It ended much the way it began: we trudged through muddy forests, walked a long beach and a winding road, and wound up at a yellow signpost. This time, one at the very bottom of New Zealand.
Arriving at Bluff, the southern tip of this 3,000 kilometre through-hike, was a bit anticlimactic. No one sang our praises at the post. There was no champagne; no tears. We took some pictures, read the historic plaques, and got a hitch back to Invercargill with two international students from India.
We tried to explain to them what we’d done, but they didn’t really get it. They were more impressed that we’d walked 34 km from Invercargill to Bluff than the full length of the country. (It is hard to grasp, even for me.) They told us there was plenty of good transportation and ways to get around in India, if we should go visit. They also told us what they were doing here, that they’d paid $30,000 to study in NZ and could only work 20 hours a week. “Not like you people, you have freedom.”
And it’s true, we do have freedom. Freedom and the means to take four months off, to do nothing but walk. We have year-long visas that would allow us to work here if we please. This trip has made me realize and recognize, more than ever, my white privilege. The lack of diversity on the trail and in rural NZ is stark compared to the multicultural landscapes I’m used to. I often wondered if hiking across NZ would be as easy and pleasant for someone of colour. Would they get picked up for a hitch or welcomed to sleep on someone’s lawn as easily as I was?
As we hurdled down the highway we’d walked up earlier, the Indian lads asked us how Canada has been affected by Donald Trump’s presidency. I couldn’t say much about it because for four months we’ve been living in a protective bubble of trees and mountains. We spent time with Americans and other foreigners in huts and on trail, but the conversations rarely got political. (On the couple occasions they did, I was often dismayed to find out the hiker was a Trump supporter.)
Blue Lake in Nelson Lakes National Park.
We have had Internet intermittently and when we did get service, we weren’t checking the news. There was comfort and peace in being uninformed. I really liked not knowing. But at other times, my mind felt dull and restless. I craved information, not just about politics and news. The walk renewed by curiosity and wonder for all things: fences, trees, tides… everything I saw I had questions about. When I got trickles of the news from my family, I was overwhelmed. I felt guilty for not doing anything, for not being engaged and involved like they were. What was going on? Everything was moving so fast, skipping over us as we walked, blissful, shielded, shroud in ignorance.
The world has been upended while I’ve been gone, my family told me today. There will be a reality check, a rough culture shock as we re-enter. I will do so slowly, cautiously. I know from my time offline- chatting with people in huts where phones were never on the table, reading books every night, eating without the phone begging for my attention- how important that is to me, how I need to keep that alive.
So for our first day off-trail, besides coming to terms with all the political turmoil, we have to deal with our own identity crisis. We went from being through-hikers, having a mission and a destination every day, to being regular unemployed hostel-jumping travellers. (Nothing wrong with that, but after being focused on a specific goal, it’s hard not to feel a little lost. “Where are you going next? What’s your plan?” All questions we can’t answer.)
We still look the same, we’re still living out of our backpacks, we still have leftover trail food to consume- instant noodles and a can of tuna-we still have torn up running shoes and dirty clothes, but everything looks a lot more expensive without a goal and/or a job. Trail life was simple, worry-free.
As we try to navigate the next murky months ahead, as we try to get a sense of how the hike changed and shaped us, what I do know is the long walk reinforced things I value: diversity, inclusion, equality, family, friendship, community, wilderness, love.
I want to help provide opportunities for diverse groups to enjoy nature like I have. I want women to feel empowered by hiking and confident being alone outdoors. I want to join my friends and family at the protests so we can keep what we have, make it better. I want to educate myself, I want to exercise my brain and continue exercising my body. I feel reinvigorated, open for the next adventure, hopeful that this experience has bettered me, and will help inform the next chapter. I want to come back and join.