“Let’s hike the Pacific Crest Trail,” said my friend S, standing on the doorstep in a big floppy black hat and carrying a small bottle of water. “Hmm,” I said, “The Pacific Crest is hard. Let’s start with the Appalachian. More people do that and it’s supposed to be easier.” Like I knew what I was talking about. I’ve just read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, so that makes me an armchair expert on extreme hiking. I didn’t read it when it first came out because I hate hype. But this book is hype-worthy. The writing is beautiful. I could not put it down, and now that I’ve finished it I’m going right back to the beginning to read it all over again. S hasn’t read it yet. She can’t borrow mine (see re-reading) so she’s ordered it at the library. But she knows all about it from the Gilmore Girls, so she’s an expert too.
We weren’t kitted out for an extreme hike, but we did go on an expedition to look for the Murrumbidgee River, which has turned out to be an obsession of mine since I moved into this house. We could have driven to the Murrumbidgee. There’s a beautiful swimming spot 10 minutes away by car. But someone told me that I could walk to the river from my house, so I’m determined to do that. The first time I tried it, I couldn’t even find my way out of the golf course. The second time I tried it, the temperature was minus 4 and there was thick fog ahead, so I gave up. Finally, this was the day. There was a hot wind blowing. It was the first warm day we’ve had since May, and we couldn’t quite believe that it would stay warm, so we headed off with an extra layer wrapped around our waists just in case.
We tried to cut corners before we even started. Rather than walk 200m to the left, we considered rolling under the fence to get on to the track. Then, when we got on to the track we remembered that we hate hills. I was soon out of breath, which was annoying because I’ve been walking for charity for the past three weeks and doing 10,000 steps a day. But on this day I just had no oomph. It was all gone. But we kept going.
We strolled along, watched by surprised kangaroos who were smart enough to rest in the shade until the day cooled down a bit. The track wound through a wide, hot valley. “If we were in a cowboy move,” said S pointing to her black hat and then my white hat, “I’d be the bad guy and you’d be the good guy.” And suddenly it felt as if we really were in a cowboy movie, except we’d forgotten our horses and we were doing exactly what all sheriffs and do-gooder cowboys know you should never do: we were walking right out in the open, in the middle of the valley, instead of up on the ridge or in the tree line, where we could see the baddies but they couldn’t see us.
I spent a lot of my childhood watching cowboy films. There was often a cowboy film on telly on Saturday afternoons and I don’t remember the names of half of them, but I did love Rio Bravo, and especially this song, which was playing in my head for most of the walk after that:
We wouldn’t have been surprised at all if John Wayne and Dean Martin had shown up.
We came to a fork in the road and one track was clearly more well worn, so I said, “Let’s take the path most travelled.” Ten minutes later, we came to a dead end and had to turn back and take the road less travelled, which is a lesson in life I’ve been taught before but pretty much always have to relearn. Soon afterwards we saw a little sign and realised that we were on an actual recognised trail, the Centenary Trail, which made us feel even more Wild-like.
Up ahead, a stand of trees appeared. “That’s it!” I said, “That must be where the Murrumbidgee is.” We picked up the pace, looking forward to cooling our toes in the waters of the mighty river. Instead, we found this:
Which led to this, which was cool and green and lovely but SO not the Murrumbidgee:
It was at this point that I thought, “I really should have looked at a map.” I remembered the man who’d told me I could walk to the river. We’d met on the track and said good morning. He’d waved his arm behind him in a vague gesture and said, “If you walk that way you can get to the Murrumbidgee.” I guess my interpretation of “that way” was a little off. Also, you really shouldn’t believe everything that everyone tells you.
When we came out of the oasis a weird thing happened. Up on the hill a man and woman in identical shirts were watching us through binoculars. “We’re being watched,” I hissed to S out of the corner of my mouth. “Why are they wearing matching shirts?!” she said, at which point they swung their binoculars into the sky and pretended to be birdwatching, then they turned around without a wave and walked off. “Do you think they went to the same outdoor clothing shop, he went to the men’s section and she went to the women’s section and then they met in the middle ten minutes later with matching shirts?” I asked. “It’s kind of cute.” S disagreed. “No,” she said disapprovingly. “She bought them matching shirts on purpose.”
As it turned out, the matching spies did us a favour, as we had no idea which way to go at that point and they appeared to be standing on a track that we hadn’t known existed. We sat down for a rest, to let them get ahead of us, then wished we hadn’t because we soon became lost again. The sun began to slide down the sky and the wind cooled considerably. Clouds began to build. I was glad I’d brought extra clothing. We’d finished our water, though, and our legs were aching. “I don’t want to walk up that hill,” said S, and neither did I. “If we can’t find a path around the hill,” I said, “we’ll go down there, under that fence and across country until we get back to the track we came in on.” As soon as we’d made plan B, a clearer path appeared ahead, albeit with some disturbingly large marsupials on it.
On and on we walked, along a flattish, green section on the side of the hill. We knew we were heading in a homeward direction but we didn’t know how far it was. We’d passed a small dam and were discussing how to light a fire without matches and how to boil water without anything to boil it in. “We can use one of my Birkenstocks,” said S, which just goes to show that necessity really is the mother of invention. I think the Birkenstock company could really take that idea and run with it: the shoe that doubles as a billycan.
Then the cavalry came over the hill. Or, rather, a young couple walking a pair of schnauzers, which meant that we were almost back in civilisation. “It’s just over that hill,” they said. And it was. Over the hill we went, and suddenly we were back in suburbia, with houses and gardens and the road home. “We made it!” I said. “We kept going!” said S. We were elated and exhausted and so damn pleased with ourselves. But we’re still searching for the Murrumbidgee.