Click here to see photos from Annie Gustafson's New Zealand hike.
Find updates and stories from her travels on her blog.
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Forgive Annie Gustafson for the grumpy poetry, composed in New Zealand toward the end of an 1,860-mile hike:
The stink of me, I can stand no more.
The terrain is too steep.
I am always so tired, yet I can never sleep.
It's day 112, and I am alone.
I want to get to Bluff, I want to go home.
Gustafson, 29, now is less than a week's worth of walking away from the end of the Te Araroa Trail. The rugged route — its name means "The Long Pathway" in the Maori language — starts at Cape Reinga on New Zealand's North Island and ends at Bluff on the country's South Island.
Gustafson, an Omaha native, started her trek on Dec. 10. It was just a week after the full trail officially opened.
She blogs about the trip when she stops in towns along the trail. Those updates offer tales of running from angry cows; walking along a beach littered with the bodies of 26 dead penguins; wading across a chest-deep river; climbing Mount Ngauruhoe, the Mount Doom of the "Lord of the Rings" movies; trudging through jungles filled with ferns as big as trees; and avoiding speeding cars along the shoulder of a busy highway.
She's almost done with a walk that is longer than a drive from Omaha to Seattle and has required four pairs of shoes — she had sent three pairs to post offices along the trail.
Most of the blog entries don't rhyme. Most include awe-inspiring photos Gustafson has taken.
And most of her accounts are positive, offering brief descriptions of the kind New Zealanders she has encountered and the beauty of their land.
"The Te Araroa is special," she wrote in one recent post. "It seems like every day, I mean every day, you are experiencing a whole new kind of terrain/scenery/obstacle."
Others have hiked parts of the Te Araroa during its construction, but from reviewing the registries in the 30 to 40 trail huts she has visited, Gustafson has been unable to find another American woman who has completed the entire stretch.
She's intent on being a "purist" — connecting her footsteps from start to finish. That's a little tough when you have to take a three-hour boat ride between the islands, and one portion of the trail requires a canoe or a kayak to traverse. But to the extent that she can, she has.
Gustafson can pull off such a long time away from civilization because it's the off-season at Glacier National Park in Montana, where she works as a biological science technician, restoring vegetation.
Asking her why she would even attempt the feat forces her to revisit territory that she would rather leave behind.
The trip, she said, was partly motivated by an attempt to clear her mind after she and her fiance broke up.
"Three months before our wedding," she said in an email, "he called it off. Never really gave me a real reason, just he couldn't get married."
Walking also helps her deal with the death of her younger brother, John, who was killed in 2004 in a motorcycle accident in California. He was 19 and attending Loyola Marymount University at the time. They were two years apart "and did everything together growing up — track, cross-country, swimming, school events," she said. "Walking helps me cope with this loss."
"Every day, it is different."
“We've walked over beaches ... we've walked through subtropical rain forest ... we've walked on every kind of road that exists ... and climbed over every kind of fence that exists ... We've walked over volcanoes, summited countless small peaks. We've walked up streams, in streams, and have crossed dozens of rivers ... We've walked up river valleys, down river valleys, over mountain passes. We've walked through cities and small villages. We've walked through botanical gardens and city parks. We've walked through tussock country and land of the speargrass. And every day, it is different.”
-- Excerpt from Annie Gustafson's blog. Read more from her blog here.
Gustafson also saw the trek as a challenge: "I like testing my limits, seeing how far I can push myself and going beyond it."
Running, hiking and backpacking were part of her regimen in Montana, so she didn't need to do any training for her trip.
"You get in shape as you go," Gustafson said. "I've probably lost maybe 10 pounds. I really didn't have a lot to lose. But you cannot consume enough calories."
She knows the benefits that a thru-hike, which is walking a long-distance trail from end to end, can provide. She hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from May to October of 2009.
"It's a great way to see a country, on foot," she said. "I have to say that I was never the same after completing the PCT. It's a fulfilling life to carry everything you need on your back, and to just walk."
But it's not a leisurely stroll.
"You have to get up every day, early, whether the sun is shining or it's raining outside, put on wet socks, and start walking," she said. "You have to be committed and disciplined to undertake something like this. Most days, I'm walking for 8 to 10 hours a day."
Her parents, Omahans Ray and Jane Gustafson, say their daughter, an Omaha North grad, spent weeks planning the trip and figuring out ways to keep her pack light. They chart her progress on a map of New Zealand that's posted on a wall in their Ponca Hills kitchen. "She can figure out any kind of a map," her mother said. "She's really got map skills."
Aside from a tent, a water-filtration system and the food and clothing she needs, Gustafson carries maps, a compass, trail notes and a GPS device that has the trail on it. Without the food, the backpack weighs 13 pounds. The most food she has had to carry was seven days' worth, increasing the weight to about 35 pounds.
Gustafson is hiking with a friend from California, Brian Tanzman. They don't walk together much during the day, she said, but decide in the morning how far they will go and meet up to camp together at night.
"It's so remote and the terrain is so rough," she said, "it would be easy to fall and break your leg, and you'd be (out of luck) without a locator beacon. With two people, it's a lot safer."
Gustafson came across information about the New Zealand trail when she was researching the Continental Divide Trail, which, with the PCT and the Appalachian Trail, make up the "triple crown" of U.S. National Scenic Trails. Hiking in New Zealand, she said, worked out better with her schedule.
Gustafson also brought along a compact GoPro video camera and will put together a video presentation when she returns to the U.S. She plans to be in Omaha for a short time before returning to Montana.
She misses music (no iPod on this trip) and eating mozzarella sticks. She's looking forward to her mom's bread crumb baked chicken with sweet potato fries and her sister's macaroni and cheese.
And sitting on the couch, maybe to watch those "Lord of the Rings" movies (all filmed in New Zealand) that she has never seen.
As for her next adventure — after she returns to work to make some money — Gustafson is thinking about the Great Himalayan Trail in Nepal. That mountainous trail "sounds crazy," she said, and "makes the Te Araroa look easy."
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