Shelby Traynor reflects on taking your pain into the woods to heal, and the power of nature.
The walk into the valley took about four hours. We carried packs the size of ourselves, stocked with too much food and too many clothes. Nobody died on our high school trips down south, but they should’ve. A boy did break his ankle. The Phys Ed teacher took one look at it and pronounced it was only a sprain, even though he, and everyone else, could see the boy’s toes were pointing the wrong direction.
Our teachers encouraged us to play such games as Who Can Run Fastest Down This Incredibly Steep Hill, and Who Wants To Ride Their Bike Through This Mud? I once heard a trainee teacher say, “I can’t be part of this. This is not OHS safe at all.” To the disappointment of all of us, the boy broke his ankle walking down a set of stairs cut into the dirt just a few metres from the campsite.
On our first school trip rain flooded us out. After a miserable afternoon canoeing in the driving rain we were evacuated a day early and our parents refunded $40. The following year teachers drank by the fire as the rest of us sat around in the unreasonably large tent that some kid always brought on trips like that—the kind with an entryway and a living room and a master bedroom—where we’d been promised vodka but were instead served hot chocolate, made bitter by our own disappointment. The days were tough, but once the sun went down and I had worn myself out sneaking around in the dark, I would fall into the best sleep I was scheduled to have all year. It was cool in the valley, the air fresh from the trees, and I was too tired to think once my head hit the clothes I’d bundled up as a pillow.
Wake with the sunrise. Eat breakfast as the dew settles into the grass. Repeat.
Hiking in New Zealand this year was a relief. I no longer had to pretend I was looking out for snakes, and could instead trudge through the bush with reckless abandon. I’d spent my tax return money on the trip and given my two weeks’ notice to line up with my departure. I never thought when I was 16 that I’d dislike my job so much, but I’d noticed myself seeking out every track reachable by public transport on which to twist an ankle or dislocate a knee so I didn’t have to think about the news. The South Island would take me far higher above sea level than I’d ever been before, and I’d hoped nine days would be enough time to climb a mountain so high it would change me drastically, believing I’d reach a certain altitude and snap back into place.
We had two guides. Michael* was thin and tall and dressed in all khaki, with a red nose and burnt cheeks. He taught us a lot about birds, and all the horrible ways a person can die in the alps. James* was from Birmingham. He encouraged Michael to talk about birds and told me not to write about this trip. We were a rag tag bunch. The median age was somewhere around 55, 23-year-old me being the youngest. It hadn’t occurred to me that paying money to walk around safely in the outdoors is something retired people do, until it occurred to me, and never stopped occurring to me from then on. I was embarrassed only until I noticed, maybe two hours in, how nice it was to get a break from people my own age. It was assuring to know I was still very much in the beginning of life. No one really cared what I did for a living much more than they cared about what I was currently doing, at that moment, holding up a line of people trying to climb over a fence and onto the trailhead.
I spent the week leading up to the hike setting 2 a.m. alarms for 3 a.m. starts, in the final week of a job I hated with people I loved, who wouldn’t stop asking me if I would please stay. The answer was that I needed to stop crying all the time. I needed to quit my job and start another, but more importantly, I needed to walk until I couldn’t feel my feet anymore. I achieved that goal on day two, sitting on top of Mount Erika (in memory of) and listening as James mapped out the mountains. The peaks of Mount Cook/Aoraki are named after four brothers, the sons of the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. From where we stood the second highest peak looked taller, the true scale of the landscape impossible to comprehend. I was sore but happy and cosy in my puffer jacket, eating Whittaker’s dark chocolate with caramel in the centre, a jagged row of snow-capped mountains in front of me and an easy ridgeline leading back to the hut behind me. Bill Bryson writes in his book A Walk in the Wood that hiking teaches low-level ecstasy “—something we could all do with more in our lives.”
I’ve been going on day hikes since high school, chasing that feeling in the tent at the end of a long day when everything is quiet and you are warm and then, just like that, you are asleep. This year I made a task of it, forcing my friends into the bush for hikes that had a habit of dragging on five hours longer than expected, accruing blisters and broken joints and grit. Maybe a disease or two from the water we gave up on boiling. I spent my weekends like this because I’d tried to relax and couldn’t, having spent the better part of three years in a newsroom somewhere, heart beating out of my chest as I scrambled day after day to get something, anything, please god, anything to air.
I couldn’t settle unless I was physically unable to think of anything other than the pain I felt in the back of my ankles from hours of wandering uphill.
In the lead up to New Zealand I went on a few hikes in preparation. The Great North Walk takes you from Sydney to Newcastle, and parts of the trail pass through train stations, making them perfect for a day trip into the wilderness. These were my first proper hikes alone. The trail was busy, full of weekend walkers and school children I once accidentally led into thick bush because their classmates had blocked the clear path forward. “Why are you hiking alone?” one of the girls asked me as I stood in front of a tree with nowhere else to go. “Aren’t you scared?”
The truth is I got a thrill from going off trail to get a better view, trusting myself enough to make my way back to the path. I could listen to music, or nothing at all, letting my brain fall into a quiet rhythm as I navigated twisted branches, steep steps, and uneven rocks. Thinking but not overthinking, I could be alone with myself while also remaining a safe distance away from myself.
Our guides talked a lot about this mountaineer called Gottlieb who died at the hut we were sleeping at that first night. He’d led New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister on a trip there before suffering a heart attack in the doorway. I reckon I heard that story five times in a day. There was a calm fondness in the guides’ voices each time they told us about an adventurer, revered by many, who died horribly and died too soon. Sir Edmund Hillary being the exception, hanging on until the age of 88. He once said of climbing, “It’s the intense effort, the giving of everything you’ve got. It’s really a very pleasant sensation.”
I won’t climb Everest, but I did climb more than 2,000 stairs to the Red Tarns. I kept count until I had to stop and catch my breath, then I would begin the count from zero once more. I got to 50 at the highest. I felt like I had climbed above the clouds. It’s really a very pleasant sensation once you’re up there—legs burning, eyes set on the horizon. I don’t remember how my lungs burned or how the rain pelted us on the way up. I mostly remember the duck swimming in the small mountain lake, alone. We had walked above the rain clouds, and I longed to go further, up onto the jagged ridgeline that towered behind us.
In a note dropped in a tin can during Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell’s ascent of El Capitan, one of them wrote: “We must be the most miserable, wet, cold, stinking wretches imaginable. But we’re alive, really alive, like people seldom are.” I don’t like it when people suggest the only way to live, really live, is to climb a mountain . But I am one of those people who must push themselves to feel happy without an afterthought, and I turned to the trail when I needed it most. It has become a welcome distraction and a refuge. The low-level suffering and beauty of walking for hours on end manages to settle my mind like nothing else, and when you’re in distress, what works is what you do, whenever you get the chance.
Hours into one of our final hikes we stripped down and plunged into an icy cool lake. Too tired to care, too sweaty to mind. It took the loudest thunderstorm of my life to wake me up the next morning at 4 a.m. I got out my notebook and wrote about the rabbits that infested the day’s trail: “I know I should hate them, curse them, but their white bums and little tufts of tails look so cute as they bound away.” It was one of my favourite days of the year.
Eventually the guides dropped me off outside a supermarket and left me to make my own way. Michael kissed me on the cheek like I was going off on a big adventure. And I will be, because even though it hurts and I get blisters and sometimes I feel like I don’t belong, I haven’t found anything better.
Nearing the end of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson writes: “I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from civilisation and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.” It’s a complicated kind of happiness, but it stays with me longer. I’m not quite where I need to be—happy without the struggle first, without an afterthought—but I know I’ll get there, because I’m very good at complaining my way up hills.
* Names have been changed
Artwork: Connie Noble
Words: Shelby Traynor