Walking and stopping and looking and walking
My right knee points in the wrong direction. Instead of articulating forwards and backwards like it should, it moves on an angle—inwards, towards the other knee. If I’m clumsy while running, my knees knock together. I can only assume something went wrong at the manufacturing plant.
If I were dropped in a desert, with no point of orientation on the horizon, and were told to walk in a straight line, my footprints would soon drift off leftwards. They would continue drifting leftwards, even if it appeared to my own eyes that I was walking straight ahead. The slightly skewed nature of my gait would exaggerate over time. If the desert were big enough—and the inevitable exhaustion of body and mind were forever delayed—eventually I would loop around to my own footprints again.
We make circles when we need to. The circle is holistic, absolute. It is a revolution; it’s a line that meets itself. It can continue for as long as it is uninterrupted—around and around.
There’s a circle that I can’t finish. It was started in an ocean bath at the edge of a port city. It’d been barely three months since the memorial. We were in Newcastle, and the stars were out; you can see most of them, unlike in the bigger cities, unlike back home. It was well past midnight and we had stripped down to our bathers or underwear. The salt water in the ocean baths was icy, but the iciness felt like a necessary preparation for what was about to happen.
We walked in circles, arms joined. Together our walking started to swirl the water. We defined the motion and the motion carried us continuously, circuitously. We’d summoned a whirlpool with our bodies. It was ritualistic, cathartic. Thirty or more of us, holding hands, never stopping for fear of what it might mean. Letting the current take us around and around. Walking in the water is already difficult, unnatural. We had no destination, but we needed to walk. We needed to do something.
There’s an episode of the ABC2 sitcom Please Like Me that tracks this need. Rose (Debra Lawrance) has been committed to a mental health institute. Just as things are starting to look up, as her life is stitching back together, a close friend (and fellow patient) dies by suicide. It is sudden; it is without details. In the episode that follows, Josh (Josh Thomas) accompanies his mother across the Overland Track, a six-day trek through Tasmania’s north-east. Rose needs to do something. She needs to walk. So they walk.
‘Scroggin’, directed by Matthew Saville and written by Thomas, opens with a slow pan across green-brown Tasmanian wilderness. Fog occupies the upper third of the frame like an attic ceiling: it slants inwards, closing in on the rest of the image. A white van snakes down a two-lane road, dropping off Rose and Josh in the middle of nowhere. Rose is nervous. Is this it? Do they just start … walking?
The Overland Track is not a circle. It is a line—a rough diagonal, stretching 65 kilometres across Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. The line tells a story. ‘For writers, the long distance walk is an easy way to find narrative continuity,’ writes Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust, a bible for the walking arts. The line defines both a beginning and an end; it is in that pliable middle between the two that characters grow (or, sometimes, refuse to grow).
Rose and Josh begin as simply as they can, one foot after another. Rose sings the show’s jaunty theme song a cappella—‘I’ll be fiiiiine,’ her voice wavering. ‘You don’t have to fill in all the quiet space,’ Josh says. ‘Just try not to be the Donkey to my Shrek, yeah?’ They are well provisioned; their bushwalking gear is all new, unblemished. Judging by the faultless weather, they are walking in the summer or the spring. It costs $200 per person to walk the Overland during these months.
I walked the same track almost a decade ago, when I was in high school. We walked through the winter, when access is free and the cabins are suitably uncrowded. My dad made the journey, too, as a parental aide. In his youth he’d climbed mountains, and he’d begun to enjoy watching his sons take an interest in the activity. But Dad and I walked the Overland Track a week apart. There were two groups from my school, and we fell into different camps. My dad still mentions, from time to time, how he wishes we had walked the track together. How we should all get together, he and his three boys, and walk it before he’s too old. He’s getting too old. He might be too old already.
I don’t remember my excuse, how I finagled my life so that we’d inevitably be split. Maybe I was just at peak teenager, and didn’t want my father hanging around while I was still trying to learn how to have a personality of my own. More than anything else, though, I remember not wanting to be part of the group that comprised only boys and men.
The all-male trip returned a day before I was to set out, pockets full of in-jokes and egos high. They compared battle scars and BO. My dad was excited and exhausted in equal measures; he’d liked getting to know my friends. The next morning was a Sunday; he dropped me off outside school at dawn. It was my turn to make the trek.
Each day our walking guide, a religious education teacher, would make us stop along the track, somewhere where the view was resplendent. He liked this word ‘resplendent’. We would pause, silent for several minutes, reflecting on our God moment. This is what he would ask of us each day—a God moment, just one. Each time I tried to conjure anything I came up blank. So do I just stand here? Do I close my eyes? Eventually the silence would break, and we’d move on. ‘Walking is usually about something else—about the walker’s character or encounters, about nature or about achievement, sometimes so much so it ceases to be about walking.’ Solnit, again, because she has yet to lead me astray.
In Please Like Me, Rose is walking to heal. She is walking to escape—and then to process—her grief; her son, Josh, is there for support. On the walk, Rose reveals that her friend had given her a note: Thanks, and goodbye. It is brief; it’s almost a joke. Rose reads it aloud, and Josh laughs. ‘That’s it? That’s hardly closure, is it?’ Rose puts the note into the ethanol fire of the Trangia stove in a typically symbolic fashion. They are sitting on a jetty, feet dangling above the surface of Lake St Clair. It is quiet. This is an archetypal God moment.
‘I’m going to go back to the mental home,’ Rose says, ‘and get better.’ It’s a decisive action—it’s movement forwards. It’s the line being walked.
They exit as the only passengers aboard a boat, skipping across the lake. Josh leans against the frame of the boat; Rose leans against her son. The episode ends as it began, with a slow pan; except this time the scenery is inverted. The dark blue lake is contained by a row of bushy trees and the green-blue mountains. The sky is overcast but there’s a white sun behind it all: it reflects a long, bright line across the lake, like the moon would. The wake of the boat cuts the reflection in two.
When hiking across a trail, a mountain or any kind of national park, it feels okay to be alone. When a stranger walks by, the exchange is brief—a nod, a how you going that doesn’t warrant a response. Even though hiking, by its nature, usually happens in the relative wilderness, received wisdom says that other people aren’t a threat. They’re there for the same reason, to walk forwards and not look back. In the suburbs or the urban world, though, the sight of another person at the wrong time of day, or in the wrong street, can feel unnerving. Even though we expect to encounter other people, somehow we are less sure of them. The space around us is smaller but feels more easily invaded.
Lauren Elkin has noticed this too. ‘I find the empty streets of my parents’ neighbourhood terrifying,’ she writes of Long Island, New York. ‘The very appearance of another human, walking on foot, seems out of place and menacing.’ Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London is a counter-history of flânerie. Flânerie is the act of wandering, usually through an urban environment, and letting chance or chaos guide you. ‘Walking is mapping with your feet,’ she writes. ‘It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities.’
But the activity has traditionally been exclusive. The flâneur was a ‘figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention’. The flâneur understands the world as few others do, she suggests, for he has memorised it with his feet. So she reclaims the concept: to name a thing is to give it power. Flâneuse is the French feminine of an existing masculine form. Flânerie is still an exclusive pastime—all the women Elkin documents are European, white, middle class—but it’s movement forwards, at least. Elkin walks the line.
Solnit is well aware of who is free to write this ‘literature of paradise, the story of what can happen when nothing profound is wrong’. Only the protagonist who is ‘healthy, solvent, uncommitted’ can seek out minor adventure in the form of wandering.
In contrast to ‘Scroggin’ with its postcard Tasmanian vistas, ‘Natural Spring Water’ weaves Please Like Me through the streets of Melbourne, zooming in on youth and urbanity. Written and directed by Josh Thomas, the episode begins with a close-up of a pink-skinned open palm. Three MDMA capsules drop into the hand, off-brown salt shaking in their transparent casings. Josh, his boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) and best friend Tom (Thomas Ward) are arranged in a triangle in their lounge room. None of them have taken the drug before.
Their weatherboard share house features wide, welcoming windows, and sits on the corner of a northern suburban street: Northcote or Thornbury, maybe Preston. They are safe in this house—and it is this safety that they want to escape, why they took the MDMA in the first place. They take a bus across the city to an almost empty club and this is good, for a while, less their wheelhouse. But it is still safe. Tom meets a curious New Zealander, a bored urbanite. When someone asks, ‘What do you think should be our next adventure?’ she responds quickly and enthusiastically: ‘Let’s go for a run!’
The three of us were 15 years old, all still boys, not really fitting in anywhere at our suburban Hobartian high school. Out of place in the crowds around us, we were social vagrants, making temporary connections—but not friendships—with the expected school cliques. We were untethered to anyone but each other.
We had already learned how to hold a can of black spray paint against concrete: we had discovered a service hatch by the Bowen bridge and snuck into its guts, spelling out our initials on the walls. We’d pilfered my friend’s dad’s whisky and learned to mark the bottle with a pencil so we could dilute it later with the right amount of water. But we wanted to be more than boys, whatever that meant. And for us, at that age, in this part of the suburbs—near the plastic fabricators, and the roundabout where people parked their trailers full of firewood—that meant occupying a space that didn’t belong to us. Not taking up a space where we were welcome, but one where we weren’t. That space, we decided, was the streets of Glenorchy, a suburb we’d walked through dozens of times. A suburb with a bus mall and a reputation for knife fights. But they were just rumours, right? It was the time of day that was important—night, late night, past midnight. We wanted to be flâneurs in flannelettes, even if we didn’t know it.
As the Please Like Me gang excitedly leave the club, the late nineties pop of ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ follows them out. They run through anonymised inner-city streets, passing car washes, trams, pubs. The city is a blur, the edits rapid: they feel reckless and invincible. There is no destination in mind, no practical reason for running. They just want to move through the city.
They run until they hit Docklands—the edge of the city—where the water is dark and sloshy. When the group runs along a pier, the camera is low to the ground, framing the characters high. But Tom trips and falls, and we’re brought down with him. The pace slows down; the Backstreet Boys cut out. He’s broken his arm.
We snuck out of the house while my friend’s parents were asleep, and walked along the cycleway until we hit Glenorchy. Just to prove to ourselves—to each other—that we could. We coiled around the streets, no goal or destination in mind. A St Vincent de Paul van sat in the middle of a car park, boot open and lights on, but no-one was waiting around for soup. We walked along, past the public library, past the shuttered mall. We avoided eye contact with the men who sat in their cars, and whenever there was a noise we scurried in the opposite direction.
We wanted to feel the risk, the tension; we wanted to feel that we were capable of hacking it in the presence of danger. Not flânerie—we wanted to feel uncomfortable. The streets didn’t belong to us. We were young and dumb, fat and skinny and uncool. These were the reasons we felt uncomfortable and help explain why after 15 minutes or so we made our way back towards the house.
Near the episode’s conclusion, Josh’s father (David Roberts) arrives at the hospital, furious. ‘Thank fuck you’re alive!’ he shouts. Josh and his friends just stand there, quiet, sober. Other than the broken arm, they are all unharmed; they were happy, even, before his dad arrived. He is overreacting, they think. ‘Of course I’m going to think the bloody worst!’
When Dad picked me up the morning after, I expect he asked what we’d got up to. ‘Not much,’ I’d have said, because it’s what I still say. I’d have told him we watched a movie, and played games, which weren’t lies. He’d nod, and make a semi-circle around the roundabout.
By the end of the year one of us had been expelled. By the end of the next year another left for TAFE. I was the only one to move on from high school to college—the separate school for years 11 and 12. The college campus just happened to be in the heart of Glenorchy. For two years I waited on my own, sometimes nervously, at the bus mall every school afternoon.
The circle and the line
The circle puts you back to where you started. The circle is not a solution; it is reflective, contemplative, ceremonial. It doesn’t change space but time—it’s a detour. A wandering off from yourself, and a return.
I come back to Newcastle, to the sea baths. It’s been a year. I always come back here. I am surrounded by many of the same people from the whirlpool. The air is even colder; legs huddle along the amphitheatre stairs. No-one is swimming. People share cheap, colourful wine and leftover beer. I can’t make out anyone’s faces; just shadow people. Who am I talking to again?
A few hours later I walk along a beach with two others. My phone dies; my partner will worry, unsure where I am. The sand is wet. Our footprints make deep recesses and the salt gets into our shoes. I accidentally veer towards the ocean; I blame my knee, but I know it’s the wine. Where the beach gets skinny and the tide laps high, we walk in single file, a line.
We walk along the rocks. I don’t smoke but I do here, just one, because I need to act out some kind of ritual. I need to do something. We sit in a triangle, passing the lighter around. When one of us slips and gashes a leg on the slippery rocks, everything comes down to ground level. We walk back towards the city, along the beach at first but then up the cement stairs to the street. We walk together. To walk alone at this hour in this city would be unwise. Another group of walkers comes upon us from the opposite direction. Both groups hush their conversations; in sync, we hold our breaths.
The sea baths are vacant when we pass by. The salt water lies flat and black, unswirled. A year ago, the circle had contracted as people peeled off. The morning approached, and we had disbanded. The circle could not contain the sun.