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.