The young Kiwi schoolboy watched, first with a quizzical expression, then with astonishment. Soon it would be me that was surprised.
I thought my actions were hum-drum; something I’d done hundreds of times and a typical American wouldn’t think twice about. It was simple. I started by spreading peanut butter on one slice of bread, then I spread jelly on a second slice, eliciting the quizzical look, then I slapped the two slices together. At that stage, by the boy’s expression you’d have thought I just poured pickle juice in a glass of milk.
After a brief conversation I learned that in his experience, while peanut butter sandwiches were common and jelly sandwiches were common, combining the two – a standard meal for any American kid, was something he thought rather strange.
So how did an American come to befuddle a Kiwi kid in the first place?
It helped that we were in New Zealand, but if that’s not sufficiently far away, our location was a remote mountain hut, a two-day hike into the Routeburn Track.
Back in 1985, before Lord of the Rings made New Zealand’s beauty common knowledge, I’d somehow gotten the scoop and opted to spend three weeks checking it out. As part of the excursion I included a backcountry hike in the Fiordland region of the South Island; two and a half days on the Routeburn Track.
The Routeburn is a 32-kilometer hike, climbing up from a valley floor, through beech forests, up above the tree line to rugged cliffs, and back down again.
At least that’s what they tell me. Frankly, my memories of what happened 31 years ago are a tad shaky. I do remember the weather started off good but went downhill faster than I did on the second half of the hike. Once I got up into the high country the view across the valley to the cliffs opposite was usually obscured, with the occasional break hinting at something truly spectacular.
It wasn’t all cliffs, it flattened out in places too.
Big and impressive is nice, but sometimes small and impressive is nice too.
The trail was generally in good shape, although with the rain it sometimes resembled a miniature version of a babbling brook, complete with little “boulders” and snags. Dry feet at the end of a day’s hike were but a fantasy.
Although memories of the trail are dim, I have vivid memories of one section. Rocky babbling brook trail, 10-degree pitch upward, sheer cliff on one side, trail about 18″ wide – roughly the width of my backpack, and a sheer dropoff on the other side. And this is not one of those places that provide handy railings.
Fortunately, I didn’t encounter another hiker coming my way. Every step was a tentative, make damn sure you don’t slip foot placement. I also discovered how long I can hold my breath walking uphill wearing a backpack.
So what does one do at the end of a day’s hike in this soggy, rocky, glorious countryside if you want to get a good night’s sleep without waking up looking like a prune? Why you stay in a hut! There are four of them stashed in various spots.
When I first encountered the term “hut”, I had the impression it meant small, humble dwelling barely large enough to support two people laying down without elbowing each other in the ribs. These trail huts, while they are no threat to the Hilton, are just a tad bigger.
I first noticed this when I stumbled into one, and following my nose to a stove noticed row after row of soggy boots, all hopeful of drying out at least a little before another day’s trek.
The heat source was a new experience for me. Following my nose was more than a euphemism – when I entered the hut a distinct odor permeated the air. I learned the fragrance of burning coal.
After adding my boots to the collection I noticed many of the others belonged to a group of school kids. Kind of hard to miss, they’re not the quietest folks around. It was one of those lads that, come dinner time, experienced my advanced lesson in making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With luck, by now he’s gotten over the trauma from my bizarre combination of ingredients.
After a dry night’s sleep (once all the teenagers finally shut up) I wandered out of the hut and noticed a dull roar from a different direction. It turned out the hut had a waterfall in its back yard.
As the hike ran towards its finish the weather improved, by the time I was done and heading towards Queenstown it was clear and sunny. It was my fate to do the Routeburn in its dramatic wet phase.
And once I was back in civilization it was time to restock on those PB & J essentials. I learned the Kiwis were not, in fact, unfamiliar with the idea of combining those two ingredients. There, on the grocery store shelf was the evidence: in the same jar, swirled together, peanut butter and jelly.
Publishers Note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the next couple of weeks, but not to worry, there will be more stories on the flip side.