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.

“Caitlyn!”

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?

“FINALLY!”

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.

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