I have been busy.
I will be over sharing soon I promise.
In the meantime I wrote a fictional short story based on my walk across New Zealand and I would like to share it.
So here it is.
I march head down, staring at my muddy bare feet. I am surrounded by heavy rain drops and a moss covered forest, the track is replaced by streams of water over flowing like rivers. I take a step into a puddle only to have my leg disappear up to my hip “at least the terrain is flat,” I say aloud. My hiking friends have left me behind, and my homemade pack groans as I try to drag myself out of the sink hole. The thin shoulder straps I have been using as a quick fix protest as I use a nearby branch to right myself. I carefully find my feet again, fearing the straps will break and I will be carrying my broken pack on my head.
My legs are going dead from my belt being too tight around my hips and my arms are tingling again where the straps bite into my shoulders. It must be time for a break – I see a stump to sit on and instantly blood rushes back to my limbs. I set my watch to five minutes and will myself to be healed from all the aches and pains I feel in my bare feet. Mornings are the hardest part, it takes a while for the pain in my feet to get to the point where I stop noticing it happens by ten am, like clock work. Through the trees I can see the beginning of a steep climb, the hut I am trying to get to is on the top of a ridge at a one thousand meter elevation and the only way is up.
“How was the walk?”
I am asked on my way home. My mind pauses for a moment as I remember that day climbing that ridge.
With a careful smile I reply “Great.”
Another pause as I try to recall the response I had prearranged for this situation.
“Sick of instant mashed potato though,” we both laugh.
“You must be really fit now.”
An image flickers in my mind’s eye, of my reflection in the mirror in a public toilet. It is the day after I finished. I look small and run down. Skin dry with weird tan lines. I never really looked at myself until this point and I wouldn’t call this fit.
“Yeah I can walk forever,” I reply. Another pause then smile.
“Was it worth it?”
Alone on the ridge line over 1700m above sea-level the narrow rocky tops stretch out in front of me. The clouds flow over the mountains below me like water to a dam. I don’t have clear visibility but if I look down I can see worn grooves in the rock where years of walking have formed a track. Sometimes I hear goats calling each other below, sometimes I hear nothing. Each peak I climb is replaced by another, and the track sometimes becomes a rocky balancing beam with steep drops on either side. I look out into the sea of clouds knowing that there is supposed to be an amazing view but I just happened to be passing though on the wrong day.
“Definitely,” I say.
I got a free coffee out of this conversation, there is no way I will tell her that I am returning home broke, jobless and living back at my parents. Too poor to get a bus back, I had decided to hitch home from Bluff and hope for the best once I got to Picton. With my money card bent I have no idea how much I have.… I think I have enough? In a moment of weakness I had bought a pack of fresh blueberries from a fruit shop on the side of the road (and tipped the whole pack into my mouth) and was about to get a coffee when the barista had asked if I was one of those hikers. Next thing I know I have a free coffee in my hand and I am being asked the same questions I get asked when I re-enter society.
“What was your favorite part?”
I remember the sudden cold snap one morning on the ridge line. I have to hike again despite the conditions. What few clothes I have I am wearing but my fingers have gone numb and I can’t think straight. I am a little worried that it is the beginning of hypothermia. I increase my pace to stay warm but I notice a shoe lace is untied. I bend down to tie it. My fingers don’t work anymore and I can’t recall how to tie my laces, defiantly hypothermia. I know there are no huts for the rest of this section of trail so I will be sleeping in the exposed hills. Keeping my limbs in tight, I push on, abandoning the complex task of shoe tying. When I decide to make camp it is only early evening, but I have had no breaks and found little shelter to protect me. The wind is like ice, I make a rain cover from my poncho and check my water bottles, I have enough for tea and my dehydrated potatoes for dinner and even some for morning porridge if I am lucky.
I clear a space amongst the tall dry grass for my cooker to boil water and do my best to shelter it from the wind. I stare hungrily at the water waiting for it to boil. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, all is silent maybe the storm has passed. I hear the wind roll in from afar this time in the other direction, it picks up the poncho, pulling at the pegs that secure it to the ground. The cooker’s flame licks at some nearby grass and the side of my little campsite is in flames instantly. I empty one of my water bottles to put out the fire. Well there goes porridge my campsite is now surrounded by black scorch marks. I drop a tea bag into my cup and settle down watching the full moon rise over the mountains that I am amongst. The barely warm tea is strangely satisfying to drink after a long cold day of uneventful hardship.
“Long distance walking means you walk for weeks in beautiful environments then just when you start getting sick of it, you’re over a hill and you’re in a new environment.” By the expression on her face I can tell that she doesn’t quite get it. But she smiles politely anyway.
“What made you want to do it?”
This was the question I asked myself frequently when things were going wrong. It has been one of the longest distances I have covered in one day and my body is complaining about it. At least it was flat grasslands instead of the weeks of mountain walking, but I am still dead tired. I stumble into the hut and grunt something that resembles a “hello,” to the other occupants. The ritual of dinner has been refined to take less than ten minutes and I have searched and sorted the reading material in the hut knowing I have another hour before it starts getting too dark to read. I am settled in with my tea and have found old powdered milk in the hut – a luxury. The reading material is that good this time I use my head lamp to finish my chapter in bed.
It is about three am when I realize there is something wrong with my stomach but I just try to sleep it off. Please don’t be the milk powder but my body confirms my fear and I race out the door heading for where I think the long drop is. I pause long enough to vomit as the wave of nausea sends me to my knees. It is pitch black outside – I find my bearings and stumble towards the long drop again. I vomit, harder this time. What little food I had eaten today is now wasted calories. The waste is what I am thinking about, even in my weakened state. I calculate that 150 grams of potato flakes, carried for a week, now a puddle in the grass. I make it onto the toilet seat and sit with my head resting in my hands
as sickness comes in waves for an eternity. Sometimes I drift off before another wave hits me. I wait until I am sure that it is over before I move. I am too exhausted to care that I am sitting on a long drop in nothing but my underwear. That is when it dawns on me; I forgot to grab my toilet paper. My only option is to wipe my ass with my underwear before heading to the outside water tank to hand wash them naked in the dark. I collapse back onto my bed asking myself that question. What made me want to do this?.
“I am young and able enough to be to achieve it. I thought I would take the opportunity while I still could.”
There were a million things that led me to do this but people want simple answers when it comes to why. This is the best I can do. She nods. I really should have walked for a charity – people understand charity.
“I see you have a bow with you, did you catch much with it?”
I am lost. The track is an informal one, meaning little foot sign. The orange poles marking the way are at about thirty minute intervals and I broke my glasses long ago. I stumble though rough terrain, hoping to find my way as I go but frequently finding myself far from the next orange marker. I think I am doing more rock climbing than hiking. It will be another late night before I get to the hut I am looking for. Stubbornly my bare feet walk though the long grasses despite the fear of spear grass doing them serious injury. I take another careful step over a bush only to find something squirm underfoot. Instead of the normal instinct to lift my foot, I press down harder to inspect what I have caught. Its a hare. I have been missing every hare that I have shot at this whole trip, some being as big as dogs. I have been carrying a 50 pound hunting bow for six months, trained for two years, and the
only hare I have caught, I stepped on.
“Sorry about this,” I say to the frightened creature as I grab it by the neck and break it swiftly.
“Nah, sadly I am a terrible shot.”
She laughs but it is always hard to explain just how difficult long distance walking is. I don’t like to press the point that hunters in general hunt areas they know well and that failure is common when hunting new areas. The calories need to hike long distances are more than I could catch anyway.
“Anything you looking forward to once you’re back in Wellington?” This is an easy question and I answer before she finishes.
The lakeside town of Wanaka is picturesque, I love the smooth pavement that marks this section of trail in contrast to mountains I have came from. It must be a weekend since people are walking their dogs and riding their bikes. I am enjoying the atmosphere of having people going about their lives. I am hanging around because I know I will soon be back to the isolation of the bush for another week. As I make my way a sweet scent drifts in the air – it is amazing how keen my sense of smell has become over the last five months. It’s not like the scents weren’t there before, I just never paid attention. But now they mean something to me. They mean fresh fruit.
I follow my nose off-trail and back towards the township. The colorful apricots stand out as the trees branches hang over the fence. They strain to hold the abundance of fresh fruit. I laugh like a maniac, setting down my pack and filling my arms with as much as I can carry. Crouching on the side of the street under the fence I stuff my mouth full as the juices dribble down my chin. This is when I notice three kids staring at me. I am a hairy, barefooted bow man with eyes rolling in the back of my head sitting on the ground with a mouth full of apricots. I try to reclaim my composure, swallow my mouthful and explain
“It’s been a while since I’ve eaten fruit that wasn’t dried and I hate instant mash you know?” By their expression I can tell they don’t know.
“Family and friends.”
I say fearing what she might think of the truth. I finish my coffee, savor it’s bitter taste and thank her. She shrugs it off like it was nothing. I understand it’s a small thing to give but it’s amazing how much it means when you have nothing but what you can carry on your back. The people of New Zealand are generous and I don’t think I could ever do enough to repay that.
Over the next few months home I read the stories of others who had walked long distances, trying to connect with people who had been through something similar. It was strangely satisfying to hear them express the jealously around knowing your friends and family were safe and comfortable while you are sitting in the bush counting how many toenails you have left. Each story I read finishes with an inspirational message that each walker had discovered along the way. Somehow they found meaning in their completion and sometimes changed their lives after going though the hardship of long distance walking.
The day I got to Bluff, I remember jogging along State Highway One on a sunny day. With every step my mind recalls all the times I thought about what I would do at the end of the trail.
Carrying more then I need, feet blistered, body protesting at the new demands put upon it. I am sitting in an unfamiliar landscape on my sixth break. I try to picture the great outdoorsman I would become, then push on.
Sitting on the side of a mountain with other hikers. Our conversation normally centers around food but today a different question is asked:
“What are you going to do when you get to Bluff?.”
I am whittling my wooden pack frame trying to remove the sharp bit that will eventually lead to a scar on my back.
“Throw this bloody thing into the sea,” I reply, full of resentment.
“I will carry you to the finish like in Lord of the Rings if you want, little hobbit.”
“I HAVE A BOW! How is it I’m a Hobbit?!”
The laughter echoes in the valley.
I am in a small hut I don’t remember the name of. I have been walking for weeks and feel robotic. Two hikers enter, they are the text book definition of the long distance walker. We discuss the next section trying to decide the best route when I realize I still don’t know how far I have come.
“Do your notes say how long till you get to Bluff?,” I ask.
“Two weeks by my calculations. I can’t wait! I am going to pick up some champagne in Invercargill. ”
I smile at the idea of not having to buy food items based on how much they weigh.
“That is a genius idea.”
At four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon I reach the end of the South Island and feel nothing, really. I make my way to a nearby bar to get a beer. The bartender asks how my day is going, I tell him I just finished walking the length of New Zealand. He peers outside, shrugs and says “Nice day for it I suppose,” I take the obligatory Facebook selfie and hitch home.