..a queasy, disorienting feeling came over me.
Something was missing. I stood there on the roadside, checked for wallet, sunglasses, lens cap, glasses: all present. I clicked on the camera, reviewed the last shots from my Sineo-San walk, trying to spark a memory, saw this one of the cherry-bordered mountain road I’d just descended…
..and something said, “Stick.”
Your stick, you idiot. How could I have come a mile without missing its reassuring, metronomic tap every two paces?
Man, I was tired alright, dog-tired, goat-tired, coffee-or-cry-tired. All I wanted was to slump into a seat and savour the motionlessness. Instead I was pacing, circling, starting back, pausing, cursing, circling again. That damned stick. I’d stopped at the men’s room before leaving the temple. The stick was a mile up that road, leaning against the wall outside.
Or was it? In the West it might have lasted five minutes, but Korea seems so safe I’ve often left a camera, phone or iPad sitting at a cafe table while ordering. But a mile uphill to find it gone? Maybe I was due for an upgrade…
Damn it, no. You don’t walk a thousand miles with a constant companion only to ditch him by the road. I started back up, pushing harder than I’d come down, zig-zagging across the road, cutting corners.
Let’s see how honest these people really are…
* * * * *
As I pounded up that road, a pang of deja vu. Truth is, this wasn’t the first time I’d lost a stick on a walk. In fact it wasn’t even the second.
I started out in serious walking in Japan in 2000, lugging ludicrous weights over increasing distances on creaky knees: without the single cork-handled Leki I used then…
..I’d probably be walking with titanium knees nowadays.
I was mountain crazy. My walks got bigger, as did the ridiculous pack-loads. With escalating recklessness, I began disappearing for a couple of days or a week on alpine trails, far from Tokyo. Here I am on the infamous Daikiretto, Leki stashed. You need two hands for this unnerving/thrilling section:
I never hiked without that stick. It was on a Japanese summit I made a vow to walk the Appalachian Trail when I got out of Japan. When I started in 2004 I moved to two sticks:
The loads stayed insanely big, though; I bailed in PA with a stress fracture in each leg. But it was in Georgia on about Day 3 that I had my first case of carelessness with the Lekis. Started walking into Hiawassee (stoked knowing my favourite film, Deliverance, had been shot nearby) for my first resupply.
A long walk, and I couldn’t score a hitch. At the town’s outskirts, an elderly couple came out to their car and offered a ride. I threw my stuff in the trunk and got in, they dropped me near a ratty motel, I retrieved my pack — and as they drove off I realised with a sickening lurch that my poles were driving off with them.
My room looked like people had died in it, perhaps that very day. But next morning the manager kindly drove me back to the Trail, stopping when I recognised the house. The old man seemed as amazed as I was grateful when he opened the trunk and there they were.
Here I am, many hundreds of miles north, not long before the legs gave out over a couple of agony-tainted weeks:
Cut to 2006. Back for the second half, pack much smaller, trail smarts much enhanced, so fit I elected, with my buddy Firefly, to do the whole Long Trail as well:
That was a rough, tough but beautiful couple of weeks:
2009. Another debacle, this time back in Japan, attempting to walk the whole thing from the north. Another massive load — this was April, still Winter in Hokkaido — meant a return to two sticks for the anticipated snow. But another weight-induced breakdown saw me limping into the interior for 11 awful (but highly scenic days)…
..before I bailed, recuperated, sent one stick and most of my heavy stuff home, and walked the island of Shikoku happily for a month:
In the humid interior, I lucked upon Chiiori, the famous restored farmhouse featured in Alex Kerr‘s Lost Japan. It was at least an hour’s fast walk up the mountainside:
I stayed the night there…
..and after walking all the way down that damned mountain, the sickening lurch.
You guessed it — must be all that hypnotic, solitary perambulating. I was lucky a young English guest drove me down the mountain in the farm truck. Only later did I realise I’d left my favourite beanie there as well.*
It was back to two sticks for the PCT…
..and then I got my most recently-lost stick for my Great Ocean Walk hike in 2011.
Getting more interested in photography, I found it easier to move with the single Black Diamond:
A cheap Komperdell served me in Switzerland…
..but the trusty Black Diamond continued to accompany me abroad in all conditions in Korea:
Shock absorption, creek-fording, stability, rattlesnake-prompting, bad mutt-deterring, tarp-supporting, camera monopod: Ray Jardine may slam the walking stick as just another encumbrance in the wilds, but I can’t imagine walking without one. And I keep ’em when they’re retired — I have six or seven back home.
So it was a touching scene indeed, with many tender vows of fidelity and — yes — love, when I rounded that last bend in the road to see this:
Never doubted it for a second.
* My friend Chris retrieved it as he passed through later.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote