It may sound odd but in our trail community dried snot, mud, and grime are badges of honor. Scars, scabs, and injuries are boasted about around the campfire. A proud smile came across my face when someone first used the term dirtbag to describe me. It was a lifestyle that I adopted quickly. It felt natural. It made it easier to get on with my “busy” day of walking, climbing and snapping photos. The way I saw it was this, “Why clean up? I’m just gonna get dirty in 5 minutes anyway.” It’s been 5 months since I’ve used a stick of deodorant or shampooed my hair. I’ve worn two shirts this entire time except for the oversized Hawaiian shirt I donned for the canoe trip. I carried four pairs of socks, two pairs of shorts and one pair of leggings. The beauty of merino wool is that it doesn’t smell – if you don’t believe it then I’ll make you smell my gear – 5 months later and it doesn’t stink, unfortunately I sure do.
I’ve walked over 3,000 km (1,800 miles) across this glorious country. This morning I began my slow journey home. I left my crew, my family of 5 months, in the darkness of the morning just two days after finishing the Te Araroa. I boarded a puddle jumper and not long after was cruising at 25,000 ft watching the sun crawl over the horizon. Clouds covered the land and sea but the Southern alps reached their heads out to grab at the first rays of the day. I watched as land passed below. Land that took me 161 days to walk, and now took less than 3 hours to cover. How many saddles and mountains did we climb? How many rivers did we ford? How many times did we get lost?! Too many… But maybe not enough.
The only proof of my journey that remains is the stench emanating from my body, and the scars and scabs still not healed on my legs. My past endeavors that have lasted this long usually ended with the loss of a playoff game or an end-of-season awards ceremony. This time things were a bit different. We accomplished a great feat. We’ve done something not many others can say they have done or ever will do. The celebration was small and didn’t last as long as planned, but it was right. It was as if we all wanted to celebrate the end but didn’t want it to be over. To be honest, I wouldn’t finish any other way – surrounded by my trail mates at sunset, smoking a cigar I carried with me the entire time, and popping a fresh bottle of champagne. I know that this was best.
I can’t help but think about what’s next, even though I’m battling the thought. I want to hold on to the memories of this trail just a bit longer. It seems that we as humans have always struggled in ending things. Even with huge celebrations or heart-warming farewells there’s rarely a way to fill the void of the journey. I sit here in the airport now realizing that I do in fact stink and that normal people smell really damn good! I feel bad for the people around me and kick myself for not taking a shower after finishing the walk. In all honesty though, I feel that if I take a shower then the trail is finally over. I’ve become unbelievably comfortable in my own skin. I’ve had no need to wash or scrape the mud from my legs until now. I’ve been free to blow my nose in my shirt or clean my fingers on my shorts. I’m not ready to trim my beard, cut my hair or do anything that might wash the trail off myself. I’m not ready to end the era of the dirt bag, not ready to head back into “real life.” But then I have to ask myself, “Was I ready for those 1,000 meter climbs when cold dew dripped from my tent? Was I ever ready to walk 3,000 kilometers?”
Real life won’t be so bad… You can never wash the dirtbag off this soul.
By Kole Krieger – Thru-hiker for Comfort Theory New Zealand