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