“We could walk in to Hawdon hut Friday night,” Jeremiah suggested early in the week. I recoiled. It’s autumn now, and nights are Cold. And Dark. River crossings would be in the cold dark…. Late entry to a cold, dark hut…. Ug.
“Um, that doesn’t sound like very much fun to me,” I grimaced.
“Ok then,” Jeremiah acquiesced, raising his eyebrows. “But if you want to do that hike, it might be worth the three hour walk in the dark.”
“Well, maybe if the weather for the next two days is perfect, then it would be worth the wretched Friday night walk in,” I consented.
We planned two other less ambitious routes, and I waited until Wednesday to look at the weekend forecast. I was shocked to see a big fat high pressure system sitting over the whole of the Southern Alps. Sunny and calm for three days straight. Probably worth that three hour walk in the dark!
My phone battery died in the cold of the night, so I have no photos of the walk out down the Edwards valley. It’s a shame, because the beech forest was green and inviting, and at the bottom we rounded a bend into an eerily frosted section of the river that never sees the sun at this time of the year. A mist hung over the frozen rocks and I half expected to come across a kea picking at a dead deer or something even less savory and more haunting. I was glad when we finally turned the last corner back into the sun and I could shake off the spooks.
The guys we had spent the night with at the hut had a car at the Edwards Valley end, and they generously offered to give us a lift back down to the Hawden. No need to even hitch a ride.
So, I’m back in the hiking business. It’s great. Really great. I feel like I have my identity back.
Every summer I do a tramp with my friend Laura in Nelson–I fly up after work on a Friday, she picks me up at the airport, and we hike a mountain somewhere in the Kahurangi National Park. We’ve been to some spectacular places (Mt Owen’s peculiar limestone formations are probably my favorite so far). But this year, with these darn back troubles, I haven’t been hiking…. But I HAVE been biking! So this year we decided to met in Hanmer Springs and bike the St. James Cycleway.
“June 18-19th: Molly hiking.” I had marked it on the calendar so I’d get a turn too. It was to be a loner weekend, just by myself….I need those from time to time. But then as the time had approached I hadn’t known where to go.
I had borrowed “South Island Weekend Tramps” from the library, but it sat unread under the couch. The trouble is, I hate route planning. It’s as bad as shopping. I just want to turn up and walk.
“Have you decided where you’re going yet?” Jeremiah had nagged gently. He’s a little edgy about me hiking alone, and I knew he half expected me not to get my act together and to stay home instead. This knowledge in particular prodded me to pull out the map.
“You might like this one,” Jeremiah had suggested. The map showed a trail following a stream up to a hut, then looping over a low pass and back to the start via the Hurunui River flats. “Alright, that sounds do-able,” I had agreed. The forecast wasn’t so flash, but if I go up the side with the river Saturday, I can take the drier route out in the rain on Sunday.
“Now Molly,” I said to myself, “This is simple. Just an easy walk up a stream bed. You can’t possibly be lost. Walk up stream for four or five hours and it will be impossible not to get there.” Except for that turn to Gabriel Hut that never appeared….except if the map is old and the hut has burnt down….except if the river crossings get too deep….except if there’s someone unsavoury ahead of me on the trail. There was one other car in the car park….it didn’t look like a murderer’s car….Darn it! I shouldn’t have listened to that podcast about the Adirondack killer last week.
I’m relieved to find another orange triangle a little way past the ford. But again the trail disappeared, and I scanned along the opposite stream bank for another one. Maybe that path there is it? Or maybe it’s another cattle trail? I hesitated before plunging into the cold water. The sun is winter-low, shining in my eyes and glaring off the water so I can’t judge the depth. This time it came up above my knees and I emerged truly squelching. I wished Jeremiah was hiking with me.
The golden-dead grasses wave in the brisk breeze being funnelled down the river valley. I startle a black cow in the bushes and chuckle nervously. I scan the ground for other boot prints and find the ridges of shoe tread in the mud….they don’t look like murderer’s foot prints. What do murderer’s foot prints look like? I decide that if the people ahead of me are unsavoury that I’ll push on to the next hut, even if it’s by torch light.
I turned the small metal knob and peered around the door. A young blond woman sits at the table.
“Oh, I’ve seen you before, I met you at a hut!” Relief makes me talkative, and I cudgel my brain trying to remember just where I had seen her. The other two guys are hunters, but they’re young and clean cut. They don’t look scary at all.
As it turns out, that one was a medical student. The girl was an architect, and the boy was an apprentice builder. They must have been at least a decade younger than I, but I enjoyed their company as they warmed up their canned soup over the wood stove. Apparently, student flats in Dunedin don’t have any heat, and opening the refrigerator in winter lets out a waft of comparatively warm air. A morning pee thaws ice in the toilet bowl. The DOC hut sounds like a luxury apartment now, because we can’t even see our breath. It’s crazy, but they didn’t seem to mind these conditions. Southlanders are a tough breed.
Jeremiah even had the floor vacuumed and a pulled pork dinner made when I arrived.
The day started badly.
5:43 “Mommy, Mommy! Me wake!”
It’s not unheard-of for a two year old to wake up early, even on a weekend (especially on a weekend). I know that. It’s just that at 5:43 I’m not in my most rational state. “How inconsiderate!” I think. “The nerve of that kid! It’s the weekend! She’ll wake up Milo!”
I vault out of bed and gallop to her room. “Naomi!” I whisper fiercely. “It’s still night time. Turn over and go back to sleep!”
“Huggie!” she demands. I touch her head lightly in what I hope is a “not worth calling for me again hug,” then wait for a couple seconds shivering in the dark. It seems to have worked.
Just as I was drifting off again Milo intruded with a whine. “Mom, I’m hungry.” I didn’t answer. I’m chasing that elusive dream, and besides, it’s futile. I told him he was going to be hungry in the morning because he didn’t eat his dinner last night. And I told him not to come to me begging for oats when I was still in bed. No matter what I tell him now, the squawking has started, the peace is shattered.
“Milo, close the door!” Jeremiah growls. He’s not pleased.
“But I’m hungry!”
“Get a banana and close the door!” The growl becomes a bark.
“But I want oats!” He’s persistent, I’ll give him that.
“Milo, CLOSE THE DOOR!” Jeremiah overestimates the power of his voice commands. Milo doesn’t care. He’s hungry. He wants oats. He is unconcerned about how we feel.
The dual continues at intervals for the next hour. I overheard Milo instructing Naomi to go ask us for oats, but she’s smart. She peers into our dark room, makes hesitant noises, then decides it’s not in her best interest to disturb us.
Finally Jeremiah abandoned the bed. I hear the bathroom door creak and the shower run for a long time. I stay under the warm covers. I haven’t slept for the past two hours, but the house is frigid and nothing pleasant awaits me if I emerge. Milo will win from sheer bullying. I always loose. I’m pissed. I don’t want to see him or talk to him.
Jeremiah returned to the bedroom to get dressed. “I give up,” I announce in despair. “We should just move back to the States. We need parenting help. We need to move next door to some grandparents.” I had never envisioned parenting being so difficult. I had thought that if you set firm boundaries, kids would respect them. I had thought that only lazy parents had horrible kids. Perhaps I’m a bad, lazy parent. Oh my God….I’m failing at parenting.
“That’s just you. You always give up,” Jeremiah stated. He went out to do his parenting bit, a stern talking-to for Milo regarding his morning’s inconsiderate behavior. I’m pretty sure the reprimand fell on deaf ears.
When I finally emerge the heat pump wasn’t working and I could see my breath. I made Milo his oats, refusing to engage him in conversation. I stare at him, stonily, and tell him I’m frustrated and I don’t know what do to with him. He eats his bowl of oatmeal, then a banana with peanut butter, then a second bowl of oats. Belly full, he’s sunny again. He won. I lost. I can’t regain my equilibrium, and at the moment I despise him.
“Well, I guess we had better mobilize,” I say to Jeremiah after we’ve both had a hot drink and he’s fiddled with the heat pump. Good thing we packed most of the stuff for our tramping trip the night before.
It was just out of Christchurch when Milo’s head tilted back in his car seat and he began to snooze. Naomi sang Happy Birthday for another half hour (she’s so much more cheerful than Milo) before she, too, nodded off. We listened to a podcast on aviation, pausing at intervals to converse. We started to feel better.
“Hey, do you mind if I take a walk? I just need a few minutes to myself,” I ask Jeremiah as Milo charges up the sledding hill. “Sure, go ahead,” he says. Naomi protests loudly.
I splashed across the creek, climbed up the track, then turned off to follow the bunny tracks through the snowy tussocks. I can’t hear Naomi wailing anymore. I stop to admire frost at hole in the snow, wondering who lives beneath. I climb to a shoulder where I can look over to the pass. The sun is warm, and the snow is clean. I feel that maybe I can do this mother thing a bit longer.
“I remember on our last hike being so thrilled to get away from the family responsibilities,” Laura muses. “This time it’s just about enjoying the hike.” I would have to agree. It was about 6 months ago that we did our last tramp at Mt Owen, and I remember the feeling of liberty–no one else’s teeth to brush or food to fix. But the last 6 months have been pretty rich for hiking, and getting away from the family wasn’t the salient memory of this weekend. This hike was more about time with a buddy and the other amusing personalities we brushed shoulders with along the way.