“You’re alive.” A balding, short man exclaimed, peering up at me from beneath the top bunk my limp body sunk into.
His face showed more concern than humor.
“Yes.” I confirmed.
An assertive brown haired brick stood next to him.
“What happened last night? She demanded.
“I wanted to hike 20 miles, and it took longer than I thought it would.”
“Why are you doing that?”
I almost felt like I were a family member with a drinking problem.
“I want to see as much as I can, I only have so much time here. I planned my trip like I do back home. Turns out it’s a lot harder here.”
The women lifted her eyebrows, and nodded in non-verbal agreement.
“How far are you going every day?” I questioned, shifting the spot light.
“We usually go 2 huts”.
This would be equivalent to 10ish miles.
Okay, so I was the crazy one everyone made me out to be. Perhaps I would consider slashing my itinerary in half.
Seems odd, but this proves to be extremely difficult for me. I have trained myself over the years to walk until dark, and if I stop early, I feel anxious as if I am wasting time.
Time equals life.
I’m like a dog on a leash, pulling my owner forward chocking myself with my collar, worried I’m going to miss something. Of course being the owner as well becomes a conflict of interest. I should be paid to babysit myself.
“This track is known for being really slippery.” The women cautioned, and I remembered reading that I should avoid this particular area in inclement weather.
Does a cyclone count as inclement weather?
I asked what they thought about the storm hitting land that day. The two had spent the last few months of their lives living on this dirt path. Neither of them seemed concerned.
I was relieved when they left; I didn’t want to crack the seal of my sleeping bag with others around. I smelt like a dead animal laying in a bed of rotten spinach. 3 days of working out 6-13 hours a day without showering or deodorant in the humid heat of New Zealand cooked up a real spicy brew.
I returned shoe to dirt, tired, but my foot no longer hurt which gifted a major relief. I kind of needed that part of my body to work.
The sky drizzled lazily, as I side stepped the narrow, spongy, 1 foot wide trail which slanted towards an arduous ravine, plummeting down to the river 30 feet below. Massive roots crawled all over the trail; the varicose veins of Mother Nature. To avoid my previous plight with gravity, my eyes fixated heavily on my steps, choosing life over the stunning scenery. Despite my heavy emphasis on foot placement, the ground gave way once again, dropping my soft flesh below, straining my body through the trees beneath the footpath. My limbs did their best impression of a starfish slamming my shoe into a tiny waif of a tree, halting what might have been a crushing, early morning swim, or hospital visit.
I laughed it off in a nervous awkward fashion, the way you do when you just miss hitting another car and realize you could have died, but were spared, and now have the rest of your life ahead of you.
You know, the little things.
The route curved like a serpentine, swerving across the river many times requiring a great deal of focus. I moved quickly, passing the couple and continuing on past them, scrambling and hop-scotching my way through the valley. We would be at the same hut that night if I cut back miles, so I dropped a quick hello, and continued on.
The route was a rib cage of roots, wrapping around mud and stones guts. At one point, I prepared to descend a steep section, and I slipped and flipped over myself like a pancake that thought it was a slinky. My head rolled under my feet as they flew through the air above me. I laid in the dirt for a moment waiting for any new pain to arise, but it didn’t.
I made it to the next cabin, and took a break elevating my legs and stuffing my face with energy in the form of shitty dry wall bars and powders. Visions of the water tornado swirled around in my mind. The cyclone was supposed to hit mid day. The time was noon, and apart from some dark clouds and tiny farts of wind, I sided with both groups of thru hikers who said the storm would be bullshit.
I needed this to be true.
A substantial mountain with 2 summits stood as the only obstacle between myself and the next hut and I intended to conquer it without any friction of chaos.
I would not be granted this gift.
The dirt disappeared as I gained elevation, replaced with sharp uneven boulders that were sand papery to the touch. These boulder fields required me to pin ball my path vertically on top of whatever rocks looked sturdy enough, like one of those old choose your own adventure books. I employed my rock hopping method I use on the Washington coast, jumping meticulously, shoving my feet in between boulders to avoid slipping.
The rock field dissipated eventually, and I found myself in a grassy, steep meadow below the first summit. A breeze wafted in a mild fashion, and I laughed ; how silly for me to be worried about this weather.
Storms are mind readers.
Offended- The wind picked up, and the sky began to breath, blowing its wrath over the mountain, submitting all trees and plants to bend to its overpowering will.
I turned back as a dense white fog crept up from below, flooding the valley, stalking me. The clouds lowered, the fog rose, and I was gnashed between the teeth of both, in an almost a complete white-out.
I ascended in only a tank top and hiking skirt with no rain gear, because I do not sweat enough to cool my body down. I observed my clothes absorbing water, but knew I would be too hot if I put my rain jacket on, which would cause me to sweat and soak through my clothes anyway.
I pressed on climbing in my hiker Barbie outfit.
The route was indicated by tall metal poles with orange tips. I’d spy one in the distance, find the path of the least resistance to it, then search for the next one. With the white-out enveloping the landscape, I could hardly navigate by vision. If it got bad enough I carried 2 GPS, and if they shit the bed, I had a compass, or a tent to crawl into.
Redundancy was key.
The drizzle turned into a harsh sideways down pour, and he blasts of wind reached 60 MPH, tossing me over, forcing me to throw my trekking poles out to catch my balance.
This wasn’t the salad I ordered.
My pack cover began to aggressively flap in the wind like an enormous manic bird, trying to lift my body with its talons. I feared it may blow off, so I jammed an attached string between my teeth to anchor the backpack condom. No sooner had I done this, and the pack cover blew off my bag completely. Now the flimsy nylon deployed behind me, the string still clamped down in my grill, as if my mouth was flying a kite.
My pack didn’t trust me, and pulled its own make shift parachute.
I worried about hypothermia if I stopped even for a moment, so I staggered on with the fake parachute fluttering behind me. My fingers were numb, and I struggled to grip them around my poles. I was effectively drenched to the skin, and with the pummeling wind and cold shower, it was a risk to stop and try to dig thru my bag for rain gear. All my clothes and sleeping bag would get wet and possibly blown away.
I had to keep moving.
I felt small, like a flee crawling on the back of a gigantic wild animal that just discovered my existence, and didn’t want me there.
I fought the wind relentlessly, suffocating in nature’s cleavage as I reached the first summit and descended.
I was a mouse in a bucket of water, drowning.
My mind wandered to the idea of collapsing and hiding in the fetal position between rocks, but that was how people got hypothermia-
The only way out was up.
I was almost savagely knocked over again by the wind, but this time I hurled my head up in a carnivorous rage and roared back at the faucet of a ceiling, as if I sat across a debate table and it was my turn to retaliate.
This proved to be a conduit of energy for my eroding morale, and I boosted my body up the second summit, feeling an overwhelming sense of alleviation when the ground become lower under foot.
The relief was brief.
To my horror, the sky ripped open as if a damn had broken showering down with such passion, that I could no longer open my eyes.
I was blind.
What good were the brightly colored poles, my GPS, or my compass if I couldn’t open my eyes?
Useless, and so was I.
The primordial need for vision in order to escape my predator was all encompassing, but my predator loomed everywhere. There was no liberation until I made the tree line, and I couldn’t open my eyes to find it.
I stood wiping my eyes incessantly, only to move my hands away and allow more water to flood them.
I was terribly cold and an unfamiliar pang of fear swelled inside my gut.
I stopped walking to collect myself.
Stay calm. You’re OK. Find the next pole.
After a hand full of floundering attempts, I wiped my eyes again, and using my hands to shield them, I squinted in every direction. Far to my left in a deep fog, I spied a ghostly orange tip of metal.
THE WAY OUT.
I moved obsessively towards it. I never thought I would have such a love affair with a pole, probably why I never ended up as a stripper. I can hardly find a pole when I need one.
Once I arrived at the route indicator, I skipped down to the next and the pattern repeated until the bush line crept up through the choking fog.
I was a kaleidoscope of emotions- relieved, overwhelmed, stressed, satisfied, fearful and happy. I snatched my rain gear out of my bag, now that I wouldn’t jeopardize it flying away, and covered my pathetically waterlogged body. The barrier for convective heat loss worked instantly.
I took a deep breathe.
Today I would only go 10 miles.
I assumed I should cry when I made it to the final hut for the day. My adult years however, had hardened me in a way that sensitivity did not leak through my cement veneer so easily, and I smiled instead.
Safe inside, there were 2 wooden bunks, a table with 2 benches, a metal counter and fire place with a modest pile of wood. I feverishly worked to light a fire, and my soul began to thaw.
Once the fire was effectively eating through the wood, I peeled off all my layers and hung them over the fire, over joyed by the radiant heat.
Oh to be warm again.
Under the shelf I found a pot I could use on the stove to boil water. I had cold soaked all my dinners until this point, so hot Top Ramen would make a fine delicacy.
A feast reserved for nobility.
Pleasantly toasty and dry, I sat with immense gratitude over my peanut butter jar full of frugal soup.
In the shelter I felt world away from the physical agony I endured hours before. A pirate on a shipwrecked vessel, lost in the vast unknown of an impenetrable fog.
Outside, the wind snored, thundering against the walls, strangling the building in a thick suffocating war of rain.
The couple never arrived.