MY MOTHER’S FOOT­STEPS

Adam McCul­loch walks a sen­ti­men­tal path be­yond the Ade­laide Hills

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

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