It was midway through my hike up to the top of Pinnacles, while my brain was chasing itself in circles, that I realized this was my first time hiking by myself. In the middle of the New Zealand bush. I racked my memory and It was true and I found it really pleasant. Hiking alone is great. No matter who I go hiking with, whether it be with my ultra-running dad or a friend who has never hiked, I find myself somehow getting competitive. I move quicker, breathe heavier, get mad at myself for not being able to go faster. When I’m by myself I have no idea what pace I’m going and take time to stop at the views. I was absolutely unaware of my pace and I still got to the top and down in pretty great time, pretty painlessly. I was too busy having endless conversations with myself to think about how hard it was, I thought it would be the opposite, that’d I’d be stuck with only thinking about how difficult it was. But the views distracted me, ideas, dreams, stories all ambushing me to restrain me from negativity. My brain proving to be more thoughtful of my well being then I thought.
Camping alone was a bit different at first. Sleeping in a small tent with the deep darkness of the bush around me, the unknown noises in the trees constant and looming. Not having someone to talk and laugh about the struggles of the day with at night to help the time pass. To have hours of alone time after hiking. This wasn’t like hiking alone. My legs were no longer moving productively and my thoughts seemed to follow. As soon as my body sat in the tent and darkness sunk around it the interesting Emma disappeared and replaced with a dull, scared, negative Emma. Camping alone for the first time in a foreign country is scary. My brain exhausted from great conversations with itself all day gave up and let my mind wonder into the darkness of the bush. I was safe in my tent but my thoughts were lost in the bush. That first night I kept my headlamp on next to me as my eyes closed to fall asleep, like a child trying to keep the monsters away with a nightlight. It was a long first night. In the next few nights my tent quickly became my shelter. Protector from the bush. I began to look foreword to decompressing in my tent. To laying down and being wedged between my backpack and tent and encapsulated in my down sleeping bag. The noises in the bush began to sing me to sleep, keep me company. The darkness always scary though, the dense bush refused the moon to seep any light into the air. It all became normal.
One of my nights in the Kangarua Valley, after a joyful solo hike, I camped near the luxurious hut and I met the hut keeper. A new face that felt so familiar. His face disguised with a white beard, his skin aged with the weather of the mountains, rain boots muddy and worn, his voice deep and mumbled, a thick New Zealand accent which is like a nasally and sloppy version of a British accent, and a smile that was genuine as if it were welcoming an old friend. It all felt familiar but when he reached out to shake my hand it reminded me it was out first time meeting. I was just camping at the hut, not staying in the hut, so after we met at the elaborate hut where there was a kitchen, bunk beds, grills, polished tables, he pointed me down the hill to where I could set up my tent. His dog who was a William-like Boarder Terrier trotted down the hill with me to help me set up my tent. I was back to my solitude. No one else was staying up at the hut or camping that night, but the night before was packed and the next night was packed. My night was empty. It felt natural, the universe knew. Safe in my hole in the jungle. I had the solitude of my tent back. I had tea that evening with the hut keeper as seamlessly as old friends meeting for drinks. Afterwords I walked back down the hill while being serenaded by the music of the forest to my tent. Soon to become a mummified human as I zipped up my tent and then sleeping bag. The silence sang me to sleep. No voices, nobody else’s breathes, nobody else’s dreams, just the rustle of my sleep bag as my chest lifted and sunk with my breathes that let go of the day.
I could stay. I could stay I thought. When I woke up the next day I thought I could just keep doing the same hike, exploring the the small trails that branched off and begin to know this valley very well. I went up to the hut to say good morning to Madi the dog and to get my blood moving after a night of deep sleep. The hut keeper and I began to talk. He offered me to stay the rest of the week up there with him while he finished his shift at the hut and then stay in his little guest cabin near the ocean for as long as I would like. We talked streams and rivers, he told me about all the secret fishing spots near his home that not a soul goes to, how he swears he keeps catching the same trout in one stream and has named it his pet. His stories and way of life tempting. To stay in the valley for as long as I wanted. To hike to unknown streams and discover hidden places. I could stay.
I so easily could but I couldn’t, I had many more firsts to have. So I walked back down to my tent and packed up my tent and stuffed it into my pack where everything had begun to have its place, a system. I walked up the small hill to the hut, slowly as my legs adjusted to moving with a heavy pack again. My eyes rolled at my sore legs as if my attitude and sass towards them would scare my lethargic legs into freshness. It didn’t work, so I kept moving slowly. I said a goodbye to my hut keeper friend and Madi. As I walked away I felt sad and confused for a moment. It was my first real goodbye, a “I will absolutely never see you again goodbye.” He will never leave the valley and I will most likely not be back. Confused because even though I knew him for less then 24 hours he became a friendly face to see, one I’d miss.
I walked up the trail and if my legs would’ve let me I would’ve have skipped as I was reunited with myself. Hiking alone again. Off I went into the jungle. As I passed people on the trail I just politely said hello instead of sparking a conversation with them as I often do, I didn’t want to waste a minute of Emma time. The down hill I was so excited for proved to be just as painful as the up hill but the pain was silenced by the loud and endless conversation with myself. Hiking alone.