Howden Campsite to Greenstone Hut
The morning is soggy and blanketed with fog. For as wet as the night was, it wasn’t nearly as cold as I had thought it would be. For some reason the last few mornings I have woken up with the feeling of my heart racing, so this morning I take my resting heart rate before I move. 68. Seems high for someone hiking everyday. Maybe my body needs more rest days? Or less chocolate and dairy? Is it anxiety? If it wasn’t before, I’m sure some will contribute now. I try to set aside the obsessive thought churning, hoping everything will just resolve itself if I ignore it.
We are up and packed, hiking at 7:30. The morning tastes fresh from the dewy air, warming fast, and we are the first ones to leave the campsite.
The track we are taking is wet, spongy and muddy. We cross a meadow and strip down some layers in anticipation of the climb to McKeller saddle. The trail tread is a wide gravel highway, and the switchbacks wind upward at a steady mellow grade. Moving feels easy and delightful this morning, mindless footwork, low-grade effort.
The saddle is spectacular. It is flat and treeless, inviting views back over the glaciered peaks.
The McKellar saddle is as lovely as any manicured and carefully landscaped garden, and probably even lovelier for its wild and inimitable tangled perfection. Boardwalks lead over tessellated bog plants. Dark clouds form and diverge, dancing an inverted lacy pattern in the sky. A chill breeze wafts up, brisk enough to deliver a few shivers to damp backs after the climb.
The trail winds along the flat table top of the wide pass, paralleling a sculpted stream gorge and crossing the outlets of waterfalls dropping from the peaks.
Too soon we are again embraced by trees, and start the subtle and mellow downhill. Although I often prefer the open, expansive views, today the diffused light from the fog ignites the jewel tones of green in the forest.
Down, down, down, ever down through the pleasant forest. On the very well maintained tread, it is easy to ignore my feet and get lost in the enjoy the repetition of effortless motion. I jog the downhills, pick up speed, coast up the far side of the troughs. A Ted talk marathon electronically unspools into my ears, feeding my brain ideas to amplify this moving meditation.
I find Prana ready for a snack next to a route marker diverging to a couple of streams. As we are rooting in our foodbags, an older guy and two young kids, presumably his grandsons, walk up and start a chat. They are the vanguard of a family of ten out for trip. The grandsons are thrilled, this is their first 2 night backpacking trip, and recount several other hiking and camping adventures they have had with their grandpa.
As the rest of the ten slowly arrive and and join the group, the chatting reaches a feverish pitch. I start packing the food bags away, sated with both snacks and interaction with humanity, and the family resumes their march as well, trickling out at the same pace and order as they trickled in. The last one to stand up after everyone else has resumed the march is the grandma. She hoists her pack, then turns to us and says, inexplicably, “Violence is such a problem that the Church is working with the Pope to make a ‘Sunday law.’ Every single person will be required to attend church services on Sundays.”
I have no idea what to make of this. Prana observes, “Well, that won’t work, because, aside from separation of church and state, doesn’t that undermine the whole thing of faith being the choice to exercise it?”
She seems taken aback for a moment, then sputters, “Well, the Bible’s right, so. I guess we’ll just see.” And takes off up the trail without another word
For some reason, I am fuming from this exchange. I try to bring my emotions under control and figure out why the reaction, as I stomp down the trail, peace momentarily vaporized from the day. It’s her own opinion! I tell myself. She has every right to it. And every right to say it. Just as I have every right to my opinion. And every right to not be the objectified repository of someone else’s dogmatized convictions. I battle myself for miles, playing devil’s advocate for and against both sides, more irritated with myself for the easy flare of harsh emotions than I am with the woman or her opinions, and I finally recognize the resentment of being silenced. My fuming has cooled to puzzling, and I sift through the exchange and others like it from a calmer, zoomed-out perspective. But how am I silenced? By whom? When approached with these types of exclamations, I feel fully compelled to reply, or at least acknowledge that I have been spoken to; and while I cannot bring myself to make a comment that is inauthentic to to my position just for the sake of the conversation, I am equally reluctant to reply with comments that can be interpreted by the other as belittling. Which leads to, I finally realize, that I am the one silencing myself. How can I solve this impasse? One thing that the trail always provides is plenty of time to mentally hash these things out, and after awhile my brain makes inroads into the tangle. The other person brings it up, is the conclusion that finally unlocks the snarl. They are not concerned with being perceived as belittling or ungracious in conversation. Therefore, by opening the subject uninvited, they are implicitly conceding permission to hear my view as well. With this new perspective, I resolve not to be the one silencing me in the future.
I return to the Ted talks, and the path leads through larger and larger meadows. Walking in the long grass is pleasant, with well cut track unambiguously outlining the way and nice open views unfolding all around. Pleasant indeed, although not what I expected.
We reach the Mid-Caples Hut, housing a sprawl of 24 bunks. The sandflies are terrible. I’m not ready for a break yet, feeling strong today for the first time in a while, and I want to capitalize on the ease that feeling provides. But Prana hasn’t submitted his vote about plans for lunch, so I page through a few Wilderness magazines, waiting. There is an article in one about PLBs, where the opinions of the Search and Rescue folks who are polled are in favor of more travelers carrying them. What? This is not what I would have guessed. “Very few calls are unnecessary,” one is quoted, “and the biggest mistake in the backcountry we see is people not carrying them.”
I can’t stand sandflies or waiting, so I tell Prana I am just going to go. My urge is rewarded – past the hut in less than five minutes is a beautiful deep gorge with jewel-blue water, which I squander my now sandfly-less time snapping picture after picture of.
Prana is not having the best day, and he heads up the trail to lone it for a bit, while I continue photographing. I’m still not sure what the plan is for lunch- such a silly logistic that can really rule the day when it requires coordinating two schedules lacking communication. Just over an hour later, I catch up to him at side creek, where I call for a decision and we finally sit down for a quick re-fueling.
On my really bad days, I rely heavily on something in my ears to distract my brain from counter-productive thoughts. Prana is out of things he wants to listen to, so we trade phones. He starts to listen to Ready Player One and is quickly hooked. I listen to a Kevin Fedarko interview he had downloaded, (which is so excellent I listen to it twice) and then a finally-graspable distillation of the Russia investigation, thanks to NPR. The trail cruises through cow country, weaving back and forth across the border of gentle forest and flat green grass, passing lots and lots of cows as the clouds roil and stir the light.
We reach the bridge crossing the Caples River that accesses the Greenstone side of the loop surprisingly quickly. There is a giant herd of children gathered on the far side, watching a vigorous lesson on packing a backpack. We thread our way around the fringe, and head on to find a spot to heat water for mid afternoon mocha, crossing the gusty flats above the confluence of the two rivers and following the trail into the gorge of the Greenstone River.
Up the track we find a wide spot overlooking the Greenstone, sheltered from the wind. We assemble the stove and settle in, just in time for the backpacking fledglings to come trampling and squawking up the track. I stand up to provide a barricade between them and the flaming stove, high fiving the first in the line as demonstration of our amity and an acknowledgment of their effort. A mistake, I realize a split second too late, as I am now bound to high-five all of the remaining, strung-out gaggle. Their reciprocations range from the maniacally enthusiastic to the apathetically obligated. “I’m dying!” exclaims one of the effort. By the time they have all passed through, the hot water is ready.
The Greenstone track rides high above the river, with shifting views down into the crystal clear, beryl river. Every fold in the gorge walls reveals a waterfall dumping another side creek into the main flow.
The track is beautiful, winding through mostly young and uniform beeches with the occasional ancient and looming elder. I move through this mossy wonderland for several hours, and eventually reach the turn off for Greenstone Hut where Prana waiting. We are reliving this beautiful section, but spy a couple coming from up trail on the Greenstone Track; the fear of scarcity hits hard and we drop our effusions to race up to the hut, sparing only a second’s glance as we bound across another deep gorge. Sadly, our bedeviling sense of scarcity is reinforced- the Greenstone Hut is large but very full, and we get almost the last two open bunks. The inside is warm and steamy, and Matt and Micah are here, as well as Jasper and Miriam. Bigfoot Mouse arrives not far behind and lays claim to the last mattress.
I slip back out of the friendly melee for a quiet walk back through the twilight to take photos of the gorge. I watch the water swirl through the sculpted hallway below the bridge as the light warms and glows and finally fades. I linger on the way back, taking in the perfection of the evening.
Back in the hut a kind and friendly woman who is chaperoning her very young nephew insists that we help ourselves to her wild rice leftovers, which are a fabulous addition to our potatoes and peas. As we casually chat, she recommends the Hump Ridge Track, so I make a note of it to research later. There is a binder of laminated magazine and newspaper articles to page through while spooning up dinner, and one in particular catches my attention. It is an in depth article on the TA, with the focus championing the opinions that there is too much tourism, TA hikers are abusing the use of hut space, and that New Zealand doesn’t want the type of tourist that hikes the TA, New Zealand wants the $300/night tourists or none at all, thank you very much. Interesting. I finish dinner and curl up in bed, exceedingly grateful for a mattress beneath me that won’t be deflating tonight.