I had no further depths to plummet in the summer of 1999/2000, or so I thought. Unemployed, depressed, I’d fled Melbourne – where I’d thrown in my job, my sessions with a kindly Tim Robbins-lookalike shrink, and the two scripts of experimental antidepressants he’d prescribed, unsuccessfully, to set me right – and flown up to the hippy heartland of northern New South Wales to try to mend things. There was a woman there, you see, and a young child…
It didn’t work out the way the prescription-fantasies had promised, and I lay low for a while in a rented caravan on a 600-acre backwoods block used by a certain sect of Hindu cultists. My landlord was a little Indian in orange robes who answered to Dada. I carved a vegetable garden into the hillside, and spent my spare time breaking as many of Dada’s commandments as I could manage. Things deteriorated even further with the woman; I bailed to my parents’ place in Brisbane. Bleak times. Then I saw an ad for English teachers in the paper. A few weeks later I landed at Narita in Tokyo, Japan. Yes, that Tokyo.
Tokyo, with more residents in its megasprawl than live in my entire country, was not the place for quiet introspection. The English school I worked for was a notorious language farm with dubious standards and several hundred branches, the KFC of EFL emporia. It served my purposes, but I paid a terrible price in frustration, monotony, and pencil stabs under the table to keep myself awake. I made a few good friends there though, and I was distracted from the troubles at home. And with that merciful doorbell chime proclaiming the end of the last lesson, I would hit the crowded alleys, the sprawling parks, trawl the used-CD stores and mossy temples, exploring the real thing at last after all those samurai books, Kurosawa flicks and Yukio Mishima sagas of my youth.
Saving hard, I extended my contracts once, twice; in three years I owned a big chunk of land in far-southern NSW. Meanwhile, my expeditions extended outward from the neon madness of Shinjuku and surrounds, west along the Chuo, past our place in Nishi Kokubunji and out into the hills and humid valleys surrounding Tokyo. I discovered that I could walk, and walk well. And like all my obsessions, this one quickly took over my life.
Okutama. Chichibu. Tanzawa. Mt Takao – especially Mt Takao. Japan is about three-quarters mountainous. Something had clicked and the only way was up. The mountains offered liberation and a refreshing purpose in their purposelessness. I got braver, got equipped, spent every holiday and every weekend out among the dake (“da-keh”), yama and mine (“mee-neh”). I kept a journal that eventually detailed 50+ trips. Something soothing and mysterious was in those hills. Soon I was heading out alone into more remote country for multi-day explorations, and things sometimes got rather less soothing. But I think my first overnighter was with a group of colleagues led by Andrew, who spoke and read Japanese, very useful out there where few gaijin ventured. We hiked up Kumotoriyama, “Cloud Grabber Mountain”, highest peak in Tokyo prefecture. What a surprise to learn that there was more to Tokyo than neon, concrete, karaoke bars and punishing noise.
I was striding ahead of the others with Shawn, a Newfoundlander, still the closest of my teacher friends. We had bonded via witheringly black humour and were probably sharing a joke when Stu, our boss back at the language farm, remarked, “Look at those two, trotting up the path like a pair of mountain goats.”
The description stuck. I loved the kanji (Chinese characters used in written Japanese) for “goat”: it contained “mountain” (my first and favourite) and “sheep”. My kanji studies never progressed much further.
My mountain affliction continued to fester after I left Japan (I returned twice more). In 2004 I attempted the Appalachian Trail, and I needed a trail name. Trail names are an institution on the A.T. and I loved the reinvention that went with the moniker. I started with Mountain Goat (it suited my killer trail beard, as well), but quickly discovered that there were Mountain Goats a-plenty up and down the Trail from Georgia to Maine. In 2006, when I went back to do the second half after fracturing both legs in ’04, I made it Mr Mountaingoat to set me apart from the other ungulate pretenders. And last year I was so disappointed with my performance on the Pacific Crest Trail, from which I bailed after 2,155 often-miserable miles, I demoted myself to plain old Goat – the love affair with mountains was over. For a little while.
Anyway, this is my attempt at an introductory post for this brand-new little blog of mine. I felt like I should justify the title, so now you know. I hope in its virtual pages to explore my walking obsessions (and those of others), to share some of the highs and lows, and some evocative photos when I can. I want to get at the heart of Why We Walkers Walk. My aim is to make most posts little vignettes gathered during my forays into the wilds of Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Europe, but sometimes I might look at more general walking-related themes. I expect the order of the posts will be as random as, say, the signposting on the PCT – we’ll have to wait and see. It’s a journey after all, and who knows what’s around the next switchback?