I’m having trouble sleeping as my birthday winds down. So many gifts of good weather, astonishing scenery, strong legs and decent track. But I feel lonely just now – and maybe a bit foolish, this woman now in her mid-fifties all on her own trying to recapture her youth.
Tom said something yesterday about missing love while hiking this trail. He has his eye on a certain female walker, but what he’s referring to in this case is the deep connection of his family and friends. I too miss the solid and tender person I married who always keeps me balanced and focused. Out here on my own, I’m a little bit lost.
Marko gave me a beautiful greeting and kissed both my cheeks at the bar last night and the others wished me well. But we’re separated by years and language. We had little to say to each other outside of trail talk. I felt a little emptied out and especially odd standing at the bar buying myself my own birthday beer.
The young American traveling the world who joined us, so sure of himself and his destiny, is a nice person but he gave me pause. I don’t really have the kind of self confidence he possesses. In fact, I have often been afraid to travel, like I’m in way over my head or haven’t got the street smarts to handle things out of my comfort zone. Here, I’m walking well and loving what I’m experiencing on the trail, but a disorienting uncertainty hovers over each day as if I’m missing something and what’s in front of me is slightly out of focus.
I guess it doesn’t help that the German ‘working holiday’ gal running this place is up all night with her friends. It is 4:00 am and they’re marching up and down the halls talking, then banging around in the kitchen right next to my room. When I asked a third time to please keep it down, they said they are being totally quiet and doing nothing. Except waking me up. I’m too old for this shit. Who stays up all night? Is this part of the job? The town is dead quiet, it didn’t occur to me I needed ear plugs to allow me to rest and protect me from the proprietor’s racket. Richard tells me some days are like the farmer who took me out on the Polaris and some are knee-deep mud. A good attitude to adopt, for sure.
The sky is clear and it’s crackling cold. Mist rises in the Erua forest as a Maori man catches up with his tiny dog. He says you get used to the cold but it will warm up. A couple of red tailed deer crash through the forest. I begin descending into lush forest, folded on itself up the hillsides and towering in the distance, Mt Taranaki as if a child’s rendition of a mountain in the distance – perfectly conical and snowcapped.
The cliffs above me are heaving with life, ferns and myriad plants spilling into the trail. The air is redolent of bush, fresh. A family of wild goats scurries across the track for cover.
I round a corner and look back to say goodbye to Mt. Ruapehu, brilliant in the sun. The forest is different as I head south. Kauri are long in the past. The hillsides are covered with mounds of small ferns, palms jut out with their Sideshow-Bob hairdos, and gnarled trees almost familiar to my eyes. This grassy track seems to float above the deep valley. All is open to enjoy on this, one of my favorite mornings.
My knee jerk reaction is to tell Tom as he catches me about last night. But the wiser alison thinks better of it. The German girl was generous giving me a single room for a decent price, a towel and shampoo. She likely has no idea how her behavior affects others. It wasn’t personal and I am, quite literally, walking away to something better.
Alexis catches me at a difficult to open gate. Funny how timing seems to click so often on this trail. A very wise person once said, “The goal of life is not happiness, peace or even fulfillment, but aliveness.” I am hung over from lack of sleep, but alive this morning feeling the good and the bad fully. It does help to have what David calls a ‘balcony’ track, where you can see everything from a perch.
We reach a country lane through the gorgeous upper Retaruke valley and walk together briefly, then split off to eat. Storm clouds build so I won’t linger, hoping to get the alicoop in place before the hoses are turned on again.
A thru-hike has the advantage of allowing you to renew yourself. Things that happen in the first weeks, the first months, can be rectified, left behind, or entirely forgotten. The story can have a different ending. The heroine can live happily ever after. I pack up from my peaceful spot and head towards a war memorial where it’s rumored there’s nice camping with drinking water and toilets.
Indeed, this spot is a dream, a grassy idyll surrounded by hills, birds, and barnyard noises, sheep polka dot the steep hillsides. The alicoop is up with me in it and the rain is smacking the top, a perfect lullaby. We all gather at a huge rock picnic table. The afternoon is too hot, but eventually recedes and we all bring out our food piles, cooking ramen and couscous, nutella and tuna. Unlike last night, there’s a wonderful relaxed feeling of old friends.
The clouds surround us, brilliantly lit by the setting sun in orange, pink and purple as the wind picks up and I don’t quite want to let it go. My beautiful hiking day ends as one of my most favorite so far with an assortment of walkers from around the world all here for different reasons, but earnest and generous as we share a moment.
Again, I am deeply blessed.