Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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

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

In Tasmania Day 9 Louisa River to Deadman’s Cove 13 km

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 9 Louisa River to Deadman’s Cove 13 km

This was billed as the most difficult day of the track and lived up to it. A simple hike, up and over the Ironbound Range and down to the sea again—the mountain tops are windy, the beaches are as well, funneling in Antarctic air. Started nearly sea level, climbed to over 900 meters in a couple of hours on a very well-benched track. In anticipation of bad weather late in the day, everyone who ended up at the campsite got off early. Three groups— 5 Aussies, a mother daughter pair, and three uni student (2 French, 1 English). My solitary tramp has become much more social. The initial climb was very much like going up stairs. We were soon strung out over the slope and after a bit I pushed ahead, never looking back. A wonderful crew, but this was a day to see alone. Quick temperature swings as the sun would blast down on the thin vegetation and exposed quartzite, then clouds and high winds with the occasional sprinkle. Have to say, I’m pleased (as always) with my new ZPacks gear—in this case my rain pants and coat, super light, tough and high performance which was necessary on a rough day like today. The peak was a bit socked in, but still impressive. It was good to finally be at some real elevation on a trek that has more often than not involved floundering about in a low-lying jungle. The descent was difficult. The track was not well-formed, the rain came in, and it was a very long way to the water’s edge. Apart from the views at the top, some of the best parts of the day was actually the descent (before fatigue set in). It dropped through a nothafagus forest where a bird with  a varying 2 and 3 note calls and I traded whistles for the better part of the afternoon. The end was through a eucalyptus rain forest with many old growth trees still standing. More impressive were the fallen ones. Seeing them provide habitat for so many plants, insects, and animals makes me wonder why humans insist on “improving” the forest.

The descent also brought contact with tiny toads and some salamanders (no tiger snakes today), and when I finally got to camp, I was greeted by a strange animal looking like a large cat with a more vicious snout and white polka dots on its side. I later learned it was an Eastern Quoll, just one of the unusual creatures Tasmania has to offer.  Eventually the crew arrived, set camp made dinner and some built a fire in one of the pits. Given fire conditions everywhere that seemed presumptuous, but we were coated in rain, and the ground was saturated. No way that fire was going anywhere. It was good to have built it as very late three exhausted trekkers arrived having hiked all the way from Cox Bight. They were a fit crew—triathlon, rock climbing, tough mudder types (one a quite famous wild adventure person)—but the day had done them in. Some quiet time and stories by the fire was good medicine for all.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 8 Cox Bight to Louisa River 17km

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 8 Cox Bight to Louisa River 17km

Off early on a misty walk down the beach for an easy day’s trek to Louisa River. The difference between this area and Port Davey is astounding. The trail is much drier due to climate and surface, but mostly it’s been duckboarded and bridged almost the entire distance. I only dodged a dozen mud holes and for the first time finished well under the posted time. Had a few stream wades including the last at Louisa— several had stairs taking you to the water’s edge. Feeling a little pampered here. Arrived at a wonderful campsite right by the river, my tent site someone had made comfortable with a wooden chair (such luxury). I took the sunny skies as an opportunity to lie out in the sun and warm my jungle rotted bones. Early to bed as tomorrow is the toughest day—a lot of steep climbing up and over the Ironbound Range (what a great name).

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 7 Melaleuca to Cox Bight 12km

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 7 Melaleuca to Cox Bight 12km

Felt much better after a day’s rest and a good wander around Melaleuca. The caretakers at Melaleuca were so kind and had been on many adventures in their time. Also Kendron, the psychologist, was good for a number of long conversations over coffee. The hike to Cox Bight was the first labeled easy, and  since it was mostly duck boards, it was. The first day I didn’t get my feet wet (nice as I had on fresh socks—one of trekking’s little pleasures). It’s not surprising the walk to Cox Bight is smooth since the tin miners worked both sites and transported ore to Melaleuca to be either smelted there or shipped up a navigable creek to Bathurst harbor. This point is very much the edge of the world since, apart from a few rocky isles there is nothing between here and Antarctica. The wind off the water is cold. Got out warm clothes and pitched my tent near a dense grass wind break, but expect a cold night. The beaches are pristine—no human debris at all, just seaweed and shells. On a warm sunny day it must be lovely.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 6 Melaleuca

January 25th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 6 Melaleuca

Always listen to your knees—they have much to tell you, and mine said “take some time, learn about this spot of the world and rest today. Joint wisdom. The hikers huts are like old Quonset huts, curved correlated metal with some semi-transparent fiberglass panels for windows. I woke to some rustling outside and watched out the window at what I first took to be a chicken in the brush. Then, miracle, the chicken moving up the side of a bush, revealed itself as a head, a good sized Wallaby (actually a pademelon) grazing on the flowers of a native bush a wallaby delicacy—confirming the wisdom of taking a zero day here. I met a young woman who had been living here in a tent for a stretch studying the Orange Bellied Parrot. Nearly extinct, they migrate here in the spring to mate and raise their young. There are nesting boxes (occupied) in the trees around my hut though I have yet to see one (will listen tonight for their ascending call). Ken, Sheryl’s partner pointed out a path designed to educate people about the Needwannee people who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans which brought their subsequent decimation and relocation. Little is known about them today, though a book by the French naturalist Francois Peron (early 1800s) is as close to an anthropological study as is available. Mentioned by Nicholas Shakespeare in his book In Tasmania, I had a chance to download it before starting this trek and so spent part of the day reading— such a joy after the brutality of the Port Davey Trail.

Today I also learned a bit more about that trail, which has quite a reputation in Tasmania. Generally unimproved (except in a few short sections), it is meant to give trekkers a true sense of the Tasmanian bush. This of course accounts for why I saw only two people in the depths of the trail—it is notorious and punishing— I have done my penance. I guess I, glad I didn’t know that prior to commencing. This history of the trail is fascinating. This area has many inlets and harbors and so was visited by ships—whaling, logging, etc.—though there were few settlements apart from some mining operations (which is why Melaleuca is here—the King family mined tin here and built the airstrip. Deny King became famous as an ornithologist, and documented the plight of the Orange Bellied Parrot). The Port Davey trail was laid out so that sailors who because of shipwreck or mishap found themselves marooned on the west coast could find their way to the interior (around Scott’s Peak) and then make their way downriver to Hobart. A walk like that must have been desperate.

Today Melaleuca is a jumping off point for trekkers (most going south, the direction I take tomorrow) or flying in for the day to take a boat tour of this area which is part of the World Heritage conservation site (the reason I saw almost no sign of human occupation apart from the trail I walked). That designation results first from the simple fact that the area which is dominated by peat soils does not support agriculture and has been sparsely occupied at least since the colonial period (except for miners and Huon pine loggers). More immediately, the large scale environment protests in the 80s over old growth logging, the construction of the Pedder Lake Dam (which turned Scott’s Peak into an island), and the vociferous protests around the proposed Franklin Dam apparently galvanized the Tasmanian conservation community so large tracts of land in the area became protected by World Heritage status. Now they are frequented primarily by people wealthy enough to afford the air flight here and the subsequent guided boat tour.

 

T. Hugh Crawford