My Pilgramage

As I once told one of my old co-workers, we are all geeks.

Just as he did at the time, I am sure there are some who are offended by this sweeping statement, and the negative connotations that are usually associated with the word, geek. My old co-worker told me that there was no way he could be a geek because he was too athletic to be one. He demonstrated this by showing off the various college football t-shirts that he owned and talking non-stop about the history and the importance of the SEC. This outward display of his passion for college football just proved my point; he just first needed to realize what a geek is.

A geek is someone who is so insanely passionate about something that he or she will obsess over it, and know everything there is to know about that one subject. This is usually displayed in the media by those who attend Comicon every year to debate which is the better series Star Wars or Star Trek. But this passion does not only need to be reserved for the ones who enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There are food geeks, and there are fashion geeks. Probably, one of the biggest contingencies of geeks out there are the ones who obsess over sports. There is nothing wrong about this. These people should be proud of the fact that they have a passion for something because if they did not, it would mean that they were a hollow people waiting for some form of inspiration to give them a reason for living. At the same time, they shouldn’t claim that they are superior to other people because they don’t want to admit that what their passion is makes them a geek. They geek out as much as the stereotypical geek as portrayed in the media.

Considering that I believe that every person holds this pension for geekdom within themselves, I can’t exclude myself. There are a few things that I geek out on, but one of the biggest ones is The Lord of the Rings. I am a huge fan of that story. In fact, the whole history of Middle Earth has been a passion of mine ever since I first saw the Rankin Bass version of The Hobbit when I was in first grade, and I had nightmares that Gollum was going to come and gobble me during my sleep. At the same time, I was always fascinated by the character. When Peter Jackson released the movies, it was a dream come true for me because here was one of my favorite stories coming to life on the big screen. I had some reservations about it: would they be able to create a believable Sméagol, would they make sure to stay original to the text, and most importantly, where would they find a location that demonstrated to me what the world of Middle Earth actually looked like in my mind?

At the time, I knew that there was a country called New Zealand. Beyond that, all I knew was that the people who had visited it considered it beautiful, and if I ever had a chance to go visit during my lifetime, I should do so. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would make it there someday, but it wasn’t until I saw the scenery in the movies that I knew that I needed to make this one of my life goals. It was the place I always imagined while reading the novels here it was on earth. The only problem was it would require a lot of effort to make this trip a reality, and it wasn’t until I moved to South Korea that this effort would be minimized to the point where I would be a fool if I didn’t take the opportunity to visit and fulfil one of my greatest desires, visit Middle Earth.

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So this Winter Break, I boarded a jet plane to travel to the other side of the world, and see the wonders that New Zealand held. I would search for the locations that had been made famous from the movie and see first hand what it was like to travel through Middle Earth to destroy to one true ring. This had become more than a quest for me; it had become a pilgrimage. It would be a religious moment. I would be able to witness first hand what the vision of Tolkien was supposed to look like much like the pilgrims Chaucer wrote about in his most famous work as they traveled to the site of that famous martyr they respected so much. It threw me off even more when I encountered a Canterbury while traveling around the country, but this wasn’t about the bones of that holy saint, Thomas a Becket, but instead about the spiritual connection I had come to make with the land of the elves, and orcs, and most importantly hobbits.

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In fact, my first stop on this trip was to the small town of Matamata which held a small farm just outside of its jurisdiction. This location was used by Peter Jackson to create Hobbiton. If you have never been there, it is a magical place that transports you to the Shire. There are hobbit holes all over the place, and they were built as if they were intended for halflings to live in because the top of the doors would barely come up to my hips. The amount of detail that went into making this place look real was intense. Small coats would hang on the edge of small plows leaning against tiny wheelbarrows. You would be able to look into the windows of some of these places and see small vases next to small wheels of cheese. There was even the party tree placed in a huge field next to a babbling stream. The whole place made you feel as if the hobbits would come out at any moment and eye you suspiciously as an invader to their peaceful land. There was even a bridge over the river next to Sandyman’s Mill that led you to the Green Dragon. And yes you could go inside and order a drink and sit next to the fire that was built out of tiny blocks of chopped wood.

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I was in pure heaven. Here I was, less than twenty-four hours out of Seoul with an ale in my hand and the summer sun shining right out a circular hobbit door. The fire was only there for effect because we really didn’t need it. The best part was the place that Peter Jackson had picked to create this reality was on a sheep farm, so it had that pastoral setting I always thought of when reading the stories. There was a connection with nature there where these little people were able to live n harmony with their surroundings instead of trying to control it. There were no combustible engines except for the one that brought us from the gift shop to this other world. If I was half my size, I would have taken up residence in this place and would have been one with the hobbits.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and they loaded us back on the tour bus to take us off the farm and back to the reality of life. Luckily, I was in the place where they created Middle Earth, so wherever I turned there was another reference to The Lord of the Rings. We spent some time searching out these spots, and sometimes re-enacting some of the scenes. Yes, I hid behind the root of a tree pretending that there was a Nazgul on the other side hunting for the one ring. And of course I made it down to Wellington.

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Wellington is most famous for the home to the Weta Cave. This is the special effects department that Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor created for all their various projects. It is one of the leading production companies in the world and it is situated in this small town on the southern coast of the northern island. These two not only work on their own productions, but they are called by many other directors to make other fantasy worlds come to life. They designed the weapons and aliens for District 9. They imagined the world of Krampus. Most famously, they put together the tall blue aliens that inhabited James Cameron’s Avatar. This was a place that I needed to visit, and it is not where you would expect it to be.

In order to get there, you have to get on a bus as it takes you over Mount Victoria to a small suburb on the other side. When the bus drops you off, you have to stroll through streets that look more like where you grandmother would live rather than the place where they would hide a major movie studio. In fact, when you get there, you find out that the Weta Cave actually belongs to one of these houses you were passing.

There were a few other people on the bus that were looking for the Weta Cave when we got on, and we all instantly became friends on our search for this magical place. We kept on scanning the horizon for some sign that we were getting close to the place, and we knew we were there when we heard from one of our group scream out in joy, “Look, Trolls!”

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Yes, that is how you know you are in the right place. Peter Jackson took the life sized models that he used for Tom, William and Bert and placed them in front of the Weta Cave. It is a little disturbing because it is right across the street from an elementary school, and there are probably a bunch of kids attending that school that have nightmares every night because of these statues. There were some kids that obviously didn’t care. One Chinese couple brought their toddler who ran between the three of them with a huge smile on his face as if these were something he would see on a regular basis. The rest of the tourists didn’t seem to care much either as they walked around the three trolls and had their pictures with them in various poses of terror and humor. For me, it was just another one of those moments that let me know that I had found a concrete connection to one of the stories I have loved more than any other in my life.

The tour was a lot of fun too. We got to play around with various props from the original movies such as battle axes, mythril, and prosthetic limbs that were used to make the different inhabitants of Middle Earth look as if they belong there. We got to view other items too, such as aliens weapons from District 9, Hellboy’s gun, and the snowman from Krampus. It was like being in movie making heaven even though the room was really small, and you would expect something more from such a big player in the movie making industry. I got to learn a lot about the production of special effects and props and it made me want to pick up a camera and start to make movies of my own. So if any of you who are reading this have a half a million dollars lying around could you lend it to me. I’ll make you a really good movie.

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The creations of Peter Jackson weren’t the only things that excited me on our trip. We found ourselves in the back country of New Zealand which there happens to be a lot of. At every turn there were more moments from the movies. It didn’t only happen on staged sets. This is Franz Josef Glacier; you can see it peeking out from underneath the clouds on top of the mountain. This was a set in itself. Peter Jackson used this location for the lighting of the beacons. It wasn’t his first choice either but the summer they were filming was extremely dry and there were fire bans all over the place. He had to use this place instead because he was allowed to light huge bonfires on the tips of these mountains. I could sit there and point out the peaks that the fire were being lit from, but something strange happened to me here. I stopped paying attention to the reference to The Lord of the Rings and started to pay attention to New Zealand. My propensity to my geekdom was causing me to miss something quite amazing. I didn’t need this obsession of mine to make this place incredible because the place was pretty amazing on its own terms.

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The landscape jutted out of the ocean in such a dramatic fashion that I needed to quit worrying about where Frodo would be on his journey, and start marveling at the natural landscape that surrounded me. There were opportunities for my own personal adventures here that I didn’t need to worry about the epic voyage of a couple of hobbits; I could make my own memories of the place.

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When I started to look at New Zealand for what New Zealand had to offer, a whole new perspective started to carve itself from the landscape. There was blue sky with fresh air just waiting to be sucked deeply into my lungs. There were some of the most dramatic mountains I had ever seen, and remember that I come from Colorado, and have spent considerable time in the Pacific Northwest and the Swiss Alps. There were river of the most beautiful icy blue coming directly from glaciers that were carving the newest sets of fjords many people this world have not enjoyed yet. It was a young land still being shaped by mother nature, and was so far off the beaten path that humanity hadn’t destroyed its beauty with its own mark. The lessons we had learned from all the other places of the world were being implemented here to make this one of the last and purest frontiers left on Earth.

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But the view would dramatically shift as I traveled along its highways. In the morning, I would be shivering next to blocks of ice floating down frozen rivers, then travel through pastoral lands filled with sheep and the occasional farmhouse, to find myself on a pristine beach soaking up the sun of the day. Even the beaches were something I had not witnessed before. The volcanic rock that made up these islands left behind a soft, fine dark sand that is not associated with beaches, and since the ocean in this area wasn’t being littered with gasoline extract of thousands of ships, the water was the clearest blue that begged to be jumped into. Of course, I didn’t do it because I was far enough south of the border to know that the water would be freezing, but it was still nice enough to dip my toes in before strolling down these amazing beaches.

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Because man had eventually learned to respect mother nature and let her thrive, many animals come to the place to enjoy moments of their lives. Rocky extensions of the shores would be covered with seals as they ate, mated, and raised families. It wasn’t always that way down here as they were hunted almost to extinction at one time, but man quickly learned its mistake, and made adjustments to live in harmony with nature instead of always trying to control it. It was this decision made by the Maori that allowed this little corner of the world to thrive before it was touched by Western thought.

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The changes in landscape didn’t only happen when I moved from inland to the coast either. There would be dramatic shifts when I moved from beach to beach. Where one beach would be filled with dark sand and my lonely thoughts, another would be covered in all types of trees giving it a feeling of a tropical rainforest rather than a cold water beach.

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And then there were the beaches that the people sought out to relax on. They were usually in a small coves that allowed the water to warm up a little more. Many people would dip their toes into this water, and the more adventuresome person would actually venture into the water to take a swim. The landscape made the beach even more impressive allowing me never to tire of the views.

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Sometimes the coast wouldn’t even allow for a place to pull out a beach blanket and enjoy the view. Rather, rocky cliffs would constantly be giving way to the waves crashing into them. It would develop into fantastic sculptures that only mother nature could create, and only man could decipher. Natural formed bridges would allow people to cross from one section of these sculptures to another part while watching the wave create a smaller bay right underneath it.

The landscape of New Zealand had so enthralled me by this point that I had stopped searching for every little hint of The Lord of the Rings. In fact if I had turned just a little to my left of the land bridge pictured up above, I would have seen another set used in the movies, and even though it was still interesting, it was this tiny bay carved into the hills of the coast that captured my imagination. I was starting to become enchanted with this land, and my original purpose was getting lost among everything I was experiencing.

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The people with their quirky sense of humor were wonderful to visit. At first, it threw me off because they were overly friendly and I was coming from a place where this wasn’t natural, but I quickly accepted it and enjoyed every moment of it. There were also funny little gems along the side of the road that forced you to laugh when you saw them. Before you even realized what it was you actually saw, you would be further down the highway laughing out loud about the way the people of New Zealand could make you laugh without even having to interact with them. Items like this sign or a construction of a Gary Larson cow would instantly put a smile on my face. It made the time I got to spend here even more enjoyable.

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If that wasn’t enough, the towns that were scattered throughout the country all held their own special charm. A small town would give you the feeling of living in the old west as it shop fronts would maintain a rustic design. Just off the beaten path from here was a river in which you could actually dig up part of the bank and sluice through the dirt to try to find some of the gold that was there. It wasn’t that unusual of a thing to do either because there were a bunch of people who were doing it.

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There were even some mountain communities that reminded me of the ones I left behind in Colorado. During the summer months, this town offered many exciting opportunities such as mountain biking, and bungee jumping; the latter of which, I found out, was invented in this small mountain town and then spread throughout the rest of the world. Though I did not partake in either of these activities here, it did not stop me from hiking around the hills and even riding a couple of luges down a cement track laid on one of the hillsides.

I could just imagine this place during the winter as well. It would still have that cozy feel that I experienced when I was there, except it would be covered in a blanket of white instead of the green canopy. People wouldn’t be walking around in shorts and t-shirts while carrying around skateboards, but instead, would have snowboards under their arms as they trudge off towards the slopes in their heavy coats and snow pants. It was the tourist destination that you always expect when you are on vacation, but with split personalities that you won’t get to experience unless you go back in a different season.

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And even though they might be modest compared to other places within the world, New Zealand even had its share of large cities. Even these places were very livable, and seeped in culture. Of course, if you still want that thrill, you can bungee jump off of the needle in the middle of town.

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Hidden within all of this is an indigenous culture that is rich in history and unique among all of the cultures of the world. Though it is believed that the Maori people originate from Tahiti, it still had been removed from those people long enough to create its own art, its own philosophy, and its own spirituality. This was a culture that was embraced by the people who moved here from Western Civilization; instead of them trying to take over the culture. A lot of this was probably due to the fact that it was the last part of the world that the European countries ever found, and some of the first people to land here, such as Cook, could see the mistakes that had been made in other places that were colonized that he didn’t want to make the same ones down here. It allowed the cultures to eventually live in harmony with one another, and not to let the Maori culture to get blended with the European one and eventually disappear. This history, though short, is very rich and should be looked at more often in history classrooms across the world, but won’t be because of the fact that New Zealand is so far away from any other country.

All of the richness of this faraway land was revealed to me throughout the course of my travels, and I might have missed it due to one of my passions. Though I would often say that you should never let anybody put you down for that thing that makes you a geek, I am now able to say to not let that passion consume you. For if you do, you will be a lot like Sméagol hiding out under the Misty Mountains content with what will come your way. You need to make it out of that cave every once in a while and experience different things. Don’t let that passion leave you because it is a part of who you are, but let other people’s passions into your heart as well.

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The voyage that you take might surprise you and what you find will become unexpected. It is what makes life worth living. Though my pilgrimage originally started out as an exploration of a great passion of mine, it turned into something even greater than I would have expected. It was for this reason that this will always be one of my favorite trips.

But don’t worry, I still got to see Mt. Doom!

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