It was 10:56am on a rainy December day and instead of curling up with a blanket and tea admiring the drops as they rolled off the window, what was I doing?
You guessed it.
Lyra and I had places to be and mountains to see as we sat on the side of the road with a sign that read "17km" and a large, friendly smiley face marked ever so clearly on it. The woman that worked at the information centre (also preferred to as an "isite"), located in Arthurs Pass, had multiple hitching signs with different destinations and times on them. It was clear that two people wanting to hitch to the start of the Cass-Lagoon track was a norm in these parts.
We'd spent the evening hanging out with Matt, the Te Araroa hiker we keep running into occasionally along the trail. When we'd originally gotten to Arthurs Pass that evening, he poked his head out from behind a door and said "Stop following me."
It's safe to say that we've been playing a game of leapfrog with this man since the QCT, and considering we were heading the same direction as him, it wouldn't be long before the next leap.
Sorry Matt, you're stuck with us - every so often - until the bitter end.
Long story short; this is the main reason why we were behind schedule. Usually we'd be starting the trail by 10am, but by 11:30am we were still standing at the side of the road, the smiley face on the sign holding it together for us.
After what felt like an eternity, a young teacher from the North Island picked us up. She smiled as we got in the car, explaining that she'd hitched in the rain before and it's simply unpleasant.
She's not wrong.
We drove through the last bit of mountains that made up Arthurs Pass, over an open plain of loose rivers and rocks, over a small bridge, then passed a familiar face walking on the side of the road.
We made sure to flip Matt off as we drove by him, to which he responded by tapping on his watch. Even he knew we were behind schedule.
By the time we finally reached the beginning of our first day on the track, it was noon. We decided to make a quick stop at the Bealey Hut, just ten minutes into the walk, to have some lunch and sign the intentions book that is found in each hut. The intentions book is a DOC (Department of Conservation) welcome book which explains bush safety, then asks you to sign your name and explain where you're going in case there is a natural disaster. This way they know you're on the trail and know you may need help.
Around noon thirty, Matt made an appearance at the same hut. He was shocked to see that we were going the same way as him, but I know deep down he was pleased to see us again. After some pleasantries, he continued on his way. After all - he's a professional TA walker.
I sang "One is the Loneliest Number" as he walked off, and with one last breath before disappearing up the hill, he called back to me. As I turned to look at him, he threw up his middle finger and ran away.
After our lunch, we began our first day on the trail. Our main intention was to get to Lagoon Saddle Hut before being informed that it wasn't as much a hut as it was a shelter. We had been sceptical about staying there after that, but had decided to cross that bridge when we got there.
For what felt like a good 7km all we were doing was uphill. Not even the slightest decline greeted us as we made our way higher and higher up into the mountains. "When will it stop!?" I begged through panted breaths. If there was one thing I hated the most about hiking through the South Island, it was going uphill. And down here, there is a lot of uphill.
We made it to the top of the first mountain and I'm sure the view is great on most days, but that first day was so cloudy that we could barely see five meters in front of ourselves, let alone 1100m below. So instead of enjoying the views I focused on stumbling through the long, wet grass that scratched my legs as I walked by and hid small pockets of mud deep within their grasps.
Now, I know I have some very dear friends out there who have, most likely, placed bets on my clumsy nature. So yes, I did fall the first day. And yes, the first fall did involve my left knee. This time included a power slide that went on for infinity and ended with my left foot completely behind my back and my straight face of disappointment staring up at the clouds. I yelled out to the mountains after that, asking them to take an easy on me this time.
Clearly they didn't listen.
I fell a total of five times that day, and slipped many more in between. I sunk knee deep in a pond of moss and mud and there was truly a moment that I felt like I would have to pull a "127 Hours" after about thirty seconds of trying to pull my leg out of it. I remember thinking to myself, "This is fine. I can live with a nub leg for the rest of my life," as I debated grabbing my knife and just getting it over with.
I finally freed my leg in time to get the other one stuck in a pit of mud about 2km away, this time ankle deep. At this point all I could do was laugh. The truth is that regardless what the forest and mountains have in store for me, I put myself in it's care because it is exactly what I want to do. I want to be out there in the bush, desperately searching for the next hut. It's as if it's become an addiction that only the wilderness can fulfill.
We reached the Saddle Lagoon Hut at around 5pm, an hour and a half behind schedule, only to realize we really just wanted to push on to the next. We were sore, exhausted, and hungry, yet we knew that if we didn't make it to the next hut that night we would have to walk even further tomorrow. So we decided to make our way to West Harper Hut, though we knew it was older and less covered.
We traveled for another three hours through the roots and mud in order to get there. I fell once more about 1km away, face towards the sky again. I took a deep breath and let out a very exaggerated sigh of anguish as I hoisted myself back up, this time having to take my pack off to do so. At this point I was so covered in mud, I just had to accept my muddy, adventurous life.
We finally made it to the West Harper Hut, which had been made in 1957, and you could tell that it was an oldie. The door didn't fully close, there were barely any windows for light, the beds were just cots that were made from a wooden frame and stapled rubber, and the floor was dirt. It was truly an old fashioned taste, but I still smiled as I saw it.
Imagine the stories that hut must have held! It was so small, so quaint, and so rustic. The people who had stayed in it throughout the years all had a different journey underway. I felt honoured to officially be one of those people, adding to the history that resided in those walls.
We made our dinner as soon as possible, played a game of crazy eights (Lyra finally won a game), then we decided to get to bed so that we could leave as soon as we awoke. The Hamilton Hut was the next stop and we were excited to find some running water and a toilet. It also had real bunkbeds, and after a night in those cots I knew my body would be aching for one.
The next morning we slept in until 8:30am and decided to have a fast breakfast and make our way out. We wanted to make sure to spend as much time in the presence of the Hamilton Hut as possible, knowing it was going to be beautiful. I had a protein bar and a meal replacement shake before packing at the speed of light and running out the door.
We spent the next three hours walking at a very steady pace, enjoying every step of the hike. There were an even number of up and down hills with a very gracious amount of straight paths.
At a mud crossing, yours truly slipped off the balance log and landed straight in the mud. Both feet were ankle deep in the stuff, along with one of my arms, but thankfully my butt landed on the log. I sat there for a moment to collect my inner thoughts - yet again - before pulling myself up. My fate on this track had been decided. That fate was falling. Every. Damn. Day.
We made our way through the lush forests and popped out at the side of the river. It was a beautiful opening where three mountains tucked into eachother, the river flowing between their curves.
"Look!" Lyra cheered. "A blue sky!"
I looked up in time to see the clouds dispersing and the sun making an appearance as blue skies took over the scene. After the cloudy day we'd had yesterday, it was great to see a view finally.
Looking up at the sky reminded me of the song "Blue Skies" by Noah and the Whale, and I got the sudden urge to turn my iPod on for the first time in weeks and play it in that exact moment.
"Lyra, I have to go to music town for a bit." I explained.
She smiled and said "Go for it, man!"
That was such an important moment to me on this trail. I put a song on that was first listened to in college, when I was a completely different person. Back then, that song had such a meaning to me. To see that even now, being a new version of myself - across the world - this song could hold a similar meaning to me; just reminded me of the power music holds in a persons soul.
I spent the next bit of the trail going through old songs and having a rock out concert behind Lyra. She eventually put her headphones in and we became two people in our own little worlds. It was a great way to spend the remainder of the day as we reached the bridge that led to the hut.
There was a detour trail that took you up another mountain to a few different lookouts, so we decided to leave our bags at the bridge and go have a look. About halfway up, and beside a very steep drop, I told Lyra to continue on. My fear of heights has been getting better, but not on ledges that led to sudden death.
Climbing the mountains has put a very interesting outlook on life. There are times when you look at a drop off and think, "That isn't a fatal fall, but it'd still hurt." Then other, much steeper times, you'll look over the ledge and automatically think of all of the people you love and the things you've yet to accomplish in life.
This was one of those times.
So I let Lyra continue being crazy and made my way back down the mountain. I greeted my pack like an old friend I hadn't seen for a while, threw him on my back, than made my way the last 100m to the hut. I listened to my music the rest of the way, feeling such a nostalgic happiness as the porch came into view.
The Hamilton Hut is such a wonderful place. The moment I saw it, nestled in the trees with a wide open view of a mountain across the river, I knew I was going to have a great rest of the day. I ran up the steps, chucked my muddy shoes off, then opened the screen door (protection from the sandflies for once!), to find a note on the table that read "Caitlyn and Lyra", in Matts handwriting.
It was a poem that hoped we'd had a good day, and told us to enjoy the hut. He'd also stated himself as our "Hunk of British Beef" as he said his goodbyes until next time. It looked like our game of leapfrog was over for now, but - just as he'd stated - I know in my heart that we'll meet again.
It was in that moment, after reading his note and looking out at the field with wild rabbits and a flowing river, that I started to laugh. Then cry. No, it wasn't because it'd be so long until I saw my dear Hunk of British Beef again.
It was because I was so happy. It had been so long since I'd felt such an unexplainable, undeniable amount of happiness in my life. No other emotion on this trail could feel quite like this one. I started laughing and crying at the same time, and it ended with dancing in the kitchen to more music. I felt such a freedom as I spun around. A freedom that sky rocketed me away from every pain I'd ever felt.
All because of a note from a new friend and a few bunnies.
We spent the remainder of the day lounging in the sun and eating food. We played cards and relaxed all day, seeing as we'd arrived by noon. I was enjoying every second that I could because I knew tomorrow was going to be a hard day for me.
On the agenda for the next day was Cass Saddle. 1300m up a steep hill to cross a mountain and come back down. We weren't sure what to expect for the day, but one thing was certain - it was going to be high.
My fears were haunting me in the morning as we made our way out the door. I was so afraid of what lied ahead knowing that no matter what it was, I was climbing it. I hated the idea of not enjoying myself because of my fears, but sometimes life is unfair. I've lived with a hatred of heights for as long as I can remember, and everyday on this trail is a push in the direction of controlling it.
I remembered that as we began our walk towards the saddle. We were put behind schedule when we found a credit card on the ground, owned by a runner that had passed us a few minutes before, and I insisted I run back to the Hamilton Hut. I tossed my bag down and began running back down the trail. We were about 15 minutes in by then, so I made it back to the hut in 10. The runner, however, had already moved on.
The bad news is that I would have to find another way to return her card to her. The good news is that I realized I could actually run for a long period of time without getting overly tired and panting. It was made much easier without a 75L bag, as well.
We continued our trek towards the saddle. It was always clearly in the distance, staring us in the face as we followed the river upwards. We stepped over rocks and across streams for a fairly decent amount of time, but when our shoes began to get wet we knew we'd gone the wrong way as they weren't supposed to get wet on the track once that day.
We'd missed the marker that led us into the forests, which caused us to stay on the riverbed for most of the time. We zigzagged our way through the rushing streams, looking desperately for any kind of marker to put us back on track. We even bumped into a couple of Canadian geese - their sound distinguishable to any other animal in existence to me.
We finally found the track after about 4km of river hopping, and I was glad to be back on the markers until the track began going straight up.
Ah, it seems as if the saddle had been found.
Lyra and I began our ascent up the mountain - a part she always enjoys and I always loathe. Every step meant a foot higher off the ground, but I had already had a pep talk with myself which basically involved saying, "Suck it up buddy. There's only one way you can go, and that's up."
So up I went. Higher and higher. So quickly the air grew thinner and thinner. Lyra got further and further away, but I let her. She would turn back to make sure I was okay and I would just wave her to leave me. I was going to take a while and I didn't want to keep her from getting to the good stuff.
There was a point on the hill where I let out a gasped squeak. I tried so hard to cry but the lack of oxygen made it impossible. My fear was setting in, and though I was covered by trees I could still sense the height around me. "This is it." I had thought. "This is where I die."
I stood beside a tree, gasping for the nonexistent air my lungs so desperately wanted. I was terrified when I looked up at the steep stepping I had left. It was still so far too the top, and I felt like I was never going to make it.
"Who've we got here?" I'd heard a voice from behind me.
I had turned around, still grasping the tree, to see a man smiling up at me. He was in his 50s, two large bottles of water hanging from both sides of his neck, and a decent sized pack on his back.
"My name is Caitlyn." I had answered. "Please, don't mind me. I'm terrified of heights and my body has decided to stop for a few moments."
"Kia Ora, Caitlyn. My name is Andrew." He had replied.
Kia Ora is a Maori greeting that is used frequently here in New Zealand. It is a way of telling someone to be well and healthy throughout their life.
Andrew proceeded to walk up to me, his smile continuing. "Do you know what James Cook said when people asked him how he took on the mountains back when he first came to New Zealand?"
James Cook was an English navigator and captain who landed in New Zealand back in 1769. He was one of the first to write about the Maori people and explore New Zealand's lands, drawing accurate maps of the mountain ranges.
I smiled at him curiously and shook my head.
Andrew nodded with a smile and said "He said 'one step at a time.'"
"That sounds like a very Kiwi thing to say." I breathlessly laughed back.
"Well Caitlyn," Andrew began, "you and I are going to defeat this mountain. One step at a time."
Andrew gestured me up the steep hills, and I began again. He stayed with me the whole way up, reminding me of the altitude change whenever I needed to stop and catch my breath. He was determined to watch me get to the top, and insisted on staying with me the whole time. He told me stories about his life and what he does for a living. He told me about his wife back home and how they would welcome myself and Lyra over anytime we needed a couch to sleep on.
It was amazing to meet someone as respectful and caring as Andrew is. He truly had the kiwi spirit, and wasn't afraid to show it. He showed such generosity to a stranger he found, gasp-weeping on the middle of a trail. He taught me about the ever changing pressure in the air as he glided up that mountain with controlled breathing, as if he'd been doing it his whole life.
Of course, he had been doing it his whole life.
When we'd reached the top my whole perspective had changed. I was laughing, telling stories, and I was completely unaware of how high up I was. Especially when we'd finally reached the saddle, as it was - just like the blue lake experience - a completely flat field of long grass.
After some more words with Andrew, Lyra and I continued on through the grass, looking for the next hut. Andrew would be arriving soon after us, so he graciously offered me one of his trekking poles to use. Although, even with the trekking pole I fell - yet again.
We made it to our last hut, which had three beds and four people living in it's walls. I slept on the floor, and by "slept" I mean "rolled around aimlessly, freezing, for eight hours until we could get up and leave." When the morning finally arrived, Lyra and I packed faster than we'd ever packed before and left for the end of the trail.
On the last day of this journey, I came out of the mountains with a few new friends, a new outlook on perspectives, and a happiness that could not be denied. Though we got lost as well and ended up on someones private land - we're sorry, okay?! - I would say this was a very successful adventure.
It seems that every time I leave for the mountains, I come back a changed person. I've decided that I like getting lost, because I always find someone else on the other side of the map.