On walking

It was, apparently, a Webber B fracture.  If it had not been for the fact that my ankle was hurting, I would have only been able to guess what part of my body that referred to.  In a disarming act of honesty, my GP admitted the same thing.  Dr. Google soon provided a more detailed answer.

If you looked at the X-Ray you could see a faint line, running across most of the bone, just up from the base of my left fibula.  But you had to look really, really hard.  It did not occur to me at the time to ask if this counted as a broken ankle.  Was it just a cracked bone?  And is a cracked bone a broken ankle? How much of a break does it need to be before it counts as a real break?  I remain ignorant on this issue.

I had been running back from dinner with H, racing Sal and P back to the room.  A classic “it seemed like a good idea at the time” sort of activity.  Somehow I managed to overlook the fact that it was basically dark and that the path was rough.  Somehow I managed to overlook the fact that I don’t run anywhere anymore.  But, strange as it may seem, I was enjoying it.  The competitive juices were flowing as I chased H.  There was a length in my stride that does not come with walking.  Then a lightning bolt hit my left ankle.  My foot rolled sharply inwards, my ankle bent into a shape that nature never intended and made a cracking noise I don’t ever want to hear again.  I swore. Probably twice.  I hopped on to my right foot, which sounds a lot more elegant than I imagine it looked, and felt sick.  H noticed that I was falling over and turned around just in time to see me sit, rather heavily, on a large stone.  By this time the lightning had stopped – but not the thunder.   I was surprised how little my ankle hurt when I put some weight on it.  Maybe I had imagined the cracking noise. I limped back to the room feeling very sorry for myself, and more than a little stupid. 

Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. 

In other words slap on some ice and lie on the bed.  The next morning the ankle was puffy and sore.  A tight bandage and painkillers helped.  Over the next 24 hours my foot and lower leg took on the colour of bruised fruit – an unattractive combination of browns, yellows and pale blues.  Every so often, a jolt would light up the joint and cause me to pause and suck in a few deep breaths.  

I was on holiday.  So what did I do?  Strap the ankle tightly, ask for the strongest painkillers the chemist had and get on with it.  Luckily I had already done the longest walk we planned for the trip – but I still managed to take my Webber B around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  I watched where I put my feet, moved slowly and found going up hill easier than going down them. Each second step had the potential to deliver an unwelcome surprise, and it was always good to get back on the straight and level.   Back in Melbourne I was fitted with a Cam Boot – a knee length boot to stabilise my ankle - built from plastic, steel, velcro and discomfort.  It lengthened my left leg, leaving my right floating an inch or so from solid ground. I had to walk from the knee rather than the ankle.  For the first time ever walking became a chore.  Rough ground was off limits, and 15 minutes was about as far as I could go.  For the first time in about 30 years, I stopped walking for enjoyment.  It became something to endure, not enjoy. 

With my leg encased in its big black boot, I thought about the only thing I have chosen to do wherever and when ever I have been; I thought about walking. 

I thought about the steady rhythm of walking on the flat. The inertia of walking downhill.  The steady pull of going uphill, preferable to a steep descent.  The head down effort of a steep slope, where it is better to arrive than to travel. Hill top chocolate and coffee on a winter’s day.  The creak of the straps on a rucksack. The click of carried objects moving in a pocket or a bag.  I thought about the movement and the peace.  I wondered how long I would have to wear the boot.

As a kid walking was as much an economic necessity as it was anything else.  The local bus services were erratic, the family car unavailable to me and (if the truth be told), the distances to anywhere I wanted to go, short.  I walked to go fishing, I walked to buy the paper, and once I was returning to an empty house, I walked home from school.  At the time this was not unusual, although the lack of a bike was.  I did not think about why I walked, I just walked.  It was only later, much later, that I began to understand why I found such comfort in putting one foot in front of another, in walking to Norton to buy The Guardian, in retracing familiar pathways, in the evening ritual of a walk.

When you think about it, the biomechanics of walking are one of the first truly complex things we master – although “mastery” may be an inappropriate description of the first toddler’s steps which look more like barely controlled forward falling than walking.  These first steps are recorded in family history, mythologised and passed down from person to person, from generation to generation.  Being upright on two legs separates us from the other apes, even if teenagers, Friday drinkers and most politicians seem to have forgotten this. Walking – bipedalism – makes us human.  If I lost the will to walk, I think some part of me would have died.

Even on a short lunchtime walk, back from a sandwich and coffee, you can feel the simple biological pleasure of walking.  If you pay attention you can feel the alternating tension and relaxation in your legs – tight here, looser there.  You can feel the pressure drop away from one knee and build in the other.  You can feel the flex of ankles, and if you are like me, you can still feel a little stiffness in one.  You can feel your feet move within your shoes, so that all of your socks wear in the same place.  Even if the are the same colour, I can tell my socks from Sal’s by the pattern of thin spots as well as the size.  Mine wear just above the base of my heels, to the inside of each foot.  On long walks in the past I would make sure I put my socks on different feet at the start of the day, and for a few minutes at least I was sure I could tell the difference.

Although I don’t know why he did it, my father mapped all the footpaths that criss-crossed the parish in which I was born.  There is a book on the shelves in our front room that has a copy of that map in it.  I can recognise the way he used a ruler to write along, giving all the letters a regular flat bottom.  The paths defy any linear behaviour, twisting across the page, linking places together that make no sense in a modern landscape, but reflect some older purpose. That this man, who had a serious limp, and for whom walking was a challenge, should have mapped the footpaths on which I walked is only one of the many contradictions in a person who I don’t think I ever really knew.

I used to start most of my evening walks by cutting up though a path that our family, and nobody else that I knew, called The Drang. It passed old broken cottages and elder filled gardens.  The stone stile of the top was polished smooth by generations of hands and feet.  The last time I walked along it a handrail had been added along part of the walled section, as if the only people who would use a path like this today were old.  There were weeds growing through the broken pavement.  I can’t help but wonder if I will be one of the last people to know this path’s name.

Over the smooth stone stile was Wells Road; a road as busy as it got in our village.  The path ran around the edges of a garage – a petrol station – and out into the open fields that ringed our village and formed a no man’s lands between it and the next.  Muddy in the winter, dusty in in rare weeks of sunshine and often paved by diary cows, the path passed through 3 or 4 (memory fails) kissing gates for which I seldom had much use.  The grass grew rich and green, blessed by the two virtues of Somerset – abundant rain and mild temperatures.  I rarely met anybody coming in the other direction and don’t recall anybody walking past me.  I sometimes wondered if I was the only person who kept the path walked.

Just before you passed through the last of the kissing gates and into a patch of woodland there was a row of large, stately, sycamore trees.  In the evening the setting sun would throw spears of light through the flicker leaves.  In winter flocks of longtailed tits would flash from twig to twig; tiny bundles of life, cartoon birds.  Parts of the trunks had been rubbed smooth by itchy cows.  You only notice such things if you walk.  One step at a time.  Day after day.

The woodland was always damp and moss hung in limp bundles from a high wooden fence that ran along the path.  Over the fence, forever out of reach, were the grounds of a private school.  I thought this part of the path smelled of privilege, but it was just decay. The path had a purpose; linking two villages.  But I walked along it for different reasons.  I walked to get away from the claustrophobia of home, where long silences built a pressure that pushed me out of the door.  I walked to move away, rather than to arrive. 

I have no idea how old the path was; in a place as historied as England who can ever be sure?  But like all of the paths mapped out by my father’s hand they had a history that you could only find by walking.  At night they were still fox trotted and in the distant past they may have been bear footed.  Some, although not my nightly path, had sunk into the ground to become hollow ways, sunken roads.  I knew of one where you could still see the deep ruts on either side of a central hump that had been cut by cartwheels.  The last time I walked that path it was a tunnel of hazel, with catkins swinging like pale lanterns.  There were patches of soft smooth mud where mine were the only footprints.  Some were bridle paths – horses allowed.  Some followed the ghosts of railroads.  We called these Tow-Paths, but that was just our name for them and when the railways closed they were soon lost to bracken and bramble. 

Trails, paths, greenways, sunken ways, lichways for the dead, tracks for cooper, coal and wood.  Roman roads in England, English roads in Scotland; straight paths to bring people to heel. Drove roads, close cropped by sheep, along the hilltops, away from the then uncleared valleys. Walks through woodland, marked only by a slight flattening of the ground and the presence of unexpected gates. Walking to old ponds, coppice corners and woodburners’ huts. Walking to piles of deep moss stones, tumbled, rank with nettles keeping company with the fruiting ghosts of old orchards.  Even though I knew they were not, such places always felt unfound and mine alone.

Each one of these can be walked today as they were walked in the past.  By the same process. Step by step.  Stride by stride. And as fitness and desire allows, in the same time.  Walking the paths to gain the empathy of landscape, the sympathy of slope, the history of passage.  Walking the paths to take away the pressure of today and the apprehension of tomorrow. I walked through the afternoon before my mother died, unable to do anything but walk away.  I was walking by the sea when the phone rang to tell me my father would be joining her.  One along the damp April roads and paths of Somerset, the other on a beach that squeaked, almost as far south as you can be and still be on the mainland of Australia.  Walks that were a lifetime and a world apart.  I walked when I feared that madness would take me over, and the rhythm of footfall and the motion would lift the veil to let me see.

Walking connects you to a place like nothing else can. If connection to a place is a true expression of the human self – the soul if you are that way inclined – you have to wonder if soul has been misspelt.

In Australia many, but not all of the paths, are different.  Some paths are marked by song and are basically unknowable to me.  They are disconnected by time, language and assumption.  The paths around my house are straight, the corners regular; return journeys can be planned by the logic of geometry.  Most are no older than my house, sitting on its ruler drawn block, with straight-line fences and predictable edges.  But I still walk.   The heartbeat regularity of footsteps brings the same relaxation as of old.  I no longer walk back to an empty house, even when nobody is home.  In parks and coast the paths are there for a new purpose; to walk.  Not to go where things happen, but just to walk to where you can watch.  To look at the scenery, to look at the birds.  To walk to the place where you can take that photograph – the one you see in the books.  Some paths seem to walk to the X that marks the spot.  They seem to have no other purpose.  But that purpose is still good enough for a walk.

Even if the purpose and history of my paths has changed, my boots still crease in the same places, and the soles still wear in the same way.  I walk to explore, to find what you can see and see the things that are otherwise hidden.  The cam boot is underneath my desk, a reminder of what it was like to have briefly lost walking.  To remind me how important the rhythm of walking is.  To remind me to push back the chair and go for an evening walk.

......and through the middle.

History and geography often seem to be unfair to the siblings of the famous.  Einstein may have had a brilliant older sister for all I know, Bob Dylan’s younger brother may have been gifted in ways that will remain forever hidden.  The bright flame of fame does not always illuminate those who stand close to the source of the light; rather it can cast a darker shadow.   Uluru does this to it’s geological sibling Kata Tjuta – it draws all the attention away and casts a very long shadow.  But if you look away from the light, you see something even more remarkable. 

Uluru is an icon – like Sydney Harbour Bridge and the kangaroo  - bound to the world vision of Australia through repetition and the failure of advertisers’ imagination.  You can’t sum up a country, much less a continent, in just a few objects.  There is always something else to find, something else that tells a different story.

I don’t know when I learnt to recognise the outline of Uluru – or Ayers Rock, as I would have called it - but it was a long time ago, when even the possibility of visiting Australia seemed as distant and far removed as the country itself.  But some pictures and words stick in your mind, and while they may be out of synch with the author’s original intent, they take on a reality of great strength.   In The Songlines, which I read as a student, I encountered the image of “men in shorts and long white socks, stepping in and out of Landcruisers”.  And since I read that, it has been part of my idea of central Australia. 

It was the best part of 20 years ago when my internal vision of central Australia collided with the physical landscape.  There were Landcruisers, but no white socks. There was the huge blue sky and the ever-present red soil and dust.  There was the almost alien bulk of Uluru.  And then, as an unbidden surprise, there was Kata Tjuta.  It supplanted, but did not remove, all the other images and ideas I had of what this place was like.  It remains central to whatever story my mind tells of central Australia.

Kata Tjuta bubbles out of the surface to form a complex of rounded domes and heads, split from each other by steep sided valleys that echo to even the gentlest whisper.  The stone that builds the domes contains hidden secrets – buried boulders and smaller rocks held firm within a finer matrix – a fruit cake of a mix, different to the fine grained, iron coated, victoria sponge of Uluru.  The complexity of base form seems to extend out from the stone itself, toward the domes and heads and then beyond into the very air that sits tight and still around them.  We may have been walking to the Valley of the Winds, but there was little movement.

Just away from the car park there is a familiar, childhood, noise in the bushes.  The kids don’t notice it, but I do. Theirs is a different childhood.  It’s the sound that used to escape from my grandmother’s best room and from a cage in our house as well.  I hear budgerigars; a complex mix of mechanical chirps and more musical notes - any transliteration would be heavy of T’s and Z’s and light on vowel sounds.  The source of the sound is not easy to find.  Colours that seem gaudy in the cage break the bird into hidden fragments in the field; colourful but camouflaged.  The birds depart and so do we.

A rough paved path leads away from the car park and skirts under the steep red stone cliffs. The landscape is built of stone and dust; it feels as if the plants have just been set down in random location.  Places that look like they should gather water are bare of growth, while others – looking blasted and baked – are dense with thorny looking shrubs.  Maybe a temperate weather mind, brought up with rain and damp woodland misreads the landscape.

Every so often I stop to rub my ankle to try to take away a sharp pain– a week later my doctor declares it a Webber B fracture.  All I know is that it did not like being moved sideways.  I walk in slow straight lines, and pay great attention to where I put my feet.

The path leads us behind the main mass of Kata Tjuta, and we start to walk down hill. The kids move quickly.  I don’t.  Eventually we come to a small stream – which feels out of place but welcome.  A short wooden bridge is flanked by old, twisted gum trees.  It’s not hot, but the shade is a welcome place to stop, have a drink, take in the views and sample a biscuit (or two).  All around are the sounds of budgerigars.  Again they are hard to find, but their discretion may have been due to them doing the kind of thing that generally produces more budgerigars.  Birds flicker backwards and forwards between the two large trees, investigating holes and chasing each other; nesting, breeding, finding mates and chasing off rival birds. 

A little further on we balance back across the stream on well placed rocks and, climbing uphill, we walk back into the heart of the heads and domes that form Kata Tjuta.  The rock walls pull steeply up above us, and the heads of the valleys become solid triangles of blue.  The almost uniform blue sky and the red rocks form patterns that would seem abstract if they were not real.  Again it’s clear that any mind that looked upon these stones would ask “how did this come to be?” – in a landscape like this it’s harder not to be a story teller than to be one.

We balance up a rock slab, following the gloss polished by hundreds of other feet and arrive at a flat step.  Water pools under the cliff face; thick with green weed and sparkled with bubbles of gas.  Even in this solid rock land the process of photosynthesis goes on; light, air and water morph into the solid stuff of plants.  I think of the red rust rock; oxygen; the deepness of time.  I think of how the tale of the Earth is emerging from the darkness of geological time as we learn to read the story worded into the rocks.  Now tells us of then.  The past caused by the things that bring the present.  A history writ in crystals, in isotopes and fossils.  The sun warms the rock and the rock warms me.  This is not a place to reject knowing.

The rock walls grow taller and steeper, the red dust floor narrower.  Even the wind seems to change.  On the bridge, below the stream-side trees, the wind was gently talkative, whispering words to the birds, the water and the silent stones.  But the narrow valley swallows all of the sound but one – the whistled call of a bird.  I think it’s a shrike thrush – but I never see the bird, I only hear the call.  The clear whistle echoes off the rocks wall and bounces from side to side, from ear to ear.  The location call becomes confused, the bird is everywhere and nowhere.  A courting call that lays claim to the whole valley.  Somewhere back down the path a voice calls “hello, hello, hello” to make an echo, but the sound dies rather than reflects and it quickly fades down to nothing.  The bird calls again and the sound swells and grows, filling the valley.  Has the bird’s voice been tuned to the acoustics of the valley? In noisy cities birds are changing their calls to cut through the white noise of civilisation – so why not here as well?  A birdcall to cut through the silence and bounce from rock to rock to saying “I am here, this is mine”.

We reach the top point of our walk; a saddle. I sit to rub the soreness from my ankle.  The kids sit to eat a biscuit and a jelly snake or two.  In front and behind the path and the land drops steeply away.  To the left and right the ground is steep and bare.  The view to the front opens as quickly as the land falls away.  Dark in the narrow valley and shimmer bright beyond.  More domes crowd the horizon, bleached pink in the eye by the darkness of the viewpoint.  The camera fails where the eye succeeds.  The downhill path calls invitingly.   But my ankle suggests otherwise.  The snake eaters agree with my ankle; we turn to walk back towards the bridge and the whispering wind.

Two days later we pull back into the same car park.  I listen for the budgerigars again, but they are either gone or have become silent.  The Sun is low in the sky – is it late afternoon or is it early evening?  As we walk up one of the paths a coach arrives.  Chairs and tables, champagne and cheese.  A civilised view of the sunset on Kata Tjuta.  We watch from a different place.  The Sun reddens the already red.  For once my kids’ hair is the same as the landscape around it.  It’s wonderful, but it’s distant.  “Stand here please”.  People stand in front of the scene for pictures, and we do the same.  The rocks become a backdrop rather than a space to walk into.  The rocks are over there, rather than just in reach.  I can no longer run my fingers over the rough stones.  Just down the path the champagne glass chink against each other and bursts of laughter ring just as loud.  In the space of a day we have moved from the inside to the outside.

I love the place, but I loved it more when I was inside; when we were walking through the middle.