Revisiting the Past in the Land of the Kiwi

On a trip to New Zealand, Lane revisits an accident that almost ended her life, and she learns how flying fits into it all.

Color_LaneF

Color_LaneF

In some ways, the land is still as I remember it. Emerald-green hills dotted with darker green pines, eucalyptus, rimu, kauri and tree ferns flash underneath the airplane as we circle over the rolling landscape that stretches southeast from New Zealand's largest city. It's been a long time, so I can't place the exact locations I'm looking for as we fly south from Auckland in our borrowed Cessna 182. But somewhere there, underneath the left wing, is the farm I lived on all those years ago. And somewhere, on one of those roads stretching out to the right, is the place where, in the space of a few critical moments one night, my life forever changed.

Looking down at the once-familiar trees and hillsides, old memories stir and wake again, bringing me back to a time and place before I knew I wanted to be a writer; before I knew how the world looked from the sky. I was 19 then, and I'd run halfway around the world to this dramatic island country in search of adventure and either escape or myself, depending on how you wanted to look at it. I found all of that and more. And as the memories come charging out of the past again, I realize that this tiny mountainous country, tucked away in the South Pacific east of Australia, was really the place where all of it-the flying, the writing, and my life as I know it today-began.

The land looks very different to me now, of course, returning to speak at the New Plymouth Aero Club and explore the country by air. Oh, it's still every bit as breathtakingly beautiful as it was all those years ago. No doubt about that. I remember walking around for the entire six months I lived here with my eyes agog at the sheer, unbelievable beauty of the masterpiece Mother Nature had created in such a short span of miles.

But while the land may be the same, my perspective on it has changed. Not just because of the intervening years, but because I can now view it from the unique vantage point I've come to take for granted in the United States-that of a thousand feet up in the sky. When I lived on the Hamilton family's farm here, I thought we were out in the middle of nowhere. But when I took off from Auckland in the 182, we simply crossed the bay, hopped over a ridge, and found ourselves just down the road from the farm. Looking out the left window of the Cessna, I can still see Auckland's bay, as well as all the ridgelines that define the edges of the broad, rolling valley where I once lived. I hadn't realized the farm was even in a valley, let alone a valley that was so close to the city.

"This must be how people feel when they get their very first airplane ride!" I find myself thinking with a kind of awed wonder as I suddenly see places I once knew as pieces of a larger, geologic picture I'd never seen or understood before. I've flown so long in the U.S. that I almost can't get my mind to return to a time when I didn't comprehend the big picture as well as the details. But when I lived in New Zealand, I didn't have the money for planes. I hitchhiked or took buses-which meant I'd never seen the land from the air before. Not even from an airliner.

Of course, the view isn't all that's changed in my life since I lived here. But my perspective on some of the bigger changes is also being altered as I revisit New Zealand's land and sky.

For years, you see, I've been telling people that one of the reasons I fly is that airplanes have taught me some of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned in life: how to face and work with my own unique capabilities, fears, strengths and weaknesses; the incredible beauty of the natural world; the impermanence of life and the need to live every day to the fullest and grab hold of life with two hands and all my heart … and both the importance and the power of our connections with one another.

But as my memories of New Zealand start tumbling back into focus again, I realize that's not completely true.

The easy piece is remembering that it was really in New Zealand that my soul was first hushed into reverent silence by the staggering power and beauty of the natural world. The single most beautiful natural landscape I have ever stumbled upon, in fact, was on the northern coast of New Zealand's south island.

Realizing the true origins of the other lessons is more difficult, because it requires reliving the emotions and details of an event and night I've tried very hard, for a whole lot of years, to store in a safe place far enough back in my memory bank that it couldn't do much damage. For I not only lived here-I also almost died here.

The accident happened in the very last hour of the very last day I was supposed to be in New Zealand. I was on my way to the Auckland airport … on my way home … in a 1962 Fairmont sedan that had a very beefy structure, but no seatbelt in the middle of the front seat. I was sitting in that middle seat because all five members of the Hamilton family, on whose farm I'd lived for the last three months of my stay in New Zealand, were accompanying me to the airport to say goodbye. And somewhere on the country highway winding out from under our right wing is the place where a drunk and angry young man shot out from a side road at over 70 miles per hour that night, just as we happened past. There was no time to swerve, brake, or scream. His car was just suddenly there in front of us, and we slammed into him at full speed.

What happened next is a very long and nightmarish story, with details that I still have no great appetite to retell. But the short summary is that my head went through the windshield of the car, and I spent the next nine hours fighting for my life instead of sitting on a 747 on my way back home. And over the course of those hours, a lot of things became crystal clear to me. Things like how precious and uncertain life is, and how important it is to try to make each day a quality experience, doing something you love, surrounded by people you love, because there are no guarantees about how long any of it will last. Or how unimportant items like money and "stuff" are compared to the priceless gifts of time, experience, people, sunrises, laughter, love and life.

And perhaps most importantly, I learned how indescribably powerful and important our ties with each other really are. I have walked through every day since that night knowing that I owe my life to another human being. The Hamiltons' son John, a gifted and gentle soul in a Celtic warrior's body, saved my life any number of times and ways that night. He managed to slow my forward movement enough in the crash that my body stayed in the car, pulled me from the wreckage, held my head together while we waited for help, and stayed by my side, struggling to keep me conscious, talking to me, holding my hand, and pouring an unbelievable amount of strength and determination into me throughout all the interminable hours of snafus, disasters and surgery that followed. I am alive today, largely because John Hamilton quite simply refused to let me go.

The universe doesn't dish out lessons in any more dramatic a fashion than that. So one would think that the origins of wisdom gained in such a spectacular manner would be permanently ingrained in my front-seat consciousness, along with my name, age, and social security number. So why is it that all these years, I've attributed all those lessons to airplanes, instead?

The answer, when it came, was both stunning and simple. And it boils down to this: because we forget.

Unbelievable as it seems, the daily chores, responsibilities and stresses of adult life make even a lesson delivered with full-speed, through-the-windshield impact difficult to remember and act on after the initial intensity of the event wears off. The night of that accident, I knew exactly how I needed and wanted to live my life from then on. Yet four years later, I was working at a soulless marketing job, living my life on Monday through Friday, nine-to-five autopilot. It took a yellow biplane flying low overhead one evening to wake me up again and lead me back to a path where quality experiences, meaningful connections with other people, learning, laughter and life were more likely to be found.

And yet, while this realization may have changed my perspective on how the events of my life have unfolded, it doesn't change the significance of flying in my life. Because while airplanes may not have actually taught me all of the life wisdom I hold dear, they do something equally important. They keep me from forgetting.

Every time I lift off into a late afternoon sky, skim low over an ocean shore, cross a mountain ridge, or see the expanse of a multicolored autumn landscape stretching out before me, I remember again how much of a gift the world and life really are. Every time I take on a new adventure, I shake off the tranquilizing drug of routine and feel my mind, heart and soul stretch with new energy and life. Every time a controller or pilot reaches out to help me get home safely, I remember again the power and importance of the connections we form and hold with those around us. And every time I set wheels back on pavement after a satisfying flight, I know again the joy of spending that precious thing called time doing something I love.

My time in New Zealand taught me the importance of approaching life as the precious, rich and fleeting gift it is. But it was learning to fly that turned that knowledge into a path and way of life and keeps me from forgetting the wisdom I went through so much to learn.

I look down again at the lush, rolling land where it all began, and then look out at the wings that have helped make my life what I wished for, all those years ago. It's funny, the difference a little perspective can make. When I left New Zealand the last time, my head bandaged and my face scarred, I thought I was the unluckiest person on earth. Flying over that same landscape today, I know how lucky I really am.