Imaginary Stories: An Unexpected Journey Through the Heart of Middle-earth

When I was nine years old, my family moved from Maryland to the south of France. Eager to take in anything I could find in English, I was given a copy of “The Hobbit” and, like any nine-year-old boy discovering J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, my world was changed. As soon as I was finished, I found my way to “The Lord of the Rings” and spent an entire summer poring over a massive paperback that collected all three parts.

When Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” hit theaters in 2001, my brothers and I camped out overnight at the Uptown theater in Washington, DC. I had just turned 19 and was between colleges, putting some geographic strain on the first serious relationship I ever had.

My girlfriend surprised me, that night in December, by catching a bus from New York City and joining me in line. She loved the books as much as I did and brought me a small metal replica of the One Ring. I put it on a chain and wore it around my neck for the next two years. When I saw “The Two Towers” and when I saw “Return of the King,” she was there.

Sometime thereafter, we broke up. Timed passed and we fell out of touch. By the time I moved to Los Angeles some time later, I toyed with the idea of taking the ring up to the hills somewhere and discarding it; not out of any anger or bitterness, but simply for a sense of finality.

Instead, the ring wound up tucked away in a dresser drawer and, for years, remained unseen and nearly forgotten.

Part of the thrill of set visits is how they oftentimes arrive with very little notice. There’s an e-mail from the studio and one quickly finds oneself, not at all unlike Bilbo Baggins, off on an unexpected journey. Naturally, a trip to the set of “The Hobbit” was a very welcome experience and one you can read all about by clicking here. It was during the three days that followed, however, that the trip truly became an adventure.

As lucky as I was to be traveling to New Zealand in the first place, I was also very fortunate to be doing so alongside Eric Eisenberg, a reporter for Cinema Blend and one of my very best friends. We had decided, before making any other plans, to extend our stay by a few extra days in the hopes of taking in as much of the country as possible.

“What I’d really like to do,” I told Eric, explaining the history of the ring, “is bring this to Mount Doom.”

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s do that.”

New Zealand, as a country, is divided into the North Island and the South Island. Flying in from Los Angeles, we’d arrive in Auckland (North on the North Island) and then take a smaller plane to Wellington (South on the North Island). Mount Ngauruhoe, an active volcano that doubled for Mount Doom in “The Lord of the Rings,” is located dead center in Tongariro National Park. Though there is, in reality, no fiery pit of lava to toss a ring into, my research indicated that if we could make it there, a full day’s hike to the trail’s highest point promised to be one of the world’s most picturesque outdoor experiences.

At first, Eric and I planned to take a bus to Tongariro, hike the mountain and then make it back in time for our flight to Auckland. After plotting a timetable, however, we realized there was just no way to fit the bus schedule there and back into the time we had and that it was, in fact, only slightly more expensive to rent a car.

Admittedly, renting a car was something that I had never done, even in the United States and while it was a quick walk to a place in Wellington, I had the paranoid thought that the man behind the counter was going to take one look at the pair of us and ask what in the world gave us the notion that anyone was going to trust two foreign idiots having zero experience driving on the opposite side of the road with a vehicle. Instead, he was overly friendly (as just about everyone in New Zealand seems to be) and handed us a pair of keys.

Doing my best to pretend I knew what I was doing, I took the driver’s seat on the right side of the car and slowly pulled around to the back of the lot so that the owner couldn’t see me slowly adjust to the reverse design. As it turned out, I found my bearings almost instantly and, after a quick stop at our hotel to claim our bags, we were on the road to Mount Doom.

For the next five hours, Eric and I switched off at the wheel, making our way through the dark green countryside and the occasional flurry of snow. There was very little traffic and, when darkness fell, the world became pitch black. Our goal for the night was a hostel near the edge of Tongariro. We had found it online, but failed to make a reservation. When we arrived, we found the main office closed for the night and, once again, the fear crept up that maybe we were in over our heads.

We circled the hostel to weigh our options, but it was too dark to make out anything and the GPS in the car seemed to offer phantom suggestions that disappeared as soon as we’d set a course. Not knowing what else to do, we kept driving until, by a stroke of luck, we saw some lights in the distance . It turned out that we had stumbled upon an even larger hostel, the YHA National Park Backpackers. We managed to check in and then headed across the parking lot to a small bar that was still serving dinner.

As soon as we sat down to eat, a few other travelers came over and asked if we wanted to trade off buying pitchers of beer. We made fast friends with a small group of four or five others, most of whom were from Europe. One guy was traveling the North Island entirely on a bike and a girl from Germany, after learning that we were both entertainment reporters, insisted that we tell her all about what it’s like to cover a “Twilight” junket.

Two hours later, everyone had bought a pitcher and the bar was closing down. As we left, we asked the group about how to find Mount Ngauruhoe. They just laughed and said that, when daylight came, we wouldn’t have a problem.

The next morning, we realized what they were talking about. The day was bright but chilly and the snow-covered mountain stood impossibly large in the distance. After a quick breakfast at what appeared to be a mostly deserted ski resort nearby, we drove closer and closer to the mountain, the road changing from pavement to rough dirt. Finally, we came to a small parking area with a few other cars and, donning our backpacks, we set off on foot.

At first, the path was fairly level and we trekked underneath a brilliant blue sky with hills in the distance rising up to rocky slopes. It was cold and snow fell on and off as we moved along. At times, the path would elevate and we’d climb boulders to follow its well-worn groove, passing streams and waterfalls that led us, bit by bit, higher and higher until we’d again find long stretches of even ground, some of which had even been fitted with boardwalk platforms.

We had gone several miles when it became clear that we should have prepared a bit more for the trek. We had failed to bring along either food or water, but were getting so close to our goal that we were determined to keep moving.

It had been a few hours of hiking when we hit an immense rocky clearing, labeled Soda Springs. Anything green was fully behind us now and the landscape ahead was the color of dark volcanic ash with a thick coat of snow that got thicker the higher we looked.

By our best estimate, we now had less than two miles to go to get as close to Mount Doom as possible without serious mountain climbing equipment (which, even if we had been capable of the task, wasn’t something that was possible under the icy conditions that time of year). We came to a sign that advised us not to go any further if we weren’t experienced hikers, but we both decided that we were too close to stop now.

Moving past the sign, the journey became an arduous one. We were no longer moving along a path, but instead following stone steps cut into the mountainside. Eric looked nowhere near as winded, but my own Hobbit-like physique called for frequent rests so I could catch my breath.

Higher and higher we climbed, careful to move slowly across icy patches. The path zigged and zagged and, oftentimes, moved very nearly straight up the cliff side. Finally, we came to a turn and realized that moving any further along would only move us away from the peak.

We had a small argument about the best way to dispose of the ring. Eric thought I should throw it up, but I wanted to drop it and instead, moved out across the rocks to a minor chasm and removed the gold band from its chain.

Clutching it one last time in my palm, I took aim and let the ring fly. It disappeared into the dark of the rocks below without a sound. I turned to look back at Eric and smiled.

The One Ring had been destroyed.

Although it was a substantially easier climb to move down the steps, avoiding the ice became even trickier and we were both exhausted. It was a definite relief to get back past the warning sign and, taking a slightly different path on our return journey, we discovered a small cabin where hikers can stay in cots for a $10 donation. At that point, however, we were just interested in finally getting some water.

Thinking our journey was at an end and feeling pretty good about it, I managed to pick up a Wi-Fi signal and found a wonderful surprise in my inbox. New Zealand’s tourism board, learning of our journey, had sent a very special invite. Making it back to the car, we set the GPS for a northern town called Matamata.

In the morning, we were going on a private tour of Hobbiton.

The Hobbiton Movie Set, another few hours drive North from the National Park, belongs to the Alexander Farm and was constructed by the New Zealand Army in 1999 for the original trilogy. When Peter Jackson wanted to return for scenes in “The Hobbit,” the owner, Russell Alexander, had just one request: This time, the dozens and dozens of Hobbit holes were built up with permanent materials, meaning the attraction will stand for years to come.

Eric and I found a hotel in Matamata and drove to the Hobbiton Movie Set in the morning. Located in the middle of a hilly green countryside, the central building includes a small gift shop and “The Shire’s Rest” cafe where we were treated to “Second Breakfast” while we waited for our tour.

It wasn’t long before Mr. Alexander arrived and warmly greeted us. Ordinary tours are brought over to the set in a small bus, but he had us take the car, explaining the history of the place as we drove through his sheep farm. Arriving at a small parking lot, we got out of the car and, once again, stepped into a true Middle-earth setting.

Before flying to New Zealand, I had read a bit about the Hobbiton Movie Set and feared that the reality of it might be a simple tourist attraction. In point of fact, it is truly the most fun and impressive movie-related environment I’ve had the fortune to visit in quite a few years of visiting impressive movie-related environments. The whole area is far more than just a handful of sets and, instead, exists as a massive, wholly-realized version of the Shire.

Of the 45 Hobbit-holes, some are full size and some are miniature, allowing for visitors like Gandalf to appear enormous against their circular doors.

At the entrance, we were greeted by Pickle, a calico cat who, Mr. Alexander explained, showed up during the shooting of “The Lord of the Rings” and has gleefully stayed the past decade, Hobbiton’s only full-time resident.

In addition to added permanence, production on “The Hobbit” is allowing the set to make some welcome changes, including the addition of “The Green Dragon” pub, which was still under construction during our visit.

Mr. Alexander gave us the full tour, noting precisely which Hobbit lived in which hole and which of the trees were artificial, including a massive fake oak tree standing atop Bag End, located at the very top of the set.

Finally, we came to Bilbo Baggins’ unforgettable green door and, taking a quick look over his shoulder to make sure the just-arriving first official tour of day didn’t spot us, Mr. Alexander gave us both a slight smile and motioned for us to come forward. Opening the front of Bag End, we stepped inside and while the interior was simply a small wood-paneled room, we turned to look back out the doorway.

The view from inside Bag End is how I’ll forever remember my time in Middle-earth. Framed by the circular door, the countryside spills out in every direction, blending together a swirling mix of not only what is, but of all that can be imagined. I’ve never felt as lucky as I did at that moment, not just for the adventure of the past few days and for having a true friend to share it with, but for all the smaller journeys that had led me here and, stepping back out into the Shire, for all the journeys to come.

Check out a gallery of New Zealand photos by clicking here and, for more information on the Hobbiton Movie Set, visit their official site.

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