Walking the Te Araroa Trail is not just a physical feat but also a mental one. Maybe it is all mental. At the very least, the two are interconnected.
Endurance is a case in point. In Endure: Mind, body and the curiously elastic limits of human endurance (2018), Alex Hutchinson asks what it is that yields extreme endurance. What roles do muscle strength, oxygen uptake, hydration, and food play, and how much is in the mind? Research suggests that all other things being equal, the mind can play a major role. The mind, for example, tends to set limits well below our maximum performance to give us a large buffer zone before we enter complete exhaustion, where serious damage could be done. Witness the runners or cyclists who do a victory lap after giving every ounce of performance to win a race. Clearly they do have more energy left that they weren’t able to tap into.
Training not only builds up muscle strength but also trains us into getting used to pain and discomfort, to allow us to move into higher realms of effort. So we can go further before we reach the point where we think we’ve gone far enough. But we can also trick ourselves into thinking we’ve gone further or faster than we really have, creating a confidence boost that results in a higher level of performance. There are other mind tricks too: swishing an energy drink around in the mouth and then spitting it out can increase performance, even though none of its sugar reaches the muscles. And small sips of water can convince the mind/body that it is being well hydrated and perform accordingly, even though the physical water intake is not enough to make a real difference.
There were times when I really had to push myself to keep going. My usual strategy was to break the task down. Like pick a landmark in the distance and aim just to get to that. Then to select another one. And for hills that looked almost impossible, pick a rock or something 50 metres away and take a ten or so steps, then pause, then another ten and pause and so on until I could reward myself with a rest at the rock. Plod, plod, plod, pause, plod, plod, plod, pause. I always got there in the end.
Another thing to remember is that its only you who have set the parameters of your challenge. There’s nobody else holding you to anything, so if you want to take a rest day, there’s nothing stopping you. Or if you simply feel you’ve walked enough of the trail, nobody says you have to do the whole thing. So you might need to remind yourself at times that you are supposed to be enjoying the experience and find ways to do so.
I think most people doing the TA would concede that it is a mental as much as a physical experience. You are going to be ‘in your head’ a lot of the time, even when walking with other people. This can get tedious, especially when an annoying song starts playing in your head in synch with your steps, or repetitive thoughts keep churning over in your mind. In these ways long distance walking has a lot in common with meditation, and indeed walking meditation is a form of mindfulness meditation practice, though usually undertaken at a very slow pace where you concentrate on each footfall and drag your mind back to attend to this each time it goes off somewhere else.
One thing that occupied a lot of my mental time, especially when trudging along the trail, tired, hot, or in some way uncomfortable, were thoughts of relaxing somewhere with a refreshing drink by a swimming pool, and so on. I would fantasise about all the options for cool drinks, and which would be the most thirst quenching: Gin and tonic with mint and lemon? Lemonade and ice? Sparkling cold water? Iced tea? Or think about my incredibly easy life before the trail, where I could just pop into a cafe or supermarket at any time and choose whatever I liked from the cornucopia laid out. And I would daydream about lazy weekends at home, with the wonderful luxury of just sitting in the sun, drinking green tea and reading a good book.
Of course, now that I am back home and can do all those things I feel an itch to be back out on the trail again where life was so much simpler and I didn’t have so many things on my plate to do! (Perhaps that’s why I’ve developed this site – to live the trail again through it.)
Time to Burn?
TA hikers often bring along things to occupy themselves – books, e-book readers, music on their cellphone. I never found that there was a huge amount of time to spend reading. Your life is on the TA is ruled by sunrise and sunset times, and you pretty much have to get all the things you need to do between them. On top of that, the early morning light may be bright enough to see easily outside, but inside a hut it takes a good half hour after first light before you can really see well enough to be making breakfast, etc. This is more so in older huts with small windows. So your useful daylight hours are limited.
For example, in early February, around the middle of the South Island, you have sunrise at 6.30 and sunset at 9pm, so you might get up at 7am, and be away at 8am. An 8 hour day of walking, with a lunch stop of half an hour, gets you to the next hut at 4.30. That leaves an hour and a half unpacking your gear, having a rest, etc, then dinner at 6pm (seems to be the time when most people start cooking up), leaving you with 2.5 hours after eating and clearing up to fill in the evening before bed time at 9pm (you will be needing more sleep than usual). Conversation might fill that, or reading magazines left at the hut by other people (usually hunting and tramping magazines), and sorting out your gear for the next day, and occasionally gathering or chopping up firewood and drying your clothes. So clearly there is still a bit of spare time that could be filled by reading or listening to music, but somehow, I rarely found it.
Later in the season, you start running out of daylight though. At the end of March sunrise is 7.45am and sunset 7.20pm. So it will be dark in the hut by 8pm. On days with more than 8 hours walking you will find there is barely enough time to unpack and get dinner going and cleared away before it is time for bed. The problem now is you have more hours of darkness than you need for sleep. I found myself waking early at 5am or so and spending what seemed like hours waiting for daylight. Of course, you can use a headlamp and read and pack and unpack in darkness, but you are limited by battery life and weight of such gear, plus disturbing others if they are not also doing the same thing.
Enjoying the Experience
I mentioned above wanting to get back on the trail now that I am home. What is the attraction? And why do people experience a sort of let down when they’ve finished? A kind of post-natal depression as they are forced to adjust back to normal life. I think there are several things that made walking the TA rewarding for me. One is (after a month or so) of feeling just how fit I was, how strong and lean my body had become. Another was being free of the cares and responsibilities of the everyday world – no email bombardment, Facebook and Instagram posts, decisions of all sorts to make. My life was pared back and the choices reduced right down. It is the sort of discipline you might experience ocean sailing, or living in a monastery: you just have to get up every day at dawn, eat breakfast, pack your gear, and walk all day, unpack, eat dinner, go to bed.
Related to that is the precision or economy that accompanies your life. You are carrying everything you need on your back, and no more. After packing and unpacking your bag every day and using all the gear, you come to know every item intimately. There is something satisfying about that – like the carpenter who knows every one of his or her tools perfectly and exactly how to use them without second thought. And finally on the subject of rewards, there are the other people. You are part of a community of like-minded folks, each facing the same challenge and having much the same experience as you. For some, doing the TA is all about the social experience and friendships formed. For others there is a satisfaction and feeling of connection in being part of a select group. In summary, your experience of doing the TA is ultimately an emotional one, and what you take away from it lives in the mind.
Back in the ‘Real’ World
So do think about your re-entry to everyday life. Many find it harder than they imagined and a Facebook page called After Te Araroa has been set up for those dealing with withdrawal symptoms. There is a good piece of writing on the subject by Jennifer Pharr Davis too.
Image credit: Matthias Stom, ‘A young man reading at candlelight, 1600s, nationalmuseum, Stockholm.