Monday, 28 July 2014

To love and to cherish

When Australian classical pianist Kris Spike, 54, met American Gena Karpf, 51, 18 years ago, they were both hiking solo along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California.  Their relationship blossomed while they were in the wilderness and they were married in Alaska eight months later. Here is their story: about a chance encounter and their life ever after.

A conscious coupling ... Gena Karpf and Kris Spike.

KRIS: I met Gena in July, 1996, on the first day of a five-week hike in Yosemite National Park. I’d flown from Sydney to San Francisco, caught a bus to Bakersfield, hitchhiked to the trail, and then walked for nine hours. I was in the middle of nowhere, in this unforgiving landscape looking for water when I arrived at this remote spring and saw a beautiful girl come out of a tent.  

It totally rocked my view of fate. I was impressed at how adventurous she was – out there all alone  and instantly attracted to the fact that, like me, she was sacrificing all the comforts of civilisation in order to enjoy nature. I was expecting she had someone else in the tent with her, but when I found out she was alone, I felt like I'd won the lottery. 

I had not been divorced too long before I left for that trip and I was not ready for a relationship, but it somehow felt like Gena was being presented to me. I was impressed not only with what she was doing, but by the things she’d done. She’d given up hairdressing to work with troubled teens and seemed very grounded.  I enjoyed the pleasure of Gena’s company for 10 days before she told me she wanted to go solo. 

I understood and took off by myself, but I must admit I walked really slowly hoping she would catch me. A few days later, we ran into each other on the trail again and I told her I’d composed a song for her, called The Hairdresser.  I was trying to woo her, so I thought, ‘I have a song; I may as well use it’. It was a good move: she loved it. I returned to Australia in October [1996] and Gena arrived four months later. 

Although it was very easy living with Gina, there were a few episodes with my daughter, Erin [then 8], that rocked our relationship. At the time, Erin felt resentful someone else was taking away her dad’s attention and her behaviour was challenging. It’s all very amicable between Erin and Gena these days; Erin went on to be a model teenager and is now in her fifth year of medicine.

The most challenging thing we’ve faced as a couple was that Gena wanted children, and I didn’t. I’d had a vasectomy and was divorced and moving away from my daughter was so painful that I didn’t want to be vulnerable to that again.

When Gena asked me to marry her [in February 1997], we'd had a really tough day with Erin. We'd dropped her back at her mother's and Gena was lying in bed, with tears streaming down her face. It'd been a tough day and I think Gena thought, 'If this is as bad as it gets, then I still love you and still stand by you'. I didn’t jump up and say ‘yes’ to her proposal straightaway. I told her if she still wanted to marry me, then she had to accept I didn’t want any more children. I would have been devastated to lose her, but I am still tortured about my ultimatum and the enormity of her sacrifice. It is something I will always struggle with.

'The most challenging thing we’ve faced as a couple was that Gena wanted children, and I didn’t. I’d had a vasectomy and was divorced and moving away from my daughter was so painful that I didn’t want to be vulnerable to that again.'

For Gena, the most difficult thing about living with me is my way of thinking: she was raised a Catholic, I’m an atheist, and many of my views are not mainstream. As for the future? We have plans to go back to the West Coast of America and finish the trail. We have 804 km to go to reach the Canadian border and we are not getting any younger.

Gena makes my life feel complete. She satisfies all my needs for companionship. I admire her determination, which she used to get her business [Sweetness the Patisserie] up and running. She’s also very soft and gentle. Gena is not the kind of person who gets in a huff. She gets over things quickly. If I’ve done something wrong, she might give me a stern look or a quick roasting and then a few hours later we are back to normal.

With Gena, what you see is what you get. She is the person she is. There’s no act. She doesn’t play emotional games. I appreciate her directness. In some ways, I’m quite cynical and I daresay that is rubbing off on Gena. She hates it when I say, ‘You are becoming more like me every day’. 

GENA: In 1996, I embarked on a 2700 km hike from the Californian-Mexican border to the Washington-Oregon border. About 42 days into my trip I met Kris. If you were to ask me, 'Are you afraid of a bear or are you afraid of being alone?' ... being alone was definitely my biggest demon. After being by myself for so long and clocking up 32 km a day for weeks in walks this boy from Castle Hill [western Sydney] who had run out of water and was desperately thirsty. I thought, ‘What a rookie!’  

Kris camped next to me that night and the next day, I said, “I have to walk 30 km today. Want to walk with me?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ I thought, ‘Wow! I have a friend.’ We started talking soon after we set out. For some strange reason, I’d always said if I were ever to get married it would be to a piano player. When Kris told me he was a classical pianist and composer and we shared the same birthday, I thought, ‘Fancy that’!

After about a week of hiking together, I sensed Kris was attracted to me. I was 32 at the time and I’d never had a relationship and, to be honest, I was afraid of intimacy and so completely freaked out. I told him I needed space. I'm not entirely certain what I was scared of because he was a gentleman at every turn. After picking up our food parcels from the closest town, we walked separately for the next three weeks. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. I would get messages from people travelling southbound, saying, 'Are you the woman from Alaska? Kris says "hi".'

Walking up to 45 km a day is tough. I had a lot of bad days. I lost 15kg and was permanently hungry and exhausted and not having anybody to share that with was difficult. I ran into Kris again when I was having a very bad day. I’d arrived with blistered feet at Sonora Pass and I heard footsteps and turned around to see Kris. It was like looking at my best friend. I was so happy to see him. 

That night, we camped at a high alpine lake and Kris told me he’d written a song about me, called The Hairdresser. We were camped by this high alpine lake rimmed by mountains and he wrote down all the verses for the song and then he sings it in this most spectacular voice and I am completely blown away. We became an item right before Kris’s hike ended [in a cabin in Echo Lake]. 
'There are lots of ways to meet someone and I'd never had a relationship before I'd met Kris because I didn't tolerate bullshit. Kris is credible.'
Before he returned to Australia Kris told me he loved me and wanted me to visit him … parting company was so painful. In December 1996, I moved to Australia. I’d never lived with a man before and I was a bit nervous but it was so easy. He’s so romantic! One night, Kris invited me to the Sydney Opera House and Sally Anne Russell [Opera Australia’s principal mezzo soprano] sang the song he composed for me. I met her backstage and I said, “It’s me!!! I’m 'the hairdresser' he wrote the song about.' I will die and that will be one of the most amazing things anyone has ever done for me. 

Kris and I got married in 1998 in a museum in Alaska. It hasn’t all been beer and skittles. I was desperate to have a child, but Kris didn’t want to have children. I made that sacrifice because I couldn’t imagine a life without him. I’m 50 now and having a child is no longer an option, but I’m at a place where I’m at peace with that. Kris, on the other hand, hates that he hurt me. My business [Sweetness the Patisserie] is now my baby and Kris supports me every step of the way. He believes in me, and that makes me believe in myself. 

There are lots of ways to meet someone and I'd never had a relationship before I'd met Kris because I didn't tolerate bullshit. Kris is credible. There is no co-dependency. There is no sense of 'I'm nothing without you'. We are better because we think differently but some of his thinking can be quite challenging. He often tells me about all the things that are broken in the world and he yells at the TV when we are watching the news and I have to say to him, 'I need the next thing you say to be a happy thought'

You know those couples who say, 'We've never had a fight?' That's us. Kris is an extraordinary man and complements who I am. He is the most mild-mannered, Zen-like person I’ve ever met, yet has really strong opinions. He is a classical pianist, yet he played ice hockey for Australia – one of the most violent sports on the planet. I love that about him.


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