Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Day 37

October 10th, 2015

Oct 7 day 37 Mangaokewa road to Ngaherenga campsite 36 km 8:00-4:00


Al, the transport guy, picked me up at 7:15 to head back to Mangaokewa road to start the day, but because they are strengthening a bridge, we had to do a detour around the countryside and passed one of the many farm airstrips I have been hiking past all these weeks. I was always curious about them as they did not seem to be the kind of airstrip a wealthy farmer would set down on. Turns out they need to fertilize all that steep pasture land and the only way to do it is by air. We came up on one in full operation. A specially equipped single engine plane roars up a rough, short, steep landing strip. At the top is a loading truck that gets about two tons of fertilizer in its hopper, the plane spins around, gets reloaded and takes off, all in less than a minute. The pilot uses GPS to determine where to drop, takes a couple minutes and is back for another load. The man offered to take me up for a run, but I was just too damn chicken. Al dropped me off for what was a long, not particularly interesting road walk to Pureora, which is the start of a long mountain trek. Leaving the flat farmland behind tomorrow and should be able to see Lake Taupo and Mt. Ruapehu early on if the weather holds.

Just a Bindlestiff

October 6th, 2015

Just a bindlestiff


Walking long distance is never just about solitude. Most trails cross roads, towns, and some (such as the Te Araroa) go through cities. It’s one thing to be out in the bush– hot, sweaty, a bit fragrant from a few days without bathing, sporting unruly hair and a scraggly beard– and running into other trekkers. Even if they are day-hikers (what my son Bennett calls “bed-sleepers”), they recognize you for who you are–a hiker. But there are times when you can find yourself walking down the sidewalk of a city where your appearance and fragrance can single you out as stranger if not simply strange.

A term used by American long-distance trekkers is “hiker trash,” a phrase that is variously meaningful. Applied by actual hikers, it can be a form of self-consciousness, an awareness that in certain circumstances you are violating social norms. I pack hiking clothes and one set of town clothes– a shirt and pants that are only worn in a clean environment. So, for example, the other night I was in Waitomo with my tent set up in a campground. I was able to shower, put on my clean clothes, comb my hair and beard, and eat a magnificent meal in a nice restaurant. My shuffling limp might have been noticeable, as were my not-quite-stylish clothes, but I was well within the bounds of decorum. But “hiker trash,” like its source term “white trash” is more than self-consciousness. It can clearly be pejorative and demeaning, a word (like many other culturally deterministic terms) that gathers conflicting ideas and charges them.

It’s no coincidence that hiker trash emerged as an epithet on the Appalachian Trail, a route that has its roots in the Deep South, right up through the area where there live many of the people who were (and are) regarded as the original white trash. So it is not just a self-deprecating term deployed by middle class hikers who might be a bit embarrassed about their appearance. It also signals questions of class on the trail. Some general history might help. Benton MacKaye, the man who first envisioned the AT and who was one of its early promotors, did not picture a trail where people started hiking in Georgia and finished in Maine. His vision did not even require continuity of the trail itself. Instead he wanted a trail that would run near most of the major Eastern population centers and could then provide access to the great outdoors to any and all people. The major national parks that Teddy Roosevelt initiated were primarily in the west, out of reach of working class Americans. The AT was to provide recreation and the chance to work in outdoor camps in clean air away from the perceived decay of eastern urban life. Incidentally, similar arguments were used by the English in the “right to roam” movement during the same years, trying to grant access to the countryside for laborers in the English industrial midsection. The original vision of the AT was of a place that welcomed all.

Trail names are an amusing part of today’s American hiker culture, and they too have their roots in the AT. People hiking long stretches eventually get named by their fellow hikers because of some characteristic, attribute, or event, a gesture both humorous and ritualistic. One of my favorites was a woman who was using a tried-and-true method of defecating in the woods: plant your feet firmly, reach out and grasp a small tree or sapling, squat, and take care of business. She chose a rotten small tree and was subsequently dubbed “Timber!” Trail names serve another function, as long-distance hikers are to some degree anonymous. Newly christened, they have no past (at least to other hikers). In conversation, rarely does anyone directly ask someone else what they do “in real life.” There is, almost in the spirit of Benton MacKaye, an attempt to erase class. Everyone is just a hiker, everyone is hiker trash.

So a form of camaraderie is achieved with the term, an almost Foucauldian “fellowship of discourse” which brings with it friction with outsiders. I recall vividly being in a small town in western Connecticut. I was taking a break in a coffee shop sitting off to the side out of notice. When I went outside I discovered a picnic table set in a small park near a grocery store which was having a sale on six packs of Polar Bar ice cream. Sitting around the table were six thruhikers (and my son Bennett), each eating an entire six pack of ice cream bars, oblivious of the incredulous stares from passing shoppers (Bennett, to his credit, did give me one of his). That moment captured the sense of collective unity designated by hiker trash– a certain defiance of social norms and an assertion of a particular form of identity: people who may not be all that clean or well-groomed, but who nevertheless are capable of remarkable physical efforts such as hiking 20 miles a day, day after day, or eating an entire pack of Polar Bars before they melt.

Doing the White Mountain traverse, particularly the Presidentials, also brings out these class issues. This is a stretch where there are no open campsites. A characteristic of the AT is that all campsites are free, including the regularly spaced shelters. In the Whites, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of huts which offer bunks and meals at a price meant for well-heeled visitors from the cities (almost the opposite of Benton MacKaye’s vision). The first couple of thru-hikers to arrive at a hut can request work-for-stay, which usually involves some menial task in return for being able to eat leftovers and sleep on the dining room floor. It’s a good deal if you can get it (Bennett and I were lucky in that regard when we made our crossing). What is conspicuous is the clear distinction between the paying guests and the not-quite-welcome hiker trash. Of course it all varies with the evening and the guests, but generally speaking, most thru hikers feel the disrespect, which is ironic given the relative hiking skills of the paying customers compared to them.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, the term is used, but is much less charged, tending to be more just a slightly humorous, deprecating epithet used by disheveled middle-class hikers. The PCT requires a lot of planning and forethought. Food must be purchased well ahead of time and mailed to drop points along the way. It is not a trail you can simply begin and resupply every couple of days.The AT has many hikers who range up and down the trail, stopping to work for a week or two, then head back out. People who in the city might be regarded as homeless, but who have some financial support (disability or veteran’s benefits, savings from seasonal work) and can live by and through hiking. Sitting in a shelter having a conversation with its occupants, you almost never know anything about their financial circumstances.

So, as my hair and beard get longer, my clothes a bit more worn, am I regarded as tramper trash here in New Zealand? I cannot answer that yet. Without doubt, I find people notice me when I walk down the street. I’m a man alone with backpack trying to figure out where he is. Couple that with the drive-on-the-left-hand-side syndrome, and you get someone who is always a bit uncertain crossing the street, and who often is walking down the sidewalk on the right, causing consternation for other pedestrians. That marks me as an outsider, a tourist, but not a bindlestiff. I think in part, at least in the areas I have been, NZ is a less formal country, so my clothes and general appearance are not significantly out of place. But ultimately, it is a matter of self-perception. In the absence of obvious discrimination or disdain, I don’t see people’s reactions because I don’t yet recognize their cultural cues. So for now, in the words of Mark Twain, I’m just a tramp abroad.

T. Hugh Crawford


Day 36

October 6th, 2015

Oct 6 day 36 Te Kuiti to Mangaokewa road 22 km 8:15-1:15


Slack Pack– never did that on the Appalachian Trail, but did today. Since there were over 60 km of hiking without camping possibilities, I decided to stay two nights in Te Kuiti, walking out this morning to do the first section of 22 km, then was picked up by Al at the other end. Only carried a light pack with water, snickers, and rain gear, so I thought it would be a walk in the park. Much of the walk was beautiful, always in sight of the Mangaokewa stream. Had some difficulty early on as a bridge on the trail opened out on three unmarked options. Collating all the information I had didn’t resolve the question, so I spent 45 minutes trying each one, and of course the right choice was door #3. I then hiked on at a good pace, but for some reason could not make good time. One day I will understand that. The latter part of the day was pasture bog hiking, with a lot of ambiguously marked paths. Adding a bit to the stress of slow progress was the complete lack of cell service which I would need to call Al when I got to the other end. You can imagine my relief when, on emerging from a recently logged wasteland, then crossing a green pasture, I could see his car parked just past the gate. On ride back to town, he took me around a bit of the county, hoping to catch sight of the airplane spreading fertilizer on the steep hills. We rode up past the landing strip and saw the loading equipment, but the wind was up so the planes were down. He dropped my back in Te Kuiti mid-afternoon, so I did laundry and worked over my resupply as there is a long stretch ahead in the bush.

Day 35

October 6th, 2015

Oct 5 day 35 Waitomo to Te Kuiti 16km 8:30-12:00


The campground had some revelers last night, my countrymen, who kept everyone up late. For once the sun was shining first thing in the morning and everything was relatively dry, just a faint dew. Was easy to smile. Decided to have a big breakfast before heading out, and got just that at the Morepork Cafe (Morepork is an owl). The hike over was beautiful, up and down pasture hills. The surface has dried out considerably, and for some reason, the cattle farmers have their cattle clustered in smaller fields, so the large pastures are not yet torn up. Also I wonder if the karst geology here helps it drain better. I don’t know why, but it was some good firm dry walking out there today. Arrived in Te Kuiti with the goal to find new shoes– circled the town in search of possibilities including two farmers supply stores. Decided gum boots were not a good substitute, neither were patent leather loafers, so I’m going to chance the next section with blown out shoes. Will take duct tape. Spent a quiet afternoon after the great shoe hunt just resting up. The next few days are going to be complicated as there is no camping for 60+ km and a lot of road walking. My solution is to stay here two nights. Arranged with Val, local transport driver to get picked up by her brother Al (yes, Val and Al– not many letters allowed in that family) at the end of tomorrow’s walk and be dropped back there first thing the next morning. Then I just have a big push that do to the next camping area. Not a cheap solution, but a solution nevertheless.

Day 34

October 4th, 2015

Oct 4 day 34 stealth site to Waitomo Campsites 32 km 7:00-3:00


Woke early and, even though it was Sunday, I started hiking right away so as not to get caught trespassing. I wanted to get to Waitomo, and so proceeded at a good pace. First part was a farm road which soon became a pasture road, which soon became a wet muddy trail that was not well marked. Slipped and slid a good bit. This area is not far from the western coast so it gets strong cold winds off the water. In the mist and fog, I missed one turn and ended up floundering around in a sheep pasture until backtracking to find the right way. Then because of some rerouting of the TA, and my lack of desire to once again dive into the mud, I followed the suggested road detour into Waitomo, arriving in time to pitch a tent at the campground, get a hot shower, and a good meal-the Huhu cafe served up a dinner as good as anything I have ever eaten, the side of Parmesan gnocchi was perfect. Plan a short day tomorrow into Te Kuiti where I hope there is a decent outfitters. Right on schedule –at 500 miles– my shoes have both blown out and I do not trust them for the next long stretch.

Day 33

October 4th, 2015

Oct 3 day 33 Kaniwhaniwha campsite to stealth site 26 km 8:45- 6:30


Physically a very hard day. Started out slow as I awoke to more rain on the tent and a louder rush of the Kaniwhaniwha stream (which on inspection, had risen considerably). I waited until there was a lull, then in full rain gear, struck camp and headed up the trail. The first few km were pleasant and beautiful, but then the climb came. Spent the morning gaining the elevation to get to the peak of Mount Pirongia which clocks in a 957 meters. I believe it is much taller than anything I have climbed thus far. The trail up was abysmal. The recent rain had turned what little soil there was into muddy soup, so I was climbing roots and mud all morning. The peak would have been beautiful were it not socked in by mist. Just past it, I had lunch at a very cool, brand-new DoC hut. The descent out was also pretty amazing as it was a km boardwalk to a lookout point. Then it got rough again, slipping and sliding down like an amusement park ride. I was not amused. Hit the bottom around 4:00 with no real possibility of camping in sight. In the USA, there tend to be edge lands–land not in economic use which can, in a pinch, serve as a place to pitch a tent. In NZ the farms all assert their status as private property (with plenty of forbidding signs) and they tend to fence right to the road. I walked a good 12 km after getting off the trail without seeing any place to try to pitch a tent. Ended up stealth camping on a forestry road that had been blocked off from the main road. Actually a nice place, though the rain had never really stopped so it was pretty damp. Cooked some ramen and went to sleep early and exhausted.

Day 32

October 4th, 2015

Oct 2 day 32 Hamilton to Kaniwhaniwha campsite 39 km 7:15-4:00


One thing Hamilton does well is footpaths. From the river walk I took yesterday into the city, to the westward path I followed this morning which, after it emerged from the line of panel-beater shops and equipment rental yards, took me up a beautiful lookout (Tills) and then through the Taitua arboretum which had a wonderful ancient trees section. Had a second breakfast at the Whatawhata village, good coffee and a place to rest tired feet. Much of the rest of the day was a lot of road walking to get to the Kaniwhaniwha stream and campsite. Made a lot of kilometers under kind skies, but they opened a half km from the site. Pitched tent fast, sat under the extended roof of the toilet building for a while waiting for the rain to subside, then cooked during a brief lull, and dove into the tent to listen to it pour all night long.

Day 31

October 4th, 2015

Oct 1 day 31 Ngaruawahia to Hamilton 21 km 9:30-2:00


Literally a walk in the park. Woke late, determined to enjoy the Arrow Motel bed as long as possible, then strolled out of Ngaruawahia on way to Hamilton. Ngaruawahia is an interesting town, apparently the home of some significant Maori leaders and important in their political structure. Really great place caught in the curve of the Waikato river next to an impressive mountain range (which I hiked yesterday). The walk down to Hamilton was first on the road but soon on a beautiful riverside bicycle path, past small parks, pretty houses, and lots of folks walking dogs or riding bicycles. Arrival in Hamilton put me in search of a hostel. I discovered it didn’t open just then, so had lunch and a pint out on a patio of The Helm with speakers blaring Fleetwood Mac. Thought I was either back in college or at a Clinton campaign rally. Checked into the hostel, Yvonne gave me the Atlanta Georgia Discount. Then I proceeded to work up my laundry, though I was in line behind one of my roommates, Wayne, who does not speak English as his first language and I think has not spent a lot of time on his own– had real difficulty with his laundry. Still, a good humored fellow. I then wandered downtown in search of a hat to replace my gorse-stolen New Zealand wild-man hat. Opted for a lightweight running hat– has brim, but not as hot as my previous oilskin topper. Hamilton has a city feel in that there are a lot of takeaway restaurants– they alternate Indian and Thai– some tall bank buildings, and a number of sex shops. Had a filling meal at “The Londoner,” an old-fashioned English pub with some good ales. Then wandered back to the hostel for a quiet evening of reading (Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks) and an evening conversation with Daniel (a Kiwi in Hamilton taking a university course) and roommate Wayne (a Chinese man on his way to Australia for a new job). Much of the conversation was about the NZ University system, but we did discuss politics. It is disconcerting how aware they are of American politics (because there is often direct economic or political affect). They follow the candidates and take seriously their statements. Of course we are in the middle of the clown car season, with people who could not hope to govern well getting all the media attention. I find it sad that people on the other side of the world are taking seriously what most serious Americans are content to ignore.