Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do. With your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver
Sleep did not come easily. I was wound up with all the fever-pitch responses to my facebook query about the weather moving in and if I should move on. I came up with a plan to meet my friend Tom on Sunday and in the meantime hang out with Steve and Maggie until things clear, but something just didn’t sit right with this decision.
So I am up way too late and awake at my usual time, before dawn still worrying the decision to wait or move. At 8:00 I call the DOC office. A woman answers and seems totally relaxed. “The weather is so changeable in New Zealand,” she says and indicates it’ll be windy with rain starting at 4. “If it were me, I’d just keep walking.”
And I suddenly realize why things didn’t sit well. What’s going on in the mountains isn’t a storm with a beginning and an end. It’s more just the kind of activity that happens in the mountains – especially ones smack dab in the center of a long thin island. If I try to ‘wait it out’ it could be weeks and it’s just not that severe.
So I write Richard, call Steve – who also is pretty low key about it all – let Tom know I’m heading out and he, too, seems fine with my getting underway, change into my tramping outfit and head to the trail.
Tom is off trail because he picked up giardia and needed to see a doctor. The symptoms hit him hard at the hut just below the pass where I intend to hike. He told me the trail is easy, slowly heading up a valley along the Travers River. But first I walk along beautiful Lake Rotoiti, a long mitten of a lake nestled into huge mountains.
I am committed and moving fast along superb track, but nagged whether moving into the teeth of a gale was the best idea. I tell myself to live with my choice and ‘lean in’ for lack of a better phrase; just go with it and enjoy what comes.
I think of poet Mary Oliver who I learn has just died. I remember being so deeply inspired reading her question of what I will do with my one wild and precious life. I know sitting out adventure is not on my list. Living fully – and maybe a bit wild – is. Besides, what mountains don’t have a bit of drama?
The Lakehead track is a super highway with roots and rocks and huge spillways of detritus from the peaks now and again. It’s popular with families hoping to stay in a hut but not work too hard. Several pass me as I whizz by, managing very small children.
Once I reach the hut, I use the long drop housed in a metal building like an extra large pez dispenser. When I come out, one more person is at the hut and I see it’s Charley! Such joy to run into him. I had only just asked the trail goddess for a little sign that all was well with my hiking up here today and his presence takes all my tension away. We talk a bit then walk at our own pace quietly. It’s not as though he’s looking out for me, but knowing he’s giving it a go takes away the edge.
The trail takes a new name – Upper Travers Valley as we wind in and out of beech forest, golden grasses and more boulder fields. There are a few stream crossings, but I stay dry as the sun peaks out and the clouds part revealing blue sky.
Across a one-person-only swing bridge, three backpacking Kiwis lounge with lunch, all smiles and relaxed. I am definitely not alone in this valley as three teenagers lope past me and I overtake a lone tramper.
John Tait hut is huge and filled with all sorts of people – some old, some young – no one at all concerned with the weather. I sign the intentions book and write in the box for ‘conditions,’ partly sunny. Certainly my wish as we grab more water, eat food and push on toward the saddle.
Along here I notice signs for avalanche paths. Only active May – November, these are areas where hikers mustn’t dawdle and are told to carry a beacon. I see some evidence of a slip – boulders and tree trunks – but all is calm now.
Met Service got one thing right – rain started like clockwork at 4, but it’s light drizzle and I don’t bother putting on my raincoat. The trail is a bit steeper climbing up waterfalls and rapids, but nothing as dramatic as the Richmond Range.
So we move fast and I know a DOC estimate of 3 1/2 hours is going to take us two. Charley stops to put on his raincoat as things get a bit wetter and I tell him we’re close. Just as we top the rise, we see the hut.
And the rain gets heavier. Perfect timing. We come inside only to be told water has to be collected at the stream, so stay bundled up to fill up before heading into a huge, beautiful and new hut greeted by Kačka, Kuba and Kiwi Russell – a grandfather of seven and hiking novice walking the entire TA and writing about all he’s learned to share with his young ones. Things like – to get where I need to go starts with one step.
We all get along so well and are so happy to give this crossing a go, no matter the weather. A German volunteer hut warden named Toby shows up and adds more color to the group. He checks our hut passes then reads the weather – rain eases in morning, gale with severe gale in exposed areas, nice spells in afternoon before rain returns in evening.
Russell scoffs that it’s meaningless. What is meant by morning, for instance or ‘nice spells?’ He tells us the weather service has bern exaggerating ever since they got in trouble when some young people were caught out in a storm. “These are just squally showers,” he says and all he’ll do is look outside and then go out in it.
Kačka is a bit more nervous, like me, but we see the wisdom in his relaxed manner. Put on the rain gear, have warm layers at the ready and just take your time.
Besides, there are bound to be those ‘nice spells’ at some point like today when the sun came out and lit up the forest like a magic lantern.
Right now the wind is howling, each gust rattling the hut. But I am cozy on the bunk and surrounded by friends. What more could I possibly ask for?