Te Araroa :: A Look Back
Since my quarter-life crisis nearly a decade ago, I've been tempted by wanderlust. Since watching the epic LoTR trilogy, I've longed to experience Middle Earth. Since learning of the famed Te Araroa during my first thru hike, I've dreamed of walking its length. And now, another trip of a lifetime in the books. How lucky I am to chase peak experience with peak experience.
New Zealand. Since I don't know where to begin, I'll start with her given name. Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. New Zealand is known for its beautiful backcountry and unpredictable weather. This is especially true of its remote, lush, mountainous South Island. And that's where I spent 80 of my 90 days. I knew I'd encounter inclement weather and that the weather might well have a significant impact on my experience, but I've been spoiled in my outdoor career by the stable summer weather of the States, so I found the touchy NZ weather challenging at times. There were cyclones, heavy rain, and early season snow. When the precipitation wasn't actively falling, its inevitable eventuality was almost always looming overhead. My frustration was rooted not in the weather itself but rather in my own anxiety, a fear that my gear might be ruined in the rain. And of course, my camera was, then my ipod shuffle. But I remind myself that that's the cost of the way I choose to adventure, a cost that I'm willing to pay for these priceless experiences. (Perhaps travel insurance would be a worthy investment moving forward. Live and learn.)
The other thing that I realized on this trip abroad is that one of the things I appreciate most about traveling in the continental US is the level of flexibility I have. If the conditions aren't favorable, I simply go elsewhere. I live out of my car anyways, so I drive my little compact mobile home almost everywhere I go, which is convenient. When I travel abroad, I find that I'm at the mercy of the conditions, especially so because my timeline is often tight relative to my itinerary. With all that I've seen right here in the US, it's hard to logically justify the expense, effort, and inconvenience of international travel. And yet, I've got the bug. Sure I can see jagged, snow-capped peaks right here at home, but I can't see Mt. Cook. I can see the cliffs of the California coast, but I can't see the Great Ocean Road. Similar, but different. And if I'm being honest, I gotta name that part of the allure of vagabonding is that it's challenging, that it's something which relatively few people do. Travel and adventure are fundamental cornerstones of my identity, for better or worse.
So, too, has solitude been for the better part of the last decade. Yet more and more I feel drawn to community and shared experience. That was especially true on Te Araroa. At the start, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, something I rarely feel in my solo adventures. I realized on this trip that I don’t feel alone when I’m alone; I feel alone when I’m surrounded by a community of which I’m not a part. You see, I’m a bit of a princess, so the thought of camping wasn’t nearly as tempting as the many backcountry huts along Te Araroa. And that seemed true for many of the other thru-hikers as well.
The trouble for me was that I’d jumped into a thru-hike at the midpoint, and the trampers I met had already formed a community. I often arrived at crowded huts where I was the only new face, just a section hiker who hadn’t experienced the trials and tribulations of the North Island. While everyone I encountered was kind and welcoming, I can understand how being a section hiker on a long trail is a difficult experience. I never felt like the trail community itself was exclusive or that I wasn’t welcome in it, just that my lack of shared experience with everyone around me created an underlying barrier between us. I think more often than not, that’s what bonds thru-hikers. Not elitism, but an intense shared experience. And for those not sharing in that experience, the disconnect can bring up a sense that they don’t belong. Add to that baseline the fact that it takes time to fall into a bubble of trekkers who are moving at a similar pace and whom you’ll see frequently, and you’ve got a potentially difficult interpersonal experience. And if you step out onto the trail with expectations of the famed “trail community” without finding it right away, I can understand that it’s disenchanting.
Despite my challenging start, I’m not out there solely for the trail community. Failing to find that familiar sense of belonging didn’t undermine my experience, because I’m also out there for myself, for the personal challenge and exceptional views. Not being a part of something wasn’t a deal breaker, and because I wasn’t attached to finding it, it found me.
Not being attached is different than surrendering. I still put in the effort to get to know those around me, and the longer I plugged away, the more I saw familiar faces. And the more I opened myself to relationships - the more I actively put myself in the path of connection, however uncomfortable - the more that already-established community wrapped itself around me, drawing me in. I found my people, and more so than on any other trip, I worked to keep them close. The funny thing is that it didn’t feel like self-sacrifice, it just felt like I was doing what I wanted. Nearly all of my favorite moments in New Zealand involved catching my people (the café at Arthur’s pass, and the Roses Hut), or my people catching me (Kiwi Burn Hut, and Riverton). That’s how I knew that McKenzie, Elizabeth, Rob, and later on, Kirsten were my people. I wanted to finish in 45 days, but not more than I wanted to finish with them, so I dialed it back at the end. Zero-ed at Martin’s Hut following a 90 kilometer day, then waited a day at Riverton, and then walked the last 65 k’s in two days rather than one. Pushing myself was less important to me than community. Skipping arm-in-arm the last dozen yards to the Bluff terminus is by far my most treasured memory from the whole trip.
Reflecting on my walk and all of the feels that come with it, I’m left wondering whether I’ve been lucky to find lasting friendships on my two longest thru-hikes, or whether the shared experience is tantamount to my being open to such connections. With few exceptions, my closest friendships have all been born of intense and challenging shared experiences. Are intensity and adversity precursors to my vulnerability? If so, is that necessary? Healthy? More importantly, is that how I want to live this life? My initial thought is that I love the life I’ve lived, so why would I do anything differently. I’ll have to look deeper to consider whether I’m missing something for which I’ve been unconsciously longing.