Signal Hill, With Dogs I

A walking diary

As soon as I open the car door the dogs jump out. The smaller dog is attached to the headrest by its lead but never learns to wait. It dangles by its collar, legs scrabbling against the sill and seat until I unhook it. Immediately it runs towards the monument car park, looking for boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds and pizza, discarded during the night. On Mondays the dogs get lucky.

We walk on Signal Hill’s mountain bike tracks five — sometimes seven—days a week. We have been doing this for the past three years so I figure if I was going to grow bored with the landscape it would have happened by now. Unless I’m in a hurry, each walk takes about 1½ hours. Recently I’ve been trying to stretch it out to two hours but that requires a bit of effort — a combination of distance, exploration, slowness and loitering. The distance requires zigzagging from the top of the hill where we start, to the bottom, back up to the plateau, back down to the base, and then all the way to the top. The exploration just means trying to avoid all tracks but that is pretty much impossible. Slowness refers to me looking at things — especially when fungi is concerned. Loitering relates to my interaction with the dogs — my having to wait while they chase phantom rabbits, run after cyclists, swim in the pond or rummage in the bush.

The tracks have names: The Big Easy, Ginger Cougar, Magnatron, Burns, Student Track, Old Nationals, New Nationals, Haggis Basher, Telecom and Timmys. In general I keep off The Big Easy after 9am. It’s the most popular track with cyclists and runners and there is a woman with a pedigree spaniel who makes a fuss if we happen to meet. Her dog is trained to the point of blandness and she is short-tempered. She will stand still and yell if my dogs bark. There’s another dog-walker, a guy from Ravensbourne, who is easy to avoid. He swears so frequently and so loudly that I can hear him in the distance and alter my route to keep out of his way. His dogs look like they should be pig dogs – but they’re not. I’ve seen them a few times and I’m always impressed by the way they walk. They keep their big black heads pushed forward but low to the ground, and their tails close to their back legs. They skulk.

Both my dogs come when I whistle. I wear a nickel-plated shepherd’s whistle and I warm it in my mouth before I blow. The sound is much sharper and louder if the metal is at body temperature. Sometimes, if I haven’t warmed it, it makes a noise like a man snorting beer through his nostrils. Most days I try not to use it as it can be very loud and the whole point of the walk is to pass unnoticed.

In winter, recently, it has been so cold that my lower jaw aches. The fronts of my thighs feel chilled to the touch through the fabric of my trousers. The wind blows hard from the south — straight up the hill. During the homeward stretch it shoves against my back, pushing me up the hill. The sun just rises above the trees and shines directly into my eyes, blinding me for the final ten minutes of my climb. I can’t see a thing, really. I have the option of looking at my feet or walking with my hand curved around my eyebrows. Peaked caps are useless —the sun comes up from under. Most cold days my glasses fog up too.

Mondays are good for finding things. Reflectors, handkerchiefs, keys, cleats, lip balm, bits of tubular metal and, once, an uneaten Time Out chocolate bar. One morning —not a Monday —I found a note that read, ‘You are a fuckin troll’ folded and tucked into a pinecone.

There is a shelter built from fallen branches. It is big— like a yurt. Inside are tree-stump seats, flattened cardboard boxes and several empty beer bottles. Above the entrance a sign hangs. Hand painted, it reads, ‘The Debacle’. On the ground, near the shelter, was a dead possum. The first time I saw it it was fresh and, because it had been raining, waterlogged and bloated. It was covered in fur but small clumps had fallen away, and they were scattered around the carcass. It didn’t look like anything had been eating it but there are rats and mice on the hill and sometimes I wonder if there might be goats or pigs, as well.

My small dog wouldn’t leave the possum alone. It kept latching on to it, attempting to drag it away. Each time I got the dog off the possum, and down the hill, she would run back to it. After the fourth or fifth climb back to get her I picked the possum up by its back legs and hurled it towards a dense growth of gorse and bramble. It was a bad throw as the possum was heavier than I expected. It landed on a branch and then fell to the ground and the dog squirmed her way through the bush to get it. At that point I thought , fuck it, I’m going. It took about thirty minutes for the dog to catch me up and when she saw me she was so excited that she tried to run up my legs.

Part two