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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Tasmania Day 17

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 17 (Jan 31) Launceston to Cradle Mountain park

Ronny Creek to Windemere  Hut 18.5 Km

The group from the Arthouse Hostel nearly filled the Overland Transport van that took us first to a little town called Sterling for breakfast, then on to the visitor center for the incredibly popular park. We were all there to hike the Overland Track, generally considered Tasmania’s finest.  Unlike the beginning of Port Davey where I just hopped out of the van and started walking, the prep for this thing is intense. The overland driver is full of information and tips but also is clearly in the business of selling or renting a whole range of equipment he just happens to have in the van— and he moved a lot of merch. The visitor center is all business, with detailed briefing about how to comport yourself on the track. There was a lot of information, some perhaps exaggerated. The first hut—today’s target was not available so the option was to hike down a steep slope to a nice but fairly far off the path camp, or have a big opening day by pushing on to Windermere, technically the second day’s target. The other factor everyone was pushing was a major weather front on the way which was supposed to bring high winds, lots of rain and later cold. Getting caught a couple hours out on a plain could be a problem. I opted to hold the decision until I got to the crossroads.

Got on trail (actually boardwalk) at 11, and soon was heading up a steep incline that brought small waterfalls, large lakes and incredible views of Cradle Mountain and its assorted junior peaks. There was the usual press of dayhikers in the first 5 or 6 km, gradually their voices faded after passing the fork for the path to climb Cradle (given weather warnings it seemed prudent not to take a 4 hour detour on an exposed ridge). Then it got magical— the uplands are founded on hard stone with a wonderful heath burbling with little pools and streams, what the Scots call a burn.  I felt like I’d been transported to the Cairngorms—smack dab in the middle of a Nan Shepherd book.

The air was clear so I took lots of pictures, and as I found myself completely alone, I wandered a bit, looking at the plants. The wind picked up later and so did my pace. I had pretty well planned to stop at the substitute hut but just before I got there I passed two women who said many people had trouble with the steep path down. I then met a ranger and consulted. She said the path to Windermere was well maintained and I decided to make a run for it, getting to the hut just moments before the skies opened. Rather than tent, I ended up in a very crowded and noisy hut, but it was well out of the weather. Lots of interesting people including a Kiwi who hiked Nepal with buddhist monk and a wonderful Scottish couple (David and Vanessa) who have a small farm in the northernmost part. Will consult with them about springtime Scotland treks.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 16 Launceston

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 16 Launceston


Yesterday I boated the gorge, today I walked it. Up over the zig-zag trail, past a beautiful recreational park with a huge pool, across a 100+ year old swinging bridge and back down the other side of the gorge.  Not a difficult walk, but full of surprises. The basin is incredibly popular with cable trams carrying people across, several cafes, and lots of kids out enjoying a hot sunny day. I relaxed a bit on an overlook deck, trailed by peacocks who put up with all the young children screaming and chasing after them. Stopped for a heavy lunch, first red meat I’ve had since I left Atlanta— want to be well-fed for the beginning of the trek tomorrow.


T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 15 Launceston

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 15 Launceston

A day to organize and wander a bit. Woke up early but, while my German roommates slumbered on, I stayed in bed gorging on YouTube accounts of US politics (something I’ve been trying to avoid and happily so). Main tasks today were to take care of some emails, then find a good coffee shop. There were plenty but Sweetbrew was on the shady side of the street and turned out to be the right choice. Great staff—epitome of the openness everyone from Tasmania continues to show. A wall mural told the story of the discovery of coffee because of dancing goats. I’m a little embarrassed I never asked why the Atlanta local coffeehouse chain is called that— sometimes my own lack of curiosity confounds me. Launceston is apparently home to the oldest yacht club in the Southern Hemisphere and was once a major seaport until they stopped dredging the waterway. Not that many years ago, the ferry from Melbourne docked here instead of nearer the coast in Devonport. There is an inexpensive river tour lasting an hour and includes a run up the gorge, an amazing narrow rock fault the Esk runs through. It was low tide and we scraped a bit a mud but made it up. The Tamar banks are littered with old abandoned boats— dredges, ferries, freight boats, but they manage to look quaint rather than degraded. On one point were a series are large grain silos like the ones Charles Sheeler painted in the US.

With the abandonment of the port, they were transformed into an upscale hotel— pretty dramatic repurpose. Downstream we passed many dead willow trees, signaling salination in an area that should be fresh water. Got my food for the trek squared away, made a big pot of lentils for dinner, and wandered back downtown for a bit, spending most of the evening reading Bruce Chatwin. Tonight my roommate is a wonderful Croatian named  Marenko who currently lives in Sydney and is here looking a real estate with his son—a delightful man. It was a quiet but productive day.

T. Hugh Crawford

Learning to Walk Again

January 28th, 2020

Learning to Walk Again

A few years ago some French trekking friends asked me to write an essay for their blog. I gave them this: Why I Walk. There, my opening point was that the reason I do long-distance trekking is because I can. That is, I am acutely aware of the privilege reasonable health and socio-economic status confers. In the years since that essay, I have taught a number of seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, and every time my students teach me more about that privilege. But now I want to explore what is has been like for me to learn to walk again.

The syllabus for those seminars often opens with this line: “As most parents know well, walking is the first major step an infant takes in that whole complicated process of growing up, yet after those first tentative steps are transformed into a confident stride, people spend little time reflecting on just how walking functions (or does not function) in our culture:” I’m now interested in the part about tentative steps to confident stride, the remarkably complicated neuromuscular dance that many people simply take for granted. Long-distance hikers usually don’t fall into that category. Trekking demands a careful and detailed understanding of your body moving in the world—trekkers are necessary phenomenologists.

I remember some years ago talking to a man who was almost finished with the Appalachian Trail (2165 miles). His evaluation: “no one told me I’d spend five months staring at my feet.” Try to visualize the neural activity of walking at a brisk pace on an undulating path randomly covered with different sized rocks and protruding roots. Your eyes flicker from a space immediately before your feet to a spot about 6 – 10 feet ahead. You barely notice this constant flicker, nor your registration of the obstacles to avoid or the strategies for how to deal with them. Then consider the many small muscles in your hips, knees and feet, making the slightest variations in order to move evenly in that uneven world. The computation involved in those gestures far exceeds the computers and smart phones we consider so powerful. Walking on a homogenous surface—a sidewalk or building floor—can be smoothly accomplished by able walkers and imitated by machines. Trekking in the world of tangled roots and rock scree is more of a dance— a full bodied experience flickering between control and abandon, twist, duck, release, lunge, halt (briefly), then plow ahead, all without apparent thought. What a marvel!

Days of excessive mud, elevation change, blisters, hunger, or overall fatigue bring to mind just how complicated those seemingly autonomous gestures are to effect. Time also plays a fundamental role— the slow degradation of bodily function across a long hiking day, a long hiking season, or a lifetime of wear and tear. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers are given trail names. You cannot name yourself but instead are nominated by a trail colleague. Mine was “Tin Man” because a month before I started hiking I’d had surgery to clean up (that felicitous term debride) one of my knees. The surgeon recommended I return every two weeks for a shot, and since the first weeks of the AT are still fairly close to my hometown, Atlanta, I was, with the help of friends and family, able to get back from the trail for a lube job— hence my sobriquet. As the years and many other long distance trails passed, my bow legs stressed my knees and the arthritis increased. This time a tuneup and lube job were not possible, so I went in for total knee replacement— first one, then 4 months later the other (thanks #MicroPortOrtho #MicroPortMedEd #EmorySportsMed #EmoryOrthopedics #EmoryHealthCare). A year of rehab which for me meant miles of city walking, and I was ready to test the modifications.

Many teenagers spend time thinking about how they walk, defining a particular look in the process of forming what will be their adult identity. I think after those years, after most of us have internalized a stride, we pay little attention to the role that walking plays in a basic sense of personal identity. One effect of my knee replacement surgery was increased height. I’d claimed to be 6’1” though always was a shade under that metric. When my surgery straightened my legs I found I now topped 6’1” by that same measure, but with that came a new look, and a fraught sense of identity.  Once I was able to walk “normally,” I saw my reflection in the window of a distant building, and did not recognize myself. People tend to focus on faces—think Deleuze and Guattari’s “faciality” and today, facial recognition software—as the site of personal identity, once again forgetting the fundamental role walking can play. A moment’s reflection brings the awareness that we usually recognize people at a distance not by their faces but by their walk. What eludes is the self-awareness one’s own stride brings, its role forming a sense of being—being in the world.

My prosthetic stress-test involved jumping into the deep end, or in this case, getting dumped into the bush in nearly complete isolation with a 100 miles of muddy, boggy, often poorly marked trail ahead and only one point midway where I was sure to encounter other people—the Melaleuca airstrip in the World Heritage section of southwest Tasmania (an airstrip without a road). To get there you either fly or take a boat up a narrow creek, or do what I did—walk in from Scott’s Peak on the faintly traced seldom used Port Davey Track. That particular path is supposed to be a true Tassie hiking experience (boggy and disorienting) and was originally laid out in the 19th century as a way for sailors marooned in the Port Davey region to find their way to Hobart. I’ve many difficult treks in my past, but in a very real sense I was starting over. I’d learned to walk city streets, vaguely recognize myself as possessing the body I was walking in, but in Port Davey, I had to learn to trek all over again— something I’ve not yet accomplished.

Moving in a muddy, overgrown wilderness has to be a dance and not a trudge. Exhaustion brings a simplified stride guaranteed to inflict pain and produce mistakes. Even plowing straight through ankle-deep mud demands finesse, a constant data stream and response to the slightest variation in surface or intrusion of vegetation. I found my strength was generally good, but because of my leg straightening, my balance was off. The major muscles were there, but the small ones in my joints did not respond to terrain variation on the way I used  to, so I fell more often, usually from simple surface variation. We think of higher-level cerebration usually in terms of symbolic systems— math, poetry, philosophy— because we have forgotten the effort demanded by that first great neurological hurdle: learning to walk. Those hundred miles required not just simple muscular stamina; they demanded a neurological engagement every bit a intense and complex as writing a sonnet sequence or the Mathematica Principia (or Milles Plateaux).

 

I took a rest day at Melaleuca, then followed the South Coast Track back in the direction of Hobart. There were people on this part and unlike Port Davey, I didn’t loose the path. The obstacles ahead were more clearly presented. Still, on the day we (I ended up in the last days hiking with 4 people who had been out as long as I) staggered out to Cockle Creek and transport back to the city, there was a collective groan of exhaustion, pleasure, and relief. Clearly I’ve not yet learned to walk again. Perhaps age and general wear and tear will keep such a skillful practice just beyond my ken, but the lesson of the Tasmanian bush is clear. Personal identity is directly tied to a sense of self framed by past activities and an ability to perform through a body in a place. Any number of factors can undermine, disrupt, or devastate that embodied self-identity. My going off after knee replacement to find my old self through long-distance trekking was quixotic at best. We never stop walking/thinking/being in an unfolding new self. It’s when disturbances manifest that we become aware of those processes (c.f., Martin Heidegger’s “broken tool”). William Carlos Williams, in the poem Paterson, presses directly the question of knowing with and through a body in motion:

We know nothing and can know nothing

                                                       but

the dance, to dance to a measure

contrapuntally,

                                  Satyrically, the tragic foot.

 

He’s referring to the Greek satyr plays, but could just as easily be calling out the tragic foot as the lame one, the one that both enables and disables the dance or in its new variations creates a new one. We never stop learning to walk.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 14 Hobart to Launceston

January 28th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 14 Hobart to Launceston

 

I really didn’t want to leave Hobart— I’d grown attached so I visited my favorite places (including a long time at the Retro Cafe) before catching the bus to Launceston, a town that might be more difficult to like. I’m staying in the Arthouse Hostel— a magnificent but somewhat decrepit hulk of a building next to a scrap yard and an auto repair shop. It has an interesting feel and is clearly occupied by folks out adventuring. Wandered into the town to find my spots, but initially no real connection. In the old part of town are some wandering blocks— sort of deserted in the evening, but the small bars are open. Had a nice pint at the Red Brick Road Cider House— good place

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 13 Hobart

January 27th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 13 Hobart

A day to organize— booked hostel in Launceston, bus travel there and transport to trail head on the 31st, my Overland Track start date. Then took a boat up the Derwent to the Museum of New Art (MONA), a magical, bizarre and disorienting experience. On the ride up I saw Jo and Pippa, two friends from the South Coast Track. We got separated by a day when I hiked on in bad weather, so I’d despaired I wouldn’t see them, but we got to wander much of the museum together— it is a maze so eventually we got separated, just like on the trail.


MONA was built by a Hobart native who apparently dropped out of school and made a fortune playing cards. The complex is on an island with long stairs winding up to the cliff top and a series of stone and steel building, all generally one story. There is a chapel and a vineyard along with a playground, but when you enter the mirrored sliding glass doors (the first of many mirrored surfaces) you soon find yourself in a warren of round bore holes cut deep into the sandstone. A cylindrical glass elevator takes you to the depths, and you then wander about amongst high tech installations, colossal light environments, following a logic all its own (a Bond villain would feel right at home). They have an in-house brewery and vineyard, with restaurants suddenly appearing at the end of a tunnel, only to be lost in later wanderings. I ended up tracing most of the paths, just missed a few exhibits with long queues.

It’s a national holiday so there were crowds. A midday pint of Moo Brew (yep, that’s their beer) coupled with the disorienting tunnels did me in, so I hopped the ferry back to Hobart, ran a few errands, and filed my taxes (which consumed much of the late afternoon). Then I strolled down to to waterfront to meet Jo and Pippa. Those two are exactly why trekking is great. You meet such good-hearted people who share both experience and attitude. It makes you feel as if you have known them forever. A good day.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 12 Hobart

January 27th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 12 Hobart

Always familiar, a rest day involves slow catching up with messages, requests, etc. still trying to maintain that hard-fought distance from bureaucratic triviality. Wandered to the Retro Cafe for a flat white and to update (this) blog. It’s Australia Day, so the locals have a long weekend. Many are back where I was yesterday—Cockle Creek campground— with their tents, boats, generators, and beer. Here the sidewalks are a little busier than last time I was in town. The most exciting part was a march and demonstration in front of the government building. Australia Day brings yearly protests from the indigenous population and their supporters requesting the government to “change the date.” They see the moment of English arrival as Invasion Day, a time that implemented harsh policies, displacement, and genocide. The request is not to get rid of a National day of celebration, just to change the date so all the inhabitants can come together. The speeches were stirring, most digging deep into environmental history, linking colonialism to environmental despoliation. 


After the rally, I did a resupply run, getting a new sea-to-summit fast pack (to replace the one the Pademelons ruined—it was on its last legs anyway) some fuel and a new spork.  I doctored my feet then made my way to the harbor-side for an evening pint to work on an essay and watch some of the drunken celebrants. Still adjusting to the climate. In the bright sun, it gets very hot, but a breeze and shade brings on a chill. On my wander back I stopped at the Lark Distillery for a 1/2 nip of their product. A low ceilinged brick building with over-stuffed chairs and calm people (not the harbor celebrants) quietly sipping whiskey (which is a touch raw) with David Bowie playing in the background. I wonder if they use any of the West Coast tannin peat water.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 12 Rivulet Camp to Cockle Creek 10km (and on to Hobart).

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 12 Rivulet Camp to Cockle Creek 10km (and on to Hobart).

 

Every schoolchild in the English-speaking world at some point reads Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” A beautiful and generally easy to understand poem, perfect for angsty individuals struggling with meaning between the tattoo parlor and the second-hand shop. Having grown up on the sandy beaches of the US, these lines always intrigued me, not because they were difficult to imagine, but just that it was a sound I’d never really heard:

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling

I’ve been on shingle beaches before and probably have heard that “grating roar” but today is the first time I lingered to listen. The rush of these beaches, probably amplified by their sheer extremity—water and wind rushing to shore from Antarctica—and the size of the shingles (more football than pebble) makes for a resonance that is arresting. I lingered on those wobbly “shingles” to capture the roar. It’s not a constant, nor temporally rhythmic, but when the right cycles coincide, the armies of the night rumble.


Today was the end of a trek at the end of the world. It was not apocalyptic, instead reflective. The last kilometers were mediated by encounters with day hikers on their way to the beach or the birds on the way. The unusual smell of shampoo was in the air, and us proud bush hikers looked a bit shabby in comparison (one couple asked me if the crew in front of me was ok— they were, just suffering from serious exhaustion). Apart from the beach roar, the most arresting moment was an encounter with a large (at least 5 ft.) tiger snake. Im sure over the last days I’ve passed many, but this is the first that caught my eye and of course brought shivers as a bite requires fairly quick evacuation via helicopter.

As it was near the entry point, the last 7 km were designed for day hikers, so I took the opportunity to stroll, examining the trees, the plants, the bugs. Near the end I once again crossed paths with the hardcore crew who had booked with the same transport group I was booked for the next day (I got ahead on that long day from Surprise Bay). They invited me to join them and after some careful negotiations with a Kevin, the driver, I found myself heading back to Hobart a day early, scrounged a place in the hostel, did laundry, took long shower, grappled with a wall of email, and drifted next door for what I think was a well-deserved pint at Tom McHugos, the neighborhood joint, followed by a long deep sleep.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 11 Surprise Bay to Rivulet Camp

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 11 Surprise Bay to Rivulet camp


Surprise Bay is the right name for the start of this part. Thus far, the map times and distances have been spot on for me, so when the notes predicted up to 10 hours to cross a 9 km trek, I felt a little anxious, particularly since I would be starting about 2 hours short of Granite Beach, the calibrated starting point. You always have to take what the trail gives you, and today didn’t promise much—very little beach, no duck boards, an old fashioned slog just like the Port Davey Track. Since most of the campsites are near ocean level, usually just upstream from the beach, the first part of the day is often a steep climb, and today it did not let up until nearly noon— steep climb over root-buttresses slippery with recent rain, and paths with mud holes every 6 inches. It was a true Tassie experience. In keeping with that experience, I also picked up a leech (quite common in the swamps)—it bled all over my watch, not a pretty sight. I blew through Granite Beach campsite in an hour or so, seeing some familiar faces but continued to push hard, probably beyond my overall strength and ability, but sometimes you have to make the best of it.  At noon I crossed paths with a young man from Perth who swore it had only taken him 4 hours to get where we were, significantly quicker than my map’s estimate. Taking that as inspiration, I plowed forward and by 4 or so I found myself in camper’s paradise. A broad beach with a fast flowing river (a little touchy to cross and a little brackish to taste), a long dead tree on the sand offering bench and drying hooks, a bright sun and smart breeze. I arrived and the hardcores soon followed by Alex the German and two young dryads he accompanied (they soon disrobed for a nearly nude swim). We all rinsed, dried and absorbed the vital energy a clear sky and good sun provide. By evening Daniel arrived, so we were all well-positioned for the hike to the end point.

The only blemish on the day was the local fauna. Specifically several Pademelons scouting for food. They kept me awake by chewing the food they had stolen from the other trekkers during the night, and in the morning one chewed a small hole in my tent (those who know me know how much I love that tent) and my food bag (bad choice on my part). An unusual day as it was both disheartening and uplifting.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 10 Deadman’s Cove to Surprise Bay

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 10 Deadman’s Cove to Surprise Bay

This was a day of Tassie walking—rained all night, packed up in a drizzle, and set off fairly early (nearly every day I’ve started within 10 minutes of 7). The South Coast track follows the coast and often drops onto spectacular beaches —mesmerizing waves, broad sand, but usually cold and windy. Reminds me of the descriptions of the early seafaring explorers who approach but do not often land. The track dips down on the sand for a half kilometer or so of easy walking  (unless it is a stone granite beach, then it’s slow and laborious). But a stretch on the sand involves always a steep climb up and ramble through the ridge dividing the bays. There were some river crossings and as usual for this area, a whole lotta mud. At one point I was passed by a nice German hiker who slogged better than I. Immediately after I thought I had caught back up but it turned about to be an Aussie named Daniel with whom I camped with for the duration.

Fascinating man: 2 years ago he had never been on an overnight camping trip. In the space between he has learned to hike long distance and on this trip had followed mostly the track I did with one significant difference. Through Port Davey he carried a folding pack boat (I can’t imagine hiking Port Davey with that much weight). When he got to  Bathurst harbor, he assembled his boat and spent almost a week paddling about that area— brilliant. He then packed it out to Melaleuca and shipped it back to Hobart via Par Avion.

When I caught up with him, he was suffering from the sheer brutality of what he had done, but a positive, thoughtful man, he continued on to the end (we hiked out together). After a lot of mud and roots, we arrived at Surprise bay which was much further than my originally planned end-point (the weather was bad so instead of stopping at a beach I had pushed on). Ideally I should have gotten to Granite Beach to be able to make the next day (a strenuous one), but weather and exhaustion brought me to Surprise Bay and an early night. The hard-core crew rolled in a little later, set up camp and had dinner in the rain. For the rest of the trek we all shadowed each other.

T. Hugh Crawford