As much as I love the alicoop, it is so nice to sleep in a bed – though my dreams were filled with memories of mud and tussock fueled by a wee hangover. Tea and eggs get me out the door as Ian takes me back to where I left off, but not without grabbing a bright orange, high-vis vest from work for me to wear in the final stage of road walking.
It’s a beautiful morning. The tide is out and fog lingers on the estuary. Cold, but happy, I promise my Whanganui friends Rob and George I’ll smile today and it feels effortless. Four types of water fowl live in this former dumping ground for Invercargill’s sewage – birds that float and birds on stilts, the divers and the dippers, with butts high up in the air. Thick crewcuts of salt grass stand erect in circles surrounded by mud. Two men at a bench ask if I’m off to Bluff for some oysters – and come to think of it, I am.
This last day’s walk is easy on a gravel bike path. With any ending, there’s a desire to use the time to tie things up, to make sense of the story and to be intentional about what I’ve learned. I guess for starters, I’ve learned I’m someone who wants to tie things up and make sense of the story, and maybe too soon, before things have had time to season. As bicyclists pass me with a “G’day!” and the simplicity of this walk feels enough, I make a mental list.
Number one, I’m not an easy-going person. For example, the trail winding down ought to be a cause for celebration, but my mind jumps forward to my visit to Stewart Island tomorrow and I feel anxious not having everything planned out. Though it’s funny that I turn out to be far more of a big picture person. I eventually get myself dirty in the trenches with details, but I’m easily overwhelmed at the outset, preferring to have a sense of how things will go to any actually planning.
But this trail taught me that method works and to take one day at a time, allowing the future to remain a bit vague. I should say this is a skill I’ve learned from radio where being in the moment is valued, while staying abreast of deadlines and knowing when to put certain things aside helps keep all the plates spinning.
The path takes me to the local sewage treatment facility where a sign warns there will be some odor, though having spelled it ‘odour’ seems somehow less awful. Right next door is an animal control center.
Of course I discover as I walk that I am capable of completing a long-distance thru-hike. I have what it takes pretty much goes without saying at this point. I can set my tent anywhere I need to, and I find out I’m – at least physically – stronger than I think.
But I wear my heart on my sleeve and cry easily. Ian tells me he doesn’t get hurt. He just decided one day that’s how it was going to be and so it is. I am not sure I am capable of that control, but I appreciate having a friend who can show me some ropes because I hold onto slights and hurt feelings far too long. Ian has a bit of a gruff exterior, but is actually a very sensitive and kind person, even if he did make up words to an Eagles song last night that poked fun at me setting the alicoop in the wind like a bad circus act.
The last day of the Te Araroa has been called everything from anticlimactic to words unfit to print. The road ahead is over 20 kilometers walking into Bluff. I’m mentally prepared, but that’s a poor way to bring things to a close. I realize all experiences in life, whether the final day of a 3,000 kilometer odyssey or just another Thursday at work, is what we make it. There’s a lot of power in knowing we ultimately decide how to react, how to feel, how to live with what’s given us.
But that doesn’t mean we have to take it on alone. I definitely need cheerleaders and this hike brought that sharply into focus. I joked with one of my friends once that I’d be the first hostage bumped off. I show my emotions and my neediness to the point of exasperation for some, I’m sure. But what I’m not sure of is if I can rein in that aspect of my character. That being said, I promise not to be abducted! Also to surround myself with people I trust and avoid those who don’t have my best interest at heart.
I recall a story my mother shares about a time when she was young and married to my father. As a minister and not able to afford the fees, he talked his way into an honorary membership at an exclusive country club called Waccabuc. One evening, while waiting in a buffet line, my mother and another woman were approached by a very drunk older man who began talking loudly and rudely. My mother tried to handle the situation while the other woman simply turned her back on him. Mom says she wished she had this woman’s self assurance – more likely a combination of good breeding and a sense of entitlement. To this day, when we have to turn our backs on a situation, we call it ‘waccabuccing.’
As I think of that place though, I remember spending a few weeks the summer I was five at day camp. My family was not in that social class and perhaps the other girls of the ‘Bluebirds’ knew that or saw me as different, I don’t know, but they shunned me. I recall wearing dragon cutouts around our necks as we sang ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ for our families on the final camp day. I loved singing but the build up to that sweet performance was nothing but mean little girls ganging up on the odd one. I don’t know if there’s a connection, but I never learned to swim. I somehow managed moving through water without sinking during my test, until I saw my brothers on the dock and tried to get their attention. “Look at me! I’m in the deep water,” as I inhaled whole mouthfuls of water, the older man swimming alongside me coldly telling me it would be better if I stayed in the shallow area.
Did I ever bully anyone, I wonder looking now on this road for shade so I can rest my feet and eat a snack. In seventh grade, we were all a bit meaner with periods of shutting out one unlucky girl after another. I said – and wrote – awful things about a new student, Elani Xanthakos – what a name that was for me to laugh at. Elani was a big Greek girl, already filled out and requiring a special-order gym uniform. I was a stick figure and must have felt hot embarrassment by how fast some of us were changing. The irony is Elani could have cared less that I poked fun. She was one of the most grounded individuals I have known in my life. It was obvious – even to me then – that she was loved and was happy with herself. I was surprised a person had options in the way they chose to see themselves in the world. I have always wanted to be more like Elani than the person I was at that time.
The road I’m walking has a decent sized shoulder and I don’t feel hemmed in by the traffic, including the massive trucks hauling logs on a kind of fold-out trailer. A fertilizer plant adds a rich aroma to the air as I step over a half dozen squashed possums. A cyclist passes congratulating me on the walk and telling me he’s ridden the South Island and now needs to ride home to Dunedin. He’s topped by the next cyclist finishing the island and riding all the way back to Nelson.
When I arrive at the water, I decide to have another break and eat the entire bag of sweet tomatoes from Ian’s garden. Bluff is coming into view and I wave at every driver.
I tend to push myself hard because I generally have a lot of energy. But I can push too far and when I hit the wall, I hit it hard. I need to learn to pace myself and ‘hike my own hike’ in all things, listening to myself more and comparing myself to others less.
I sing the Ode to Joy in time to my steps and think of a long walk’s parallel with life’s journey – equal parts glorious and spectacular and tedious and boring. Overall, this walk has been filled with wondrous surprises sprinkled with tremendous generosity and care from complete strangers that leaves me awestruck. I wonder if I can ever give out what I have received.
Soon I arrive in Bluff, a sign telling me not the population, but its establishment in 1824. I take selfies at the cool riveted metal sign atop a carpet of oyster shells. The orange triangle points to a loop trail that’s been closed, so I walk through town towards the terminus at Stirling Point – right past an oyster wholesaler, where I stop for a dozen grade A and eat them right away with a toothpick.
Bluff is a port city, a cross between Superior and Galveston. It’s bustling, but unglamorous, houses climbing the hill looking down on a main street above the docks. Public art lines the way as well as signs for the big oyster festival coming up long after I’m back home. As I move more into the heart of the city, art galleries and funky shops like Oyster Allsorts pop up. I meet another cyclist who tells me four more hikers are behind me, and take note of an inexpensive Backpackers and a pub.
This street is a testament to my longing to discover and not so much achieve. I dawdle on my way to the end, savoring the moment as I pass the campground and the more expensive neighborhood, all houses looking out to sea.
I come up a small rise and there it is, the famous yellow sign with arrows pointing to all corners of the earth – including New York where I was born and Cape Reinga where this walk began. I let out a whoop and say, “I did it!” just as a truck pulls up beside me – and it’s Ian driving!
I can hardly believe it! Ian just decided to come down from Invercargill and share the finish. He tells me he read Neil’s comment that he wished he could meet me with a bottle of champagne, but it’s way too far away for him, and Ian thought, but I’m not that far. I am so deeply touched. It just makes the end that much sweeter.
Ian won’t allow me to take his photo and now says people will think he’s imaginary, but he takes plenty of me. A German man comes out of the restaurant to congratulate me and an American gives me a boost so I can hang off the New York arrow. It feels so perfect.
Before he heads back, Ian drives me to the top of the hill and the view is phenomenal of my walk this morning, the town below, and Stewart Island, like a watercolor, overtaken by storm.
We say our goodbyes, though just for a few days as I’ll stop by on my way north. I head into Allsorts to have something to drink and that’s when Peter walks in to ask the proprietor Hannah if she can watch his son Elijah tonight. I’m not sure why it felt right, but I said I would be happy to babysit if he might allow me to camp on his lawn.
I imagine I sound a bit nutty, but it is exactly what I want to do tonight. Eli is a delightfully bright seven-year-old. We watch a silly movie, do math flash cards and I read with him all about Star Wars droids. Peter makes us pasta before heading out on the tugboat for his three hour shift.
I really didn’t want to talk about the trail experience with much younger hikers I don’t know, preferring to just be in my own creative head space. There’s also something wonderfully fulfilling about being around a young person with his whole life ahead of him. It’s also nice to be indoors, even if their very old house is in the midst of being made livable. The wind is blowing hard and rain is coming down. I feel like I’m staying in a welcoming hut.
Again, my day took twists and turns I didn’t anticipate. It unfolded in its own time, offering me a long stretch to think about how this incredible experience has affected me – and in which ways I hope to be changed by it. This walk is done, but my walk continues.