In my teen years I became obsessed with skiing, climbing, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. My first multi day walk (the southern circuit at Wilsons Prom) propelled me into the outdoors. Me and my mates would ride our bikes out of town to go camping, we went on family trips to the snow, I did lots of hiking with a bushwalking group we set up at school, and then eventually discovered the Victorian Climbing Club, which opened up new horizons for adventures. I did my first summer of mountaineering in NZ/ Aotearoa when I was 18.
This was about getting outdoors and having adventures in the wild. But I quickly realised that I liked outdoor culture. I started to meet older people who had spent their lives pursuing climbing and skiing, and (as someone explained it to me), ‘the people of the little tents’, long distance hikers. I knew that a big part of having a healthy life was to be outdoors, to have the skills to travel through big landscapes safely and the ability to be with yourself and enjoy your own company. Solo trips became ever more important for me. Time on my own in wild nature made me spend a lot of time on the internal work that we all need to do.
When I was 19, I discovered Jack Kerouac’s novel ‘The Dharma Bums’. I’d gone to Tasmania to join the blockades to prevent the Franklin River, the last wild river in the state, from being dammed. I was arrested and spent 10 days in jail, met thousands of amazing and inspiring people, and at the end of the summer, rafted the river. We didn’t have a clue about what we were doing. With borrowed rafts, and having had less than 4 hours on a wild river before setting out on this trip, we were a disaster waiting to happen (we did lose someone for almost three days when he was washed over the Thunderush rapid and flood waters prevented us from getting to him). But apart from the adventure, we found wonder in a big untamed landscape. We spent almost a month on the river and when I got to Strahan, on the west coast, I knew I couldn’t go back to Uni. Back in Hobart, I was given a copy of the Dharma Bums and it helped propel me on my first trip to North America – the aim was to hitch from San Francisco to Alaska to go climbing. In those pre internet days, I got a flight to SF, arriving without any kind of plan. Within a few days I had discovered the ‘Green Tortoise’ busline, which got me to Seattle, and then the Alaska Marine Highway ferry service, which got me to Haines. From there the hitching began, into a landscape bigger and wilder than I could have imagined.
The book’s main character, Japhy Ryder (based on the poet and mountaineer Gary Snyder) was definitely my hero during that time, merging a spiritual approach to a simple life and political interests and mountaineering. It was clear to me that we were working the planet too hard, and we needed a lighter, more mindful footprint, with simpler low consumption lives that focused on Being rather than Having. Within a couple of weeks of arriving in Alaska I’d found a work/trade job in a remote town in the east of the state. On my first day in town, we drove up into the hills to cut firewood and I looked out and up to the Wrangell Mountains. I had arrived in my dream location, living the ‘perfect’ life: good physical work with plenty of time to think and talk, and huge mountains literally out the door.
Japhy was a good friend during that time and the long hours sitting by the side of the road waiting for a ride as I headed south, and then east towards Colorado. I hitched something like 20,000 km on that trip and had my share of wild, scary, and wonderful experiences. My core belief that the best life is one that is mindful, simple, social, and with a lot of time in the outdoors in inspiring landscapes grew on that journey. My love for mountains was also confirmed (as Gary Snyder said in one of his books, ‘all true paths lead through mountains’). There were many other books that found their way into my hands in those days of wandering (Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was a solo, snarky counterbalance to Japhy’s optimism but he wrote beautifully about the high desert country of the West) and what I found in parts of the western coast – in mainland Alaska, the Panhandle, and the Pacific North West was an emerging culture that was earth aware, mindful and appreciative of place. When I came back to Australia, we had been through a summer of extensive bushfires. I got a ride with a friend to go hiking at Mt Baw Baw and we drove east from Melbourne, through the freshly burnt hill country around Powelltown. After the clean lines and vivid landscapes of Alaska I realised for the first time how ancient, how prehistoric Australia is. The land seemed naked, stripped of undergrowth, and rocks dotted out everywhere. Already the first shoots were growing from the blackened eucalypts and fern fronds were uncurling in the bone dry air. The vivid, fleshy green against burnt dry soil and blackened trunks made my heart sing in a way that was confusing and wonderful. After venturing so far, I felt like I had finally come home. Snyder’s bioregional approach was the final gift he gave me: understanding that each place is special and the most authentic life and culture understands and appreciates the physical attributes of the local, the specific. It was the perfect antidote to the urban, generic lifestyle I experienced back in the suburbs of Melbourne.
Thanks Gary for helping me to build the bedrock of my life and values. We all need to find our path in the world. But obviously friends, family, culture, tradition and elders can help. Some of the most significant elders in my life have been authors I have never met. But I feel their influence and thank them for their guidance.
This story was inspired by reading ‘What Kerouac’s Wilderness teaches us about parenting’ written by Tracy Ross, and which appeared in Outside magazine.