I live in an abandoned motel about a kilometer out of town called Mueller. Sounds pretty bad right? It’s not, and here’s why:
That’s the view from my balcony.
I have always had a special spot in my heart for places in transition, old structures finding a new purpose: warehouses turned into artist lofts, jailhouses into hostels, motels into apartments for international backpackers. The sitting area of Mueller is now a make shift game room with Air Hockey, a Pool Table, and Darts. The foyer has become a sort of Internet zone where all the Malaysians meet every night to sit on their laptops together, and the resting spot on the main staircase was chosen as the perfect spot for an exercise bike and an elliptical, our own little gym. The laundry room and kitchen serve their former purposes and the little bar and bottle shop attached to Mueller runs from 3:00 pm until about midnight. Mueller is my all-purpose home.
There is some sort of hierarchy here at Mueller that I don’t quite understand. I’m pretty sure that I am closer to the top than the bottom because some of my coworkers live across the street at a place lovingly called, “The Lodge” in little closets with shared bathrooms and no view. As far as I can tell, of the ninety-odd employees, I am the only American working for the hotel. There are lots of Asians, Southeast Asians, Kiwis, Europeans, South Americans, a few South Africans, and a hockey-loving Canadian, but no other Americans which is just fine with me… I’ve seen enough of them in my day.
The hotel where I work caters mostly to Tour Groups since very few people stay in Franz Josef for more than one night. Each day, a new group arrives, the cattle are herded out of their holding space, and then rounded up the next morning in a neat line to continue on their way. Every now and then, an American group comes through. I don’t know where they think I am from, or if they think I am softening my accent for them, but I love it when they tell me how things are in America. The other day, one good-old-boy who I sent on a short hike to see the glowworms came back and asked me if I had sent him on a “snipe hunt,” to which I replied, “I’m sorry sir I’m not quite sure what that is.” He brought his friend over, saying, “Go on Fred. Tell him what a snipe hunt is.” Fred continued, “Well, in America… Oh Hell, it’s just a phrase we have back in America.”
I smile and shrug and wonder what else I will learn about America.
Franz Josef Glacier was named in honor of the Emperor of Austria by German explorer Julius von Haast in the early 1860’s. However, the Māori had explored the area many years earlier in search of greenstone. In Māori legend, a girl named Hinehukatere loved climbing the mountains of the South Island and often encouraged her lover Tawe to join her. Sadly, he was a less experienced mountaineer and, one fateful day, got caught up in an avalanche that swept him to his death. Hinehukatere was inconsolable and the tears of her grief became a stream, the stream a river, and as the tears flowed down the mountainside, they froze in time. Thus, the glacier is known as Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere (the Tears of Hinehukatere).
1864 marked the beginning of the gold rush in the region, bringing more prospectors to the area. Yet, it was not until the 1920’s that the Graham family provided the first tourist and mountaineering services. Now, a vast area spanning from the peaks of the Southern Alps to the Tasman Sea is part of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, a World Heritage Site. Today, the town itself is mostly a service village for the glacier and the adventure tourism associated with it.
Franz Josef Township is the sort of town where doctors come through once a week and the nearest hospital is two and a half hours away. If you want to stop by the Community Library, it better be between 3:00 and 4:00 pm Monday through Friday and only if there happens to be a teacher around. Need to go to the Post Office? Those services are run through a place called Glacier Motors. Let’s say you are looking for a public toilet. For just twenty cents, you can use the johns across the street from Full of Beans Café… and the toilets “sing to you.” Franz Josef Township is also the sort of place that faces various environmental risks such as earthquakes and flooding and where residents are encouraged to view a site called getthru.govt.nz in case the township should need to be self-sufficient for some time. There has already been a major fire since my arrival and snowflakes of ash graced the town.
Next time, MarkontheMap will delve into the Natural Beauty of Franz Josef and the various bumps and rashes that he may or may not have received from straying off the path… but for now, here is a preview: