Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

March 31

March 31st, 2016

March 31

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Parting. I had not seen Charlie since just after his graduation last spring from Haverford College, so exploring Dar Es Salaam these past days was pure pleasure, but that does little to dampen the inevitable sadness a parent feels when a son or daughter heads off on their own again. I’ve spent most of the past eight months walking alone (and blogged about solitude), so it’s a familiar mode. Still, it was good to have someone along, to offload some of the cognitive load that travel entails, and of course to remember odd moments from the past 23 years. Tomorrow I head off to Kilimanjaro. The day before a transition is always full of little details– changing money, arranging transport, packing up, but today has an overlay, a tone, one of absence.

T. Hugh Crawford

March 30

March 31st, 2016

March 30

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Morning Rain–unlike any rain I’ve seen. Huge drops close together, almost more water than air. Then sunshine. The day veered from authenticity to cheese and then back. The main excursion was to the woodcarvers market, a skill Charlie has been developing this past year, though what we saw was more than intimidating. The market is a row of stalls roofed with corrugated steel along a highway. Each sells paintings and carvings (mostly African animals in ebony). We got a tour though, so went to the back where the carvers were working–an entire community with their own kitchen and even a soccer pitch. There they worked the wood– primarily ebony–with bow-lathes and hand made chisels. Most were formed from a piece of sharpened rebar. The lathe turners sat on the ground next to the frame and bow, holding the gouge in place with their feet. There were trunks of ebony six or more feet long, a foot in diameter completely carved through with figures in the round, sanded and finished with oil–took years of labor. They rough-shaped with hand adzes, carved with chisels, and wet-sanded everything to a high gloss. No power tools, really nothing more complicated than a hand drill. I watched as someone was beginning a log project. He didn’t sketch figures onto the surface but instead used the whorls of the grain and the knots to determine the pattern. Fascinating. Before going to the market, we had coffee at a nice hotel which was having a traditional feast with music and dance that night. We put on our tourist hats, and headed over first for beer by the pool watching a European friendly soccer match (UK/NL), then up for traditional Tanzanian food, some not so traditional music, and dancers. Of course the hostess made me dance (or shuffle which is more descriptive). There were moments where the cheese factor was a little high, but we all did have a great time and the food was good and the dancers amazing. Sometimes you just have to embrace your inner tourist.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 29

March 30th, 2016

March 29

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Everyone recommends a day on Bongoyo island, so after sleeping too late, a fast taxi ride, and a jog down the pier, we caught the boat just in time. The transfer boat was long, low-slung made of wood with a small outboard. All seats were full so we had about four-inches of gunwale showing, and the water was not that smooth. Was happy to get to the old-fashioned wooden tub that chugged us out to the island which sits in the Indian Ocean just east of Dar Es Salaam and south of Zanzibar. It appears to be originally volcanic, with lava flows into the water but lots of clear sand, clean water, and coral. According to an Italian man I met on the boat, much of the coral is now gone as they used to fish with dynamite. Set out on the spit of sand where we landed were round bamboo and thatch roofs with wooden lounge chairs. Tucked into the edge of the woods was a bamboo and thatch bar/restaurant with fishermen who took lunch orders and then went out to catch what was requested. It was a decadent day– swimming, eating, drinking, and dozing in the shade. That night we returned to the same sidewalk charcoal restaurant where we had that warm welcome you sometimes get when you return to a place. Had another delicious grilled meal, watching the naan chef flatten out the dough and then with some dexterity flip it onto the inside wall of a metal drum which had a charcoal fire in the bottom. The naan sticks to the side and bakes rapidly, coming out all blistered and brown to then get slathered in butter. While we were eating, street venders parade by, selling pirated DVDs of the most recent movies, belts, baskets, shoes. You could get a whole new wardrobe and your night’s entertainment just waiting for kebabs. One way they signal their approach is to jingle loudly a stack of coins– you can hear them coming all the way down the street. Once again, the sun took its toll and we slept early.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 28

March 30th, 2016

March 28

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Exploring Dar Es Salaam, walking of course. Out of city center on a quiet holiday morning. Easter extends to Monday here, though not sure what the dominant religion is– passed a cathedral and a large mosque, no gompas though. We walked out past the fish market, a large concrete structure on the water surrounded by open space. Both within and without there were low wooden tables where the fish were dumped out, either for display to be sold or to be cleaned by the many people sitting around them. The scales fly, making silvery showers as they scrap with incredible speed. A man was dismembering a large skate with a knife that looked like a machete. The ground all around was covered with fish offal which they pushed back into the water where large wooden fishing boats were moored, offloading their catch. We then walked out along Barack Obama Drive, pausing for a moment to try to get a picture of the sign only to be rushed away by a machinegun toting soldier guarding a military entrance: No Pictures! We walked a couple of hours out of the city, through neighborhoods with charcoal restaurants– grills and shiny scrubbed woks out front in the heat. We stopped first at a cove with fishing boats where there was an expat patio bar where we ate and watched the boats come in and out– some power boats but mostly low wooden ones with lanteen rigged sails. A man waded out in front of us tossing a fishing line and rapidly pulling it in. At first I thought he wasn’t catching anything until I saw he carried a bag on his shoulder and was catching small sardine-like fish with each cast. We then made our way over to Coco beach, a long strip of good sand completely full of holiday swimmers. Music played, people laughed and splashed, the perfect late afternoon spot. We caught a three wheeled taxi back to centre city for a grilled street food dinner, and then some sun-induced exhausted sleep.

March 26-27

March 30th, 2016

March 26-7

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Wandered Kathmandu one last morning, streets familiar and unfamiliar, then took taxi to airport for entirely too many hours of dubiously comfortable travel. Let’s just say connecting through New Delhi is more than any human should ever have to endure, even if paradise is promised at the other end. Flying out along the wall that is the Himalayas– clouds indistinguishable from glaciers– was a hard farewell. Many long and frustrating hours later I landed first in Addis Ababa finally relaxed– a new continent and new attitude. Ethiopians with genuine welcoming smiles and some good food before the last hop to Dar Es Salaam where Charlie waited with transportation to the Safari Inn– making it all worthwhile. We took a few hours to wander around near our hostel, overlooking the restaurants we expected to find. In the afternoon, the steel grates are down and all the sidewalk chairs and grills are stored, so what looks like an empty side street becomes, in the evening, a string of restaurants packed with laughing customers and full of the smell of grilling food. Delightful.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 24-5

March 25th, 2016

March 24-5

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Winding down my time in Nepal, visiting old haunts: Sam’s bar, Himalayan Java, New Orleans Cafe and just a lot of wandering. Had dinner with Brian Suskiewicz and some people working on programs associated with Coaches Across Continents–insightful conversation. Needed to refresh my gear–replace my worn-out trekking pants, new gloves and warm hat for Kilimanjaro. Will need a strict inventory to get my pack back down to proper trekking weight. Just a time of odds and ends. No walking/no thinking.

March 22

March 25th, 2016

March 22

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Happy Holi! A festival where everyone ends up covered in bright colored paint/powder, in part to assure good weather as I understand it. It’s equinox so it must be a fertility ritual of sorts (actually there is a whole complicated story about Hindu gods). Had to buy a cheap t-shirt just in case I got dusted. Without doubt, the most heavily covered revelers seem to be young children and tourists. They set up a stage outside my hotel in Pokhara and the band played covers– everything from Daft Punk to Rage Against the Machine. Of course all my hiking buddies showed up in their technicolor selves. A day full of smiles–a characteristic of the Nepalis.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 21

March 22nd, 2016

March 21

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Reading Emerson in Pokhara–a challenge. First there is the voice, an insistently American presence in a place where no one hears a Yankee accent, a southern drawl, or even the flatness of the Midwest. Here unamerican is not a question of patriotism, it is simply a state of being, a place where american is a state of surprise. Not to say the city is parochial, rather the voices and accents proliferate, drowning a reedy thin American English in a flood of sounds heretofore unimagined. Here fish tail sounds like crystal, Atlanta is terra incognito, and stores that specialize in particular items are called “points,” as in Sandwich Point or, (as I saw today) Sausage Point–an image I cannot erase. Just past the Sausage Point was the Social Meat Shop which today featured ostrich. Not sure how I am supposed to like that on Social Meatia (sorry, couldn’t resist). Tomorrow is the Holi festival, then back to Kathmandu. Pokhara is a special place, though maybe not Mr. Emerson’s neighborhood.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Water

March 20th, 2016

Water

Mountains weep. No sadness there, though they do have moods. Water seeps from cracks in rocks, down from thin streams, or gurgles beneath mats of moss. Paths are suddenly slick, the smell of the air changes as does the temperature. You become aware of something that had been absent–or maybe it was following you all along, just beneath the surface.

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The skies were uncertain at Glenrock Stream. The wind picked up and rain spotted the stones, but there was also blue sky. Morning showers on New Zealand’s South Island often dissipate quickly. The first part of the path was up through pastures. The hills were treeless and covered with brown grass. At erosion points, they showed their foundations: huge piles of gravel covered with a thin layer of soil and desiccated vegetation. Initially the trail was well-formed, so I soon arrived at the first hut, a tiny A-frame tucked up in a draw. By then, the rain had intensified, and I should have gotten out heavy weather gear, but after a brief stop, I pushed on fast for the next hut–Comyns–which was only 6 km away. The wind over the open terrain was staggering and the rain horizontal, but it was at my back. I was already drenched, so I continued, covering the distance in a little over an hour, arriving wet, cold, and slightly hypothermic. Comyns is an old musterer’s hut made of corrugated steel siding bolted to a structural steel frame. It rocks and creaks in the wind. Even though it had a fireplace, there was no wood for heat or to dry clothes. Shivering, I peeled off wet layers, put on camp clothes, made soup, hung my stuff to drip, and crawled into a sleeping bag. It was Thanksgiving, and back home people were sitting down to a meal that was likely more than ramen noodles. Next morning I woke early, put on my still-wet clothes and followed the trail as it led out over the hill behind the hut. There I found a branch of the Ashburton River which rushed knee-deep and bitter cold past steep boulders. At least today the sun was shining except in the deep shadows, but the trail forded the river all morning (a fellow thru-hiker later told me he had to wade it twenty-three times). My toes were soon numb–it felt as if I had boards strapped to my feet. Mid-morning, the trail turned off to climb up Round Hill Creek which thankfully was narrow and easier to ford. Late that morning, I stopped and sat on a rock, turned to feel the warm sun on my face, and filled my water bottle. Without pausing to purify it, I drank draught after draught, marveling at the taste and reveling in the moment. Water is sublime–awful and awe-inspiring.

Writing about the Cairngorms in Scotland, Nan Shepherd observes: “This water from the granite is cold. To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch.” Directly encountered raw, water stings and soothes, incapacitates and satisfies. It is multiple. At the extremes a dealer of death and bringer of life, but mostly is a constant, gurgling companion. Plutarch says of the first philosopher, “Thales the Milesian doth affirm that water is the principle whence all things in the universe spring.” For Thales, water is prime matter, but for us it is also the source of the abstract philosophical ideals of purity and clarity. Water is the basis for physics and metaphysics.

Today we live different contradictions. Water is an image of purity and a source of fear, the vehicle of hidden contamination. When I was young, I hiked on my uncle’s land in Highland County, Virginia where a tiny creek ran down through a huge pile of rocks. My uncle, a physician, assured me the rocks filtered it, rendering it safe to drink. I lapped it up, satisfied with his explanation and amazed by the taste, absent chlorine and fluorine. I also remember by brother, on getting his driver’s license, taking jugs over into the Fort Valley to get Miss Lucy her spring water which, I am fairly certain, was meant for her evening bourbon and branch. Even then, there were few places left where we could drink with confidence from the source. Now, frightened as we all are by all the outdoor organizations selling SteriPens and iodine tablets, fearful of giardia, lead, and the thousands of other toxins we have poured into the water table (what exactly is “fracking fluid”?), water is treated with suspicion. The crisis in Flint, Michigan (which we all know will be followed by dozens of other political/infrastructure failures), combined with the real and imagined dangers of drinking the water in any country unless served in a sealed plastic bottle, makes it a substance that is anything but an image of purity. It was with a certain cavalier freedom that I indulged the streams of New Zealand, and of course it was risky. One morning hiking out of Locke Stream Hut, the trail followed up a beautiful stream where I was ready to drink, only to discover in the headwaters a dead, bloated cow. Water is the universal solvent, but what washes away the residue our modern contamination leaves?

Ever the natural historian, Thoreau subjects Walden’s waters to rigorous analysis of clarity and color, claiming his pond first in the Concord Lake District regarding clarity and taste. He writes at length on the color of water, noting it is imparted by surrounding materials– trees, sand, sky. For Thoreau, Walden Pond has the perfect palette–blue sky, white sand, green trees–which reveals the depths of those colors, and at the same time, the depths of the pond itself (which he constantly surveys). But minerals do impart color, and blue-green or, as the name clearly indicates, aquamarine, is a marker of clarity and purity. I had the chance to walk the Travers River in New Zealand from its mouth at Lake Rotoiti to its headwaters in the Travers Saddle. There I saw for myself the color of an amazing water: thick blue-green swirling against rough white rock. Resulting from dissolved minerals, glacier melt, reflection from the sky, vegetation above the surface–no matter–it was the color of magic, and maybe even truth.

To know such water is both to see through it and at the same time, to see its surface, another doubleness that confounds understanding. That day on the Travers, the surface reflected and sparkled while the depths, on examination, revealed large brown trout, swimming static in the current. Thoreau, ever the master of seeing through and looking at offers a natural history of that surface: “It is a soothing employment, on one of those fine days in the fall when all the warmth of the sun is fully appreciated, to sit on a stump on such a height as this, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling circles which are incessantly inscribed on its otherwise invisible surface amid the reflected skies and trees.” Along with being the only widely distributed substance which expands when frozen (making it the most potent of materials when it comes to shaping the world in which we live), water’s surface tension and adhesive properties enact equally important transformations, including helping it defy gravity through capillary action as well as seep into and through the most unlikely of places. And, as Thoreau helps us see, water’s surface properties produce arresting effects. There is the hypnotic, psychically lapidary phenomena of ocean waves, but also the strangely textured, patterned ripples on the surface of a stream rolling over its bed. The uneven rocks, through the mediation of the water, produce a ridged geometry that is regular, complex, and utterly compelling.

In a poem from The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin also helps us recognize what water reveals, how it provokes human contemplation, and gives access to a wider understanding:

If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.

Going to church

Would entail a fording

To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,

A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.

His water is not symbolic, metaphoric, or really even spiritual. Instead it is insistently physical. It souses and drenches furiously. It is matter, perhaps even Thales’s prime matter.

Along with Larkin, Nan Shepherd writes with insight and understanding about the materiality of water: “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Water is pliant, it has heft, and ultimately, power. In New Zealand, rivers braid over wide gravel valleys. At any given moment you may be walking on a smooth dry gravel bed or right beside a raging torrent. Absent swinging bridges, trekkers must cross rivers that demand care, something that increases in urgency as the braids get deeper and wider. I remember crossing the Otira near the Arthur’s Pass with some fellow hikers where we locked arms through pack straps and marched across together. The man on the downstream end who was both tall and strong floated up from the riverbed and was only kept anchored by his grip and the feet of those of us who were upstream. I did not have the same luck some days later trying to cross the Ahuriri. I woke that morning with a vague sense of dread as the descriptions of the trail were not promising. My direction was up the saddle, down a river with no real trail to follow and markers that were few and far between. Topping that off, there was a ford at the end of the day. Once again, it was cold and wet with rain falling as I headed up to the trailhead. The hike initially was uneventful, the mist cleared, and the trail soon turned up toward the pass, following a rollicking stream through an old beech forest. Just before it broke out of the woods above bushline, I stopped at a big rock, got out my stove and made oatmeal and coffee. Then I just sat, listening to the chorus of voices the water made. No monotony there, the sounds were polyphonic and complex. I could pick out a roar and a tumble, gurgles and drips–all playing in a water wall-of-sound. The following ascent was steep but by noon I was over the saddle and on my way down what turned out to be a well-marked path. Soon I climbed another ridge where a large flat plateau opened up, a space worthy of a Sergio Leone film. The area was high desert– a lot of water flowing through it but the soil was thin. In the bogs were masses of moss and springy grass and the edges of the streams had bushes and spear grass, but on on the plain, the vegetation was crispy and thin except the dandelions which were blooming by the millions. They were different from the ones back home. Leaves were small and thick with no lobes. Instead, they spread out touching the ground avoiding the drying wind to get maximum sun and hoard moisture, waiting for the beginning of December to thrust up a single bloom on a two inch stalk. That day was all yellow.

Later in the afternoon, the valley flattened, then opened to the river. My plan was to ford and camp just on the other side, but I arrived to find a high, fast-running current. To the west I could see a range of snow capped mountains melting fast in the day’s hot sun. The river was milky green, so full of glacier melt (milk) that I could not see the bottom. Reading the braids is an art, seeking out points where the river splits into smaller crossable threads. I surveyed the scene and made several tentative forays, trying to get a good foothold and then cross, but each time I’d get about 1/4 of the way across and the bottom would drop out. The icy water refreshed after a hot walk across the plain, and the density of the water was palpable–so green but so opaque as to make it impossible to see my feet, let alone the bottom I needed to find. It became obvious I would have to walk along the river instead of across. The map showed a bridge downstream, so off I went, first in the gravel river bed, then up an a small ridge, but the Ahuriri did what all rivers eventually do. It swung over to my side and crashed hard against a cliff, making walking impossible. About 100 meters nearly straight up was a flat plateau covered in pine which I had no choice but to climb, then weaving in and out of trees, sticker bushes, pasture, barbed wire fences, fording a dozen streams, I finally got to the bridge, having hiked over 12 hours. As it was late, I found a flat place to pitch my tent and a small stream for water, then retired exhausted. Some days, the power of the water exceeds all determination.

Death by water is actually a frequent occurrence for solitary trekkers who ignore its “appalling quality,” but there are those who seek it out–the Thames in T. S. Eliot’s imagination or the Ouse in Virginia Woolf’s actual death. Still, we have turned water into a different medium for death. Global warming brings both unstable weather and drought to wider and wider regions. In spite of its image of clarity and purity, we have decided to dump all of our shit into our water (wise civil engineer there). Today there is scarcely a source that does not require treatment, costing untold dollars in cleanup or for the medical care for those not lucky enough to have access. Or it simply hastens the death of those who have access to nothing but filth. Water wars are our destiny, and soon no one will understand that once water, in its natural, unpolluted state, had taste– a brilliant flavor– because the lucky few will only drink treated, purified, filtered piss rather than the stuff that once bubbled up from springs as if by magic. No, by magic. Nan Shepherd sought out water we no longer know, “that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins.” If we no longer have water, do we have origins? Norman MacLean, a writer of rivers, expressed our current situation in the closing line of his novella A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by waters.” His vision is the hauntology of a substance which, like all the previous doublings, is both absent and still present in its very degradation. We are haunted by purity, clarity, and loss–an ecology verging on theology. If there is a god, it is water.

T. Hugh Crawford
Pokhara, Nepal

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