I sat numb on my couch trying to process the very sudden breakup from my relationship. Before I could start to think about how to properly get on with life, I wondered how I was going to get through the week. I already had Monday off work because we were supposed to go away for a winter summit of Mt Kosciuszko then snow camp down the South side. With all that now out the window I impulsively decided to fall back on the thing I love most; hiking.
I pulled out maps which I’d owned since a teenager but never actually used. I looked at the Great North Walk marked out on paper and could see pencil marks in my Dad’s handwriting showing latitude and longitude as he lovingly overcomplicated his 15 year old daughter’s interest in a hike and learning to read a map. Despite my Scout leader’s and Father’s help, I never got it. It seemed too hard and I never did the hike, stowing the maps away to be pulled out now, 12 years later.
I’d long felt drawn to the Great North Walk but for whatever reason had never hiked it. So now seemed like the right time to consider the trail and reclaim a small sense of independence. With two days’ notice I put on a favourite indie folk playlist, packed my bag and spent the night pouring over maps with a cider in hand.
Getting home from work on the Friday afternoon I dubbed this my rebound hike, slung my pack over my shoulder and walked out the door. It all felt very momentous walking to the train station with Wonderwall playing through my headphones (so cliché, thank you Spotify). I noticed how good my pack felt on. I found myself wishing the train station was a further walk since I was only getting started when I arrived. My smaller pack (Osprey 40L Tallon) fitted nicely on the busy train without knocking anyone over.
Arriving in Thornleigh I walked to the Baden Powell Scout Centre and was relieved to learn I was the only one camping. I sat down in my tent and set up my stove to cook dinner. I immediately got flashbacks of going through the same process on the Pacific Crest Trail. It was all so familiar. I settled into a typical hiker meal of chicken and corn soup with corn chips for dipping. A chip broke off in the soup so I considered adding in some chip sprinkles for texture but immediately changed my mind after the rough piece jabbed me in the gum as I took a mouthful. I ended up rushing dinner through impatience of the process. Even if I hadn’t hiked a long day, getting into my sleeping bag and laying down still remained my favourite part of camping. I settled in and closed my eyes. Frogs croaked in the background and I could hear distant traffic noise. It was all comforting, the air was crisp, animals were around, and I felt like I was finally back home.
After a cold night I cooked myself a hot breakfast. I concluded oats served warm taste no better than cold soaked and settled on the fact that I’ll likely be a lazy morning hiker forever not bothering to cook in the future. I followed a maze of streets and walked down the busy highway before dropping down into the valley. The contrast was stark and immediate. One minute cars were flying past, next it was birds. The path was far more technical than I’d hoped. I’d become accustomed to well-maintained trails that have been groomed of all major obstacles. I am, perhaps, a trail snob. The Great North Walk was instead littered with sandstone boulders to climb up, step over or jump down from. My knees, hips and back hated it. After a while of heavy trek pole use even my elbow hated it. I’d become soft. Or maybe, I just wasn’t in the headspace to be challenged.
Throughout the day more and more people appeared. I leap frogged two chatty girls and was overtaken by a few people out on a trail run. Spat back out in the suburbs as I bypassed the active riffle range, I walked past a very elderly couple shuffling down the pavement arm in arm. I immediately notice his National Geographic vest and she stopped to chat about the trail. She recalled the ladder which has now been replaced with stairs and shared how she often saw boys skipping school to play by the river, always returning just before 3pm. She abruptly finished with “Anyway, it’s been lovely and you look very healthy”, smiled and together they kept on shuffling.
I had just started to relax into the wide cleared section of trail when it suddenly veered off, taking me down technical climbs and leading me across a wobbly rock hop river crossing. It was a nice change of scenery but damn it slowed me down. Gone was my pace and rhythm, instead careful footing, down climbing to Georges Gorge with a sleep climb back up the other side. With that over, I was just 6km away from my campground. Though technical, the time passed quickly. Wallabies startled and jumped across the trail in front of me, I chatted with the chatty girls for a while until they found their site and I continued alone to camp at Crosslands Reserve since I needed water.
I could hear Crosslands Reserve before I could see it. The sounds of screaming kids, parents shouting “stop throwing sticks”, and couples trying to work out how to pitch a tent echoed down the river. It was chaos. I dropped my pack at a park bench and gave my sore hips and back a moment to rest. I refilled my water bottles through the slow inconsistent flow of the bubbler, used the toilet then promptly put my pack back on, turned around and walked back a kilometre to the empty campsite I’d passed before I could hear the sounds of the soccer team camped at the reserve.
In the quiet I set up my tent, surrounded by curious brush turkeys and a very active lyre bird. “You better not keep me up all night” I warned. I settled into my temporary home, making myself a hot chocolate as I read the paper maps with Dad’s handwriting to plan the following day. I’d been programmed to push for big days and cover long distances on hikes. I had to remind myself that wasn’t why I was there. With the trail being so technical my 62km goal was already out the window, and while I walked I remembered a promise I’d made to myself on my last long hike. “Get through this and we’ll go on a short walk over a long weekend”. I made a new plan for a shorter hike.
Despite it being early I cooked dinner at 5:30pm then lay down to relax. I felt my eyes get heavy and tried to fight it being just 6pm. I reminded myself it’s ok to relax and gave in to the beckoning sleep. Aside from a midnight pee which woke up a nearby brush turkey, I didn’t stir again until 8am. A remarkable 14hrs sleep later and I felt content, thankful and wasn’t hurting nearly as much.
Instead of thinking about the ended relationship I spent time tapping back into myself as a single person. A strong, independent and happy version of myself completely satisfied without another person in my life. I listened to old playlists and my favourite podcasts and felt myself shift back to the person I was before crushing on my now ex. There she is. I connected with her, comfortable to be coming back home. I found strength again, and a wave of calm knowing that I’ll be ok. Surrendering to the hike, my expectations and allowing the process to flow made so much space for healing. I’ll be sad for a while that life has changed and my partner won’t be around, but I’ll be returning from this walk knowing I can handle the change.
I lost interest in pushing my achy body but had regained a sense of drive and motivation to be back at a home base to research, plan, learn and create the next amazing adventures and projects. With that in mind I decided to go home. At 11am I packed up my gear and started on the 6km hike to the next train station. The trail became scenic, easier and beautiful, weaving next to the Hawkesbury, crossing streams and eventually climbing up out of the valley into Berowra to the train station. An hour train ride and a 10min walk later I found myself back at my front door a different person to who had left 2 days ago.
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