This essay appears in the collection Can You Tolerate This?, out now from Riverhead Books.
On any walk into dense bush, at some point we ask one another, “Why are we doing this?” We could be at home, we say, where there is hot water and a flushing toilet. The question ripples up and down the chain of walkers, and one or two people raise the serious possibility of turning back right now. Their voices are bright with certainty, seeming almost to hold apart the foliage we are struggling through, making our way easier for a moment. Surely we’ll stop walking, stand there befuddled as if shaking ourselves out of a dream, and then one by one we’ll turn around, shaking our heads and laughing, and the person bringing up the rear will turn into the leader. But even as the dissenters are saying the words—“I really think we should turn back!”—we all, together, remember how far we have come and how much distance would be wasted if we were to turn back. The day would be rendered pointless. We should at least dignify how far we have come by going a bit further.
As we turn a corner, we hear the roar of a river. The roar seems to come from somewhere low, under the trees, seething in the ground. We are reassured that our destination, the river, lies just ahead. The path is beginning to fade in and out, becoming threadbare as we continue. As we push thorny branches out of the way, sometimes they accidentally ricochet into the face of the person following. No one is enjoying the walk. Has anyone ever enjoyed the walk? Perhaps none of us ever enjoyed it, even early on when our legs were fresh. Maybe even back then we all secretly wished it were over. Even as we agree that the pieces of sky through the trees are very blue, as we admire the persistence of the tiny streams, the marvel of the koura scrambling through them, a thought hums between us: If we had turned back before, we would be home now. We try to recall some sweeter hours when we weren’t thinking about the end, but our memory is blurred by footsteps and by the sticky wash of leaves against bodies.
The river roars, or seems to roar. A small voice asks if maybe we should stop and rest for a few minutes. Not turn back, understand; just rest. There is a momentary slackening of pace, and uncertainty ripples up and down our number. But then a sharper voice responds that if we did stop to rest, even for a few minutes, we would still be thinking about walking, calculating the distance that remained, which is a kind of walking in itself, only a motionless internal one, like the spinning beach ball on a computer—so it wouldn’t be true rest. It would be a false rest. This is a persuasive argument and we all agree immediately to continue on, and our pace gathers again. There is, at least, solidarity in the walking, a feeling of being a part of things. We keep our eyes on the back of the person in front of us, whose leg hairs are aquiver with burrs. Our ears strain for the river. We will reach the river sooner now that we have not stopped.
From time to time, we imagine ourselves in a clearing, sitting on our humped packs in the shade—past selves who stopped to rest back there. A small crowd of them are sitting in the prickling grass. They are no longer a forward-facing line but a stagnant scattering, doing nothing but taking in air. They are utterly still, as if they will never move and never be found again, as if they are items accidentally dropped from a pocket, falling farther and farther behind us now.