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May 10 2013

Montana, Down Under

MWA NexGen student looks for wilderness in the 'land down under'

Voices of NexGen

Emily Downing
Former MWA NexGen student at the University of Montana

A recent car trip from Hokitika to Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand saw me boring the driver, a girl from Boston, Mass., with incessant remarks about how easilly we could be driving through the Bitterroot Valley. The highway we drove on followed a wide, poplar-lined river through ranch land with views of the surrounding snow-capped mountain ranges, allowing me to wax poetic about the glories of the West. New Zealand is a land of great variety, and most places I’ve been (aside from costal areas, of course), it’s hard not to notice the striking similarities to Montana’s sweeping valleys and mountain ranges. Usually, comparing the two places makes me feel both a little bit homesick and ecstatic that I’m exploring this part of the world.

There are certainly moments where I don’t ache for Montana, like when I pop out of a silver beech forest onto a glorious, grassy ridge line, or when I run on the banks of a wide, rocky river. Standing at the base of a glacier stretching up a mountainside into the clouds doesn’t feel half-bad, either. These, of course, are the moments I feel most at home, the moments when I could just as easily be exploring the wilds of the Rocky Mountains. New Zealand values and protects its wild places just as much as Montana, which makes it a pretty great place to be living. There are little differences, though, that remind me why it is Montana, and not New Zealand, that I want to ultimately call home.

Here, National Parks are the closest it gets to wilderness. New Zealand’s park system falls somewhere between the United States’ park system and designated wilderness areas. There are few, if any, roads in the national parks, and the ones that do exist skirt around the edges as if they know they don’t belong but can’t help being there. Mountain bikes and chainsaws and the like are allowed, though, and the Department of Conservation’s hut system ensures trampers always have a bed to sleep in. Don’t get me wrong — parts of these parks are pretty damn wild. I doubt too many people have stepped past the popular Milford and Doubtful Sounds to the far southwest regions of Fiordland National Park, or even ventured far into the vastness of Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island.

Still, there’s something different about wilderness, something special. I think, for me, it’s the idea that trails are perhaps one of the only nods wilderness areas give to human use. They aren’t designed to be tourist attractions and backpacking paradises. They’re meant to keep things wild and untouched, and its because they do so that they become places people want to visit.  Montana holds at least that much over New Zealand. Plus, the lack of dangerous wildlife is only a pleasant novelty for so long. No matter how much I talk up how nice it is to go for a trail run without needing to carry bear spray, I secretly miss  imagining I’m being stalked by a mountain lion as I run through the woods at dawn. I could easily stay in New Zealand forever, if it weren’t for the wildness of Montana (and the terms of my visa). Though I’ll take my time down here — and enjoy every minute of it — I can still feel the Rockies tugging at my heart and, eventually, I’ll answer.

Emily Downing is a recent graduate of the University of Montana and a UMWA alum. She writes from New Zealand, where she is spending the year working in and exploring the Southern Alps.