Sunday Essay MarcConaco_Feature Image

The Sunday EssayOctober 31, 2021

The Sunday Essay: Walking in isolation

Sunday Essay MarcConaco_Feature Image

A good walk can save a person, now more than ever.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Marc Conaco

I wake at six, moments before the alarm goes off in a room so dark I could be in a backcountry hut on a moonless night. I wonder why I get up so early because time is not precious in this monastic existence. It comes to me quickly – that I do it because it is the time allocated to me when most in this large hotel, converted to a facility to hold arrivals in isolation, are still asleep. I dress, cover my lower face with a mask and leave room 1001. On the ground floor, I sanitise my hands and speak to one of the few people I will see to talk to today, although there is no sparkle to our interaction, because the person is wearing a mask and sits behind a perspex screen three meters from me. I tell her what I know she needs to hear.

“Good morning,” I say, “I’m Dougal, from one zero zero one.”

She checks that my name and room number match, that I have two clear covid tests and wear the appropriate wristband, before raising her thumb towards me. I step into the cold morning air at six thirty and look at my fellow walkers. A dozen or so are moving around the perimeter of the courtyard. I wait to judge the speed of the walkers and the gaps between them. Even in the dark I recognise some of those moving around the courtyard – the hardcore of walkers I see each time I come to this place. I slot in about three meters behind a tall young man. I have walked behind him before and know his pace is about right for me. I enter the rhythm of the walk and, as we turn, make judgments as to how quickly I will catch up to or be caught by others, because we must stay at least two meters apart.

The last of the morning stars quilt the sky and, as I turn south, along the edge of the square, I see office workers already at their desks in the glass-fronted Spark building. One glances down into the courtyard and I wonder what he makes of this group circulating below him, around the one leafless tree, just a stone’s throw from his office and the computer screen that throws a yellow hue across his face. For a time, I enter the cave of memories I have of the river of my life. I’m walking on a muddy farm-track beside the river where it squeezes past a spur rolling off the Mataura Range. The river runs deep and slow against the rocky bank, a sliver of mist unfurling from the flow. I smell the musty dampness of the beech trees that crowd in on my left and the wooly-tang from the sheep that run ahead. Further on I step into the laminar flow upstream of a ripple where the river jostles its way towards the plains, and beyond, to the ocean. Water tugs at my bare legs and threatens to loosen my grip on the stones. Upstream, the shadowy imprint of a trout slides along the bottom of a pool, and soon I see the fish itself, pushing a tenuous bow-wave against the flow.

My foot touches a road cone and, in a moment, this internal landscape is lost and I’m forced to concentrate on my walk around the courtyard. More have joined the caravan of walkers, and I veer away, cut corners, moving like a yacht looking for clear air. I fall in behind another walker going at my pace. She walks with the bounce of someone decades younger than me, her body compact and athletic, and I feel a flash of envy at her fluid beauty. For a time I’m swept along behind her before she moves away to avoid a couple walking with a child. I pass a man I see most days. He is large and round, like a bear, and he leans forward as he walks, swinging his heavy arms, and thrusting long strides ahead. Despite his bulk he glides, velour track pants flapping, over the paving stones, with animal-like smoothness. I hear the mask-muffled sound of two women talking, but the other walkers move in silence.

Many walkers bend their heads forward to a phone or, like me, have a listening device in their ears. This would be a travesty in another place but I understand it happening in this dull courtyard, with its orange cones and grey pavers. Eventually I turn on a podcast which transports me into the world of fly-fishing for giant tarpon in the Florida Keys; stories of famous guides, record-chasing anglers, boat-builders and drug-runners. Only spasmodically does my attention come back to the courtyard, the other walkers and the brief truncated views of the cathedral and the top of the sculpted chalice in the square, for here I walk to forget rather than remember.

I hear footsteps on the other side of the double fence, and cars passing as the city wakes. Flocks of pigeons move like schools of fish around the tops of the buildings surrounding the courtyard. On the western edge of the triangle I see a soldier sitting behind darkened glass watching the walkers – ready, I imagine, to ensure we keep our distance from others and to see that no-one bursts into a run. After an hour of tight turns on the hard surface my hip stiffens and I decide ten minutes more will be enough. As I slow I pass the bear-man stretching his trunk-like legs on a low wall. He looks at me and offers the faintest of nods and I nod back. It is the only acknowledgement I receive or give on this day – or any other while walking in quarantine. Face-masks blind me to the feelings and intentions of others, adding to the disjointed isolation I feel as I walk.

I leave the courtyard as I entered it – rubbing sanitiser onto my hands, recite my name and room number to record my return to the building, stand back from the lift to avoid close contact with anyone arriving and head to my room. I remove my mask and, while washing my hands with the intensity of Lady McBeth, see my weary face in the bathroom mirror. For a moment I’m startled by the prominence of my eyebrows. It takes a moment before I understand what has happened to them — that the warm moist air, pushed up under my mask, had condensed in the cold and left my eyebrows plump with shining beads of moisture.

Later, I lie on my bed scrolling through emails that arrived during the night. I delete most before opening, but I stop to read the bi-weekly, Brain Pickings, message from the American-based writer of literary and arts commentary, Maria Popova. Coincidentally, her piece today is about walking, and her particular focus is on Rebecca Solnit’s book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Its timing is perfect, because during this time of quarantine I have mostly been confined to an interior world, and when I have walked, it has been in the strangest circumstances. The email made me question what it was that compelled me to walk.

Solnit divides walking into two main categories. The first is practical walking, the unconsidered walking between two sites, and the second is considered walking. In this latter form of walking Solnit describes a state in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned – where three notes suddenly make a chord. A state where walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. She goes on to say that it is the movement as well as the sights going by that seem to make things happen in the mind and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it being both an end, travel and destination.

It’s what I experienced when I walked upstream on the Mataura River, from the ocean to its source, and it’s what I feel almost every time I walk on a bush track or beside a stream. I can even conjure up this experience while walking in Dunedin, the beautiful place of my home, where I can lose myself in glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, the harbour and green hills that wrap their arms around this southern city. It is the sort of walking that allows me to be captivated by my surroundings and to focus, with true attentiveness on the fine detail of the place. Popova worries this attentive walking might be falling out of fashion, spoiled because smart phones allow modern walkers to carry their busy, interior, worlds with them. I know what she means.

In the days leading up to my uncertain departure from Sydney I did much walking around the edge of the inner harbour. The walkways were crowded with others doing the same thing, as though the Premier had declared a public holiday and not a lock-down. Some ran, while others walked, some with dogs, others without. A few talked while they walked but most moved with headphones on. Of the dog walkers, only the dogs walked with any attentiveness – cocking their legs, sniffing, and taking it all in, while their human companions moved with the glazed-eyed look of people not paying attention to where they were. At times I too walked while listening – in my case to a reading of Maggie O Farrell’s, Hamnet because I found it hard to lose myself while surrounded by hordes of people, and so I retreated into the Middle Ages and Hamnet’s short life.

Earlier, when I was processed into a managed isolation facility in Christchurch, I was required to stay in my room for three days while waiting on the results from two covid tests. I knew, as the door closed behind me, that I wasn’t prepared for these days of confinement. A series of cancelled flights from Sydney, and the pain of leaving my daughter and grandchildren behind, not knowing when I might see them again, left me sad and rattled. And the bus ride from the airport, through dark streets, without being told of our destination forced me to confront my loss of freedom. In the past I have found exercise the best way of relieving stress so on that first morning I set out to walk ten thousand steps in a room that, even after some rearrangement of chairs and bed, allowed no more than eleven paces to be taken in a single curving line. I walked seven kilometres that first day by taking eleven paces towards a wall mirror, making a sharp turn at the door and heading in the opposite direction towards the window and the view of the Port Hills. It was a dizzying thing which I could only manage in twenty minute bursts while I listened to something like John Lennon belting out Twist and Shout, or a podcast, because there was nothing in my surroundings that was capable of turning this demented pacing into something that fostered introspection and attentiveness. It was perhaps a way of finding a freedom where little existed. An odd way of staying sane.

Walking and running had saved me once before. Back in 1985, towards the end of a business trip, exhausted, and missing my family, I collapsed on a bed in a dreary hotel room in Hong Kong. I lay, heart pounding, sweat drenching my clothes and with the extremity of my arms and legs tingling and numb. I thought I had a serious physical illness, but following a session with a specialist physician I had to confront the truth – that this boy, turned man, who had spent much of his life trying to impress and please others, was burnt out and depressed. I avoided the medication offered to me, opting instead for long runs and walks along bushy tracks, or, better still, day-long walks beside a river with a fly-rod – things that I knew left me feeling calm. The wooded tracks around Dunedin and the streams of Southland and Otago became my medicine. It was in these places of beauty that I healed myself and found a way to live a life closer to that demanded by my heart.

And so walking, because my older body rejects the jarring that goes with running, has almost become a daily ritual. It explains my need to pace like a tiger in my room while in managed isolation and why, even in the sensory deprived courtyard on the edge of the Square, I walked every chance I got. The mechanics of walking, the swinging through of my feet and the rhythm of the stride is an addictive comfort to me. In that bleak, one-tree courtyard, squeezed between the broken cathedral, a tourist hotel and an office block, I found slivers of the natural world – the wind, sun and sometimes drizzle on my face. And in the sky, I could see gulls and pigeons, free to wheel beneath wind-driven clouds. It wasn’t like walking beside the river of my life, but in these disturbing times it was enough.

Keep going!