A True Pilgrimage: Trust Where Your Feet Will Take You
I rolled over on my sleeping pad and let the air expel from my bed. After a long day of climbing through the backcountry of New Zealand my body needed a few extra hours of rest. I slept through my alarm and my eyes peeled open after hearing the sound of a farmer working on his land. I had stealth camped in the farmer’s ditch. It was not a glamorous place to sleep but I couldn’t find a campsite and a cyclone was hitting so I decided to stay below tree line. Trust me, it was a much better choice than trying to find a camp spot on the exposed ridge line during the huge storm!
I call the Te Araroa (TA) a true pilgrimage because of three things:
- New and unmarked trail
- Terrain and water crossings
- Sleeping conditions
New and Unmarked Trail
The TA was officially announced a complete trail in 2011. As a young trail, nine years old, it is not heavily hiked (tramped). At points the trail disappears and is overgrown by brush and fallen trees. Some of the trail is blazed with orange triangles indicating that your feet are on “a trail.” But that doesn’t technically mean you are on the “correct trail.” The orange triangles are used for all of the trails maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand. The frequency of the trail markers are irregular and often nonexistent through river crossings, farm fields, and parts that are deep in the bush (woods). The road walking sections are not marked by this symbol but occasionally have a white sign at highly trafficked intersections.
It feels like a pilgrimage because at times you have to determine the best and safest way to get from point A to point B. Instead of following a perfectly manicured trail through the woods, you have to rely on your navigational skills and sense of direction to carry you through the trail. Catching a few bonus miles and doubling back are all part of the pilgrimage. You learn how to stay calm and assess your surroundings when you’re off trail and deep in the woods by yourself.
Terrain and Water Crossings
Within a single day the terrain can change from a beautiful, sandy beach to an overgrown forest with elevation that requires hand-over-hand climbing. Then you can expect a section of road walking followed by climbing over stiles and cutting through farm fields. If you’re lucky, you will get to walk through a river for miles or even play the tides and try to catch a safe crossing through the ocean inlet. The water crossings will require you to swim if you hit them at the wrong time. With water up to my neck I pushed through the ocean and held my backpack over my head. Clearly the tide had shifted and I was stuck in the middle of this inlet with stingrays and sharks swimming around me. I ran out of the water and found a kind fisherman to take me over in his little boat. It is a pilgrimage to safely cross the multiple ocean inlets. There isn’t someone there to tell you how, when, and where to cross. That’s part of the pilgrimage!
Many trails have campsites and shelters scattered throughout the duration of the journey. But the TA is unique in that it cuts through a majority of private property and follows busy interstates. Stealth camping (freedom camping) is often not allowed. So where do you sleep? I ask myself that same question everyday. The uncertainty of where you will lay your head each night is part of the pilgrimage! I’ve slept in a farm field, on the couch at a stranger’s house, on the floor of a dairy (convenience store), in a ditch, and in an abandoned building. Any place I can lay my head and close my eyes will do.
At times you feel like you’re creating your own trail. The trail is where ever your feet will take you. Everyone has a different trail and different journey in this life. “How” and “when” we get to where we want to go is up to you. Make every journey in your life become a true pilgrimage. Crafting your own memories and trail as you go.
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