Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Day 55

October 25th, 2015

Oct 25 day 55 Feilding to Palmerston North

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Slept in a bit because I wanted a big breakfast before leaving and the Spring cafe did not open until 8:00. Enjoying what luxury I can get for now as the coming days (after today) will include big miles and stealth camping. The walk over to Palmerston North was straightforward on very straight roads. It was Sunday so traffic was thinner than usual and lots of bicycles out. The trail skirts the outside of Palmerston, running down a river path popular today as it was finally warm and sunny. Everyone wanted a piece of that. Wound my way to the campground down near the river which is flowing strong from recent rain. Got set up, headed to pak’n save to resupply, the Bivouac to replace my camelback (got one on sale), then the patio at Brewers Apprentice where a mass of people were having sunshine pints. Good quiet day.

Day 54

October 25th, 2015

Oct 24 day 54 Bulls to Feilding 20 km 8:45-12:30

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Had choice of a short day or something near 40km to Palmerston North. Been in a bit of a physical lull, so opted to hike short to Feilding (yes, that’s how it is spelled, named after someone who spelled it that way). Uneventful walk, though had plenty of spring in my step, probably because I knew it would be a short day. It is a long weekend here–Monday is Labour Day– so I had some trouble getting a room (car races in town), but found place in downtown pub at reasonable price. Like the last town, the pub is dominated by gaming machines and horse racing. Don’t know why I find those places so depressing, but everyone seems to have an edge of desperation or maybe it’s the hopelessness in their eyes. The town is interesting in that it is so flat. It has squares in the middle dominated by a bell tower which has a long history, though it is a new structure. Everything is spread out and most of the buildings seem new, so it has a shopping center feel, but then there are short streets off the square with classic old storefronts (early 20th century). Wandered a bit, found the Robert Harris Coffee Roasters–a good place to spend much of the early afternoon. I then retired to Murray’s Irish Pub for the late afternoon pint and an early dinner. There the races were on, but people seemed to just be watching without the stress of having bet the butter and egg money. Adding to the calm was the music which was all classics– James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Otis Reading, Righteous Brothers–hard not to smile on a late Saturday afternoon to them. I should have tried to get up at 4:00 am to come back to watch the World Cup game, but I overslept. The All Blacks prevailed, so this should be an interesting week here in NZ.

Day 53

October 25th, 2015

Oct 23 day 53 Koitiata Beach Campsite to Bulls 28 km 7:15- 1:00

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Another very direct hiking day, though for some reason quite tiring. Might have something to do with my new shoes which are not yet rubbing blisters but my feet feel odd in them, a little more numb than usual. Guess I just need to break them in. It was high tide with more high winds (and some rain), so we walked down the coast trail a bit, then cut over to the forest road for the rest of the morning. Was a pretty walk, even though it was a plantation forest, as it was older growth and imposing. The road was well-graded, straight as an arrow, and the verge was covered with soft needles which make for such soft quiet walking. At one point it opened out onto a road crossing where I talked with two older Maori men picking puho (?) which are greens that resemble really tall dandelions and are eaten by boiling and mixing with meat. They were enthusiastic about their harvest– big smiles all around. After crossing a cutover, I found myself back out on a road, heading to Bulls, a town I have visited via bus with the Georgia Tech students on the way to Taupo. When passing a farm I was invited for a cup of tea by Heather, a farmer/orchard keeper with two dogs who is something of a trail angel. She told the story of just having baked a peach pie when some TA trampers appeared and happily devoured it. I had to forgo the tea because I needed to catch up with Cory which was disappointing as the farm was beautiful, and it would have been a nice stop. A bit further on, I was passing a small house near the road and waved to an older woman who was in the yard surrounded by a panic of small dogs. She waved back, then asked me to stop. Very Christian, she had prayed that God would send her someone to help move a chair she had just gotten from the charity shop. Not wanting to disappoint a prayer and seeing a chance to return in a small way some the generosity I have received, I dropped pack and headed in. Turned out to be a recliner with lots of steel. It was so heavy I could barely lift it. I managed to wrestle it out and up her front stairs. Have to admit I’ve never seen such squalor. The floor was rotten, and covered with dirt and I’m guessing dog shit. Bowls of pet food were spilled out every where, and the furniture that was already there was clearly rotting away. The 5$ charity chair stood out from the rest in its cleanliness. Apart from moving the chair, there was nothing I could do, so I picked up my bindle and headed back out on the road, arriving in Bulls an hour later. Met up with Cory who was eating a triple dip ice cream cone. Turns out he has a bounce box in Palmerston, and it’s Friday before Labor Day weekend. The only way for him to get it was to go there today by bus, so off he went, and I again find myself hiking alone. Cory is a great hiking partner but I look forward to hiking my hike for a bit. I grabbed a pie and some coffee, then headed to the backpackers place on the edge of town, showered, and wandered back to beautiful downtown Bulls for some quiet time and a good meal. I spent part of the afternoon in the Rat House pub, the only non-bull themed business in town. It came recommended by Heather as a place to get a good meal which makes sense as the rest of town is all takeaway. Still, I had hopes, as it was an old establishment in middle of town. Unfortunately it was dominated by racing and betting machines, and I found myself surrounded by people who seemed down on their luck, betting on everything they could. Got depressing so I just wandered town some more, got a falafel, then returned for that big dinner before wandering back to the Bridge Motor Lodge. There I had a beer sitting outside the bunkhouse, then checked out the television room–the set got two channels but one was CNN, so I got caught up with presidential politics. The rain continued to pour so I was glad I was in the bunkhouse and not my tent. Before long, the green lawns were all shimmering pools.

Day 52

October 25th, 2015

Oct 22 day 52 Wanganui to Koitiata Beach Campsite 30 km 7:15-1:45

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What can you say, completely flat day– 30 km of road walking, most on highway 3. Grey, misty, heavy traffic, no real sights to stop for, poured rain with high winds for second half. Just a hiking day to put in the books and forget; however, outside hiking some events not to forget. On crossing the Whangaehu River, right when it started to rain, we (Cory is hiking with me) stopped at the Whangaehu village to see if there was a Tip Top or small store. I asked a woman who was standing in front of an old store, she said there was nothing in the town. As we walked back toward the highway, a dreadlocked, grizzled man waved us down, asked if we wanted coffee, inviting us into his home–a cinder block building that had once been the village store. After siphoning gas from a can into his truck (using the tried and true suck on the end of the hose approach), he introduced us to his wife and granddaughter as well as a friend from up the street. We got coffee and he told the story of the flood (he has lived there for 20 years and as been flooded out four times– each was called a 100 year flood, so I’m guessing he is much older than his 58 years). This is the same flood that hit Wanganui. He had pictures of the village under water, told of escaping with family and children by climbing the roof of the house across the street. His is one of two families that has returned to the village, the other houses are still under condemnation. His was able to occupy early because it is all masonry. He had to shovel truckloads of silt out of it and pressure wash the inside multiple times, and the house (actually is it an old store building from the 1940s) is still in very rough shape, but can finally be lived in after three months hard labor. Interesting people working hard in rough circumstances. Back on the road–around lunchtime the rain really picked up, so we decided to walk in to Turakina (our road turned just outside it) to see if we could get lunch and dry out a bit before the last nine km. Neither the roadhouse, nor the tavern were open, so a coffee and a mince pie at the gas station was the best we could do. The last walk in was rough with wind and sideways rain. A couple of kilometers before Koitiata a woman named Ruth gave us a ride. She sings in a country music club and was on her way to practice. The campground was small, minimal facilities but full of interesting folks. Trish, the warden, doesn’t charge TA hikers, so when the rain broke we pitched tents and spent the first part of the afternoon talking to the various campers, most of whom are driving big RVs. The camp is right across from the beach we will be hiking down tomorrow, the wind characteristic of an ocean breeze. The tiny beach town is one to make you smile, as are the people at the camp. There is Gary, an older man who used to dive (scuba) a lot and had stories about living in Dunedin and having parties with American sailors. Then there is a woman who just moved with her children back from Hamilton to live in the area where she was born. For now, they are in a pop-up camper and tent. The children baked muffins and decorated them with colored icing– one for Canada and one for the US, giving them to us for breakfast. And there was a couple who, because so many people they knew were dying from cancer, etc., decided to take a year off. They bought a camper bus and are traveling the entire country. They had us over to their campsite for beers and conversation. The wind was still blowing and it looked as though the rain would return, so I crawled into my flapping tent, read Barry Lopez for about an hour and slept the sleep of the dead.

Day 51

October 21st, 2015

Oct 21 day 51 Wanganui 0 km

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Excellent morning, wandered downtown, stopped at a couple of coffee shops, got caught up on email and other messages, bought new shoes at Kathmandu (not a day too soon), visited the steamboat museum and wandered about a bit more. Great part of town near the river. The one restored boat, the Waimarie, was moored out back of the closed museum (they had multiple feet of water from the flood a few months back). The boat draws 2 feet, is powered by steam and used to go all the way up to Whakahoro. I have no idea how that was possible unless they did a lot of channel clearing. Today it cruises on the lower part of the river. Spent a long time this afternoon back at the Rutland Inn, slowly savoring a Lakeman Pale Ale and working on the Pennine Way book. Later I resupplied at the New World, dropped by the hostel and planned the next two days hikes. Returned to the Rutland to try their classic burger (highly recommended by both Leo and Remi). Like the burger, it was a classic zero day. Bring on the rest of the trail.

Day 50

October 20th, 2015

Oct 20 Day 50 Downes Hut to Wanganui 43 km 9:00-4:00 (by canoe)

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Started late as we had to coordinate with the tide near Wanagnui (did not want to get to that area before early afternoon when high tide would start slackening). Cool morning and wind picked up fairly soon. Early kilometers were still interesting as we needed to read the rapids, but by mid-day we were in deep, slow water. Yesterday’s long pull started to tell on me, as my arms were very tired and we were getting little assist from the current. The landscape also was changing rapidly, from the steep cliffs and sharp turns of the early parts of the river to more gentle hills. The banks were lined with sheep pasture, even on the steep areas, often with the the farm on the other side of the river. Several times we passed small float barges with pens, clearly designed to take sheep back and forth across the river: sheep ferries. The willow trees are leafed out now and fluff like cottonwood sometimes drifts across the river. By late afternoon were were both gassed and pleasantly surprised when our endpoint arrived (a Top 10 Holiday campground). Gavin told us to leave the canoe there, so we then geared up to walk the rest of the way into town. Then Keith the camp manager came by and, with that great Kiwi generosity that always surprises me, offered to drive us in. Got settled in hostel, did long overdue laundry, then I went I search of a good pub which I found, and of course sitting there were the two French men, Leo and Remi. We spent an evening talking about New Zealand hops, craft beer in southern France, and eating excellent pub food. Wonderful but exhausting day.

Day 49

October 20th, 2015

Oct 19 day 49 Tieke Kainga Hut to Downes Hut 60 km (by canoe) 7:45-4:30

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Had breakfast, said goodbye to our host Wai, and we got on the water early– hoping to make 60 km which would then put us in a good position to make Wanganui tomorrow. Across the morning we hit a series of rough, difficult rapids, where we shipped a lot of water, and, since I was in front today, I was soaked all morning. Fortunately we avoided capsizing when we were nearly swamped, and ultimately made it through the day shipshape. We even survived the 50/50 where as the name implies half the boats capsize. The afternoon got long and slower as the water slackened and the wind picked up. We worried we would pass the hut without seeing it, which as it turns out could easily happen as there was no visible signage or path up. We tracked it with GPS, located it, and made the muddy climb up to a simple but very nice hut. We were soon joined by two French men I had met at a coffee shop back in National Park. They too are on their way to Wanganui tomorrow. Talked a long while, primarily about equipment and food– they are looking for ways to reduce weight–really interesting guys. Long day for all of us so early to bed.

Day 48

October 20th, 2015

Oct 18 day 48 John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga Hut 29 km (by canoe) 8:00-12:00

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Left fairly early in a misty rain. Temperatures cool but the river water not cold at all. Felt good to be early on the water, switched places so we both have motor and steering experience, handled some difficult rapids well and made excellent time. Had Cory not left his life jacket behind and were we not already booked at this campsite, we probably would have pushed on. Instead we unloaded at the camp, got some warm clothes, and crossed over to the “Bridge to Nowhere” Lodge and spent the afternoon out of the rain, drinking Tui’s and reading. The other guests there were four older women who wanted to go up to the bridge, but the rain brought them in instead. Fascinating women from Hamilton, one a computer scientist at Waikato University. Another lived right on the road I passed when walking out to the arboretum near Hamilton. When the news came on and began showing highlights of the All Blacks/France rugby match, they knew most of the players by name, where they had played club rugby, etc. very serious fans who explained lots of things to me. After the rain let up, we canoed back to our side and met Wai, the hut warden and matriarch of the Maori group who occupy the Marai where the DoC hut is located. She explained how DoC had built the hut there claiming that the land had been abandoned. Of course it had not and they re-established their sovereignty of the area. She then told of her son who has learned to navigate by the stars so he can travel around the world on the big Waka they built to help understand possible south sea migration patterns. She also explained why you must remove you shoes in Maori houses: you may have stepped on something sacred outside, and it would be inappropriate to bring it into domestic space. On language, she explained how it was dialect differences that did or did not pronounce the “wh” as “f”. Maori on the river actually just used “w” as in Wanganui. There was also a really nice German couple there touring the country — she is studying philosophy in order to become a secondary school teacher. Wai was leaving the next day and didn’t want to carry out food, so she made a massive mince stew which the four of us had some difficulty finishing, such generosity.

Day 47

October 20th, 2015

Oct 17 day 47 National Park to John Coull Hut 87 km (50 by car, 37 by canoe, 0 by walking) 8:00-3:00

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Back on the trail, sort of. Gavin from Yeti tours (along with noodleman and his sidekick) picked me and Cory up and drove us to Whakahoro Landing. The TA officially passes through there but does not start canoeing at that point; however, the trail to the next landing is closed because a bridge is out, so we started canoeing from there and made it to John Coull hut (37 km), where we set up tents and cooked. Cory and I had a good time canoeing, we work well together. Evening clouded up, but the rain held off. The hut had a lot of canoeists staying there, nice place but I’m glad I’m slept out in my tent (really like that tent– gentle rain much of the night). The hut warden is an older man, a volunteer who works there for about 2 weeks. We had a long talk, an 80 year old kiwi named Peter Young. Has four sons, used to take them down the river when they were young, and he agitated in the 80’s for national park status for the river. He has worked as a farm manager in the northlands, and as a ranger here. Fascinating gentle man who has seen so much in his life. Once again, another Kiwi aging gracefully. I crawled in my tent early to read John McPhee on Alaska, fell asleep as soon as the sun dipped down a bit.

Vital Heat

October 16th, 2015

Vital Heat

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In Coming into the Country, John McPhee offers a series of portraits of Alaskan backwoods men and women. One particularly striking character is Dick Cook, an able trapper who among other quirky traits disdains wool, wearing instead cotton, the one fabric every outdoor adviser warns against. We’ve all heard the phrase “cotton kills” because, once wet, it offers no warmth. Cook claims, “You have to worry more up here about overdressing than underdressing. The problem is getting overheated.” It is perhaps easy to dismiss his comment as Alaskan individualist bravado, but he also is calling attention to the delicate practice of thermoregulation in the big outdoors.

In the “Economy” chapter of Walden, Thoreau uses the phrase “vital heat” to describe the basics necessary to sustain life (or perhaps even to define life). He goes on to critique fine clothing and the fashion industry and, later, elaborate architecture. For him, clothes and houses exist to maintain heat/life, not to designate status. This is all part of his familiar plea to simplify and his broader critique of overly complex social relations. But, if you think a bit about being in the big outdoors over time–that is, to be like Dick Cook working all day outside and perhaps sleeping in a thin shelter at night–this notion of vital heat might be less an opportunity to tweak the noses of Thoreau’s fellow townspeople than it is his acknowledgment of a real and constant imperative which only creeps into conscious awareness outside sealed, climate-controlled spaces.

My experience the other day (detailed in my Te Araroa journal) attempting the Tongiriro Crossing is illustrative:

All advice is not to attempt [the crossing] in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid-morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range.

Here the great outdoors is threatening and heat is indeed vital. Its maintenance is something requiring anticipation, preparation, and self-awareness. I used all the elements Thoreau details for proper balance–food, clothing, shelter–but my getting to that level of understanding about vital heat was the result of a specific crisis. It is the day to day that tends to slip beneath notice but is perhaps what Thoreau is actually signaling through his discussion in Walden.

Dick Cook rejects wool clothing because of the expense, but also because he lives near Eagle, Alaska which happens to be in the driest part of the state. Places with high moisture and sharp temperature shifts require more deliberation. Even though I have a slight wool allergy (it itches a lot), that is what I wear on the trail. The main difference between merino wool and polypropylene (the other backpacker fabric of choice) is that wool is warmer, dries quicker, and–a perhaps aesthetic but still important difference–wool does not smell after a few days’ wearing (nothing reeks worse than polypropylene after a couple of sweaty days). But maintaining vital heat is not so much about the material as it is a set of practices in relation to your own body’s heat response. A typical hiking day for me: early mornings are usually cool, so I often start with long pants (I hike with zip-offs, so at a break I can easily convert to shorts). Unless it is raining, I usually wear a merino wool t-shirt, a heavier merino long-sleeve t-shirt, and start with a fleece. I keep in my pocket a thin merino skullcap, perhaps the handiest piece of clothing I have for thermoregulation. It only takes a little uphill hiking to get me out of the fleece. Once I reach hiking temperature, the subtle vital heat practices emerge. I sweat profusely when exerting myself, regardless of outside temperature, which is why I found McPhee’s discussion of Dick Cook telling. I soon find my undershirt soaked even if the rest of my body– hands and head– remain cold. Practice then includes putting the hat on and off, often in different ways (pulling it above or over my ears, or pulling it down over my temples). The same goes for my long sleeves, which I regularly pull away from my wrists, or back down over them. These adjustments continue throughout the day responding to terrain difficulty, altitude change, moisture, wind speed, and physical exertion.

Thoreau’s vital heat is initially not an abstraction to enable social critique, nor does it designate a passively stable system, even if our thermostats today invite us to believe that is the case. Rather, what he describes in “Economy” is a set of material gestures that dynamically unfold and constantly change over time, conditions demanding attention, care, and vigilance. Thoreau characteristically resists the quick leap from the material to the abstract or transcendental. Rather, he stays on the ground, in the weather, over time. Maintaining vital heat in the great outdoors demands living deliberately.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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