The Pee Rag ❤︎ Unfiltered Tales of the Blissful Hiker
Thank you for listening! I’d be ETERNALLY grateful if you could RATE and REVIEW The Pee Rag on Apple Podcasts. By doing so, you help others like yourself find the show! As always, feel free to leave a comment below. ~alison
episode 6 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker awakens to a cacophonous symphony of birdsong, puts on her muddy socks and shoes and walks right back into soul-sucking mud.
- A walk across a farm and road walk take her to a hamburger.
- A rainy night at Apple Dam teaches her how to pack up a damp campsite.
- Trail angels and curious sites keep her company on an easy walk.
- A sidetrip to see magnificent Kauri remind her that she is exactly where she needs to be – walking the Te Araroa.
MUSIC: Poema del Pastor Coya by Angel Lasala as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
A symphony of birdsong awakens me in the Raetea Forest, a cushion of grass my mattress and just enough water left for breakfast. My shoes and socks are caked with the stuff and I’m putting off placing my feet in them for as long as possible. Out of the forest, through a farm, then onto road. This is one of the major complaints about the Te Araroa.
It’s really not that bad as the road slowly climbs up, the Mangamuka Dairy right at the top of this hill. Apple Dam Camp is another wide grassy spot in the bush and it rained all night long. Waking up in rain is absolutely depleting. Ask any thru-hiker and they will likely tell you that it’s not the rain itself that’s the problem – it’s packing in rain.
I pass pastel colored bee boxes in uneven stacks, buzzing workers swarming the white flowered manuka nearby. A slow moving vehicle crawls closer and two hunters lean out to ensure I take the right turn at the next fork. Even though it’s midday, I pose my standard question, “Do you have a beer you could sell me?”
Only moments to the end, I break off from the rest and take a detour to Manginangina. This moment here, right now is magic, holy, like walking into a cathedral. Muir Woods of Australasia.
Aside from needing to find water and places to camp, the “getting there” aspect was pretty much absent. My walking became an act for its own sake. The continuous, rhythmic perambulation, and my own company and observations, brought me to the present moment of my feet very simply walking on this earth.
And you know what? That’s precisely why I came here.
A symphony of birdsong awakens me in the Raetea Forest, a cushion of grass my matress and just enough water left for breakfast. We spent the night below the summit of Umaumokaroo, not able to make it out of the forest before dark. The views were few and far between, closed in by the lush, overgrown bush. Before I went to bed, I used nearly every wet wipes in my possession to get the mud off my body before crawling into my sleeping bag for what turned out to be a chilly night. But my shoes and socks are caked with the stuff and I’m putting off placing my feet in them for as long as possible.
Ultralighters turn their noses up at any luxury, but there’s no way I’d skimp on camp shoes. Mine are a pair of fake crocs I found at Goodwill. I think there was actually a lawsuit surrounding this brand of gardening clog, as if rubber slip-ons can be trademarked.
They’re slightly too small, and I had the bright idea I could stretch them just by wearing them around the house. What I found out was 1. That doesn’t work and 2. You actually can stretch them by putting them in the dryer for three minutes and then putting them on, boiling hot, after you’ve put on two pairs of thick socks. It worked like a dream, and I have these Frankenstein stretched out clogs on now as I eat breakfast and pack up Olive Oyl, my drab-colored backpack.
I did one other smart thing I realize on this glorious, sunny morning. I quit drinking coffee before the trip. I’m one of those people who’s easily addicted to caffeine and will suffer headaches should I miss my morning joe. Without the addiction, there’s no need to fuss with a cooked breakfast and I can simply grab a few bars and be on my way.
But yes, I’m stalling. I just can’t face my shoes and socks. Sure, I could put on my spare socks, but then I’d have two sodden pair and it’s kind of nice to have a fresh pair to sleep in.
The Nike ad runs through my head, ‘Just do it!’ Irene pokes out of her tent, surprised I’m up so early, reminding me we still have a few hours to walk with a whole lot more mud ahead.
Ha! And you thought I was having a nice walk in the forest?
She also reminds me that when we come out, a burger awaits, at the Dairy – or convenient store – but it’s only open until noon, so we gotta get going. Food, the greatest motivator of this Blissful Hiker and perhaps any long distance hiker and the socks go on, cold and clammy and then the shoes, only five days, but they’re already getting broken in.
And I’m off, slowly working my way towards farmland. It’s no less muddy here – and slow going – but fences appear, a stile, four abalone shells nailed to a tree and a giant, random, cast iron kettle hanging on a nail.
Irene is right, there’s still mud, and it’s worse this morning. A halfway-up-calves soul-destroying indignity of ooze. Then, I fall down flat on my bum with a loud “Noooooo!” Mud and wet oozes into my panties. Will this forest ever end?
Invasive gorse lines the trail reaching out to scratch me. I’m proud of choosing to hike in long sleeves and long pants, even though wet and muddy. And then, all of a sudden, the forest ends. Opening to fields and hills beyond. A trail of dried cow-pies welcome me to a gentle slope, their recent owners returning my “moo!” A horse lets me stroke her soft, redolent face.
Soon a farm track appears, and the heavy caked mud falls off my feet with every step. About a dozen dogs begin barking when I’m still 10 minutes up the hill. It’s long strides now to the sweet camping area I’d hoped to reach last night, asking only for koha, or donations. I work my way down the riverbank and step gingerly into the gentle current. The mud is as thick as gumbo, so I sit down, fully clothed to scrape it off.
Out of the forest, through a farm, then onto road. This is one of the major complaints about the Te Araroa. There’s not too much that can be done about it in some areas, as it’s the only way through. The trouble is the roads have very little verge, leaving little margin for error. And it also seems the drivers either have no idea what we’re doing here – or don’t care.
Really? You needed to pass that guy right there only centimeters from flattening me? Nice. Thank a lot! OK, calm down. Only a few more k to a hamburger, and don’t forget to face traffic. Walk on the right.
It’s really not that bad as the road slowly climbs up, the Mangamuka Dairy right at the top of this hill. I make it just in time. Richard and Jane who also crowded into the grassy area last night along with Rowan and Rebecca and Irene all catching up, our phones charging on top of a freezer of frozen pizzas
The owners are not crazy about us visiting even though we all eat extra large burgers and “thick shakes” – something we might call milk shakes in the U.S. When I ask to fill my water bottle, I’m told to use a hose out back and I decide instead to push on ahead and find a stream.
Irene and I walk together up lovely Omuhatu Road towards more forest. We clambor down under a bridge to fill our bottles and take a swim in the deep pool. A farmer comes to the gate with a dog perched on back of his 4×4. He tells me she’s called Penelope. When I say her name, she leaps off to come for a hello, until he whistles her back to work, bringing in the cows for milking. Another fellow comes by in a motorbike; muddy boots, long gators and shorts. He’s a Milk Sharer, owns the cattle but borrows the land. Woofers, he explains, would be those working the land for a room and board.
Soon we turn back into the forest. Signs everywhere tell us to stay on the track to avoid spreading Kauri Dieback. Irene talks to me about her relationships with family members, some controlling, some impossible. She says she has broad shoulders. Some see her cool and aloof, but she doesn’t feel that. She’s just too busy with own life to get drawn into drama. I wish I had some of Irene in me.
Up and up we go through magnificent Kauri, but on this forest track we can walk and talk and see our next foot placement. This peaceful forest at 4:00 is quite the contrast from last night’s panic to find a suitable grassy bit as the sun went down.
A sign points to “the giant stump” which is a bit of a let down. I can’t tell if what I see is blocking the true giant stump, but one look past into the muddy darkness brings on a kind of muddy forest PTSD and sends me back to the track and towards tonight’s camp spot.
Apple Dam Camp is another wide grassy spot in the bush. Belgium Bram and Aussie Ondi are camping here already and I set close by before heading to the perfect little washing stream, cool on my tired feet as I scrub out the last of the thick pasty mud in my socks. It’s just after 5:00 and still light, but I’m so tired, I’m out like a light.
The morning at Apple Dam was not a good one. My gear worked splendidly, keeping me dry and warm, but it rained all night long. Waking up in rain is absolutely depleting. Ask any thru-hiker and they will likely tell you that it’s not the rain itself that’s the problem – it’s packing in rain.
It’s an intricate dance of putting on rain gear and trying to keep everything dry as I slowly pack it up, my sleeping quilt and clothes in water proof bags and myself in water proof rain gear. But honestly, it’s more the getting up that’s the problem, that initial sitting up and committing to moving ahead with my day.
What works for me is to first let the air out of the mattress. It sends a signal to my subconscious that there’s no going back. And the next steps become inevitable – rolling up and stuffing the mattress with my tiny blowup pillow, stuffing the quilt and placing every small item I’ve taken out of bags through the night back into their compartments. I really take so little with me on a thru-hike, it’s not hard to keep track. That being said, a thru-hiker needs to be cognizant of the whereabouts of all things, since each item serves a purpose and is hardly extraneous. To lose something could be mildly catastrophic.
I crawl out of the tent backwards, rump first, my head last trying to keep my hands dry. Once I’m up, it’s not so hard to keep the momentum going. I feel ok since the distance is only about 13 miles today. But then Irene spills out of her tent and says we got that wrong, it’s actually over 20.
Buck up buttercup, the bush walk is closed and the whole day is on a forest track. This will not be hard walking.
And it’s not. It’s more like a long walk up Summit Avenue in Saint Paul where I live. One foot in front of the other, forward motion from point A to point B. Wait, didn’t I say that about the Ninety Mile Beach?
Of course, when it’s just a walk without much challenge, my mind wanders and I begin ruminating about home and work and the life I’ve left behind. I wanted and needed so much to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit if I gave a long distance thru-hike a try. Was it worth it? I feel sort of silly traveling to the other side of the earth just to skirt the bush by walking a road, even if it’s nearly completely void of traffic.
I pass pastel colored bee boxes in uneven stacks, buzzing workers swarming the white flowered manuka nearby. A slow moving vehicle crawls closer and two hunters lean out to ensure I take the right turn at the next fork. Even though it’s midday, I pose my standard question, “Do you have a beer you could sell me?” They hunt around in the backseat and offer me a wild turkey. I grimace, fearing a hunk of meat will be handed to me. Instead it’s a bottled cocktail of real Kentucky bourbon and soda. I thank my trail angel friends and wave as they depart in a cloud of dust.
So now with a drink in hand, I look for a place to have lunch, sending out to the universe three wishes for shade, a backrest and a view. Within ten minutes, a perfect spot appears under palms looking out across rolling green mountains dotted with forest. I drink my Wild Turkey with a lunch of salami and cheese just as Irene rounds the corner singing ‘Funky Town’ at the top of her lungs.
The four of us leapfrog all afternoon towards the Puketi Forest and good camping. Slowly descending the ridge, the shadows get longer, and tuis, drunk on fermented berries, chortle from the Kauris.
Only moments to the end, I break off from the rest and take a detour to Manginangina. It’s one of the only remaining subtropical rainforests in Taitokerau or Northland. Since the time of the colonists, only 3% of this vast forest remains, a place that kiwi, bats and kauri snails call home.
Keeping the trees safe, I have a boardwalk, a blessed boardwalk above the mud and roots, allowing me to take it all in. The cool and fresh pungency overwhelm me as I come upon a giant Kauri, hundreds of years old. A fat trunk in soft gray holds huge arms aloft creating a kind of crown. It would take 12 blissful hikers arms outstretched to hug this beast.
She grew solo, her family just below in a circular cluster, living, as they are wont to do, right in the heart of a swamp. Vines creep up their leathery, moss-covered bark with protruding Dr. Seussian heads.
Nearby a sign explains how hard foresters work to eradicate invasives – rats, stoats and – as cute as they might be – possums. I’ve heard and seen their prey – tui, kereru – a type of pigeon, tirairaka – the fantail and miromiro or tomtit.
An ecosystem of 200 species, one of the most diverse in the world. Kauri are conifers so no wonder it feels like Jurassic Park in here. They came of age with dinosaurs. This moment here, right now is magic, holy, like walking into a cathedral. Muir Woods of Austral-Asia.
It’s hard to say goodbye, but the coolness and birdsong as well as my own sense of wonder follow me the final kilometer to camp.
The alicoop is up fast, right before a brief downpour moves in, then quickly dries up in brilliant sunshine.
I know I promised last week that I’d take you as far as the Bay of Islands. But I didn’t quite make it. The trail, if you can even call it a trail, was easy mostly on mud-free farm track and I really should have just gotten ahead. But what surprised me was that even when moving seemed effortless, the nourishing work of my soul still happened – and actually caused me to savor this section, a lot. I saw beautiful things. And mostly, except for the final forest, on a more subtle level. Aside from needing to find water and places to camp, the “getting there” aspect was pretty much absent. My walking became an act for its own sake. The continuous, rhythmic perambulation, and my own company and observations, brought me to the present moment of my feet very simply walking on this earth.
And you know what? That’s precisely why I came here.
episode 5 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- On only day 5, the Blissful Hiker cheats and allows her friend of a friend of a friend Peter to drive her past the road walk section.
- She enters real New Zealand bush, the Raetea Forest, which begins easily, but then plunges her straight into epic mud.
- She hears the R2D2 squawk song of a Tui for the first time
- She gets lost for a moment, but soon finds a wide grassy part of the trail to set her tent.
- She learns about plunging straight through difficult passages, never making assumptions and always looking for the beauty around her.
MUSIC: Impresiones de la Puna by Alberto Ginastera as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
Does it count if cheating wasn’t my idea? Peter wonders if I’d “betray the mission” by having him drive me to the next town because the Te Araroa Trust had to divert the trail due to Kauri dieback.
The Ninety Mile Beach felt deserted, remote and lonely, and it’s not an understatement to say I feel culture shock pulling into the massive parking lot of an equally massive box store called Pak’nSav to pick up a few items for the coming days.
We bump and lurch up the Takahue Saddle Road to the Mangamuka Route. The air is cool and fresh, the smell so different now – sweetly pungent, earthy and moist.
But then he points to my left, to a tiny opening in the thick foliage. That’s the way? In there? It’s a trail about a meter wide aggressively cutting up the mountain now; straight up.
The mud is thick and sticky, wet and slippery. Roots crisscross the path and I learn quickly not to try and balance on them as a means to avoid the mud, because they’re worse than the mud, greasy and unstable.
Irene and I are quiet in our thoughts and then she says, “A tui!” I hear a few bell-like sounds amidst clicks, cackles, creaks, groans and wheezes more like R2D2 than any bird I’d ever heard. I learn later tuis can sound like two birds because of their bifurcated sound-producing organ called a syrinx.
The afternoon gives way and the light begins to change, warming to a deep orange the tall Rimu covered in Dr. Seussian epicytes and long, black tendrilly, supplejack. A wooden sign points to Makene Road one way and TA SOBO (or southbound) the other with the encouraging words, “Only 2,850 kilometers to go!”
We press on, knowing we’ll have to spend the night in this forest and no matter what, it’s got to be that grassy area. “This doesn’t feel right.” Irene says, checking her app to see if there’s any indication of the right way.
Best idea of the day because just beyond the blowdown, hidden by branches and ferns fanning out is an orange triangle pointing down. What about this day, I think. What has it taught me? To just plow through the tough stuff and not care if you get dirty. To never assume and to look and listen for all the beauty around you, even if you’re tired and uncertain you’ll find a flat place to camp.
That’s the wonder of hiking, that you really, truly have to let go – of expectations, of being hard on yourself, of having to do things in the right way because sometimes the day just gets away from you and you have to improvise.
I admit it. I cheated.
Yup, right at the very beginning, on day five.
I’m attempting to walk the entire length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa, a thru-hike that should take me five months to complete, and I’ve already skipped a section.
But let’s be fair, everyone cheats at least a little on this massive trail, one that’s less an actual trail than an idea, and the part I skipped is all on road.
Does it count if cheating wasn’t my idea? I’m staying with a friend of a friend of a friend, a lovely retired doctor who is beloved up here in the far, far north. Peter’s home overlooks Ahipara Bay, and it was a quiet evening just for two drinking wine under the olive trees, my tent, the alicoop drying on his lush lawn in between rain showers, a pork belly dinner, lots of conversation and finally singing for one another.
He wondered last night if I’d “betray the mission” by having him drive me to the next town because the Te Araroa Trust had to divert the trail onto nearly 28 kilometers – or 17 miles – of hot tarmac, five k of which they suggest – or rather, require – the hiker hitch a ride because it’s all too dangerous.
Other issues have intruded too, like I already need to resupply at the store in the next town, Kaitaia and Irene, my Kiwi friend who brought me from the airport to the start of the trail and with whom I’ve walked with so far, already hitched a ride to town. If I insist up on being resolute in walking this “section” – in big air quotes – I’d likely be walking on my own.
A bit of background here: the route has been diverted because the first of four Northland forests has been closed. The reason is the trees are dying. Kauris are massive conifers with a girth to rival American Sequoias. They’re ancient, dating back to the Jurassic period, with a beautiful, flaky bark that hinders parasitic plants, and massive branches – though tiny leaves – that dominate the forest canopy.
For this dendrologist wannabe tree enthusiast, Kauris are magnificent. So it’s with great sorrow that they are being brought down by a microscopic fungus. Phytophthora agathidicida or Kauri dieback moves through soil from tree to tree, carried on the bottom of a tramper’s shoes. It only takes a pinhead’s worth to spread the fungus, so why take a chance?
The Herekino Forest is closed to all, yet the Raetea Forest is still open and that’s where I’m headed this morning in Peter’s Range Rover. He throws my pack in the boot, then heaves his own pack in after lacing up his boots, planning to join us for at least the first few hours in completely new terrain.
The road is narrow and winding as we head inland, away from the blowing sand on Ninety Mile Beach, and in towards vivid green pastureland, cows lining up on the verge to cross when there’s a break in traffic. Kiwis drive fast and always seem delighted to be out in their beautiful country, Peter shouting over the whine of the SUV to point out a Marae or meeting house of local Maori.
The Ninety Mile Beach felt deserted, remote and lonely, and it’s not an understatement to say I feel culture shock pulling into the massive parking lot of an equally massive box store called Pak’nSav to pick up a few items for the coming days. Peter grabs his own trolley as we synchronize shop, the bulk section of nuts and candy as delightfully decadent as walking into Willy Wonka’s factory.
We settle up and get moving again to pick up Irene at her friend’s house and Peter tells me with a grin that the shop keepers gave him a bit a sideways look wondering who his “young woman friend” is shopping so early in the morning. Ha! Let ‘em talk! Peter lost his wife about a year and a half ago and is just about ready to try dating again. He tells me there’s a kind of “Tinder for People over Seventy” in the community. He’s such a lovely person, they’ll be fightin’ over him.
We find Irene high up on a hill, a cluster of homes nestled in with a few barnyard creatures roaming about and views to the surrounding mountains. I’m so glad we’ll continue together as she tells me that Amelia and Jean-Christophe kept walking on the road after the beach and are now a full day ahead.
We bump and lurch up the Takahue Saddle Road to the Mangamuka Route. The air is cool and fresh, the smell so different now – sweetly pungent, earthy and moist. Peter names the plants as we pass them on what is more a four-wheel drive road than trail, wide enough that we can walk abreast. The light is dappled in a checkered pattern through massive tree ferns, with fiddleheads larger than my fist.
We pass driveways with curious metal gates, decorated with masks, sculptures and keep out signs. It’s easy walking slowly uphill and we talk the entire way before Peter slows down to tell us he’s heading back now. It seems arbitrary to me since it’s still early and the going’s good. But then he points to my left, to a tiny opening in the thick foliage.
That’s the way? In there? It’s a trail about a meter wide. People have been here recently, I see, and have left footprints squished into deep mud already filled with coffee-colored water. They trail off and are lost in the bush, the track no longer a gradually ascending road on long switchbacks, but rather one aggressively cutting up the mountain now; straight up.
Up until this point in the day, my Lekis were pretty much window dressing. The “trail,” if you can call it a trail, was really more of a road, or forest track. What Irene and I were walking on now was the opposite extreme and it gave a whole new meaning to the term “tramping track.”
The mud is thick and sticky, wet and slippery. Roots crisscross the path and I learn quickly not to try and balance on them as a means to avoid the mud, because they’re worse than the mud, greasy and unstable . The bush presses in on us in a fecund jungle, not allowing any side-stepping of the thickest patches. And it’s not just up, but down and back up again, no views at all giving us even the least hint where we are.
The truth is, there’s only one way to get through and that’s to simply plunge directly through it. I know there’s a lesson hidden in this moment, one about persevering and pressing forward, facing obstacles straight on. But at this point, the sun streaming through and a friend bonding over slip-n-slide squishiness with me, I’m having fun.
In the first minutes, I’m muddy up to my knees, the soft muck oozing through my running shoes, the rainwater cooling my feet. And Irene just keeps nattering the whole way, since we dare not split up in this thick maze. She reminds me of Hiker B, my friend Brenda who hiked with me on similarly rough conditions one rainy fall on the Border Route Trail in Northern Minnesota.
We saw practically no one in that wet overgrown wilderness, but saw loads of tracks from resident creatures – moose, bear, wolf – though never having the chance to actually see them, since they could hear us coming from miles away.
This forest, too, is thick with blow down and mud, uphill to Mangamuke Saddle. Slip-n-slide is all fun and games until you’re hauling up a fully re-supplied pack straight up-hill in it. Hiker B often would say she longed for just “a hundred feet of joy.” Here it’s more like a meter here and a meter there, and you never really want to take your eyes off where you’re putting your feet.
My Lekis save me from a muddy bum, and I walk with an animal gait, reaching forward and sort of crawling through. We take one brief look out at a view of bush covered mountains undulating towards the horizon, then back in towards the summit and radio towers, a sign telling us they’re one minute off the trail.
It’s too early to camp, but what a perfect blanket of grass in the sun. It’s tomato soup and Hungarian salami for lunch, neither of us feeling particularly eager to move on. The trail goes up, and down, and up again. I think I already said that, didn’t I? The fun is wearing off a little and it’s getting tiring – and late. Camping by a river, and a chance to rinse is a long way off.
Irene and I are quiet in our thoughts and then she says, “A tui!”
It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the birds until now. There was a pretty steady racket of birds. But I was so focused on the mud, my eyes and ears aimed down, it took Irene’s pointing out this fanciful creature for me to stop and listen.
A tui is a passerine, or perching bird. Their plumage is an oily purple and blue, but from my vantage, this one appeared all black except for the tuft of white at its throat, like a minister, that waddled and throbbed as he would sing. But is sing the correct term? I hear a few bell-like sounds amidst clicks, cackles, creaks, groans and wheezes more like R2D2 than any bird I’d ever heard. I learn later tuis can sound like two birds because of their bifurcated sound-producing organ called a syrinx.
Mine let the silence grow, then sing a song so loud like he’d never heard of using his inside voice. My tui follows us for a few steps before I say goodbye and Irene assures me I’d hear more, and many, like parrots, mimicking precisely voices and sounds, sometimes to the utter annoyance of anyone close by.
The trail plays tricks on me. Blue sky opens up and a summit appears near, but the orange triangles point down, then around. I brought three liters of water to last the day with the intention of making it to a lovely stream just beyond the forest. But the afternoon gives way and the light begins to change, warming to a deep orange the tall Rimu covered in Dr. Seussian epicytes and long, black tendrilly, supplejack.
This has got to be the hardest trail I’ve walked and this is not my first rodeo. Epic mud and I have become personally acquainted in the Peru’s Vilcabamba, Chile’s Torres del Paine and England’s Pennines, but this is all three – on steroids. A turn-you-around-on-trail mass of overgrowth, suck-off-your-shoe mud, obscure-the-tripping-hazards giant ferns you’d ever seen – and most of it on a slope.
It begins to occur to me that we’ve been far too laid back about the day. Lingering over breakfast, strolling through the Pak’nSav, sauntering with Peter up the first part while he identified trees, and finally lounging by the radio towers for a long, leisurely lunch – it’s all left us far behind schedule.
Not that I’m much of a scheduled kind of backpacker, but there is no flat space – let alone clear space – to set our tents. And even though it doesn’t seem that way today, this is a rain forest. We need to be under some sort of shelter. In here is nothing but a wisp of a trail marked by a series of orange triangles hammered to trees. In the dark, there’s no telling where the trail goes.
Later in my hike, I hear of a solo female hiker who got so turned around in here, she kept walking and walking after dark, fell down a waterfall and somehow not only managed to survive the fall, but managed just enough cell service to call for help. I thankfully have my GPS, but under so much tree cover, the reception is spotty.
We go up and up and come to a wide spot in the trail where it appears another trail joins in. A wooden sign points to Makene Road one way and TA SOBO (or southbound) the other with the encouraging words, “Only 2,850 kilometers to go!”
It’s not really flat enough to pitch on all these roots. We both use an oddly named crowd-sourced trail app on our phones called “Guthook,” one that most thru-hikers use instead of paper maps, something practically useless in this clag.
An entry from a recent hiker tells us there is a spot to camp just below the summit. Is this the summit? I wonder.
The description is even more vague. “A grassy area with some flat spots for a tent or two between kilometer mark 148 and 150.” Considering we’ve been averaging one kilometer per hour, that’s some spread.
We press on, knowing we’ll have to spend the night in this forest and no matter what, it’s got to be that grassy area. But as we pass what we think might be the summit, the trail comes to a dead end of blowdown in a tangled mass. We climb over hugging a steep ridge until the trail completely peters out. “This doesn’t feel right.” Irene says, checking her app to see if there’s any indication of the right way. “Let’s go back to that blowdown and just see.”
Best idea of the day because just beyond the blowdown, hidden by branches and ferns fanning out is an orange triangle pointing down. What we were walking on is called a herd trail. Everyone made the same mistake, and you get enough people walking that way, the wrong way begins to look like the right way.
So we broke out of the pack and head down, where instantly the real trail becomes more obvious. “We’re going down!” I tell Irene who gives me a “No shit!” look. Down doesn’t take your breath away, but it’s slippery and hard to negotiate. On and on we go, down and down, over roots and through mud as the sun begins to disappear and the air cools.
What about this day, I think. What has it taught me? To just plow through the tough stuff and not care if you get dirty. To never assume and to look and listen for all the beauty around you, even if you’re tired and uncertain you’ll find a flat place to camp.
That’s the wonder of hiking, that you really, truly have to let go – of expectations, of being hard on yourself, of having to do things in the right way because sometimes the day just gets away from you and you have to improvise.
I’m tired and ready to stop. Just as I think that I notice there’s grass under my feet. The trail widens slightly into a small flat area, no bigger than the width of a tent.
“We’re here!” No water, no view, nothing to write home about, but it is perfect for our two single tents set one after another, nearly blocking the trail. The alicoop is up fast and I set about peeling off my muddy clothes and using every disposal wipe in my arsenal to clean off the mud so I can crawl inside.
Dinner is a luxury, though quick as Irene and I share her rain cape as a seat. Just then, two hikers crash out of the bush, their headlamps lighting up the gloaming. Rowan and Rebecca arrive, newlyweds who thought hiking nearly 2,000 miles might be a good way to start a marriage. They charm us with their English accents and understated style, too restrained to ever admit they thought they’d never get out of the forest tonight.
Tuis and birds exotic to my ears pipe up as we all begin to settle in for the night. Rowan chatters on with energy and self-assuredness of a man on his honeymoon. He brags about the number of sweets they carry and how many they eat per day, which instantly makes me feel better since thru-hiking brings out the “candy grabber” in me.
And before long, the night goes pitch black and we all fall asleep to a jumbled melody of Raetea Forest’s wild lullaby.
Until next week when we’ll push through more forest to the Bay of Islands, happy trails!
episode 4 show notes ‘n transcript
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker starts walking the Ninety Mile Beach, a long strip of sand that will take three days to complete, a baptism by fire for causing injury, boredom and many hikers to quit the Te Araroa.
- She learns that thru-hiking is a lesson in patience.
- Her tent, the alicoop, crashes down in the ferocious wind, but the TA goddess stops the rain, and she reorients it under a blanket of stars.
- On the final day, the wind changes, coming directly in her face, but she rises to the challenge, met in Ahipara by a new friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.
MUSIC: Pastorale Calchaqui by Hector Gallac as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
available on iTunes
The Te Araroa – or long pathway – dispenses with formalities, taking any hiker who dares onto an exposed start of drenching squalls, inconvenient tides and a never-ending roar of sound that begins as a curious lullaby, but in time, crescendos to a scream.
Fortunately, I’ve been warned about the beach, mostly told not to underestimate how difficult it is even though a simple point A to point B, on flat ground. Even young and healthy hikers manage to injure themselves with painful tendonitis, shin splints or shred their tender city-feet in a mass of blisters. Total exposure to the elements of wind, rain, and sun, no water and loud monotony make this one of the most difficult starts of any thru-hike in the world. It’s a baptism by fire – or more accurately, water.
Beautiful, lovingly built stairs with rubber grips take us steeply down through the bush. Little did I know this would be one of only a handful of well-built and maintained portions of the 3,000 kilometer trail.
It looks like it was my turn for my tent – the alicoop – to crash down on me. It’s no one’s fault, really, certainly not the gear, just that I set behind a wind screen that only protected me for the half of the night before the wind changed directions.
To survive today’s, I make a plan to divide it into thirds. I’ll use each 10k section to consider some ‘deep thoughts.’
1. What causes a person to make the decision to walk for five months?
2. Why does said person need a plan to get through a particularly long, hard day?
3. What must it feel like to be free, like one of these wild horses?
In no time, the wind picks up to dry me off. But this time, it’s straight in my face. At Ahipara, Peter treats me like his own daughter, looking at me with concern when he remarks that I have sand on my cheeks and in the corners of my eyes.
Joining me for a glass of wine he wonders if it would be considered cheating to skip the long, dangerous road walk to Kaitaia and allow him to drive me to the next section.
I tell him not if I don’t tell anyone!
I wake up with a start in the middle of the night. It’s so dark I can’t see my hands in front of my face. The constant roar of the ocean and wind I’d been hearing since I started walking the Te Araroa yesterday, has changed in pitch. Have the waves stopped? It’s not raining, but the wind makes up for it.
A light shines into the alicoop, my “tint.” Not the moon, it’s Irene, coming closer, carrying her tent and sleeping bag in a huge swaddled wad against her chest. She organizes herself under the cabana, in a nook behind a wall. When I ask her if she’s ok, she tells me she was just trying save weight in her pack, and only brought two tent pigs. Of course her tent was blown down, falling on top of her in an uncontrollable, smothering blanket.
At this point, I was only about a dozen miles into a thru-hike that would take me about five months to complete. I’d walked on sand and over rocks, up cliffs and even got lost for a few moments. The start was sudden, after a seemingly endless succession of flights, then a long drive to Cape Reinga. The Te Araroa – or long pathway – dispenses with formalities, taking any hiker who dares onto an exposed start of drenching squalls, inconvenient tides and a never-ending roar of sound that begins as a curious lullaby, but in time, crescendos to a scream.
The eight of us huddle in the cabana, trying to light stoves behind the protective walls, choosing to eat the heaviest of our food for our first breakfast out. We share stories of restless sleep and tired limbs, but talk little about what’s ahead in the long stretch of sand called The Ninety Mile Beach, a stretch that will take the better part of three days to walk.
Fortunately, I’ve been warned about the beach, mostly told not to underestimate how difficult it is even though a simple point A to point B, on flat ground.
Many a walker quits after waking the beach in Northland. Charging into the start, people often walk too far and without break on deceptively hard concrete-like sand that goes on and on for over 100 kilometers. Even young and healthy hikers manage to injure themselves with painful tendonitis, shin splints or shred their tender city-feet in a mass of blisters. Total exposure to the elements of wind, rain, and sun, no water and loud monotony make this one of the most difficult starts of any thru-hike in the world. It’s a baptism by fire – or more accurately, water.
I vow to myself to not let it beat me. I’ll take my time and go gently – and maybe more importantly, I’ll see it not as an endurance test, but find its beauty too.
Clouds clear revealing a pink sky as the waves keep up their plaintive song and Irene and I go up for the last time to Scott Point. It’s here where the view opens up to the huge expanse, like an oversized sand bar, reaching far off to a horizon lost in misty sea breeze. Scrubby dunes on the left give way to crumbling cliffs of sand and finally the sea in rows of foamy waves.
Beautiful, lovingly built stairs with rubber grips take us steeply down through the bush. Little did I know this would be one of only a handful of well-built and maintained portions of the 3,000 kilometer trail. We spy a tiny island ahead, though the distance is hard to judge, though we know from our map that it’s directly across from tonight’s campsite, about 15 miles up the beach.
I find that hard to digest since I’ve never walked so far on a strip of sand. It begins to rain and we quickly descend. The sand is wet with puddles as the tide slowly comes in. A shag fishes in the surf. A half-submerged blowfish gives me skeletal smile. We walk together for a while, then split up as I begin to find my rhythm and pace. Thru-hiking is so different from backpacking or day hiking. Sure, you’ve got to get somewhere to get water, to sleep, but you can’t walk with the same urgency. You learn to develop patience in your progress, knowing you have all day to get to that island far up the sand.
Patience with progress, and patience with the terrain. This is not a shell-collecting beach. Aside from flotsam cast off far away ships, a green wine bottle covered with hitchhiking cockles, bits of net and floats, a flattened bird, legs akimbo, it’s monotonous. Nothing catches the eye but rain clouds racing across the sea and dunes like waves themselves cresting above me.
There’s a shallow, gradual slope, that causes the waves to churn like a washing machine before one might break free and send its fingers of saltiness towards me. High tide is at an extremely inconvenient 1:30 in the afternoon making walking even more difficult in the soft, mushiness.
Eventually, I scamper up on the dunes, following other awkward footsteps of Amelia and Jean-Christophe who got an early start. Irene catches me just as I decide to find a spot out of the wind for a snack and to fix a hot spot on my toe. The minute I take off my shoe, sand pours out and I realize why hikers developed blisters so bad, they could hardly walk. It’s a good thing I’m bandaging it up now.
I brush off the sand as the tide reaches its peak and recedes. I can see Irene’s tiny figure far ahead, her pace matching mine exactly like we’re attached by strings. Now I can fathom the enormous distance I have to go and settle into it, the wind fortunately at my back.
The rocky island gets bigger and bigger, a speck from Scott Point, it’s a mammoth island inhabited by birds. Directly across is the manicured lawn of Maunganui Bluff beautiful appointed with a cooking shelter and a long drop. Amelia and Jean-Christoph are here, Irene already set up, and it seems I’ve arrived at cocktail hour as a local arrives in his beat up truck, dog barking in the back and a cold beer put in my hands. Only a stone’s throw away, wild horses, only a stone’s throw away, look upon us in this perfect paradise next to the sea.
I may have had a gorgeous sunset, soft grass for my tired feet and a cold beer for my weary self – after only two days of hiking, but payback came in the form of all night rain. OK, that’s not accurate. Rain, then wind, then rain and wind.
It looks like it was my turn for my tent – the alicoop – to crash down on me. It’s no one’s fault, really, certainly not the gear, just that I set behind a wind screen that only protected me for the half of the night before the wind changed directions.
But I must say, the Te Araroa goddess smiled – ok, she snickered a little when my side peg ripped out and the one of the Leki poles fell down on my face. Not enogh to injure, but I knew I had to get it set back up. In her benevolence, the TA goddess stopped the rain at that moment and cleared the sky so I could reorient the alicoop under a shining array of southern stars.
The wild horses snort and whinny, watching my struggle. I settle back into the tiny chrysalis of my tent, warm under down, my mattress crinkly but no match for the wind and waves.
The miles ratchet up as I continue down the Ninety Mile Beach, 30 kilometers to Utea today, about 18 miles. To survive today’s, I make a plan to divide it into thirds. I’ll use each 10k section to consider some ‘deep thoughts.’
1. What causes a person to make the decision to walk for five months?
2. Why does said person need a plan to get through a particularly long, hard day?
3. What must it feel like to be free like one of these wild horses?
And off I go, over a bit of dune and back on the flat expanse of beach, a small shower giving way to a rainbow as the sun begins to peak over the dunes, my long legged shadow coming off then meeting the ground in an andante beat.
At 10 kilometers, I reach spot somewhat out of the wind, against a 25-foot dune casting a sliver of shadow. I see evidence of tide reaching all the way up here and I know this stop needs to be brief.
I find some cashews at the top of my pack and ponder question number one, why walk for five months? Years ago, I took a shot at walking up Aconcagua, the Western Hemisphere’s highest peak. I was fit enough for the mountaineering, but not for the altitude, and I developed a life-threatening condition called High Altitude Pulmonary Edema or HAPE. There’s only one thing to do in a situation like that: go down, as fast as possible. I was stuck in a snowstorm overnight, doing my best to stay awake and alive before the morning broke clear and I could was evacuated, the helicopter I eventually met at base camp, flying so close to the summit I could practically touch it.
I was sick for weeks afterward with bronchitis and broken hearted I had to come down. Nonetheless, we visited my family, who showed little interest in what happened. It just magnified my grief and anger. As I complained about the lack of care, Richard gave me some of the best advice of my life. “If you do this so other people notice, you deserve to fail.”
Whoa. I deserve to fail? That was harsh. But he had a point. The truth is, all of the things I do, like mountaineering or thru-hiking, need to be my own gig. While I love to share, the desire to strive for something difficult needs to come from somewhere deep inside. Sure, it helps to have support, and I don’t want to be met with indifference. No one does. But outside validation only goes so far and expecting or needing it isn’t going to get me down this long, endless, unvaried stretch of sand.
I’m back up, packing up my backpack, Olve Oyl, and slinging her on my shoulder. I always bang my sticks together twice before taking off as a little good luck charm and it’s back out onto the super highway of sand.
That’s actually a funny thing. The Ninety Mile Beach is in fact a designated roadway. I likely won’t see anyone today because ahead I’ll cross a knee-deep estuary, but soon I’ll encounter tour busses and dune buggies with single-minded drivers not expecting a lone figure to emerge from the sea spray directly in their path.
At 20 k, I pause for a snack of dehydrated honey crisp apples I made before leaving Minnesota. I pause on a massive log, half submerged in sandand and ponder the next question:
How do we balance planning and control with taking things as they come and allowing for serendipity?
I always used to hike with little safety net. That meant four weeks in the French Alps with Richard awaiting my finding wifi. Pardon, est-ce que vous avez wee-fee? Non!
For a while there he received lots of messages from total strangers with loads of errors because they were typed out on a French keyboard, but clearly indicating I was ok. This time around, he’s tracking my every move via a two-way GPS.
My brother plans his work life to the a letter, and when he hike, he likes to allow the day to unfold. That got us nearly benighted on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in San Diego county, where we got back to his truck moments before a blizzard hit dumping a few feet of snow. I too have walked and walked and walked until I went so far it was too dangerous to retrace my steps and all I could do was keep going forward.
Right now, I’m free to do exactly as I please. Although it occurs to me that unless I want to camp in the blowing sand next to a seasonal seep, I better get a move on. Chopping it up, of course, gets me there, and focuses the mind. But it also tests my legs. My gps tells me precisely where I’ve walked, no cheating, and it allows how I feel to determine when I’ll take a break. I also discover that a brisk pace on packed sand for 10k is just about my limit. That’s nothing to feel proud or ashamed of, only facts that help me to slowly conquer the whole of this walk.
Finally I see the green flag, shredded from the breeze and marking the entrance to Utea Park. Tanya sells me a fresh fruit shake and I wash off as much of the sand that’s found its way into every crevice in a communal shower, that, lucky for me, is all mine for the moment.
I’m sore, tired, and pop one nasty blister, but overall, ok. So the final question, to be free. Hmmm. Don’t we all long to be unencumbered and enjoy anything we like at any moment?
But then we wouldn’t have family, friends, our vocation, our community. It’s all a balance, right? And maybe I wouldn’t feel this philosophical right now, except that I don’t think I’m fitting in. I know it’s only day three, but I feel old and weird like I’m not such good company.
I love to hike and I’m going to walk this thing one way or another, but all of a sudden those words I said earlier about being inner-directed and not depending on others all the time aren’t working for me. Lonely is not when you’re alone. Rather it’s when you’re surrounded by people and can’t connect.
Maybe it just takes time and look her, everyone is hanging out in the kitchen area and inviting me to come over and hang out.
We all have to hike our own hike and I’ll be doing that. Scratch that. I am doing that.
Tomorrow is even further than today and a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend has invited me to spend the night at the end of the beach, in Ahipara.
In the morning, pink touches heavy clouds and pack quickly to get in a few k’s before the sun is up. A few stray drops hit me then morph into a heavy downpour, but it’s far too late to put on rain pants and I’m sodden waist to toes.
In no time, the wind picks up to dry me off. But this time, it’s straight in my face, picking up speed as I march along. I tie my silly Kavu fisherman’s hat over the bill of my raincoat and press on to the 100 kilometer mark.
At Waipapakauri Ramp, I turn up a street to visit a friend thrice removed who offers me breakfast chased by a beer at 11:00 in the morning. I ask her if people swim in this torrent and she assures me they do, but mostly people venture no further than water up to their waist due to the strong “rips” and undertow.
The sun is hot, but the air is chilly, so I have no intention of going in even up to my toes. The waves crash at me, frothy foam bubbling up before releasing tiny dirty white balls to tumble across the sand. Ribbons of sand fly at ankle-level, screaming past as I try to keep my mouth covered with my balaklava.
A tour bus drives fast towards me and parks in such a way people can disembark out of the wind. Only two people get off the bus, one looking at me wide-eyed wondering where I came from. When I tell her I walked here from the Cape, she offers me some chocolate and gets back on the bus. Maybe she should have offered me a ride.
The terrain begins to change, opening out toward estuaries visited by inky black Oystercatchers, orange billed and furtive. Three-wheeled sail cars called “blow carts” fly past me one after another, tipping up on one side as they turn around a post. Ahipara is tucked into a curve at the end of the beach, houses perched on a cliff. I check my phone for signal and see that Irene plowed ahead and was so done in by the beach, she hitched a ride to a friend in the next town and will meet me for the bush walk tomorrow.
I too am running on empty and know from two days ago that distances can be deceptive. But of course, I reach the strip of pavement that takes me into the village.
Peter is a retired transplant surgeon who recently lost his wife of forty-six years. He treats me like his own daughter, looking at me with concern when he remarks that I have sand on my cheeks and in the corners of my eyes.
He gathers fresh thyme from his garden for a home-cooked meal as I place my showered self in the soft grass. Joining me for a glass of wine he wonders if it would be considered cheating to skip the long, dangerous road walk to Kaitaia and allow him to drive me to the next section.
I look up from my eyes now free of sand and tell him not if I don’t tell anyone!
Until next week when we’ll head into the New Zealand bush and hear a Tui for the first time, happy trails!
episode 3 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker flies to New Zealand and joins a Kiwi named Irene and her family to drive to the Meeting Place of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean at Cape Reinga. Within thirty-six hours of leaving Minnesota, she begins to walk the Te Araroa towards Bluff.
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker has her first encounter with authentic Kiwi “trail angel” hospitality.
- She’s taken up the winding, roller-coaster roads of Northland to Cape Reinga.
- She learns security is just an illusion and we have to take risks to truly live.
- She immediately begins hiking and just as immediately takes a wrong turn.
- Rain, hail, hot sun, tides and the constant sound of waves are her companions for the first 100 kilometers.
The MUSIC: The Horizon from Owhiro Bay by Gareth Farr (used by permission)
The Pee Rag by Stacia Bennett
I found out what a pee rag is right around the same time I met Irene on Facebook. She’s a Kiwi from Hamilton, planning to walk the TA in sections. She planned to start from Cape Reinga on October 29, my start date.
I fly over puffy clouds above crystalline bays abutting sandy beaches fed by winding streams and estuaries. Hilly bright green pastures and dark bush see rain falling in the distance, and the ocean beyond that to infinity. If all goes as planned, to walk back to Auckland, will take me a month.
I’m out of my comfort zone, having reckoned with what really matters in my life and putting to the test risking security for something intangible. Helen Keller wrote “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Security is an illusion. You have to risk a bit of adventure to really live.
This part of the country is called Northland or the far, far, north. The sky clears above a wide track through flax and yucca, azure waves in long rows crashing beneath us as we rise up on high cliffs. We spot our first trail sign, a plastic orange triangle nailed onto a wooden post. It leads us away from the beach up onto a sandy bluff dotted with bright yellow lupine.
“I sure hope we’re not lost,” Irene says, just as I realize, we most surely are.
Irene and I were never really lost, just misguided.
Oyster Catchers peep at us as we pass, their eyes looking askance. Sponges, jellyfish and small piles of broken shells fan out at the water’s edge. It all seems a bit unreal, the route taking us under the curve of a rainbow towards another squall line and tonight’s destination.
The Tasman Sea pounds on the beach way at the northernmost tip of New Zealand. It’s constant, unceasing, inexorable and insistent. A white noise that’s present enough to force me to raise my voice to be heard, while at the same time, a soothing balm guiding my footsteps as I discover what it means to be a full time pedestrian.
I’m alison young. And this is the The Pee Rag, Unfiltered Adventures of the Blissful Hiker. I am the Blissful Hiker, sometime-professional flutist, sometime-voice artist and full-time pedestrian.
Every week, I share with you what it’s like on the trail, why anyone would want to walk that far, and, while it may not be a glamorous life, why it’s one of the most fulfilling. A big shout out to Leki trekking poles for supporting The Pee Rag podcast. Leki supports my body, holds me upright, holds my tent upright, and gives me the strength to walk the length of two countries. If you want to be a blissful hiker, Lekis should be in your hands
Don’t laugh, but it was only a few days before I left Saint Paul for New Zealand, when I learned what a pee rag is. I found out right around the same time I met Irene on Facebook. I had booked a flight to get me as close to the start of the trail as I could, the furthest city north. A place named KeriKeri, pronounced Kitty-Kitty by the locals. It’s still 200 kilometers to the start of the trail at Cape Reinga.
I followed the Te Araroa page for tips, information, trail closures, etc. I don’t always like to post on these pages “looking for a ride! Mainly because I want to ensure I’ve done my research first and not look like a desperate newbie, even if, in reality, I was desperate newbie. They did offer lots of advice on how to get to the start, including hitchhiking, definitely not hitchhiking, arranging a ride or joining a tour group.
But the group was a bit heavy on drama with a side of fear mongering for the thru-hiker newbie, so I tried my luck with a private group just for female hikers. It might have been the same day that I learned about the pee rag – more on that in a bit – and met Irene. She’s a Kiwi from Hamilton, planning to walk the TA in sections. She planned to start from Cape Reinga on October 29.
Well, that’s mystart date, or at least, that’s the day my plane would land in New Zealand. We start messaging and I experience my first encounter with genuine Kiwi hospitality, a kind of trail magic that’s ingrained in the culture. Irene not only suggests we start together, she arranges to meet me at the airport with her family, and drive to the Cape together.
It was magic. And only required that I start walking the very same day I arrive.
What does anyone remember about their flight to get to the other side of the world – or in my case – flights? Richard calculates I would be nineteen hours ahead, or he would be five hours ahead, yesterday. I sleep, eat, watch movie after movie and think about all the kind, generous pearls of wisdom sent my way before I left.
Every so often, I lift the shade to look out over the vast, empty expanse of the Pacific. A waning gibbous moon chases me all the way until Aotearoa – New Zealand – appears, the land of the long white cloud. We bank over the water, flying low before touching down in a drizzly paradise. It’s a sprint of a half mile in my brand new La Sportivas to customs, where I surrender my tent and stakes – or “tint” and “pigs” – to a friendly Auckland biosecurity agent, who ensures it’s clean and free of any predators, flora or fauna.
To get to the domestic terminal, I drag a throwaway suitcase filled with my backpack, gear and bounce boxes along a painted walkway, feeling the humidity like a second skin and, even here, smelling a loamy freshness that foreshadows things to come. There’s only enough time to snag a new SIM card for my phone before I board a tiny prop plane for the short flight to the Bay of Islands. It reminds me of a ski race in Northern Wisconsin, where I was taken by bus from the finish to start and watched thirty miles of hilly forest pass by, knowing I’d soon be skiing all of that.
Here, I’m suspended in puffy clouds above crystalline bays abutting sandy beaches fed by winding streams and estuaries. Hilly bright green pastures and dark bush see rain falling in the distance, and the ocean beyond that to infinity.
It’s a lot further than thirty miles. If all goes as planned, to walk back to Auckland, will take me a month.
It’s raining when we land, our small group disembarks outside before rushing to meet friends and family at the tiny terminal. Only international flights require security. People crowd in and that’s when I spot Irene. Half Italian, she wears her long black hair with bangs, and is already dressed for hiking.
I’ve arrived alone in so many places, and often where people spoke languages I only managed to understand a little after cramming with language tapes. I am so touched that she comes inside to wait for me, waving as though we are already friends.
I’m out of my comfort zone, having reckoned with what really matters in my life and putting to the test risking security for something intangible. Helen Keller wrote “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” Security is an illusion and bravery, courage, get-up-and-go, embracing adventure, is simply a way of accepting that we can’t hang on tightly and expect we’ll be safe. You have to risk a bit of adventure – daring or not – to really live.
Irene’s relaxed nature gives me little time to concern myself with maudlin questions. She introduces me to her father, Bryce and I take the back seat next to his partner Vern. Hugging the non-existent left shoulder on a wild, curvy, rollercoaster of road, we shove off, fast and furious.
Right around the time I met Irene on the Te Aroroa womens group on Facebook, something caught my eye on that page. An American hiker posted this question to the group, “Are any of you taking a pee rag?”
Not wanting to look clueless, I went to Dr. Google and plugged in “what is a pee rag?” and up came an article written by Stacia Bennett for the Trek. She offers the most cogent reasons to tie a bandana to your pack and designate its use as a pee rag, a small accessory with a big job.
This part of the country is called Northland or the far, far, north. Vern and Bryce live in Kaeo where we stop for lunch, and I send forward my bounce box of things I might not be able to find in New Zealand, like the specific shoes and socks I like to wear. We pack my backpack and Vern offers to take the huge throwaway suitcase and clothes to a local charity shop.
Then we hop back in the car and continue north on Highway 1, pastureland giving way to drier, sandier scrubland. They chat the entire way in their charming, clipped, and nasal Kiwi accent, one that sounds as if every sentence were said with a toothy smile. It’s an accent, I pretty much can’t understand yet.
And then it begins to rain, then hail, then more rain, before clearing to bright sunshine nearly as fast it began. Dark clouds ahead tell me this sequence is pretty much on rinse and repeat.
I’m running on adrenaline and apprehension, not quite settling into the fact that we plan to start without so much as a moment for me to catch my breath. To be honest, this isn’t my first rodeo. When I hiked the spine of the Alps on the GR5, I also took three flights, landed in Geneva, then traveled by train and bus to a wee country road heading straight uphill towards Nice, 21 days away. It also rained that day as I huddled in a meadow high above Lake Geneva, slugs working their way into my sodden hiking boots.
Humor columnist Dave Barry writes, “It always rains on tents. Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.” All I could do as we sped further and further north is give into what’s to come – and trust my full suit of Columbia rain gear would keep me dry. But still, there’s nothing more disconcerting than starting a trail, the biggest of your life, in rain.
Of course, this is something I’ll soon learn about New Zealand. It’s called the land of the long white cloud for a reason. It rains – a lot. But the sun shines too and often at the same time it rains. Like most things, you can’t control the weather and if you want to be out in it, you gotta take the good with the bad.
All at once, we’re there. The end of the road, the northwestern-most tip of the Aupouri Peninsula, the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand, the Meeting Place, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of currents.
We have little time to dawdle, since it’ll be dark in only a few hours, and the first campsite, called Twilight, is eight miles away. Vern shoots video of the two of us walking to the lighthouse at the end of a long spit of land. A pole of myriad signs point in all directions and we stand on opposite sides, a hand on the post, and a leg kicked out. Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles, the South Pole – and Bluff, my destination, one I’ll reach in five months.
It’s time to say goodbye before retracing our steps from the lighthouse back up towards the Te Paki Coastal Track, another sign warning us the track is hard to follow at high tide, and that it’ll likely take us four-and-a-half hours to get to Twilight.
The sky clears above a wide track through flax and yucca, azure waves in long rows crashing beneath us as we rise up on high cliffs. Black clouds move along the shoreline; the sun in this ozone-free part of the world, baking hot. My feet sink into soft sand before we cross on sharp rock, timing the tides just right to pass over myriad tide pools.
The rain is back and Irene puts on an ultralight minimalist piece of gear, more a bag than a coat. We spot our first trail sign, a plastic orange triangle nailed onto a wooden post. It leads us away from the beach up onto a sandy bluff dotted with bright yellow lupine.
“I sure hope we’re not lost,” Irene says, just as I realize, we most surely are.
This can’t be a good sign.
Irene and I were never really lost, just misguided. Truth is, we were only about ten minutes out of our way, so we simply backtrack on sinky sand. Further up the beach, a large stream rushes towards breaking waves. Irene asks if I’ll take my shoes off to cross. My spirits dampened ever so much from our wrong turn, I say, “Heck no!” and plunge up to my thighs in cool, fresh water, certain this is not the first time I’ll be soaking wet.
Oyster Catchers peep at us as we pass, their eyes looking askance. Sponges, jellyfish and small piles of broken shells fan out at the water’s edge. A couple of German hikers help us across a tricky rock hop as waves push a little too close. Ahead is Herangi Hill, with stunning views through a wind tunnel that sends sand and small rocks at me like exfoliates. We’re moving fast and we see Twilight Camp – at least its notch – in a distant cliff, at the end of a horseshoe-shaped beach. It all seems a bit unreal, the route taking us under the curve of a rainbow towards another squall line and tonight’s destination.
Twilight is a beautifully manicured patch of grass on a cliff, up a set of wooden stairs from the beach. There’s an octagonal-shaped cabana, a water tank and a toilet, which I learn the Kiwis call a “long drop.” Two couples, French and Dutch greet us, overloaded with gear. An English woman named Amelia, strong and determined sets her tent close to Jean-Christophe a quiet Frenchman. Everyone changes into tights and down as the night turns cool, the wind relentless.
I set my “tint” in the lee of the cabana, not certain it will make much difference if the wind changes direction, then send a note home. “Night one! A whirlwind start! We’re safe, and happy!”
In the waning light, I think about the clarity of this part of the trail and my confusion about what’s to come. For four days, the trail notes are clear about where to camp, where to get water, and how to plan each day with the tides and distances. After here, things begin to muddle in my mind and no matter how many times I read the trail notes, or follow blogs of those who went before me, I can’t seem to wrap my head around what’s to come.
I’m pretty sure it’s due to inexperience – something I’m terrified to admit, especially after putting everything on the line to come here. The ocean is loud and unyielding broken by two or three downpours pattering on my tint’s taught taffeta-like roof. The waves calm, but at this lonely hour, even the Southern Cross is obliterated by the moon’s brightness. I feel taunted by it all. “We are here,” they seem to say. “And you are just passing through on your brief journey.”
Brief on the northern-most tip top of New Zealand, and brief on our spinning sphere.
But these are the musings of an insomniac. I’ll go back to sleep now because tomorrow I begin 90-mile beach, a long, exposed, blister-inducing, tide-timing stretch of concrete-hard sand.
But before I do, I pop out of my tint – find some bushes and inaugurate my first pee rag.
Comments: Laurie Wyland after Episode 1, “I am truly honored to be the one who bought your professional flute! I am having my own blissful adventures playing it!”
Michael Ynfante who tells me he was inspired not to “wonder anymore, but to take the chance to find out.”
Until next week when we’ll walk the Ninety Mile Beach, happy trails.
episode 2 show notes ‘n transcript
kia ora: Māori greeting, literally “be well!”
In this episode:
- The Blissful Hiker sorts out the myriad details before departing on the 3,000 kilometer Te Araroa.
- She learns she can only plan so much before needing to make peace with not knowing how the story will unfold.
- She also learns to be present and ‘hold her soul ajar to welcome the ecstatic experience.’
- She shares the first words she learns in Maori, ones that mean ‘hello,’ but also, ‘be well,’ ‘be safe,’ ‘be filled with gratitude.’
MUSIC: Erik Satie, Gymnopedie No. 1; Kevin MacLeod, Apero Hour; Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1 (used by permission)
The Show: John Kaag writes in his book, Hiking with Nietzsche, that the great philosopher wants us to be wanderers, but not as a traveler to a final destination, for this destination does not exist.
If you arrive at a final destination, it’s a sign that you’ve set your sights too low. On a long walk who we are is about recovering from who we think we are.
Backpacking is about coming to grips with this projection requiring me to live in the moment, face my vulnerability straight on – while at the same time, opening myself up, like the words of Emily Dickinson, The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.
The Te Aroara, New Zealand’s long pathway, 3,000 kilometers from Cape Reinga to Bluff. It would soon see my feet walking it.
I’m alison young, and this is the The Pee Rag, the unfiltered adventures of the Blissful Hiker
That would be me – the Blissful Hiker, sometime-professional flutist, sometime-voice artist and full-time pedestrian.
Every week, I share with you what its like on the trail – why anyone would want to walk that far – and, while it may not be a glamorous life, why it’s one of the most fulfilling.
The Pee Rag? – that’s the bright red bandana tied to the back of my pack – a small accessory with a big job. And we like to play with words a little here – The Pee Rag show is a broadside – a rag – though I try to keep the “ragging” to a minimum.
So before I left Minnesota to spend five months hiking the Te Aroroa, I had things to sort out.
A lot of things –
I asked and received a five-month leave of absence from my job.
And the reason was because I felt a pull, a need to test my mettle, to see what would happen to my body, mind and spirit – if I pushed the limits on the backpacking I had done up to this point in my life.
At BlissfulHiker.com, the first sentence says I love to hike, with love scratched out and instead reading I LIVE to hike!
It does take a lot of planning of gear and food and where to drop resupply and bounce boxes, but honestly, more of the planning seemed to surround my mental state.
Backpacking is weird.
You spend a ridiculous amount of money to not only get high quality gear, but high quality gear that’s extremely light weight
And then you march long distances with everything you think you need on your back.
It’s dirty, uncomfortable, and let’s face it, smelly.
But I love it.
It takes me into the heart of wild places with my food and shelter easily accessible allowing me to be utterly flexible about just where I lay my head.
John Kaag writes in his book, Hiking with Nietzsche, that the great philosopher wants us to be wanderers, but not as a traveler to a final destination, for this destination does not exist.
But don’t let that cause you to believe I’m a free spirit, allowing the winds to take me where they will. I make lists and I also set goals, and Nietzsche a big time walker himself, was fine with that, though he warns, “If you arrive at a final destination, it’s a sign that you’ve set your sights too low.”
These final days before I go are a whirlwind of last minute planning, loading the thru-hiker app, the maps, the trail notes, and all my new New Zealand friends-of-friends contacts in my phone, weighing every last item to see where I might cut a gram or two, buying my New Zealand tramper hut pass and loading the bounce box with extra pairs shoes, tenacious tape, another headphone-to-lightning cable, and various odds and ends that will follow me down the trail from post office to post office.
It’s exhausting, mostly because to have the flexibility to sleep where I want as I go requires a lot of planning. It’s difficult now trying to picture the person I’ll be one, two or five months from now.
And maybe that’s just it. Backpacking, and in this case of the Te Araroa, thru-hiking, is about coming to grips with this projection and making my peace with not knowing how the story will unfold. When I let go and trust that I’ve made mostly the right decisions about what to take now, the future can take care of itself
John Kaag also reminds me in writing about Nietzsche, “On a long walk who we are is about recovering from who we think we are.”
Being bad ass on the trail does require the right gear, but also the right attitude and it always amazes me how on any hike, I begin to live more and more in the moment, facing my vulnerability, hopes and regrets and limitations straight on – while at the same time, opening myself up, like the words of Emily Dickinson. “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
It’s said that people fear public speaking more than death.
Why? Because being rejected, ostracized, thrown out of our social network – at least in our deep dark past – meant death.
But just the fear of embarrassment and judgment makes most of us sweat, take shallow breaths and wish we had a do-over.
I kind of have the public speaking part down. After twelve years as a DJ at MPR I’ve had my share of hate mail, love letters and everything in between – and still she persists.
But what I find curious as I prepare to leave on this five-month walk in New Zealand, is a creeping fear of looking ridiculous.
While it makes sense to be prepared for weather, animals, illness, injury, all that might obstruct smooth passage, my mind continually dwells on this question of, “Do you really know what the hell you’re doing?”
It began with responses to my brand new coat, a dream of high quality down in only seven ounces of thru-hiker happiness, albeit electronic, safety-zone orange. While I might label my fear a highly triggered self-consciousness, her ugly step-sisters are more deeply felt – envy, shame and regret. They lurk below the surface in an aggressive volley of criticism.
“Do you really think you can look like the perfectly clean, blister free, young and fresh hikers of the ‘Patagucci’ ads?”
“Why didn’t you do this hike sooner?!”
“You’re old enough to be some of these hiker’s mom.”
The late feminist writer, Cynthia Heimel said, “When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There’s a microscopically this line between being creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap!”
Most hikers know the phrase, ‘hike your own hike.’ When I wonder if I’ll find my tribe on this trail, or if after taking a leave-of-absence at the age of 53 going on 54 I’ll be all alone in my world of walking the length of a country. I tell myself, “hey, we’re all wounded, we all have insecurities. Does this walk become the end-all and be-all that reveals and heals?”
Maybe, maybe not.
But for sure something will happen, and when it does, I’ll be dressed for success in that big, bright aggressive, orange coat.
On a late fall mid-day. Leaves past peak, raining to the ground in a final blur of orange and brown, I leave Saint Paul for Kerikeri, New Zealand.
Yesterday was my last day of work for nearly six months. I sign 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.’
Many have written, called, texted, and stopped by in the last weeks to share thoughts on calming the churning inside me. One tells me, ‘Step carefully and see widely.’ Another, ‘Go with your purpose in mind, share your truth as you can.’ Still one more, ‘The hard work is behind you, now get at it!’
It’s less ‘seize the day’ at this point then, let it happen and be present while it does.
Next week, my feet walk on sand, the Tasman Sea at my right and a horizon seemingly going on forever.
So here are the first words I’ve learned in Maori – it means hello – but also, be well, be safe, be filled with gratitude – Kia Ora!
episode 1 show notes ‘n transcript
The Blissful Hiker sells her flute to make the dream of walking a long-distance thru-hike a reality before it’s too late and arthritis takes over her body.
In this episode:
- Meet ex-professional flutist and voracious hiker, the Blissful Hiker.
- With arthritis taking over her body, time was running out.
- But once she voiced her dream to walk a long trail, the universe conspired to make it happen.
- And letting go of her professional flute, brought her one step closer to New Zealand’s long pathway, the Te Araroa.
How lovely it is to dream while you are awake. Anybody can dream while they’re asleep, but you need to dream all the time, and say our dreams out loud, and believe in them.Andre Agazzi
MUSIC: The music in this episode is Argentine composer Angel Lasala’s Poema del Pastor Coya as played by Alison Young, flute and Vicki Seldon, piano
Available on iTunes
A few years ago, I sold my professional flute, in order to pay for a half-year’s leave-of-absence from my job, to walk the length of New Zealand.
Ok, that leaves a whole lotta questions.
Like, walk the length of New Zealand?
Leave-of-absence from your job?
In this weekly podcast, I’ll share with you what its like on the trail – why anyone would want to walk that far – and, while it may not be a glamorous life, why it’s one of the most fulfilling.
You could say, I have a bit of a checkered past. One night at the dinner table when I was 14, I announced that I planned to go to at an all-arts boarding high school the following year – but not to worry about the cost, because I would be taking an audition for a scholarship, which I was planning to win.
After my announcement, I bowed my head back down into my hamburger helper, without another word, my mom and step father shocked into silence.
Going to Interlochen Arts Academy – and playing my flute – was an escape for me from the stress of home life and a school where I didn’t quite fit in and the beginning of a long, hard, fraught but ultimately deeply satisfying and successful career – a professional flute playing career that took me all over the world – until one day in my mid-thirties when I couldn’t move my fingers.
It never even occurred to me that a technique as fluid and impeccable as mine, could just suddenly stop.
It seems I had developed a neurological condition, dystonia, and it ended my career.
But let’s pause here – yes, losing my ability to play at that exceptional level really sucked – it was a sucker-punch of loss and I was adrift for years– but to tell you the truth, I did a lot of living while playing the flute. Yes, I played with great orchestras, made recordings, toured, taught. But much of what I did in my life was unrelated to making music. I had this kind of part-time gig as a hiker and when I traveled, I’d fit in some walking – like in Japan, China, Pakistan, Switzerland, Argentina – and of course all over the United States.
Oftentimes I felt divided in choosing somewhere to go to further my career while keeping an eye out for where I could hike next. Blissful Hiker’s little motto of “walking the world” is kind of spot on.
You see, walking was always my solace, the place I found peace, got centered and came up with creative ideas – my earliest memory is of looking down at my feet as they took me from our house in New York up a winding sidewalk to the back door of the church where my father was the minister.
I had places to go. Up there was nursery school– and I did not need anyone to take me. My feet could do that. I remember the smell of the air, dodging roly-poly caterpillars, swinging my arms and feeling powerful.
I was about five when I got completely lost on Nantucket Island. That may have been the first time I really felt fear, confused after taking a wrong turn and unable to pronounce the name of our hosts to a nice lady who asked me where I lived – Schmidt.
When we moved to New Hampshire after my parents divorced, I had acres of woods to wander in and would disappear for hours, I even found my brother’s secret fort , and they rewarded my discovery by allowing me to puff a cigarette.
The first time my dad took my brother and me to Yosemite, I played my flute on top of Half Dome, hauling it up the chain ladder on my back.
On another visit, I got in big trouble one Thanksgiving, when I kept going up and up past Yosemite Falls, thinking I could make a giant loop and still make it back in time for dinner. It began snowing – hard – and if it wasn’t for two Swiss boys I latched onto, I may have gotten lost out there.
No one was particularly concerned for my safety. They were mostly angry because I was so selfish. Yeah, I probably was. The teaching moment for them was never drop Alison off in a playground like Yosemite and expect her to limit herself.
For me, the lesson was if you want to act like a bad ass, do it on your own time.
After that I started extending hiking into backpacking and mostly went alone, fully responsible only to myself. If I wanted to wander further, it was up to me – if I wanted to go fast or saunter, I determined it.
After flute was pretty much scratched as a viable career, I found a new voice in another, related field – as a classical music broadcaster.
When radio took over my life, I would work weekends to stockpile a few priceless extra days to take even more adventurous hikes – to Chile, South Africa and Lesotho, the entire spine of the French Alps and more of the United States. – I saw so much beauty – which only whet my appetite for more – and longer – hikes.
I wanted – I needed – to see what it felt like to walk far – really far – a thru-hike of thousands of miles, and to do it all at once, something that would take months to accomplish. It only seemed natural, the proper progression from weeks-long backpack trips to something verging on a lifestyle.
But I kept that dream a secret for a long time. Though time was running out. Dystonia screwed up my hands so I couldn’t play the flute at a high professional level – and now, I was developing arthritis in my feet
Would I also lose the ability to walk?
You’re listening to the Pee Rag – the unfiltered adventures of the Blissful Hiker
What is a pee rag? Let’s just say, it’s a tool that enables a female hiker to get the job done without fuss or muss, and focus on being her bad ass self on the trail.
So, time passed and I developed my career as a broadcaster – and simultaneously developed my dream to be a thru-hiker. I knew what loss felt like, that nightmarish feeling of being completely powerless – a neurological condition that was no one’s fault took me down – I liked my job as a radio host too, a lot. But if my toes were gnarling up due to arthritis and if I wanted to see what it was like to walk a thru-hike, I needed to get on it before it was too late.
I might not have the ability at 65 to do what I needed to do – and could do – in my 50’s.
But I had no idea how to go about this. It felt stupid, impossible and definitely selfish. I’m pretty sure I might have maybe mentioned this idea in passing to my husband, Richard, but I kept it inside from everyone else,
And then I remembered this quote I read once. I think in Sports illustrated or somewhere – it was tennis player Andre Agazzi – talking about how lovely it is to dream while we’re awake – that anyone can dream when asleep – but you need to dream all the time – you need to believe it – and you need to say it.
Ooo, boy, that part tripped me up – to actually voice this idea – say it – put it out there? It’s kind of woowoo, but I have had the experience where when I voice something I want, things begin to change, like the universe is conspiring to make things happen.
It was kind of by accident – and maybe a few too many beers. Sitting around the campfire with friends after an awesome day of rock climbing on the North Shore of Lake Superior. It might have been that I felt kind of chuffed from the hard climbs I achieved and the problems I solved achieving them. Or it could have been I was so exhausted and the alcohol was doing its magic and I just blurted it out to the group.
You know I’d really like to see what happens to my body, mind and spirit walking a long thru-hike – like the Appalachian Trail or something – but I have absolutely no idea how to do it.
I can’t even remember who it was, but it sounded so logical.
“Why not ask for a leave of absence?” a small voice chimed in from the darkness beyond the firelight – Of course! What could it hurt to just ask?
And so I did – I asked – for this somewhat ridiculous personal thing.
It would take two years to receive permission to go – then a whole lot of planning, saving, organizing and finally signing an agreement that said I’d be back in five months.
And then there was that flute sale. Funny how it was on another short backpack trip fitted in between work obligations when the idea hit me – while the value of that instrument wouldn’t replace all my salary for five months, it would sure help and it turned out one of my adult students wanted to buy it. She sounded like an angel and when we got to the moment I put the flute in her hands, she asked me with great concern, “What will you play now?” I shrugged my shoulders saying I don’t really play much anyway. And that’s when she presented me with her first student flute from grade school, a little silver-plated jobbie with a sweet sparkly tone. “Let’s make a trade.” She said, “This flute for a flute lesson.”
We shook on it and I was just that much closer to my thru-hike.
OK it’s that time in the program – to tell you what the pee rag is – funny how I would discover this useful object on the very eve of starting my long distance thru-hike.
For women hiking ten to twelve hours a day – and drinking a gallon or more of water each day. We have to relieve ourselves often and it’s not always easy like it is for a guy. Since we all practice “leave no trace,” the wads of used toilet paper can become quite a burden in our trash bags, not to mention, it gets used up too fast. Hence, the pee rag. It’s just a bandana tied to outside of my pack that can be reused and make a hiker feel in charge.
My podcast is a kind of rag – a broadsheet of stories from thru-hiking – and a bit of a rag – complaining about the grittiness and in your face reality of thru-hiking – that’s how the Pee Rag got its name.
Back to our story. All this time, swirling in my head was where to walk. I knew this might be my only chance, before retirement, to take on something of this magnitude – so I wanted to go somewhere far, somewhere exotic, somewhere unknown. I wanted this to be epic, I wanted another stamp in my passport and so I landed on a new thru-hike, NZ’s long pathway the nearly 2,000 mile Te Araroa and was entranced.
But I was ambivalent with my decision, even when Richard assured me that they speak English and take credit cards in New Zealand, what could possibly go wrong?
Much of the reason I was so stressed, was my job. I really wasn’t sure if I would risk losing my career in taking this leave and that felt really ungrounding. I went back and forth because there were some things I’d been promised and maybe it would be better to stay. I even turned another offer – because the need to hike – the need to see what would happen to my mind, body and spirit on a thru-hike – to need to take my life in my hands right now – was overwhelming.
No one could ultimately make the decision for me – my lovely husband Richard, suggested I only go for a few weeks but that missed the point entirely. I already knew what it felt like to backpack for a month. What I didn’t know, was what it would feel like over months.
Perhaps my first run-in with an empty-handed leap into the void was when I applied for a visa. NZ requires a visa for a stay beyond three months. But they also require proof of a return ticket home – kind of a Catch-22 – and I had no choice, I bought the ticket and crossed my fingers.
Fortunately my visa was granted – and things were getting real.
I gathered, tested and reviewed gear. I created a website and identity to house my daily hike-diary. I asked and received sponsorship. I stuffed my head as full as I could with information – learning about bounce boxes and pee rags and whittling my weight to as ultralight as I could manage. I contacted friends of friends and their friends-of-friends to create a link of people I could meet as I traversed the country. I cooked and dehydrated food to pack and bring with me for the first week.
And then, one Saturday in late October, I stuffed all my gear into a throwaway suitcase – dressed myself in throwaway clothes and kissed Richard goodbye until he’d join me four months later.
Next week, everything in that throwaway suitcase goes on my back and I start my journey.