Hello, friends! Guess what? I finished the trail! Several days ago, actually. And I think I’ve been avoiding writing to you about it as I’ve been letting my own thoughts settle. But now I’ve been prodded several times by friends who are (justifiably) wondering what’s become of me over the past couple of weeks, and it’s long past time for an update.
When last I left you, I was wallowing a bit extravagantly, wrestling with the solo hiker blues and having a hard time adjusting to the town-to-town road-walking cadence of the North Island TA. But wouldn’t you know it, things changed the very next day, as I magically and blessedly caught up with friends Flo, Coline, and Gert at the Puketi Forest Hut, 15 or so miles beyond the town of Kerikeri. I’d last seen Flo and Coline in Picton, on the South Island, the day before they took the ferry north to Wellington – two months before!
A funny thing about meeting back up with them was that we were all wearing the exact same clothes we’d last seen one another in, like scruffy cartoon characters. The next few days were full of bittersweet savor as we hiked closer and closer to the end of the trail and realized we were sleeping in our last hut, walking through our last forest, climbing our last mountain, struggling through our last full day of mud pits in the woods. We walked west towards the coast in a kind of preparatory nostalgia, and I swear the evening light was more golden, the breeze-tossed leaves a brighter green.
Farmland near the Mangamuka Gorge
Lazy late afternoon in camp – notice all of our crap dangling off the clothesline at left. I need to let you know that absolutely none of those items actually dried out.
Gert, Coline, and Flo enjoying the Mangamuka Dairy, a magical wonderland of delicious fried food and milkshakes. For the record, we each went in three times to get more to eat.
And then we came out of Mangamuka Gorge and into the town of Kaitaia, where more friends were waiting for us – Bree, Courtney, David, Michael, and Emmett – and just like that we were a horde of smelly, frayed vagabonds getting ready to hike the final section of the Te Araroa, up Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga.
It’s worth noting that even after almost five months on the trail and about 110 days of actual hiking on the TA, the beach was a challenge. Because camping is only permitted in certain spots, each day’s distance is determined by the location of the next campsite along the way – which means we walked 20 miles each day for three days, and then finished on the morning of the fourth day. Now, by this point I’d definitely hiked more than 20 miles in a single day, so it wasn’t the distance per se that was challenging – instead, it was something about the unchanging terrain, and the lonely willful act of walking into what felt like forever on this infinite strand. The wind-ravaged piles of the sand dunes retreating to the vanishing point where the silver gray of the ocean meets with the misty veil of clouds, the only real things the incalculable vastness of the ocean, the forever plane of the beach stretching on and on, the white noise of the waves. This is all there is, I couldn’t help thinking, wind and sand, sea and sky stretched out for mile upon endless mile, the distances stitched together by the rhythm of my feet.
Along Ninety Mile Beach
My legs look really long and majestic in this picture, which is why I’m including it. Presumably I’d be able to walk a lot faster if I actually looked like this.
Sunset at the Twilight Beach camp
At each day’s end, we’d drop into the campsite one by one and listen to each other’s reports on our daily brushes with the infinite. Gert and I each got a fresh new crop of blisters, Coline came in literally screaming from boredom one afternoon, Emmett declared that these were his hardest days since he’d gotten food poisoning back in Wellington. But there were also wild horses and bottle-blue jellyfish and a nighttime game of tag at Maunganui Bluff campsite, and for me at least, a feeling of pride on behalf of all these wonderful people I’d somehow fallen in with – they’d made it, and I guess I was making it too, along with them.
The last morning’s hike, from Twilight Beach Camp to Cape Reinga lighthouse, was a revelation of beauty: giant desert-like dunes, verdant bluffs dropping down to crescent-shaped beaches, cliffs standing proudly up against the crashing waves. And then somehow we were all walking down the track to the lighthouse together, to the end of the land itself, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet, to a final point from which we could go no further. And there were Courtney’s parents Rhonda and Ross, waiting for us with champagne and a 12-passenger van. We horsed around at the lighthouse for at least an hour while tourists came by to take photos of the Cape and wonder why we were all so overjoyed to be there.
Action shot with champagne!
…Aaaaannnnd our amazing tan lines
A few moments I’ll remember from this last stretch:
- Gert waking up after a rainy night and announcing disgustedly, “There are poodles in my tent!” Turns out these were actually puddles – we decided it must sound different in Danish.
- Encountering the best DOC sign ever: Track Closed Due to Menacing Feral Dogs. Not actually aggressive, mind you – just menacing. It’s about the intent. Also particularly funny given the routine hazards of the trail – violent weather, crumbling cliffs, landslides, flash flooding, rip tides, etc., we’d already encountered. “We have not come this far to be menaced,” we declared. “If these dogs are so tough, they are welcome to come with us the rest of the way to Cape Reinga.”
- Learning how to say “rainbow” in everyone’s languages.
- Running down a giant sand dune on the last morning of the hike, seeing my friends as tiny figures down on the beach below, and feeling so light of heart I thought I might be able to jump up and away into the salty air.
So what happens next? Well, our trail posse is spending a week tooling around the North Island together in a van we’ve named the Silver Chunk, and then we’ll all be going our separate ways. I’ll be taking a ferry to the island of Tiritiri Matangi, a predator-free wildlife sanctuary off the coast of Auckland, to volunteer for a seven-day stint – and to stay for free in a DOC hut while watching birds! After that, I’ll have just another week in New Zealand, and I’m not exactly sure how I’ll spend it. After five months of knowing exactly where I’d be headed the next day, the radical freedom of life without a trail map is a bit daunting. An answer, I suppose, is to continue casting goals out ahead of myself and then walking to meet them. It’s funny – over the course of this hike I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the simultaneous necessity and arbitrariness of human goals. When called upon to provide an ultimate account for why I’m doing what I’m doing, I can come up with any number of reasons – or I can be more honest and just say, “Because.” Because this is how we make meaning in life, because this is how we fling ourselves forward into our own futures, because this is a way to navigate the space and time we’ve unaccountably been given. I used to think JFK’s “Moon” speech was a bit ridiculous – a hubristic proclamation of a self-given right to conquest beyond even our own planet – but now I see in it an almost touching admission of helplessness in the face of our own impulse to set goals and to explore. In that speech, Kennedy asked, “But why some say the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why… fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We chose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone.” If you read past the mid-century American pomp and bluster, he’s really just saying, “Because.”
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