Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Hiking Time

September 16th, 2015

Hiking Time

Portions of the Te Araroa require hitching a ride on a boat. Opua to Waikare is an extra 25km if you don’t go by water. I opted for the boat not just out of laziness, but also because I wanted a different view– oyster beds, derelict boats, grand waterfront houses, and old shanties–but I had to wait in the harbor all day for high tide. Needing to rest tired bones, the waiting part was easy. I was living hiking time, in this case time determined by the moon, a natural phenomenon generally ignored by everyone except fishermen, yacht people, and surfers.

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Te Araroa is translated “the long walk,” but it is unclear if the adjective refers to time or distance. Perhaps they are the same. You can plan a walk, determine distances, make reservations, anticipate arrivals. Within the day itself, you can follow a watch and a map, but hiking time subverts all. You can cover 10 km on a forest road in the same time it takes to slog your way up 3km of a stream. You can (and will) make navigational errors that require recalibration of goals. Indeed, goals themselves are often abandoned as any day wears on, which is one reason for carrying a tent: ten square feet of level ground is a home for the night.

While waiting in Opua, I talked with a boating couple, one commented on the lengthening days (we will soon have equinox), and the other noted about how it will also be better with the coming of daylight savings time. I could only smile. The lengthening of the days with the spring is a significant change, enabling longer, warmer walks. I well remember hiking the Maine section of Appalachian Trail in August when it seemed the sun rose at 4:00 and did not set until after 10:00. That made for difficult sleeping as, on the AT, “hiker’s midnight” is 9:00 pm. Regarding daylight savings time, for those living industrial time, it means a day with more usable light. For someone living in the big outside, the day is as long as it is, regardless of time measurement devices or legislation.

Hiking time is also seasonal, not just shortened or lengthened days, but also weather patterns and temperature differentials. The ideal time to hike the TA is November –March. Then the Northland is warm and has, at least in most places, dried out from the spring rains. And the TA’s terminus–Bluff– is approached in the lingering days of summer. My calendar dictated a September start with an early January end. This meant starting out in the rain with still-cold evenings, and, on the South Island, will include wading rivers swollen by the spring thaw. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker chronicled his experiences in a book entitled North with the Spring. Most AT thru-hikers still follow that pattern, commencing from Springer Mountain in March or early April in order to summit Katahdin by September. Being in the weather (significantly in French, temps is both weather and time) all day and night, raises the stakes on seasonal difference. My hike on the TA is South with the Remnants of Winter.

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Spending the days walking the big outside makes for other ways to measure time–walking pace, a measure closer to poetry than to clocks. Wordsworth famously walked many thousand miles in his lifetime, and composed poetry while hiking on paths near Grasmere or pacing in his own garden. Each two steps an iamb (with old knees, steps are never spondee, the pattern of my trekking poles is definitely anapaestic). Hiking rhythm is hypnotic, soothing, or sheer brutality. Pace shifts across the day according to many variables: trail surface, nutrition, blisters, elevation change, sheer exhaustion, or inexplicable shifts in mood. With that comes a dilation of traditional time or the production of time as difference.

Hiking time is also geological. Surface, strata, upthrusts, bogs, all insist on acknowledgment. The old lava flow stretching across a beach must be crossed carefully–a surface both slippery and sharp. Volcanic peaks are steep and often lack soil to cushion feet, or when they do, it is a hopeless mucky mess. New Zealand seems a young place geologically speaking. The terrain is in ferment, constantly rearranging itself. Roads and trails are all subverted by slips and landslides, the streams seem to be newly gouging their own paths. And so many hillsides, volcanic in origin, are stark, nearly naked rock were it not for the exuberance of plant life, clinging wildly to their sides. There is something here of the forever new, a sense that things are just getting started.

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If, as I imagine, the geology is young, the botany is ancient. I once wrote an essay about time and trees (here), but I didn’t talk about Kauri trees, those long-lived giants that proliferated in the Jurassic period but now are confined to the wet forests of the New Zealand northlands. Walking through a mature Kauri forest is something akin to walking amongst redwoods. The diameter of the trunks is unimaginable. There is a store near Awanui built around the upright trunk of an ancient Kauri that has been hollowed out to form a spiral staircase. But, unlike redwoods, Kauri’s have smooth, grey peeling bark, and they do not attain such heights, growing at most about 50 meters with large branching limbs forming an incredible canopy. Standing at the base, you feel as if you are looking at the world’s best climbing tree (if you were also a giant). Nested in its arms are epiphytes– rushes that look as if they should be growing around a bog. The TA goes through a number of Kauri forests, including a visit to one of the best loved of the trees, Tane Moana, thousands of years old. I reach down and touch eternity. At home, I have tongs made of Kauri wood. They are beautiful, rich, and red, somewhat resembling teak. With them I toss salad leaves hours old.

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T. Hugh Crawford

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