It was a beautiful day—warm with sunny blue skies. I set off in Tongariro National Park at 6:30am, sun still below the horizon, to hike the Northern Circuit. As one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Northern Circuit is a 43km (~27mi) loop around Mt Ngauruhoe (aka Mt Doom).
The Circuit also encompasses the famous Tongariro Crossing, one of the most popular and beautiful day hikes in New Zealand, if not the world. I had hiked the Crossing clockwise as part of my Te Araroa thru-hike, so I decided to hike the Circuit counter-clockwise for a different experience.
One benefit of hiking counter-clockwise was that it saved the Tongariro Crossing for the end, allowing me to cruise through the ~20km of relatively flat walking between Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu in the morning. I didn’t see another person for hours and enjoyed the solitude as much as the scenery.
But by mid-afternoon, I ascended towards Emerald Lakes and reached the Crossing. Suddenly, I was alone no more. The trail was crawling with people. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of people.
The view from Emerald Lakes
As I made my way along the ridgeline, it felt like every other person I passed asked some iteration of the same question:
How far is the hut?
How much longer to the top?
Am I close to the trailhead?
I get why people ask these questions. Hiking is slow, and that last mile can feel like an eternity when you’re tired and mentally spent. It’s natural to fixate on the end—your escape—and to yearn for the finish line.
However, these questions share DNA with the backseat nuisance: “Are we there yet?” And to be honest, they bother me for a variety of reasons:
- In practice, whenever I ask a passerby how far or long to a certain spot, their answer is almost always wrong. This isn’t a criticism of other hikers so much as a reality in hiking: people hike at different paces, take different breaks, and the time it takes to hike in one direction does not necessarily equal the time that it takes to hike in the opposite direction (e.g., going downhill is often faster than uphill). The answers to these questions are rarely useful.
- On top of this, these questions create doubt. The person who offered an estimate finds themselves second guessing: “should I have said 25 minutes instead of 15?” Meanwhile, the other person worries: “he said it was only 15 minutes, but I’ve been walking for 20; did I go too far?” These internal monologues are not productive, let alone necessary.
- On a more philosophical note, hiking is nothing more than self-powered wilderness travel. Part of the point—the challenge—for me is the fact that it requires reliance on my own abilities and judgment. I think this inherent emphasis on self-reliance is why hikers so often talk about developing self-confidence on the trail. If one of the benefits of hiking is an increased sense of self, why rely on others’ estimates when you could make your own? Personally, I would rather look at my maps or GPS before polling a stranger.
- A final problem with questions like “how long?” is that they focus on future rewards at the sake of present enjoyment. Why the rush? In a world so fast-paced and future-focused, what is a better opportunity to stop and smell the roses than when literally hiking through a field of wildflowers? One of the great aspects of hiking is that it’s less about the destination than the journey. In hiking, “there” becomes synonymous with “here.”
Perhaps this is a curmudgeonly attempt at censoring speech. I’d like to think that it’s just my reflections on a common experience. Either way, in an attempt to make this post less negative, I’ll close with an alternative approach to trail interactions from Ray Jardine:
When leaving the city and venturing into the natural world, regard everyone you meet as a friend. Look for something about them that you can compliment. If someone is carrying a nice backpack, say: “Hey, I like your pack.” If someone is riding a cool bike, say: “Nice bike!” or “I noticed you admiring those flowers. Beautiful, weren’t they?” If you do this once a day during your trips, you will be making the world a better place.