Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

On Missing the Super Bowl

February 6th, 2020

On Missing the Super Bowl

One January day in 1967, my family gathered in Lacey and Margaret Boyer’s basement around a grainy black and white television with a rabbit ear antenna to watch the NFL/AFL Championship game, the first Super Bowl. The result was as expected. No team from the upstart AFL was going to beat Green Bay. I was 10 and found Lacey’s workshop immediately adjacent to the television more interesting. In those days, TVs were usually located in out of the way places. They certainly didn’t belong in living rooms. I remember a 4 foot wooden octagonal beam with metal screw tops nailed on the faces. Screwed into the tops were pint jars containing different size nails, screws, and bolts. When spun it seems to contain an entire hardware store fastener aisle. At halftime I went to the driveway to admire his Karmann Ghia, the closest thing to a European sports car to be found in our rural town. As for the game itself, the outcome will out, Lombardi and Stram coached with the passionate masculine intensity one expected from coaches of that era. There were no instant replays or Jumbotron, few camera angles. The game viewed on the screen was more or less the same static shot a viewer in the stands would have. Still, there was a sense in that basement room that something special was happening. Ever since—for 53 years— I have found my way to a television to watch the game. Every year until this one.

Two years after that opening game, the first celebrity football player, Joe Namath, wearing white football shoes, a long fur coat and Brut aftershave (maybe the Brut came a little later) guaranteed an AFL victory, something preposterous on the face of it. He and the Jets delivered, and the modern league was born. In the years since it has transformed from game to spectacle. At some point I realized watching yearly had become a personal tradition that had to be upheld regardless of inconvenience. The year the Panthers played the Patriots, I was in a French ski lodge, where in the middle of the night the desk clerk tuned the lobby television to the game. He and his English friend watched the first half, asked some questions about the rules, then bored, they drifted off. 

When I was young, it was never difficult to find that television. One of the linebackers of the dynastic Steelers teams of the 70s went to the local prep school coached by the man who lived across the street. All the kids in the neighborhood took up the Steelers —  Bradshaw, Harris, Swan and Stallworth, and of course the legendary Steel Curtain defense. They have remained my team. Following those years, the television spectacle exploded, and the day for many became more about the halftime show and commercials than the action of the field. Viewing parties involved complicated bets about events unrelated to the game itself, and the halftime shows became increasingly elaborate and finally preposterous. The year the Bears finished out their magic season (coached by Mike Ditka doing his very best throwback coach imitation), a friend invited me to his lake house. He had a satellite dish and we watched on the Armed Forces channel, so instead of commercials featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales, we were treated with PSAs warning about stealing government pencils. I longed for some of the spectacle that year. 

The quest for the game has sometimes been more difficult. My job often takes me to New Zealand in January, so I’ve had to get used to Super Bowl Monday—mid-morning to be precise. In the early 2000s I could usually find a nearly empty sports bar open for the game, but as the century has progressed, the crowds have grown, requiring early arrival for good seats. Spending a Monday morning drinking beer and watching a game is a peculiarly Kiwi thing to do. One year I wandered into a likely viewing place and sitting at one of the tables were some vaguely familiar faces. Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals were in Wellington for a concert, so a friend and I watched an amazing game with the band and some of the roadies. Their namesakes that day lost in the last minute to the Steelers. An exciting game for any football fan, for a Steelers diehard it was pure joy. 

When not watching every Super Bowl, I spend much of my time long-distance hiking. This year I find myself in Tasmania on game day. I wanted to tramp their “Overland Track,” generally regarded as the best seven day walk on the island. It requires a reservation for the start day, and the only one available put me in the middle of the bush at kickoff. A few years ago, I would have cancelled and found a sports bar in Hobart, but instead I decided to call an end to the streak. I was torn between a lifetime’s commitment and a game that is increasingly difficult to love. The game day activities verge on the ridiculous. In many ways the sport has passed me by. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still the Baltimore Colts, the Browns are not the Browns, the Ravens are and they should be back in Cleveland, Miami and Seattle are just expansion teams, the Rams have always played in LA, and whenever the Redskins play the Cowboys I still hope they both lose.  

Then there is our increasing awareness of the physical and mental toll the game takes on the professionals, as well as the legions of university, high school and little league players who look to the Super Bowl Sunday as a career goal. All of that was brought home one day in class when a student, an offensive lineman on the University’s team—a bright engaging person—looked at me and said he would have trouble participating for the next few weeks because his “brain was bruised.” 

I’ll probably track down a TV to watch the big game next year, but my streak is broken, a pause that has prompted me to think hard about the game I have invested so much in. Not the television extravaganza, but football as pure play. What I remember best is from those early years: a cold winter Sunday, gathering at the field next to the town’s tennis courts. Kids of different ages, sizes, and abilities pick teams. Running, passing, catching, tackling, we roll in the mud — laughing. 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 23

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 23 Lake St Clair to Launceston

Woke early and on stepping out of my bunkhouse room I encountered a wombat— he just stared at me for a bit, then shuffled off. On my last day in the bush I finally see the animal responsible for all that scat I’ve been dodging on the trail for three weeks. Later in the day I also saw an echidna. Used my camp time to get everything in order— did laundry, scrubbed up cooking gear, rinsed out tent, etc. Now officially off the trail for next two months or so then the next walking adventure begins.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 22

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 22 Narcissus Hut to Lake St Clair 17.5 km

Early up as a fellow trekker was banging about the hut cooking area. Pulled all my stuff together and took off before 7. It was a quant day— 17.5 km and wanted to arrive in time for lunch before (hoping to) catch the Overland a day early.  Early 5 km section OK, but the middle to later was perhaps the best rain forest of the trip—it moved from old growth eucalyptus—some massive trees— to young and then a dense to fern forest with a Jurassic Park look. Very lively space. One section about a dozen Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos squawking with the same sound as two trees rubbing together. They exhibited classic territorial behavior—calling loudly, swooping close, following and perching nearby calling loudly and aggressively until I passed some unknown boundary.


Later I bumped into my friends from York who were struggling a bit but in their last 10 km (saw them later safe at the visitor center.  I strode it all out making the best time of the trek, arriving at noon and got something to eat and a pint. I had hoped to get on bus a day early but no luck. As it turned out, staying was pleasant. I booked a bunk room which was similar to those at NOC or Furneau Lodge on the NZ Queen Charlotte. An afternoon with lots of beer and pizza on deck, talking to many of the of the people I had crossed earlier—very gratifying. Early to bed (one with a mattress though I needed my sleeping bag.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 21

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 21 Pine Valley Hut to Labyrinth then Narcissus Hut 14 km

Slept in a bit as I’d planned to spend two nights here. The others got off early even though it was very cold and still overcast. Packed a day pack and ventured up the mountain about 8:30. More mossy rainforest then a steep wet climb including walking straight up a cascading waterfall. It was a short hike but took time because of terrain and the trail was easy to lose. The skies cleared, and from the lookout I could see clearly the main peaks dusted with snow and many lakes below.

In the distance around the edge of one of the mountains I could make out Lake St. Clair, the end of the Overland. The way back down was a little painful on the new knees and old muscles, but I got back to Pine Valley a little after 1:00 and decided to pack up and head on to Narcissus Hut. Pine Valley is a gloomy hut and I couldn’t face another night packed in there (it was filling rapidly). The hike out included more moss and some magnificent old growth— trees so big you wonder how anyone could have ever thought to cut them down. A few old friends at Narcissus Hut, nice walk along the lake looking for platypus. Early to bed zzzzzz

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 20

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 20 Bert Nichols Hut to Pine Valley Hut 11 km

Snow! Woke to a snow globe view (for all you northern hemisphere folks, it is the middle of summer here). Rain poured all night, shifting to freezing rain and snow mix in morning. Just planned to walk three hours today to Pine Valley Hut which is off of the official overland Track but a popular place for some day hikes. I’m two days ahead of schedule and the weather is supposed to break tomorrow, so I plan two nights there before heading down to Lake St Clair. The walk out was strange— the terrain was beautiful, though the trail was pretty much an ankle deep stream the whole way. It was just freezing, but when the sun peaked out, it would be hot. Then of course another band of precipitation would come on with wind, and I’d get the gloves back on.

The track up to the hut was a flood plain with some very fast moving rivers well out of their banks. Crossed a couple of swinging bridges which were very kiwiesque.  Most striking though were the odd moments when, in the middle of a eucalyptus/nothafagus rain forest matted with moss and overtopped stream banks, the sun would blast through even though the snow and sleet continued to fall. Everything would light up green and sparkles in a positively surreal scene. But then I would have to slog on in the stream as to stop would bring on the pure cold of mountain water.

 

The hut is older, a bit damp and cold, but it has an old coal stove that takes some of the edge off. Outside the smell of burning coal reminded me of the old days as a child In Woodstock when people’s furnaces still burned Valley Builders and Supply coal. Some climbers are here waiting for clear weather for some climbs as well as some folks from the crew I’ve been trekking alongside for the past few days.

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 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