MY MOTHER’S FOOTSTEPS
Adam McCulloch walks a sentimental path beyond the Adelaide Hills
EFORE my mother died of a long illness, she scheduled her funeral so it wouldn’t clash with either of her walking groups’ weekly hikes. The Goannas hiked on Wednesdays and the Skyline Walkers on Saturdays. My mum, Patricia McCulloch, died on September 6, 2007. The day after her funeral, my father, two brothers, oldest nephew and I joined the Skyline Walkers for their Saturday sojourn.
‘‘ It’s just a hike,’’ my father said, but with the entire family following in mum’s footsteps, the symbolism was obvious.
‘‘ This was one of your mother’s favourite walks,’’ dad explained as we drove through the Adelaide Hills towards Warren Conservation Park, the designated meeting place. It was just what I wanted to hear. In her final weeks, my mother forbade her three sons (myself included) to return to Adelaide to see her. She wanted her image in our memory to be unblemished by the ravages of cancer.
It was a dignified end, but not without compromise. As the cancer grew, it became as demanding as a newborn baby and, as a result, she spent less and less quality time with us. By hiking her favourite walk, I hoped that I might discover a level of intimacy I had missed in those final weeks.
At the trail head on Watts Gully Road, two dozen fellow hikers were assembled. I had met many at yesterday’s funeral but seeing them dressed in lurid Gortex and microfibre was such a contrast to yesterday’s sombre attire that I struggled to recognise a single face. ‘‘ This walk is a large lollipop,’’ said the hike leader, rather obscurely.
‘‘ It’s not actually a walk for suckers,’’ my father explained. It is shorthand, apparently, for a walk along a trail followed by a large circuit, then back along the short trail. Our lollipop was 10km and designed to take in a small section of the Heysen Trail, the 1200km route that runs from Cape Jervis on South Australian’s Fleurieu Peninsula to Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges.
We started across the boardwalk and up our first hill. Spring had brought recent rain and, in the dewy morning, the landscape was uncharacteristically green. It resembled the oddly lush paintings early European artists did of Australia before they conceded the land’s natural palette was actually straw and burnt umber. The undergrowth thickened and soon we were walking in single file.
Years of family hiking holidays in locales as diverse as Nepal and New Zealand had familiarised me with the rhythm of my parents’ gait and curve of their backs. My folks had walked arm in arm for the past 41 years, so it was hardly surprising that their lumbering stride had become almost identical. Without mum, my father’s step seemed a little out of sync.
As each of us settled into our natural pace I found myself exchanging anecdotes about my mother with an ever-changing procession of walkers. To my surprise, I discovered that she had a reputation as someone who was rather calm under pressure.
This one time a group of us had stopped on a narrow path to admire a flower,’’ one walker recalled. We were all milling around and your mum asked politely from the back of the group, Do you think you might be able to move ahead a few steps? There’s a large brown snake at my ankle.’
It wasn’t the mother I had ever known. Even in her dying months she worried needlessly about my safety and the fact that I lived in dangerous’’ New York. The mother I was hearing about was, dare I say it, a risk taker, even an adventurer. And it pleased me no end to hear it.
On dipping into a valley we discovered that a bushfire had burned out the forest a season or two before. Blackened trees were sheathed with lush legwarmers of new growth. Lost in thought I stumbled into the heels of the hiker in front: the entire group had come to a shuddering halt.
‘‘ Spider orchid,’’ cried a voice up ahead. ‘‘ Don’t tell Glenn,’’ said another.
My father, it seemed, had gathered a reputation as an orchid-hater. (He prefers walking to the kind of waiting around that orchid appreciation requires.) Did mum hate stopping for orchids? I didn’t know, so to keep dad’s opinion from becoming a minority of one, I pooh-poohed the spider orchid and stormed ahead with him.
My mother had always loved hiking but in her final year it became much more than that. When she was diagnosed with metastasised breast cancer, a full 10 years after she was seemingly cured after her first bout, she used walking as a way to keep healthy, improve bone strength and ward off her inevitable decline. She was given six weeks to live but responded well to treatment and always kept up her spirits.
During one visit to the oncologist she complained about not being able to jump boulders as well as she used to. (The 13 brain tumors might have had something to do with it.) She was lucky to be alive and the oncologist told her so. ‘‘ Enjoy life,’’ he said, and she did.
My parents planned elaborate walking trips to Snowdonia National Park in Wales, the Kimberley, Canada and beyond. One year passed since her six-week prognosis, then two, then three. We all laughed about how much time she had borrowed and for years it felt like we were playing truant.
All the while, quietly and steadily cancer was returning.
In her final months she still sounded well on the phone. Understandably, she preferred talking about life rather than her impending death. As a result, our conversations about walking took on a whole new subtext. I asked in detail about distances and grades and used
the her response as a barometer for her wellbeing. Seventeen-kilometre hikes became 15, then 10, seven. Her last big walk was a 6km circuit around Dove Lake in Tasmania, three months before she died. For her it was an ordeal of Himalayan proportions. Riddled with cancerous deposits in her bone, brain and main organs, she rested every 200m. It took her a week of bed rest to recover.
In the soft warmth of the spring sunshine the Skyline Walkers came to a halt and sat cross-legged in the dual terracotta tracks of a fire trail. My father unpacked some dips and crackers left over from the funeral and we talked about how wonderful the service had been. ‘‘ It was a bloody great funeral,’’ said my father, a quivering chin belying his usually stoic demeanour. ‘‘ Your mother would have been proud.’’
Our fellow hikers talked about aches and pains, trips past and planned, grandchildren and the joy of the approaching summer. The Skyline Walkers were no strangers to hardship. One member was readying herself for her third attempt to reach Everest base camp. Others struggled with encroaching arthritis, divorce and illness, but no one dwelt on these things.
After a few minutes the group groaned to their feet and continued hiking. At the next trail marker I stepped off the track to take more photographs. Each hiker navigated downed logs, rough ground and overhanging trees with an unerringly similar choreography. I watched three generations of my family — my father, two brothers and nephew — climbing to the top of a rocky outcrop. Each, in turn, paused to admire the view and point out the trail we had hiked.
No doubt, when it came time for me to walk this path, I would crawl over the log, duck under the branch and look back on our progress in much the same way as everyone before me. The path was well trodden but I knew that for me, every step would feel new.
I adjusted my pack, stepped back on the trail and walked in my mother’s footsteps.