At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough.
The stars were spectacular overnight and I slept deeply in my little single bed in the Hobbit House. It’s a lazy morning on Denise’s porch – typical Kiwi with an enormous outdoor living space under a corrugated plastic roof. I lose myself in an armchair as Kačka and Kuba call home.
What a surprise this moment is. I purposely stop here to experience extended hospitality and it’s so natural and relaxed, Denise and her daughters off to school and telling us to just close the door before we leave. Scooby puts his dark chocolate nose under my free hand, nuzzling out a scratch behind the ears.
I have all morning to rest, so I call Richard, so proud of his projects and excited he’ll be here in New Zealand in a little over a month. I catch up on emails, facebook – where everyone has posted photos of deep snow – the depressing news then eat two breakfasts – isn’t that what I’m supposed to do at a hobbit home?
Denise built the wee earthen house and helps us because she believes in giving and sharing. Yes, a shower is nice and wifi, too, but most powerful is the ease of this kindness right when I needed to simply regroup.
My brother Andrew sends me a long email telling me the generosity I am receiving has restored his faith in humanity. Mine too. I have a totally different attitude after being here 3 1/2 months, one resembling ‘we’re all in this together.’
Like you, I try to relish the surprises and appreciate what the trail (say, process) gives along the way. The unkind folks just become the reference points, the “markers” if you will, for how nice others can be, and sometimes just naturally.
Denise is not wealthy, but she has something of great value to give us long distance hikers and our little group of six was filled with gratitude.
I don’t have much to pack as I left my backpack with Annie and only bring food, a jacket, phone and charger. I take a shower and prepare to leave, talking a bit longer with NOBO Tom, another Czech. Last night, he was a bit the center of attention because he packs so little and walks huge days. All that attention reminded me of a story my mom shares about me in kindergarten. I had one of those old, crusty spinsters as my teacher who made you wonder why on earth she’s be put in charge of precious developing minds. I don’t remember this happening, but apparently at a parent/teacher meeting Miss White claimed I am a liar. When my mom pressed her for details she spoke of a much cuter little girl who macraméd a little belt. I supposedly said that I also made my belt. I mean who wouldn’t when little miss blonde curls gets all the attention and boring bowl cut over here is ignored?
My mom loves the story, I suppose, because it gets right at the essence of community and competitiveness and ‘teachable moments.’ Miss White might have handled me another way not allowing me to feel so left out that I had to claim tool and dye expertise at age five.
When people ooh and ah over hikers going fast, it makes us ordinary hikers schlepping along feel pressure to stand out too. That’s why some clever person came up with the phrase “hike your own hike.”
I should mention that Czech Tom 2 is a really lovely person, not bragging or boastful at all, and very much doing his own thing. I just bring it up because I see how it affects me and my choices in carving out my story on this hike.
One thing for sure is I split off from the main crowds by stopping in Twizel. Like on the North Island when I stayed at Tidesong and Dragonspell, I may be in between hikers’ stops at the end of today – especially if I camp – so will definitely be hiking my own hike.
I am purposely leaving late to accommodate bike rental Annie’s schedule, but Tom is still hanging around, eating, showering, moving slowly. He confesses with a smile that it’s often hard to get back on the trail after relaxing. I’m floored that he too shares my emotions of nervousness, frustration, inertia. We all put on some kind of game face but most of us deal with the same emotions. His affable nature and directness help me feel more relaxed – and brave, too.
He suggests that after Queenstown, the trail will get unmaintained, tussocky and faint again and to just breathe and adopt a Zen-like attitude.
Suddenly I feel better, like I’m not alone and it really helps as I pedal away – immediately in the wrong direction. I pass bigger, fancier homes, many accommodations with no vacancy signs, but miss the homey and tumble-down comfort of Denise’s home. I realize my mistake after only a few minutes and see the fancy houses all over again when I turn back, along with Aoraki (Mt. Cook) fully out of cloud, glaciers gleaming in the bright sun.
The trail is on the road at first, I remember to ride on the left side and use my left brake for the back tires. The hills are umber, the mountains gray and the water vying with the sky for the crown at a beauty contest – both winners, just different shades of blue.
I soon follow the Ohau canal with signs warning an exotic algae, brought over from the US on a fly fisherman’s chaps, has infiltrated the system. I’ve walked on it in certain rivers, a slippery goo of green.
The day is clear and warm, but I begin to get a headwind that gets me working. I hit the lake soon and ride around it on a narrow gravel path where I’m not always certain of my balance and don’t care how I appear when I get off and walk at some junctures.
The path winds in and out of small bays, the big mountains ahead the opening act for bigger mountains, icy with glacier. I round one last bend before the wind smacks me and I see white caps. A lovely Scottish tourist meets me at a Maori statue, takes my picture and marvels I’m tackling this trail alone. She wishes me well as I find Annie’s husband Chris waiting for me.
What a mensch, rather than have me pack up the bike at his spot, he allows me the fifteen extra minutes to pedal to the trailhead so I can avoid another hour’s walk on tarmac in full sun.
I am so glad I rented a bike for two days. It was a little expensive, but the trail at this point is long, hot and dry and meant for bikers. This is a thru-hike, but unusual in that I’ve paddled kayaks and a canoe, taken speed boats and ferries and had to hitch around a massive river. To bike now feels absolutely natural. But time to say goodbye to red Trek No. 7 and do a little repacking to get in a bit of hiking today.
Denise described a camp spot next to a stream right at the end of the forest. It’s not far, and this trail is well used and easy walking, with fantastic views up the lake to the mountains.
I meet a Kiwi couple of older ladies and a French couple, the man interested in my walking the GR5 saying he was born in the hike’s terminus, Menton.
I say au revoir to them and the mountains as I head up into a beautiful beech forest, tiny brown leaves crackling underfoot.
I pass two NOBO’s who didn’t notice the camp spot, one telling me she is not enjoying the trail at all, the other saying to definetly camp in the forest because after that it’s my least favorite thing – tussock! Humpy mounds of grass and deep holes as far as the eye can see and the feet can stand.
I wonder about the unhappy one and remember Tom 2’s words to change my attitude on the awful parts. Another friend tells me to play a game with myself by acknowledging I will never have to walk that awful bit again. But I fear that will cause me to go faster and allow this once-in-a-lifetime experience to become a blur or a series of trials to simply get over and done with. Like all trails I’ve walked, this one has a feel to it and for some reason that feeling is that I will return the way I’ve come, that this isn’t one way, but an out-and-back. Maybe in that sense I should remind myself each step will not repeat.
And that attitude raises another conundrum for me, the thousands upon thousands of steps I take with some so much on autopilot, what if I forget how to step, like my fingers ‘forgot’ how to move on my flute? Of course one day I won’t be able to do this thing I’m doing now. Perhaps holding it all – good, bad and ugly – as a precious gift is the more powerful attitude to take.
Just as I see the forest ending – and right where Denise said it would be – I come upon a fire ring with logs for seats next to it, a perfect flat spot for me next to a stream of double waterfalls and a large rock I lean against as I make dinner. There’s even a table to sort my gear. It is one of the best places I’ve ever camped.
It’s a funny thing this thru-hiking business. It’s exhausting, tedious, difficult and frustrating, but I go through all of that for moments like this, ones that are deeply satisfying, but oh, so fleeting. My spot is a special gift for one night only. I have to savor its beauty right now – and keep it close in my heart and mind for my whole life – because tomorrow, I will leave it.
So this is my home for tonight: a singing stream carving its rocky path through a proud beech forest, cool, delicious air with only a few sandflies trying to land, large bright green moss-covered boulders – the one I lean on has a sort of bonsai beech growing in a crack – filtered sunlight from the open area I’ll walk tomorrow, and a crystal clear sky promising a safe crossing of the Te Araroa’s largest river tomorrow (with a bridge five km away bailout-point if not safe, I promise to be careful!)
It’s been a surprisingly rich day, one that began with a rejuvenation of my spirit in a relaxed and generous space, a bike ride through stunning beauty that brought me here, up the mountain and ends now alone in this magical place, completely at ease with myself and with what’s ahead.
My friend Micki writes,
Here are 5 things to remember when struggling emotionally:
⁃ You’re growing stronger
⁃ This will lead you to the next step on your journey
⁃ Your story is getting more interesting 🙂
⁃ This is an opportunity to go deeper
⁃ Your openness and your triumph will inspire someone else
It’s easy to sit here, as I’m feeling awesome and frankly unchallenged, to step back from the struggle and pretend those five steps follow one after another neatly and that I will come out in the end with definitive answers about who I am and what my journey looks like.
But I know I can’t promise that I won’t complain about tussock or whimper when I come to that river crossing tomorrow or become totally helpless when organizing my next resupply or push myself too hard to play with the ‘cool hikers,’ or become maudlin and self-pitying when blindsided but someone mean. But at least I can embrace my humanity and fragility and go easy on myself when those eventualities kick into gear. Perhaps it’s just awareness – like knowing I’ll have days on the trail like today and some, shall we say, less like today – and allowing that to be how it goes because I can’t control that part, only the part that is my reaction.
My brother Andrew deals with it by expecting less and appreciating more. It’s a tiny bit too cynical for me, but something resonates in his philosophy when exquisite moments appear, I need to fully embrace them. I like the mantra not of ‘seize the day’ but ‘let the day unfold.’ It has less an air of entitlement and expectation, and one of discovery and serendipity – and isn’t that what this hike is all about?