I have jotted down a few ideas as my heel heals back in Wellington, at various times over the last few weeks.
On my injury
The podiatrist identifies that I’ve probably strained my Achilles Tendon and maybe a bit of the ol’ Planar fasciitis. I’ve been given rest to do, some arched inner-soles for my boots (which are great boots, doctor approved!) and some exercises to strengthen and stretch once things feel OK. The physio showed me how to strap, some more stretches, and has me carrying a golf ball to stand-roll through my foot arch at the end of each day. Two to three weeks they think, until go time again. The issue was probably brought on by a combination of the long stretches of road walking, the extra weight of the pack, my long stride and some triggering steps and rolls to finish the picture.
I need to manage this for the rest of my trip. This undertaking is the biggest, sportiest thing I have done for a sustained period, and I have never had to understand looking after my body. Generally my block has been my fitness, or my brain; I’ve never been full of breath and energy, keen to continue, but had other bits of me pack up. From here on, I need to be more mindful of taking it easy and not pushing myself – I need to break, even when I would prefer to push on. I’m not getting a week in an office after a tough day, I’m just stacking the days – I really must stop and smell the flowers, lest I just smell injury and failure.
On gear adjustment
I’m using the time to finesse my kit. Everything before I left had been weighed carefully as to its importance, with weight an ever-present consideration. No gram made it in the bag without a reason. However my expectation of what I was embarking on has differed from the experience, so I have made some further cuts:
- Removed: Trowel for digging – I can use my hiking pole spike and a boot heel. Has not been necessary thus far. 80grams
- Removed: Metal drink bottle – can put ‘somewhat hot’ water in my PET bottles if required, and it leaked anyway 80grams
- Removed: Emergency kit items – Te Araroa is so populated, the emergency items I may wear when alone in the bush are not so necessary – I’m not going off-track, so I have peeled it all back. Removed items include: emergency headtorch, plastic poncho, matches, candle, small knife, wire saw. I’ve actually moved it from its own waterproof pouch I could clip to my belt, to my general odds and ends bag – as it’s just more odds and ends on this trip! Only emergency stuff in there really now is flint and some fluff/rubber to burn, survival blanket, tape and a whistle.
- Removed: travel towel. Downgraded to a microfibre flannel, much smaller and lighter.
- Removed: AC/USB charger; I had a 2-plug one, bringing a little more weight but able to charge both powerbank and phone at the same time. Not required considering I am stopping places to write – downgraded to a lighter 1 port one, and only have one USB cable.
- Removed: Bluetooth keyboard. Enjoyed using it to write, but it proved unreliable, dropping in and out. A few times it would disconnect while doing a backspace and I’d watch helplessly as all my work disappeared before my eyes. Ain’t nobody got time for that; 150grams gone and I’ll see how I go with the phone keyboard
- Not removed: Digital camera. I have ummed and ahhed about this, it is quite heavy, and the cellphone takes a nicer photo at times. But not always, and it has optical zoom, is waterproof, isn’t a life-and-death piece of kit like the phone and well. I value my photos highly, and with my knowledge and interest in self-care now – is the weight really the killer thing there, would this 250grams really make all the difference? The camera stays.
As I walk more Te Araroa, I am more inclined to refer to myself as a hiker. I had initially insisted I were a tramper, a uniquely kiwi word meaning ‘walks long distance in rough country’. Tramps have whorey definitions in the Americas which add a touch of fun to discussion and I was loathe to have our weird word fade out due to American cultural hegemony. So I call myself a tramper, tramping Te Araroa. But having started, it doesn’t sit right – a typical tramp involves mountains and bush, swinging from trees and gradients that burn your quads. On a tramp, the only roads and farmland are the crap bits to/from cars at either end. Te Araroa seems to be the opposite; almost all crap bits. Raetea Forest was the best bit of my first 250km, a proper bush slog; but everyone else hated it. Maybe hiking encompasses more of this fast road stuff, so maybe I should use that. Save the wacky tramping term for actual walking in rough country, not as an equivalent to the lighter ‘hike’. Semiotics-wise; maybe understanding hike and tramp as equivalent terms has led me to the current disappointment in the trail, with its lack of tramping. I hear the South Island is more what I am expecting, 80% bush, so that’s something to look forward to – maybe I’ll go back to tramper then.
On ‘trail purity’
A fellow hiker got in touch and told me she hitches some roads – “being older, I know there’s no such thing as purity”. I wrote of this ‘thru-hiking purity/snobbery’ in an earlier post, and the thoughts were in flux – I want to capture my thoughts as I go, not frame everything through my view at the end (which will be oh-so wise and zen I am sure…). But she got me thinking on it further. No experience will be the same, and I should embrace that rather than try for a repeatable experience. Te Araroa is a template to follow down the country; it isn’t like a Great Walk™ where you’ve ‘done the X’.
So, back to terminology – I am going to reject ‘te/the’ and go with My Araroa – my long pathway. I had framed my efforts in terms of ‘a book should follow the standard route’ and if this was a book deal, sure it should. But there is no book deal, this is my trip. On the whole I will walk Te Araroa, but I’m going to spunk my trip up with some of what I already know I love and that is special to me too. My book is/was never going to be a guidebook to the trail anyways, just my experience on it – it will be nothing if I try to rigidly stick to the programme and have another injury like this one.
What am I thinking to add some personal flair to the journey? Some ideas are:
- Finding alternatives for unreasonably long road sections where you can’t camp – I’m not risking this kind of injury again for the sake of ‘trail purity’
- Skipping the Tron and Huntly (though I had a little joke about getting the letters C and H mixed up all ready to go) and tackling some gnarly tramping, such as the North-South crossing in the Kaimai range, a 5-7day 82km legit tramp
- spending a little time with the diaspora of friends and family about the country when I am in the general areas
- Coming into Wellington via the Hutt Valley off the Tararua Range rather than following the main route. The Hutt is my home – Kapiti means little to me
- Flying to Bluff and walking north from there, to finish in Wellington with family as that’s more special to me than a rusty fishing village. We shall see how I feel when back in Wellington. Another potential win on that flip/flop idea is that I may get a bit more clement weather around Nelson as opposed to Invercargil in March (maybe!)
Sitting on Mum’s couch, injured foot up crushing her frozen vegetables, I am waited on by this elderly dear woman. She takes amazing care of me, delicious food, and even leaves me alone. She’s on cloud nine mothering again (I’m sure she’d take a crowbar to my leg to keep me here if she weren’t such a sweetheart) but I feel like an absolute dropkick. Mid-thirties, being waited on by his Mum. It should be the other way around, and that gnaws at me.
Part of tramping’s appeal to me is the self-sufficiency- it’s back to basics, everything you need on your own back. The delicious meals placed in front of me, dishes taken away and cleaned – this is the wildest oscillation. While knowing Mum likes it and understanding why, it’s still very uncomfortable. My whole adult life I try never to ask for things, I never ask for or accept help unless it really is a 2-person job. Being waited on – argh.
That said – a big shout out to Mum. She’s gone to lengths; I don’t have to sleep in a fetal position because she’s dragged the spare bed mattress down and extended the top end with additional pillows. I’ve been so well cared for, I am getting quite fat. And it’s been quite novel to live with another human again, for both of us.
On restful recovery
As uncomfortable as being waited on is, doing nothing is something else. Initially I was distraught to be stuck, but as I have healed, it has been nice to spend my days relaxing, knowing each day is still contributing to my big project. I’ve lost the ability to just do nothing without guilt about home, it has been really nice to feel OK about it while the foot takes its (sweet) time coming right. To enjoy a bit more of ‘right now’ without worrying about the state of my life and the state of the world. I’d love to figure out how to create and enjoy this ‘meaningful nothing’ feeling when I’m back in reality too.
Mum has a little dog whose favourite game is to wait behind any closed door then spin around in circles barking when there’s any movement on the other side. He’s absolutely barking and lives for it – I enjoy playing his game. I jiggle the door handles and move my feet, seeing how long he’ll go. So far he has outlasted me. I long for the simple here-and-now joy he gets from doors – a little thing enjoying the little things.
Here’s a video of him enjoying a door:
On test walks
It’s the 9th of November, two weeks into my injury time, and I am feeling great. My foot feels fine with any and all combinations of angles, pressures and shoes; I don a half-full pack and head into the rainy Korokoro Gulley. The plan is for a 6km round trip up the stream and some off-track scrambling to find Tin Hut, a secret hut in the Belmont Regional Park.
It feels good donning my gear again; I delight in my ability to walk. What a joy to feel no pain! There is just a rubbing which I encourage, a scratch against the irritated skin which flared up under the physio’s arch-bandaging.
But as I climb a bank, things start to feel strange. Not in the base of my foot, but on the inner rear; a sharper pain. I’m at the furthest point of this test though, there is nothing to do about it – I continue on, gingerly.
Rain drips from the leaves of small nikau, and the velvet tips of growing supplejack tickle me as I follow bait lines around the ridge in search of the hidden hut. Gosh how I love the bush!
There are many lines, many ridges; I romp around. I begin to worry I will have had an unsuccessful test and not found the secret structure – a double-fail day. But eventually I all-but walk past the small, camouflaged and elusive Tin hut. Snuck in here in 1997, it’s little more than a formerly-well-loved garden shed, and while the space is untended and in disrepair now, I find the idea, effort and execution endearing.
I rejoin the main trail and walk back out to the roadend. On the graded track, I can analyse the foot pain; it’s a sharp flare on the rear inner edge of my ankle. A bit different from the sole pain of earlier (though it does pain my soul to feel it). Already unpleasant to walk on and worsening despite having barely done anything, this is not a foot ready to return to Te Araroa.
On contemplating failure
I don’t feel the rage today, just a quiet despair. The thought of not making it through the trail l because I couldn’t, not because I didn’t want to, has never seriously crossed my mind. This injury was coming right, I was ready to go three hours ago – now I am once again barely able to walk. Every day I wallow in recovery is another day of summer disappearing, another day I am less likely to make it through.
Going on a six month walk is a big undertaking. Overshadowing my past year, Te Araroa saw me put off new hobbies, trips, relationships and stay in unsatisfying work. How could I commit to anything new when I had six months of disappearance coming up? I made Te Araroa such a towering purpose, disempowered myself and made the waiting so damn miserable that all I had in my life was this walk. And now injury is taking away that which took everything, one day at a time. So yes, quiet despair. What a waste.
I haven’t given up yet, the ankle may just need another week or two. But I can’t just give it another week or two indefinitely – I need to plan for its weakness, to salvage some value from this potentially failed venture. I’m currently brainstorming what this could look like, from skipping heaps or attempting an impromptu bike-tour down-country to biffing the idea entirely and building a tiny home, or volunteering overseas or something.
Whatever happens, this sharp departure from my morose life is good. I was hoping Te Araroa would provide me with a great change, and in some ways it may have already done so, whether I can actually walk it all or not. Just in its requirement of such a commitment, forcing me to chuck everything at once; not just a job, not just the house – everything, I have been able to stand apart from the elements of my existence. Now it is all removed, none of it required or committed to, I can look at my pile of life and decide what bits I want to pick back up again. Thanks to Te Araroa I can build anew, in a shape, form and direction I consciously chose rather than fall into. And that’s a wonderful opportunity I really look forward to – but at the moment I still have 4.5 months of free time. Regardless of whether I can complete walking Te Araroa or not, I don’t want to squander it.
So at the moment I’m looking down the barrel of another few weeks of limbo. By December I’ll either be toddling down the country, or committing to some other project.