Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Inventory

September 30th, 2015

Inventory

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I remember as a child marveling at a Boy Scout mess kit. Inside a green canvas cover embossed with the Scout emblem was a shiny aluminum flying saucer. Loosening wingnut at the end of two extended metal tabs let me rotate a metal strap away and lift off the top half disk which magically became a deep plate or a shallow bowl. Inside was a pot with a lid, and inside that a pale green plastic cup marked with measuring gradations. The bottom disk, with the strap rotated and re-secured became a frying pan. Add a fire and you had a complete kitchen.

Such designs are ingenious in their compactness, but also carry with them a process that is an inventory. The act of assembling the mess kit also assures all parts are there. Long-distance hikers tend not to carry such kits today. They may be a compact way to store all the parts, but those parts weigh a fair amount and most are unnecessary. For cooking, I only carry a Jetboil which is an isobutane burner attached to the bottom of a half-liter titanium pot/cup (It too ingeniously fits together– burner/fuel inside the pot/cup for transport), a titanium spork, and a very small pocket knife. But all of my gear combined fits together in a way similar to the mess kit. The act of packing is in itself taking inventory.

Many long-distance hikers become equipment obsessed, something I, almost of necessity, share. The lighter, more compact the backpack, the more distance you can cover in more comfort (comfort is not the right word, less pain). A quick inventory: I’m hiking the Te Araroa with a 27 liter cuben-fiber Zpack backpack (1 lb). I have a Nemo 30 degree down sleeping bag (1 lb), and a Zpack cuben-fiber one person tent (1 lb). My gear is distributed in 10 dry and/or compression bags. Two exterior dry bags extend my pack volume and carry stove and a Nalgene bottle on one side, and heavy weather gear (rain pants, coat, etc.) on the other. A 20 liter dry sack contains my sleeping bag, clothes bag, a small toiletries bag, and a small equipment bag. A Sea to Summit micro backpack doubles as a food bag (and the bag to carry to the grocery store for re-supply). Those all go inside the main bag along with a 2 liter camelback water supply. My tent is in a stuff sack in the outside mesh compartment. And my attic (or as some people call it, the brain) is a small Zpack bag carrying wallet, passport, iPad and charger. It clicks off the pack easily and can then be carried to the store, cafe, pub. Other items outside the pack include a thermarest foam sleeping pad, rain cover, teva light-weight sandals, and a pair of Leki carbon fiber trekking poles. Total base weight– about 18 lbs.

I know, boring list, but just like the mess kit, all of those components fit together in a specific configuration. Every piece of equipment is important–even crucial– to success, comfort, and perhaps survival. Keeping track of it is paramount, and requires a degree of care that borders on obsession. That’s where assembly inventory come in. All the equipment fits in bags which fit into other bags, counting and being counted as the process unfolds. There is a temporal dimension to this spatial organization as things are packed and unpacked daily in particular sequences, and are often redistributed in another careful/ obsessive fashion. My tent, which is a single layer tarp held up by my trekking poles has a tub base suspended by mosquito netting. Apart from the gale on the Ninety Mile Beach dune, it has functioned incredibly well, snug and dry in the pouring rain. The tub is large enough for me, my sleeping pad and bag, and, distributed about the edges, all those small bags described above, each in a particular place so I can find them in the dark and so they can be re-packed in the morning. In some ways it is like being on a boat or a tiny house. There is nothing you don’t need, and there has to be a place for everything you have. It is a precision that enforces austerity and fosters care.

Nutrition also falls into the category of precision and care, but not because of preparation. Of course one can exercise both care and precision in camp cooking. Remembering to bring Tabasco, buying sundried tomatoes, or finding mushrooms can make a bland dry meal delicious, but the real issue with food is consuming calories. Backpacking 25-35 kilometers daily generally burns more calories than most people can easily eat in a day. Eating on the trail is much less about taste and culinary fulfillment than it is about pure consumption. Food must be lightweight yet packed with nutrition, and eaten carefully across the day.

There is a moment in Earl Shaffer’s book North with Spring where he complains about fading energy and expresses concern that he will not be able to continue his quest to be the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. He is a good distance into his hike, I’m guessing around one month, and he finds himself eating the equivalent of two suppers one night. He then realizes he simply was not eating enough. A probable explanation for this event is fat. Obviously it varies among people, but most long-distance backpackers lose most of their body fat about a month into the trip. Hikers note weight loss, but the accompanying energy loss can go unnoticed for a while. They are usually tired and just assume they’ve put in a big day. But careful attention can signal that shift which means you really don’t have reserve calories to call on at the end of the day unless you have eaten them that day. My Earl Shaffer moment came on September 27th mid-afternoon up on a muddy ridge. Just did not understand why I had run out of gas.

The equipmentality of hiking is a form of inventory, but in parallel, there is body inventory, those moments in the day when you check physical components. For me, those times are most vital just before sleep and on awakening. I lie there wiggling toes and fingers, rotating feet and hands, flexing all muscles, seeking out pain, anticipating trouble or discomfort. What is interesting is that such care translates into everyday gestures. It becomes hard to disentangle the pain inventory of your feet from the care you take with each step. Ideally each neither produces nor inflicts pain. Careful walking brings with it the desire to lessen all impact, producing gestures that do not disrupt micro-environments. Constant inventory attunes hikers to how everything fits together–that Boy Scout mess kit, marvelous and precise.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Day 30

September 30th, 2015

Sep 30 day 30 Rangiriri to Ngaruawahia 34 km 7:00-4:00

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So I broke my resolution to slow down a bit. Started morning in thick fog, wore my headlamp to be seen through the construction site, but after crossing the Waikota I was more or less in the country with a straight shot down to Huntly. Only in the afternoon, did things shift with a lot of climbing, some mud/root hiking along a ridge all afternoon. Later I could see Ngaruawahia in the valley by a bend in the river, just had to wait for the trail down, which turned out to be 1.5 km of steps. Never seen so many steps, and almost everyone climbing were women in exercise clothes who I don’t think thought much of my muddy hiking gear. Peaceful evening just relaxing sore stairstep knees. A good day, felt capable throughout. And this was the end of the first month with more than 750 km to show. One quarter of the way through.

Day 29

September 30th, 2015

Sep 29 day 29 Mercer to Rangiriri 25 km 9:15-3:15

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Woke early, looked out on a cold, very foggy landscape, rolled over in my warm bed and slept more. After packing I went over to the Pokeno Bacon Diner. They serve filter coffee (first I’ve had since arriving) and lots of bacon dishes (including an English Bacon butty, ummmmm). Lingered over coffee and then set off down the road for Rangiriri, following my resolution to slow down a little bit. It was a river hike, so no slippery climbing, though I spent the better part of the day dodging cow piles and mud holes. All in all pretty walking by the river– birds, cattle. The occasional slightly aggressive herd made me call up my youthful skills developed chasing cattle in Shenandoah county. Arrival in Rangiriri was amid road construction and once again (like back at the Auckland Airport or through the forest harvest zone) I found myself improvising a route to the accommodation through a blockaded area. Was not arrested. Wandered the town (one commercial block) to discover a battle was fought here in the Maori Wars, with around 100 people killed, many of whom are buried in the cemetery, the settlers and soldiers in traditional marked graves, the Maori in a mass grave forming a hill in one part of the grounds. Wanted to get big feed on at the only pub, but because of the construction the water was shut off so I had to settle for a pint and a toasted sandwich.

Day 28

September 30th, 2015

Sep 28 day 28 stealth camp on Mangatawhiri track to Mercer 23 km 7:45-2:30

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Slept well and long, but had a hard time getting cranked up for hike as the rain showers kept rolling through while I marveled at how well my tent kept me dry and comfortable. Also I was dreading the climb and the trail that would start the day. That part lived up to its billing, not much of a track at all, very slick with the new rain, and strewn with vines which catch my backpack and my toes. I knew I needed to make decent time to get water, but it was mud and root hiking, so I had to proceed cautiously. Had images of falling, breaking something, and not being found for weeks. Spent the a morning on ridges, lots of up and down, but as the day progressed, the trail got better, and I eventually found myself in a pasture with a stream running past. Got out the steripen and made up a couple of liters, then slogged through some pasture trails, following three milk cows who continued in front of me, dropping the occasional steamer, until I made it to the road– hungry, wet, and already tired. About 10 km on the road brought me to a dyke that looked like it belonged in the Netherlands. The land here has been dyked, ditched, and drained. The sun was shining, my stride had more spring, and I made my way across a flat, reclaimed area of farmland. Incidentally, the last two days are the first where I have seen deep plow farming. It had been grazing up until now. These fields are full of fall rapeseed. I got half-way across the dyke hike, smiling at the sun drying all the stuff on my back, when from nowhere along comes a hail storm, which ultimately got to pea-sized, then the lightening began to strike on either side, like an artillery detachment determining range, and there I was, the only elevated upright figure anywhere nearby. The thunder was accompanied by the honking clatter of swans– a pair of black ones in the river beside me who were unsettled by the crack and boom. One took flight, the muscular effort to raising that bulk so it was just skimming above the water, going up the narrow channel as if it were a landing strip.The weather settled it for me. I would make it a short day, stopping at the Mercer Motel and booking a hikers cabin (a wooden cubical). Later, when the sun came out, I spread out all my wet stuff to dry, and wandered over to the pub to get re-hydrated myself. There Sharon and her husband Podge made sure to introduce me to everyone who came in. In my quest to consume more calories, I had the pizza special– large thin crust with at least an inch of toppings– ham, pepperoni, peppers, more and more cheese. All I could do to finish it, washed down with bottles of Waikato Bitter, an appropriate choice since Mercer is located on the Waikato river.

Day 27

September 30th, 2015

Sep 27 day 27 Clevedon to stealth camp on Mangatawhiri track 31 km 9:00-6:00

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What started out peaceful, turned pretty hard, though I really don’t know why. Slept in a little, plus the time changed, so I got a late start on both my time and clock time. Did have coffee at the Clevedon Cafe before hitting trail. Was nice easy warm up 7 km on gravel road gently sloping up, then a nice, but fairly muddy track along a river. About midday, the trail got very steep, muddy, slippery and slow. Stayed that way for a lot of the rest. Much of the day was looking out over two large reservoirs. Had lunch at a dam, and there met two DoC volunteers where were re-supplying the Kauri disinfectant stations– there is a disease hitting Kauris so there are shoe disinfectant stations at the entrances to trails running through kauri forests (I had not realized there were still kauri forests south of Auckland). Anyway, these guys stopped to chat, both sporting really long grey beards. Made me think if mine were longer, we could have started a ZZTop cover band. The road up from the dam was good, until I hit a forestry track that was listed as closed because of active logging, even though it was the only way through for the TA. None of the directions were clear– roads were listed the Te Araroa directions by name, but no names on any of the maps. It was Sunday, the logging trucks were not running, so I walked it anyway, which was fine until the heavy equipment rerouted it. That put me on a temporary bit of the TA, which was a lot of slogging. In all that mess I either missed the turn for the campsite Where I had planned to camp, or it has dissolved in lumber company mud. Whatever, I found myself past the point where the site was supposed to be, out of water, with night falling. Had to pitch tent in only flat spot– a little bit of the trail. I wasn’t worried about anyone coming by, as I was a long ways from everywhere. Water is a bit of a concern. Can’t cook anything, and obviously drink either. There is a river 6 km down the trail, so I just have a couple hours hike in morning to refill. Exhausted, went to sleep with the sun (actually the moon and then the rain).

Day 26

September 30th, 2015

Sep 26 day 26 Auckland Airport to campground at Clevedon Village 34 km 7:30-3:00

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Slept in a bit, had coffee at Jamaica Blue– good coffee– then set out for what would be the most boring day almost (saved by the end). Had about 28 kilometers that was pretty much all sidewalk walking. The only bright spot was the middle of the day when the trail went through the Auckland Botanic Garden, and since it was Saturday, it seems to be dog day– dogs and their owners everywhere, was very cool. Made me miss Umbro so much. The walk did get prettier as the day progressed, further out into farmland. Horse training areas. The last 5 km was up and over a hill, and, wouldn’t you know, in the last two it turned to steep mud with gorse (and blood), then I came out at what I thought was a campground. Turned out to be a Cub Scout facility and they were having their clean-up day. The Warden offered me a bunk, shower, and sausages on the grill. I took the shower and a sausage, opted to set up tent, then ended up sitting in the sun with the volunteers drinking beer and listening to stories about life in the village, including a doctor who somehow accidentally let his sheep into the house, and an absent husband who, when drinking too much, was easily convinced to grab electric fences. Lots of laughter– more kiwi generosity. Set up tent, then headed to local pub for more beer and pizza, and an evening watching village life south of Auckland, very gratifying.

Day 25

September 30th, 2015

Sep 25 day 25 Auckland to Auckland Airport 33 km 8:15-3:30

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My sense is that the TA route through Auckland was designed on a dart board, but I did get to climb Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill, walk through some cool neighborhoods, and finally out to the airport– not your most scenic place. Finally tomorrow I should get back out in the country. Walking in the city is odd– of course I’m out of place with my pack (though there are plenty of students with massive packs traveling about). Walking on the sidewalk, dodging people, waiting for lights, stopping for coffee, constantly consulting maps to be sure I’m on the correct road. All in all, a strange way to be hiking. Have a long stretch before the next real re-supply, so went to grocery and will be carrying a load tomorrow. The airport area was actually ok when I got there. Had to book hotel, but found one cheap, had a great meal in a crowded restaurant– not sure where all the people come from as its not in the airport and the hotel wasn’t full. Still, was a pleasant evening saying goodbye to urban life for a while.

Day 24

September 30th, 2015

Sep 24 day 24 Auckland 0 km, Zero Day

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A day much like yesterday. Had to check out of the YHA hostel as they were booked, but found a luxury hotel room just down the block for the same cost. Hotels.com came through on that. And Ubertec also delivered, getting my new phone in and set up by noon. The sun finally came out, so I spent early afternoon strolling down by the docks, then over to the Shakespear Brewery for a celebratory IPA (the first really good beer I’ve had so far). Then back to the hotel for a few hours downloading apps, maps, and other stuff to make my phone a functional navigation device. It’s pretty stripped down for now, but its main purpose is to be sure I’m on the right path. There was a scale in the hotel, down to about 181 lbs, so I went to one of those Asian all-you-can-eat meat barbecue places and played the glutton.

Footpaths

September 23rd, 2015

Footpaths

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First writing is done by feet. When we walk, we make marks and we make meaning. A path is deep writing. It is a material surface that over time becomes worn and accommodating, but it is also indexical, pointing out a direction–actually two. In addition, paths are communal: formed and maintained by community while at the same time forming and maintaining those very communities. They enable movement and embody memory. For children, at least those who are able to experience childhood outdoors (not on flooring, pavement or artificial turf), paths are possibility. Each day they start yet another adventure. Their windings are a wild writing, leading not to places of labor or commerce, but instead to the hidden which is also the imaginative.

Writing takes many forms, but the classic scene is a steel-nibbed pen scratching the surface of thick paper with the ink leaving a dark line modulated by the faintest lateral threads, liquid drawn out infinitesimally by capillary action of the paper’s fibers. The direction of the mark is, at a glance, obvious, but the possibilities of divergence are framed by those faint lateral marks. Drawn lines and footpaths–diagrams–have direction, but like their childlike wild counterparts also signal other possibilities.

Footpaths and words can take you places or get you lost, which is just a word for a place unknown. Through use, paths enforce a certain directionality. They are habituated to the feet that speak their direction, discourage divergence, dampen wildness. Even walking in blankness is all about making and possibly following marks. Ninety Mile Beach is flat, often 30+ meters wide, and can be walked comfortably anywhere in a wide section, but I still found myself following paths defined by earlier walkers or car tracks. On other beaches (I’ve followed many a beach track on the Te Araroa which is Maori for “The Long Path”) where the sand is often too soft to walk, my feet seek out a thin trace of shells that form a tide line and mark out firm footing. But paths are not just directors, they can be aesthetic, as in Richard Long’s famous 1967 “Line Made by Walking.” They remember passersby, and, for example, express grief as in Rider’s walk down his dead wife Mannie’s weekly pathway in William Faulkner’s “Pantaloon in Black,” or they express and embody love, lovingly demonstrated in Eudora Welty’s “Worn Path” or the footpath of my own youth which led through an orchard to a girlfriend’s house.

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On the other hand, a long-distance footpath must be precisely legible, so they tend to be multimediated. There is, of course the path itself, the reminder of where to step, step by step. Long-distance trails are, almost by definition, unfamiliar. The childlike pleasure of the wild path is, in long-distance hiking, overwhelmed by uncertainty and the physically high stakes of mistakes. A wrong turn can take the trekker many miles from intention. When crossed by another path, the trail needs further indication, often supplied by signs (made of wood or other ponderous material, but which can still be taken as wonders). Theirs is a writing that supplements the first pathwriting. Trail anxiety is also alleviated by other visual marks, usually some form of blazing. On the Appalachian Trail, these are white vertical rectangles (approximately 2 1/2″ x 6″) painted on a tree or rock, usually at eye height. Change in direction is signaled by the turn of the path itself, and reinforced by double blazes, often slightly staggered to indicate direction. In addition, the AT has blue blazes which point out secondary or supplementary trails, usually those which cannot be recognized by the differential width and wear of the path itself.

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The Te Araroa is blazed by orange plastic triangles nailed to trees and posts at something that approaches eye height. Change in direction is indicated by doubling the blazes but also by tipping the triangle in that direction. Such indices are important on the TA, not just to alleviate anxiety, but also to embody the path which often, particularly in the Northland, can be more-or-less non-existent. In steep areas of, for example, the Herekino Forest, the slope can be completely washed out, giving no indication from the ground where to put feet. There the orange triangles become the path. But blazes also transform the experience of the pathway, moving it from feet and downcast eyes to scanning vision at human height, something that seems unimportant but is nevertheless phenomenologically significant.

Even with paths and blazes, it is still easy to lose trail direction. Often in the deep bush there is that heartsinking moment when you realize you have lost the trail. Usually, rather than returning to the last meaningful place (obvious path or blaze), a slight change in perspective, a simple shifting of head and eyes, reveals the obvious–Oh, there it is! Further mediation often takes the form of maps, usually topographical but also terrain profiles. I found that the Appalachian Trail itself was so well-worn and well-blazed that traditional topo maps were not necessary, though profile maps were useful in gauging the overall difficulty of the day. The most recent media form to layer over these others is GPS, which on smart phones takes the form of many useful apps that can obviate the need for all other writing except the path itself, which remains, as always, the first writing.

In a somewhat neglected essay, “The Biology of Cognition,” Humberto Maturana makes a distinction between connotative and denotative language. He does not appeal to traditional definitions of these terms, instead using “denotative” to mean the careful representation of concepts or ideas (in spoken or written language) to another person– almost like tokens passed from one person to another. In his schema, “connotative” then means the use of language to orient interlocutors to each other. When I ask someone how they are, I really do not expect bits of information about their health or financial status, nor am I directly interested in their mood. Rather, I am initiating an interaction where our mutual interests and concerns might in some way become aligned.

Maturana goes on to imply (as I recall) that a majority of language use is connotative, seeking orientation. Humans and other animals, fish, birds, insects, and microbes all orient themselves to each other through pathwriting. It is impossible not to marvel at the subtle communication within a formation of birds whose wings write currents in the air, leading those who follow to shift ever so slightly direction and speed. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes with fascination the watery paths leviathans follow in their migrations. Paths may not be denotative unless they are part of a highly ritualized set of symbolic gestures (e.g., The Stations of the Cross), but without doubt, they are connotative, serving to orient all motile beings to each other, their umwelt, livelihood, and selves. The hills of New Zealand are an intricate patterning of lines, a corduroy of paths and ledges made by generations of cattle and sheep, all finding a home in a steep and difficult place.

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Footpaths and writing often come together (witness Wordsworth), and paths can be a model for thought, from Gerald Edelman’s notion of neural pathways to Martin Heidegger’s holzwege. The latter saw the path as thinking itself. One was never in a particular place or thought, but instead was always on the way toward it. To write is first and foremost to experience the open. To be on a footpath is never to arrive.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Day 23

September 23rd, 2015

Sep 23 day 23 Auckland 0 km, Zero Day

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Was strange waking and not walking. Instead I strolled to a coffee shop for a day of healing and rest. Given all the isolation of the last weeks, for some reason, I still want quiet and privacy here. Just peace without motion. I’ve started to put sugar in my coffee, I think in an attempt to take in more calories– not sure how much weight I’ve dropped, but it is a fair amount already, so today is a day of high calorie meals. Started cold with clouds and rain, but the sun kept trying to come out. In many ways, I did not care. My day was to be spent in the great indoors, but still, the possibility of relaxing in the warm sun was alluring. Of course my peace was interrupted by technology failure. My iPhone died. Fortunately it was under warranty and I was in a city that could replace it, but it did require a hike over to the repair place and at least another day here waiting for replacement. Well, if it was going to fail, I’m glad it did now and not out in the bush three weeks from a city.

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