(This is another long one. 1900 words.)
THE WALKING CURE
I’m just now back from a lovely long walk to the nearby 7-11 convenience store and service station, where they have a machine that makes damn good coffee, fast, cheap, and consistently. Two lousy dollars gets me an iced coffee as good as any I’ve had from most cafes around Perth. It seems like a modern technical miracle, like wifi.
The main point of going to this little cave of wonders, though, is the walk itself. There and back it’s almost exactly two kilometers, and takes me about 30-35 minutes. And lately, even though we’re at least theoretically in winter here in Oz, the weather has been perfect for late afternoon strolling. Clear, sunny skies, faint breeze, slanting, setting sun. And there’s a picturesque park to walk through, with a winding path. It’s so nice it’s sort of ridiculous!
The walk does me good. Gives me time and space to think, often about what I’m going to write about on a given day. Today I was thinking about this post I’m writing now, and about another possible piece about “fear of relapse”, since today is seven months to the day since leaving hospital. I may do that as well, or I may not. My only rule with this journal is that I do at least one thing each day.
Walking has always done me good. I stumbled across it by accident when I was about 12 and very likely in a manic phase. I convinced my friend Michael (my murdered friend Michael) to join me in entering, for laughs, the annual City to Surf Fun Run. We’d done enough running in school to know that Nothing Good ever came of running. It was a wholly terrible enterprise with no redeeming features. We were especially amused by the name, “Fun Run”. This was hilarious, and oh, how we laughed!
The thing was, though, you were also allowed to walk the distance. In fact it didn’t matter how you covered the distance, as long as it was under your own power. People in wheelchairs would have a go. People on crutches. Crazy morale-fuelled teams of hospital staff would push a hospital bed over the distance. And the sheer numbers of participants! It was as if a mass street protest decided spontaneously to run to the beach.
Once Michael understood that I had no intention of actually running the distance from the centre of Perth to, I think, City Beach, he was fine with the whole mad idea. It was just walking. How bad could it be?
As it happened, it could, and was, very bad indeed. The course for the event snaked the length of the Canning Highway that is one of the two main ways to get from Perth to Fremantle (the other being Stirling Highway, on the other side of the river). Canning Highway is extremely hilly. And we slogged our way up and dragged ourselves down each one.
This is the kind of story told about one’s childhood adventures that seems hilarious given forty years of hindsight, but which, truth be told, was an agonising, backbreaking, blister-bursting ordeal at the time. And we never even got to the beach. Once we reached Fremantle I suggested we go and visit my grandparents, who lived in Freo. Previously, I’d only ever been there with my parents, in the family car. I didn’t realise that their rambling, breathing old red-brick pile of a house, the sort of house immortalised by Tim Winton in CLOUDSTREET, was way over on the far side of Fremantle. Needless to say, my grandparents were extremely surprised, indeed shocked, to see us stagger in!
This ridiculous and painful enterprise gave me a love of walking long distances, though. My dad, when I was a kid, sometimes told a story about how, in something to do with his military service (back in the 1950s, during a period of conscription), had a thing about walking from Perth to Fremantle, in full battle-dress and pack. This is one of those family tales that comes down to you delicate, as if made of the dust that has settled all over it, and is so fragile that peering at it to pick out details can make it dissolve into nothing. But I think my dad did this because at the beginning of his military service he was very fat, and the epic walk in full gear was a way to lose weight in a hurry.
I was always intrigued by this account. I look back now at my younger self’s fascination, remembering how Dad telling this story ignited the desire to replicate the feat. Perth to Fremantle, if you go along Stirling Highway, is about 12-15 miles. (Miles! Who remembers miles! How quaint! But a mile is 1.6 kilometers.) And along Stirling Highway, unlike Canning Highway, the gradient is different: rather than a succession of steep hills, Stirling Highway is just uphill almost all the way.
Michael and I, purely for laughs, and sometimes sticking as close as we could to the river shoreline as possible, walked this journey a number of times. It was always my daft idea. “Hey, do you wanna walk to Freo again?” and, if sufficient time had elapsed, he’d groan, but agree, and off we’d go, full of adventure and sunburn. And what sunburn! Sunburned and peeling earlobes! Toes! Who knew you could even get sunburned toes?
We got older, and Michael went off to university to pursue a degree in chemistry. The world turned, and life moved on, as it always does.
In time I went to university as well, starting in 1983, at Curtin University, which at the time was still known as Western Australian Institute of Technology, or WAIT. I was signed up for Theatre Arts and Creative Writing.
University was, at one and the same time, the very best and the very worst experience I had ever had. One day I may write about it. For now, though, what you need to know is that I crashed and burned, my emotional life in ruins, my mind like the surface of the Moon, and quit in the midst of third-year, 1985. I went home, shrouded like a mummy in bitterness and depression, and lived on icecream and sleep for months.
Then one day I discovered I weighed 140 kilograms. This was the first message from the outside world that reached me in ages. It was like a fire alarm going off. I started eating properly. I started walking, and even running, every day at a local park.
Somehow, I no longer remember how, I went from doing laps of the local oval in Girrawheen where we lived at the time in government housing, to walking from Perth, along the river, to Matilda Bay in Crawley, near the University of Western Australia, one of my favourite places.
I feel as if I’ve lost the third reel of a feature film. How did I get from doing laps in Girrawheen to walking to Matilda Bay? I have no idea, but I did.
I used to walk to Matilda Bay almost every day. I’d get the bus into the city, change into walking gear, then head out along Mounts Bay Road, which runs right by the river on one side, and the looming bulk of Kings Park on the other. It was a spectacular walk. The sight and the smell of it, the wind in my face. Even on stinking hot days, it was a wondrous experience.
Matilda Bay has been one of my favourite places since childhood, when we, the family and me, would go there. Dad, a marine motor mechanic, was often there working on someone’s boat, or he might be playing with a boat of his own (so many memories of launching and retrieving boats from the ramp there), or sometimes we’d just sit there and eat fish and chips at sunset, in the gathering, salt-smelling twilight, watching yachts and other boats, cranky seagulls hoping for a chip. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent at Matilda Bay.
And in the 80s, as I recovered from university, walking there from the city did me a world of good again. I’d spend hours building sandcastles. Or just sitting on benches, watching the birds, or boats coming and going, listening to the wind in the beautiful trees. It was healing.
Then one day, as I walked along Mounts Bay Road, heading for Matilda Bay, I wondered for the first time: what if I kept going? Mounts Bay Road becomes Stirling Highway. In order to go to Matilda Bay, you go along Mounts Bay Road until you get to the point where you can turn left onto Hackett Drive and there you are–or you could keep going. Less than fifty meters further on, the beginning of Stirling Highway beckons you on to Fremantle.
How far along Stirling Highway could I go? Could I go to Fremantle, like I did in the old days, with Michael? Was I fit enough? Was I mad enough?
I was, and I did, and it was bloody brilliant fun! I would go and walk to Fremantle from Perth three or four times a week. I lost loads of weight, just like my dad, back in his army days, and I got fit. It was invigorating.
It took me two hours, plus two short breaks along the route. It was a beautiful walk. Exhausting, but thrilling. And I only stopped because one day I got a job, working for the government at the Bureau of Statistics. Which was fine. By this point I was starting to go out with Michelle. I needed the money. Up to this point I’d been on disability because of my illness.
(I’d been on what was then known as the invalid pension since 1980, when I finished high school. I was also at the time in the outpatient system at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. My capacity for work was thought not good because of my illness. And it was a very different, more generous time. People today enmeshed in the grinding, maddening gears of the Centrelink “service” with its deliberately punitive approach to people with problems would be shocked, and quite possibly enraged at how very decent the system was 30 years ago. Once Michelle and I started living together, our combined income was too great for me to continue receiving the pension, and it was stopped.)
Walking has always been good to me, and continues to be so. These days, middle-aged and arthritic, I’m not as flexible or strong as I was. I have managed, for some years now, to slog out laps in the pool at the local aquatic centre, which has been a big part of my current weight-loss program. But in the past week or so my right knee has started playing up, complaining at almost all times, and a visit to the doctor, and most likely scans, are in my future. It’s conceivable I might even be a candidate for knee-replacement surgery now. Last time I was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon for a consult, before I’d lost so much weight, he said my weight at the time would crush any knee replacement device he installed. It’s now 40 kilograms later. Things may have changed.
In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my 7-11 robo-coffee, and the pleasant walk there and back, giving me time to think.