Off the Beaten Trail

Every individual has a path in their life that leads them to great things. Be it a new career, an airplane ticket, a new home, a relationship, or an incredible adventure, every path is created with our own intentions in mind.

I’ve been haunted by one of my biggest paths for three years now, and it’s time I shed some light onto my own grey cloud. I bring this to a head in the hopes that other people who feel discouragement can accept the hardships and learn that sometimes, you just have to move on with your life.

Three years ago I set off on an adventure. In retrospect, it seemed insane, but doable. I was going to walk 3000km across New Zealand on Te Araroa (The Long Pathway). I was a determined 23 year old with nothing to lose. I’d researched, trained, and spent a lot of money, but my plane was touching down in Auckland faster than all that research had prepared me for.

Thru-hikers are another breed of determined, and I was proud to be labelled alongside them. Every person I had met on the trail was independent, strong, and full of adventure. Everything I had strived to be. Finally, after so much prep, I was among them.

But I wasn’t happy.

There was a point on this trail when I realized that, regardless of my determination, I was unfit to mentally withstand that of a thru-hike. It was a moment on my path that crushed me beyond repair, and I tried my best not to speak about it. Certain sections became unrealistic both physically and emotionally, dark days rolled in more frequently than light, and I was unsure if I was forcing myself to remain on this pathway due to a year of convincing myself that it was what I needed.

This was the point when I realized I would not be a 3000km Te Araroa thru-hiker. Not because I didn’t want it, but because that young girl wasn’t as ready as she’d thought. It became too much to bare, accepting the fact that I wouldn’t make the full trek.

This is when the paths we choose teach us the greatest lessons. When we’re withered and sunken; when there’s not much more in our hearts then a small beckon of hope. It is when we’re closest to giving up that our hike becomes our own.

A decision had to be made, and although I couldn’t compare myself to any valuable hiker who throws blood, sweat, and tears into the full trek, I was going to try and make myself proud. I was going to follow Te Araroa in any way I could, be it my feet, a boat, or a car.

I would never sit proudly and tell the world I hiked all of Te Araroa. I barely tell them I’m a “true TA hiker”. There is no part of my soul that would compare my experience to that of someone who dragged their bodies from the very depths of New Zealands inner core.

What haunts me is that Te Araroa changed my life, but sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to say it. Did I ever deserve to be given a plaque from City Hall congratulating me on making it from Cape Reinga to Bluff? Did I deserve to pop champagne at the finish line and cheer myself on for a job well done?

I lost my mind on 90 mile beach, I felt the air of Blue Lake, I pulled my wet body from the Longwoods, I walked the blistering roads of the North, I swam in the ocean along the QCT, I climbed saddles, I was eaten alive by sandflies, I trekked beside ocean storms, I worked in trade of accommodation. I lost toe nails, I pushed passed thoughts of turning back, I  dragged my legs through knee high mud, I tripped on hundreds of tree roots, I got lost in mountain grass, I tried to pet random horses, I dug my heels through pebbled beaches, I took a shower once a week, I got splashed by cars in the rain, I almost cried eating Ferg Burger in Queenstown, and I most certainly cried when I made it to Bluff. I did an immense amount on this trail that I didn’t see possible, all because I decided to stop listening to the judgements of people and hike my own fucking hike - and that’s something to be celebrated. Does this make me better than anyone else? Definitely not. Does this make me better than who I used to be? Absolutely.

I’m not a TA Thru Hiker, but I am a TA Hiker. I hiked more than half of it, and that was a celebration I was allowed - and am still allowed - to have. I should be able to keep that plaque on display as a reminder that I took the path best given to myself at that time in my life, while still remembering and appreciating the people who do finish the full race. My celebrations are not a degrading of their triumphs, but a self proclaiming of my own strengths and weaknesses.

The paths we choose are designed within ourselves, and most of the time they don’t go as planned. Some follow a course, while others stray. My path was written to make me stronger, not to haunt me or make me feel unworthy. The zig zags I created on a map were life altering events that left me asking for more, wondering how I could be better.

What I’m saying is simple: never destroy your peace of mind because you don’t stay on the same path originally planned, and never compare yourself to others. Some people deserve more praise for their actions, but that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to feel worthy of your own accomplishments.

Your path exists to be broken and fixed. It’s going to be handled gently and thrown sideways. No matter how hard we’re hit by these lessons, it is in those times that we realize our path is ours for a reason.


Te Araroa: Part Thirteen

The date was January 5th, 2017…

At a young age I was taught the value of a moment. I admit full-heartedly that it wasn’t an easy task to learn so. There were times in my early adulthood where I would have completely forgotten to stop and breathe with the rush of multitasking taking over. Love, work, inspiration. Sometimes, it’s hard to focus on all of them at once.

On the last day of Te Araroa, I woke up with a sense of pain. I had tried so hard to take everyday and make it it’s own story, but this was the last day and I’d felt like all of it had been taken for granted.

How could three months be gone? Three beautiful. eye opening, agonizing months - gone? I felt unenergized. Mentally tired. I didn’t even want to think about walking the last 35km from Invercargill to Bluff.

Most of the day was road walking, which by now we all know is my least favourite kind of walking. I’d decided to walk for as long as I felt, then hitch to the famous Bluff sign on the outskirts of town. I saw it as more of a personal project at this point - 1500km hiking, 1500km hitchhiking. Why not have one last go at both on the last day? One of my favourite parts about only hiking the parts I was interested in were the incredible people I met along the hitchhiking parts.

Lyra and I dressed silently in the living room of our couch surfer host, an energetic and savvy man named John  - who’d already gone to work but had assured us the night before he’d be at the finish line cheering us on. Another hiker, Janine, was preparing for the day as well. We’d met back passed Colac Bay, on a stormy beach headed towards Riverton, and she’s dealt with our crazy antics ever since.

The plan was simple - walk at our own paces, enjoy the day to the fullest, and meet at the finish line.

We remained together until 15kms in. After walking a man made nature trail beside a small pond, with docks on one side and buildings on the other, the road began full force. Thankfully it wasn’t an overly hot day, but it was still a scorcher to three people with packs on their backs and battered shoes that had seen more than many shoes have seen before.

“I’m going to speed up a bit, if that’s okay?” Janine said, adjusting her straps.

“Absolutely, you guys should both just go ahead. I’m going to hitch from here.” I stopped, peeling my pack from my back and stretching. “I’m hoping for some interesting characters this time around.”

I’ve hitched many roads along this trail, and I’ve met many amazing people. People with coolers full of organs from animals they’d just hunted, people with fancy cars that have children in our position in a different country, people who stop off for coffee and ask about your life, people who take you the full 4 hour drive to different towns in order to adventure off the trail, people who became dear friends.

My last hitch on this trail wasn’t any of those people.

Lyra and Janine headed off and I walked along the road with my thumb out. I walked another 3km or so before a van stopped. The van had four young travellers in it.

“Hey! I’m heading to Bluff. Mind giving me a lift?” I smiled at the strangers.

“Of course, we’re on our way there too.” The driver said. He was very young, probably younger than me, and I could tell that he didn’t speak English very often.

I got into the back of the van with three other people staring at me. It got very silent - almost as if I’d just gotten on a shared uber drive.

No one spoke. It was a very quiet, awkward 10km drive. I could tell that none of them spoke English, because every time I tried to make conversation they just smiled or nodded.

Thinking back at it now, it’s kind of funny. After months of walking and hitching across a country, there was no way I could make the full trek without running into at least one awkward encounter.

The drive felt much longer than it actually was, but eventually I made it to Bluff, a few kilometres from the sign.

“You can drop me off here, if you’d like!” I said, excitedly. I was grateful to have someone give me a lift for a bit, but I was also pretty happy to be alone again.

After getting out of the van, it all hit at once. I stood on the side of the road for a while, staring at the last 8kms. I felt numb, emotionless. I couldn’t tell if I felt this way because I’d wasted so much time hitchhiking when I’d promised myself to walk the full thing, or because I’d become such a different person on this trail that I was afraid of losing her.

Overtime, it turns out that both of those reasons came into play on that day.

When you prepare for a thruhike, you put your full mind into it. You eat, drink, and sleep hiking. All you talk about is the hike. All you dream about is the hike. All you do is the hike. On that last day, that had become my life for a year and a half. Was I a failure for only walking half, when so many others had walked the full? Was I allowed to tell people I finished Te Araroa when 1500km of it were spent in a car, bus, or boat?

I was numb because I was placing a judgement on myself - telling myself I wasn’t a true finisher because I admitted to my weaknesses. As I looked at those last 8kms, I became enraged. Enraged that I would ever allow anyone to diminish my emotions over the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. Enraged because, for a moment, I listened to them. I ate their words and digested them into my own mind, allowing myself to feel unworthy of calling myself a Te Araroa hiker.

I had met so many people along the trail with the same emotions as me. People who came to this country with a plan, but got destroyed half way through by others perception on what it is to be a hiker.

I was numb, but the job needed to be done. I would decide at the end if I was worthy of touching that pole, but I had to make it there first.

I decided to sit at the Bluff sign for a bit to re-bandage my feet from weeks of walking. Maybe Lyra or Janine would grace me with their presence and I could have a buddy for the last leg of the journey, which was now only 6kms away.

I looked down the road, with no signs of others. Just an empty road, curved from the beginning of town. Turning towards the Bluff sign, the trail continued towards a cliff side - the long way around - but still the only way I would want to go.

Thankful that the last bit of the hike wasn’t a road, I set off up the grassy hill. The sound of cars slowly disappeared and were replaced by the distant sound of crashing waves. A breeze picked up and the smell of the ocean hit. Salt mixed with hot rocks and seaweed.

I moved up the hill faster, eager to get to the ocean. An ocean I’d occasionally glanced at from far off distances. Every mountain we’d climbed for the last week revealed the view of the South, where we would always point at the ocean and say “Look. It’s Bluff.”

Yes, it was. And I was ready to feel it on my skin.

After a few more strides I reached the top of the hill. It was early afternoon, and the sun was hitting the ocean on a brilliant angle as the waves crashed along the shore.

Being from Southern Canada, you would think that the sound of waves hitting the shore would be a lot like the great lakes, but even on the angriest of days the lakes don’t come close to the sound of the ocean. The powerful crash leaves you breathless, imagining what it would be like to be swept away with the undertow.

I wasn’t far now. Maybe 4kms or so. I just looked out at the ocean, trying to take it all in. I still felt numb and unsure, but there was a sense of comfort in the waves. An ocean I’d looked at fondly for a week was finally looking back at me, and I could hear it. Smell it. Feel it.

I continued to walk along the cliff edge, legs more powerful then the beginning of the day. I was prepared to finish this hike, and I was prepared to say goodbye.


I whipped my head around as Janine strolled up gracefully beside me. 

“I knew I’d run into you eventually.” She smiled.

I laughed as we hugged. “Beautiful view, isn’t it?” I said, gesturing towards the ocean.

We both stood for a bit longer, smiling out at the South.

Having Janine by my side, we strolled effortlessly until we reached a path created for tourists. It was clean and kept proper, with beautiful plants growing on the sides. We walked silently, beginning to hear laughing in the distance.

A mother and son from South America were sitting at a picnic table, located at the top of the cliff side as a lookout view. He had climbing gear on, and his mother was in the middle of adjusting some of his straps. He looked up to see us and smiled, greeting us with personality.

“Look what we have here! Hello!”

“And I suppose you’re about to hang off the side of the cliff?” I laughed, a bit nervously thinking about the heights he was about to hang from.

We began talking and he told us of his life. How he’s a rock climber who likes to travel and, essentially, climb and fall down any cliff he can. Listening to the freedom of his stories was eyeopening, reminding us in that moment that life is meant to be explored. 

We pretended we weren’t in a rush to leave, but both of us knew the goal was only a few kilometres away, so after a few more minutes of conversation we got up and readjusted our packs - for what would be the last time on this trail.

There was only one turn left. Hundreds of turns and curves on the trail somehow became one and before we knew it the post that signified the finish line was in view. Less than a kilometre away.

I’d spent a year imagining the moment that I would touch that finish line. Who would I be? How would I have changed? Was this how I was supposed to feel about it all ending?

I looked at that post and stood tall. I was ready, wasn’t I? Ready to stop living out of a bag? Ready to admit my defeats and accept the journey that I’d had?


I snapped out of my mood the moment I heard Lyra. The girl who stuck by me when no one else did. The person that I met, exhausted on a beach 3000kms away from the point we were at. The girl who wanted this as bad as I did, but was willing to admit her own defeats and create her own adventure. She was smiling, running towards us. Her pack was off - her journey already over.

“How?! HOW DID YOU BEAT US?” I screamed back, my pace quickening to get to her.

“I decided to walk the road the whole way. I created my own path.”

She reached us in a few more strides and grabbed our arms, excitedly dragging us towards the pole.

“Go! Touch it!” She cheered.

A group of tourist had gathered to witness, along with John. He began cheering, three mini bottles of champagne in his hands.

Janine swiftly went towards the pole, placing her hand on it. She smiled and hugged it, emotionally laughing.

I stared at it. Two steps. That’s all the was left. Two steps.

A thruhike isn’t for everyone, and never in a million years would I have thought it was for me. As I stared at that pole, all numbness from the day disappeared and I was flooded with every emotion I’d felt in these last months. What did it matter if some thought I was a cheat for making this hike my own? Why was I unworthy of seeing the greatness I was able to achieve in myself as I created a beautiful story across one of the most incredible countries on this planet? I was just as much a thruhiker as anyone else, and the haunting feeling that I wasn’t lifted as I looked at that damn pole.

Te Araroa, The Long Pathway, was all done in two steps.

I put my hand out, letting it linger in front of the pole. Cheering was prominent around me, but was quiet compared to my thoughts. My body began shaking and tears strolled down my face as I took the last two steps, covered my eyes, and made contact with the finish.

I burst into tears, grabbing it with both hands and moving it back and forth.

“Stupid pole.” I muttered as more tears escaped my eyes.

Lyra and Janine came up to me, and we all hugged. It was done, and our time on Te Araroa was now in the past. A close memory at the time has turned into a distant, and the trail still teaches me lessons when I allow it to. Not very often do I go a day without thinking about it - about my life as a thruhiker.

After years of sitting on this moment, wondering how I would ever get to the end of telling this story, we’ve arrived. Thinking back on it, Lyra, Janine, and I opening champagne and spraying each other in celebration, reminds me that you truly do have to hike your own hike. If I hadn’t, I would have never been there at that time. That perfect time where the only thing that existed were us and that pole that read “Cape Reinga: 1401km”. Each of us had our own adventure, yet somehow we all ended up there together.

If i’m being honest, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.


Te Araroa: Part Twelve

The Date was December 22nd, 2016…

“There’s a car.” Lyra said, a few feet ahead of me.

“What? There can’t be -“ I began as I caught up to her, well rested but mentally not all there.

We had decided to make today a short day after our rainy evening in the Taipo Hut. Although our hikes had been manageable for the past few days, both of us were beginning to feel the nearing of the end. We were about two weeks to Bluff at this point, and the realization that our chapters were coming to a close had us both a bit unnerved.

I looked across the stream that separated us from the Boundary Hut. Parked outside was a large white pickup truck but no sign of anyone around it.

“Should we see if anyones home?” I asked, walking towards the thin wire bridge that dangled above the stream. Lyra and I walked across the bridge, one at a time, and made our way to the front door of the hut. As we walked passed the truck it had become clear that it was a group of hunters, probably out looking for Red Deer.

Red Deer are one of the largest species of deer that were introduced to New Zealand back in 1851, along with other game species. Sadly, the female - also known as a Hind - was shot before they had a chance to reproduce. Two more hinds and a stag were sent in 1861, which began the start of the ever flourishing spread across both islands between 1861 and 1926. This acclimatization was the start of a vast overpopulation - and now Red Deer in New Zealand are considered pests. This being said, their antlers are still considered one of the greatest types of trophy and it is widely popular to hunt them.

Lyra knocked on the hut door before entering, but as we opened the door it became clear that no one was around. There were four individual sleeping bags taking up all of the beds and a plastic container full of at least a weeks worth of food and fresh water.

“Well, they must be out hunting, but it’s clear that this hut is taken for the evening.” Lyra said as she pulled out her map.

“I guess our short day just got a tad bit longer.” I smiled, ready to lay down but also uncomfortable staying around so much of someone else’s stuff. The funny thing about hiking is that I’m not always excited about running into other people. It all depends on my mentality. Most days, I’m excited about meeting people. Usually when we meet someone in a hut it’s because they’re taking a vacation from work and hiking for fun. Sometimes, we meet other TA hikers and swap stories about different sections.

Today was not one of those days. No; today was a day where all I wanted to do was meditate and focus on anything but my life after the trail.

“It looks like Carey’s Hut is our next option. It’s only about another six kilometres from here.” Lyra said, measuring the distance with her pinky.

At this point, I’d already adjusted my pack and I was standing at the door staring out into the vast land ahead of me. The sun danced behind the clouds, moving fast in the breeze. The sky so blue that life stood still. I turned to her and nodded, leaving Boundary Hut forever. It would have been a nice sleep, but there was no way I was going to stay there with four hunters. I knew Lyra felt the same.

We began the last six kilometres back across the bridge and up a small hill. The ground became flat for a few kilometres before revealing a road that began to wind around a cliff.

It seemed that most trails on the South Island ended with a cliff or mountain.

“I’m not sure what to do when I get back.” I began, staring at my feet.

Lyra looked at me with a similar expression on her face.

“It’s getting close, but we’ve still got time yet.” She smiled back at me.

We looked at eachother for a moment before beginning our climb up the road. At this point, we each put our headphones in. It was our way of having “alone” time most days. I always started with Modest Mouse’s album “Good News For People Who Love Bad News”. There was just something about it that helped me concentrate on my steps more than my thoughts.

We made it to Carey’s Hut about an hour later where we, happily, found it vacant. The hut was on the North side of the Mavora Lake and had a beautiful view of the mountains and cliffs that tucked the lake into the earth. It was pretty exciting to find a hut like this one that was empty with so many places to sleep and spots to relax. 

Lyra and I began cooking our dinners, staring at a wall with hikers signatures all over it. So many people from before us, and so many after us, will sit in these same spots and contemplate something about their lives.

Part of me just wanted to go home after. Maybe it was because Christmas was coming up and for the first time in my entire life I wouldn’t be with my family to celebrate it, or maybe it was because I just truly missed London. Either way, I felt an unknown ache in my stomach that begged time to stop moving, while longing for home. This weird emotion that wanted this life to go on forever, but at the same time wanted it to stop.

I had started this hike with a mission, after a year of obsessing. It was on this day, and the ones that followed, that had me completely vulnerable to the trail. In two weeks time, I would be standing at that pole. The pole I fantasized about. The finish line that I dreamed would show me exactly who I was supposed to be.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready to find out quite yet, but with each passing step… I was closer to whoever she was.


Te Araroa: Part Eleven

The date was December 17th, 2016…

To say we’d made it to Queenstown with ease would be nothing less than a true story. We honestly had. When the Cass-Lagoon had finished we'd hopped a bus to Lake Tekapo. From there, we found two men and a dog who offered us a drive to Wanaka, which led to a music party through the mountains for two hours. Everything was going smoothly, although I’d contracted some sort of sickness during our last trek, which had left me with a sore body and a very unpleasant evening in Wanaka.

While in Wanaka, Lyra and I ran into my old friend Nicole. Remember her? The one who’d originally found me on the side of the road in Matamata, then again in Taupo - where she took me on a four day adventure down to Wellington. Here she was again - offering us a drive to Queenstown while making us a delicious dinner and playing New Zealand game shows on the television. Of course she would be there to send us off into our next part of the journey. 

The drive to Queenstown was about two hours, and it breezed by with our banter and endless laughing. Everything went as planned - with occasional pull overs as the nausea came back. 

Side note; You know what I learned from that illness? Always filter your water. Just do it. Okay? I’m not even kidding. Being sick led to missing a cool trek, laying around on a beautiful day, and having a disturbing night with three hostel mates. Did I deserve it? I say no, but my Sawyer Mini is still laughing at me.

Anyways, Queenstown.

We arrived in the early afternoon, where Nicole dropped us off at the Southern Laughter Hostel - AKA: the greatest hostel in the world. We were given our keys to a sweet ass room, where multiple amazing people were there to greet us. This included a boy from Boston with a sense for adventure and cars, another girl from France who had a quiet, yet excited personality, a young and spontaneous girl from Australia who would jump off the walls to the hint of a new journey, an American girl with confidence that shared the force to move mountains, and another girl from England, who’s travels made her stronger with every step.

“This is perfect.” I stated, laying on my bunkbed while Lyra unpacked her bag.

She had received her bounce box, a box full of belongings including replacement shoes and pants that gets mailed along the trail as you walk it. She was digging through it to see what she could use.

“I’m excited that we’re here. There are so many things to do.” Lyra cheered, eyes still fixated on the box of goodies infront of her.

“What should we do first?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

“FERGBURGER!” We both yelled.

Fergburger is a burger joint in Queenstown that has grown quite a reputation. Almost every Kiwi who we’d passed had told us to stop there on our way through. We had to listen to them, obviously.

The walk there was full of excitement as we walked passed pubs, shops, icecream parlours, and other hostels. Everywhere we turned had another traveller from another country. Clearly, Queenstown was the place to be! When we arrived at our destination, we couldn't help but laugh at what was infront of us. We were told of the lines that occur at Fergburger, but nothing prepared us for what it was actually like. When we got there, the line went down the street - at least a thirty minute wait. We were told, however, that it was worth it.

And worth it, it was.

“Jesus Christ, this burger is delicious.” I said, mouth full of bacon and beef, only seconds after arriving back at the hostel.

Lyra was staring at the ceiling, as if she’d just bitten into the world. “Oh my god.” is all she could mutter.

That evening, with our bodies full of happiness, we went out to an Ice Bar with our Flatmates. As a Canadian, I gotta say, you don’t really need a jacket in there. That being said, the jacket adds to the adventure. Also, they don’t let you go in without it. I wore it mainly for that reason.

We spent the night on the streets of Queenstown, heading to a dance bar and dancing until we couldn’t see straight. It was a night to remember, and one I will never forget.

The next few days were spent relaxing, driving to Blue Pool (It was raining, so it was actually murky grey. HOWEVER, it was still cold to the touch. I only know this because I jumped into it and almost got swept away. But, we’ll leave that for another time), eating more Ferg, then walking along the beach and gardens of Queenstown. There was also a tattoo in there, but what else is new?

It was safe to say Queenstown had become one of my favourite places in New Zealand. The people, the sights, and the nightlife that gave me just enough of a reminder of home without being too overwhelming. I never wanted to leave.

However, all things come to an end. Good and bad.

“Hey Caitlyn, get up.” Lyra said. “It’s time to get back to the TA.”

Just like that, our five day break had been completed. We made our way to the edge of town and with one last glimpse of the mountains along the lake that resided in the middle of Queenstown, we stuck our thumbs out and waited for our drive to arrive. The one that would take us to our next stop - Greenstone Caples.


Te Araroa: Part Ten

The date was Dec 10th, 2016…

“I think we may be lost.” Lyra said as we followed the riverbank along the Cass-Lagoon trek. We’d been walking for an hour and neither of us had seen a trail marker for at least half of that time.

The river zigged zagged as we continued up it’s path, looking around for a sign that we were on the right track. A trail marker, another hiker… A path of any sort, really.

The day prior we spent a lot of time relaxing in the Harper Hut - a vast, comfortable hut that is very popular to the public. Luckily, we happened to be there on a night that wasn’t busy - and by “wasn’t busy”, I mean we were the only ones.

That morning we had multiple set backs, including retracing steps after finding a wallet that a runner had dropped twenty minutes prior, but we were determined to climb the Cass Saddle by noon.

We were determined… 'Were'… Then we got lost along a riverbank.

“How the hell do you get lost ON A RIVERBANK?” I exhaled, following behind Lyra. She was staring at her GPS, shaking her head.

It was a gloomy day out. The sky was grey and the breeze was brisk, but there was no sign of rain. Then again, there was no sign of anything. We were lost. Nothing but a couple of hikers beside a river.

“It says we need to cut over this hill to find the trail on the other side.” Lyra said, pointing to her right, still looking down at her phone. I followed her finger to the side of the riverbank. A small hill resided there. A hill full of trees, broken branches, roots at all angles, harsh rocks, and mud. At this point, those kinds of paths were not surprising.

“Oh yeah, how did we miss that? Clearly that’s where we need to go.” I stated sarcastically, laughing a bit as I rolled up my pant legs.

We walked along the rocks, pools of water greeting our feet from the hours of high river activity. We were reaching noon, still with no sign of the saddle. Even to this day, I couldn’t for the life of me explain to you how we’d missed the turn to the trail. It was in clear sight, the easiest part of the track, yet we’d missed it, and because of this fact - we found ourselves in the annoying situation of following a muddy hill up to the top, only to find a forest littered with more trees, branches, and mud.

“Well, I guess now we just walk until we find a marker.” Lyra said, beginning into the thick bush.

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” I sighed, stepping behind her.

Another ten minutes had passed as we hacked our way through a forest that could only be found in New Zealand. Roots shot out of the ground, bushes tangled around them. Mud would appear randomly as if sorcery were involved, and branches stabbed skin relentlessly - never showing mercy. I’d received my third stab to the leg when Lyra chimed.

“Oh, I found a marker!”

I looked up to see her tripping along the branches towards a tree that held an orange marker. Instantly my mood changed to excited as I skipped behind her, letting branches scratch my skin and mud fill my shoes. By the time we reached the marker, we were tired and splattered in our own blood, but the path was clear and the trail was prominent.

The time was half passed noon, and we were officially 2km away from the beginning of the saddle. If you asked my opinion, it would be that 2km is not enough time to mentally prepare for a saddle climb - at least for someone who is petrified by heights. I spent the next half hour giving myself pep talks that ended in “Just get your shit together. You gotta do it either way, bud.”

At some point between calling myself an idiot and telling myself I was capable of anything, our path began going upwards. The time for self assurance was over and all that was left was doing what we’d come here to do. Climb a damn mountain.

Now, for those of you who have been following my story since the beginning, you already know where this is going. For those of you who are just joining me now, I’m going to give you a little recap on the events that took place on this climb. Events that led me to make a great friend, who graciously welcomed us into his home to meet his family, eat his food, and enjoy his company.

Lyra was getting further up the hill, and I’d decided not to stop her. I knew that I would be a nuisance, more mentally than physically, as I fought my biggest fear, so I allowed her to leave me behind. At least this way she would make it to the top with ample opportunity to take in the sights.

Another half hour passed and my breathing got heavier. The thing about climbing mountains is that you need to be prepared for the thin air awaiting you - and I was a heavy breather when I did things that freaked me out.

At one point, I needed to stop and collect my thoughts. 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 incline I had left. It was still so far up, 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 seemed to be in his late 40s, or possible early.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 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."

And beat it we did. One step at a time. Every incline, every root, every rock, was taken on head first because of a man who believed in my abilities when I didn’t.

I took on Te Araroa for multiple reasons, but the main reason was because I needed to prove to myself that I could survive the hardest things that life had to throw at me. On this day, I’d taken on something that I would have never believed I could if it weren’t for my own strength and the patience of the people around me. To some, it’s just climbing a mountain. To others, it’s CLIMBING A GOD DAMN MOUNTAIN.

To me? It was taking one more step to the end, and one step more away from the person I was trying to leave behind.


Te Araroa: Part Nine

The date was November 28th, 2016…

Tucked in the mountains just outside of St. Arnaud is a trail that leads you to a beautiful lake called “Blue Lake”. After a four day trek through the mountains I would find myself basking in it’s glory, watching my life change in the blink of an eye. I would feel emotions that I had never felt before, and I would accept it’s lessons with every piece of who I am. In just a mere four days - and another four days out - I would be a completely different person.

The first day started out rough. I’d expected a lot of mountains and heights and I’d prepared myself for that manner, only to be greeted by lush green forests and very slippery roots instead. I mean, I guess you can’t win them all.

My pack was heavier than it had ever been before. This was the first time on Te Araroa that I would truly be away from civilization for more than a week. No contact with the outside world, other than my inReach and other people on the trail. I was nervous to say the least, but also determined to prove something to myself.

I remember everyday of this trek as a different adventure. Even walking back through to the beginning was different because I had become a new person. I had made new friends, gained new trust, and turned into a woman unlike any other in these eight days. I’d taken on challenges, fought myself over failure, and wrestled with my own mind as I fell over and over and over…. and over again.

The rain trickled down for the whole day on our first of eight. It made us wonder what it was going to be like when we’d made it to our final destination. The forest was moist from the ground up. Soaked roots littered the walkway as we jumped over them. Mud was prominent and, with no doubt, part of the whole endeavour.

About an hour into the day I stepped on a root that was so slippery, my left knee collapsed, greeting a sharp rock along the way. My pants, now torn and mangled at the knee, hung down to reveal a gash just below my kneecap.

“Oh good,” I had proclaimed, “this is fine.”

Lyra, after realizing I was alright, began laughing.

“Can you go anywhere without falling or getting stuck in the mud?”

I rolled my eyes at her, but I had to agree that most of my hiking life involved kissing the pavement, or in this case - making out with the forest floor.

I gave myself a quick bandage job, ripping my pant leg off, knowing our first hut wasn’t too far in. I would do a proper clean up when we got there. That is, if I made there alive.

Other than the deadly jungle floor that resided under our feet for an eternity, a rainfall that wouldn’t quit, and patches of mud that loved you more than you loved them, there weren’t many other obstacles until we reached our first river crossing. If you’re not much of an outdoorsman, or don’t fully understand how nature works at all, then let me clear something up for you. River crossings and rain - not a good pair.

The water was high and rushing while rocks spiked out of the river, wanting to greet you with a little wave and a whole lot of death.

“Great. Now what?” I asked, scanning the river for any sign of crossing.

“There’s a flood route we can take.” Lyra said, pointing to a sign.

I followed the arrow on the sign as the trail went up. And up. And boy - did it go up.

“Nooooope.” I said, anxiously looking for a way that I could avoid that whole situation.

Lyra shook her head at me. “Dude. We gotta take it.”

I fumbled with my pack a bit as I complained. “Well I mean… If I had to choose how I was going to die, it’d be from these rocks and a bit of drowning. Not from falling back towards it. If I go up there, I’m just adding another, more inconvenient, step into my own demise.”

“Come on.” Lyra laughed, gesturing towards the route.

I groaned as I followed behind her, forcing my way up the ascending forest floor. Roots went from being the ground to being a staircase. Eventually, they became a steep mess that involved boosting yourself up.

We reached a slim path that followed along the mountain side. Made of loose rocks, you could tell it was easy to make one very wrong move. I looked down towards the river, which was at least 60 metres away. A fall like that was sure to do some damage.

“I don’t think I can do this.” I said under my panicked breath.

“I’ll go first. Just follow behind me.” Lyra said as she began walking on the edge.

I closed my eyes for a moment, breathing in and out. I had to do this. There was no other way.

I began following behind Lyra, petrified of the scene around me. My whole body began tensing, but I forced myself to work through it.

Then my foot slipped.

I let out a small scream as rocks slid down the mountain side, falling to the ground below. My other foot stayed firm to the pathway while my hand covered my mouth. My heart was beating a million miles a second. I hated heights. I hated them so damn much.

Lyra turned back to look at me and said “I don’t know where the path goes from here…”

“What?” I said, removing my hand from my mouth, tears rolling down my face. “What do you mean?”

Lyra pointed towards the end of the trail. “It literally goes no where…” She said.

I looked down at the river, searching for any form of crossing.

“Dammit. We have to go back down there, don’t we?” I said.

“I think so.” Lyra sighed, slowly turning herself around.

We made our way back down to the start. Fumbling on the trees and natural staircases. After about fifteen minutes, we were back at square one.

“You know what,” I began, looking out at the river. “I’m just going to go for it.”

I started taking my shoes of, tucking each sock into them. I threw them over my bag, securing them into place. Lyra began doing the same thing. There was only one way across this raging water, and that was by being slow and determined.

We started in separate locations. I was a bit upstream, looking for a shallow spot to step. Lyra was downstream, using fallen trees as leverage in making it across.

“Just be careful!” I yelled towards her. The rain had subsided for now, but the river was still vicious.

Unhurriedly, we both made our way across, stopping every so often to watch eachother. I used my trekking pole as a third leg, which helped me to keep my balance. The water had reached about thigh deep, which was more than enough depth to knock a grown woman down. At one point, I hit a hard stream in the water and began to topple. As if on instinct, my arm came up and shot the trekking pole into the river, hitting a rock and steading my body.

“If we die doing this, I’m going to be so mad.” I laughed nervously.

Lyra laughed as well as she stepped onto the end of the riverbed.

“Made it!” She cheered, grabbing a cloth out of her pack to dry her feet.

“I’m so happy for you!” I sarcastically yelled as I continued to get across.

Once we’d both safely made it to the other side, we took a quick snack break and dried off a bit. It had begun to rain again, so it’s not like it really helped, but we made the best of our unique life.

After losing an extra hour on the river crossing, we finally made it to our first hut. Speargrass. It was quaint, beautiful, and surrounded by mountains. The view that surrounded the hut was a bonus on an already good win for the day. The clouds began to fade away, revealing a brilliant blue sky. The sunset bounced off the mountains, visible from all angles.

That night we shared the hut with a group of army generals, who got to enjoy the comfort of a warm hut while their students had to sleep outdoors with no tents, no fire starters, and no watches. They were in the middle of a training exercise that involved understanding the importance of outdoor survival, and being able to tell the time from nothing but your environment.

As I laughed with these new faces and learned more about other peoples lives, I remembered why I’d come here in the first place. For adventure. For stories. For myself.

The next seven days would be challenging and although I didn’t know it at the time, on day four I would meet a soul unlike any other, run into Matt again, and create a moment that would forever alter the person I was and am to this day.

As I stared up on those mountains, one day in to this eight day adventure, I had no idea what was going to happen.

All I knew is that I was unstoppable.


Te Araroa: Part Eight

The date was November 22nd, 2016…


I had reached Picton the previous day after a two hour ferry ride that was both exciting and beautiful. Seeing the difference between Wellington and Picton was like going to two very unique locations. I suppose that makes sense as they’re on two different islands, but it was a fascinating experience all in the same.

While standing on the deck of the ferry I made eye contact with a man whom looked just as scruffy and out of place as I did. I knew automatically that he was a TA Hiker. A few days prior I had been speaking to a man from England named Matt, explaining to him how I was getting to the South Island and the times that all of the boats left. I could have guessed that this man were him, but I couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know at the time, but that first look would lead to many others on my South Island adventure and Matt would become a very interesting friend by the time I’d reached the end.

Anyways - the South Island.

I’d gotten there a bit late and was in a panic because I couldn’t attach to internet to find out where Lyra and our friend Laura were catching the water taxi to the start of the Queen Charlotte Track (QCT). I knew it was going to be at 10:30am, and by 10:25am I felt like I was doomed.

With a 50lb pack on, full of four days of supplies and a lot of regret, I ran as fast as I could to the docks. I didn’t know where the water taxi was, but I knew it had to be near water.

I ran for several minutes before I saw Lyra in the distance, cheering at my appearance. 

“OH THANK GOD!” I yelled as I stopped, hands on my thighs as I tried to catch my breath.

“We weren’t sure if you were still coming.” Lyra smiled as she hugged me.

I hadn’t seen Lyra since 90 Mile Beach, at the top of the North Island. At the beginning of Te Araroa. A million adventures ago. It seemed appropriate that we were reconnecting at the top of the South Island.

Laura ran over after, a huge smile on her face. “There you are!” She laughed. It seemed like everyone was afraid they’d have to head out without me.

Laura and I had met in Rotorua, where we had a day of roadtripping in a rented car from a place called “Rent-a-Dent”. I hadn’t seen her since, but she’d had her share of adventures. This included being in Wellington during an Earthquake that measured a 7.8 on the scale. She had to be evacuated from her hostel. I’d been in Taupo at the time, and had barely felt it.

“Hey man. I told you I would make it.” I said, still out of breath.

They laughed and cheered as they coaxed me towards the water taxi station. When I entered the open doors, they introduced me to some friends that would be joining us. A wonderful girl from America that was preparing to cycle across New Zealand, and another Canadian from the Yukon. It was safe to say I was excited to have a fellow Canadian for a few days. 

To get onto the Queen Charlotte Track, you need to purchase a water taxi ticket along with a walking pass. Although the QCT isn’t considered a “Great Walk”, it is still under care of the DOC. The Great Walks are popular treks that stay maintained by the Department of Conservation. By purchasing day passes, you help the DOC with the keeping of the land and all of it’s scenery. Scenery that - and trust me on this one - is worth keeping healthy and happy.

After purchasing my ticket, which Te Araroa Trekkers get a discount on - I’m assuming it’s because most of us are foreigners and they know that we don’t have a lot of money. (Thanks Kiwis, I love you) - I put the day pass around the handle of my pack and swung it back over my shoulders. After a month on the North Island my body was more adjusted to picking up my pack, which made swinging it around much easier for me.

We hopped on the water taxi, which was like a double decker bus with an open top. We found some seats right at the back of the top section, and made ourselves comfortable for the hour or so ride we were about to endure. Just as we settled down, the scruffy hiker from the ferry popped up the stairs and searched for a seat.

“Hey!” I shouted.

He turned around and nodded at us. “Hello”, he spoke.

Yep. British.

“You’re a TAer, aren’t you?” I asked.

“What gave it away?” He laughed.

Lyra and I introduced ourselves as fellow TAers, and explained how the North Island was basically a failure compared to what the South Island was going to be. He laughed and explained his own journey - 40km a day with a mission, every kilometre walked. He was impressive, to say the least.

The water taxi ride was unlike any other boat ride I’d ever taken in my life. Not only was it taking us to the start of our trek, but it was also used as a mailing service for people that lived along the islands we were passing. Houses scattered across the shores, none the same. It was beautiful and such an interesting way of living. We waved at people, and their dogs, as we handed them mail and smiled at their smiles. Everything seemed perfect in the world.

Then, as if the day couldn’t get any better, dolphins emerged from the blue sheets of water that kept them safe. They greeted us with grace and swam beside our boat for a long while, keeping us in their views. It was the cherry on top of an already pretty sweet sundae.

After about an hour we reached the peak of the QCT. 72km later, we would find ourselves back in Picton, but not before a mission of hills that continuously went up and down. And up and down. And did I mention - up and down? An exhausting few days that would leave me with a twisted ankle and a BnB stay that, yet again on my journey, wasn’t worth it’s price. But hey, after three days the bed was welcomed and the shower was needed.

The first night was a night I will never forget. The six of us sat around a picnic table, talking about why we were traveling and where we planned on going. The mountain stars shined above us as we laughed. And laughed we did - so hard. At eachothers misery, adventures, and lives. I’d never felt so complete in that time. People I didn’t know held a connection that could never be destroyed. Not by a trail, or illness, or all around exhaustion.

We were the rebels of our own demise. We were free. We were renegades.

We embarked on the first day of the trek as a group of six, but by the end of it we were split into four different groups. Matt, finished and gone without a trace after a couple days. Laura, after staying kept up with him for a bit, finished after four. Our new Canadian and American friends making it after the fourth as well. Lyra and I? After three days, we decided that we’d hitch back. Due to injury and all around weather issues, we were pretty fine with missing the last few kilometres. 

Little did I know at the time, the South Island held every answer I’d been asking myself. That first night, and those first 60kms, were the starting point of something so much bigger than myself. They were the start of the rawest version of myself. The real Caitlyn Peesker.

Journeys like this one hold true to the people we are meant to find. I never once expected to find true love with a stranger while I was there. But I did. They were glorious, determined, and eccentric in all of the right ways.

That stranger was me. A woman of lost prosperity. A woman who reached for the stars and came back with the moon.

A woman who had finally found her home.


Te Araroa: Part Seven

The date was November 19th, 2016...

The last three days had been full of so many different stories, different adventures, and a million new faces. After leaving Taupo, and my hiking partner behind, I found myself in freezing cold rain, on snowy mountains, in small towns on the west coast, on uneven roads, surrounded by explorers from all walks of the Earth, all within seventy-two hours of venturing out on my own.

I joined my newest friend Nicole, an adventurous Canadian who had been traveling for a few years, whom I’d met while hitchhiking from Matamata to Rotorua. She was also from London, Ontario (talk about small world?) and was finding her own adventure through road tripping. She had a small stature, medium height, blonde hair, and a bright smile that made you feel accepted and safe. Seeing as she was on her way down south, I figured I would ask her about joining in on the trip for a few days. It would give me a good chance to make new grounds and figure out a game plan from there.

On the first day, Nicole and I found ourselves in a small town called Turangi, where the weather was grey and there was no sign of any $5 pizzas in sight. We decided to take our saved pizza money and put it towards a swim at the local pool for $3, so we pretty much saved some in the process. It was a good time to take advantage of their showers while still getting a good few hours of swimming in.

Afterwards, we went to our campsite. It was nestled deep in the mountains, about a twenty minute drive away from Tongariro National Park. There, we met some very interesting people from the US. They were all in New Zealand for different reasons, and it was fun to listen to them talk about different States and which were worthy of visiting. After some dinner and good conversations, we set up our tents and prepared for a very cold, very wet night.

I remember being in and out of consciousness so many times, I wasn't even sure if I fully fell asleep that night. I was beyond chilled that evening in the mountains that the next day I went to an outdoor store and purchased a fleece sweater so warm, I was confident I’d be able to survive the South Island. Later I would find out that that confidence wasn’t powerful enough, and the South almost killed me. But hey, we’ll get to that.

We explored Turangi and it's borders the next day, joined by an American named Eric - a tall, handsome fellow with big dreams and an even bigger smile. We walked down to Lake Rotopounamu, and though it was raining fairly hard we still enjoyed it's beautiful sights. Afterwards, we went to a hot spring park and walked around, basking in the steam that formed all around us. We laughed, and ran around, sneaking into parts of the park that were a bit dangerous and not publicly acceptable. It’s okay though, we weren’t caught.

That night I thought long and hard about who I was and where I wanted to be - as this trip has been making me do a lot. I've realized so many different things about myself. I've taken time to contemplate my last love, my last life, and the last time I truly felt happy.

It's amazing what traveling does to you. You grow so much as a person in such a short amount of time. There is a point when you look in the mirror (when you can find one) and wonder who the person is that's looking back at you. It's like you thought you knew them, but in a mere month they'd become completely the opposite of what you'd ever expected.

I woke up that next morning with a new outlook on life. I felt a weight lifted somehow, like my past couldn’t grab me anymore. It couldn’t control me. 

I felt a different form of adventure the moment I went off on my own. My eyes were bright and my soul was open knowing that every moment was a moment I chose for myself. My cheeks were sore from how much I was smiling as Nicole drove the car through the mountain side of the North Island. We made it into Tongariro National Park, where a very special mountain resided. A mountain I’d been excited to see since I’d first entered New Zealand.

Mt. Ngauruhoe. Also formerly known as “Mt. Doom”.

Call me a nerd all you want but Lord of the Rings has been one of my favourite trilogies for as long as I can remember. From the scenery to the storyline, that damn story has it all. And I wanted to be as close to it as possible. Though my Lord of the Rings fangirl was poking out, I knew it was too cold and snowy to partake in the mountain climbing that day. I would have to make my way back up North to walk it when the time was right.

Nicole and I traveled past the mountains and came to a winding road with green hills and sheep galore. It was one of the most beautiful roads I had ever seen, regardless of it's damages caused by waterfalls, rain, and rockslides. We passed fields of cows and hills so high that I was impressed of the animals that stood at their tops. Sheep that were sheared and some that were still puffy. We saw unique grounds and grass... oh the grass.

We made a quick stop in Whanganui on our way to the next campground, and I'm really glad we did. The town had such an essence to it. It was full of culture, people, food, and beauty. We stopped there for a few hours to explore it's streets, then began our journey south again. Levin, a small town about 100km away from Wellington, was the last spot on our list for the day. After a quick peek around town, we arrived in the evening and looked for our campsite.

Upon arrival, deep in the mountains at a free sight for vans and campers, the first thing I noticed was a young gentleman playing the violin - later to be found as a fiddle - in the shelter on the grounds. I was absolutely astonished by the randomness and pure eccentric emotions I received when I opened the car door and listened to him play. Was this real life?

That feeling grew even more when we all got together that evening and three people improvised a cover of Zac Brown Band with the fiddle, a guitar, and a banjo. It was in that moment when I stopped and thought "Who has this ever happened to?"

Camped out in the mountains of New Zealand with a dude who plays the fiddle, while another plays a banjo and the last one, a guitar? I was living a life not many people have lived, and I loved every moment of it. I’d never felt so free, so happy, and so utterly blissed.

The next morning I was sitting with a stray cat in my lap, eating a nut bar, admiring the trees, when two dogs ran up out of no where and started barking. The cat ran off and I stood up to say hello to the dogs, only to turn and see a lone man on a horse - another dog at his side. With a swift whistle, his dogs stopped barking and instead started frantically running around me, licking me and jumping.

The previous night I’d listened to a three man band and less than twelve hours later I was having a conversation with a true hunter on his morning stroll to find wild pigs. Seriously, what is this life and why has it chosen me?

When I look back at who I was before this journey I see a naive girl with no self confidence. Someone who couldn’t trust the person she’d loved most because she couldn’t even see the beauty she held within herself. A woman who, at any moment, felt like people could find better than her. That her heart was always on the line because she didn’t have much to offer. A woman who deserved more from herself than she could possibly imagine, found through the pain of lost love, the pain of lonesomeness, and the pain of a thruhike. I've lived many different ways, and I've loved many different people, but I have changed in the last month of traveling. I have become more of the person I've always wanted to be, and I'm not sure if I could ever see myself being someone else. I’ve realized my worth and that if someone loves me, than they love me for who I am now, and who I was before. This is the life I've chosen, and it came with good reason.

A reason I'm just starting to find.


Te Araroa: Part Six

The date was November 6th, 2016.

It was becoming clear that as much as Kayla and I were enjoying each others company, we were on two different paths. I would get into more detail, but nothing else needs to be said. We were two different people on two different journeys. Myself, determined to get to the finish line of Te Araroa - regardless of how. And her, a woman on an adventure who needed to find herself - alone.

By the time we reached Matamata the hike was being skipped much more than I was happy to admit. Don't get me wrong - the adventure was still amazing. I'd met some incredible people, made some amazing memories, and laughed harder than I'd ever laughed before. From hiking into Ruakaka with pure bliss, gardening for a free night stay in Waipu, being trapped in Auckland for six days, witnessing an insane car crash where everyone was fine and a shameful night of youth, the memories were endless and I was thankful for each of them and the lessons that I had gained.

After arriving in Matamata, we met a man named Simon through couchsurfing. Simon is a farmer, through and through. He owns cattle, a beautiful home, and an incredible car - one of which he prides himself. He welcomed us into his home with open arms and we were more than happy to accept. With a heated bathroom floor and New Zealand cable, it was a small paradise for the two nights we spent there.

He took us for a beautiful nature walk that led to Wairere Falls, a waterfall on the outskirts of Matamata. The trail was beautiful. Green moss on giant boulders, trees as tall as the eye could see, and fresh raindrops that rolled off of long fern leaves.

I felt myself getting tired faster than usual. A sign that I'd spent too long not hiking. My breathing was scattered and my head was foggy as a fell behind Kayla and Simon. I decided to let them go ahead and take my time. I knew I needed to get back on the trail as soon as possible, but this was ridiculous. How I could be so tired on a simple uphill tramp had me beating myself up.

We reached a wooden bridge that crossed a busy stream and I watched as the water rushed passed the mossy rocks. It was tranquil. Regardless where I was in this country, the nature would always surprise me.

"We follow this trail right to my future icecream shop!" Simon cheered, walking fast paced with excitement.

Simon had been raving about his plans to open an icecream shop in one of his paddocks, using fresh milk from his farm. The shop would be named "Paddock 66", and it would be a popular spot for hikers - included those on the TA.

We reached the top of a hill and walked towards a fence. Simon opened the gate and welcomed us into his paddock. Rain had moved passed us and could be seen still falling off in the hills.

"Turn around." Simon smiled.

We turned our heads only to see a beautiful waterfall. Wairere. Standing tall through the trees on a large cliff. Lush grass surrounded it, along with trees of all different shapes and sizes.

"Whoa." I exclaimed.

Kayla was smiling at the beauty as Simon led us through the paddock, showing us exactly where the shop would be placed and painting pictures in our mind for how the busy season would look.

As we hiked back down the trail I sang with the Fantails and Tuis, both incredible birds. Their songs echoed through the trees, and I knew then and there that I needed to get back on the trail. No matter what.

Maybe I was spending too much time judging myself and not enough time focusing on my accomplishments. Why was I so obsessed with getting back on this trail? Why was I so destroyed - still - after the Breamhead incident?

I was at war with myself and who I wanted to be. I had to remind myself that I was here for this exact reason. To figure out who I was and where I needed to go. At this point, however, I was so uninspired to continue.

The trail, however, continued to pull me.


Te Araroa: Part Five

The date was October 26th, 2016.

The day was going well for the most part. Kayla and I had hiked a decent twenty kilometres in just under four hours, making it to the beginning of Breamhead - a six kilometre stretch of beach that would lead us to a cliff edge. We’d read the day before that there was a stream to refill our water at the beginning of the beach, so by the time we’d made it our bottles were empty.

Yes, all seemed right in the world. Until that stream was no where to be found.

I know what you’re thinking. Six kilometres with no water isn’t that bad, and is very manageable, and in most cases you’d be right. This, however, is not one of those cases. With packs that weighed that of a child, soft sand the made your feet sink and slip, hot sun with no ozone layer for protection, and a crashing ocean to your left - this was a challenge.

“You’re sure the trail notes said it was supposed to be here?” I asked, looking around for any signs of fresh water.

“Positive.” Kayla answered frantically. She held her GPS out, looking for stream markers. “But I don’t see anything.”

“What the hell?” I sighed, putting my pack down. Clearly we needed to sit for a second and figure this out, so I was going to take the opportunity to bandage my feet again.

I took my shoes off and winced as my socks followed. My blisters weren’t doing very well and my bandaids kept falling off, leaving them attached to my socks and not easily cleaned. I exhaled to hide my pain then, with no water, wiped the open sores the best I could before reapplying new polysporin and a fresh bandaid.

“I doubt these will last very long with this tide.” I said, looking out at the ocean. The tide was pretty far away, but off in the distance you could see it peaking, teasing our path. “I guess we should get going.”

I looked up at Kayla. She looked dissatisfied about the whole situation. We all have our fears and anxieties. Mine was heights, but Kayla’s? Being stranded under the sun with no water. We were about to live one of her fears and I had no way to help her, other than to let her zone out and hope she made it alive.

“Okay.” Kayla adjusted her pack. “Let’s get this over with.”

I could see the determination in her eyes, mixed with discomfort.

We began walking straight, hoping to make the best time that we could. By this time, it was the middle of the day and we still had a decent twenty kilometres to go. Stress was beginning to sink in, along with my feet, as we trekked across the soft beach. I could hear my heart in my head as we struggled along the path. Sharp shells mixed with loose sand made it almost impossible to maneuver, and I found my feet crossing over each other throughout the first kilometre.

"Maybe they can tell us where the stream is." Kayla said, pointing forward.

In the distance a moving speck appeared, along with a smaller speck beside them. It was a woman and her dog, playing fetch into the ocean. She was at least a kilometre away, but it looked as if she was walking in our direction.

We continued trekking, trying to preserve as much energy as possible so not to dehydrate ourselves too fast. After about twenty minutes we'd made it within talking distance of the woman.

"Excuse me," Kayla began, "do you happen to know if there is a fresh water stream around here?"

The woman came closer, but her facial expression had already answered our question.

"I'm sorry, but I'm not sure." She spoke, shooting us a positive smile. Her dog had come to greet us as well. I laughed as he jumped on me. He was a puppy still, learning about his life. A medium sized dog with short black and brown fur. Most likely a mixed breed.

We thanked the woman and continued on our way. We'd been walking for an hour and had only made it two kilometres, much less than we'd anticipated.

Kayla's strides became bigger than mine and before I knew it, she was two hundred metres ahead of me. Her anxiety was getting the better of her and she was officially on a mission to find a source of water. I watched her as she paced ahead, thinking about her fears and my own. Before I knew it, all of my doubts and confusion had come back.

The funny thing about thruhiking is that you have a lot of time to think. Like - a lot of time. Thinking can be good for you, but sometimes it can also be the one thing that destroys you. Today, my destruction was set.

I could feel all of my self doubt, string by string. Each small failure attaching to my mind without any chance of breaking. My breathing became unsteady and I found myself fighting off tears that just wanted so badly to roll off of my cheeks.

"Kayla." I spoke softly, blinking in the sun.

She was now hundreds of metres away. Her body was waving in the heat.

"Kayla." I said a bit louder. Tears beginning to escape.

I knew she couldn't hear me, but I needed to stop. I needed her to know I had to stop. I couldn't do this.

"Kayla!" I screamed, her name cracking in my voice as the tears began to flood.

The tide began to roll in and hit my feet, soaking my shoes and reminding me even more so of the blisters I’d just wrapped. My heart was in my throat and my mind was fuzzy as my emotions took over. I couldn’t do this anymore. I was so tired of being sad. I was so tired of being in love with a stranger. I was so tired of doing things for other people. I was just so tired.

“He’s not watching!”

That was it. That was all I needed to yell in order to fall to my knees. I grabbed onto the sand, hot in my hands, and let my pack fall onto my neck. I began crying with such intensity, I could barely hear the ocean as it crashed beside me.

To say that I began this hike for myself would be a lie. This insane idea of walking a country would have never been my first choice if it weren’t for the heartbreak I’d felt for over a year at this point. A perennial heartbreak that never got any easier, regardless of the time that passed.

“He’s not watching you.” I said through sobs, remembering his face. His eyes. His smile.

Love is hard for everyone. It’s a sacrifice we make in ourselves in order to find happiness with another person. My issue, however, is that I was still unsure how to find happiness in myself. I put my contentment in the arms of other people, causing a very difficult spiral of uncertainty in who I was and where I was supposed to be.

I looked up at the hot sun, following the sky to the horizon between air and water and screamed. I screamed at myself, at him, at the trail, at my mind. Tears kept coming and I kept letting them. I shut off my emotions a long time ago, letting them build up deep inside. It had become clear that, out of no where, they needed to finally be released.

Who was I here for? Why was I committing to a three thousand kilometre hike? Who was I trying to impress? Not me, certainly. I was miserable. I wasn’t happy. I was more depressed than I’d ever been in these moments.

I was tired of loving him. He wasn’t here to cheer me on. He’d never be here again. At some point, I needed to realize that and I needed to move on. I couldn’t hold on to him anymore because he was a stranger. Another human on this Earth that was trying to find their way, regardless of who they needed to hurt in the process.

The tears had subsided by now. I sat up and stared into the ocean, wiping my face with my buff and watching the waves as they moved with the sea.

“Who are you doing this for?” I whispered to myself.

I imagined him standing there, telling me to get up. Telling me to be strong, because he couldn’t be strong for me anymore. And, although it was my own imagination, he was right.

People told me it’d get easier throughout the months, and it did. I was smiling again, going out with friends, dating. But the love I’d given to him was something unlike any other, and although it’d been a year - I didn’t know if it would ever go away.

It had to go away, for me. For who I wanted to be and the people I wanted to meet. I’d broken hearts already because of someone I didn’t even know anymore. It wasn’t fair.

“I loved you so much.” I spoke towards the ocean, as if some incredible string from there to Canada would send my words to him. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do it anymore.”

I let more tears engulf me, releasing any connection I had to him.

“I need to love myself now, darling.”

I stood up, my pack still attached. It slid back down to place and I tightened the hip belt. I looked forward at the next three kilometres and sighed. So much beach in this trail. Ahead, there was a giant boulder. Kayla’s figure had vanished as she’d turned a corner that led to the other side. I continued walking, my thirst even more prominent after the sobbing I just endured.

A small white bird with long legs flew to my right, landing on the ground and walking beside me. I stared at him, as if he was a crutch leading me to where I needed to go.

“Hey little buddy, want to lead me to some water?” I said, weakly laughing at myself for being so ridiculous.

The bird began to fly ahead and for a moment I thought he understood me, only realizing afterwards how idiotic that was. I couldn’t believe how desperate I’d already been for water, only four kilometres in. The sand was so loose, it felt like I was doing double the work to take a stride.

My mind was now empty; numb to the world. I let out any emotions that I had, leaving nothing but a shell. The beach stretched out in my mind and it looked like it was never going to stop. I knew that I needed to keep going, so I forced myself to walk.

There were moments where the sand turned into hard rocks, giving me a bit of hope that maybe the walking was about to get easier. Sadly, nothing was easy about today. Kayla’s footprints were gone and exhaustion was approaching as I reached the boulder.

I turned the corner to find Kayla sitting on a rock in the shade. She looked unimpressed with the day, but showed concern when she looked up at me. My hair was stuck to my face from tears that never left, my eyes red from constant bursts, and my body filthy from the wet sand.

“I think we need to figure out a different approach to this hike.” She said, patting the rock beside her.

I sat down and began to cry again. Every part of me was empty.

“I think you’re right.” I sniffed, my hands covering my face.

I wiped my eyes once more and looked out into the ocean. The water was a beautiful shade of blue and right ahead of me, sitting in the ocean, was a cavelike rock with green moss sitting atop it. Smaller rocks sat on either side of it and waves crashed into it from behind.

“They tell you it gets hard,” I began, watching the rock stand still in time, “that your mind begins to challenge you.”

I unclipped my pack slowly and let it fall to the ground, turning my gaze to Kayla. “The hardest thing I ever did in my life was lose him, but I think that when I finish whatever it is I’m supposed to do here, that fact will be changed forever.”

Kayla smiled at me. “I’m proud of how far you’ve already come, buddy. We knew this was going to be hard, but as hard as days like this are… We need them in order to grow.”

I smiled back at her, tired and pained. She was right, although I didn’t feel any growth. In fact, I’d felt as if I were a few steps behind.

These days are for the cathartic whispers, reminding us that we’re alive and we can fight. October 26th, 2016 was one of the hardest days on Te Araroa and although it didn’t feel like it then, I would go on to do great things for myself. All I had to do was keep trekking. All I had to do was make it to Bluff.

Te Araroa: Part Four

The date was October 24th, 2016.

“We went too far.” I exclaimed as I stared at my map, desperately searching for our next start point. Matt had offered to drive Kayla and I there after the doctors informed us that Kayla would have to take an easy in order for her toe to heal properly. We’d already lost six hiking days and after hearing about the muddy disaster that the Herekino Forest was, we decided that the best way to catch up was to skip the dangers of the forest all together. A day in there and Kayla may never heal.

We were heading to Helena Bay, but luck was not on our side. After driving for hours, having fun getting lost along the way, we’d found ourselves in Ngunguru instead. Skipping over almost three hundred kilometres of the trail.

“Where the hell does the trail even start from here?” Kayla asked, looking through the trail map on her GPS.

I looked out the window, mountain hills forcing the road to curve around every bend. The vegetation that grew all around us protruded onto the roads, shades of green welcoming us at every glance. It was a part of New Zealand that always took my breath away, and no matter how many times I saw it on my hike - it was perfect. Every single time.

Suddenly I was pulled out of my gaze. “Wait, Matt. Did you say we were in Ngunguru?” I asked, a moment of excitement in my voice.

“Oy, that’s what I said lady!” Matt answered, looking at me through the rearview mirror. “Why?”

I smiled, because I happened to know someone in Ngunguru. In fact, I knew two people.

I originally met Melva and Hilton online through the Te Araroa Facebook page. A wonderful couple who open up their home and garden to those in need - especially TA walkers. With an avid role in the community, and many messages of support and help when I was originally planning, I was excited to finally meet them.

“I know someone who can help us.”

I used Matts phone to find their address and we punched it into the GPS. In a matter of seconds, our route had changed and we were on our way to their house. I was excited and sad, all at the same time. I would finally be meeting two people who have already helped me so much, but I would also be saying goodbye to Matt; a man who had opened his home and his heart to us for the last six days.

“Check out that view!” Kayla shouted. “That is phenomenal!” 

Once again pulling me out of my thoughts, I focused on where Kayla was pointing her finger. Out the left side of the truck was a beautiful scene of ocean and trees. A house was perched on a hill to our right, taking in the vast sea that lay just in their backyard. 

“Matt, pull over!” I said, every worry fading away as New Zealand, yet again, reminded me how to live.

Matt pulled the truck to the side of the road and we hopped out. The wind caught my hair right at that moment and it spiralled around my face and through the trees that stood in front of me. The scene was so beautiful, even a photo couldn’t do it justice. I felt so free letting the mountain air hit me, green and blue as far as the eye could see.

After admiring for a bit longer, we got back in the truck and the moment was gone. There are many places in New Zealand that I promised myself I would see again in my life, and that would hold a spot on that list.

After driving for another ten minutes or so, we turned into a long driveway. A beautiful garden appeared on our right. Vegetables and flowers scattered across the lawn, fruits hanging from bushes and herbs poking out of the ground. My heart was full of longing, imagining having an exact replica of such a wonderful garden. It was like a fairytale.

We pulled up to a quaint house, a steep driveway leading up to a B&B. I hadn’t been able to contact them, so I wasn’t sure if they were home or even had available space for two hikers.

I got out of the truck and started walking towards an archway of trees where a large water tank sat vacant, pictures painted on it.

"Ah! Caitlyn!" Hilton cheered from his work shed, which was tucked in the corner. He was cutting a large piece of wood as I walked into the yard.

"You recognize me?" I asked, a bit taken aback.

"Well sure!" Hilton smiled, putting down his tools and walking towards me. "I don't know many Canadian women who are tall like you."

Being six feet tall, I can see how it's a dead giveaway. I smiled back and nodded as he gave me a hug. "It's so wonderful to finally meet you!"

"You as well, Caitlyn." 

We waited by the truck while Hilton grabbed Melva, who was absolutely ecstatic to welcome us. They insisted that we have dinner with them, then offered us a camping spot for the evening since the B&B was already full. We happily accepted.

Matt stayed for a few minutes to make sure we were all set, then with a saddened smile we said goodbye. Our lives would never be the same because of each other, but that's one of the greatest things about travel. Him and his children will always hold a place in my heart.

After watching Matt drive off, Hilton and Melva took us into their home. We dropped our packs off in their garage as we passed.

"It's supposed to rain all day and night." Melva explained. "So why don't you guys set up camp in here tonight?"

Kayla and I sighed with relief. I've been shocked over and over again by the generosity of Kiwis. Their kindness is prominent and very welcomed. After leaving our bags on the garage floor, we made our way upstairs. Their home was full of beautiful art and natural decor. Home grown vegetables sat on the counter. 

Big sliding doors made up one of the living room walls. When opened, the doors led to a deck which was surrounded by many different trees and bushes. Flowers grew everywhere and birds by the name of Fantails flew in circles, singing to themselves for all to hear.

"Those are the babies." Melva explained, a huge smile on her face. The Fantails were her favourite bird, and she loved how they'd chosen her garden as their home.

We spent the remainder of the day talking about our lives and laughing at stories. We took a walk around the vegetable garden, collecting different flower petals and vegetables for a salad to have with dinner. Strawberries grew in their own little gardens, made out of old toilets. We were also introduced to Raw Milk - which is delicious, may I add.

Hilton then showed us his work shed, where he was busy building a giant boat. He had plans sprawled across tables, wood cut in different shapes all over the place. The shed was huge and made out of old pieces of metal. In the middle of the room was a frame in the shape of a boat.

"Wow!" Kayla and I said in unison.

"Melva and I are going to sail across the sea." Hilton smiled.

I'd never seen such a project in progress. The plans were perfect, and the boat was going to be large.

"I can't believe you're making your own boat!" I said, excitedly.

Kayla and I took some time to walk around the work shed, looking at different pieces of the puzzle he called a boat.

For dinner, Melva prepared an eggplant quiche. It was one of the most incredible dishes I've ever had, especially since most of the ingredients were grown fresh in their own yard. For dessert, Melva made some tea and gave us each a chunk of dark chocolate.

"This chocolate is great for hiking." Hilton said, popping a piece in his mouth.

I held the piece in between my index finger and thumb, looking at it before putting a piece in my own mouth.

Whittakers Ghana dark chocolate would go on to be one of my favourite treats along the hike. It touched my lips and melted on my tongue, leaving the best taste chocolate could ever leave. If this stuff was good for hiking, you better believe it'd be in my pack.

With a glass of wine in each of our hands, we chatted the night away. Hilton showed us his writing and we talked to him about photography, a hobby he enjoyed. Melva told us all about the native birds, and all about the pests that endangered them. The biggest pest being the Australian possum. 

After our glasses were empty, we were introduced to a special guest named Ratty. Ratty is a spunky little character in the form of a hand puppet. A grey rat with bulgy eyes and two felt teeth. A rugged thing he was, but a very creative conversation starter.

We cuddled with Ratty for a while while we discussed the next step of our trail. They told us that if we got an early start, we could make it to the next B&B run by a couple with a similar passion to Hilton and Melva. They pulled their map up on a desktop computer, showing us exactly where they would drop us off and which way the trail would take us.

That night, Kayla and I set up our sleeping pads on the concrete floor of the garage. Our stomachs were full and our minds were awake. I fell asleep smiling, only waking up once when a possum outside triggered the motion lights, which shined through the window directly onto my eyelids.

The next morning we asked Hilton and Melva how much we owed them for the evening, and Hilton simply said "Koha."

"Koha? What do you mean?" I asked, curiosity a norm for me now.

Hilton smiled. "Koha is a Māori custom. It simply means a donation or a gift from one person to another."

Th tradition of a Koha involves the giving of a gift from the Manuhiri - or visitor - to the Marae - the host. Generally food is given but every so often Taonga, a treasured possession, is given. These days, however, money is the most modern way of giving Koha.

Koha is an important stem in a relationship between giver and recipient, making a respectable relation between the two. Still to this day it is taken very seriously throughout New Zealand and the Māori culture.

The Māori culture will forever astound me. I smiled at Hilton. "That's absolutely beautiful."

In the end, all we had to give was money. We suggested they buy some more wine and have a glass for us, which they happily agreed.

After a few photos and one last hug to Ratty, we all got into their hatchback, bags packed and ready to go. They drove us about ten minutes to the beginning of a trail that sat on the side of the road. Up a dirt hill was a metal gate that led to the next stretch of Te Araroa.

With one last hug, we left Hilton and Melva behind. I will never forget their smiles, their respect for nature, and their creative minds.

Finally, we were back on the trail. After what seemed like an eternity, I was back to a determined attitude, trying desperately to push aside the kilometres missed and focus on the ones in front of me.

In the next few days, I would go on to having one of the hardest, most mentally draining, life altering realizations ever faced in my adult life.

But hey - that's what the trail is for. Right?


Te Araoa: Part Three

The date was October 21st, 2016.

"Good morning, sunshine." Matt gleamed as I walked out into the living room.

I rubbed my tired eyes, sand still lodged into them from a few days before.

"Good morning." I said, defeatedly.

We lasted only a day on Ninety Mile Beach before sticking our thumb out for a drive. To be fair, we were only looking for a drive to the next campground, but sometimes things don't go the way you expect.

After Jason had dropped us off we began the last stretch to Bluff Campsite. With ten kilometres to go, we were determined to get there before the tide rolled in, but with the sun going down - we had to push. All of us had already gone about thirty five kilometres that day, and with hot, hard sand; our feet were not happy.

I'll always remember the first moment I saw Matt. The sun was just meeting the horizon line between sky and ocean. Still hot, a relaxing breeze blew across the water. My feet were on fire and my legs were strained, but I continued to push as hard as my body could go. Through sunburnt eyes, I looked forward to see a small moving dot coming towards us.

As it got closer, it turned from dot to car. Bigger and bigger it got until it was only a few metres away.

A man stuck his head out of the left side window - the passenger side in New Zealand - and, while going 100 kilometres an hour, screamed, at the top of his lungs; "HELP ME! THIS GUY'S GUNNA RAPE ME!"

We looked at each other with questionable stares and the car sped passed, for at the time none of us had understood what he'd said.

"The hell was that?" Lyra asked, watching the car disappear.

"Did anyone catch what he just said?" I asked, taking a sip of my almost empty water bottle.

Kayla and Lyra both shook their heads, confusion a clear factor in each of our expressions. “I think he just yelled about rape?” Kayla suggested.

I shrugged. "How far does the GPS say to camp?" I asked, looking out at the fading sun.

Lyra pulled out her phone and opened an app I'd never seen before. She placed her pinky on the screen, measuring the distance from where we were to where we needed to be. She moved her pinky up the screen two times, then sighed. "Still four kilometres left."

Kayla sighed next. "There is something seriously wrong with my toe. We need to keep going. If we stop, I won't be able to start up again."

I looked at her carefully. Kayla isn't one to give up, so if something was bugging her - it was serious.

"Alright, let's do it." I said, adjusting my pack on my shoulders. I could feel the sweat on my shirt cooling on my back as the ocean breeze hit it.

We continued walking for another kilometre. The sun was inches away from disappearing, and the tide was so far out that you had to walk at least fifty metres to get to the shoreline. My face was so dry and burnt from one day on this beach, and I was so... sad. There's no other way that I can put it. Walking the beach was just not on my todo list anymore.

"I need to stop." I surrendered, my feet burning in pain and my mind ready to explode.

I ripped my bag off of my body and fell to my knees. My water was now empty just like my emotions, which were neither here nor there.

Kayla collapsed beside me and let out a painful gasp. Her toe had gone far passed it's capabilities, and I was just as scared as she was to see what was hidden inside her shoe.

Lyra took her pack off and sat down on the other side of Kayla. She had been recording a bit on her gopro, and had detached it from her bag to take some photos of the vanishing sun.

I looked out at the waves, once again questioning all of my life choices. I was diminished. I was unprepared. I was crazy. I was lost.

We sat for a few minutes, watching the sun complete it’s course. With three kilometres to go, we may as well have enjoyed the sunset the best we could. I tried to focus on the beauty unfolding in front of me, but I found it hard once again to see anything positive about this beach.

I wrapped my arms around my knees and leaned my hand onto my cheek, my eyes drowsy with the days heat. I looked at the sun one last time and began counting down under my breath. “Three… Two… One.”

And with that, that sun was gone. Under the horizon for another day, it was asleep and the moon was getting ready to awake. I pulled my knees in closer and leaned my head to the left, staring out to the right side of the shoreline. Off in the distance, a dot appeared.

“Hey guys.” I said, tiredly. “There’s a car coming. Do you think we should just… Hitch?”

Kayla and Lyra looked at each other and shrugged. 

“I don’t see why not.” Lyra spoke, getting to her feet.

“I mean, hitchhiking on a beach. How many people back home can say they’ve done that?” I said, also getting to my feet.

Kayla laughed, pulling herself up and wincing. “It’s probably for the best. My foot can’t go any further.”

We all threw our packs on with haste and hurried to the… side of the beach? Right? I mean, it’s a beach. Yeah, side. Let’s go with that.

As the car got closer, I let out a grunt. “It’s the yelling guy.”

“Do you think they’re drunk?” Lyra asked.

“If these are the guys who yelled rape at us, I’m not getting in the car.” Kayla shook her head.

“Well, this is probably our last chance to get a ride, so I guess we’ll have to just deal with it.” I shrugged. 

This was my first time hitchhiking. I’d never once, in my life, put a thumb out for a drive. Yet here I was, on Ninety Mile Beach - a beach - looking for a ride. As tired as I was, I had to stop for a second and admire that this memory would stay with me forever. Of course, I went on to hitchhike a lot of different roads, in different situations, at different times, but we’ll get to that.

The car got closer and sure enough the silver hatchback came into view. “For gods sake.” Kayla muttered under her breath. It slowed down as it reached us and two men became visible in the front seats. We waved as they came to a stop.

“Hey ladies! How goes the walk?” The driver asked, a smile on his face.

“Well, it was going well but we’re exhausted and our friend is a bit injured. We were hoping to get a lift a few kilometres up to the next campsite?” I asked, hoping my Canadian charm would be enough.

“Sure!” The driver cheered. “I’m Johnny, and my mate here is Matt.”

Matt hopped out and went to open the trunk. “Ello!” He said with a very distinguishable Kiwi accent. “Just so you guys know, he wasn’t actually going to rape me.”

“Yes, excuse his crude jokes. Us Kiwis have a very dark sense of humour.” Johnny laughed, grabbing our packs and cramming them in the trunk of his small hatchback. No matter how hard we tried, Lyras’ pack wouldn’t fit, so as we squeezed into the backseat she placed her pack on top of her and basically disappeared.

With one last look at Ninety Mile Beach, the sky darkened and shades of purple and blue took over. Matt had offered to take us in for the night so we could shower and properly bandage our blisters, to which we most certainly accepted. Now, we’d been there for three days, not sure when Te Araroa would start back up again.

The first day of recovery was a horrendous one. Kayla had put a bandaid on her pinky toe the night before, and by the next morning it had ripped a full layer of skin off. Her toe was completely exposed and split in two. It was unlike any injury I’d ever seen before. We had decided to try a spray on bandaid, but when she sprayed it on - the pain was unimaginable. Barely anything makes Kayla cry, but that… That was the ticket. I’d never seen her like that, and I had no idea how to help other than giving her the days she needed in order to get better.

My injuries were less severe. A few blisters on my toes and stiff legs, I was fully recovered and ready to go by day two. I was impatient in ways because I just wanted to be on the trail, but I knew that this was the best move and a journey all on it’s own. 

Matt and his children were such a joy to be around. So full of life and adventure. We spent our days shooting their BB gun, eating delicious food, laughing the night away, learning about Maori culture, watching New Zealand television, exploring the farmlands. All things I wouldn’t have had if I’d continued on the beach. 

I try to tell myself, when I’m feeling down, that my path was chosen long before I set foot on Te Araroa. Matt and his kids were a huge part of my lessons and happiness in New Zealand. They taught me that the little things in life are so pure, and so wonderful. They showed me that no matter what you have, love is a structure that keeps a persons soul weighted. You can love a tremendous amount of things, but it’s that one love - between two people, between a father and son, between a person and their pet - that keeps you above the water.

“I’m heading into town soon, if you’d like to join.” He said, Kayla already getting ready to leave.

Lyra had left the day prior, on a bus heading back down to Paihia. I would see her again in my journey, but at the time I’d thought that our chapter had ended. 

“I think I’m just going to head for a walk, but you guys go ahead.” I yawned, grabbing my iPod from the top pocket of my pack. It laid vacant in Matts living room, patiently waiting for the hike to pick back up again.

I threw on my shoes and walked out into the country air. I stared at the road, looking far into the distance. The hills were green and the sky was blue, clouds scattered across the fields, but they moved faced pace. I turned on my music and began walking, tears streaming down my face.

I still had no idea why I was where I was, and I felt truly lost regardless of the happiness I was feeling. It was an interesting time for my mental growth, because I was feeling two different emotions at the same time. Emotions that, generally, are the polar opposite of each other.

My feet began to move faster and before I knew it, I was running. I ran as fast as I could, fighting with my anxieties and my failures until all that was left was a wheezing version of myself.

That night, I sat in Matts living room watching the kids play a game that involved a plate of flour and a chocolate piece. You make a mountain out of the flour, then balance a piece of chocolate on top. The objective of this game is to put your hands behind your back and attempt to pick up the chocolate piece without falling face first into the flour. I laughed, my anxious episode forgotten for the day. Those Kiwis, they knew how to take my mind off of my own demons and focus on positivity instead.

“Let’s go out and shoot the gun!” Matts son suggested, excited for target practice.

We headed to the front yard and were greeted by a sky of blue and pink, swirls of clouds dancing around us. I smiled as I looked up at the beauty, a beauty I could truly enjoy.

Happiness was close to my side, and no amount of self-destruction was going to ruin it.

For now.

Te Araroa: Part Two

The date was October 18th, 2016.

The sun was setting across the ocean horizon. My body was aching in ways I could never imagine or mentally prepare myself for. My mind was so numb that I couldn't begin to fathom reality.

We'd made it to 90 Mile Beach earlier that morning and I'd already forgotten what trees looked like. The sand was hard and the hotspots on our feet were prominent as we ripped our bags off, collapsing to the ground in a synchronized fashion.

Let me start off by saying that any Te Araroa hiker that finishes this first stretch of the trail is not only a hero, but also a damn champion. I lasted exactly 30km on that beach before jumping into the back of someones car, but we'll get to that.

Kayla and I had wanted to start early that day, but after realizing that we had had the wrong fuel for our stoves - we found breakfast to be a challenge and weren't ready to go until around 8:30am. We were prepared for a long haul as the first campsite was about forty kilometres away, and had every intention on making it by dusk. 

The walk to the beach was longer than expected, but we trekked on with confidence that we could make it. Over hills, through bushes, slipping on mud and getting caught on thorns - we endured it all in the first few hours.

I was already exhausted. My body barely wanted to go up a hill, let alone walk a hot beach. Why did I decide to do this? Am I crazy? Why didn't I train more?

"Holy shit, there she is."

I'd been staring at my feet for a fair bit of the last kilometre but Kayla's remark had my head lifting high in both curiosity and excitement.

We were standing at the top of a hill, a few metres away from the start of a very long staircase. At the end of the staircase? A beach shore that stretched on as far as the eye could see. There was nothing other than sand dunes and the ocean - the most intimidating thing I'd ever seen.

"Well." I exclaimed, my eyes tracing past all that was visible. "Somewhere, a bunch of miles away, is the end of this beach."

Kayla nodded. "Shall we go find it then?"

I smiled as I popped a jawbreaker candy into my mouth, the last one of a pack of three I'd purchased in Kaitaia a few days prior, and adjusted the straps on my bag. "One last thing before we go." I said as I placed my bag on the ground.

A celebration photo was needed for this moment, but not just any photo. My first topless photo, of many that happened during this hike, took place atop that hill, and although it doesn't sound like much, I was becoming a new person. Someone who respected and loved their body, regardless of its flaws and challenges. I didn't want to only celebrate making it to the beginning of this beach, I wanted to embrace all of the different aspects that got me there. I wanted to glow with a confidence that had never been felt before.

So I ripped off my shirt and cheered, so loudly. I didn't care about who saw me or heard me. I didn't care about what I looked like or what the world thought of me. All I cared about in that moment was freedom. Well deserved - well needed - freedom.

Kayla laughed as she took my photo, proud of the people we were both becoming. We howled and hollered as we put our packs back on and descended down the stairs.

Or as I like to call it - The Stairway to Hell.

And that is exactly what this beach was to me. Absolute hell. Hot, sandy, blister-ridden hell.

We walked along this damn beach for what felt like an eternity, though it was only a day. The ocean crashed on our right, while sand dunes towered over us on the left. And that's all there was. Every second, of every minute, there was nothing else.

We'd decided to take our first break at a stream called "Te Paki". We were told by the locals that it was a good place to rinse off, refill our water supply, and enjoy a quick sit down, so we spent a decent chunk of time there, taking in the fresh stream for as long as possible. We had stripped down to nothing at this point, splashing in the stream like a mini vacation from the hike. In do time, however, we had to continue.

We had just put our clothing back on in time for a giant tour bus to drive passed us. For those of you who don't know - 90 Mile Beach is also a highway, cars driving up and down it periodically throughout the day.

"That was close." I laughed as I waved at the bus, imagining the amount of tourists that were only a minute short of capturing a photo of my ass that would last them a lifetime.

We continued the trek, the sun high in the sky and beaming down on us. The sand getting harder and harder as we reached the more common areas people drove on. An island out on the ocean remained with us for three hours, moving slowly along our perspective. It was enough to make a person go mental, because no matter how far you walked, no matter how long, it stayed with you, only moving an inch at a time.

We got into a conversation about this island, speaking of what we would do if we had to live on it. In the end, we decided that we would make a new Ontario and we would grow nothing but Potatoes. We named it "Pontario".

Ocean brain was already very prominent.

Time dragged on and so did our feet. My mind was blank and my happiness was gone. I could barely find a reason to keep going.

I’d come here with a reason, a determination, to prove to myself that I was worth it and capable of greater things. I’d promised myself that the things in my life that had broken me would be nothing compared to this trail. Heartbreak was the biggest playing card, but throughout the year leading up to this hike I’d found plenty of obstacles to keep my mind clear and my heart stitched.

This beach - this ridiculously long, hot, painful beach - was one of them.

“I don’t know if I can do this.” I finally said aloud, eyes watering but not fully letting my emotions free.

“It’s exhausting, I know.” Kayla said as we came up to a log that had been pushed there by the sea.

We sat down beside the log and stared off into the ocean. 

We sat there, drinking out waters, for a few minutes. I was just about to stand up when a truck began driving down the beach. I stared at it, heat mirage distracting my view, as it got closer and closer to us. Before I knew it, it was pulling up beside us.

“Oy, ladies.” A man said, poking his head out the driver side window.

Kayla and I looked up at him, squinting with the afternoon sun.

“Do you guys want a ride? You look a little tired.” He had said.

I turned to the right and looked at Kayla, who was giving me an equally distressed stare. Neither of us wanted to give up this early in the hike and accept a ride, but we were both so miserable. I was more confused now than I’d ever been. I wanted to be a purity hiker so damn badly, but the path I was being led into had other plans for me.

Purity is one thing, my mental health was another.

“I mean, I’m okay with it if you are.” I said, defeated.

“I don’t want to miss even a kilometre, but I don’t even know.” Kayla looked back at me.

We stared at eachother for another few seconds before silently agreeing.

“What the hell, let’s do it.” Kayla said, standing up. “Sure, we’d love a ride!”

I got to my feet, grabbing my very large pack and tossing it in the bed of his truck. Another pack - an Osprey - laid beside mine.

“The names Jason!” We said, his Kiwi accent thick and proud.

I looked into the passenger side. A young girl, late twenties or so, was sitting quietly in the front seat. She looked to be a hiker as well, clearly going in the same direction as us. There was only one trail on this beach she could be walking - Te Araroa. 

She smiled at me and gave a small wave.

“Te Araroa?” I asked, walking passed her window.

“Yes, my name is Lyra. I’m from France.”

“My name is Caitlyn, and this is Kayla. We’re Canadian.” I smiled back at her.

“You guys can sit in the tray if you’d like. There’s not much room in the back.” Jason said, hopping back into the drivers side.

Kayla and I excitingly jumped into the bed of the truck, gripping the sides as he started the engine up again. Before you could blink, the truck was speeding down the beach shore.

I grabbed onto my hat as the wind shot through my hair, sand blowing in beautiful patterns all around us and behind us. The sun shined on the water and birds flew up high.

It was then that I realized, for the first time, how wonderful 90 Mile Beach was. I’d hated every second on it until finally, after hours, I could see it’s beauty. Golden sand, blue waters, ocean waves in the distance. This beach was not my enemy, though my blisters would disagree. This beach was an adventure that - for me personally - just had to be explored in a different way.

I put my arms in the air and let the wind blow passed me, chilling me to my core. The smile on my face was noticeable as we passed people on the beach. I would cheer at them, wave, and laugh as the truck sped up and slowed down, only to speed up again.

After a while, the truck slowed down for good and our hitch was over. We thanked Jason for the ride and grabbed our packs out of the back.

“Your next campsite in about ten kilometres away.” Jason began, helping us with our packs. “There’s a dune a few metres away you can sleep at if you’d like, I know the sun is going down.”

Lyra hopped out of the truck and smiled, “Ten kilometres? We can do it no problem.”

I smiled at her, excited to have another hiker on our team if only for a few days. “Yeah, I’m down to walk the last ten.”

Kayla, though having a fairly injured toe thanks to a blister, has always been a fighter. “Alright, let’s get going.” She said, throwing her pack over her shoulder.

We said goodbye to Jason, readjusted our equipment, and began walking again. The sun was getting close to setting, and a beautiful golden glow led our way. I stared straight ahead, listening to the ocean crash beside me yet again. 

Being in the back of that truck, watching the sand swirl in the sun, I’d felt a freedom, a happiness, that I’d been longing to have. I’d come to this country to explore, learn, and grow. I wasn’t there to feel depressed, or miserable. I was there to get over lost love, overcome my anxieties, and become the person I’d always wanted to be.

Maybe that person was meant to be found through more than just a thruhike. Maybe she was found within the multiple hitchhikes, the side trips to towns, the late nights in the city, the reckless adventures with people from all over the world.

I would suffer for days, weeks even, about the decision to accept a ride on Te Araroa, but in the end - that one moment that I said yes altered my path for the better.

I just didn’t know it yet.

Te Araroa: Part One

The date was October 17th, 2016. 

The day was sunny with a cool breeze as we made our way through the Northland roads of New Zealand. The sky was blue and was only occasionally visited by sets of puffy clouds. It was the perfect weather to start what was soon to be the most exhilarating, rewarding, tedious task I’ve ever faced.

We’d awoken fairly early in the morning to pack our bags - an adventure all on it’s own - though our drive up to Cape Reinga wasn’t until ten. A man by the name of Olly has been giving drives to Te Araroa hikers for years now, and in return all he asks for is a bit of gas money and good conversation. 

In New Zealand, the Kiwi people are as kind as most Canadians and have a huge appreciation for travellers, which is why people like Olly exist. The people who take time out of their everyday lives to help crazy people like Kayla and I get to where we need to go. I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to meet multiple people like him in the span of my three month journey. People of all different walks, some as insane as myself, some just as broken and some just as lost.

The roads in the Northland are full of curves and bends, country sides and jungles. I’d never seen anything like it. We’d gone through so many different terrains in just under two hours, I wasn’t sure which way was left. Olly spent the drive telling us stories about the history of New Zealand. It was incredible because neither of us had expected to be taught such things. Old war stories, volcanic history, farmland owners - this man knew everything.

I was sitting in the back seat of his old truck, breathing in the air as it rushed passed the driver side window. I remember the day so vividly. The front seat chatter as I stared off into oblivion, our packs bouncing in the bed of the truck - which gave me a feeling of disquiet.

“They’re avocados!” Olly chimed, bringing me back from my reverie.

We pulled up to a small stand on the side of the road, not a person in sight.

Olly put the truck in park and turned to Kayla, the all knowing lover of avocados. “You take a two dollar coin and toss it in the Honesty Box. When you’ve done that, you grab a bag of Avocados from the stand.”

It was such a beautiful concept, so innocent and sincere.

“How do the farmers trust that people will put a toonie in the box first?” I asked, curiously watching Kayla as she hopped out of the truck, running for the stand. A smile spread across her face.

“That’s simple! You see -” Olly smiled over his shoulder, “it’s all about your conscience.”

I smiled back at him then turned to watch Kayla as she chose her bag.

“The honesty box is there not because you have to be honest, but because you should choose to be honest.”

Kayla grabbed a bag, most likely the best out of the bunch with her professional eye, then she skipped back to the truck. I stared at the box as we pulled back onto the road. Such a simple gesture from friendly farmers, sharing their crops with trust and respect. I felt so warm inside, admiring the life that the Northland people had.

Olly continued on with stories of swamps and Kauri trees, explaining forestation and different Maori terms. It was so wonderful listening to him speak, his accent thick and his words strong. At this point in our journey the scenery changed from cropland to farmland, cows in every direction. To explain the amount of cows I saw in New Zealand would be a shock to most of you. They are as common now as lambs - and New Zealand is known for their damn lambs. Lambs literally everywhere. Cows - you bet - everywhere.

“I think I have a stop that you may enjoy.” Olly said, looking at me in the rearview. I looked at him with perplexity written all over my face.

It’s no question that I love animals. I’ve been around them my whole life, and I’m not one to hide the fact of my love when they’re around. The moment we made it to those farmlands, there was a chorus of “awe”s and “ohhh”s as we passed by every animal under the sun. I’m willing to guess he picked up on this fact as the truck pulled over to the side, yet again.

“The woman who owns these lands has a special pet in this field.” Olly laughed as I opened the door.

I looked out across the fenced off field, scanning the grasslands for life. After a few seconds, my whole face lit up.

“EMUS!” I screamed.

Kayla laughed, for as the happiness I saw on her face over Avocados, she was now seeing on mine for Emus.

What a pair.

I jumped out of the truck and ran to the fence, laughing at the pure thrill that was in my heart. What an odd pet to have! What a beautiful country I was in! What a life I was living!

I watched the animals for a few minutes, acclaiming their existence while Kayla laughed at me from afar. The Emus stared at me as they chewed solemnly on their grass. I said hello to them, to which they barely acknowledged. I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. If a weird girl came up to me, laughing hysterically at the sun, I’d probably avoid her too.

After what will never be enough time, I headed back to the truck. As much as I wish I could stay and watch these animals forever, we had an important task at hand.

Te Araroa was as close to me as it had ever been. I could almost feel that starting mark. My heart was pumping with determination as Olly began driving once more. I turned around and watched the Emus, quietly eating and enjoying the sun. I tried to hold on to that moment for as long as I could because, you see, I would never be there again. Not as that person, not at that age, not in the same headspace, not in the same truck with the same people.

Every moment is a gift. Every journey is deserving of your full attention. Every raindrop that falls, every thunder that cracks, is an epitome of elegance. We create this world for ourselves and it’s up to us to keep it abstract, to keep it moving. That is why, in this time, I held on to a moment that made me feel happy. I watched the scene before me change from farmland, to jungle, to beach. 

I held on to that drive because it was the first day of the rest of my life - and I didn’t even know it yet.

The hills got more intense as we made our way up to Cape Reinga, the most Northern point of New Zealand. I watched the lush trees begin to fade away as we reached the parking lot, a few cars parked along the washrooms as tourists put sunscreen on and took photos with a large arch made of wood and cement that was led by a brick walkway.

“Well ladies, this is it.” Olly put the truck in park and opened his door. “Welcome to Cape!”

Kayla and I got out of the truck and eagerly grabbed our packs out of the bed. At this point, my heart was trying to escape from my every being. My fingers were trembling as I collected money to give to Olly for all of his time and excellent company.

“Good luck out there.” He smiled at us before getting back in the drivers seat and driving away.

Then, it was only us and our packs. The breeze blew across our faces as we stared at the wooden archway that led towards the beginning of Te Araroa.

After a quick washroom break, which consisted of blowing up my zippo lighter, watching Kayla eat an avocado with a small red spoon, and repacking our bags once more, we walked towards the archway.

Along the walls, carved into the wood, were a variety of spirals and birds. As you walk through the gates, a chorus of recorded bird sounds fill the air. New Zealand holds a great pride for it’s birds, and it’s one of the many reasons why I love the country as much as I do.

On the other side of the archway, the bluest ocean greets you with a wave - pun intended. My eyes stared off into the distance, looking at the horizon line. The ocean was so vast, so dangerous, so inviting. The wind that blew off of it smelled of salt and nature. Just under the horizon, the Tasman Sea crashes into the Pacific, creating a waveform that splits down the middle.

My eyes trailed from the horizon to the green hills that made up the beginning of New Zealand. Phenomenal landscapes left me speechless as I walked slowly towards a wooden fence that kept you from falling off the cliffs edge. At the Northern most point there is an 800 year old Pohutukawa Tree. It is this tree that teaches me the first of many facts I would go on to learn about the Maori culture.

Te Rerenga Wairua is Maori for leaping-off place of spirits, and that is what the Maori call Cape Reinga. This is because that Pohutukawa tree is the last place a spirit goes before diving into the ocean and making it's way back to it's final resting place - Hawaiki - using the Te Ara Wairua, translated to The Spirit Pathway.

The scene before me had my mind full and my heart soaring and for a second I believed that there could not be, in a million years, a sight that would bring me this much emotion.

That’s when my eyes made contact with the lighthouse, and just a few meters away from that - the pole. For the first time in my life, after a year of planning, I could see it with my own eyes.

The start of Te Araroa.


Cape Reinga, New Zealand: October 17th, 2016.

Cape Reinga, New Zealand: October 17th, 2016.

The Sins of Normality

They say the adventure can never be tamed the moment it is unleashed on the world. The moment you feel the air of a free soul is to be with whom you'd always admired within yourself. I wasn't sure how my life would transfer back into reality after I'd tasted that air and felt that embrace. After I'd moved with the ocean and climbed with the trees. I'd told myself that I could live a "normal" life again so simply because I'd missed the idea of a home and a bed.

Boy, was I wrong.

Normal is a place far away from who I am now; far away from who I want to be. I've been fighting this new, inner issue for a few months now, since I'd landed back home.

What the hell am I doing? I've debated getting an apartment to myself, moving in with friends, finally focusing on a career. But for what?

For a routine? For a chance at settling down? These are things I can't have because I've chosen a life where they do not exist. I've chosen a path where I don't want them to exist because they don't involve an open road.

I have to go. It's an inner want - need - to pack up and leave. I need to meet new people, taste new foods, see new places, hear new natures, love new stories. I need to write books and songs, take photos and paint.

I was asked a question about a month ago by a friend I'd made on my travels. It's taken me some time to answer it, but it has also taken me some time to understand who I've become.

The question read: "What makes you the happiest person in the world?"

Everyone spends their life looking for happiness. Some of us think we have to go to great lengths in order to find it, while some people just have it naturally. We selfishly take for granted moments of so, assuming we can continue to feel it tomorrow.

The truth is, I'm not the happiest person in the world, but I don't want to be.

Happiness is a fraction of the emotions we have in order to grow and feel fulfilled. If I were happy all of the time, I would have never pushed myself to walk across a country, and if I hadn't pushed myself to travel, I would have never met the person who led me to this question.

So what makes me the happiest? Fulfilling my need to learn, and love, and travel. It's windows open during thunderstorms and film drying on a reel. It's wine nights and dream seeking, and showing someone who they truly are. It's life on the edge and days spent in someone else's embrace. It's a van and a mattress and trees in a meadow. It's a rescue dog and star gazing, northern lights and waterfalls. It's everything I need to be and everything I want.

It's writing. It always has been.

But those euphoric moments stem from the hard work I'll need to do in order to get there. The money that will need to be spent, the time that needs to be taken.

This undeniable urge to live the life of a nomad has eaten me up to the point of no return. People my age want to create a career, get married, buy a house, and have children.

I've fallen under a lot of social norms in my life, but this can't be one of them. There was a point when I thought I wanted all of those things, but I was taught differently by the ache of a broken heart and the challenge of a thruhike.

I can't sit idle and search for a career. I need to create one that involves the things that make me happier than anything else.

Writing and traveling, love and music, art and learning.

I'm getting that van, and in a year I'm driving it across Canada. Where it'll take me in time lies in fates hands.


Footsteps and Wine

When I arrived in Bluff and saw the sign informing me that Sterling Point was two and a half hours away, I didn't know how to feel. This had become my life over the past year, an obsession, to get from point A to point B, and now that I was at point B - I wasn't sure if I was ready for it to be over. I wasn't sure if I could live any other life because I'd become so accustom to the habits of a hiker.

For three months now, I've had no stability except for making it to the end. I never had the same pillow at night, nor the same bed. I woke up every morning with a purpose of packing and going. I'd eaten either oatmeal or protein shakes for breakfast almost everyday, rice or noodles for lunch and dinner, with the occasional real meals that my stomach had become too small to finish.

I'd hitched some kilometres to the outskirts of town because the road walking had become too much after the 25km beach walk the day prior, and my feet were blistered and scarred beyond my control. I wish I could tell you I feel bad about hitching on the final day, but I'd be lying. After walking half of this trail, and hitching half of it, I felt it was appropriate to do a bit of both on the last day. A little "celebration" hitch, or maybe a "I've had enough with roads, so sue me," hitch - if you may.

When I reached the large "Bluff" sign, I placed my bag on the ground and took a deep breath. I was content and the tears came at random times. It had reminded me a lot about how I'd felt on the first day, when I'd arrived in Cape Reinga.

That day felt like an eternity ago, although it was only about three months in the past. I'd learned so much, met so many people, slept in so many places, walked so many steps, gotten in so many cars. I'd done more in three months then I'd done in some of the years I've been alive.

After sitting at the sign for a few hours, waiting for Lyra and our new friend Janine, I decided I needed to continue. I'd already re-bandaged my feet (one of my pinky toes was swollen to the size of a grape) and taken the time to get some self portraits with the sign - a cliché opportunity I wasn't going to miss. I knew that I needed to stop procrastinating. The end needed to come.

I began hobbling up the hill, each step a burning sore that I hated. It reminded me of the same pain I'd felt on 90 Mile Beach, and again on the QCT. I thought back to how long ago both of those times were, and how difficult they both were to overcome. The blisters were always so harsh and the steps were always harder then the ones before. I had to remind myself that one day the pain I was feeling would be a distant memory. Far off, along with this trail.

Every time I look back at different challenges on the trail I feel such a proudness in myself. I'd done things along Te Araroa that I never would have expected I was capable of. I'd climbed mountains, crossed raging rivers, slept in a cold tent, finally mastered sudoku (it's the little things), taken on beaches that'd felt like they'd never end, endured winds so strong I'd been knocked over, successfully gotten a ride in Birchwood after running out of food - which is almost impossible so it's most certainly on my list of achievements, and one of my biggest accomplishments on this hike, one not many people know about me, is that I hiked this country with an autoimmune disease regardless of the days that it attacked me.

All of these successes flooded back to me in that last 7kms on the trail. Reminders of the strengths I've had along the way, and the struggles, as I limped over the hills, the cold ocean breeze blowing past my cheek.

I closed my eyes and smelled the air. The mix of the fresh scent, grass, and a hint of salt radiated around me. I'd always loved the different smells of nature during this hike. The ocean winds, the raindrops on plants, the mountain gusts, the melted snow, the forest trees, even the fresh mud. Of course, there's smells I could have lived without, like the farmlands and the cars speeding past me on hot days, but for the most part - it was wonderful.

At this point more tears started rolling down my cheeks. I could just be a sentimental ninny, but the idea of those moments ending gave my heart a true ache. Sure, I'd be able to smell the grass and the ocean, the mountains and the rain, again; but it would never be like this.

There were days when the only thing that had gotten me through was the breeze. I'd often whispered a quiet 'thank you' whenever I'd been overheated or just plain sad. The wind would pick up, and nature would remind me of it's presence. I'd never taken it for granted because it'd never given me a chance. It'd been it's subtle reminder of where I was and what I was truly doing.

And what I'd been doing was overcoming the challenges that held me down throughout most of my life. My anxieties, my depression, my illness; these were all things that stopped me from reaching for what I truly wanted. They put me in a hole of shame and misery, and it was only when I wove the ladder myself that I was able to climb out of that hole and keep climbing.

In fact, I climbed so high that I reached the tops of mountains and the lengths of seas. I tasted the sweet air and felt the soft grass.

By the time I reached the next sign, my heart was racing and I was nervous. I slowly approached it, still uncertain on how to feel. As I reached it, I let out a small sigh. It was informing me that I'd reached a lookout, but it was also excited to let me know that Sterling Point was only fifty minutes away.

It's amazing how for most of a thruhike, you dream of what it's like to reach the end. Especially on days where all you want to do is quit. However, when the end finally arrives, you're not fully sure if you're ready to take the last step.

I took a few minutes to sit and speak with a mother and son at the lookout. They were there to rock climb. They had moved to New Zealand from South America a long time ago, and loved to adventure around the country. With all of the different activities you can do here, I understand why people move from all over the world and never leave.

Janine showed up a few minutes later, happy to see I was still there. I'd been going so slow, and I wish I could blame only my toe for that. I smiled at her as she made her way to the lookout, said goodbye to my conversation buddies, then decided maybe I should take the time to quickly, you know, look out at the lookout.

We walked up a giant rock to reveal the ocean and all of it's glory. In the distance you could see a cluster of little islands, along with one huge one. Stewart Island. Every New Zealander from the South has told me I needed to go to Stewart Island. Sadly, it can't be fit into this trip, but the more excuses to come back to New Zealand - the better.

We watched the waves crash on the rocks down below, and I gave the ocean one last chance to give me an Orca Whale. I'd been looking for one throughout the whole hike. It's safe to say that they were all too busy. It was hard to be disappointed at water that was so crystal clear and blue, however, so I let it slide.

Janine and I took one last look before making our way back to the trail. It was time to stop holding off the finish and face that end point.

We walked along a beautiful trail that was shaded by large plants and trees. The sound of the ocean was always to our right, and we spoke about the end and what our plans were for after the hike was complete.

My plans were simple. Make money, then explore some more. I'd been bitten by the travel bug, the only bug I was okay with being bit by, and there was no turning back. 

After about forty minutes of walking, the pole at the finish line was in sight. My emotions were on and off all day, but at that time I had no idea how to feel. I drew a blank line when I tried to think about touching it.

That's when we saw Lyra. She'd taken the road walking all the way to the end, so she'd arrived about an hour before us. She waved at us from off in the distance, so I cheered in her direction.

The moment she cheered back, I got a lump in my throat.

"Oh no," I'd said to Janine, "it looks like there's going to be tears."

Janine just laughed as we turned a corner and made our way up to the car park. We passed by the many camper van and travel vans that were there, and the moment the pole was insight I began to cry.

"How do you feel!?" Lyra asked excitedly as she aimed her gopro at me.

"It's finally done." I said through unsteady breaths. "We finally finished."

Lyra insisted I go and touch the pole, officially closing this chapter in my life. I needed a second to sit, along with the fact that there were a lot of tourists taking photos with it. So I took my bag off, placed it on the ground, and just stared at it.

This last moment, I was detached from the whole world. It was just me and that stupid pole. I spent months back home picturing what this moment would be like. Who would I be? How would I feel? What would I look like? All of these questions, and more, had been answered. I was everything I ever wanted to be and more, and my accomplishments could never be taken from me, nor would I ever let anyone try.

I finally stood up, after the crowd had cleared, and began walking towards it. I put my hand out, but stopped.

Ending that chapter, touching that pole, reminded me of saying goodbye to a dying friend. They're telling you it's okay, but you're not ready to face it, although you have to. My mind ached and I asked myself if I was ready to move on with my life. Could I go back to Canada? Would I be able to be just Caitlyn? Am I ready to start my future?

My hand was held steady in time, and through teary eyes, I placed my other hand over my face and leaned into the pole. I cried for who I'd become, I cried for who I needed to be, and I cried for the closing of one of my favourite books.

After finally letting go of the end point, Lyra handed me a small bottle of sparkling wine. We'd bought a four pack to celebrate. Together, the three of us shook the bottles and sprayed them like champagne, before giving a small cheers to Te Araroa and enjoying the sweet taste.

I took one last look at the end point as we got into our friend, John the Couchsurfers, truck and began to drive away. I was all out of tears by this point, but my heart ached as it disappeared from sight. I looked out the window, smiling, knowing that Te Araroa was complete.

My Araroa, however, has just begun.


This chapter in my life may be over but the memories will remain engraved into my mind forever. The challenges I faced were not easy to overcome, but I overcame them. The times that made me smile, truly smile, are some of the most important to me, and I will never forget what this 3000km trail has done for my heart, my mind, and my soul.

Thank you, Te Araroa, for teaching me that I can be so much more with a bit of hard work and determination.

I took on this trail because I needed a challenge. I needed to get over my demons, my past heartache, and the idea that an autoimmune disease can stop you from fully reaching for the stars. I was tired of having invisible, and not so invisible, things controlling my life.

I hope my journey was as eyeopening for some of you - my friends, my family, complete strangers: my readers - as it was for me.

For my viewers who suffer from any of the issues I've had, or anything else, please remember: having an invisible illness or a physical illness does not define you. You define yourself through who you are.

You are strong, independent, beautiful, worthy, and creative. Always live for yourself, and never revolve around what others think of you.


Photo Collection: Kia Ora


A Bit of Insight

What kind of things do you learn on a thruhike like Te Araroa? I've been asked a few times, and I've decided it's time to shed some light on the question.

I've learned so much while hiking this country, like how carrying your life on your back for many months is a success all on it's own and it really puts into perspective the things you truly need in life, or how sometimes the little things are the most important. For example, one of my partners always wanted to have parmesan with her. She didn't care about the weight or the extra bag room. She cared about enjoying her rice dinners with a little taste of home involved.

For me, the little things became a big part of my happiness. Sudoku in the evenings before bed, birds in the forests, collecting rocks from different beaches, blessing my pounamu, drawing in my book. I found that random acts kept me going and made me feel more at peace and creative.

Another important thing I had was a small towel for drying my feet. I'd brought it along with the thought that I wouldn't need it, but it saved me from many days of blisters along the beaches in the North Island. It also came in handy for drying my tent in the rush of some mornings. All around, an item I'm glad I held on to.

Another thing that I was taught in Awanui is that baby powder comes in very handy to prevent hotspots and blisters. When you feel your feet getting wet in anyway, it's best to take a break and rub some of the baby powder all over the bottom of your foot. Seal the deal with a big piece of duct tape, and you'll basically be blister free!

I also learned that most of the things I'd purchased for this hike originally, were not a virtue to me while on the actual trail. Paracord is great for emergencies but most of the time you'll find you don't need it unless you need a makeshift hanger to dry your clothing, or how a poop shovel is a waste of space when you have a perfectly good foot to dig a hole, or a rock a few inches away to help. I'd also bought gaiters for the mud but realized it was just unnecessary bag space and weight when my shoes continually got muddy regardless. And the GoGirl (SheWee)... don't even get me started. If you suck at squatting, I've got news for you - by the end of a thruhike you will be a champion. Don't waste space in your bag on an item as useless as that one.

I'd also prepared a fairly intense first aid kit that ended up barely used. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the stuff was important, but if you're careful all you'll really have to deal with are blisters. For that all you need is a clothes pin, alcohol, polysporin, and bandaids. They are the only essentials I really used throughout the whole hike. So the silver blanket, metal splint, copious amounts of gauze, and iodine? It went untouched.

There were items that became must haves as well. These things saved my life and made the hike much more manageable. Like my convertible pants. It was much better to just carry one article of bottoms that could be pants, capris, or shorts, all at the slide of a zipper.

Trekking poles became a godsend on this trail as well. Mine saved my life more times than I'm willing to admit. Falling off the sides of mountains, tripping on tree roots, getting stuck in mud. My trekking pole had my back the entire way, even when it broke and had to be replaced.

My lighter was an important tool throughout the whole walk as it was used daily to start my stove, but I found it was important to carry a set of matches with you as well - on the off chance the lighter ran out before a resupply. Lo and behold, my lighter ran out a few times thanks to the crazy fuel options in New Zealand, so the matches ended up saving me from hungry evenings and cold nights.

Music and Podcasts are important to everyone, but it is a complete essential during a thruhike. There are times when the walking is so mentally exhausting, you can't even feel your own brain. It puts a whole new perspective on the phrase "mind numbing." Having a fully charged iPod and a list of your favourite tunes can literally save you from a nervous breakdown, and I can not stress that fact enough.

Even after all of these things though, my two most important lessons were to listen to your body and hike your own hike. Both of these facts really changed my life and were structures to helping me complete the 3000km.

When your body is tired, you listen to it. If your feet are inflamed and your toes can't move, listen to them. If your head is pounding or your legs are aching, don't even think about pushing them past their limits. Your body is the tool to making it from the beginning to the end. If you destroy it anywhere inbetween, you're looking at the possibility of not completing what you set out to do. The most important thing you can do for your body is learn it's strengths, it's weaknesses, and it's breaking points. Once those are figured out, study them constantly and never let it stop you from what needs to be done.

"Hike your own hike" was a saying said to me multiple times during this thruhike. At moments when I didn't think I could completely do it, or times when I wasn't happy with how it was going, someone would say those words to me. This is because it's the truest words you could hear in your life. Te Araroa is about following a pathway, and discovering out who you are in the process. Learning your mindsets, your strength, your body, and your story. When you feel like it's not helping you to achieve that, somethings gotta give. And that something is your path. So don't be so obsessed with walking every single kilometre, or following the trail completely to a T. Instead, be obsessed with enjoying the views, eating good food, living for the moment and making it one day at a time.

Because one day, those days will end, and you will only have the lessons, the memories, and the friends.


Until the End

"Why are you guys here?"

We're asked this question almost everyday as we make our way through to the end of Te Araroa. Hunters who pass us, fishers, other hikers - they're all curious to know why two girls are in the mountains with a week supply of food and tired bodies.

"We're hiking Te Araroa", is always the answer.

In 140km, however, that answer will no longer exist. In a mere eight days we won't be on this trail anymore. It will all be done. In one way or another, the 3000km trail will be complete and we'll cease to exist on it's terrains.

"Wow! You've walked the whole thing?" Is always the next question received.

This is where I would feel some sort of regret or shame, if I had any. You see, I haven't walked the whole Te Araroa trail. Infact, by the end I will have only walked half of it.

In eight days I will have walked 1500km of a thruhike that tests both will and physicality in a person. The accomplishments I've held in the last two and a half months can never be taken away from me, nor should I feel as if I don't deserve a congratulations in myself for making it where I have.

At the beginning of this hike I was determined to walk every kilometre of it. Every ounce of will in my body told me I could do it - I would do it - and I would be the strongest woman for it. I would complete Te Araroa or die trying. There was no way I wasn't going to.

Guess what, guys? Things change.

And for me, they changed on 90 Mile Beach. Only 50km into the 3000. The blisters on my feet begged for me to reconsider while my mind screamed at me in the sound of the waves crashing to my right. Every step on that beach was a wake up call, and it was in that moment that I realized I didn't want to walk the whole thing.

The North Island, being as beautiful as it is, interested me in no way whatsoever when it came to hiking Te Araroa. The road and beach walking came in copious amounts, the towns were expensive, there wasn't enough freedom camping, and there weren't enough mountains.

By Bream Head, 300km or so from the beginning, I was miserable. I remember the day so clearly, walking along the Ocean Beach Walk. I stopped and screamed so loud at the waves, raging into the shore. Tears were rolling down my face and the painful realizations started to flow through me.

There was no way I was going to continue Te Araroa. Why was I even here? Who the hell let me do something so preposterous? Why couldn't I have just gotten a puppy like most people do when they get dumped? Why was I letting the ghost of my past haunt my every move?

It wasn't until a few days later, after wallowing in my own self pity, that I realized these emotions were exactly why I came here.

I needed to make it to Bluff. I needed to touch the pole at the end of the trail with the fulfillment that I craved so badly. I needed to walk, travel, explore, drive, boat - whatever it took to get to the end of Te Araroa. I didn't care how I got there, as long as I made it with that feeling of true achievement and happiness.

"No, I've only walked half of it." I usually say. "But I've explored all of it."

Every hitch ever taken on parts being skipped led to a new story from a new person. Every walk ever done away from the trail is a walk I would have never seen. Every new friend I made, all of whom hold a special place in my journey, would have not been met if I'd taken this path differently. All of the nights a stranger turned into a friend, a hostel turned into a home, and a hitch turned into a tour, were given to me as a gift in my adventure.

"Te Araroa" translates into "The Long Pathway", and that's exactly what it is. It's a pathway that you take, and regardless how you choose to take it - it will lead you exactly where you need to go.

As long as you make it to the end with a feeling of fulfillment, then you've achieved something that no one can ever take away from you. In 140km, I will be at Bluff. Te Araroa will end there, but my Araroa will just be beginning.


Two's Company and a Four Way Road

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.


Eight Days a Week

 "Those mountains are our next adventure." She had said, pointing to the snowcapped mountains that sat outside of our tables window, pizza sitting infront of us at a fancy Alpine Lodge restaurant - a luxury we seldom get in our travels. "And when we come back, these pizzas will be our reward."

I'd never hiked through snowy mountains before, though there are plenty of places in Canada to do so. I wasn't even fully sure what to expect. I mean - what is to be expected when you leave for the mountains for eight days?

I had expected cold nights, windy terrains, loose rocks that try to knock you right off the ledge of a cliff. Possible snowstorms that blow in and freeze you to your core. I had expected everything I'd ever seen in a movie.

I'd never expected what actually unfolded in those eight days.

The task was simple. Walk for four days into the mountains to a Lake called "Blue Lake", admire it's beauty, than walk four days back out and buy copious amounts of overpriced pizza. Boom, set, done.

The itinerary, however, forgot to mention the life changing experiences that would lead us to becoming completely different people by the time we reached the end. It forgot to tell us that the things we were about to see and do would completely alter our life purposes and create a spiral of emotions that would reflect upon us for the rest of our lives.

But, as my Uncle Gary would say, "Forget Itineraries."

These mountains were unlike anything I could have ever prepared for. They were full of lush, green, mossy forests that were home to thick, slippery roots, holes in the ground, and mud. So much mud. Forget my 'snowstorm and cliff falling' assumptions. These mountains were an obstacle course.

In the first three days I had fallen several times, the first fall involving a sharp rock and my knee making out passionately. I'd slipped on too many roots to count, gotten my trekking pole stuck in multiple crevices along the track, and even sunk my shoe into a mud pit so deep I could feel Earths core. It was safe to say that the forest was prepared to maul me any chance it could get.

I was persistent in continuing on, even on the second day when the chance of catching a water taxi out threw my mind into a loop of rage and confusion. The forest had already taken so much out of me by then. I knew that if I had given up so early in the game, though... I wouldn't have forgiven myself.

So I trekked on, hut bouncing. Speargrass to Sabine, Sabine to West, West to Blue Lake. Everyday was a new adventure and a new challenge. We climbed hills made of roots, just to be greeted by hills made of rocks. There was a point where we were just walking straight up a running waterfall. Our shoes never stayed dry for more than an hour after a night of sitting by the fire. We began getting used to walking with soggy socks, welcoming river and creek crossings as an opportunity to cool our feet off as the walking continued. There was no point in stopping, changing into sandals, crossing, then changing back, because there was always another stream ten meters away.

We scaled the sides of mountains, knowing that one wrong footing could lead to a lot of hurt. There were points when the track seemed to disappear, leaving a mess of rubble in it's place. "Where the hell do I step!?" I would shout. The forests had already knocked me down, there was no way I was going to let the mountains do the same.

Every time we thought we were getting close to a hut, it wouldn't show itself. I learned very quickly that saying "We gotta be close" doesn't get you any closer to the end. In fact, I'm pretty sure it takes you further away. As those words leave your mouth, the hut suddenly vanishes and appears again only when you've given up on finding it. Like the Wardrobe to Narnia, only the Hut Edition.

After our longest day of walking I was relieved to see the swing bridge that led to the West Sabine hut, and I was more relieved to have made it there alive. We had been scaling beside a rushing river for a good portion of the day and I could see the water wanted me to join it on it's fast paced adventure down stream.

We arrived only to be greeted by a young woman from the Netherlands who had been traveling alone. She was fairly quiet for the most part, but was full of plenty of knowledge about certain subjects.

Gillian, or Gilly as she likes to be called, was the next to arrive at the hut. She was an older woman from Australia who had spent a lot of her life traveling. She was a naturalist who had a lot of respect for the human body and what was put in it. She soon became my favourite person on this trek as she was able to teach me so much about life in the short time that I got to know her. She may never know how much her words truly meant to me, but I assure you that she made me stronger.

Alex and Rhys were the last to arrive at the hut that evening. Alex was a wonderful girl from France, and Rhys was a very punny fellow from here in New Zealand. Their love was very prominent, and it was refreshing to see such a pure pair of travel partners.

The last day of moving into the mountains was one of the most exciting for us as it meant we were reaching our final destination: Blue Lake. The clearest water in the world. And a bit higher up the mountain: Lake Constance. It was here, about 1700m up, that I became a completely new person - but we'll get to that.

We made it to the Blue Lake Hut fairly early, and after a bit of lunch and a small celebration dance, we got our day packs on and headed out for a stroll. We stopped at Blue Lake first and my heart beamed just at the look of it. I had never, in my entire life, seen water as clear and as blue as Blue Lake. Nestled in between trees and wide open ranges, it shimmered in the sun, snowcapped mountains reflecting off of it's body. It was in that moment that I had fallen in love with the purity of it's soul.

I walked up to the water and took a deep breath before submerging my hands into it. The water was cold but I didn't care. I could live in it's grasps forever. I took my Greenstone off from around my neck, knowing that this was a true place it needed to be blessed. I could feel the spirits around me and knew I was in a sacred place. Every second I was near that water was a second I wanted to carry for the rest of my life.

After a small blessing, I took the opportunity to drink some of the water straight from the lake using my hands. It was so fresh and was, without a doubt, the most delicious water I'd ever tasted.

Yep. It was looking like the day couldn't get any better. Until Lyra pointed upwards and said "Alright. Now we climb that."

At this point I'd like to share, though many of you already know, my absolutely crippling fear of heights. Looking at the path made of trees and rocks, 600m straight up, made my head dizzy and my knees lock. I could feel my fear setting in and I was tempted to tell her to go on without me. The funny thing about fear, however, is that if you let it control your life you miss out on the opportunities that have been laid out for you to experience.

So I climbed it. Every rock, every tree root, every open ledge. I put one foot after the other and whispered to myself, "it's not that bad.", every chance I could. I grabbed on to trees with shaky hands and used them to balance as I took another step up, digging my trekking pole into the ground vigorously, as if it were my lifeline between staying up and falling down.

Upon reaching the top of what I'm sure was the scariest climb of my life, I was surprised to see a wide open field of rocks and long grass. My legs instantly stopped shaking and a fresh breeze blew across my face. A smile appeared, replacing the fearful grimace that I had had for the last half hour.

Lake Constance, hidden 1500m up within the hill tops, flowed slowly through the mountains, making it's way into Blue Lake 600m below. 200m above Lake Constance resided a large rock that caught my eye as I made my way to where Lyra was standing and cheering.

"I have to keep going!" She had proclaimed. "I want to climb a bit of Waiau Pass!"

Waiau Pass is a mountain pass that is part of the Te Araroa hiking trail, the trail we were both using as a guideline for our New Zealand adventure. It was also a mountain pass that was deemed too dangerous for most hikers, and a pass I had no interest on even going near after the climb I'd just endured.

"Leave me here, mountain girl!" I cheered to her as I continued admiring the large rock. "My body knows when it's time to stop, and I've pushed my mental capabilities far enough today."

Lyra smiled as she turned around and began climbing higher up a hill made completely of loose rocks. I shook my head and laughed as I watched her get smaller and smaller, higher and higher.

Before long she was up on a new path and cheering down at me. I screamed back at her, hooting her accomplishments before she continued on the path and vanished.

After all signs of human life had left me, I was alone with nothing but the breeze, the lake, the grass, the bugs, the snowcapped mountains, and this giant rock that I found myself climbing onto.

I sat comfortably on the rock and for a long time I just stared off into the distance. I silently contemplated my purpose in this world and gazed out at the open fields. At some point I closed my eyes and began meditating, Greenstone in hand, for a long while. I meditated on everything in my life and who I was as a being. I took every worry that was in my life and pushed it to the side, replacing it with all of my accomplishments; all of my successes. I looked deep into myself and pulled out who I had been, replacing it with who I was now.

When I opened my eyes again, I cried.

It was such a sensation to feel so much more alive in such a small amount of time. My emotions took over and before I knew it, I was laughing. I was completely exhilarated with the happiness I felt looking out at the view unfolding in front of me. This was it. This was my life. This was my purpose.

The wind blew rapidly around me and clouds began to float in, covering the sun and putting patches on the mountains. I took one last deep breath, said "remember this image. The next time you see it, it won't be the same.", then I got off my rock and began my walk back down to the hut.

I cried once more as I sang to myself. I sang Grease, reminding me of my Mum and her younger days. Canada is so far away, along with my family and friends, but this moment brought them all to me. I was reminded of who is the most important in my life, and who I love the most.

The thought of Canada made me smile, and I knew I had to leave a little piece of it behind. The trails are marked with orange triangles, but sometimes they are also marked with piles of rocks. Everytime I had seen a pile, it reminded me of Inukshuks. Inukshuks are used by the Native Inuits in Northern Canada, along with Alaska and Greenland, as cairns. So, of course I stopped and looked for the best rocks to build my own landmark before continuing back down the steep mountain side.

I've been told that the mountains change people but I'd never assumed I would be one of them. I never saw myself here, but maybe that's what makes it so special. Maybe that's what truly brings out the change. The spontaneity of it all.

That night I fell asleep with a new perspective on life, beside some amazing people - including a Te Araroa walker named Matt who caught up to us because of the fact that he's a crazy person who walked the Richmond Ranges in five days. (Five Days, Matt. Seriously?) - and knew that tomorrow was the start of a whole new life. A life I wouldn't soon forget.

We spent the next four days walking back the way we came, laughing as we hopped over roots and stepped into deep streams. The first day was spent with Gilly, and took much longer than the last as we stopped by the side of the track, dropped our bags, and made our way up the side of the mountain to a waterfall flowing over. We sat there for a while, playing with the water and taking photos. I decided to build one last Inukshuk right at the very edge of the falls, where the wind was so powerful I felt like I could be blown off.

Afterwards, we all sat and talked about life. We decided to name the waterfall as we were sure it wasn't done yet. Gilly said "Lyracaitgill" in such a cheerful tone, we just knew that was exactly what it was meant to be named.

By the time Lyra and I made it back to Speargrass Hut on day seven, all we could cheer was "Shower and Pizza tomorrow!" Neither of us had bathed in what felt like decades, and just the word 'shower' had me ready to leave.

With nothing left to do but wait, we both sat around for a few hours editing photos and enjoying our laziness. That's when the whole hut began to shake.

New Zealand has been experiencing some intense aftershocks after it's 7.8 earthquake in November, and this was the first earthquake I had ever felt. I hopped up off of the bed and went straight for the doorframe. Lyra grabbed her PLB and joined me. After fifteen seconds, the shaking stopped and we both looked at eachother.

"Is that your PLB?" I'd smiled and asked.

"You never know." She'd answered.

The French are smart, I tell ya.

We sat and played cards for an hour before dinner - Lyra is still trying to beat me in crazy eights - then went back to writing and editing before bed.

Early the next morning we set off for St. Arnaud, away from the mountains and towards civilization. It broke me a bit to leave it behind, but the good news is that New Zealand is full of mountains that are still yet to be adventured.

Though I smelt disgusting and my knees hated every moment, those eight days had been the happiest, most fulfilling adventures of my life. I will never forget the people I have befriended and the things I have learned. These are the moments I live for; the spontaneous ones.

Taken by Lyra Kane - Thanks girl! 

Taken by Lyra Kane - Thanks girl!