12/25 What Makes Christmas

Whanganui HP to Koitiata

36 k

“Hey, you there! Do you know what day it is?”

“Oieh?”

“Today! Do you know what day it is?”

“Why, it’s Christmas!”

Merry New Zealand Christmas!

The birds sing the morning awake, and I make coffee and call my parents. We get to talk for an hour! Breakfast is croissants, hard boiled eggs, the rest of the veggie sausage, coffee and ginger beer spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

While we are packing up, Ellie is sharing around a big package of mint cookies, kind of like a cross between Thin Mints and Junior Mints. I hear a ruckus on the porch, and step out just in time to see Mario burst out of his room in full sprint after Bro, who is currently vaulting the railing on the far side of the deck. What the hell? The story finally comes out that Bro had snookered Mario into putting one of the cookies into his mouth whole, and of all the food that Mario eats, it is one of only three blacklisted items. This has been a subject of much discussion, as everyone else enjoys all three: chocolate with mint, licorice, and ice cream (ice cream is negotioable if it is served on anything). Mario had declined when Ellie offered the package, but apparently Bro had taken one out and proffered it to Mario, “here, have a a chocolate cookie then.” We all laugh until our sides hurt, as much at the trick as at the deft way Bro escaped, hinting at a bigger history of these types of shenanigans than we’ve heard about yet.

As much as I would like to stay here all day, our campsite for tonight is 36 k away, so Bro, Prana, and I head out behind Mario and Peach, with Ellie not far behind us. Just before we reach the exit, we pass by the trampoline, which we have inconceivably not jumped on yet. It’s a bubble out of the ground, rather than the traditional circle surrounded by tetanus-inducing springs. How good can it be?

Answer: Awesome.

pc: Prana

I canNOT believe how bouncy it is. I laugh so hard that I manage to convince Bro and Prana to try it too. I run back to the kitchen to make sure Mouse doesn’t leave without trying it. I skid around the corner and say her name, eliciting a piercing shriek as she jumps 3 feet off the ground. I double over with laughter again as she apologizes for startling so easily. She solemnly promises to try the trampoline. I run back for a few more jumps, duck into the office to buy some postcards, and when I come back out she is making good on her word and laughing as hard as I did.

I march along the road by the river, and have good enough service to call other family members as well. It’s so wonderful to hear their voices! I catch Prana and Bro in a long strip of park, and we decide to follow the park as long as we can rather than returning to the hard road. It’s much shadier, and slowly the open park tapers down until it is simply a tube through thick bamboo. There are several little offshoot dens and cul de sacs as well that would be perfect for camping in! Who hacked out this tunnel and open spaces? Before long the path dead ends at the confluence of a steep sided creek and the Whanganui River. Dang! It’s not far to backtrack, and was worth the detour to discover the secret bamboo lair.

Once we return to the road, we are on it for the rest of the day. An all day roadwalk for Christmas. Hmm. I consider this a weird way to spend one of my holidays as the traffic roars by. Hiking for Christmas I can see- but walking along the side of a state highway as the special day of hiking? I scan my thoughts, assuming there must be a negative reaction in there somewhere. Luckily, the mind is an amazing rationalizing and significance-creating machine. I mean, really, this might be the crappiest roadwalk of the TA. Firstly, the fact of doing it on Christmas makes it as good as it can possibly be. It also means I have cell phone service to talk to and message with family. It also means I am hiking with my headphones, so I listen to my favorite Christmas album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories by the Trans Siberian Orchestra, all the way through. Twice! It has epic rock opera instrumentals, which is perfect for motivating a good pace.

We reach the picnic area at the 2/3 point just as Super Mario and Princess Peach are leaving from their lunch. The four of us eat ours quickly, collaborate on a few mini-crosswords, then continue on. An hour or so later, we see Jo ahead of us, sitting beside the road, having a snack. “Would you like this beer?” she asks. “I was just given it.” Before we can reply, a father balancing beer bottles and a son balancing packages of tin foil coast up on mountain bikes. “Would you like a beer and Christmas cake?” they ask. “Yes please! Oh, thank you!” We chat with them for a bit- apparently this is what they do for entertainment, magicking hikers via their bikes on lazy afternoons. Amazing! What a nice family.

We are in the home stretch of the day now, and I walk and have an enjoyable chat with Jo. We come upon a tiny church and old cemetery, a scene that always piques my curiosity. Most of the writing on the tombstones is in Maori. I briefly wish that I had been able to attend the service here this morning, if they had one. It would have been interesting.

The last five k takes the longest, as it usually does, but I can hear the ocean for most of it and the roadside weeds are changing back to dune grasses. The light lengthens and takes on a golden edge. It’s quite beautiful. The village that tonight’s campground is in, generously free to TA hikers, is tiny and appears to be made up mostly of cute and unassuming clubhouses. I round the last corner and Prana, Mario, Peach, and Bro are all in various paroxysms of celebration and exhaustion. We made it! Other than spending Christmas with my bio family, I can’t imagine a better way to spend it than with this trail family.

Perhaps it’s from sitting in a canoe the 6 days previous to this, but my legs and feet are decimated. We pitch our tents and set about cooking dinner. Prana carried my favorite for a Christmas treat, gnocchi with pesto and artisan blue cheese. It is heavenly. “It’s kind of weird that people here barbecue and go to the beach for Christmas,” observes Bro, as we watch families and couples stroll through the late hour light. “I think it’s even weirder that we walked on the shoulder of a state highway for Christmas,” I counter, and with a grin he concedes the point. “I think it’s weird that they still have snowflakes and Santas dressed in heavy fur robes as their decorations. It seems

like their ornaments and Christmas cookie shapes should be martini glasses and sand castles and sea horses!”

We are well into eating and are starting to worry about Bigfoot Mouse; we thought she wasn’t that far behind us, although she did mention how badly her feet were hurting at lunch. Hmm. As we scrape every last bit from the dinner pot while discussing when we should walk back to look for her, a camper van pulls in. “Did you see a girl with a backpack coming up the road?” we ask them. “Yeah, she was just getting to the edge of town,” is the relieving reply. Within ten minutes Mouse is in view, and when she flops down next to us she is in ecstatic spirits. “I can’t believe it. Someone came in their pickup truck and brought me food! And beer!” Apparently we had all walked past the bikers’ home, and Bro had been gifted a beer from the residence. He had mentioned there was one more behind him that was having a tough day and would really appreciate a beer as well, and the family had packed up the pickup truck and gone hunting for Mouse, who had been sitting on the side of the road when they found her. They bestowed dinner, drink, and dessert upon her. “It was just the nicest thing ever! I just can’t believe it!”

Big drops of rain start to fall from the sky, and we take it as the cue to bundle in for the night. Being off your feet in a sleeping bag in a dry tent with all the chores done while it rains outside is almost as cozy as being by a fireplace with hot chocolate and cookies while it snows.

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