A Room (and Tomb) of One’s Own
Revisiting and Re-evaluating ‘My Northwest Passage’
In 1977, a young woman crossed an Australian desert, making a name for herself as she went. She wrote an article about her incredible journey and, later, a book that became a classic of its kind. I read Tracks recently and, as awed as I was by Robyn Davidson’s account of her epic adventure, it was her description of a much shorter journey – a walk within the walk – that touched me most.
Davidson did not travel alone. She was accompanied by three camels, an occasional man – and by a dog, Diggity, whom she adored (Tracks 210). ‘Dig’ was Davidson’s constant companion, leaving her side only to hunt. Late one night, almost two thousand kilometres into the walk, Diggity returned from one of these forays. Straight away Davidson knew something was wrong.
Diggity started wandering around retching violently . . . She barked and howled at me and I knew she must be hallucinating. (Tracks 224)
Davidson did what she could, but it was hopeless: her dog had eaten a poisoned bait. It was then, I remembered reading, that Diggity set out on one last journey, staggering away from her fellow creatures so she could die alone in the desert.
Two years ago, I took a trip of my own. It was one I had been dying to make – and to make up. After months of procrastination and weeks of preparation, I spent six days in the bush by myself, walking the Penguin Cradle Trail in northern Tasmania. Later I wrote an account of my adventure: ‘My Northwest Passage’, a blog post based on the diary I kept on the trail.
Since then, I have strayed into unfamiliar territory of another kind, into a new field of knowledge. There I encountered monuments of travel literature, influential and illuminating ideas about the meaning of travel and travel writing, and stark and stirring experiences of travellers who took me to India, Africa and Alaska. I tracked through Davidson’s book and was moved by Diggity’s last walk. Now, in this essay, I take another trip and fashion a fresh travel narrative, one that revisits and re-evaluates my six-day solo trek, casting it in a new light and revealing something of significance about the travel and its literature.
All journeys start in the mind. I was sitting at a desk when I set out on mine, and that is where my narrative began.
From my cubicle at work I can see a city square. At the centre of that tree-lined public park there stands a statue, the likeness of a notable local: former governor of the realm, Sir John Franklin, best remembered for his attempt to find a link between the world’s two largest oceans.
A northwest passage – Franklin is not the only Tasmanian to seek one out. In March I embarked upon a perilous quest of my own: a solo walk that took me from the top end of the island to the edge of its spiritual heartland; a 100 kilometre hike I hoped would help me find a way through my worries, through the fears and frustrations hemming me in. (Newlands)
In my mind, then, the trip was one-dimensional: a linear journey that involved movement across a horizontal plane, one beginning at a place on a flat physical map and ending at a distant (and therefore ‘different’) place. Hence, much of my narrative is about progress, about whether or not I was ‘on track’, spatially and temporally.
The track was amazing but atrocious: a narrow crumbling ledge carved out of the hillside above the River Leven. My near-death experiences came where the path had fallen away, and where I almost fell away too. They passed quickly. Worse were the times I lost the track, because they took longer. (Newlands)
Clearly, though, I saw my walk as more than a physical challenge. It was also a chance to break through a psychological barrier, to move from an irksome self to another, more meaningful, identity. ‘Would my trek from coast to Cradle Mountain prove to be a kind of rebirth,’ I wrote, thereby associating horizontal movement with migration, as a journey towards (a new) life.
It is a trope as old as travel stories themselves, the legendary figures of Jesus, Muhammad and the Buddha each having sought and found spiritual rebirth and self-enlightenment in unpeopled places (Campbell 187). By crossing a (imagined) boundary – in this case, as in many others, the archetypal frontier between wild and civilised spaces – the traveller forges a new identity (Drace-Francis 125-26). This was the kind of journey made by Chris McCandless in the early 1990s. Putting his home and his childhood behind him, McCandless famously walked ‘into the wild’, convinced that the wilderness (‘Alaska’) would redeem him by making him a truer person (’Alexander Supertramp’) (Into the Wild). Robyn Davidson viewed her own expedition the same way, writing that, as she finally set out, the ‘last burning bridge to [her] old self collapsed’ (Tracks 115).
Of course, this view of travel has its problems. It is based, for a start, on a dubious dichotomy (one promulgated most notably by the Romantics), the idea that the world comprises two kinds of places: the wild and the civilised, the natural and the cultural, the untainted and the tainted. Decades of globalisation and increased mobility have eroded this distinction and now, in the so-called age of the Anthropocene – an era in which even the remotest parts of the earth show signs of human activity – the distinction between civilisation and wilderness has become all but meaningless (Graulund 286). As Rune Graulund puts it, ‘the dichotomies central to more traditional conceptions of travel writing seem not only moot, but positively quaint’ (286). The implication is obvious: if all places are essentially equal then there is no life-defining boundary for travellers like Davidson or McCandless – or like me, for that matter – to cross.
Looking back, I’m amazed I went on a walk at all, because normally I don’t like to leave home. Indeed, my travel-phobia is a running joke amongst my colleagues: I work at the Passport Office and yet I’ve never had a passport. The only ocean I’ve ever crossed isn’t an ocean at all – it’s Bass Strait. And most of the trips I do make are motivated more by a need to see friends and relatives than a need to see places. Why am I seemingly so allergic to travel? Perhaps it’s because I feel like a tourist and traveller at home.
This isn’t as odd as it sounds. In everyday life I’m something of a spectator. I tend to look for new ideas and experiences in story-telling art-forms (books and, to much a lesser extent, movies) rather than seeking them out in the world. A preference for seeing rather than doing – this, John Urry argues, is a trait of the stereotypical tourist (qtd. in Corbin 316). Spectatorship, too, is a key part of the tourist experience, it being a psychological rather than a physical process (Corbin 316).
Paradoxically, I feel like an active traveller at times too. In her piece, ‘The Ethics of Travel’, Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks challenges the common belief that a certain kind of travel (the ‘doing’ kind) allows people to find their place in the world by bring them into contact with things unfamiliar and exotic. She argues that travel ought to do the very opposite, that it should move instead toward a ‘certain moment when localisation, as the fixing of time and space, is unsettled’ (74). Viewed in this way, travel blurs rather than reinforces the perceived distinctions between us and Other, here and there (Seshadri-Crooks 77). This resembles my everyday experience; I feel like the subject who, to quote Seshadri-Crooks, ‘is necessarily always travelling’ (79).
Before I go on, I must address two pressing questions. First, is the kind of travel I embark on in this essay – imagined travel – actually travel? Travel writers have tended to view people who visit other places as either travellers or tourists. Indeed, this is a distinction Robyn Davidson herself discusses in an essay published at the turn of the century, having drawn it rather more ruefully twenty years earlier (Tracks 135). Viewed in this way, authentic travel is movement motivated by ‘necessity’ or ‘inner compulsion’, by a yearning to reconnect with the ‘essential’ (as opposed to the ‘exotic’) (Against 250). Tourism, on the other hand, is seen as wish-fulfilment, tourists being spoon-fed fare that is comforting, familiar and fake (Against 253).
Understandably, scholars have challenged elitist interpretations of travel. John Urry and Jonas Larsen, for example, argue that in the postmodern world the boundaries between cultural activities (such as ‘tourism’ and ‘travel’) are dissolving, and the distinction between ‘representations’ and ‘reality’ is becoming less clear (87). Reality is ambiguous, Debbie Lisle observes, and travel narratives impose meaning not only on reality but also on one another, through prevailing discourses (qtd. in Clarke 8-9). Moreover, the space in which one travels might just as well be a field of knowledge as a physical field – or a field of memories, for that matter. Robert Macfarlane, for one, detects a ’bleeding-together of mental and actual terrain’ (‘Is Travel Writing Dead?’), arguing that the ‘landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory . . . are among the most important landscapes we possess’ (qtd. in Wilson).
In other words, my reimagined journey seems ‘authentic’ enough to me; it is motivated, after all, by a need to reconstruct the essential meaning of my walk. It seems ‘real’ too because something is happening: I am going somewhere. In my mind at least, I’m travelling. But even if this is true, does this essay constitute a genuine travel narrative? In The Cambridge Introduction to Travel Writing, Tim Youngs gives a (fairly) formal definition of the genre; works of travel writing, he writes, are ‘predominantly factual, first-person prose accounts of travels that have been undertaken by the author-narrator’ (3). My essay fits this definition. By retracing my steps (albeit on the page) and reimagining the experience, I am creating an (admittedly unusual) kind of footsteps travel narrative, a hybrid of the foliated and familial varieties delineated by Christopher Keirstead (140). Moreover, as a literary form the essay is, by its very nature, movement oriented. As Guillaume Thouroude argues, the essay ‘announces a “peripatetic mode” of writing that, naturally, evokes the travel narrative, since movement, progression and discovery are at its very core’ (387).
Back in northern Tasmania, my journey was just beginning.
The day was cloudless, sunny and still, and I arrived at the start of the trail feeling anxious but excited. Stopping for a snack and a selfie, I tightened the waist belt of my pack and stepped on to the track. The moment had arrived!
Having finally made it to the trail, I didn’t stay there for long, diverting early so as to take in Mount Gnomon, a friend’s favourite peak. I stopped for tea and porridge on the way, at the top of Mount Dial.
On Gnomon I made a fateful decision: to head up Mount Duncan, via the Tall Tree Track, rather than re-join the main trail. Thus I added ten kilometres to the journey, all of them hard going. (Newlands)
As it happened, I paid for my impulsiveness. Here’s how my diary entry for the next day began:
The first crisis came early, when I realised I’d strained a muscle above my right knee. Not severely, mind you, but badly enough to make walking downhill a real pain. I strapped up my thigh and struggled on. (Newlands)
A walk already deemed difficult had just become harder. Having struggled through the morning of day two, I began to wonder if my detour might derail the whole adventure.
Descending through a plantation of pines, I limped into Wings Wildlife Park, where the trail notes suggested staying the night. It was early afternoon and I had a decision to make. Give in to the pain and hole up at Wings awaiting collection? Or push through it and carry on?
Knowing that the hardest part of the walk was yet to come, I decided to soldier on – but only if I could get ahead by finishing the next leg – a twelve kilometre ramble along country lanes – today. (Newlands)
The time I made up that afternoon I forfeited on day three, when I kept losing my way, the track being either indistinct or non-existent in parts. My plans were in disarray and yet the highlight of my whole walk was about to happen.
. . . I now had barely two hours to do the most demanding part of the walk: the ascent of Leven Canyon, in fading light.
Running on adrenaline and anxious energy, I struck out. It was terrifying stuff, since the track petered out well below the summit.
Luck was with me: falling and floundering, my pack dragging me down, I happened to see light through the trees, a break in the buttress of rock. Making one desperate last effort, I scrambled straight up and – lo and behold! – found myself back on the track. It felt like a minor miracle. (Newlands)
I spent the night on the summit, rising at dawn to admire the surrounding countryside over breakfast. Part of me felt like I had reached my destination and yet I was still fifty kilometres from the end of the trail.
And so I went on, trudging through the high country, Cradle Mountain occasionally visible in the distance, mist and rain keeping me from climbing one peak (Black Bluff) but not another (Mount Beecroft), until, two-and-a-half days later, I limped out of the bush.
I arrived at the centre with an hour to spare. My relief was enormous: I hadn’t missed the bus and, oh yeah, I’d walked the trail! (Newlands)
Looking back, I’m intrigued by my decision to head for the hills, as it meant leaving the trail and departing from the itinerary set out in the track notes, and it intensified my anxiety and discomfort. At the time, though, I was firmly focussed on my ‘horizontal’ progression, on my movement towards a new self, a new life. Here’s how my blog post ended:
Before my expedition I saw John Franklin as a flinty faraway figure. Now, though, as I sit in the square across the street from my office, I feel a kinship with the man in the monument. And why not? The quest for a northwest passage altered both of our lives – Franklin’s for the worse but mine, I hope, for the better.
Later, I started to wonder if it was so simple. I remembered being drawn powerfully to the ‘peaks’ and how I’d succumbed completely to the excitement I felt upon seeing them. What was it about the heights that had made me so reckless? Was it simply a desire to be ‘on top of the world’? Or was it something else? A desire, perhaps, to subvert some of tropes associated with horizontal movement, which is a hallmark of vertical travel (Forsdick 101)? The first inklings of an answer came to me as I read Robyn Davidson’s account of Diggity’s last walk. Here, it seemed to me, was a different kind of travel, one whose movement had a different purpose, since it appeared to be more about death than life. The more I thought about it the more it reminded me of something else.
It reminded me of the death wish I’d had when I was younger. No, I hadn’t wanted to die (although, on one level, the suspense was killing me) – I’d simply wanted to choose how I died. I’d dreamed of dying on a mountain all alone, rather than in a hospital bed surrounded by people. Death would be bearable, I’d thought, if I was in charge of my own destiny. It was a romantic – and, as I’ve since realised, fatally flawed – notion.
In January 1912, having reached the South Pole, Captain Robert Scott and his four companions began the long trek back across Antarctica to their ship, beset by atrocious weather. Before long one of them was dead and another, L.E.G. Oates, was dying. On 16 or 17 March, Scott made the following entry in his diary:
At night Oates was worse and we knew the end had come . . . He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since . . . We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit . . . (‘Excerpt’)
I am a modern-day equivalent of an English gentleman, as my death wish demonstrates. Wealthy and white, I hoped to use my power and privilege to conquer death in the same way I could use them to conquer life – such was the imperialistic logic underlying my desires. And then there is my gender. As a man, I was terrified by the thought of dying a ‘woman’s death’. Mine had to be an active outdoor solitary death – a heroic departure like that of Oates – and not a weak indoor passing where I was fussed over like a baby. I needed to retain and exercise my sovereignty until the very end, like the colonial product I was.
Was my walk, then, an unconscious expression of this long-forgotten death wish, of my need to locate a future tomb of my own? Or was it motivated by a yearning for psychological rebirth, for the finding of the proverbial room of my own? Having deconstructed my mindset and my desires, the reconstructed ‘postcolonial’ person I had become was reluctant to accept either interpretation easily. Casting around for one last clue, I found myself back at a beginning.
Robyn Davidson’s incredible journey had been about living – she walked towards a new life she could not picture, but which she sensed awaited her on the other side of a desert. On the other hand, Diggity’s incredible journey (as I saw it) had been about dying. Davidson had been driven by a will to life, Diggity by a will to death. On her ‘solo’ walk, Davidson had sought the company of other beings. Diggity, however, had walked away from other creatures when it had come time to die, and it was this urge that I recognised.
At least that’s how I remembered it. When I returned to Davidson’s text to check my memory of the scene, I was surprised to find that it had changed. Yes, Diggity had walked away – but then she had come back, before walking away again (Tracks 224). Davidson’s dog had clearly been torn between two competing desires: the need to leave this world (on her own) and the wish to remain in it (with others). Her journey no longer seemed so straight or straightforward – and now neither did mine. Like many travellers, I had journeyed for uncertain, complicated or even conflicting reasons, and yet my first account of my journey had not acknowledged any of this ambivalence or complexity. Like many travel narratives, it had been static, fixed and fixated on an idea inherited from other accounts. Not so this essay, I hope. It is an attempt to enact a notion I have gleaned from my recent foray into the world of travel literature: the notion that the most revealing travel narratives are those in which the mind – and not simply the matter – of the traveller is always on the move, roving rather than arriving.
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