Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

Once hiking up the Tongariro Crossing from the north just after I cleared the tree (and lahar) line, I stepped headfirst into a gale. The storm had been threatening as I ascended the lower section, but it unleashed on gaining the open ground. No visibility and winds that literally blew me off the trail. As I was closer to the Department of Conservation’s Ketetahi hut, I pressed on, hiking in a crouch with one arm swung back holding my pack in place, finally reaching it but not without being soaked through and feeling hypothermia. Obviously the goal of my trek that day was impossible so, after bundling in my sleeping bag for an hour to get back temperature, I made my way down the mountain to the place where I had begun, feeling grateful when I entered the woods which cut the wind and then finding two English trekkers in the parking lot who offered a ride to a campground on the south side of the crossing. That evening I found myself warm, cleaned up, dressed, and eating a meal in an elegant restaurant.

The English Pennine Way is, by and large, a beautiful wander through the Yorkshire Dales on long-trod paths. But, as readers of Wuthering Heights well know, up on the moors the fog and wind come in, easily disorienting the casual walker. Much of the path is cobbled with material from old mills, so in the dense fog, you have to trust the stones. One day in such a state, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ATV engine, and soon out of the mist a modern-day Heathcliff appeared, asking if I had seen any stray cattle on the ridge. I replied that I had barely seen my own feet. He laughed and rode off, maybe heading to the Grange. Up on those ridges people—probably shepherds—have built stone walls in the shape of a cross, allowing walkers caught in the weather to find shelter in the lee of whatever angle breaks the wind. These seeming Christian contrivances are pure material practicality and not theological symbol, serving troubled travelers no matter the direction of the weather. 

After finishing a month of trekking in Tasmania this February, I found myself on the Great Barrier Reef teaching a university course on Moby-Dick. The weather on the day we took the ferry out from Gladstone to Heron Island was a little rough—barf bags were widely distributed and people passed around Dramamine like it was molly. Twice on the outbound leg, the ferry passed in the lee of an island (Mast Head then Erskine) so briefly the waves smoothed and wind abated. Much to the relief of some nauseated students, we arrived at Heron, disembarking in the sun but also to wind and surf stirred by an offshore cyclone—one that would slowly pass on the the East buffeting us for days. 

Moby-Dick is a maddeningly beautiful book. Ahab famously declares “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,” but Melville the author has clearly gone off them. It’s a book with a complicated textual history, with some dead ends and a number of enigmatic characters. Some think the original protagonist was to have been a man named Bulkington whom Ishmael encounters at the New Bedford Spouter Inn, his having just returned from a four year voyage on the whaler Grampus. Bulkington, like Jack Chase or Billy Budd, is a handsome sailor—a strong, capable man who inspires confidence and loyalty from his fellow sailors. He appears again briefly on Ahab and Ishmael’s boat, the Pequod, in a “six inch chapter” that serves as his “stoneless grave” entitled “The Lee Shore.” Obviously a teachable moment, my students, having braved the seas, Dramamine, and barf bags on a short channel crossing, well understood the calm of a lee shore. 

Of course all calm in Melville is soon disrupted, and he uses this chapter to push at the calm/danger binary. Like crouching in Pennine Way cruciform walls, to be in the lee of an island is to albeit briefly inhabit shelter, but as Melville makes clear for the sailor it is the island that is the danger. Bulkington must pilot the Pequod into the sea, the teeth of the storm, to avoid being wrecked on the reef: “The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” So to rest in the lee, perhaps only for a moment invokes home’s hearth and brings calm, that “insular Tahiti” Ishmael describes later in the book, but in the big outside, leeward is short lived, and safety or perhaps even truth is only to be had by casting off, doubling the cape and facing the teeth of the storm: “Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” Melville sets up a land/sea binary, but the two-stranded lesson of the lee shore is that seeking refuge is but a momentary respite—actual safety is to be had by abandoning false comfort. My time in Ketetahi hut was limited because, built on the slope of an active volcano which had recently erupted hurling rocks through the roof, it was deemed by the authorities unsafe. Refuge was actually to be found by returning to the storm, piloting before the wind to the woods below.

 

Although he died nearly a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin pressed precisely the point of Melville’s “Lee Shore.” In “Patmos” he pens the phrase that so stirred Martin Heidegger: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The speaker is a wanderer seeking salvation in the lee of Patmos, an island that could bring revelation (if St. John doesn’t remain hiding in the cave). Charles Olson, in his wonderful book Call Me Ishmael, reads Melville’s 1856 journals on his trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Holyland, recording Melville’s response to the Mediterranean in general and Patmos in particular: “Off Cyprus, on his way from the Holyland to Greece, Melville can no more imagine a Venus to have risen from these waters than ‘on Mt. Olivet that from there Christ rose’ …. Now, off Patmos, he can ‘no more realize that St. John had ever had revelations here.’” Like Ishmael, Hölderlin’s speaker is persuaded by an unseen force—the amorphous desire some call wanderlust—the desire to cast off the assurances of hearth and home to live by passing through (or around) a world that alternates danger and refuge.

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

Bulkington, like Ishmael, is one of Melville’s isolatos, “living on a separate continent of his own.” There are scenes of camaraderie in the novel— who can forget the squeezing of the hand—but Ishmael’s solitude is unmistakable. What Hölderlin makes clear is that a wanderer’s solitude is profoundly different from the alienated soul in society. It is a necessary forsaking and wandering out into “howling infinite” which, as Ishmael opines, is better “than [to] be ingloriously dashed upon the lee,”

Heron Island can be circumambulated in about 30 minutes. At low tide the beach is wide and smooth, marked only by the tracks of nesting tortoises and their scampering young. Unlike directional hiking where you might find yourself walking all day with the wind at your face or blasting from the side, a circle brings the weather from all points of the compass. Many people, particularly in the Himalayas, look askance at the notion of conquering a peak. They prefer to show respect by circumambulation, best known in the West with the walk around Kailash. Having just come off a month of rigorous trekking in Tasmania and therefore still having feet, not unlike Bulkington’s, scorched by the land, Heron became my Kailash— circling at least twice a day. Such wandering clarifies the lesson of the lee. Depending on the direction I started, I would either begin or end with the wind. The rising tides brought waves crashing to the edge of the forest, making walking tiresome, awkward, but not dangerous. In the lee comes peace and I’d sing (quietly) Graham Nash’s song “Lee Shore”: “All along the lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand.” Such circuits are strikingly different from a day of long-distance, directional trekking. The sun and wind burn both cheeks equally, and intensity is exactly balanced by peace, each shading into the other on the edges. Equanimity is a balance of extremes, offering a glimpse of Melville’s “mortally intolerable truth”: deep thinking demands that you “fly all hospitality” at least temporarily. But as my daily island circles taught me, fleeing to the lee (also temporarily) is just as fundamental.

As it turned out, the danger that lurked there was not a tempest but instead pestilence. We retreated back across the sea to the Australian mainland and soon home to the United States because of the emerging corona virus pandemic, circumstances that make every day here a question of refuge or danger. Hölderlin also makes room for the lee shore with a prayer for all wanderers: 

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 27

March 17th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 27
The Eden—Puerto Montt—Castro

Woke to the sound of trucks rolling out from deep in the ship’s hold. Some time early in the morning the Eden made port at Puerto Montt, so all the passengers packed up seabags and headed down for one last breakfast. I got coffee and went to the stern deck to watch, along with all the other guys (no stereotypes there), the trucks drive off the boat and up the pier. It was an oddly bittersweet moment as we had all become friends, even if that friendship had only consisted of smiling and making gestures of concern, happiness, or help. It’s likely many of us will cross paths in the next weeks as most people are following similar itineraries. Buses arrived to take us all downtown through the rain. Puerto Montt is a shipping and fishing town, no tourists to put up a good face for. It is subject to severe weather and has a beaten, shabby appearance. By the water, steep streets and narrow alleys lead up the hill. Perhaps I still have Moby-Dick on my mind, but many of the buildings are severely weathered and out of square, looking for all the world like those Ishmael describes as he fumbles his way around the New Bedford waterfront before beaching at the Spouter Inn.

My plan was to take a bus back down the road to Pargua and crossing by ferry over to Chiloé Island, a place markedly different from the terrain I’ve been in the past month. On the ferry I had a conversation with Jakob, a man from Amsterdam who had been on the Eden and who used to work for UNESCO. He was planning a week touring the island’s heritage sites, which are primarily very old wooden churches, many in isolated places. I hope we reconnect as he has much wisdom. Bruce Chatwin describes Chiloé as black earth and black weather, and seems right on both counts. The El Niño rain continues to follow me, though there were finally some patches of blue so perhaps a break is on the way. The soil is black as Chiloé is a somewhat flat, very large island with a more moderate inland climate (it is warmer up here). The soil is deep, as are the forests including some rainforest. While the coastal dwellers earn their living from the sea, much of the interior is agriculture, including large dairy farms. Just outside Ancud is the large dairy complex Chilolac—more factory than barn. On arriving in Castro, I made immediately for the city square in hopes of finding a restaurant for lunch and WiFi to secure a hostel. After a bit of wandering that was done. Castro isn’t geared for tourists, so the square is not crowded with places to eat, but instead seems dominated by government buildings as does much of the downtown.

The main feature of the square is the Chiloe Cathedral which at a glance looks much like the primary churches in a number of towns I have visited, but the exterior is sheet metal painted ochre (in the words of Bruce Chatwin). Seems an unlikely and unpromising material, but on entry I found a soaring church with an interior covered completely with beautiful natural wood, including massive columns made of what amounts to barrel staves. It is a remarkable and unexpected space. Apart from the old wooden Anglican Church in Wellington, I don’t recall a more reverent wooden space. This seems a town no so much down on its luck— stalls full of fresh produce, even outside the Unimarc supermarket—but just a hard place. The sidewalks are crowded with venders selling everything imaginable including bricks of dried seaweed, strings of smoked mussels, and blocks of local cheese. It sits in the bend of a bay full of fishing boats, a waterman’s town. My Spanish is not good enough to detect subtleties, but there seems a slightly different dialect here. Some unfamiliar words along with a fair amount of German. This is a town for people who work hard, which maybe helps account for a sheetmetal Cathedral.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 26

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 26
Chilean coast on The Eden

Early on in Moby-Dick, Ishmael is speaking with Peleg and Bildad about shipping on the Pequod. After some slapstick humor about Ishmael’s time in the “marchant service,” Peleg asks him to go aft and tell him what he sees. As I recall Ishmael’s answer is just water and perhaps a squall brewing on the horizon. Peleg then again asks why he wants to ship, as that is the same view he will have for the next three years. Today we were never out of sight of land, but the view out was constant—a misty driving rain with slow rolling waves. A day for reading books. Tomorrow weather permitting, we dock at Puerto Montt.