On the outside I look normal.
I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt – clothes I bought from a fashion, non-outdoors store. My body smells perfumed and clean; my hair, washed and shiny. Black pencil lines my eyes. There is red rouge on my cheeks.
My tan has faded while my muscles retreat behind a new cuddly layer of fat.
For all intents and purposes, I look like a regular run-of-the-mill person. Certainly not someone who has walked 2,000km of the 3,000km Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand.
But outside appearances can be deceiving.
Because inside me, long-distance trail walking oozes through my blood. My legs twitch. I dream of solitude and lonely mountains, the gurgling of streams, the feeling I get from walking uphill or busting out more than 4km an hour along a flat stretch of road.
The inside and outside are opposites of each other. I feel off kilter.
I’d been warned about “re-entry” to society after finishing the Te Araroa Trail. Like the rest of the trail, nothing can quite prepare you for it.
The non-walkers might scoff. Re-entry to society? Haha.
But it’s a real thing.
When all you’ve done for four months is walk every day, eat everything you lay your eyes on and sleep each night bundled up in a sleeping bag in a basic hut or under canvas, then “normal” life where suddenly you have to think about work and paying bills, dealing with people who don’t have a shared experience with you and having to meet society’s expectations that you should and must shower every day and wear clean underpants, is a bit of a rude awakening.
The “post-adventure blues” is a common occurrence for people who have finished any sort of demanding adventure, where the joy of completing the challenge is quickly replaced by a feeling of deflation and life becomes humdrum. There are, sadly, numerous cases of people who have committed suicide after an adventure because they have struggled with the post-adventure blues and re-entry into society.
While not to this extreme, I too have found re-entry into society difficult.
For four months, my world was the New Zealand backcountry, the gravel road, the dense and shadowed forest and the empty mountain top. While I walked through towns and cities in the North Island, this connection with civilisation and real life was fleeting. With my pack and walking boots, I was removed from the “reality” of “real life”. I was a nomad. The trail was home.
For the past month since walking off the Te Araroa trail due to injury I’ve felt something like a fish out of water. And because my end to walking the trail came abruptly, I didn’t have time to prepare for it or the subsequent re-entry. Furthermore, I have no closure. There is 1,000km of unfinished business.
It’s hard to explain the feeling apart from feeling weird. My life coach described it nicely – it’s like I’ve been standing on the spot spinning and spinning and suddenly I’ve stopped. I’m now standing still but everything feels like it’s still going around, and I can’t catch up.
Traffic noise bugs me. The sound of people talking too loudly on trains or in restaurants grates. I’m stiff and tired and have felt unmotivated.
I feel dumbed down because I haven’t kept up with the news. Meanwhile I feel like I can’t add anything substantial to a conversation because all I can talk about is walking the Te Araroa trail. I feel like I’m boring people to death when almost every sentence that comes out of my mouth starts: When I was on the trail…
I hate the fact I can’t eat what I want, that I’ve put on the weight I had lost from walking and that my muscles and fitness are disappearing. That’s compounded by the fact I’m still recovering from an injury – I hate that my leg isn’t better and that I can’t exercise – let alone walk – properly.
Insane jealousy pricks at me when I see photos of hikers posing with mountain backdrops or those who have reached Bluff, while going through my own photos there is always a touch of sadness.
That was another life. Now I feel like I have to be normal or, at least, that I have to pretend.
It’s for this reason that I have escaped for three weeks to my family’s holiday home on the Kapiti Coast, north of Wellington. This is my way of avoiding the harshness of re-entry and putting off re-joining the real world.
I have my own space. I don’t have to worry about anyone else. I can do what I want. It’s quiet and peaceful here. And, importantly, I can see the Te Araroa’s escarpment track from the window – a tangible link to the “other me”.
I didn’t realise I was escaping until I started to write this blog. In fact, I didn’t really realise all these emotions and feelings were bubbling away inside me because there was never anything concrete. It was just a sense of frustration and slight unbalance, like I’d just walked off a boat, that floated through in between the highs of seeing my family and friends.
Perhaps now they are coming to the fore because I’ve sort of shut myself away and have the space to grasp these thoughts and think about them.
I’ve also been thinking about my future. (I find it ironic that I’m doing more thinking now than I did on the trail).
It’s common for people on an adventure like this to review their real lives. It’s hard not to be changed by the experiences we put our bodies and minds through and the people that we meet along the way. I, for one, am not the self-doubter I was going into this walk.
A trail angel I spoke to said the number of people who decided to quit their jobs or change career paths as a result of the trail was incredible. Whether they went on to do it, he didn’t know but the fact that how people viewed their lives shifted in such a way while on the trail is profound.
My view has also shifted, and it has become a subject of quiet contemplation for the past month.
Going into this walk, I always knew I wanted to write a book about my experience; to discuss my motivation to walk the 3,000km Te Araroa trail simply because I didn’t think I could do it.
Becoming aware of my self-doubt, how it has held me back, through to battling it and attempting to overcome it became a mission of the walk. And I wasn’t alone. I spoke to several walkers, mainly women, who were out to prove themselves and their detractors wrong. People who didn’t feel they were good enough and were in search for the holy grail.
It surprised me – these were strong, resilient, awesome women who had achieved amazing feats of daring-do.
It was a conundrum I’d seen before back in the real world and it never sat well with me.
Talking to my life coach and exploring the depths of my own self-doubt sparked something in me. Walking 2,000km has solidified it.
I want to take my experience and use my writing skills to help other people find and own their awesomeness; to know that they are good enough and to help them achieve whatever it is they dream.
You might call it a life coach – and that is certainly what I’ve been researching. But I like to think of it more as an awesomeness inspirer; using a variety of mediums – writing, public speaking, one-on-one conversations – to elicit a new way of thinking about how we think about ourselves.
Don’t worry mum, I’m not going to throw the journalism in the bin. I think the two sort of complement each other.
And so, a new chapter and purpose in my life begins.
And funnily enough, this realisation has helped me deal with the feelings of being out of sync with society and the real world.
It’s providing a clarity and a direction while I wait for my leg to heal and the six-month hiatus before I begin my #WalkNZ journey again.
It’s the same force that gave me the power to wake up and walk 20-30km every day, an energy I thought had disappeared when I walked off the Te Araroa trail a month ago.
It’s a bit overwhelming what with all these tumultuous feelings, and a day doesn’t go by when I don’t curse my leg or yearn for the simplicity that is trail life.
But my spinning top seems to be starting to readjust. I’ve made the first steps towards recovery and re-entry to society.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to feel normal.