In 2012, I did two of New Zealand’s ten great hikes, the 87 kilometer version of the Whanganui Journey and the 60 kilometer Abel Tasman Coast Track. I was 33 at the time and in the best shape of my life which meant I could go maybe a mile on extremely flat surface in a day, as long as there was a day. where I moved as little as possible, or where it was hot. -tubbing, after each day of ambling.
I have been living with severe rheumatoid arthritis since I was a baby. Basically, my immune system mistakenly imagines the cartilage in my joints as the mother of all viruses and attacks them accordingly. Many of my joints are locked at unusual angles. I’m not flexible at all either. I can walk short distances, but I tire unpredictably. Still, I did Whanganui in three days and Abel Tasman in four, both within the normal completion time. How did I, a handicapped and weak little trans gentleman, accomplish this?
I got help.
In adventure and disability circles, help is a four letter word. We are taught to be robust individualists. I was carrying more baggage than a polar explorer around the idea of needing help, certain that asking or accepting it would cause a neon sign to appear above me, flashing BURDEN, BURDEN. I was also sure it would involve an immediate relinquishment of the autonomy I had cobbled together as an outdoor person in a society that views people with disabilities as objects of pity with nothing to offer.
For years, “I’ve got this” has been my rallying cry. While this attitude was liberating in some ways – it turns out I’m good at solo travel – it kept me from saying yes to any shots I couldn’t imagine blasting my way through without help. Likewise, it kept the people I loved the most at a distance.
The trip to New Zealand came at a time when “I’ve got this” had taken me as far as he could. I had reached a lonely plateau of independence. I knew trusting people to see my limits had to be my next big adventure. Having said that, I didn’t expect to be that fat right off the bat.
My childhood friend Lorraine spent a year working on the North Island of New Zealand. I invited myself to join her and her husband, Kevin, for a month. Over thirty years of friendship leaves little to hide, and Lorraine is known to be both full of surprisingly ambitious plans and hard to refuse. Despite his reputation, I had spent most of our friendship saying a polite but firm no-thank you, and then being an avid audience for his stories of backcountry mishap. The best of these tales revolved around the theme of aid, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Find yourself cross-country skiing at night or get bogged down in an Alaskan bog. Happy endings were only achieved when people helped each other.
As I planned the trip, I had “no thanks” deep in my throat, ready to shoot. I knew Lorraine would suggest something far beyond my skill level. She suggested that we take two long walks. It was so ridiculously inappropriate that I didn’t even say “no thanks” – I laughed instead. She assured me that despite classifying the Whanganui Journey as a walk, it really is a canoe trip. I explained that on a river I’m a big talkative baggage at best, and the Abel Tasman looked like a real walk, so no, just no. (If you have a disability, I can’t recommend the immediate honesty about your situation enough.) She had answers. She had suggestions. I had even firmer rebuttals and rebuttals and thanks, which eventually gave way to maybe, my own suggestions, and finally something productive: conversation and research.
As it turned out, the Abel Tasman was coastal enough that with a little planning it was possible to make an accessible version of the trip. Each morning, water taxis traveled from the southernmost terminus to the northern end of the trail, taking day trippers to various drop-off points which, in this case, were close to the trail’s hiking refuges. In the afternoon, the boats turned around to collect everyone and bring them home. The first day, I hopped on the water taxi near Kaiteriteri, where Lorraine and Kevin started their hike, and disembarked at Anchorage Bay, where we planned to meet that evening. There the day trippers set off for their walks and picnics, leaving me with calm, warm water beaches and kanuka groves all to myself as my friends rolled along the path to join me. We shared a hut that evening and the next morning I hopped on the ferry as it was crossing and hitchhiked to the next stop.
During this trip, I began to see aid in a new light. In addition to using drastic honesty to get the help I needed, I took stock of the ways I was helping my friends. Lorraine and Kevin are both certified rafting guides who are, in general, maddeningly proficient. My insecurity was quite overwhelming. Still, I’m an avid amateur photographer, so I documented the heck of our excursion. Not to mention that my fragility can have a civilizing effect on friends who otherwise might crash into God knows what. Slowing down disaster-prone people can be extremely helpful.
I also didn’t completely relinquish the power of no-thanks, I let my friends push me beyond. But with them, I wanted to be pushed. I clung to the building no thanks with strangers. My arms don’t bend behind my back or over my head, so every time I put on a jacket there was a whole shimmy dance situation that drew a crowd. If someone had helped me without knowing the particular mechanics of my body, I could have been hurt. Knowing when to say “no thank you” was part of getting the help I needed.
On the river, I was the talkative baggage that I had warned Lorraine that I would be. On the coast, I carried very little supplies for the group. The vulnerability it took to be part of a journey where I was so clearly overwhelmed was terrifying. Yet the memories of days spent floating downstream cradled by birds, laughing and living these stories with my friends, will never leave me.
Being useful does not mean that everyone has the same skills or contributes equal amounts. In an adventure, it’s about people working together to do something they wouldn’t dare to do on their own. As Lorraine and Kevin pulled me out of my comfort zone, I slowed them down, pulling them out of theirs. Once I was able to admit that I needed help, we shared an experience far beyond what I could have accomplished on our own.
Main photo: Courtesy of Christian McMahon