Reflecting on a year of transition
Eleven months ago I arrived back in my childhood bedroom with a decade of my life in New Zealand stuffed into an old tramping pack and a laptop carry-on bag. The landscape outside the window on this late May day - green alfalfa fields backed by brown, sun-scorched hills - looks almost like it did last July when I threw my bags down and collapsed on the bed.
Except today this bedroom is filled with moving boxes. My year - my beautiful year - of being a free-bird is coming to an end (something just twisted up in my chest as I wrote that sentence) and I am doing all the things that you do when you are packing up a time in your life you have loved and are having a hard time letting go of.
Greenie, the car I bought last month with money I had saved in Montana over the winter, has been checked over multiple times by my father, and is sitting in the driveway, ready to go. I have Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories on a six-CD set. My mother has loaded up kitchen bits - olive oils and expensive pottery and wine glasses from our neighbour of 30 years, who moved to Hawaii last month - and has given them to me, to be placed carefully in the boot of the car. They are all pieces that will be part of my own kitchen in my new home that I am setting out for Thursday morning.
By next Monday I will be in a new newsroom, in a new small town in the far northwest corner of Montana. I will have tiny yellow kitchen and a backyard shadowed by a mountain range. Pets are negotiable.
This is, and this isn't, like packing up my crib in Omaui last June. The choices of what to take and what to leave behind - both the actual and the metaphorical luggage - are somewhat the same.
Some items feel familiar to the touch as I pick them up and fold them or tuck them away into one of the cardboard boxes. My purple Invercargill Forever t-shirt - a gift from my Southland Times colleagues - has faded during the year (''is that a sorority?'' - I was asked, when I wore it to go running in LA last summer).
The stone from the Omaui beach my friend Anna picked up, polished and wrote on - ''for beautiful Gwyneth'' - still makes me remember I am loved (and beautiful - everybody needs an Anna in their life to give them stones like this) and it has a special place on Greenie's dashboard for the three days of driving - northern California, to Nevada, Idaho and up to Montana - ahead of me.
Southland has become a wild, but distant dream to me. Things that felt routine to me 13 months ago, now have an otherworldliness to them. Riding horses through the sand dunes in the morning and hiking to an alpine lake by headlamp that night, to soak in hot springs with a Nalgene bottle filled with wine. The birdsong and waves when I'd wake up on the coast. The stillness of a night above the treeline in the mountains, and looking up to see the southern cross. Vogel's toast with roasted cherry tomatoes, cream cheese and smoked salmon for breakfast on my deck. Swimming with dolphins at Curio Bay and eating a hot pie on the way home. The sound of wind through the flax bushes and bell birds and wood pigeons when I would be home making soup and reading on stormy afternoons, curled up in a bean bag with blankets, watching the trees and the skies outside my bedroom window go from dark to light to dark again and hope the house wasn't going to fall down around me.
I think if I brought anything of Southland back to California, it was resilience. And that came from the friends who made a home in that landscape alongside me, and who taught me how to toughen up and navigate the polar blasts that did often feel like they would blow me and my couch right off the edge of the earth.
California is a place of warmth, soft sands, and easy breezes as I walk down a dusty driveway overlooking vineyards to collect the morning paper.
Southland will always be a place of off-the-charts beauty and adventure, ferocious winds and sideways rain that made me feel wild and alive and grateful for any kind of warmth, even it was just a sliver of morning sun on a concrete driveway.
Maybe Montana, for me, is a meeting of these two places.
It has been an amazing year. A ''reboot'' year. Working it all out from my mind into 1,000 words (more or less) each week - be it from a leather armchair in my hometown coffeehouse to the floor of a bus station in Kalamazoo, Michigan to a bar with wi-fi in Portugal; from the London Heathrow airport terminal to a McDonald's in Butte, Montana to my favourite couch in my parents' living room - has been a gift.
Perhaps I will see some of you in Montana. Make sure you have snow tyres and bear spray. If you make it, there will be a cup of tea for you in my tiny yellow kitchen.
May the adventure (always, always) continue.
The Southland Times