Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Hiatus

December 30th, 2015

Hiatus

People often announce that they are taking their blog on hiatus, which is what I am doing just now. The Te Araroa phase of my walkabout is complete, and I’ll be teaching in Wellington in the new year–Moby-Dick, “he tasks me; he heaps me”–so I am taking a break from daily blogging, but first I want to think about the idea of hiatus, of the interval, particularly as it relates to walking; hence, another pointless essay.

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It’s hard to think the idea of a beginning without an end, but the in-between, the inter esse is where everything interesting is to be found. The nomads in Deleuze and Guattari do not travel from point to point but instead occupy the middle, a milieu. The Nomadology is an attempt to understand what that means (and is the subject for what should be another pointless essay). Completing the Te Araroa–arriving at Bluff–invites a meditation on ending in the way that commencing from Reinga prompts a reverie on beginning. It has been cause for congratulations, requests for stories, explanation of motivation, but the rhetoric of accomplishment tends toward a sense of victory or triumph– getting the t-shirt or the merit badge–which wholly misses the experience of the walk which is always in the gap, a space never empty but instead occupied by varied and often inarticulate ways of being. To be in-between is to perpetually deny the end as absolute because the moment is always opening out onto a horizon of possibility and not directed toward a finish line. Indeed the very notion of a finish line can only exist in a constrained framework, one rarely experienced (e.g., most thru-hikers don’t make it to Katadhin or Stirling Point). My days since finishing the Te Araroa have seemed empty as I’ve rested. My hiatus from daily walking many kilometers and writing about that experience appears empty but of course I have been differently occupied–with thinking, healing, and wrestling with the idea of the in-between. As John Cage teaches about sound, there is no empty even in silence, and we never simply occupy a beginning or end point–are never present in some pure plenitude– but instead are always on the way which is the very being of desire. The real question is how we live that desire– as lack or as inter esse.

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Hiatus is repetition. To take a hiatus from an activity requires a break in what had been a repetitive action, and it is in repetition that difference can be articulated/discerned from one stabilized moment to another. A daily blog reveals shifting mood in 24 hour increments, manifested by reflection and mediated by language. Repetition produces difference and, at the same time, the illusion of continuous variation, but it cannot capture the experience of the milieu–the space and time where everything happens but nothing is reported. It is there that we live–in-between, anxiously minding the gap and never occupying a beginning or ending except perhaps as a brief moment of joy or anguish. Long-distance tramping brings this insight into sharp relief on many scales. A trek is a hiatus from quotidian life (or, more precisely, is a different dailiness). It breaks calendar time–I recall when hiking the Appalachian Trail thinking that it must be a weekend because of the distant roar of motorcycles in the mountains. Trekking produces a hiatus of information (there is no internet in the bush), but by definition, it is a movement from one point to another. Hiking days begin and end with strong awareness of changing position in space and time. Minding the gap is particularly evident in times of navigational difficulty. On the Te Araroa, particularly on the South Island in broad open spaces where the trail proceeds not as a footpath but instead by striking out across open uneven terrain, you hike toward marker poles set in the distance and capped by orange plastic cylinders. When new (or at least not weathered), the orange stands out at some distance, providing reassurance that there is indeed an articulated direction and that you are still on it. Given the vagaries of terrain, unseen needs to detour, or just the simple extension of an interval beyond a sight line, pole-spotting can be difficult and consequently stressful. Generally, confident competent trampers have little trouble following pole markers (unless weather interferes), but the gap still produces an interval of uncertainty that echoes the interval between poles. Constantly wavering between confidence — oh, there it is!–and panic–oh, where the hell is it?–trampers find such days physically and psychologically taxing.

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Even on well-formed, blazed, and documented trails, the experience of the interval can be psychologically difficult. Often trail signs define time rather than distance–time spans that almost never calibrate with actual trekking time as fitness, walking speed, and trail conditions are highly variable. On the Te Araroa sometimes the listed times are realized, but more often they are wildly inaccurate. Anxiety comes with the possibility that for once the sign may actually be correct, throwing off anticipated day’s attainments. Sometimes time and distance inexplicably move to the front of consciousness, often prompted by devices that provide fine-grained measurements. Watches and GPS compute movement from one waypoint to another, filling the interval with thin slices of space/time, a calculus that creates the illusion of flow through minuteness of interval. These moments prompt calibration of body, space, and temporality. Many hikers — including me–try to resist constant monitoring, but inevitably there are days (often when a town is the end-point) where calibration is obsessive–perhaps every hour (or even half hour). The point in time is anxiously awaited, and the point in space–the jump of a pulsing blue dot on a GPS device–is a moment of marvel or disappointment.

But to walk without such constructs, to be in the walk is, at least for me, the true goal. William James gives a way to think the experience of the temporal middle with his notion of the “specious present.” Lasting less than a minute, it is experienced as now: “In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” For James, the specious present is never empty though it can be experientially poor (as in stretches of boredom). Because of its temporal extension, the specious present–the gap we live as coherent nowness–enables the possibility of anxiety (searching for the marker pole) and joy (finding it). It creates the very possibility of expectation, something that would be impossible were time a series of discontinuous moments. Later in the chapter, James discusses the physiological and neurological bases for the experience of the specious present (speculations later supported by Francisco Varela through a review of recent work timing interactions between various neural cellular assemblages). After going through the philosophical argument establishing the idea as phenomenon, he shows how it is part of a cerebral process. He speculates about what it would be like to have a different specious present (e.g., that of a gnat), then uses example of the fine-grained perceptions of hashish intoxication which stretch out the normal perception so that, in his example, the beginning of the sentence fades before reaching the end. Then in a note discussing the work of Hugo Munsterberg, he adds muscle groups linked to directing perception tensing and untensing as part of the embodied constitution of the specious present.

What is clear in James’s discussion is that the experience of the now is the result of both neural and physical experience. I would add that there are times when our awareness of the specious present is heightened, and trekking often produces that sense. The now can be experienced negatively–anxiously measuring progress toward (and away from) spatial-temporal goals–but also positively as the now, moments as close to pure awareness of being is possible. When walking, you use your entire body as a perceptual apparatus–head to toe–promoting awareness of self and now, both of which are forms of consistency in the midst of flux: “Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through.” This is the double lesson of time and walking– the specious present is a saddle of present (if not presence) where the immediate past slips off the edge as the new now is experienced. A body walking mimics this motion through both space and time. The hiatus is the now.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Day 114

December 24th, 2015

Dec 23 day 114 Colec Bay Campground to Invercargill 6:15-4:00 45 km

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What to say? 45 km is a long day, but most on the beach which goes fast and I hitched the last 5 (it was just a road walk and I have seen roads before). The first stretch was interesting and not easy. Colec Beach is made of small pea gravel–soft and moves under foot–so it makes a difficult surface to walk. Then there was a lot of cliff up and down with a fair share of gorse. Stopped at Riverton for second breakfast, thinking perhaps of calling it a day, splitting up the penultimate stretch, but there was not much attraction there so I pressed on. One issue was a stream crossing that the guidebooks said not to attempt at high tide. As luck would have it, I was hitting that point at precisely high tide, so I had to improvise by catching some private farm roads up and around the stream head. It was a nice reprise of my many pasture walks, and included one stretch where hundreds of sheep were packed into a holding pen I needed to cross. There were a number of dairy cattle and of course your standard pasture full of steers. They are the most troubling as the steers always look at you expectantly, as if you are bringing them something, and they follow along as you pass, looking plaintive. And of course their destiny is hamburger. After clearing the main stream I still had to ford a waist deep flow, leading out onto the Invercargill beach made famous by Anthony Hopkins’s motorcycle run in “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Made good time on a firm flat surface, then walked the road a bit when a kiwi named John picked me up. He was only going a short distance, but in typical kiwi fashion he kindly took me all the way into Invercargill. I have felt a twinge of guilt when taking a hitch at the end of a long day, but inevitably I meet someone well worth meeting and realize that’s what the trip is all about. To try to “white blaze” the TA is to miss out on some of the more interesting people NZ has to offer. Got a room at the Tuatara Backpackers and had a glass or two at the Zookeepers Cafe, the only place that serves Invercargill Brewery beer on tap–good!

Day 113

December 24th, 2015

Dec 22 day 113 Martin Hut to Colec Bay Campground 7:45-4:15 30 km

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Every thing I did today was with a sense of an ending. I knew Martin would be the last hut I stayed in on this trek, as was the descent off the mountain through the forest. The first kilometer was just like yesterday’s, really rough with a lot of downed trees, but after the shift to the Ports water race, it got interesting (at least for a while). This area was a big 19th century gold mining region, and the water race is a 20+ km path beside a ditch for sluicing gold. What stood out were the trees– Rimu and Totaru growing in profusion. There were massive trees, long since fallen, slowly rotting away but straddled by new trees growing up out of the rot. The riot of growth was breathtaking. Parts of the trail passed derelict machinery, old mine shafts, and the remnants of timber-framed aqueducts that carried the sluices over stream ditches. Then it wound down to the bay which marks the end of land. I made my way to Colec Bay campground, did laundry, had good meal in tavern (actually two, remain completely ravenous), trying to decide how far to trek tomorrow.

Day 112

December 24th, 2015

Dec 21 day 112 Otautau – Merrivale trailhead to Martin Hut 7:45-4:15 28 km

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One of the first very hot days but also incredibly windy, particularly up on the balds. Good solid day of walking once again on difficult surface. In the hut book, one of the thru hikers (Keith who has been one week ahead this whole trip) compared today’s surface to the Raetea swamp, which I thought was the worst trail I’d ever hiked. Parts of today were a close second. Guess they don’t want us to finish with ease. The Martin Hut is best described as rustic (again, going out with a bang). The water was clogged, and when I opened the barrel, I decided to scout out some water from a nearby stream instead. It’s hard to be sentimental about difficult tasks, but that will be the last water scouting expedition on this trail as I hike down off the ridge tomorrow, and the rest is hiking on the beach from town to town. When you get to Maine while hiking the AT, everyone starts looking for Katadhin–a massive singular mountain rising up in the middle of the state. I think Bennett and I were in the Bigelows on the first clear day where we saw it– the destination. Bluff isn’t imposing in the same way, but it is the bottom of the country, next stop Antarctica. Today up on the ridge I could see the sweep of the bay bending to Invercargil and the hills that make up Bluff and adjacent territory. The view really was of the end of the world.

Day 111

December 20th, 2015

Dec 20 day 111 freedom camp to Merrivale trailhead 7:00- 11:00 15 km

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After a forest/road walk I hitched into Otautau for just enough supplies to get over the next stretch but mainly to rest up a bit and eat a big meal or two. Caught a ride with a character driving a Land Rover Defender hauling a load of railroad ties. He moved here from the north island three years ago and bought a building with two storefronts, one will soon be a cafe. He gave me coffee and showed me around town. Unfortunately it was Sunday and the place was very much a ghost town. No place open for late breakfast so I hung out at the Otautau Hotel drinking coffee, waiting until I could get a room and a short nap followed by dinner and sleep. I’m afraid sleep has become an obsession at this point in the long walk. I’m going to have to report that Otautau is not on my list of towns to visit again.

Day 110

December 20th, 2015

Dec 19 day 110 Lower Wairaki Hut to freedom camp 9:00-5:30 30 km

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The forest this morning reminded me so much of the north island. There is a symmetry in that the very beginning and the very end of the TA are beach hikes and the parts connected are dense forest hikes. Very mossy, muddy, rooty, with little trail to follow, just the orange triangles. Got a late start just because I had to get some sleep after yesterday’s marathon. The forest led up to a peak which then became an open rocky ridge line. At first is was completely fogged in so I had trouble finding the trail marker poles, but then it lifted and the valley opened up, it had an edge of the end of the world feel to it. After a steep climb down I followed a farm road out to a bridge and gravel road, or, as the kiwis call it, a metal road. Long afternoon’s tramp brought me to the road and the intersection of several large farms, and no place to camp. One thing about the TA, there is often no place to camp at the end (or beginning) of a main section. As I stood there once again very tired and puzzling what to do, a hunter on his way up to look for wild boar offered to take me up the trail to the point where it enters native bush where it is ok to camp. I had little choice as I needed a place to stay and it will make tomorrow an easier day, something my weary bones welcome. Talking with him on the ride up was interesting. His family runs one of the big farms in the area, and he used to play polo in Europe before returning to work the sheep and cattle. He is hoping to put up a hut somewhere near where I was stuck to make available to TA trampers. Interesting guy to say the least (and he had beer). Got settled in the woods, made dinner, and welcomed going to sleep early. Tomorrow I’ll probably head to Otautau to resupply and a big meal.

Day 109

December 20th, 2015

Dec 18 day 109 Princhester Creek Rd to Lower Wairaki Hut 7:45-8:15 (pm) 35 km

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Although I was refreshed by big meals in Te Anau, I was not prepared for the sheer physical effort today required. As I look at my daily hiking numbers– time and kilometers, I’m struck by how they do not reflect effort. 40 km on a gravel road is a stroll compared to 10 km in the woods and marshlands I walked through today. Forests without trails (only blazes), open fields of tussock grass so high you could barely make out the trail marker poles, full of meandering streams you could not see because of the grass. Stepped into a few water holes and fell. I did bump into my friend Mike who I met on the Appalachian Trail. He’s just started the TA hiking northbound. Hope to keep in touch as he works his way to Wellington. The craziest part though were two falcons guarding a nest near a marshy tussock field. The hut log books had warned me about them. They call loudly, then fly at you. One dives low and comes straight at your face while the other comes in high from behind. They were relentless and once I ended up on my back ducking the one heading straight at me–intimidating as hell. Was an exceedingly long day to make it to the cabin, capped with the need to ford a decent sized river almost at the hut’s doorstep. Freshly soaked shoes, great way to end a long day.

Day 108

December 17th, 2015

Dec 17 day 108 free camp to Princhester Creek Rd 7:15-3:00 (hitch to Te Anau) 34 km

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Still drizzled but more sun than clouds today. Slept like a dead man last night–was really tired. Nevertheless, I got a decent early start on a beautiful, generally well-marked well-formed trail. When I got to the flood bridge, I saw Jan’s tent (but let him sleep). The rest of the hike was on a gravel farm road– after a bit I snagged a ride from a woman who helps coordinate hunting trips on one of the big stations up on the lake. She said she usually did not pick up hikers, but good karma comes around. She soon had a flat which I fixed for her. Got to Te Anau to resupply for the big push to Riverton. Too bad I couldn’t stay a while, a pretty cool town on a lake that caters to people going on the great walks in Fjordland. It’s funny, now each little task that I do as I have been these past 3 1/2 months I wonder if it will be the last time. I’m sure I’ll use my tent again before the end, but there are a lot of huts on the track, and then I’m in towns for the last couple days, so who knows? I’ve also been making a lot of post-trail arrangements–flights to Christchurch and then Wellington, hostel on Stewart Island, etc. Starting to get that sense of an ending, not sure I like it (though I think my feet will).

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