La Route Est Longue

Photo: One day in August 2018, on the Chemin de St. Jacques.

In 1978-79, American Jim introduced a young woman from Kolkata to what he called hiking (that is hours of walking and days at a time), and his long-time mate, Aussie Barbara, called ‘bush walking’. Jim and Barbara had hiked in the US, in Asia and been on heaps of bush-walks in Australia.

The Kolkata Bengalis are build for comfort not for speed or any mobility at all, really. Tagore the greatest Indian poet described his fellow-Bengalis thus:

‘Short of height and wide of girth.

Bengal’s children buttoned up.

Peacefully asleep.’

Against all odds, Jim and Barbara persuaded the Bengali girl to come on a four-day hike in the Flinders’ Ranges in South Australia. She failed to learn any bush craft. They let her off camp duties. They gave her the lightest pack. Still, while stumbling through the bush, falling over in every puddle, held up by the scruff of her neck, she caught their walking bug.

Photo: Pulled along by Barbara, Flinders Ranges, South Australia, 1978.

Jim is the older brother I never had. Many in Indonesia, Australia, and elsewhere know him as an academic who wrote and taught about 20th century Indonesia and world politics. For me he did what older siblings should do – they teach you the simple things of life. Jim taught me the pleasure of walking – walking long distances.

In the last three weeks, while I have walked about 400 kilometres on the Camino in France, Jim has been doing the real heavy lifting. He has completed the last visit to his beloved Indonesia and has begun the last leg of his unique through-hike, as the Americans call the really long wilderness walks.

In 2014, I walked 780 kms, with my own walking-buddy, from St. Jean-Pied-de-port to Santiago de Compostella. The day I limped into Burgos moaning from shin-split pain, we were overtaken by a man with a tee-shirt saying something like ‘walking for Parkinsons’. We later learnt that he was PD sufferer who was walking the Camino without support. Along the way, other walkers gathered around him, gave him the support he needed on the day, then walked on at their own pace. Each to her or his own Camino.

Jim didn’t really hike much after he lost his walking-buddy in 1996. Parkinson’s disease eventually forced him to stop walking, in the ordinary sense of the word. But he kept going with all the determination of the long-distance walker, that he was. Wisely, he found a track-angel because every hiker needs one and deserves one.

‘La route est longue’ the French say about the Camino and as a metaphor for life.

On a really long walk, the days run into each other. It is hard to remember where you stayed one night or how many kilometres you did another day or indeed what day of the week it is!

Putting one foot then another would be monotonous, except that the foot, even encased in the most expensive hiking shoes is ever-aware of the changing surface: here cautious on slippery rocks, and minutes later gratefully relaxing into silty softness. Legs tighten at even a five degree incline on the road. Hearts pound going up the mound that looked like a pimple on the topographical map.

Each step is made new by the details you can see when you move at walking pace: a tiny brown creature emerges out of foamy pupa, spiderweb hangs from the fencing wires like meters of fine silk. One day the moon shadow stays up all morning. You squint your camera into the light, but it dodges all attempts to record its unexpected presence. In some stretches of the walk autumn has already begun to lay down a carpet of leaves, but just across, spring is still in full bloom in the tiny purple and yellow flowers on the rock. Just when the heat is getting to you, the trees overhead shake off last night’s dew.

On one of those really tedious stretches of flat grey road, flecks from the sky might flutter past as blue butterflies. A dry rocky wasteland of a road. Signs for hunters all around. A man in a flack jacket. Three four-wheel drives mow down the dry grassy stretch beside the narrow track. Then two more men with guns and dogs. A shot far away. Three minutes later, a fawn doe stops you in her tracks. The one that got away, you breathe a sigh of relief.

Some days are perfect. These you recall in vivid detail. Just over a week ago now (around the time Jim went into the hospital for the last time) overnight rain had cooled the ground. We left Figeac in a soft drizzle. Along the way, the sun came out, smiling. The breeze cooled our way and pushed us up the last climb.  Most setttlements show themselves slowly, shyly. But Cajarc burst into view all at once as we reached the high ground, after 9 hours and 30 kilometers of walking.

And from long ago and far away, I can still recall my first ever hike. First night in Wilpena Pound Campsite. First gum leaf tea cooked in a ‘billy’ on the campfire (for the non-Aussie reader, if there are any, a billy is a tin can with a handle). Learning to pack the first borrowed back-pack. Jim is a bit ahead, staking out the way, calling out warnings ‘prickly bush’, ‘go round the big rock’, ‘puddle’…

Bonne Courage Mas Jim, as they say here in France, along the Way of St James.

Photo: End of a day’s walk with Jim and other walking-buddies, 1978

2 thoughts on “La Route Est Longue

  1. Life is full of wondrous experiences one of which is meeting such wonderful people as Jim who became an elder brother to you.
    Keep writing and let us be part of your hiking team.

    Liked by 1 person

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