered us a ride to Te Anau, an hour away in the right direction, but I turned it down. I was not Xander, and I’d already paid for us to stay in Queenstown that night. Plus, I’d booked an engagement photo shoot for early the next day. It was Queenstown or bust.
Soon, it was getting dark. I wallowed in self-pity, complaining alternatively about cold, hunger, and poor customer service on the part of the bus driver, the travel company, or the park staff (fully undeserved). Spending the night without supper on the hard floor of the bus platform was looking to be the sad ending of our otherwise great walk.
Fortunately, Steve and I are a good match, and he wasn’t giving up so easily. While I was lamenting that something so unfair had happened to me, the meticulous planner, he was adapting to the reality of our current situation. From each person who passed through, he gathered information until he had a new plan. Reluctantly and out of desperation, I agreed to see if we could hitch a ride.
For a long time, there were few cars and none so much as slowed. But at last an old clunker of a vehicle pulled to the roadside and out jumped Angie, a bundle of energy with a Scottish accent. Angie was on holiday, working on a Te Anau farm during the off season for her restaurant back home, on the Isle of Skye. We were thrilled to accept her offer for a ride to Te Anau, which was, after all, an hour in the right direction.
By the time we made it to the tiny town of Te Anau, Angie had invited us to stay the night at the farm, which she was sure would be fine, and to visit her someday on her island, which was famous for its appearance in recent Hollywood films. We’d also been in touch with Xander. Despite the brief setback, he and his bike had made it safely to Te Anau. We should come party with him, he said.
Life Outside The Binder Borders
I was beginning to imagine a life outside the binder when, suddenly, I spotted out the backseat window a storefront with the logo from the bus we’d missed. “Hold up!” I said. The three of us ran inside.
It was not a minute too soon. There was one more bus to Queenstown that night, we learned, but it may have already departed. The receptionist happened to have the driver’s personal phone number, and we held our breath. He would wait, she said!
The bus station was close by, and, moments later, after exchanging contact information and quick hugs with Angie, we were, miraculously, on a bus home. We even made it back to our hostel in time for someone to retrieve the bags we’d stored during our hike. Back on track with my itinerary, the engagement shoot could carry on as planned.
As happy as I was to make it to Queenstown, I couldn’t help but wonder how things might have been different if we hadn’t been in such a rush or so committed to my tightly packed agenda. If it weren’t for Angie, I would never have known about the Scottish island that now sits atop my bucket list of places to visit next. Who else might we have met in Te Anau that night? Where might the interaction have taken us? What would our trip have looked like if I’d left a little more unwritten?
While the answers to those questions I’ll never know, what I do know is this: Within the trip of a lifetime, the afternoon we went off script (binder) certainly stands out.
Story and photos put together by Laura Fink