Walking

SHEILA BURNFORD is a Canadian doctor’s wife whose tale of three animals, entitled THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY,has become a classic of its kind. This is the second of two essays taken from her new book, THE FIELDS OF NOON,which will be published this month by AtlanticLittle, Brown.

Sheila Burnford

OF ALL the precepts instilled into me from early childhood in Scotland, none has remained as firmly to this day as come rain or shine, hell or high water, no able-bodied person should spend all day indoors; if not actually immoral, it was a very close thing. Once outside, if not otherwise actively engaged, one should go for a good walk. This attitude was, of course, endorsed to the hilt by the canine elders of the family. One graduated, therefore, from being taken for one’s good daily walks, accompanied by these despots, to accompanying them on their walks by one’s self. There would be a wholesale emigration of North American dogs to Scotland if they knew the conditions that exist there for them: wonderful walks, at least twice a day, in a damp, smell-enhancing climate; three or four miles, up hill and down dale, uncollared, unleashed — for I have no reason to believe that the gumbooted feet of Scotland’s young are not still kicking their way through the puddles and squelching across the moors for the good of their souls and the pleasure of the family dogs. Those gumboots — My children, looking at my photographs one day, remarked that we never seemed to wear anything else, and did we even wear them in bed? For they had come across a photograph of me standing on a hillside in pajamas, with the ubiquitous gumboots on my feet. When I explained that I was on my way to the beck, or creek, and that when we stayed with my cousins in Cumberland we used to immerse ourselves in it before breakfast, they looked at me as though I had partaken in some strange prehistoric rite.

Some families enjoyed walking together, or in pairs; not ours. My brother, having first found out what direction I was going in, would take his share of dogs and go off in the opposite; my father took his friend the Sheriff for what he called a “tramp”; where they tramped to nobody knew. The Sheriff always seemed to be hurrying to catch up from his two paces to the rear, and it was generally supposed that my father snapped his fingers and said “Heel, sir!” every now and then to encourage him. My mother said that if she could count nothing but the miles she bad walked to and from church in her childhood, they would take her halfway around the globe, and she flatly refused to walk anywhere nowadays except around the golf course with her favorite caddy, Dugald, trotting at her heels. Except on Sunday, when the golf course was not open, and then my heretic mother, the only true Scot among us, would put her shameless, unwalking feet up and settle for the afternoon with a novel and some close study of next week’s racing form while the rest of Scotland poured out for the traditional Sunday walk. Brought up in the strictest Presbyterian household, where Sunday was a joyless day spent listening to ministers of the yawning-abyss, wrath, and gloom school and the lightest literature allowed was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, she reveled in the comparatively sybaritic Sundays that were hers now through marriage into the Church of England. “There but for the grace of your father go I,”she said happily one day in the West Highlands, watching the long procession in its Sabbath black straggling over the hill to the uncompromising varnished deal interior of the local church, and the uncompromising oratory of its minister, who held little hope for the eternal prospects of the human race as he found it in this congregation and who considered all pleasure a sin.

But my mother’s emancipation did not extend to her children: she had duly served her walking time; we must serve ours. Wet days, dry days, muddy days, blizzard days we walked; and all over Scotland the pattern was the same, particularly on Sunday, when the ranks were swelled by the heads of the households and the weekend visitors — doors opening and the walkers walking forth before the cooling memories of after-church roast beef. (How strange it must have looked from some celestial viewpoint — like an indeterminate ant colony; or what a fascinating picture it would make for one of those motion studies — lines zigzagging to and fro, up and down, in some pointless abstract pattern.) The purists, the weekend walkers, set forth with heads and hearts up and chests out, knobbly ash walking sticks clenched in swinging hands; the Sunday strollers, to-the-cemetery-and-baek or totea-with-Aunt-Agnes, went in groups, their furled umbrellas suspended from a wrist strap over their respectable black gloves; then came the dour, preoccupied whippet-walkers, their minds on next Saturday’s race, stickless save for a possible twig between the teeth, their wide-collared dogs slipping along like medieval wraiths on six inches of lead. Then there were the eccentrics, like the jogtrotting Colonel of the Dandie Dinmonts and malacca sword stick, the loping Games Mistress in lacrosse boots, pushing her bicycle in the basket of which sat a panting pug, or some of the hairier kilted ones, with shepherds’ crooks and city voices. And then, of course, there were the day-in-day-outers — the children, the gumbooted habitues, who twirled, dangled, or dragged their walking sticks, and it mattered not what kind of stick as long as it had a curved handle.

We could not possibly walk without curved handles to our sticks, invaluable for hooking around the necks of recalcitrant dogs, pulling down branches, rattling along the palings of St. Bride’s, prodding; one could practice golf strokes, or ice hockey when the river froze; one could, one supposed, brandish the stick menacingly should a menacing situation arise — or thrust it through an enemy’s bicycle spokes. Once mine fended off the vicious wing blows of a swan being rescued from the frozen backwaters; another time I hurled it like a boomerang at a stoat intent upon a nerveless rabbit — but, being me, of course I hit the rabbit instead and knocked it out cold. Fortunately the stoat was so amazed at this performance that I was able to pick the rabbit up without incident.

WE WALKED,how we walked — so conditioned by custom were we that when we grew out of childhood and gumboots we continued to walk in adulthood and stout brogues (there were no teen-agers then, just children and responsible adults) — through the bracken and heather of the West Highland hills, and over the Galloway moors, and miles along the white sweep of beaches at low tide. I remember the Cotswolds in early spring: out of the whipping wind and into the still sanctuary of the medieval “wool” churches, those exquisite Gothic tributes raised by the munificence and devotion of men who made their fortunes from the fleece of the Cotswold sheep, their native limestone mellowed sometimes to a pale gold, holding and yet reflecting light. We took rubbings from the brasses set into the flagstones: the wool merchants with their long pointed shoes and pious hands, side by side with their wimpled wives, attended often by a devout kneeling staircase of their many children. Then out from the church into the thin, clear Whitsun sunshine, to sit on a bench outside the inn with a tankard of beer and sweet Spanish onions on bread and cheese, and on across the green rolling country by bridle path and right of way and Roman road to the next church, perhaps Saxon or Norman this time, with a leper’s squint or an especially interesting tympanum. Twelve miles was a pleasant day’s stroll. That I found such pursuits wholly absorbing and satisfying is a complete mystery to my daughters today. At times I think they think we walked simply because the wheel had not been invented.

Sometimes, as in the Black Mountains in Wales, we combined walking with mild climbing, and then we promoted ourselves to climbing boots. These were rather special: they came from a shop in London that outfitted explorers and mountaineers, and even to look at them made one feel intrepid and Outward Bound. We prepared them for the assault by wearing them with the normal quota of socks, then standing in a tub of water. After that we clacked briskly and soggily around Kensington Gardens on their half-inch studs. A few days of this treatment, plenty of Dubbin, and they were molded forever into the most perfect foot-fitting contours. I have mine yet. They took me over the Black Mountains and later the Grampians, over the crags of Cumberland following fellhounds, and I never had a blister. Though I must in all honesty confess I never had a blister either when we followed those same hounds as children, wearing, naturally, gumboots — what else?

Following these fox (mountain fox) hounds was the supreme test of a walking childhood: it might have been the goal for which one trained from infancy. This was the same rock-clad mountainous country over which that view halloo that “would awaken the dead” rang; and John Peel hunted his heterogeneous pack on shanks’ mare then as we did now, for it is no country for horses. It was a businesslike pack and hunted not for pleasure but for purpose, since there are hungry cubs as well during the lambing season, and foxes will turn to lamb-worrying when for some cyclic reason there is a lack of the small game that normally satisfies them.

When we children were there during the Easter holidays, we used to stuff a hunk of gingerbread and a couple of apples in our pockets and follow all day (and if any Olympic trainers are interested I can heartily recommend soggy gingerbread for staying power: it seems to glue body and soul together most comfortingly), straight up the hillside to the towering crags and down over the other side, walking, jogtrotting, walking, trotting, clutching our thumbs in clenched hands to keep the “stitch” at bay; short legs trying to keep up with the long tireless strides of the hill farmers and shepherds who made up the bulk of the field. The policy was to reach a vantage point on some peak and watch how events were shaping; and too often one reached that peak only to find that the pack was streaming over the next one and out of sight. I remember shivering in the rain, and the mist clinging like spiders’ webs to our sodden jerseys as we tried to find our bearings on part of the Roman Way that runs diestraight across the crest of the range, and from somewhere in the thick mist beyond the eerie echoing clamor of hounds, on one side the yapping of the terriers, and from another the huntsman shouting to someone — all confused and cross-echoing, so that one was surrounded by meaningless sound in a nightmare vacuum. And at the end of the day the long light-headed walk back across the fells, until we slid down the last screes to Mardale, and the ancient cottage that my cousins used for holidays, with its foot-thick walls, crouched against a fold of the hills above the lake; and if it was Saturday night old Hannah might have caldrons of water on the kitchen range for a bath in the tin tub that hung in the barn and doubled sometimes as a punt on the lake. It was set up in the slate-tiled pantry, and we children bathed two at a time in order of precedence.

The fish swim through the cottage now, and waterweeds rise from the belfry of the tiny church nearby, for the lake level was raised by a great new dam to supply the North of England. The church was one of the smallest in England, if not the smallest: I know that on a Sunday our two families filled it. Uncle Dick, when he was there, played the harmonium for the service. He was Irish to the core, and it was rhythmically impossible for him to stick to strict dirge rhythm in the hymns: our Christian soldiers marched onward as though bound for Phil the Fluter’s ball, and it was difficult to keep one’s feet from tapping as we cheerfully roared our hosannas in jig time. When there was no one available for the harmonium there was a Gramophone, so ancient that it lacked only the white terrier at its gigantic horn. I think we were allowed our choice of the few records, and I vividly remember the panic one Easter with everybody down on hands and knees searching for the one and only needle, dropped by the rector’s old shaky fingers.

WALKING on the Continent was an economical form of holiday, with students’ cuts on the fares and friendly farmers with hospitable barns. I walked in the Black Forest, but the masses of other walkers there disenchanted me; and I found the lederhosened, dirndled Wandervögel rather tiresome in their muscular exuberance and vocal folksiness, I walked and climbed the Dinaric Alps of Yugoslavia in a trance of young love, on the other hand, and treasured every inch. I remember being astonished when someone said those hills were stony and arid; my memories were of halcyon heights, over which one trod, light-footed, on a carpet of asphodel (and the raison d’etre for my state of mind was a German, which must prove something).

The most memorable walking of all was on the High Pyrenees in that long golden summer of 1939. I think we all knew somehow that it would be the last summer of the carefree years, and that soon we would be scattered; and we filled every hour of each day, unconsciously storing up memories, like squirrels hoarding nuts before the onslaught of winter. Jill, my companion of many miles of walking, and I based ourselves in the inn on the summit of the Col d’Aubisque; the altitude was about 5600 feet, so we were above the tree line and into the high pastureland where the thin, clear air was spiced and fragrant with the profusion of flowers that grew there, nothing exotic, just sweet, common country flowers, rare only in their abundance on the heights and their enhanced fragrance: iris, poppies, campanula, coltsfoot and lady’ssmock, carpets of genista and the golden fire of gorse — all the flowers, in fact, of country childhood. The only sounds, carried for miles in the high stillness, were the ice-cold torrents and waterfalls, the melodic tinkling of the sheep bells, and the sleepy noontime clicking of the cicadas; and the only other human beings we met were the tall, lean Pyrenean shepherds, with their woven blankets slung across one shoulder and the long traditional crooks.

We had been young and foolish enough, before we left, to take a bet that we would not cross over into Spain. Madrid had fallen at last, only a few weeks before, and foreigners were hardly welcome in that chaotic land; however, after a long and devious struggle, we secured visas which filled two pages in our passports and seemed to consist mainly of “no autorizado para” this and that. The issued numbers on them were so low that we must have been lucky to get them at all. I had a beautiful contour map from the French Alpine Club that showed the mule tracks that zigzagged between the contour lines of the French Pyrenees and across the frontier into Spain. We decided to cross from Gavarnie; the track wiggled along above the course of the Gave des Tourettes, then down into Spanish Bujaruelo. The walk would be about four or five hours with an easy ascent of about 3000 feet over the Port de Gavarnie, and the only thing to worry about was the vagaries of the mountain weather, which can suddenly produce a blizzard or a dense mist out of a clear blue sky. But we were lucky — the only mist rolled back before us in the early morning, and when we crossed the highest point it lay cradled in clouds in the valley far below, so that as we stood there an eagle flew out of it below us; and then, as a wisp of cloud drifted away, the heads of a string of grazing horses suddenly emerged, disembodied, surrealist, on the rim of the great bowl below. It was pleasant walking; canvas and ropesoled espadrilles were just right, except where the snow still lay in drifts; the light winds were cool from the Gabietou and Taillon glaciers above, the glaciers that fed the marrow-chilling mountain streams.

Sometimes we saw a soleless boot or worn-out espadrilles, or other mute evidences of the republican refugees who had poured over the frontiers after the agony of Catalonia only a few weeks before — the cold must have been cruel beyond endurance then. We ate our lunch unhurriedly, looking down into Spain from our aerie on a crag, then traversed the last steep slopes, well pleased with ourselves, and crossed the little bridge over the Ara into Bujaruelo, which consisted of about three hovels. Two barefoot scarecrow carabinieri, the only inhabitants apparently, popped out of the nearest hovel and brandished rifles at us. I remember the closeness of the air down there after our rarefied altitudes, and the squalor of the onetime posada, now the guardhouse, the scrawny chickens scratching on the dirt floor, the utter poverty.

We spoke kindergarten Spanish, and the guards no English. We showed them our visas, and indicated that we wanted to walk on to Torla, another two hours away, where there should be an inn. Our visas meant nothing: we could cross at Roncesvalles possibly, not here; we must return whence we came. We pointed to the bastionlike range we had just come over, the thousands of feet we must climb again to reach the track: it is dangerous, we said, trying to look like frail Ingleez misses, for we are already tired, and the sun will sink; we might lose our way — wolves, mist, starvation. They shrugged indifferently. Take us to your leader, at once, we said, switching to not-to-be-trifled-with British lionesses. They shrugged again: their leader might return within a week, if we cared to await his decision . . . and they indicated the flea-ridden hovel with an unmistakable leer; but to Torla, no, non, niente, nein. A night on the bare mountain in a blizzard with genuine wolves would be preferable, we decided. I had the forethought to get one of them to sign the map as evidence for our bet; and then, after we had drunk a tiny glass of thick yellow, indescribably potent liquid, we set out groggily for the return ascent, which looked by now about as inviting as the north face of Everest. The Guardia escorted us up to the first ridge, their rifles slung over their shoulders — at my urgent request, for I had not fancied their initial horsing around with playful pointings and merry imitations of clicking triggers, and they had complied with extraordinary meekness. We climbed on by ourselves, after shaking hands all around, and I have a vivid picture of them still in my mind, leaning on their rifles in the almost identical pose of the shepherds with their crooks, dwindling below us as we in turn dwindled to crawling flies above them, until at last they were hidden from sight. It was a long, rough, weary haul back, but so buoyant is youth that I remember little of it, only the welcome lights of the little town of Gavarnie and trying to keep awake over a particularly superb dinner in a wooden, half-decked room that hung out over the rushing torrent of the river. And I daresay we were up early next morning and on our way to Turon.

THE habit of daily walking has been instilled too deeply now ever to be broken. Today the temperature is ten degrees, and the winds at twenty-five from the northwest, hardly ideal conditions, yet I know only too well that by three o’clock my conscience will begin to gnaw, and the dog will contribute to its unease by constant supplication and pacings to and from the door. Sooner or later, a brainwashed robot, I will be in the car with Raimie on the front seat beside me, heading down to the lake to walk out across the ice to the lighthouse and watch the iceboats. Or, and more likely, we will drive up to the bluffs behind Current River on the city boundary, where we have found wonderful winter walking territory: constant sleigh runners have packed the snow hard enough to walk on the surface without snowshoes or skis. This is essential, for Raimie is large and heavy and he is not young anymore; he has had one broken shoulder, and this winter dislocated another, so floundering around in deep snow is too hard on him. Even in deepest winter there is always something to see or hear — paw prints, strange wind sculptures of snow, and only now can one appreciate the delicate intricacies of the long curved grasses etched against the snow, and the perfect austerity of the bare trees. Vivid colors by their very scarceness take on a new depth and value: the rich rose of pine grosbeaks in a mountain ash against the perfect whiteness of snow stained scarlet with downcast berry flecks; the flashing brilliance of a blue jay against the dark green of spruce; or the subtle glowing pinkness of birchbark in the low winter sun.

I love the sounds of winter too: the sudden crack of a branch like a pistol shot, the deep sonic booming far under the ice roads on the lake, and the soft brushing of heavy snow-laden spruce branches; but the most exciting sound of all is heard when one puts one’s ear to the ice above a bend in the river that is normally deep and turbulent with currents: the liquid chuckling notes, rushing and sighing in the ice caverns below, sound like distant music played behind closed marble doors. And if anyone wants to hear this music, I recommend a scarf or something laid on the ice first. I always forget and freeze my ear.

The first year I came to Canada I froze my feet — always I seem to come back to footwear — and spent years trying to find adequate winter boots for this northland country. I tried everything: fur linings, fiber glass insulation, vacuum insulation, chemically treated insoles with exciting exclamation marks of heat radiating from them in the mail-order catalogue — everything, and always there was the excruciating pain of returning circulation, appreciated only to the full exquisite refinements of its torture by those who have had feet or hands frozen. Then one year I bought some of the rough, unadorned moccasins from the Swampy Crees in northern Saskatchewan — tanned deer or moose hide; the edges of the long split cuff fold across one another and are held there by crisscrossed hide thongs. One pair of felt insoles, one pair of thin socks, and my feet have never lost touch with me since. The only drawback of the moccasins is that the snow must be powder-dry; and some ultrafastidious people complain of their kippery smell if I wear them in the house. I suppose that the secret is in having the bones and ligaments of the feet unrestricted and always in contacting movement with the ground through the soft, supple soles. Pleistocene man shod himself similarly, and we have not produced better winter footwear since. Or better clothing either, for the warmest clothing I know in twenty or thirty degrees below zero includes a deerskin jacket somewhere in the layers. I envy Raimie his warm, practical coat with its long waterand snow-repellent flat hairs and the thick cozy underfur, the sensible arrangement of his folded selfwarming ears, the utilitarian furry feet with the snowshoe webbing between the toes.

Above all I envy him his uncluttered appearance when walking. One day last fall I drove into the bush along a corduroy track, and eventually left the car by an impassable creek. Raimie jumped out, all ready to go, his nose, his only necessary equipment, already twitching. Then I followed, and it took me nearly ten minutes to assemble all the necessary gear for an afternoon’s walking in the bush and stow it in the pockets of my jacket, around my waist, and over my shoulders. Into the pockets went shells, insect repellent, chocolate, cigarettes, matches, silk scarf, pencil, notebook, and a tired hunk of garlic sausage; attached to my belt were a knife for mushrooms and a small prospector’s pick (geology); over my shoulders were slung a camera for photographing mushrooms and field glasses (distant birds?); I carried in one hand a gun (partridge for dinner), and in the other a chip basket (rocks and mushrooms). I looked like a mobile Christmas tree. But which of my beloved toys could I leave behind? I had already left the blackened pie plate which a prospector had told me I should never be without (any rusty deposits, under uprooted trees, should be panned in the nearest creek), my bottle of Dimethyl-something-oxane for nickel testing, and a trowel. I was stripped down to the barest essentials. If anyone should be a list checker, as I am, and notice a lack, I should say that Kleenex, string, several plastic bags, a safety pin, and a screwdriver were already in my pockets (I have no idea what the screwdriver was there for), and I never carry a compass: its quivering undermines my confidence, and I cannot believe that anything so abject will not change its mind as often as I change direction. Raimie’s nose holds a far steadier assurance: I just tell it that we are “going back to the car,” then follow.

What has happened to me since the days when all I needed was my walking stick with the curved handle and my gumboots? Is it some deep manifestation of the increasing years, this frantic desire to seize the day in both hands, lose no minute of the wonders that one has so idiotically passed by and left unexplored? I see myself, increasingly hung about with impedimenta, trudging on automatically through the years, until at last I reach senility, and revert, tottering, into unhampered childhood walking.