There is no more trail left to walk. A lie. There will always be more trails to walk. I’ve finished one of them, that’s all. This is it though, the end. People warned me from the beginning, it will be harder when you finish. I palmed off the idea of some deep depression. Sure, I might not be waking up with the dawn chorus as my alarm. I don’t see myself nodding off to sleep once the sun goes down. There will be no more epic vistas of snow capped mountains rising above valleys bottomed out with blue water rivers. I am not going to be miserable simply because I am no longer walking. A promise. As I continued to travel South with the ease of combustion engines something was missing. Mostly I feel empty. I’m carrying a void. An absence of purpose. I no longer have to wake up in the morning and walk until I reach a suitable destination. In fact, I no longer have to wake up in the morning at all. I could wake up in the afternoon. I still have time. What I don’t have any more is money. One without the other has little value. I go to Burgerfuel when I eventually arrive in Palmerston North. I walk my takeaway down to Penny’s Accommodation where a bloke called Dave and definitely not Penny lets me in and shows me around. A room of my own for the night because there were literally no other options. In the morning I take my time in leaving. The next bus I could get to Waikanae doesn’t leave until mid afternoon. How easy it becomes to watch a day disappear and yet still wish you had more. I get breakfast in one of the square-side cafes. I’m bleeding money when I have so little left. I can see the Southern end of the Ruahines by following the straight cut line of the highway through the city. I may never walk there again. I find a park bench and read for hours, occasionally pausing to watch people move across the grass. Mother’s with pushchairs, kids on skateboards. Normal life. The destination I’m really heading toward.
On the bus, light flares across the flat ground. I get it now. The expanse of ocean reflecting the sunlight below the sky. Puffs of white cloud sit above the Tararuas like snow. How much will I miss those hills? The place that made it all seem possible half a year ago. Kapiti Island floats purple in the dying light. So much familiar ground after all this. Andrea collects me from the station. I know I’m in safe hands. For the first time I’ve turned up clean and without the need to take over the washing machine. Andrea heads out for the a work-do. I spend the evening with Jason talking about adventure, drinking beers. We stay up late watching movies and it feels like a little repeat of our lives under lockdown. I let Bobby and Luke know that if they ever get stuck in the UK during a global pandemic who to call; somebody else, because I might not be there. I say my goodbyes. The last one, this time. The train is cheap, and quiet. I follow the coast. Past my first hills of two years ago. Alongside Te Araroa as it winds its way into Wellington. Iain picks me up from the station and I can continue to relax. I’m here, the end. Iain and Charlotte are out for a date so I go and catch up with old mate Dave over a few crafties in the city. They say you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, but you can say that about anywhere. It’s not a bad city and I still recognise the pull. I could try something new here, but I won’t. The next morning Kris invites me over for brunch. Everyone else has slipped into their old lives. Here at least I’m in similar company. Kris has moved here from Nelson, looking for a new job. We talk of how we can add our lessons from the trail to our experience on our CV. What have we learned? How have we developed? She feeds me waffles and tea and we chat until it gets dark, when I decide I’d better go back to Iain’s.
Life is already less simple. There’s a box of stuff waiting for me at Iain’s. Stuff I haven’t needed for 5 months. Stuff I sort of wish I won’t need again but do. Is it possible I’m going home with more than I came with? An overnight flight is my preference until I’m reminded I have to wait all day for it. Take off over the rippling black of the Cook Strait. Wellington reduced to a pocketful of stars in a matter of seconds. The bubbling clouds looking truly like cotton wool. The bumps above, those high peaks of the Tararuas. The first skim of the stone traveling home. The bounce landing in Auckland. There’s no time to stop. I’m boarding again, ready for the big bounce. Next stop, Los Angeles. A glimpse of mountains, powder blue sky. A flicker of memory, a flash of desire. I hope it wont be another ten years before I return. And maybe for more than three hours. A door that seemed to take months to open is slammed shut. I have no idea if I’m inside or outside. Nothing breaks above the cloud. Below, the quilted greens of farmland blend with the cross hatch of grey roads and brown homes. Heathrow, familiar. A long wait to pass through customs and immigration. Two more bounces. The odd reassurance of understanding vehicle registration plates. I can’t deal with how flat the landscape is. The fresh greens of spring spread out from the roadside. Harriers are replaced by kites. Pigeons are grey rather than green. Magpies look mischievous rather than murderous. I swop the bus in Reading for the train to Basingstoke.
My cousin, Chloe, picks me up from behind the train station. I remember so little of what we talk about. Something, nothing, maybe. Then I’m home. The pantry is stocked with enough food to survive a zombie apocalypse or the return of a wandering son. The plates are older than I am. The cutlery could ruin an entire meal. The bowls are too small. I don’t know if there’s enough for three people to live here, let alone 20 guests coming in over the weekend. I deny the jet lag but it is relentless for 24 hour. I fall asleep in the afternoon and struggle through the night. The mornings are light, but still cold. Anxious tension grips my chest as I pass through Basingstoke town centre for the first time in clearly not long enough. Just once I consider the possibility. Have I made a mistake? I ride the train to Winchester. The impossibly flat landscape let’s me see for miles. Chalk hills and hedge rows. Lonely old oak trees. Copses of beech. Different sure, but I don’t dislike it. I sit in a pub with old mate Gavin and start to feel a little settled. People were the main pull to come home. Inviting them all over for a day might have been too much but it’s done now. The key members of my family remain somewhere else. The adventure is over. I am home.