Tuesday 12 December 2023

Going Solo

[Climbing towards Twilight Tarn]

For many years my simple response to the idea of solo bushwalking was to find reasons not to bushwalk solo. I could name safety concerns; my preference for company; my enjoyment of sharing walking’s pleasures and pains with others. But lurking beneath those reasons was a possibility I didn’t care to acknowledge. Was I afraid of being alone with myself? 

I began to see this as a spiritual challenge. Despite writing at length about the spiritual side of bushwalking, going solo was one aspect of it that I had barely experienced. It became the kind of challenge that I needed to face up to, when the time was right. But when is that? I could always find reasons not to go, burying my unwillingness beneath the busyness of life. Eventually, as the days of spring grew longer and (slightly) warmer, I decided to plan a trip. I would spend a few nights alone near Twilight Tarn in Tasmania’s Mount Field National Park. It was a place I knew, but in an area that also held some worthy challenges. So, on a clear September morning, I put my pack in my car and took off on my first multi-day solo journey. 


* * *


For much of the first hour of the walk, my monkey mind is swinging from the trees. It’s demanding to know where all the others monkeys have gone; telling me that the strong wind is REALLY worrying; suggesting that the new lightweight pack IS going to be uncomfortable. Okay, I say, in my calmest voice, we’re not used to this. But we will be alright; all will be well. 


Henri Nouwen outlined the necessity of this kind of ‘gentle and persistent effort’. In “Reaching Out” he writes: 


'To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude. The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from the restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.'

[Coming or Going?]


Right now I feel a long way from fearless play. My soul is still skittish, jumping at shadows that might be snakes, or might be nothing. But I am walking, and that rhythmical movement, even the tiny clank of my metal drinking cup on my pack, helps to settle the monkey. I further distract myself by measuring my walking pace on my sports watch. I set myself the goal of walking at 4km/h, and I fail. But because I’m finding so much to stop and look at, and to photograph, it’s a noble failure. When my botanical friends, especially the buttongrass and pandani, wave their greetings, I must pay my respects.

[Buttongrass near Lake Webster]


I am finding a freedom in walking like this, in casting aside schedules, in not having the wishes of others dictate my speed, or lack of it. In one sense, it’s as though the years have peeled away. I’m like a child, free to follow my whims. When I was a small child I was obsessed with running water, and particularly waterfalls. My parents later told me I would coo “oooh, water!” as we drove past anything resembling a waterfall. Apparently I wasn’t always discerning, more than once taking delight in a stormwater drain emptying muddy water into a culvert.


On the second day of my walk I climb up to Tarn Shelf to “play” with water. Tarn Shelf is a delightful chain of alpine lakes, tarns and ponds on a rocky shelf suspended between the Rodway Range and a series of lower forest-fringed lakes. As I clamber up towards the first tarn, it’s windy. But above the rush of wind on rock and scrub, I’m sure I hear the roar of running water. Just days before, Tarn Shelf had been coated with snow. Most has now melted, and the meltwater is flowing off the slopes, into then out of the lakes, and down into the valleys.


I wander off-track, slowly making my way towards the source of the roaring. For the best part of an hour I high-step through scrub to view a series of delightful cascades coming from the outfall creek of Twisted Tarn. No-one else is there to corroborate whether or not I cry out “oooh, water!”

[Cascade below Twisted Tarn]


Tarn Shelf holds many other memories that now rise to mind. I find that when I’m not talking and listening, memory becomes my companion. And now I start thinking of two of my bushwalking mentors, Ken and Ray. Each separately brought me up here in my early days of bushwalking in Tasmania. Ray introduced me to skiing here, and if I was never any good at it, Ray was not to blame! Ken took me a little further afield. On one winter walk we braved deep snow, explored a couple of huts, and spent a cold night in the Lake Newdegate Hut. I must have been exhausted, because I managed to fall asleep while Ken was reading a book to me. He never let me forget it!

[One of the many tarns on Tarn Shelf]


Deeper into my solo time, I start thinking on some matters that have been bothering me. That’s part of the reason I’ve come. But what am I supposed to do with what comes up? Years ago I asked Rowland Croucher, a very experienced Christian pastor and writer, what sustained him through all the ups and downs of the spiritual life. Decades later I still remember his succinct answer: ‘Externalise guilt, fear and anxiety’.


For years I’ve placed this life practice within the context of confession, whether formal, as in the Roman Catholic tradition, in which confession is a sacrament, or informal. We all have, at some time in our lives, done wrong. Or we’ve failed to do what we knew to be right. It’s beneficial to come clean about these wrongs.


[A twisted path near Twisted Tarn]

Similarly we all experience things that deeply trouble us, whether they are caused by known/external factors (fear), or imprecise/internal factors (anxiety). I had always taken Rowland Croucher’s advice to mean that the weight of guilt, fear and anxiety is lessened and lifted by sharing it with appropriate others. “Get it off your chest” might be an over-simplified summary. There’s much more to it than that, including the whole theology of forgiveness. But on this solo walk I’m discovering one other unexpected nuance.  


Certainly I have the sense that some of these personal burdens are adding to the weight of my pack. But being on a solo walk, I have no immediate chance of confessing any of this to anyone besides God. And then comes a realisation. Perhaps taking these burdens for a walk is in itself a way of externalising them. By carrying them into the bush with me, I’m literally bringing them out in the open. Out here it’s harder to run from them, and they’ll stay with me until I do some processing. The peace and beauty of my surroundings helps this process. 


I’ve set up my small red tent beneath some yellow alpine gums and snow gums. The site is a little above Twilight Tarn, which glistens in the afternoon sun. A yellow-throated honeyeater calls confidently from the branches. At first its singular, rich “chowk” call ricochets through the trees. It follows up with a series of loud, melodious, staccato calls. Somehow its brio gives me confidence, and I start to feel more at peace, at home even.

[My campsite at Twilight Tarn]


The small clearing that is my home for now is surrounded by dolerite boulders. They look as though they’re reclining, and after dinner I’m ready to do the same. But as hundreds of midges have found me, I have to retreat to my tent to do so. I know from experience that these sneaky little critters, while giving the impression of just buzzing around your face, will settle and bite. 


Once I’m inside the tent, peace returns. I can rest and reflect on my day. I start considering how “taking my guilt, fear and anxiety for a walk” works in practical terms. Firstly I make sure I’m not doing a full inventory of everything that burdens me. That could crush me! Rather I wait to see which issues rise to the top, which are the headline concerns. Then I name them: literally give them a name. For me, of all of the things I might feel guilt about, I’m a little surprised by what comes up. I find I’ve been thinking about an old friendship that has withered, so I call this first burden “guilt about failing to nurture my friendship with X”. After naming it, I simply hold it, turn it in my mind, keeping it at some distance. Yes, in the busyness of mid-life; in being physically distant from my friend; in the aftermath of small misunderstandings, we have drifted apart.

[Richea pandanifolia - detail]


I try not to apportion blame during this process, but rather to gently interrogate my feelings. First off I feel gratitude for the years of our friendship, for the things we learned together, the good and hard times we shared. I also feel sadness at the stalling of our friendship, and my part in that. And I probe the complicated possibility of rekindling our relationship, pondering what it might take on both my side and his. There is not necessarily resolution today, certainly not “closure” (how I dislike that overused and inaccurate term!) But perhaps I understand myself and my friend a little better. Guilt among the gumtrees has lost some of its potency. 

[The old hut at Twilight Tarn]


There’s another aspect to it, well put by Catholic nun and theologian, Sister Joan Chittister. ‘Once I have felt guilt, I become a softer part of the human race.’ Or to put it in terms of the approach to spirituality I’ve been taking, the inward work can have outward results. A solo trip can be about me, certainly. But it can also be about others. And it can point me towards possibilities such as reconciliation and forgiveness: which have both outward and upward aspects in my spirituality.


Apparently there’s still more that wants to rise to the surface. Whether it’s fear or anxiety, I’m not certain, but on the final morning of my walk I stir from sleep well before it’s light. In a half-dream, half-awake state, I hear a bird fluttering. In my mind it’s small and dark, and I name it the bird of death. I’m more curious than afraid, and I ask the bird of death ‘Is it my turn? Have you come for me?’ The bird doesn’t speak, but looks at me with one unblinking eye, and I sense two things. First now is not my time, and second the dark bird is never far away.


I’m not troubled by these dream thoughts. They remind me of what my younger sister Liz told me as she was nearing the end of her battle with brain cancer. We are all dying, she said. It’s just that I know the timing. Liz died far too young, at the age of 38. But as a person of faith, she was inpirational to the end. Back in my tent, as I’m pondering these big matters, I remember that today is Liz’s birthday. 


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