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  • Tim Mathis

Adventures with Emilie: A Te Araroa Trail Book Review

I rarely write reviews here. When I do, it's because I've found a great book that I'm worried you might miss.

Adventures with Emilie: The best book about Te Araroa Trail
The best book about Te Araroa

First things first, the world needs a great Te Araroa Trail book.

I read a lot of books about long walks, and all of the great trails have inspired real gems. The Camino is a source of at least one proper classic - The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho - and the less known, but still great Walking to the End of the World by Beth Jusino. The Pacific Crest Trail produced Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Thirst by Heather Anderson, and Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn. All three are brilliant. If you want to read about the Appalachian Trail, Bill Bryson tells his story hilariously in A Walk in the Woods, and Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery immerses you in the trail’s early history and one of its best stories. Even fake long walks have their recent highlights. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce introduces classic pilgrimage concepts through a heartwarming story about an old man’s impulsive journey across Britain. (Also, honorable mention to Brian Livingston’s charming book about the fictional Great Eastern Trail - The Habits of Squirrels.)

Te Araroa is a relatively newly established route, running the length of New Zealand from North to South. It's been waiting for a few decades for someone to write a great book about it.

Adventures with Emilie is it.

Capturing Te Araroa

The phrase "Te Araroa Trail" sounds a bit clunky to the English speaking ear, but it is in fact the correct phrasing. "Te" is a Maori term meaning "the," and "Araroa" roughly translates to "long path." Don't call it the Te Araroa, that's redundant.

The origins of the route trace back to the '70s, but it opened publicly as an actual, functional trail that you could complete in 2011. Mainly owing to the explosion in thru hiking culture in the US and Europe, but also due to the allure of New Zealand, it has developed an international reputation much earlier in its life than the North American long trails. It's a unique, appealing experience - a long walk across small islands through big mountains at the end of the earth.

It's also really challenging. We've done about 400 km of the trail ourselves, and it's properly rugged. It's 3000 km long in total, and a lot of the time you move at 1 - 2 km/hour. It's a lot of steep ascents, rough terrain, brutal weather, and difficult river crossings. For comparison with the American long trails, it has more difficult terrain than the PCT, more logistical complexity than the AT, and weather patterns just as difficult to manage as the CDT. It’s a trail with unique challenges, which genuinely isn’t like any other long walk in the world.

It deserves to have its essence captured on paper.

Te Araroa in the Tararua Range
Te Araroa in the Tararua Range

What is Adventures with Emilie?

The dramatic set up for Adventures with Emilie is that Victoria Bruce is a single mom in her mid 30s, who's burnt out at work and haunted by the ghost of a traumatic childhood. Despite outward success, her life feels suffocating. The only moments of respite she finds are weekends spent with her 7 year old daughter Emilie tramping in the hills around Christchurch. Eventually, when she realizes that she isn't managing at work (and doesn't actually want to), she decides to quit her job, pack her bags and hike Te Araroa with Emilie. The book is the story of their experience together.

The task for any good thru hiking book is to capture both the trail itself and the human drama that accompanies it.

New Zealand is famously beautiful, and it's a real challenge to do it justice. Victoria Bruce’s writing captures the landscape without feeling overdone. She immerses you in the geography, flora and fauna, but doesn’t get hung up on details to the point of distraction. New Zealand’s mountains are both some of the most dramatic in the world and the most treacherous, and she captures both elements. She describes beautiful evenings spent tucked between peaks flocked by native birds, alongside a harrowing series of experiences - including a gut wrenching moment where Emilie nearly tumbles to her death in a river gorge.

Despite these sorts of moments of transcendence and terror, the basic features of a thru hike can read as entirely boring. You just walk, eat and sleep for months, until you get the finish.

And it's true, a lot of the time, a thru hike feels like: “Day 168: I have to walk all f%$ing day again.”

A good writer though captures the internal process. When you walk all f%(^ing day for 168 days straight, it becomes a theater for some of life’s most complex internal dramas to play out. A long walk becomes a pilgrimage, whether you like it or not.

Bruce captures that very well.

Without spoiling too much, the author is the product of a severely traumatic childhood, and the natural world was one place where she experienced a sense of joy and home during her complicated upbringing. She’s clear that this hike is a significant bit of therapy for herself during a similarly complicated period of adult life. She brings the reader along on that journey through a series of flashbacks. It's heavy at times, but beautifully written and genuinely informative - an introduction to the embodied experience of post traumatic stress.

At the same time, it's not a solo trip, and she’s walking with her 7 year old daughter. This is clearly part of Bruce's attempt to provide Emilie with an upbringing that's healthier and more connected than her own. Her ongoing struggle is managing the emotional impacts of PTSD and abuse herself while trying to provide her daughter with support and a genuinely extreme adventure. It's clearly a struggle that transcends the hike itself. There’s a lot of raw emotion, and a lot of tension between what she’s feeling and what she allows her daughter to see.

For her part, Emilie comes off as a social, bubbly kid who mostly enjoys the process of six months of rugged thru hiking. You get the impression that she’s a child who’ll grow up with a sense of possibility much bigger than most. There’s a powerful picture of a parent doing the best they can here. Bruce uses the term several times to describe Emilie, Wahine Toa - warrior woman. She clearly gets that from her mom.

When you put all of its elements together, you get a consistently interesting book. Bruce captures the external and internal journey of this particular thru hike very well, and tells a remarkable story in a straightforward way. It's a book about a trip with a kid that clearly isn’t a book for kids. It's beautiful nature writing alongside nuanced self-psychoanalysis. It’s a consistently good read.

Where does Adventures with Emilie sit in the thru hiking canon?

To this point, in my opinion, Adventures with Emilie is the best book on Te Araroa, and it's worthy of a spot in the thru hiking canon. It'll have more appeal within the thru hiking community than Wild or A Walk in the Woods, but it describes the internal journey more effectively than Thru Hiking Will Break Your Heart. It combines many of the best elements of thru hiking literature and at times feels similar to Thirst. The book it most reminded me of, actually, is Carrot Quinn's The Sunset Route. That isn't a thru hiking book at all but is a story about processing life with a schizophrenic mother on a series of rail hopping journeys in the western US.

In any case, Adventures with Emilie was published by Penguin New Zealand. My hope is that they’ll give it some focused promotion in the States. For the time being though, you can buy it anywhere through Amazon.

It’s a great book. I think you’ll like it. I didn't want you to miss it.

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