Alumni Voices: Tim McKenna ’90

To call me a rookie world traveler in the late summer of 1990 would be to give me credit much undeserved. Looking back now, I'm certain a stowaway would have been better prepared for the journey. With only one airplane trip to my name and a pile of unnecessary luggage in the cargo hold, I waved a tearful goodbye to my family and girlfriend (now wife JoDee Wilson McKenna '92) and crammed into a seat one row from the smoking section for the first of four flights on my 23-hour journey to Wellington.

My Watson project was to travel to New Zealand to do conservation work, primarily with the Department of Conservation (DOC). I was excited to visit New Zealand and do environmental work, but I was equally pleased to be postponing for a year the "real-life" decision of attending law school or finding a job.

In hindsight, I should have prepared a bit more for the trip. I arrived in Wellington with little more than a fax inviting me to DOC's headquarters to discuss project options. That promise of a meeting and a well-thumbed travel guide were about the extent of my preparations.

My initial meeting at DOC headquarters was disappointing. The people I met were concerned that having an unpaid American volunteer would be politically unpopular as the recession had left many New Zealanders without work. While exploring other options to do conservation work, I decided I would find a place to stay in Wellington.

Looking back, my lack of travel experience actually enhanced my trip. Instead of going the easy route of a youth hostel, I answered "flat mate wanted" ads and ended up renting a house with a group of great local guys my age. These guys introduced me to the best spots for a good cheap meal, taught me rugby and cricket, and became my surrogate family during my trip. No matter where I was in New Zealand, I would return to Wellington at least once a month to hang out with these guys.

The setback at DOC headquarters only delayed things for a few weeks, as I soon received a call that the Turangi DOC office wanted my help with projects in Tongariro National Park. This proved to be a wonderful stroke of luck. The regional director in Turangi had found a spot for me at the park. I later found out that he had traveled the U.S. years earlier and had been helped out on occasions, so this was a "pay it forward" moment.

My initial assignment was to help with a three-day adventure race called Mountains to the Sea. As a time keeper, I was whisked by helicopter through the various legs of the race — mountain trail running, kayaking and biking.

My second assignment was just as amazing. I was given the keys to a four-wheel drive truck, water testing equipment and a map of various remote mountain streams to test for water quality. Driving from one crystal clear stream to another, I figured the testing was a formality. Unfortunately, when the results came back from the lab, Giardia was present. This made national news as it was the first time Giardia had been confirmed in the park streams and led to a push for park users to treat or boil their water before drinking it.

Other highlights of my trip include working as a hut warden on Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapehu and doing research with the rare species legislation team for the DOC headquarters in Wellington. I was awarded "player of the match" in my first cricket match with the DOC team. During my rotation as bowler (pitcher), I accidently "bowled" out the first two batters on one pitch each. My delivery was unorthodox and the ball slipped from my fingers both times leading to a lofted slow pitch that both batters whiffed at taking a full swing. I also met the famous Hendrix graduate Kim "Kiwi" Stevenson '77 from Rotorua who was a standout distance runner for Hendrix in the mid-1970s. He was leading high school physical education in Rotorua, and I joined his school in their annual outdoor camping week where they repaired trails, completed a ropes course, rock climbed, rappelled and learned an overall appreciation for the outdoors.

Of course any trip this long has low points as well. I bought a heavily used car that needed a new radiator after only 30 miles, leaked exhaust fumes into the car, and drank a quart of oil every fill up. I also experienced severe motion sickness a mile off the cost of Kaikoura at the exact time a group of whales surfaced by our boat. All of my pictures were out of focus and off center.

After much prodding from my friends, I concluded my trip with a bungee jump from the 150-foot Kawarau Bridge near Queensland in the Sound Island. Like so much of my year, it was done with a strange mixture of apprehension and naïve enthusiasm. Would I have done it had I not steadied my nerves by quickly downing a warm beer that I found in the trunk of my car? Who knows? But I'm glad I did the jump just as I'm forever grateful for having the opportunity to spend a Watson year of wonder in New Zealand.

Tim McKenna '90 is the director of staffing at Acxiom Corp.