TA homeward bound

Of course, there had to be just one more tramp before leaving.

A mini-tramp that actually returned me to a piece of the Te Araroa, a highlight back in late January as my loopy handwriting in the hut ‘intentions’ book reminds me. That time I walked in rain, while this time around it’s on a crisp blue day in early fall with a friend I met randomly on the side of the road. Neil and Kate were collecting St. John’s-wort as I passed needing a ride around a tricky ‘hazard zone’ of the uncrossable Rangitata River. How do these serendipitous moments happen for me, you – and I – might wonder. Sure, Neil took me where I needed to go, but then things went further and I’d come to find a friend who feels like a combo of one of my brothers and a best pal I’ve had since junior high. How about them apples for the final coda of my New Zealand adventure.

More on the final tramp to come since I know it’s been a long time since your Blissful Hiker has been in touch and you may need a bit of filling in of the gaps. Some of you have mentioned you miss the daily contact, miss following her every move, every emotion and rumination, and miss cheering her along. How strange it feels not walking every day and not writing about walking every day. It all just stopped, kind of suddenly, leaving me with a bubbling cauldron of confusing and unsettled feelings.

After Stewart Island, I hitched with a young French woman to Christchurch, staying with Neil and Kate who fed and watered me and hosted Richard upon his arrival before we embarked on our own mini vacation. The plan was really a non-plan – to drive a rent car and be spontaneous, seeing things I’d missed on the trail while also giving Richard a taste of what my life looked and felt like over the past four months. Our only scheduled gig was walking the Kepler, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, but that wasn’t until the very end of our vacation.

When Richard popped through international arrivals dragging a big, overstuffed green duffel filled with camping gear for two, it was as though no time had passed. We fell right back into our easy ways, laughing at ridiculous things, singing in harmony and cuddling in a perfect puzzle-pieces fit.

It took only a few minutes for me to share with Richard I felt ungrounded. It would take a few days before Richard shared with me he had been deeply lonely. Man, did I feel awful. Horrible. Selfish.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked through tears.

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

<sigh>

That’s my man – a guy willing to sleep alone through a bitterly cold and snowy winter, managing to cook, clean (somewhat) and earn the money while allowing me to go for a (very) long walk just to see if I could.

And he didn’t complain once.

So we ventured forth in a wee red Toyota, heading west over Lewis Pass, crossing the TA near Boyle Village before swinging north on a typically narrow and winding road to Karamea. Nikau palm amidst crashing waves was Richard’s first Kiwi outdoor experience, sand sinking under the toes as the ocean threatened to pull us out into its blue vastness. We learned of the horrific shootings while crawling under a limestone arch above a brown river in the bird-filled bush.

Our Big Agnes tent is a palace, but had to be packed soaking wet and heavy with dew before we headed back south over the mountains and along the west coast. Pancake Rocks, check. Hokitika Gorge, check. Okarita lookout, check. Richard found us a campsite on a cliff at a defunct insane asylum (their name for themselves) and displayed his up until then unknown to me barbecuing skills. Who says you can’t learn something new about your mate after 19 years? Glowworms set up shop conveniently within walking distance in a grotto below the cliff.

I finally got my kiwi, sighted in captivity at a reserve. He hung around me a long time making up for my being utterly snubbed on Stewart Island. We discovered awesome coffee, bought me greenstone to replace the earring I lost on the trail and saw tiny Hector’s dolphins leaping in the surf through fog and heaps of sandflies.

Warned that tourists and helicopters swarm the glaciers, we went anyway, lucking out with silence from cancelled tours and clearing weather. All the while, we’re connecting again but it felt forced and frantic. My body and spirit were heavy, weighted down by a need to see and do and not miss out. My long hike felt far away. It’s not enough to hash it all out or even celebrate the success. I was at loose ends not certain if anything had changed or if it was even worth it. We began to bicker and rather than unwind and relax seeing spectacular scenery, we stressed out.

I couldn’t make a decision about where to stay in hot, crowded Wanaka, finally settling on a campsite up the lake towards Mount Aspiring, another place the TA crosses. Richard left me to set up and went to shop for food as the sky turned pink-orange and a full moon glowed on the horizon creating diamonds on the water.

I was restless not walking. Richard and I, of course, did walk, but not fast or on the rough terrain I complained bitterly about, which – ironically now that I’m not walking it – I longed for, missing how strong I was. I suggested I charge up a mountain while he checked out the local disc golf courses, but I felt such a jerk keeping us apart right when we’re back together.

When I walked, I was not really alone because I talked things out with someone I like to call the Goddess. You could see her as a matriarchal spiritual figure or as an imaginary friend. I would suggest she’s simply the better side of me or the better side I aspire to, one that’s wise, measured, and considers things slowly and deliberately, seeing all sides with compassion. She doesn’t take things personally – of course, she isn’t a person – and she asks the right questions not simply dispensing advice. We talked through many things and on the TA, there was a lot of time to talk.

That morning she made it clear it just wasn’t fair to ask Richard to drop me at a trailhead and take down the tent himself. He needed me around. So I stayed suggesting we play the courses together. First it was Eely Point in big trees and big views by the lake. We took loads of time and loads of selfies.

When we finally made our way to Lismore Park, the sun was hot and we lathered on sun screen. The fields were brown and empty. I suspected the baskets were stolen or maybe neighbors complained and disc golf was shut down. Then we spied a group of guys playing; playing very well. It turns out the baskets were on loan for the biggest tournament of the year just south of here in the land of Lord of the Rings. We were so mired in my adventure and planning out Richard’s trip, we totally missed out. Soon, playing this tournament became the focus.

It only took one drive for Richard to impress this group of young players and not long before we joined them, Richard putting on his teacher’s hat. I started to nag a little to get him to play the tournament even though it was already closed. We wandered next down to Queenstown, loving the energy and the waning light at the waterfront, but feeling no energy of our own to engage in the wide array of extreme activity even as paragliders floated into town. I felt frustrated and directionless, unmotivated. I can’t understand why we experienced so much inertia. After the physical and emotional intensity of the TA, I was frozen and emptied out. I don’t see more clearly, more confused and afraid, even more lost. Perhaps nothing, not even a leave from my career to walk the length of a country, will get me unstuck.

We played another course the next day and ran into our friends from Wanaka again as well as the top pro players at practice. Richard was completely in his element throwing plastic with ease, grace and huge power. At one long tee, he parked the disc under the basket and I watched the men’s eyes get big. “That’s the furthest I’ve ever seen anyone throw at this basket,” one said in disbelief.

So much of our relationship has centered on me. Richard seems happy enough to go along, following my new career after dystonia wiped out the flute playing and moving across the country, cheering on all my endeavors both artistic and athletic. He’s always been my rock, my solid refuge from where I spring out into the world energized and able to create as well as do some pretty outrageous physical activity, like walk long distances. Would I do them without him? Probably, but not as successfully or happily, I suppose. It’s easy enough for us to fall into our roles – I make things happen and he helps me make them happen.But then I turn around and resent him for not having the same interest or energy I have. I criticize him because his needs are not the same as mine. Of course this huge tournament was off our radar, eclipsed by my drama and the position I forced Richard into supporting me emotionally.

We moved ourselves up closer to the tournament, camping in Glenorchy while Richard put himself on a waiting list. That evening we heard house music pumping, coming to our tent from a seemingly quiet neighborhood. Walking in the starlit night to check it out, we feared crashing into a violent rave filled with drug addled youth. Instead, we came upon a DOC building with one occupant, a single DJ in the act of creation. I stared transfixed recognizing an artist in the state of ‘flow.’

Flow that inspired our decision the next morning for Richard to drop me on the Routeburn track and take his chances at the tournament grounds. We separated again for our chosen sports and it became a highlight of our vacation. I left the wide, smooth track for a thin wisp of trail. Within minutes, I was cracking up steep, narrow TA-grade bush. I instantly felt the rush I get measuring my breaths uphill on what DOC labeled ‘advanced tramping.’ I was delivered to a spectacular view of glacier-packed mountains crowding around me as I took a break on a boulder in a sea of muddy tussock. Fear gripped me just a little knowing I was absolutely alone and had a long climb out, not unlike the scores of days on the Te Araroa. It was steep sidling through beech forest to a gorge above the Dart river and impossibly wild views shared with twenty ‘fun-yakers.’ A long forest walk and hitching got me back to our tent, but with no Richard in sight.

Mr. DJ revved up again as I picked up dinner and read the Times. Richard finally returned sweaty and all smiles. He played the entire stunningly beautiful – and wickedly challenging – course in a doubles match, partnering with the director’s wife on the same card as New Zealand’s top player. Not bad considering he wasn’t able to play the actual tournament. We consoled ourselves with a day hike, camping under the stars by a bubbling river. I was happy for him but wondered why it’s so hard for me to be the giver in our relationship. A number of years ago I had to practically force Richard to get his needs met. He is an incredibly self-sufficient person, at least emotionally and in terms of feeding his many interests. That’s a lot of the reason I fell in love with him. I knew as clear as day I’d never be bored. But we are definitely still interconnected, developing better selves together than apart.

He clarified that his loneliness while I was away on the TA stemmed not so much for lack of things to do, but in not having someone to decompress with each day. We are far from ‘co-dependent’ but even things as simple as planning what to eat or which music to play sets the mood for our life. I missed Richard while walking, but not until he came to meet me did I realize how important I am to him and in turn how being his wife feeds me.

We wandered south, fulfilling a promise for his birthday to stay in a hotel. This began a small string of odd stays in agricultural areas of Southland, usually the only foreign guests with a few local contract drivers. I can’t entirely explain the mutual pull away from the frenzy of tourist areas, but we both longed for quiet and quirkiness and found it on the back roads. That’s not to say we didn’t visit the highlights like Milford Sound catching it in old testament-style rain, thousands upon thousands of waterfalls tumbling off every cliff. This was the same rain that wiped out a bridge on the west coast pushing us even further south to the less tourist-infested Catlins. We walked a wind-swept petrified forest, spotted a rare molting yellow-eyed penguin and snapped shots of an eerily beautiful sunset.

The rain continued, though so far the report promised perfect weather when we needed it for the three days walking the Kepler. I had a small order of business to attend to as we returned west. The night the six Kiwis pounced on my answer to their question about what I thought of the TA and Russel led the charge to bully and humiliate me, I forgot to pay the twenty dollars for the use of the private hut we stayed in. I shared with Richard how the owner, rather than contact me directly the following day since she had my phone number, instead called Russel to complain giving him an opportunity to scold me. I was so distraught that night in her hut, crying on the porch until the wee hours, unable to understand the motivation of these local trampers to gang up on me, I simply forgot to leave money in the honesty box. But I couldn’t explain all this to Russel who played the lead role in harassing me. When I didn’t respond to him, he said loudly and angrily, “Did you hear me?” The matter was really none of his business but I guess he just couldn’t resist lording it over me. I immediately texted the owner with apologies and promised to return with payment.

So here I was with Richard, filled with the anxiety elicited from returning to the scene. We saw no honesty box in the hut. We headed to the house and no one was home. I texted again, and received no answer. So, friends, I left. I don’t want TA hikers – especially Americans – to get a bad reputation, but I did all I could and the time had arrived to put that awful business behind me.

I am an emotional person. I feel things physically and if not managed, my body will react. I was shaking as we drove away. Richard is an honest broker and wanted to do the right thing, but was completely dispassionate commenting the hut looked like a fire trap. I told him of a place in the North Island where an owner of a B&B happily takes in TA hikers for a shower and laundry, but expects us to camp on the lawn. It was so wet and cold that afternoon, I asked the owner – at the urging of my hiking companions – if there was any way us four women could come inside. He asked we not tell the paying customers that he would give us two rooms at absolutely no charge. It was one of those incredibly generous acts of the trail. Outright kindness by someone with no agenda but to be kind. I told Richard that I left a thank you as well as twenty bucks to defray costs. He exclaimed, “The universe is balanced! Done!” I’m not sure this hut owner would agree, but maybe Richard is right. The generosity, friendliness, interest in out welfare, and good conversation of that North Island moment made up for the nasty coldness of the other. And my twenty bucks made its way back into the economy. Somehow, it balances.

We packed our backpacks for our first overnight, my pack laden with all the cooking gear and food I’m used to carrying. The day was sparkling clear and sunny as we began walking in forest filled with fungi and lake views. Richard has asthma and will never power uphill, but he found a steady pace he could live with and motored on, allowing me to move slowly enough to whistle as we rose to the views.

Hut life on the great walks is a totally different adventure from the TA. They’re packed for one thing, and ‘serviced’ with gas ranges and solar power. We made friends easily and followed the ranger around on his nature talk, giving us added appreciation for the tough little plants surviving in this alpine region.

The Kepler has the longest alpine stretch of all the great walks and ours was done in chamber of commerce blue skies. We lingered on the tops for hours taking hundreds of pictures. I became just about full on the outdoors – not sick-of-it full, but saturated and even though hard to admit, ready to go home.

It was perhaps the best hike we’ve ever taken. Perfect weather and challenging but not overly so on trail that hardly requires watching your feet. The views were outstanding, the company enjoyable, the rangers informative and entertaining and the hike just long enough with two hut stays.

We returned to camping and barbecue before heading north hoping for one last stop only to be thwarted in our efforts by a flat tire. Again, I was amazed by Richard’s knowledge and ease with all things as he quickly replaced the tire on the side of a particularly winding portion of a mountain pass. I found a brick on the side of the road to balance the jack in gravel and chocked the wheels with rocks as he expertly got us on our way.

One more barbecue before heading back north, though even on this more boring drive, we talked more easily about absorbing my adventure and saying goodbye. Our trip was never flash, really, even if we saw amazing things. The volume was turned down a little from my thru-hike. It was calmer but it was ours.

Neil and Kate welcomed us back and generously offered to take Richard to the airport at the crack of dawn for his earlier flight home. Neil and I left later for one last tramp – a goodbye to the southern alps, the wide rock-strewn braided rivers and all my bird friends. Neil walks fast and I worked hard to keep up, still coughing as I recovered from bronchitis. He bought himself La Sportiva trail runners influenced by me but won’t go so far as to use trekking poles which seemed to only advantage me as I pulled away on the uphills.

Neil and I connected easily and talked about every possible topic. At the hut, we sat on the sunny porch and I suggested we hike up a small hill in front of us with an obvious trail worn on it. He warned me it’s not easy to get there across the flats that separated us. When he crashed out briefly, tired from the early morning airport run, I tried to prove him wrong – or at least prove him less adventurous than me. At first I thought I could pick my way in hut shoes, only to find the trail a stream. So I changed shoes and went in a little further, stopped by a swampy maze of tussock, moss and flax, deep pools threatening to suck me in up to my waist. I gave up the direct approach and tried going left first, which just took me to rushing water and the trail down towards the Deception. Going right led me back to the pass, wisely covered in board walk to avoid the boggy and uneven ground. Nonetheless, I ventured up a bit determined to find a way to an even closer view. After a few more meters, I simply gave up. Bush-bashing at its best awaited me if I ventured forth and I decided this view, right here where I was, was good enough. I took a few selfies then returned, telling Neil – much to his delight – he was right, there’s no easy way up.

I came face-to-face with ‘fomo’ that nagging fear of missing out. This fear has acted as a driver in my life causing me to explore, but it’s often triggered by a deep seated restlessness and inability to accept that what I do is enough. I inherited that awful gnawing feeling from my dad. He also struggles with feeling inferior but buries it allowing it to manifest as narcissism. The trail didn’t cure me, but it forced a reckoning. If I won’t own my walk – or, in a larger sense, my life – who will?

The sun went behind a cloud now and it got very cold. We retreated inside joining our hut mates, Ian and Miriam for dinner and to drink a few whiskies from real crystal shot glasses carefully packed and carried up. The conversation was stimulating and I couldn’t have asked for better mates on this final tramp. It was a cold night, but I slept soundly in my cozy bunk. The morning bright and fresh as we took our time wandering back down.

Like glitter floating in the air, my memories of the past five months sparkled in the sunlight. A million pieces so lovely to the eye but unwilling to be grasped and held. I’m fully aware now after many years hiking that what a particular hike means to me comes into focus later, usually after the next hike.

What is next, I wonder. And where do I go from here. My mind wanders to mundane chores like cleaning my windows and turning up at work next Monday though I’m unclear on my duties and uncertain when I’ll have another time like this in my life. Has anything changed at all? If not, why did I do this? Certainly not to impress or ‘achieve.’ My reasons for asking for a leave of absence remain the same now as they did when I left – I simply wanted to explore what I am capable of. Can I walk that far and that long and hold myself together physically, mentally and spiritually and what will happen to me if I can. Walking the TA was far more about being curious than anything else.

On the airplane home I made to-do lists covering everything from ‘get your teeth cleaned’ to ‘apply for a state arts grant.’ In this jumble I began to sort my mind by asking two questions – what do I want and what can I do now that will bring me closer to what I want. It does simplify things. I essentially want this experience to have legs, helping to motivate and inspire others to take a chance on their dreams too, to be braver and bolder, to like themselves more and to broaden their imagination.

The first flight took me back to Auckland, the mountain ranges easily seen in one chunk, simple and direct from this vantage. I laughed remembering that the trail I walked took me right past the airport. I’m amazed I went so far on my own steam and realized that while I inherited a tendency to feel my life was not enough, I also have a counterproductive tendency towards inertia, afraid to take risks and push out of my comfort zone, and perhaps in so doing helping me create a life that is ‘enough.’ I thought about all the ways this trail tested me – and all the ways it exceeded expectations delivering me strength I didn’t know I possessed and friendships I didn’t know possible.

My brother sent me an email about a week before the end writing, “Perhaps ‘hiking your own hike’ is in the end being authentic and accepting of who you are, and attending to that person in a way few others can.”

Grappling with all the challenges while still facing myself at the end of the day, urging myself on and making my own decisions was all extremely powerful. But so was accepting and inviting help and care. It’s not unlike my relationship to Richard – two independent, creative people who are not afraid to help each other be more of our best selves.

So finally – and just in time – I fam at peace owning this incredible journey, warts and all. I’m at last ready to be home.

Though with a caveat to remember the Blissful Hiker will be back on the trail soon enough.

Reader Comments

  1. See you on the radio! Toured the facility yesterday courtesy of John B, a friend of a friend in Houston. I think the place will look and sound better with you there!

  2. Welcome home, Alison. What a beautiful, concluding(?) chapter to your walk. You are changed… and it will take a while to realize what you have and are becoming. I spent nearly a year away from home teaching in a developing country. It was hard returning home when no one but my fellow student missionaries could understand what I had been through. Eventually, I accepted my changes and everyone else’s non-understanding of my experience as … and I am at a loss for words. As what? Perhaps as a way to enable me to be a better, more compassionate person as I deal with those who do not understand or even want to understand the new me.

  3. I will be back listening to MPR in May.
    Mindy knows of my journey beginning in February.
    I have come to similar conclusions as you.
    Safe return, dear hiker and brave woman.

  4. Thank you for a remarkable piece on ending your adventure in New Zealand. I loved following along with you; and I appreciated your final post, with its threads around the tugs of being alone and being with our partners.

  5. This was the Coda I’ve been craving with a brilliant cadenza written by you, alone.
    It’s been such a joy to share this adventure with you from before it began thru the hard times and all of the joyous times. Thank you for the invitation to hike along on your path so intimately.

    I’ll be waiting to hear how this informs your work and life going forward-
    You’re awesome, in the most authentic sense of the word.

    Micki

    1. Coda and cadenza indeed! A truly grand finale to one heck of a concerto. (à la Busoni or Sorabji perhaps?)

      Reading the coda, I had to laugh: Of course Richard WOULD find somewhere to disc golf, no matter how far away from home! And discovering awesome coffee… Obviously the universe (at least yours, plural) is unfolding just as it should.

      But hey- weren’t you supposed to be back on-air this morning? After all, it’s only a short hike from home…

  6. Welcome Home!!! Ditto what Vicky said – returning to life here will I’m sure be wonderful and also challenging with another process of adjusting and integrating. You might want to read up on re-entry shock if you haven’t already. Happy to lend an ear when/if you need it. Have loved tagging along on your journey and being able to track your ups and downs – geographically and emotionally! – on this life-altering experience of yours. Thank you for all the commentary, story-telling, soul-expressing and of course the absolutely wonderfully inspiring photos.

  7. We have so enjoyed reading your blog during your stay in New Zealand and have learnt so much about that country – and about you – from your comments. Have missed the daily messages and wondered if you were back in the USA.

    Congratulations on successfully completing the hike. We envy you all the wonderful experiences you had.

    Hope to see you in Darkest Africa soon. We would love to meet Richard.

  8. Alison,
    Congratulations for your successful trek – almost unbelievable to a radio-listening city kid like myself.
    I thoroughly enjoyed following you via your diary and Instagram postings.
    Thanks for taking me along,
    Marty

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