It took two years to prepare for the trek of a lifetime, walking the entire length of New Zealand. Gathering and testing gear, procuring a leave of absence from my beloved job (which I ended up losing anyway) and getting my mind, body and spirit in proper shape.
Recently, a pal from the PCT named “Toast” asked me how my socks held up I did not lie, I still use a few of my Balagas from the hike, they’re practically indestructible! So, I’m republishing this review and offering a chance for you to win Balega socks as a kind of post Christmas bonus present. Just LIKE and SHARE The Pee Rag on Facebook and you’ll be automatically entered to win!
Sometimes it’s safer to read maps with your feet.
September, 2018 – If you want to hike with the ease, agility and the fleet-footedness of a seasoned ultra trail runner, and keep your feet cool and blister-free, Balega socks are for you. Balega means to move with speed and while that is not my ultimate goal as a backpacker, I appreciate that whatever is protecting my foot is indeed the ultimate arbiter of success in any walk.
Balega scores high for me because of a moisture wicking fabric they call “Drynamix” that is soft and breathable and just as advertised keeps my foot dry. I chose the slightly heavier Blister Resist sock that combines mohair with Drynamix. These socks are soft and cozy – and may prove to be a bit much for the beaches and rain forests of New Zealand’s Northland, which is why I am taking pairs of Enduro V-Tecs in my bounce box. They are synthetic and contain a compression band for the mid-foot, supporting just so without feeling too tight.
Both socks are made without seams, which help prevent blistering, but fit like a dream with a snug heel cup and elastic grippers that prevent slippage. And each have strategically placed ventilation panels that aid the wicking process which will be key as I walk in and out of rivers and find my feet caked in mud throughout my five-month sojourn. Sounds fun, eh?
But maybe more than just feeling thrilled that I have found the best sock for my long distance thru-hiking, I also have some real warm fuzzies when I think that the additional pairs of Balega socks I buy will help support Balega’s outreach programs in their home country of South Africa. There was even a little sticker on each pair with a picture of the person who inspected – and washed – my socks before they were sent out. Just like that beautiful Zulu word Ubuntu, meaning “shared humanity,” I feel there is a bit of this wonderful company’s energy walking each step with me on the Te Araroa.
The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.
I’m leaving Saint Paul for Kerikeri, New Zealand on a late fall mid-day. Leaves are past peak, raining to the ground in a final blur of orange and brown. It’s gray, threatening drizzle but the clouds part slightly to blue sky, like promises of a few more brilliant days.
Yesterday was my last day of work for nearly six months. I signed off with my most favorite piece by my most favorite composer, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 where he tells his orchestra to ‘play like a sound of nature.’
It’s finally here, one week until I leave to walk in the footsteps – at least metaphorically – of Beethoven and commune with nature, hoping to decipher her secrets and find inspiration.
Te Araroa in te reo Māori (the native language of New Zealand) means “long pathway” and at over 1800 miles, that is a wee bit of an understatement. The TA is the Appalachian Trail of New Zealand and will take me an estimated five months to walk.
I lead a double life of two intense joys: as a classical music DJ at American Public Media and as a long-distance backpacker. Walking has always been my passion, my solace and my truest love. These two come together regularly, like in my earliest memory of singing while looking down at my feet carrying me along a sidewalk.
Likewise, when we moved from the New York suburbs to the New Hampshire countryside and having just learned to whistle, I was often lost for hours – and late for dinner – exploring the woods and fields.
Though it wasn’t until my dad took me to Yosemite when I was thirteen and I played my flute on top of Half Dome, that I realized just how far my feet could take me.
And every day, rain or shine, heat wave or blizzard, I walk the two miles from Summit Hill down to the studio and back home.
Walking is good for you – and for the creative mind as so many composers were fully aware of. Bach walked 250 miles to hear the greatest organist of his day, Buxtehude, give a concert. Wagner wandered onto trails in the Alps and orchestrated his walks most famously in Forest Murmurs from his opera Siegfried.
Tchaikovsky became so obsessed with his daily constitutional, he superstitiously timed his walks precisely for two hours each day, believing if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortune would befall him. But we forgive his obsession upon hearing the carefree Serenade for Strings that feels like one of those perfect walking days, a mix of sunshine and a light, caressing breeze.
Morton Feldman, Benjamin Britten, Edward Elgar and Gustav Mahler were all morning people, composing early and after lunch walking for several hours with notebook at hand.
I feel deep kinship with the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 filled with birdcalls. He tells the performers to play “like a sound of nature.” The melody, which seems to emanate right from the trees and grasses themselves, is one he used as a song to words that describe so many walker’s transcendent experience.
I walked across the fields this morning, Dew still hung on the grass, The merry finch said to me: You there, hey – Good morning! Hey, you there! Isn’t it a lovely world? Tweet! Tweet! Bright and sweet! O how I love the world!’
Perhaps the most famous walker in all of music was Eric Satie. He lived six miles from Paris’ Montmartre district, where he set up his “office” in the local cafés and communed with the leading artists of the day.
He would purposely stay out so late that he would miss the last train home and be forced to walk all those miles. But he never rushed, and was said to take in whatever appeared before him with deep interest.
I imagine Satie and the great naturalist John Muir would have made good friends as Muir wrote he despised the term hike. “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’”
You can hear in Satie’s unusual wandering beat and tempo that he was a saunterer of the highest order and happy to be so!
What will I take with me to listen to while in New Zealand? Likely all of these composers and more, mostly in my head as I love hearing the sounds of nature myself. I have plans to meet up with a New Zealand native, composer Gareth Farr whose music has a deep, spiritual connection to his home, the people and the land.
My wish is that I can commission him to write music that might accompany my audio narratives bringing my two deepest passions together in full circle, classical music and walking the length of a brand new world.
Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.
At my last Zoom presentation, a participant asked how do you get in shape for a long walk? I published this blog less than a week before I left for the Te Araroa and I thought it would be a good idea to revisit it!
The short answer to the question “how do you get in shape for a thru-hike?” is by being in shape, which sounds much harder than it is! What I mean is take on the attitude of having physical fitness – in all forms – a part of your being.
How does one do that? Well, by choosing each day to move.
The list below covers most things I like to do to make myself strong enough to manage the rigors of a thru-hike, though Richard and I have lately been doing a daily morning routine with Russian Kettlebells.
Bells are lifted, swung, and pivoted around the body in orbits and figure eights. A series of kettle bell activities, along with planks and pushups, may very well be the number one routine worth adding to prepare for a thru-hike because they strengthen the core and improve balance – and let’s face it, you look like a bad ass swinging them!
I admit it. I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to training. It feels too much like homework. Not that I haven’t done it. I have, and even happily. I successfully trained to run 100k with 11,000 feet ascent, to ski 31 miles uphill and down hills three different times, and to bike all the way from Saint Paul into Canada. That being said, each and every time I found that my biggest successes came when I went easier on the schedule and more intentional on the changing of my lifestyle.
You might call me an “active middle aged woman.” So when people ask how I’m training to walk the 3,000 kilometers of the Te Araroa, I usually say, “By staying active!” with a smile, though that never satisfies.
Ok, then. How about, “By walking to work every day?” They usually look at me oddly either because they realize that 20-30 miles walking per week is never going to come close to the amount of walking I’ll do over the course of five months.
Or maybe it’s because most people don’t relate to my walking every day, rain or shine, snowstorm or heat wave. It’s at about this point in the conversation when I feel like a slacker and wonder just who I think I am planning to simply warm up as I go on this 3000 km stroll. That’s more the perspective of the 20-somethings I’ll meet along the way, out-of-work or in their gap-year with young lithe bodies that can adjust fast to the conditions, and pick up long distance walking “skills” as they go.
At 53-going-on-54, that does not describe me. The not-so-young-anymore part, anyway. The out-of-work part is still TBA, though I do protest my calling myself a slacker. Welcome to my head-space!
Truth is, I move a lot – and in varied ways – and I find it translates more directly to my needs as a thru-hiker: to move steadily, quickly (enough) and over long periods of time.
Let’s look at the evidence:
Walking to work requires me to obviously move my legs briskly for two miles to and from my job in downtown Saint Paul. I live on Summit Hill, so it’s usually downhill to and uphill from MPR. But I have gotten creative in adding a roundabout course that forces me uphill both ways.It entails a good deal of stair climbing, and not that I’ve counted, but it comes to some 400 steps, and that’s first thing in the morning keeping my knees nice and juicy. Sure it gets my blood pumping to take them on, but what really “trains” me is the discipline of setting aside 40 minutes each morning. I have to make the time and I have to get there whether I want to or not.
I am so lucky to live in the Twin Cites with the finest network of bike trails in the country. They are heavily used even in winter. And I must point out here that Minnesota is no place for sissies; we have real winter. While I stopped commuting by bike in the winter the second year we lived here, mainly because I didn’t want to get flattened by an impatient driver, I do bike everywhere else I can get to in town, for groceries, to my friend’s houses, even when I broadcast from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Biking has got to be one of the most efficient forms of exercise. It takes all the stress off the joints, builds muscle, and gets your breathe going. And look at this, without even thinking about it, by combining biking with walking I am “cross-training,”
I do not have great form. Let’s just get that out there. My friend Rob says I look like an eggbeater, but, boy howdy, can I can push up those hills. Next to biking, cross country skiing is a sport you can participate in until you keel over of old age, frozen in a snow bank with a big smile on your face. Part of why I’ve gotten a little hinky about the whole “training” attitude is that Minnesota is home to some seriously awesome skiers – remember when our relay team stuck it to the Norwegians and nabbed gold? They were born here, popping out of their mother’s wombs with little skis on their feet. So I feel pretty self-conscious about my late start in this marvelous sport. It’s no wonder the Nordic Track is offered at gyms across the country, when you ski you become a four legged creature, using your arms as well as legs to propel yourself. I have never felt so fully fit then when I am skiing. Sadly, this year I have three summers in a row. Hey, that’s not sad! But I will miss ski season.
My climbing partner Patrick is 22 years my junior. Why does he climb with me? He’s explained it’s because I never quit. Well, sometime I do, especially when leading as I simply chicken out, unnerved by fall consequences. So I am happy to be a reasonably advanced follower. Climbing is the only sport that totally and utterly focuses my mind. I am unable to ruminate on issues or even carry on a conversation when climbing. That in itself is freeing. But it also is a kind of training for all things physical because climbing asks the body to be flexible, balanced and strategic. You can’t simply possess upper body strength and muscle-it through moves; you have to plan them. Oddly enough, climbing enhances all I do even when on-air because it makes me think about how I am engaged and if I am using my body efficiently. Furthermore, climbing is the great humbler forcing me to listen to myself for signs that it’s time to quit and leave a “project” for another day.
I am happy in my boat on small lakes and rivers, but happiest in “the big lake” Gitche Gumee, Lake Superior. Kayaking has its own set of skills including paddle strokes, and “wet exits” and rescues and requires a keen sense of balance and a strong core. Using arm strength will just tire you out, so you have to engage your torso when moving and bracing. There is also the element of knowing your limits and leaving the lake when weather moves in, all good skills for a thru-hiker as she plans her day and creates a backup plan. My back and arms are much stronger from kayaking which translates to less stress wearing a pack day in and day out.
A few years ago, I was told that I had “advanced degeneration” in my left hip. It hurt so badly I could barely walk up the stairs and I thought a joint replacement was imminent. The docs administered a cortisone shot and then tried to figure out next steps with therapy. I was aghast at the cost for treatment so I hunted for ways to give myself PT and that’s when landed on Bikram Yoga. You may not be a fan of the namesake, but the practice is amazing. The premise is to heat a room to about 108 degrees and work through a series of 26 poses in the course of 90 minutes. It is extremely difficult to do correctly but has meant a world of difference to my joints. Hot yoga worked like a charm and I am pain-free from whatever locked up my hip muscle/tendon/ligament. Again, what captures me – in addition to the physical benefits – are psychological ones that yoga is a “practice.” When you bring to class an attitude of non-judgment and simply do your best, you stay in the moment and take pleasure in the surprises that await. Translated into thru-hiking it means I don’t so much seize the day and force it into my pre-conceived ideas, but I allow the day to unfold. Obviously not without planning or an assessment of what I realistically think I can accomplish, but with more of a sense of wonder and acceptance.
…So, do I “train?” or do I just “do?”
It’s hard to say. Though I wouldn’t plan to run a marathon anytime soon as that kind of continuous pounding would require more focus on the specific requirements of non-stop continuous pounding.
Maybe what I am really saying is not that I don’t want to train, but that I am not looking for an end result of a specific event – a marathon, an ultra, a fkt (ok, maybe when I’m 80 I’ll go for the record somewhere) – but rather I want more all-encompassing result – to be strong and healthy enough to keep walking and climbing and biking and paddling and stretching – as long as possible. And that’s why training for the Te Araroa is an every day thing, with each activity feeding on the physical, psychological and emotional demands that I will encounter.
When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left.
I am afraid of heights.
At least according to Ohio-based Hammock Gear, who – despite the name and mission – happily provides its superior quilts to us ground-dwellers.
I am delighted with the traditional mummy set-up I have been using for years. But lately I’ve read excellent reviews about sleeping quilts, and after a lot of nights of feeling a need for my legs to sprawl, I began to think hard about having more of a blanket over me than being swaddled in a cocoon.
At $180 for a 20-degree, extra wide, zippered-footbox, premium 800-down quilt, I thought what-the-heck and took a chance on Hammock Gear’s Burrow Econ. D-day is exactly two weeks from last night, so it was only fitting I have Olive Oyl schlepp the new purchase to the backyard, set up the alicoop and take her for a spin on a damp October night with temps dipping into the mid-30s.
First let me explain what a quilt is in the backpacking world. It looks like a traditional bag, but one that’s been sliced open like a seed pod à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That riven section actually goes beneath you. The idea is that you don’t need down under your body.
In fact, what you compress with your weight loses its warming power and, the argument goes, is wasted. Quilt-makers put all the coziness where you need it, making it a more efficient piece of gear.
I admit, climbing into my new Moroccan Blue quilt at first took a bit of trust as it was just my tender backside against my Therm-a-Rest, but in time, things came right up to temperature and I felt toasty warm.
I opted for a zippered footbox – rather than sewn – to stay flexible should temperatures rise and I want to transform my quasi-bag into a blanket. What is noticeably missing is a full zipper and a hood. This saves a lot of weight. A comparable 20-degree bag weighs nearly a third more than this 24.5 ounces of thru-hiker bliss. Less weight, less volume, less faffing about to maintain loft means a much more blissful hiker.
Hammock Gear understands that a hoodless, backless down ‘blanket’ with a box up to the knees is going to invite pockets of drafty air to any side sleeper. They recommend a wide width for tucking in, and cords to affix the quilt to your mattress. I ditched the cords, as anyone who has slept near me knows I’m a pretty fidgety sleeper, but opted to spend an extra $20 for more coverage. I am 5’7” and 135 pounds, and the quilt closed me in like a tube.
HG puts a snap at the neck and a cinch cord to seal the deal. Though no hood meant I slept wearing my beanie, a buff and down coat. I do recommend choosing bigger and wider, and depending on your temperature needs, choosing colder. 20 degrees was just right for temps hovering in the mid-30’s.
That being said, an added benefit of keeping your head out of the bag is less moisture build up to compromise the down. But the sleep system does take some getting used to. I come from the generation that was told sleeping nude in a down bag is warmer than clothed. An alternative fact created by the back-to-the-land hippy culture, no doubt, but one I seem to have a hard time shaking. With a quilt, you’ll need to sleep clothed, mostly your head and neck, but likely also your upper body. Quilts are roomy so this shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s a rethink on how you feel coziest at night.
Down is my go-to even in summer bags. It’s hands ‘down’ – pardon the pun – superior warmth to weight ratio than synthetics. Most manufacturers are using water-resistant shells these days, so keeping your down quilt dry is easier.
If you’re thinking about cutting weight, you are already on track to own an ultra-light mattress. I use the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-lite. It’s ideal for quilt-sleepers: warm, comfy and sits high so the quilt drapes over the sides and forms a seal. With hundreds of nights on this pad, I have never sprung a leak, even in the desert.
I realize it’s a one-night stand for me and the Moroccan Blue, but we’re off to a good start and she is my ‘bag’ of choice for the Te Araroa.
Specs at a glance
Weight: 24.59 oz
Length: 5’7″ to 6’2″
Temperature rating: 20 degrees
Down fill: 800
alison young purchased this quilt from Hammock Gear.