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The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, June 1924

The Truth About Tramping

page 25

The Truth About Tramping

Gentle Spike! a word with you. About this Tramping Club of which we hear so much, which occupies so large a space on the notice boards of V.U.C. and in the lives of its doomed votaries. I want to tell the Truth about Tramping. I come to you, Spike, as the sole representative of the Free Press. Fair play all round, Spike—you have printed many extravagant eulogies, in prose and verse, of this peculiar pastime—now publish this indictment, and let the world know the truth. Magna est veritas, et praevalebit.

I have done a bit of tramping myself, and I think I know what I am talking about. I may not be a great deal of good as a practical tramper—what I mean to say is, in the matter of lighting fires in the pouring rain with a happy smile on my face, or leading a band of lunatics over pathless deserts and trackless bills for days at a stretch, or putting up tents in the dark, or frying sausages and steak simultaneously in a frying-pan much too small in the near vicinity of a tire much too hot—at all these delicate pursuits, I freely admit it, my name may be most emphatically mud; but I flatter myself that I know the underlying philosophy of the business pretty well. That is, what has hitherto been represented as its philosophy. I have read my classics. As a matter of fact, I think I may say that few trampers have the extensive acquaintance that I have with the literature of the subject—the idealistic literature, that is. I have always been fonder of literature than life—so much easier to bear. However, that is beside the immediate point. if you take your Stevenson and read his essay on Walking Tours (where, someone has said, his genius comes nearest to Hazlitt), what do you find? Wash, Spike, utter wash! Listen to this:—

"You lean from the window, your last pipe reeking whitely into the darkness, your body full of delicious pains, your mind enthroned in the seventh circle of content . . .you have had a fine moment, and looked down upon all the kingdoms of the earth. And whether it was wise or foolish, tomorrow's travel will carry you, body and mind, into some different parish of the infinite."

That, please you, describes the end of a day's tramp. Rot, all rot. What is the reality? It rains; it gets dark; you stagger over boulders and into creeks; it rains harder and the creeks get deeper; you swear like a hundred troopers, and your swag (Stevenson's "haversack," indeed!) weighs you to the ground; you finally stop and mess around with a clammy tent with numbed fingers. At about 12 midnight you at last get to sleep, and in a couple of hours some fool who has caught a later boat charges into the tent, aggressively cheerful, and puts his foot in your mouth. And as for "last pipes reeking whitely," "circles of content," "parishes of the infinite"—pah! Stevenson isn't the only one—there's Trevelyan (" I have two doctors, my left leg and my right "), Leslie Stephen, that ass Belloe, with his farrago of Rome, beer and the Faith, Walt Whitman with his barbarous sequipedalians (" I who have walked splay-footed in hobnailed boots "), John Burroughs, the smug Thoreau, Hazlitt, typical literary stuff, Jefferies. I've read 'em all. It's all Rot. And then there's those two bards, R.F.P. and J.C.B., who appear—Heaven knows how!—with such monotonous persistency in the pages of the Spike. They must be young and innocent. I doubt, from a perusal of their lines, if they have ever been on a page 26 tramp. There's that thing of J.C.B' s called Tramping song" (though I've never heard it sung, and doubt if it be possible to sing to any tune yet composed)—what does he say, in the midst of lines about tuis, rata, clouds, white roads, and all the conventional poetic appurtenances?—

"And praise we now the Tramping Girl, etc., etc., etc.
and bright she trims the cheerful evening fire."

Absolute typical Rot! Who ever heard of a girl messing round with the fire at all? They sit on a good dry log and eat, that's about the extent of their participation in the festivities. And hear R.F.F:—

"The morning track and the noontide long,
The swinging pack and the biting thong,
The evening shack, and a careless song,
And friendly fading fire-light."

Sounds all right; the only trouble is, it has nothing to do with actual experience. Except perhaps the part about the biting thong—the thongs (such as they are) bite all right. So does remorse once you get started. And then there's the fellow who contributes the Tramping Notes to the Spike, headed by little bits of poetry, and full of rhapsodies about waterfalls and bush and sunsets and suchlike. What's he know about it? The trouble with all these coves is, they're out of touch with reality. You can't sit at home in a comfortably appointed room, with your feet on the fender and a complacent haze enveloping your faculties, and negligently drop words of wisdom from the gold-tipped end of your elegant fountain pen. Life isn't like that. Truth is stark; you may gain in decency by casting a veil of words over the outlines of her limbs, by clamping the nerveless fingers of your dull lay figure round the drooping stalk of a drably decorative flower, and saying, "Look, this amorous shade is Romance; note the aesthetic effect of this peculiar horticultural phenomenon, the more or less white bloom of a blameless life "; but is it the fact of the matter? Give us facts. We are no Gradgrind, but give us a few facts. Tramping may be one way of passing the time for the moron-minded—why elevate it to the height of the sole occupation in a better world of the celestial hosts? Stick to the facts. True art doesn't contort itself hither and thither, like a striped python crushing the delicate white body of Truth; it is aloof, austere, simple, direct, like a Greek statute. Come away from the messy morass of mysticism, tread the hard, shapely ground of scientifically ascertained fact. Especially when you are rhapsodising on Tramping—above all, if you are a Tramper. The devil loveth a cheerful liar, but dear unto the Lord is he that walks in the way of truth. Let us see what this Tramping is; let us lay bare the bones of the business, (You may chop my little contribution around, Air. Editor, but at least let truth prevail this time, if never again.)

What is this Tramping? Let us take the case of a typical victim—a Fresher, say, callow and idealistic, who has baled a bit of the poisoned liquid from the literary bogs I have described, and who reaches V.U.C. in a flutter of eagerness to lead the true University life. What happens? He reads a notice. "Ah-um-what's this? Annual General Meeting—Tramping Club—fresh air—happy days—come one, come all—that'll do me—me for the great open spaces!" So he bowls along and knocks genteelly at the door. Is this the Tramping Club? It is. They spring on his neck and drag him in. Another sacrifice—good enough—the secretary gets him page 27 down—take a good look, all you lads, and get ready to break his heart. So far, so good; the dreadful truth hasn't burst on him yet. It won't—until too late. What next? He goes to a dance (if the Prof. Board happens to forget itself temporarily and permit one), and meets a charming girl. Very charming; health radiates from her limbs—light beams from a vivacious eye—you know the sort of thing. "Oh, Mr. So-and-so' she says, "are you a tramper? 0, I just adore tramping!" "Well," says he, a bit ashamed of himself, "I haven't been out yet, but I want to as soon as I can. You know I promised the family in the old village to go to church at least once a week." "Oh," she gushes, "do come with us next Sunday! Lorry makes such beautiful billy tea. I always think billy tea tastes better, with plenty of smoke in it, than the ordinary stuff you get at home, don't you?" Poor fool, he falls for it. How is he to know that his charming confidante is Slogging Sarah, the Terror of the Tararuas, who has led more men to their death on craggy steep and beetling precipice than there are years in his young life? Poor fool! poor fool!

He goes for a Sunday tramp. It's fine, for a wonder, and the real demon-walkers haven't come, as the day isn't hard enough. Girls are all right, though, thinks our young fellow—great game this tramping! And he decides to go for the next week-end. Great heavens! hold back, young man, before it is too late! Arrest your wandering feet! Throw out the life-line, somebody! La Belle Dame sans merci—!—what's the good—he's a gone-er. The fool and his folly. The Immanent Will has him in thrall. Away he goes for the week-end. Fine lot of fellows, these, thinks our Fresher, looking round at the long legs and abbreviated clothing of his companions—Prof too—great man this Prof, I'm told—makes coffee, stew, and so forth—great fund of reminiscences—I must keep close to him. Might make a few marks at French out of it, too. (Poor fool!) Typical Tramping Girls, too, he thinks—fine, upstanding, frank, joyful. What does J.C.B. say, in that Tramping sonnet of his:—

"Like Artemis who erst with long, lank limbs—"

He had an eye for beauty, all right, that J.C.B. (He little knows I He little knows!) So oft' they go, over to the Bay, along the nice hard road, up a precipice, into Gollan's Valley, up another precipice, down the other side, wade a couple of creeks, more precipices, down again, up again, down again, up again, down again—sun pours down, so does perspiration. Wish they'd stop a bit, thinks our novice, going's getting a bit hard. Feels a blister on his toe. "Steep bit this,' he says with timid insinuation to the next man. Next man eyes him cruelly. Oh, fair," he says, "you wait till we get to Orongorongo, though." Help! thinks our novice—however, mustn't give up yet. What man has done man can do. After several hours of this sun sets. Hooray! camping time, thinks he. Not on your life—we go on for a long while yet. On he goes, trailing at the rear, dead-tired, deader and deader every step; trips over roots, swag weighs him down, thongs bite his shoulders. However—at last they are there. Up go tents; fires lighted; Prof clears a space and gets to work on stew. Firelight glances in the dark, obscure moving figures, light laughter, sound of chopping. Very romantic scene this, thinks our man—stars coming out, too; sits on ground, clasps his knees, and begins to wear off that tired feeling. Prof notices him. "Oh, aren't you doing anything? Dash down the hill and get some bedding, will you?" Crumbs! this is laying it on page 28 a bit, isn't it? thinks he. However, gets up—aches in every limb—staggers off down the hill, trips over tussock, sprains his ankle, hits his nose, grabs gorse-bush to steady himself, pulls manuka for what seems an hour and a-half (only quarter of an hour, really), and staggers back with small bundle. Prof sniffs. "Want a lot more than that," says he. Off goes Fresher again, despair at his heart. Comes back, finds tea started, sausages all gone, manages to dig up a smell and a bit of charred wood from the frying-pan; makes the best of it, and chews away steadily. Beaches for loaf. "Oh, cut a bit for me while you're about it," says someone. Chorus rises: "Me, too—plenty of honey for me—have you used up all that paste?" so on and so forth, with variations. Cuts for half an hour, and at last manages to snaffle a bit for himself. Thinks he'll wash his plate, and falls into creek in dark. Never mind, bed now, any-how. Eight men in tent, feels ribs crack; 11.30 p.m. Prof begins to snore. Fresher restrained by feelings of respect for person of Prof from assaulting him—can't move arms or legs, anyhow. Joints ache, head aches, ankle swells, blisters burn. At 2 a.m. rain starts, wind blows—by an almost incredible stroke of luck he is not on the outside, but a continuous trickle of water falls on his face. Gets to sleep at 4; 4.30 everybody gets up. "Good lord, it's very late," says Prof; "ought to be starting by now." Rain still pours down. Prof and Secretary decide to cut out breakfast, and go straight on till it clears up. Take down tents—soaking wet. Says a smooth-tongued criminal to Fresher: "I say, would you mind carrying this tent? My swag is fuller than it was yesterday.' Fresher feels mutinous; starts to prevaricate. Prof steps in: "Oh, yes, he's got plenty of room! Come along, Blank, get a move on; we can't stay here in the rain all day." Fresher struggles with tent, swag weighs about two tons; off they go. This Secretary is stricken by a strange form of insanity—has mania for finding harder ways than the usual track—invariably goes off on this idiotic quest; tramper's mentality is like sheep's—they all follow him, Fresher limping at tail, trembling with cold and indignation, unaccustomed curses on his lips and murder in his heart.

Why continue? They go on all day, so does the rain; bush is soaked and wraps clammy hands round everyone that passes. Supplejacks get in the way, lawyer tears at skin, creeks are swollen, and Fresher is half-drowned—but why continue? A couple of lunatics think they'll put up a record over the last six miles—you know the breed well—long, bony brutes with big feet and laughter like a sudden bray—off they go and drag in Fresher. Poor devil staggers ten yards, heart breaks—crumples up on roadside. Crawls rest of way on hands and knees, every vestige of skin taken off spine by swag. Gets home, falls on to bed, raw, bleeding, bruised, broken, raves wildly all night, and is taken away in ambulance next morning.

But what's the good? The fool is out for the next tramp that comes along. Incredible? No, highly natural. He has sold his soul to the devil; he is a doomed being. Never more will he be able to tear himself away from the stony road and the flooded creek. He is damned—he is in hell. He knows it, but can he escape? Can a lost soul escape from the sulphurstrewn plains and fiery rivers of eternity? Condemned, given over utterly, he wanders on and on-with the fierce laughter of demons forever sounding in his ears, horror clutching at his breast, and madness dancing before his eyes. page 29 There is one unconsoling consolation—to drag others, young, innocent, smiling as he once was, into the same damnation.

And that's the truth about Tramping,