Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Day 106

December 17th, 2015

Dec 15 day 106 Greenstone Road to Taipo Hut 10:30-4:45 24 km

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Got transportation to the trail head (which is across the lake from Queenstown and so is a long van ride around). I was the only passenger, so Mr. Buckley explained the transformation of Queenstown in the 50 years he has lived here. A couple of key events changed a small, generally empty lakefront town to the high adventure attraction it has become–mostly happening in the 70s. Air travel costs dropped considerably in that decade, and Queenstown, unlike some of other, similar towns has a good airport. Then they built a bridge over the Dart river at the top of the lake which opened great walks in the fjord lands to access from Queenstown. So now the place is wall-to-wall high adventure booking stations, dozens of restaurants, hotels, hostels, and bars. We stopped for coffee at the Kinloch Lodge, an old restored place on the western side of the river/lake– very pleasant sitting on the restaurant deck looking out over the lake before heading on back to the trail. I had seen Jan in town, and we both got to the trailhead at more or less the same time. There were a number of other hikers, but they were day or short loop hikers, and soon it was just me and Jan. The first half (Greenstone Trail) was incredibly well made– a veritable sidewalk–and the second half, the Malvora Walkway was a poorly marked marsh hike. I kept worrying I would lose my shoes in the muck, but they held on. I stayed at Taipo Hut (adequate but not interesting, in the bend of a river and a cow pasture). It did have a rotating gate made from an old wooden wagon wheel that reminded me of George Sturt. Jan continued on to Boundary Hut (another 12 km). Might not see him again as he is carrying a lot of food and pushing hard to the end. I’ll need to resupply at least once before Riverton, so it looks as though in a couple of days, I’ll try to hitch to Te Anau from route 94. I want to be sure to enjoy this last part, so I don’t want to get too caught up in a race to the finish, but I am ready to get to Bluff–fewer than 300 km now.

Day 105

December 17th, 2015

Dec 14 day 105 Queenstown 0 km

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It seemed indulgent taking another zero so close to the last one (at Wanaka), but the Motatapu Track really kicked my ass, and I did want to take the time to see Queenstown which is a fascinating place. Apart from all the different places to book adventures that endanger your life, there are plenty of coffee shops, craft beer bars, and parks with benches and sunshine. I availed myself liberally of all. The only dark spot was that the YHA was fully booked, so I had to move to the hostel across the street. Got very little sleep as my different roommates kept coming in and out all night, it was very hot in the room, and the drunks out the window were howling all night. Queenstown has it fine points, but if I return to this area to visit again, it will be to Wanaka.

Day 104

December 13th, 2015

Dec 13 day 104 Arrowtown to Queenstown 8:30-2:30 28 km

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After a quiet breakfast in Arrowtown (the place is terminally cute) it was a simple stroll over to Queenstown. Made one wrong turn and ended up cutting through a private section without permission. The wealth in this area is palpable– unlike any I’ve been in yet. Part of the TA was on a walking path through a golf course, not your usual trail environment. The place dripped privilege–was glad to get past it. The most interesting part were the stone buildings– some old, some new– an architectural style/material I have not seen in New Zealand much, part of the mining heritage of the area I suppose. Queenstown is a crowded adventure town. The place is packed with every gap-year 20 something on the planet, and the Main Street is primarily a place to book skydiving, boat adventures, etc etc. Still, has a good feel. I on the other hand have hit some sort of physical wall–completely exhausted so will see if a rest day tomorrow will make those last 400 km bearable.

Day 103

December 13th, 2015

Dec 12 day 103 Highland Creek Hut to Arrowtown 7:00-5:30 33 km

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Today I was a walker and rider in rivers. Got an early start as I knew it would be a long day– how long I did not suspect. The first stretch was physically very difficult, one of the hardest trails I’ve been on since the Richmond Range– a lot of steep up and down with very little regular hiking between. The weather was threatening all day, and I was a little worried about being up on exposed ridges I case things got rough. Fortunately it held off most of the day. When the trail finally got down to the Arrow River, then decided to climb back up a ridge, I decided to just hike down the river itself. The flow was not deep. My feet got a little numb, but not too bad, so my afternoon was crossing from flat to flat or just marching straight down the middle. Just above Macetown (an empty old mining town 2/3rds of the way down), I got on a four wheel drive track that forded the river about as much as it ran on dry land. The road continued after Macetown and I had the choice of following it all the way to Arrowtown (the longer route) or to take a trail over a mountain. The weather was threatening, and I was having fun in the river, so I opted for the road. The further down I went, the deeper the river got. Even though the road continued to ford, there were pedestrian bridges to keep us poor walkers from getting swept away. A few kilometers from town, a couple came down the road in a 4WD Toyota pickup with huge tires and the engine’s air intake mounted at cab roof height. I was treated with some driving in the river- sometimes right down the middle of it for a while (the driver really knew what he was doing). Thank heavens for the high air intake, because even though it sat up high, the water came over the truck’s hood several times. After a safe delivery to dry land in Arrowtown, I got a room at the New Orleans Hotel, wandered the Main Street a bit–great old mining town where they have repurposed all the old buildings, so it has an unusual old feel. Had good meal in hotel restaurant and went to bed early– am really feeling the last two day’s hike.

Day 102

December 13th, 2015

Dec 11 day 102 Wanaka to Highland Creek Hut 8:30-6:00 30 km

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Really did not want to leave Wanaka– my new favorite town in NZ. Lingered over coffee in the hostel which incidentally was called the YHA Purple Cow hostel. I asked if the name had anything to do with Williams College, but nobody knew. Then picked up a pie from the bakery near the waterfront, and finally, reluctantly, recommenced my trek, only to stop after about 3 km because the Edgewater hotel had a coffee sign out on the lakeside path. Couldn’t resist hanging out just a little longer. The first half of the day’s walk was along the lakeside to Glendu Bay, where there is a nice campground (got ice cream to go with my lunch) and a nearby organic farm. The trail went up through it so I could see some of the operation including those portable chicken coops they move around the pasture behind the cattle. After a bit the creek valley narrowed, took an abrupt turn from a seemingly impenetrable wall, and led up through a beech forest a while before breaking out into the alpine terrain that defines this section. Met an Austrian man named Daniel who is also hiking this stretch– we ended up passing each other all afternoon and then at the same hut, which took a long day’s walk to attain. The huts are all recent, clean and beautiful– part of this new Motatapu Track which was apparently funded by foreign investment (I’m not sure how a walking track can be a good monetary investment). The first day hiking after a rest day is always exhausting, not sure why, but it is definitely early to bed tonight.

Why I Walk

December 10th, 2015

Why I Walk

The first answer to the question “why walk?” is because I can, a claim I don’t make lightly. I turned 59 just before starting this particular trek–the Te Araroa in New Zealand–and I am constantly reminded of the need for good health and strength in order to backpack long miles day after day. Some years ago, my orthopedist told me to stop running, but when asked about backpacking he said “no problem,” so I immediately started hiking the Appalachian Trail which is how I got my trail name–Tinman. During that first stretch, I kept having to go back to Atlanta to get injections in my surgically repaired knee, creaking and moaning like my counterpart from Oz. In the years since I have completed the Appalachian Trail, the English Pennine Way, part of the Pacific Crest, and been trekking in the Dolomites and Croatia. To me, walking has never really been about completing tracks. I’m not interested in bragging about hiking the triple crown as if it were a merit badge. Rather walking is a form of living that brings insight, gratitude for certain abilities, all enabled by a resolutely simple encounter with the big outside.

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Long-distance hiking is an experiment in bare life. The echo of Georgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1995) here is intentional though, to be clear, my use of “bare” does not signify a legal “state of exception” but instead life outside–outside of society and outside in the world. The need to pack light demands simplification and a constant interrogation about what is necessary. I am carrying things that I have not yet used though I have nearly completed this particular trek–things I probably should have abandoned months ago, but there are also those fundamental bits of equipment that enable living (see pointless essay “Care”). At the same time, being out a long time simplifies your relationship to the natural world. Life becomes bare and elemental: the extraordinary taste of water, palpable morning light, the surface of the earth through your bootsoles, breathing on a mountaintop.

The philosopher Michel Serres noted that the French word for time (temps) is the same as the word for the weather. Walking is fundamentally about temps. Backpackers experience the weather in most of its forms. I rarely check the forecast unless I am going into a particularly treacherous area since I will be out in it whether it is sunny or a storm. On rainy days, I just gear up and start walking. The big outside brings all the subtle shifts of the day, the wind changes, there is a little patch of blue in the sky, or a layering of clouds that signals the breakup of a downpour. In the United States, people speak of climate-controlled environments. They aren’t talking about fixing global warming; they simply mean staying in a heated/air conditioned space completely unaware of weather. Clearly there is nothing particularly virtuous about standing out in a storm. On the Te Araroa I have run from lightning bolts across lowland dykes, fought hypothermia on the edge of the Tongiriro crater, and shivered in knee deep, ice cold stream water on an early morning trek. Rather, being in the weather is part of bare life, of being in the world, and it brings a nuanced sense of what a (your) body can do, and how the world responds.

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Of course weather is not just a daily experience–it is also seasonal which is where time clearly comes into play. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker, described his experience in a book called Walking with Spring, the title signaling the seasonal nature of his hike (and the time-frame most AT hikers continue to follow). My Te Araroa blog is called “South with Spring” in acknowledgement of Shaffer and to mark the same seasonal tactic in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of hiking–daily, monthly, seasonally– is the heart of walking. With long-distance hiking, your body gets into a particular rhythm, generally waking at the same time, getting hungry at specific points in the day, and exhausted at the end. Then there is just the pure walking itself which takes on its own temporality governed not by a clock but by the pendulums that are your legs, marching out a pace, a time, a day, a season. I started the Te Araroa in early spring when the days were short. A good hiking day generally requires more than 12 hours of daylight, so I would find myself waking in the dark and packing up waiting for first light, learning that greeting the dawn is an exquisite element of the big outside. Walking across the seasons is a subtle experience. Unlike home-dwellers who often express surprise at the seemingly sudden appearance of spring or fall, walkers have been noting fine-grained temporal variations daily, the slow budding of plants, feeling days begin to stretch out, watching the sun linger longer on the horizon.

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Walking with a backpack, day in and day out, also brings a different relationship to your body. We are accustomed to thinking of our bodies as close, as fundamental to daily life, but actually our experience of corporality can be quite distant. By staying out of the weather and living within industrial time, bodies become objects to be observed in the mirrors on the gym wall rather than occupied as our first-form materiality. Backpacking brings with it a constant inventorying of your body, monitoring hot spots on feet, nutrition needs, and tight muscles. It also brings transformation. Out in the bush, it is virtually impossible to consume as many calories as you are burning (the good news is that long-distance hikers can eat all the ice cream they want). Although the time varies, most people experience significant late afternoon energy drops after tramping a few weeks, the result of having burned off most stored body fat. Initially it is a phenomenon hard to recognize, but after several long treks, the symptoms are familiar, and the only choice is to eat more food (which means carrying a heavier pack). Clothes fit differently as general body shape changes, and transformed vascularization brings out veins that once were hidden. But true nearness to your body comes from experiencing what it can do, how walking in the big outside involves a constantly shifting surface bringing rapid micro-adjustments to stride and foot placement. These are cognitively complex gestures that, on consideration, can only be marveled at. We have a tendency to regard thought as some “higher order” cognition while walking is a simple internalized gesture, but that is to forget the amount of time it took for each of us to learn to walk. It is a neuronally intensive process at least on a par with learning mathematics or composing a poem.

The link between walking and thinking runs deep. Evolutionarily our sensorium is optimized for a 3 kph pace which is one reason it is so easy today to be thrilled through technologically induced acceleration. But there is something about a walking pace, particularly in solitude over long hours, days, weeks and months, that enables careful observation and clears a space for thought. While walking, the sensory stream rarely overwhelms. Instead it offers a different, simpler engagement with the material world and our sense of self (which actually cannot be disentangled). The curve of a hill brings back memories of hills climbed in childhood. Unidentifiable smells, or quality of air shifts (heat and humidity variation), or changes in the light are all lures for thought, a thinking uncoupled from distraction (by distraction I mean that which derails a particular line of thought before it has a chance to fully form). Walking is flow, but a flow at some distance from that of television, the Internet or other media forms. The pacing is its own time and quality: the pace of human bodies and human thought which makes me want to recast Descartes’s formula as “I walk, therefore I think.”

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Addendum: In my blog walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu there is a category called “Pointless Essays.” I’ve been taken to task about that term, but with it I am trying to signal a practice that is only tangentially related to traditional economies. They in some way resemble academic essays but would have no home in an academic journal. They are part of a blog economy, but my readership is precious and few, so their place in any larger economic system is provisional if not pointless. But there is a relationship between pointlessness and walking–particularly long-distance hiking–which is perhaps quintessentially pointless in a capitalist economy. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that there isn’t a huge industry surrounding walking practices, including outdoor equipment providers, hostellers, national parks, and the media (which of course participates in the manufacture of the very idea of Nature), but the personal act of walking in itself is deliberately non-productive in most economic senses. Long-distance hikers are often marginal participants in traditional economies (see my earlier pointless essay “Just a Bindlestiff”). Perhaps a way to phrase it is to appropriate a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: walking is “purposive without purpose.” It is motivated but not rewarded (in a monetary sense). Its world is perhaps best articulated by my favorite economist, Henry David Thoreau, who claimed: “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” I’m present at that rising. I walk because I cannot stop.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Day 101

December 10th, 2015

Dec 10 day 101 Wanaka 0 km

 

 

Ahh, a zero day (by choice). Wanaka is an amazing little town, lives up to all the good things I have heard on the trail. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I stopped walking a bit. Feels good not to be moving very much (though I did walk a bit to break in my new shoes). One thing you have to love about tramper culture is living within forms of mobility and in the big outside. Sitting in a coffee shop this morning, I watched a man across the street beside his car drop his pants, flash all the cars going with some briefs crack, then he put on his hiking shorts. There is no real place for modesty in hiking towns. All in all, a day well spent.

Day 100

December 10th, 2015

Dec 9 day 100 Lake Hawae Village to Wanaka 8:45-2:00 25 km

 

Lake town walking– flat and fast. Woke at 5:30, bing–wide awake. Decided to spend early morning in hostel kitchen drinking coffee and catching up on correspondence. So far behind on a series of short essays, but hard hiking days really don’t lend themselves to evening writing, and December so far has been a pedal to the metal month. Just taking what is there and trying to build some buffer days in case problems emerge. The walk over to Wanaka was along the Hawae River on a bike trail. A little hot and dusty, but pretty, and after yesterday’s rock clambering, ridge hiking, steep descent, a little flat was welcome. The Wanaka hostel is good– they messed up my reservation so I got upgraded to a cabin with some good folks, including a guy from Chile. Got some laundry done (including sleeping bag), resupplied at the New World, got new shoes (!), and found a replacement icebreaker beanie hat. Not sure why that made me so happy– the old one had been such a useful bit of equipment. Not a day of contemplation, just getting things done. After chores I wandered the town a bit. Many people I have talked to have said to forget spending time in Queenstown as it is too “touristy” (which of course is what I am, though I don’t travel around in a group) and to stay in Wanaka. A stroll down the lakeside convinced me that this is a town to spend some time in. Since I’ve been making such good time and have not taken a free zero in a long time (all zeros on the South Island were dictated by weather, not desirability. In addition, I’ve been having some physical stress pains in my legs and feet, so a day of rest is probably in order (and I can walk about town breaking in my new shoes!)

Day 99

December 8th, 2015

Dec 8 day 99 free camp to Lake Hawae Village 6:45-4:00 28 km

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So I pitched my tent on what looked to be a great free camp site, and it was except the ground was not as level as I thought, so my night was a good bit of sliding from one side to the other of my tent–not the best night of sleep in preparation for an uncertain day of hiking. I woke fairly early to a very cold morning– layered up with all my warm clothes (and at some point in the day lost my Icebreaker beanie hat that I loved so much–very disturbing). This day did not mess around. Immediately I was climbing very steep and not well formed trails, and it did not stop all morning. Scree that moved to a touch, lots of downed trees across very steep trails, then a few gratuitous river crossings (very cold water). Finished out by an incredibly steep climb out of the river valley up to the Breast Hill plateau (yeah, breast hill!). The late morning , early afternoon was more civilized, following a farm track up above the bush line for some incredible views of the lakes and the snow covered southern alps. The descent off the plateau was tough, first along a long ridge line with narrow rocky paths, then a quick descent to the lakefront and a long dusty walk to Hawae Village, which is more a collection of houses near the lake than a town. I did get the last backpackers bunk at the hotel and had a great meal at the unforgettable Sailz restaurant, then settled in to rest from what was a difficult few days hiking. Glad to be in another lake valley; will make the trek over to Wanaka tomorrow.

Day 98

December 8th, 2015

Dec 7 day 98 Ahuriri River to free camp on ridge above Timaru River 7:15-5:15 30 km (+4 walk up road to trailhead)

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Recipe for hiking on South Island: Start day hiking up narrow valley, probably crossing a cold stream often, climb all morning to reach a saddle at about noon, then descend into a new river valley following riverbed with regular climbs to ridges above. Repeat for two or three days, then a day of road walking to a town on or near a lake, then repeat it all again. The main variation on that formula today was surface. The first 2/3rds of the day, including crossing Mount Martha’s saddle, was on a farm track then a bulldozed road. Not smooth but easy to follow. Still the climb was a beast, and the wind (with snow) on top was tough. The other 3rd was back in the forests much like on the north island — very narrow sidling above steep banks and climbing over lots of downed trees. Got to Top Timaru hut at 1:30– a brand new well-made little hut, would love to have stayed there, but was too early to call it a day, so went to the woods and then went slogging in the Timaru River the rest of the afternoon. Should get to Lake Hawea Village tomorrow. Sleeping near a small waterfall tonight.

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