12/6 A Marathon + A Victory Lap

Mangoakewa River Site to Pureroa Field Base

46 k

We up the ante on yesterday’s heat by getting up even earlier today. We eat breakfast by headlamp and are on the trail by 6:18. A record! In the wee hours Prana discovered another hiker’s suggestion of hiking the entire upcoming road section in one go, since there wasn’t much elevation change- from here that would be 46 k. He starts suggesting this around, and Bro and Ellie are what I would describe as cautiously intrigued. We bid good morning to the other three, who may be in on the challenge as well, morning depending.

The path continues to follow the river in much the same manner as yesterday- darting up and down the ridge, squeezing along a narrow tread. The morning light glints off of grasses and plants, enveloping the trail in a warm golden glow, backlighting the mosses and bouncing off ripples.

Again, it is slow going, but I don’t mind because the river bank is so charming.

We climb straight up from the river to a road, to follow the path right back down the river. There are some navigational snafus, some trail dead ends. Eventually, we are all on the double track for good. We have covered 8 k, it is 9:30; in an easy parallel universe we would have had 14 k put away by now. 11 hours to do 38 more kilometers? The four of us decide to still try.

The road walk today is mostly gravel, gradually rising throughout the entire distance. After a short hour on the road we come upon a shelter erected by a local farmer. There’s piped spring water and a trail register; the day is already hot, so we hydrate while we page through the notebook. Van Go is a hiker from Holland, named due to the watercolors he leaves in the registers. He passed us recently, so we get to see one for the first time. It is incredible. And accurate.

We steel ourselves, then head out. The walking is not too bad; the heat gradually builds. Kilometers pass in the oppression of the oven. I listen to story podcasts- Risk! and a Moth hour about the Nobel Prizes.

I reach the bridge that is our first meeting point, and I see Prana grinning out from beneath it. There is a small thornless patch of shade above the creek in the midst of the brambles. It doesn’t smell great under this bridge, but I sink down next to Prana in bliss. Off with the shoes! Out with the lunch! I find the mud has worn a hole into one of my socks at the ball of my foot. “Well,” I think bizarrely, “I’ll just keep wearing this pair until something wears out on the other one too.” As we munch tuna and avocado wraps, we watch an adorable weasel scamper around in the shade patch on the far end of the bridge. Intellectually, I know I am not supposed to fawn over the invasive mammals, especially as much as I love listening to the birds; but I indulge in it anyway. I realize how programmed I am- I miss seeing small forest creatures but I eschewed one that wanted to cuddle simply because it was a rat.

Speaking of small mammals, we’ve started calling Ellie Bigfoot Mouse, shortened to one or the other depending on the moment. There are several reasons for this. She has a small stuffed animal that she has had since kindergarten hanging on her pack; it is a friendly looking cartoon mouse whose bottom feet are each as big as its head. Mouse fits her soft-spokeness and tenacity, and indeed, she revealed that she has had this nickname before. Finally, her lamentations over the size of her feet and the fact that they have swollen and spread from hiking: “Size 41!” she had semi-jokingly exclaimed when realizing she’d need bigger shoes. “Oooh! It’s so hard to find pretty shoes already, I’ll never find them now!” So, of course, like the good trail friends we are, we added Bigfoot to the name Mouse.

Ellie has an amusing habit when it comes to breaks. While the three of us collapse in the deepest shade we can find, panting like fetching dogs that have almost run themselves to death playing, Mouse demurely layers on her black fleece and rain jacket, and finds a breezeless place to curl up in the direct sun. It’s mind boggling. We call these anomalies Mouse Naps. But today even the Mouse joins us in the shade when she arrives.

Where is Bro? Usually he arrives before Ellie, but he was the last to leave the shelter, and hasn’t been seen since. He doesn’t have maps, but we had thought it would be ok to spread out for today since it was one main road for the first 24 k with semi regular water. After more than an hour passes, we assume he must be taking more breaks- he is a strong hiker but the sun annihilates him. (While Ellie was curled up in the sun yesterday and he was burrowed into the deepest part of the shade, she asked him, “are you a wampire?” “Only one-eighth,” was his reply. “From which side?” we insist. “Probably my mom’s dad’s mom.” Plenty of garlic and coffin jokes ensue.)

Prana writes up directions on a piece of paper with the road turns and water crossings and kilometers between each one. We leave it tucked into the bridge hazard sign, and pick dandelions to decorate the sign with so it is un-missable. We forgo water here, as it looks sub-par and there is water marked on the map in only 5 k, and set out again, planning to convene with Mouse and possibly Bro in another 12 k to determine if we have time to finish the highway section before dark.

I walk with Prana, recounting to him all the interesting bits of stories I listened to. We reach the water at the 5 k past the lunch bridge. This is also a bridge, and as we step onto it and look down into the cascade thundering through the sheer walled gorge 60 feet below, we realize we would need rappelling gear and a bucket to collect water from here. Plan B will have to be finding water running in a ditch. Another few kilometers and some unfruitful searching in the thick groves of trees lining the low spots of the road, and I hear the unmistakable sound of water falling from a sufficient height in a sufficient volume to mimic a faucet. “Got some!” I call to Prana, and step down the steep ditch to a culvert, where perfectly clear water is flowing at about the volume of a water fountain, with a perfect space to slot a water bottle underneath. It is sweltering, and we both drink several liters of the cold water before filling our bottles to carry. We create a large ‘H2O ⬆️’ sign out of rocks on the shoulder of the road, and build a large cairn both on the road and on the edge of the ditch. We both feel satisfied there is no way anyone will miss that.

On and on, most of this segment is through pastureland. There are lots of lambs to look at and dimly recognize as adorable. The sheep bleat and baa and make weird sounds like a small child throwing a tantrum. Infrequently a small breath of wind blows through, and I am so soaked with sweat that it feels like an air conditioner blast. They each only last one or two seconds, and I pine for, I ache for, I live only for the next one. At some point I become aware of an irritation on the ball of my foot that slowly morphs into a raw feeling headed towards pain. Damn. I bet it’s that hole in my sock. Almost to the highway, we find a flat area under the shade of a large tree, and decide to cook dinner in preparation for the last segment, leaving us no necessary tasks at the end of the long day besides pitching the tent and eating chocolate. I hang all my damp laundry on the farm fence to finish drying, and pull off my shoes and socks- there is indeed a blister exactly the size of and lined up with the hole in the sock. What a dumb idea to keep wearing this one. Ah well.

Ellie catches up, and says she is game to keep going after a dinner break; we should be off the busy part before dark if we leave in 45 minutes. We notice a figure coming down the road, but it’s not Bro. It’s the Scotsman, whose name is Mike, but I call Scottie in my head. He is gunning to knock out the whole thing as well, and joins us for dinner. I had been under the impression from first meeting him that he was abrasively boisterous and therefore intrusive, but it was a grossly misplaced judgement and I really enjoy his company. He is a considerate soul and entertaining conversationalist, from what I can understand, which is about 50%. He relays that Bro is with Tristan and Jennifer, all three of which are having a rough day; he left them sitting under the lunch bridge, after handing them the note that none had noticed. We are grateful to hear that Bro is accounted for, and at least not a dried out husk as of lunchtime.

The four of us start hiking together for the last 12 k segment. Prana and Scottie walk ahead, Mouse and I trailing. She has some massive blisters as well, and we chat to synergize our morale. Big logging trucks rumble by, and we stop half way through to collect water. How can it be this late and still this hot? The light is starting to fade from the sky when we finally make our turn off the highway, which is also the marathon point of the day. Mouse’s first marathon!! We still have a victory lap to go.

The side road is peaceful and the colors become melted and muted as it gets later. The big pom-poms of the pompous grass seem to glow in the twilight, and they line our path, creating the illusion of a canyon. I am so tired, my legs are so tired, my feet feel mangled, and the sun has drained my will to live, let alone accomplish negotiable goals. Ellie and I trade stories of pets and childhood, and eventually it’s properly night, the road just visible as we follow it. We catch up to Prana, at the parking area of the picnic site, and we’ve done it: 46 k. The grass is an unbelievably soft short- mown lawn, and we pitch our tents in the dark furtively, gratefully. Second dinner is a bag of pretzels and a toffee chocolate bar; Scottie still has the energy to find the water spigot and search for hot showers. He points out the Southern Cross, (its an amazing outlier to see clear night skies at all in this country of clouds) and we all zip into our nylon and screen cocoon homes.

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