Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 13

March 3rd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 13
Puerto Natales—El Calafate

Today was uneventful except for a border crossing—actually two as leaving Chile required an exit queuing in a dusty gravel wide spot in a narrow dusty gravel road. Then a couple clicks further, entrance queue to Argentina. Such processes remind me of many border crossings, always with a bit of tension and the absurdity of how meaningful an arbitrary line is. I’ll be in Argentina for a while, and since nothing else of note occurred today, I’ll just list some quick observations about my time in Chile.

Puerto Natales has many accommodations on all levels of luxury— my nights at the We Are Patagonia Hostal were as good as anyone could expect—clean place with wonderful staff who bent over backwards to make things smooth, but I’m curious about a group of Bucky Ball tents around the corner. I remain intrigued how Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic design functions as canvas sleeping quarters.

Surfer and rock climbing videos: sadly many bars/restaurants have hung TV screens on their walls, but rather than streaming live sports or maybe the news, they alternate films of surfers and rock climbers (I’m waiting for the sociological study of race, class, and gender when it comes to rock climbing).

Music: in Santiago music by local artists filled the air, in the deep south moving from cafe to cafe the “Eye of the Tiger” follows me around, along with many 80s power ballads, but then they play Sinatra. I took great pleasure listening to old blue eyes in La Lenka, an amazing restaurant in Puerto Natales, but was jarred a bit by the Aerosmith followup. And I still can’t quite embrace reggae versions of Pink Floyd.

Receipts: Chile is a country awash in bits of paper with a personal touch. Every transaction brings a handwritten receipt, often on plain white note paper. At first it seemed odd and probably inefficient, but it structures the time of the transaction, slowing it down, and making it very personal.

Dogs: Also already talked about this, but I remain struck by how loose dogs are simply part of the fabric of the city, in the same way as trees, streets, and sidewalks. They sleep on the stoops, greet you when you pass, control the speed of traffic as it moves through the towns. Last night I sat in a cafe overlooking a park and watched two dogs fight. At first I was concerned that this would be bloody, but they seem to recognize and understand limits. I couldn’t help comparing the fight with the current American political scene (i had made the mistake of reading the news). The difference is the dogs did understand limits and actually showed dignity.

I saw a condor near Lago Sofia. I’ve always wanted to see one fly, but all I got was the image of a big-ass buzzard huddled on a ledge.

Speaking of strange animals, on leaving the park at Torres Del Paine, I saw herds of guanacos grazing in the draws just above the waterfront. Beautiful animals with generally white and light brown fur looking like wild llamas, which is pretty much what they are. With some trepidation I ordered guanaco last night as a specialty of the restaurant (which was Puerto Natales’s primary locavore establishment). Have to admit it was tasty though I felt strange eating them. It was odd being in a town founded as a meatpacking center in a culture that has long been defiantly carnivorous.

El Calafate is a tourist town, crowded with travel agents and outdoor equipment stores. Everyone who walks by is dressed to withstand a Siberian blizzard . I’m enjoying a Esquél IPA (local brew) while REM echoes in the the bar. I did make the mistake of turning to see their TV screens are tuned to golf (Nobody needs to do the race/class/gender study of that one, it’s self evident). Tomorrow I set off with all the other tourists to see the Perito Moreno glacier. Will get that blue ice thing figured out.

T. Hugh Crawford

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

February 11th, 2018

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

New Zealand: 2/8/18 Waikanae— Kapakapanui Hut, 2/9 Kapakapanui Hut—Renata Hut, 2/10 Renata Hut—Waikanae via Akatarawa saddle.

The other day I overheard someone (probably American) say “I’ll walk, maybe take a short hike, but I won’t go tramping!” An offhand comment by a tourist that’s soon forgotten but which, for some reason, has been stuck in my head ever since. Clearly tramping, the Kiwi term for backpacking in the bush, is not for everyone. It demands a certain level of fitness and high tolerance for minor discomfort, but the rewards, whew! Context: once again I find myself teaching in a Georgia Tech program at Victoria University, Wellington and have been in New Zealand since early January. Two years ago, I was in the same situation but had just finished hiking the Te Araroa Trail (The 3000 km New Zealand Long Trail here). Since then, I have torn my medial meniscus along with a small muscle in the back of that same knee. The orthopedist says the only repair is knee replacement, so before going into the shop for some mods, I decided to put as many miles on the original equipment as I can stand. Most of my time since arriving has been wandering the city and its environs, trying to strengthen both knees by walking at least ten miles daily. City walking without a fully loaded backpack is only minimally strenuous, so basically I’ve been a tourist. I went up to Taupo and did the Tongariro crossing, took the ferry across to wander Days Bay and Eastbourne, and in Wellington climbed Mt. Victoria only to find the path led out onto a car park with buses disgorging cameras strapped to dazed people.

This is all just to say that I have been walking, some hiking, but definitely not tramping. I can confirm is that Wellington is my favorite city. Te Papa is a world-class museum, you can get a flat white on any corner, Little Beer Quarter is as fine a pub as you will ever encounter, and the local brewers —particularly Garage Project—are beyond compare. The national tourist destinations—Queenstown, Wanaka, Taupo, Rotorua—offer high adventure and excitement, and one can, of course, tour the wine regions, sniffing and comparing, but, and the Kiwis clearly know this, all that is mere window dressing. It’s bucket-list tourism. Few countries offer the density, variety, and comprehensiveness of the Hut/campsite/trail system of New Zealand, and that’s the best reason for flying halfway around the world. Of course people know about the Great Walks, those curated, reservation-only treks, but they make up but a fraction of the countryside made accessible by national parks and continuous negotiation with private landholders. The tourist destinations are spectacular, but New Zealand is a land best understood through patient, step by step encounter with its many off-the-beaten-path paths.

In order to break out of tourist mode and also shakedown my trekking set-up, a tramp was in order. I had much of the same gear used on my round-the-world trekking year but I changed packs (my 28 liter Zpack was a little worn and I wanted the greater capacity offered by a new model ZPack Nero 38). In planning, I realized my last decent tramp was in August of 2016 on Iceland’s Laugavegur trail, far too long ago for mental well-being (here). The Tararuas loom large in my memory. They are a range where the trail absolutely determines the time. This is not to say that all trails don’t determine time, but to acknowlege that the Tararuas are deceptive, sometimes demanding a full hour to walk what on a map looks like an easy kilometer. My first time through, in 2015, I found myself marooned in a hut for two days as the rain and wind howled, then had to make up time on a trail that denied that very possibility. A return to these mountains was in part contrition for a stretch skipped that year when faced with the choice of continuing on from Otaki Forks over one more range followed by a long road walk into Waikanae or catching a ride with some very nice kiwis to Otaki to watch (in a pub at 4:00am) the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup (here). My penance this year was a long road walk out of Waikanae followed by an incredibly steep ascent to the Kapakapanui Hut, then, on the next days, an ascent of Mt. Kapakapanui and a trek to the Renata Range. The road walk on the first day was hot and dusty, broken only by a stop at the Pottery Farm Cafe where, over a cold Tui, I talked to Ed, an engaging gentleman from the Cook Islands who had just celebrated his 80th birthday (here). Much later in the evening, I arrived at an empty hut, soaked with sweat but clearly remembering why you must tramp when you visit New Zealand.

The first and most obvious reason is solitude. I have long preferred solo hiking (here) as you take on all responsibility for distance, pace, navigation and safety. All thought is bent toward the trek, and the triviality of daily life recedes. You are not overwhelmed by voices, the smell of soap and shampoo, or constantly adjusting to a different trekking tempo. Of course it is possible to experience solitude with hiking partners, but such companions are rare. The best rough-terrain partner is my son Bennett. Together we have hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, part of the Pacific Crest, and the Trans-Swiss (the last was not a difficult terrain trek—our camelbaks were replaced by wine bottles). I also had a remarkable hiking partner for much of the Camino de Santiago, but that is an entirely different sort of trek. This short tramp in the Tararuas brought a moment when I stood on a narrow ridge looking to my left at the headwaters of the Otaki river, and to the right at the beginning of the Waikanae, and just ahead, the confluence of the entire system that drains the Hutt Valley. Such moments are arresting and demand silent, solitary contemplation. Tramping brings solitude which is an absence—the loss of chatter—but also a presence: trekking hard and alone requires and enables a presencing-of-self generally denied in daily life. Of course, solitary tramping is not available to everyone—something my stiff and painful knee reminded me every step—but for those who can, it is a gift without parallel.

New Zealand outdoors is raw. It feels geologically brand new, something any visitor learns immediately. There are plenty of volcanos, regular earthquakes, and steep-sided mountains that seem ready to give way any moment. Such sights are awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), but tramping reminds us that the spectatorial is not a fully embodied experience. Seeing a landscape (the term itself is part of a culture of the spectacle) is by no means comparable to being in the landscape (Brutal Beauty) A simple example (one familiar to NZ trampers): after scrambling up a steep and usually muddy path where gnarled roots are not just aesthetically appealing but also serve as hand and footholds, you find yourself on a high ridge entering a beech forest. Foresters in Europe and North America marvel at mature beech forests because of the almost palpable yellow light that filters through the leaves (see Joan Maloof and Peter Wohlleben), but New Zealand beech produce a completely different effect. They cluster in forests on the mountain tops, bent and twisted by unremitting winds sweeping the islands. Their leaves are tiny, round, dark green, and seem to repel light rather than filter it, though when shed they make a forgiving soft brown path which is welcome after mud, rocks and roots. Their arresting features are masses of moss, ferns, and innumerable epiphytes festooning their trunks and branches. More magical than anything in a Peter Jackson film, entering such a forest is a full body experience. The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss. The forest shuts down all sound except your own blood. The moss absorbs and gives off all, so you stand, quite literally, speechless, listening intently for what is not there. That absence is only made present by tramping.

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Addendum: Not generally a superstitious person, I do have some faith in Trail Karma. In any trek you have to treat the path with humility, taking what it offers with a minimum of whine, and leaving all the places you stop the way you found them. It’s not something as simple as leave-no-trace, but instead is slipping into the rhythm of the place. Sometimes it’s difficult not to mutter under your breath at a trail designer who takes you up every slight rise in elevation or crosses a stream every 50 yards. A good bit of my recent tramp was on paths not particularly well-travelled, so they were covered with branches that trip gnarled knees, along with downed trees that must be clambered over, crawled under, or circumvented through the bush. And yes, the first 3 kilometers included 7 stream crossings. Nothing like starting a hike with soaked feet. The weather report warned for rain Saturday afternoon with gale force winds on Sunday. Having done my share of that sort of trekking, I opted to head out Saturday, avoiding re-climbing the Kapakapanui by following a mountain bike trail out to the Akatarawa Saddle. That meant my afternoon would be a long road walk back to Waikanae. About five minutes from the saddle, I passed a burned-out car on the trail with a bag of garbage smoldering by the front wheel. My arrival at the road coincided with the siren-screaming approach of a fire truck, van, and police car, all up on a call to inspect the burning car. I showed them a picture of the vehicle and directed them to the spot, so in return my trip to Waikanae was not a three hour trudge, but instead was 15 minutes in a fire truck with a crew of jovial Kiwis. Trail Karma— don’t mumble about the trail, take it on its own terms and make them yours.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking with Ghosts

May 28th, 2017

Walking with Ghosts
28 May, 1968–28 May, 2017

Henry David Thoreau wrote the first modern treatise on the philosophy of walking— On Walking —arguing that one of wandering’s primary values the possibility of genuine solitude, something he prized perhaps more than most. Walking is not only a way to be alone. In fact, it might teach us about the impossibility of solitude, or at least make us attentive to its complexity. In the “Solitude” chapter of Walden he notes, “However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you.”

Walking—real walking—means walking with ghosts. It is easy to celebrate the idea that after breaking out of quotidian space and industrial time you will somehow be one with the trail, but, as Thoreau makes clear, that singularity is multiple. Nietzsche, another great walking philosopher, has Zarathustra exclaim in frustration, “There is always one too many about me…Always once one–that maketh in the long run two.” The Nietzschean “two” is not a mind magically hovering over a lump of flesh, but instead is a plenitude generated by the walk—the path, the wander, and the wanderer. (Another lesson of Zarathustra and the trail is the poverty of the mind/body dualism.)

Nietzsche’s “two” is a prompt to follow out the vectors of the multiple, the play of the ghosts. Still suffering from a torn muscle in my knee, my walk today was short—not one that offered sufficient distance or time for genuine thinking—but it was haunted. On this day 49 years ago my mother died. I was only eleven at the time and recovering clear memories of her remains difficult. Still, she haunts my life, nudging me at surprising moments, occupying my thoughts even when I’m not thinking—which is perhaps the definition of haunting.

Without doubt wandering brings cues that call to presence something or someone long absent. As William Carlos Williams, in the middle of a section of a poem where he is taking a long walk, says:

Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
a sort of renewal
even
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
heretofore unrealized

I remember with great clarity standing beside my mother pushing a roller dipped in a muted orange masonry paint up the concrete walls of a bathroom in the basement of the Woodstock Presbyterian Church. I hear her on Wednesday night in that same building rehearsing with Ruth Rhodes, the organist, and Marion French, the other soloist, for Sunday’s service. But I also remember with more clarity than I want Leo Snarr, my father’s best friend, collecting me from the Woodstock Elementary School’s lunchroom just after I had bought an ice-cream bar (probably a Fudgesicle or a Refresho—6 ¢). I sat in the back of his car, he in the passenger seat, his wife Mary Sue drove. He turned, put his hand on my knee and told me my mother had died (she was only 44, an age I have long since passed). At that moment I was double—in shock, I held my ice-cream loosely until Leo took it, but I was also thinking about how should I respond. I lived what Thoreau describes—“part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator.”

I often recur to that moment. Obviously an intense experience, but also one of real insight into the multiplicity of being. Walking is an act of presencing. To be crossing a loose scree field above cliffs demands an intensity of presence often not experienced in daily life. Learning of the death of a parent is another form of intensity, but even there, Being is not concentrated into a single luminous point, but rather continues moving as part of “hordes heretofore unrealized.” We always walk with ghosts.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

June 28

July 1st, 2016

June 28

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Once again, I must take a break (see Hiatus) from long-distance trekking, this time to teach in the Georgia Tech Oxford program a course on the literature of walking. Instead of stopping WalkingHome completely, I will try to write up some thoughts on the material we are reading and, where possible, connect to any short walks I can squeeze in. Introducing others to the complexity of what seems a simple act of walking can be difficult, but I have found Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways does a fine job. Layering precise description with personal narrative and with cultural and literary history, MacFarlane prods his readers to think closely about what seems the mundane. Regarding literature, his gambit is simple but profound: one can understand literature (along with history and culture) by walking the landscapes that produced it. Edward Thomas’s poetry is known differently after walking the chalk downs and the Ichnield way, and of course, one comes to a different sense of self and indeed a different sense of “knowing” through such embodied experiences. This is an argument I have long been sympathetic to. I once taught a class on Thoreau’s Walden where we framed up his house using only the tools he could have used: axes, broad axes, adzes, mallets, chisels. The Walden we read (and the one I continue to read) is simply a different book because of that experience. Of course re-reading is always a transformation, but I now feel Thoreau’s words through the vibrations of an axe-blow up my arm.

T. Hugh Crawford

April 30

May 1st, 2016

April 30

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Leon to Hospital de Orbigo 32 km. Enjoyed my hotel room with a late start for an uneventful day. After making my way out of the city which had stark shadows from the bright morning sun, and then some suburbs, the path moved out into the fields, first on a muddy track but finally just a long straight road that looked very much like the road to nowhere Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard walk at the end of Modern Times. It was a Saturday and one small village had a table with fruit and juice set up for pilgrims. The orange juice here still amazes me. My new shoes kicked up a blister — first I’ve had in many months–but completely expected. An early lunch in Choses de Abajo and watched a German Shepherd follow a couple of pilgrims for at least 5 km. They disappeared and soon he was following me. Very sweet dog, but every step took him further from his home. Midday and I crossed paths with Gloria and we walked together the rest of the day, finding ourselves late afternoon at Albergue Verde, a very strange place with lots of guitar playing, pseudo-spiritualism, and assorted mumbo-jumbo. The place was very noisy and busy. They grow a lot of their food and served a great meal. The place was full of many of the pilgrims I’ve hiked with, but was, in a word, crowded.

T. Hugh Crawford

April 29

May 1st, 2016

April 29

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Puente de Villarente to Leon 12 km. A short morning stroll through the suburbs with good company brought me to Leon, home of an impressive Romanesque church and a gothic cathedral with some of the finest stained glass in all of Europe. After many nights of Albergue snoring and uneven sleep, I opted to spend a little extra money for a single room in a hostel– my own bed with sheets, a shower, and even a television (and no evening Albergue curfew). Saw many pilgrim friends–the three North Carolina hikers, Gloria, Sophia, Michelle, Elena, Rudy, Jens, but I missed saying goodbye to Noeleen who is abandoning because of nagging injuries. Replaced my shoes with some new Salomons, not sure they are the right ones, but at least they fit. Leon is an interesting town with a brew pub–first IPA in months–and lots of free tapas.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 17

March 18th, 2016

March 17  last day of Annapurna Circuit

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Finishing the Annapurna Circuit left me a little sad. On walking out onto the Simon Guest House deck that morning I knew that it was the last time I would be looking out on the massif I’ve been circling for almost three weeks. The peaks remain infinitely interesting as the changing light creates shadows revealing intricate formations that disappear as the sun moves on. Also there is no clear endpoint like Bluff or Kirk Yetholm, which is as it should be — a circuit has no end. Still, I found myself hiking down from Ghandruk to Kimche only to discover a long, dusty road down to the main highway to Pokhara. Not a way to spend the morning so I caught a wild ride bus from there– much more stimulating than dodging trucks and scooters in the dust and the diesel on the road down. On the walk to Kimche, the trail was completely flagged with stones and uneven steps, and I passed many people bringing up materials to Ghandruk and beyond. No porters carrying refrigerators on their backs, but plenty of people carrying bags of rice or sugar, lots of plastic drainpipe, and a pack train of eight mules carrying up sacks of something. At an early stop on the bus, a strikingly beautiful woman in traditional dress got on along with three huge bags of dried corn–easily 100 lbs. each. She and the bus helpers (conductors?), maneuvered them through the door and stacked them in the aisle, on the way to a market point about five km down the road. She seemed so slight but, like so many people living in a place where almost everything is carried by hand, she was strong and capable. Initially the road (not an accurate term) wound back and forth down narrow switchbacks with scarcely inches between the wheels and the edge which dropped off precipitously. It was like an amusement park ride, except here there are no regular inspections of the vehicle or the road. In this upper area tending to the flatland, there is an older architecture that is different from what I have been seeing. There are stone farmhouses, broad across the face with two stories. On either end are single-story rooms with sloping shed roofs, but the main house includes a bank of second-story windows with intricately carved casements and screens. The eaves have wooden brackets where they often hang ears of corn or basket materials to dry. Across the long face is a wide flat terrace where the farm produce is processed. After a long and winding ride down, the bus got to the highway at Naya Pol; then the driver opened it up, passing every vehicle he came near, blasting his horn, slamming his brakes, and swerving on and off the narrow middle band of pavement that made up the highway (the rest was gravel, potholes, and general rocky obstacles). This went on for quite some time until we arrived at the Pokhara bus stop, still quite a distance from the lake area where I had booked a hotel along with the rest of the tourists. Rather than a taxi, I opted to walk (guess I felt the need to make up for my short trek this morning) and spent an hour crossing the city past motorcycle repair shops, tailors, and open sewer/waterways. The Adam Hotel (booked via the web for good rate) is at the heart of the lakeside district near coffee shops, trekking stores, bars, and momo (dumpling) shops. A good place to unwind and organize the next adventure.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Day 67 South Island Odyssey Begins

November 8th, 2015

Nov 6 day 67 Wellington (via ferry) to Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge 13 km 4:30-7:00

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The South Island Odyssey Begins
Caught the 9:30 InterIslander ferry to Picton. Absolutely crystal day, I could feel everyone’s enthusiasm for some warmth and sunshine. Crowded boat, but I found a seat on the back atrium sundeck. Good views without the jostling of the already drinking crowd, and I got to talk with one of the librarians from the National Library, where I hope my students will do some research in January. Arrived at Picton just in time to get a quick bite to eat and catch the mail boat, which after stops in nearly every cove on the sound, dropped me at Ships Cove, the beginning of the Queen Chatlotte Track and Te Araroa on the South Island. Hectors dolphins sported beside the boat as we made our way over. This is a trip I have taken three or four other times, and the peacefulness of the coves and bays always amazes (of course they are also subject to severe weather, a characteristic of the entire country). The Queen Charlotte is an “easy tramping” trail, perfectly graded, so I made the crossing to Furneaux Lodge in quick time, and was happy to feel very strong hiking throughout. Ever since the Tararua’s I have felt tired and lethargic walking, almost weak, so it really felt good to be feeling good. Hoping to get a running start at the South Island, so it was a good sign. I have always wanted to stay at Furneaux. Eaten here on the way through a number of times, but haven’t spent night. I got a great bunk room looking out over the bay, really comfortable, wish I could linger longer. Planning a weekend trip in January which will definitely involve lingering.

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