Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Walking to the Global Transportation Hub

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I’ve spent a couple of days researching and writing about the Regina Bypass. From the outset, the purpose of this road, it seems, was to get truck traffic to the Global Transportation Hub. That’s it. Construction on the Bypass started in the west, in stages, before the government decided to build the southern portion and then, even later, to fold improved interchanges east of Regina into the project. The expansion of the Bypass helps to explain how the cost ballooned, from $100 million at the very beginning to $2 billion now—but only helps. At least $600 million is going to VINCI, the French company responsible for  operating and maintaining the Bypass for the next 30 years. Is that a good deal? From what I’ve read, nobody can tell. The point is that if I’m going to study the Bypass, I’m going to have to learn as much as I can about the Global Transportation Hub. I’ve been doing some research, but this morning I decided to walk out there and see what there is to see.

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It’s a good thing I’m walking this morning. I woke up out of sorts, and I’m hoping that a walk will improve my disposition.Once again, I commit an unpsychogeographical act: I check Google Maps to see how far I’ll be walking. Not only does it tell me the distance, but it directs me to a route I would never have thought of, through a neighbourhood where I’ve never walked. I put on my boots and set out. After the past week’s cold weather, this morning’s warm sunshine was a revelation. The elm trees are leafing out; there is a scrim of green on their branches. An old woman is raking straw at the vegetable garden in front of the Anglican church, and a bumblebee is fumbling about on a lawn covered in dandelions. A spindly shrub is starting to put out pink blossoms. Next to the sidewalk, I see a plot of rhubarb, raspberries, and horseradish.

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I turn down an alley, but it’s blocked by a Bobcat dumping dirt into a truck, so I turn back. A train horn sounds at the level crossing on Elphinstone. I decide to try a different alley. I see an old AMC Rebel, not much different from the one my mother drove when I was in high school. I see a baby robin in its nest waiting for a snack. On the corner, three men are tearing down an old wooden fence and loading it into a truck. Grackles creak. Robins sing. A house sparrow is resting on a purple martin house. A letter carrier climbs into his van and drives away. Dogs bark at my presence. In the back of a pickup truck is a pile of red tomato cages. A pair of jeans lies beside the curb.

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A red-winged blackbird trills behind me. I see an abandoned pair of winter gloves on the sidewalk and hear another Bobcat digging behind someone’s garage. A guy is fixing a flat tire. Dandelions are poking up next to a yard covered in Astroturf. I push the begging button at Lewvan Drive and wait to cross the highway. When the light turns, it gives me less than 30 seconds to walk across six lanes of traffic. I turn north and follow a sidewalk under the railway tracks next to the busy road. I had no idea that sidewalk existed. I stop under a poplar and inhale its scent. A cyclist passes. Later, I see the same cyclist come up off the Bypass and head back into town along Dewdney, and I wonder if he rode all the way around the city.

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At the corner of 11th Avenue, a portable sign directs people to a Covid-19 testing site. A woman standing in an alley blows her nose. Three men are roofing a garage across from a large seniors’ complex. A sign warns of slow moving equipment, and as if on cue, a Bobcat trundles towards me. A robin scuttles past a “No Trespassing” sign; it doesn’t apply to him. In the other direction, a city crew is patching potholes. A jogger runs past with a border collie on a leash. A mother and her two children cross the road. The infield of a baseball diamond is yellow with dandelions.

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I turn west on Dewdney, a long straight plod towards the Global Transportation Hub. I cross Wascana Creek; red-winged blackbirds are singing in the willows on the bank of the creek. A train sounds behind me. A single goose floats on the water. At the RCMP’s Depot Division, the sidewalk ends, but I keep walking on the lawn, green from recent rain. I notice the beginning of a desire path and think of Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking. In the ditch, a crow pecks at something red; when I fumble with my camera, it flies off to join another, complaining. A sign from last year’s election is lying beside the road.

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At Courtney Street, the grass ends and I start walking on the paved shoulder. There are no more mature trees and the traffic seems louder here. There’s a park to the left, but a sign announced that the city has received an application to turn it into a “mixed use neighbourhood,” whatever that means. In the park, a fellow is practicing his golf swing and a woman is walking her dog. I see small footsteps in the wet gravel beside the paved shoulder. Meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds are calling, and a family cycles on a path through a fallow field between the park and the new Westerra development. A sign invites me to build my freedom. Someone is throwing dirt over a fence into the ditch; at first I mistake the flying dirt for birds. I see the flattened remains of a rabbit in the road. Ducks take to the air. Another cyclist heads west.

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The strange windowless bunker that belongs to the city is still howling. I can see the Bypass now; the traffic on the horizon, the overpass ahead, just west of Pinkie Road. I notice a sign announcing the Saulteaux Crossing Business Park, which is owned by Zagimē Anishinabek First Nation. A liquid petroleum gas storage terminal is on the other side of Dewdney Avenue. Meadowlarks are singing; their song accompanies me for the rest of the walk.

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From the overpass, I can see that an interchange has been built to funnel trucks right into the Global Transportation Hub without having to travel on Dewdney. I can see the massive Loblaw warehouse facility in the Global Transportation Hub, too. Frogs are singing beside the Bypass. I look down at the highway. There seems to be as much traffic on Dewdney as there is on the Bypass. A raven croaks. Next to a cell tower, a strange black steel contraption sits; there are straps with heavy steel hooks on the end suspended from its vertical pipes, and the wind catches them, banging the hooks against the pipes with a clanging that sounds like church bells in Spain. I turn and look back towards the glass towers of downtown.

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I turn right and walk into the Global Transportation Hub. There is a lot of vacant land here. I realize that I’ve never liked the use of the adjective “Global” to describe this project. There’s a naive Babbitry in that word, a foolish boosterism, even a kind of ignorant hubris. In a globalized world, every transportation hub is global; every place is connected to every other place. A gopher whistles. Some politician came up with that name, someone who imagined that the word “Global” has some kind of talismanic power—someone who saw Field of Dreams too many times and thought, if we build it, they will come. Mostly they have stayed away. I think about Jane Jacobs’s description of “depot centres.” Regina has always been a depot, taking things made elsewhere off of trains and putting them in storage. How is the idea of the GTH an improvement on that notion? At the entrance, I see a sculpture: a tan shipping container stacked on a white one, its plinth. It announces the purpose of this place more eloquently than the sign, which announces “Canada’s Premier Inland Port.” I take a closer look at the sign. It includes a map of the development. Empty lots are coloured in to look like they are occupied. Maybe it’s just that the scale of the drawing is way off. I can’t be sure. Anyone looking at the sign could see all around it the empty lots it identifies as warehouses. It looks like a childish attempt at bending the truth.

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The warehouses here are featureless boxes without windows. They look temporary. Perhaps they are: structures that are bolted together can be unbolted again. When warehouses were built downtown, before the First World War, they were sturdy buildings made of brick and stone. Those buildings made an implicit statement: we are here to stay. Now that kind of brand identity is unnecessary. The point is to keep construction costs low. Besides, few people will ever see these buildings. Outside the Global Trade Exhibition Centre, a guy takes a handcart out of a van.

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There are dozens of trailers parked in the loading bays at the Loblaw Distribution Centre, and a row of white semis waits by the road. That building seems to house the only going concern here. Occasional trucks pass. It’s quiet. Maybe that’s because of the pandemic. A truck repair shop sits silently. A killdeer warns me away from her nest. On the other side of the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard, a long train loaded with containers is heading west, towards Vancouver. Geese sit in the empty fields of grass. Unlike the Intermobil terminal on the other side of town, the Canadian Pacific Intermodal Yard has no gantries. Instead, large tractors—like forklifts, except that they grab containers from the top with a giant claw—are moving cans around. Perhaps there isn’t enough traffic here to justify building a gantry. The road ends at the yard. Signs warn against trespassing. I think about the stories I’ve heard about railroad bulls and decide to turn around. I start walking north. Another tractor is moving cans around outside the Loblaw warehouse. A goose rests on the shoulder of the road.

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I turn back towards the city. Grackles are poking around on a recently seeded field. A dead jackrabbit, wearing its white winter fur coat, has been thrown into the ditch. The meadowlarks are still singing.

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Walking from León to Somewhere West of Astorga

The virtual walk through Spain continues. The sky looks like it might clear this morning, and if the rain stops, I’ll try to walk a few kilometres west to León.

Here are a few photographs I took on the actual journey several years ago.

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We met on Zoom Monday night—Tuesday at noon for Neil, who is in Australia—and we agreed where we would stop this week, but I can’t remember what we said! I hope my photographs haven’t gone too far ahead on the journey. Once again, I’m surprised by how few photographs I took. Even fewer were successful or worth sharing. I take more pictures now. I’ll take that as a lesson learned.

Walking North to Condie

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This morning I waited to set off until the temperature was well above zero. I was feeling rather anxious about this walk, because I knew I would be walking alongside Highway 11, and busy highways are dangerous for pedestrians. I’ve walked that way before; several years back, I walked 35 kilometres to Lumsden on Highway 11. It wasn’t a pleasant walk, and I’ve never done it again. I spent part of the morning checking maps, trying to see if there was another way I could get to the Bypass from here, but there really isn’t. So Highway 11 it was. Maybe it’s the pandemic, but I’ve been more conscious of my mortality this spring, and I’d rather not end my time here getting hit by a truck on the shoulder of a highway.

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Just after I leave the house, a car runs a stop sign in front of me. It feels like a bad omen. I consider turning back, but I don’t. I walk north on Albert Street. The vacant lots and empty storefronts on Albert tell a sad story. There are few pedestrians around. The sidewalks have been swept clean of litter and grit, though, and a flotilla of street sweepers passes. I stop briefly under a small basswood tree and drink some water. Fringed plastic pennants over a used car lot whisper and crackle. A train is heading towards the level crossing. I keep walking. The farther north I get from the city centre, the more activity I see. Here the city is alive. A man sweeps a parking lot with a push broom. My stomach tells me it’s lunch time, but I don’t feel like downloading an app and entering my credit card information just so that I can eat a hamburger standing in the cold. I walk up to a gas station. Maybe they have coffee or sandwiches, I think. No. The sandwiches look unappetizing, and there’s no self-serve coffee because of the pandemic. I carry on north to the bridge over the Ring Road. A gopher whistles. Jackrabbits are hiding in a copse of trees encircled by the off-ramp. They turn and run when they hear my footsteps crunching on the gravel shoulder.

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Albert Street has become Highway 6 now. Plastic trash has blown up against the bushes by the highway. There are houses to the left, and in one of the backyards someone is hammering. A small dog yips. The wind is cold. A grackle is squeaking. In the distance, I can see a new neighbourhood on the other side of Highway 11. Closer, to the left, new houses have been built right up to that highway. A dead squirrel lies on the gravel shoulder. Across the flooded ditch, a man is walking next to the fence separating the backyards from the highway. I wonder what he’s doing. He’s carrying a shopping bag. I am approaching the Highway 11 offramp. The steel mill looms across the highway, looking dark and satanic. Tumbleweeds blow across the highway into the path of a truck. The mill disappears behind the embankment of the overpass as I get closer. I walk up onto Highway 11. To the left are the city’s most northwestern neighbourhoods, where I’ve walked many times. The ditch is full of garbage: rusty steel, shards of plastic, shredded tires, cables, tarps, part of a wooden crate—all thrown there by passing semis, it seems. I think about Walter Bond, the cyclist Charles Wilkins met while he was walking from Thunder Bay, Ontario, to New York City. He had cycled across North America half a dozen times over the years—to Vancouver, Florida, Alaska. Wilkins says that Bond “made himself memorable by telling me that every time he saw a nail or piece of wood on the highway, he stopped and picked it up” (Wilkins 85). That’s because, during his cycling journeys, he had been hit many times, “by spikes, breaking glass, exploding tires, bolts, screws, and muffler parts” (85). Once he was blown off a bridge into a creek when a semitrailer’s tire exploded within a metre of him on a Quebec highway. “I’ve had industrial wire go right through my lip and break my teeth,” Bond told Wilkins (85). Because of those experiences, Bond made a commitment to throw highway debris into the ditch. Wilkins was so impressed by that story that he started doing the same (85). Maybe I should start following their example—not on this busy highway, though. I’m not venturing off the shoulder into the traffic here for any reason.

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The passing traffic is deafening, but when there’s a lull, I can hear the wind. The blast of a passing semi showers me with grit.  A faint smell of skunk is in the air. Across the highway a meadowlark is singing. A child’s wading pool lies beside the highway. An SUV veers towards me and the ditch, then corrects its course. I hear a train horn behind me. The wind shakes the grass beside the shoulder of the road. Farm equipment has left trails through barley stubble. The highway curves north, and I can see the Bypass in the far distance. A Swainson’s hawk on a power pole sees me and flies off, complaining. I walk past the old city sign, the one that uses the old city logo. When I walked to Lumsden, I sat in its shade and ate a sandwich. Another hawk is smashed on the roadway.

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On the horizon, I can see vehicles on the Bypass. It’s getting closer; I can almost read the sign announcing the exit to Moose Jaw. I pass under a crackling, buzzing high tension line and step over a discarded USB cable. A man’s shoe is lying on the shoulder. Across the highway, a seeding rig is making a turn, raising a cloud of dust from a field of stubble. Two ducks fly out of the highway’s flooded centre ditch.

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I’m walking beneath the overpass where the Bypass meets Highway 11. The Bypass seems empty. The noise of Highway 11 echoes off the overpass behind me. I see a yellow-headed blackbird resting on one of last year’s cattails in a slough beside the highway. Frogs are singing in the Condie Reservoir and Boggy Creek. A sign says that it’s 19 kilometres to Lumsden; I’m not even halfway there. A table leg is lying on the shoulder. Surveillance cameras are trained on the highway, and an electronic billboard refers motorists to the provincial government’s website for information on Covid-19. A giant black hat lies in the ditch near a truck’s mudflap.

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My goal is the Condie Nature Refuge. It’s there, on my left, on the other side of a fence. Birds are singing in a row of trees. The fence is broken and tire tracks lead from the highway into the refuge. Has someone been poaching ducks? I turn and look behind me. I can see the steel mill on the hazy horizon. I turn onto Highway 734. There is more traffic here, on this minor road, than there was on the Bypass. There’s no shoulder and I keep climbing down into the ditch to avoid oncoming traffic. I see an old flip phone, smashed, on the shoulder. Maybe a gangster decided to dispose of his burner. I turn south onto the range road that leads to the entrance to Condie. Robins and mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds call from a farm’s shelter belt. I hear a rooster crow.

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Then I’m at the entrance to Condie. The reservoir was constructed when a railway dammed Boggy Creek to provide water for its locomotives. Now the surrounding land is a park. I walk along the road. Horses are grazing in a field to my left. To my right, Boggy Creek winds its way along. I’m looking for a place to sit down; my legs are tired. I see a sign with a large sculpture of a crane and sit on the base. Something about the sculpture and the sign suggests a Centennial project. I listen to the birds and the wind and the distant traffic on the highway and wait for a ride home. After the deafening noise of the highway, it’s quiet. A bird in the tree behind the sign repeats the same questioning phrase, over and over. I wonder what it’s asking me. I turn to look at it, and it flies away.

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Work Cited

Wilkins, Charles. Walk to New York: A Journey Out of the Wilds of Canada, Viking Canada, 2004.

Another Walk to the Eastern Edge of the City

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I leave the house and walk north, towards Victoria Avenue. House sparrows are chirping in the cold air. At Victoria, I turn east. I’m going to walk in that direction, more or less in a straight line, for the next three hours. At the corner of Victoria Avenue and Albert Street, I pause in front of the city’s most famous vacant lot, the site of a failed condominium project which left a massive hole that the city had to pay to have filled in. It’s now fenced off, a gravel wasteland with big signs announcing it’s for sale. If at first you don’t succeed, try again.

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A heavy smell of pancakes and frying bacon fills the air, even though all of the nearby restaurants seem to be closed because of the pandemic. Where is it coming from? The seats and backs of all the benches in front of city hall ave been removed. A sign nearby says, “We Are All In This Together.” A long sheet of plastic hangs in a tree in front of the SaskPower headquarters, as if a guerrilla Christo has been at work. Across from this installation, a coffee shop is closed despite the handwritten “open” sign in the window.

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At the corner of Broad Street, a hotel announces that it is sending love to essential workers. What I remember as a print shop is now a detox centre. From a distance, I can see a thin layer of green on the branches of the street elms; close up, though, the branches look black. Maybe it’s a trick of the light. Pigeons are roosting on a roof. A lone sparrow is calling.

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An old frame duplex is being renovated. I mistake a plastic owl in a window for a cat. I notice an old house covered in red insulbrick; it reminds me of the house next door to my grandmother’s place when I was a kid. Insulbrick, I’ve been told, lasts forever because it’s made of asbestos. The next block is lined with houses that look abandoned.  A barking dog beside one of them startles me; clearly the houses aren’t empty, even if they look that way. On the corner of Winnipeg Street, a man is digging a hole in the sidewalk in front of a building that used to be a bank. The Milky Way is open, but it’s too cold for ice cream.

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A temporary fence surrounds a vacant lot. Dandelions are in bloom. The stores and restaurants here are owned by newcomers to the city: an African grocery, and Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Indian restaurants. The massage parlours have been closed because of the pandemic. I hear a man’s voice in the distance, broadcast through loudspeakers or a megaphone. Where is it coming from? I wonder. Could it be the auto auction I’ve walked past over on Arcola Avenue? A nightclub resembling a concrete bunker stands across the street. In front of a rundown house, two young dogs are on guard duty, barking behind a makeshift fence. Around the corner another dog barks at me. I ask myself if the dogs and fences are a symptom of the city’s problem with property crime.

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I cross Arcola Avenue. The sound of the auctioneer is clear now. I can hear every word he says—“and now lot 70, a 2017 Dodge Ram pickup truck”—but no bidders are visible. Maybe they’re inside the building, I think, but if that’s the case, why broadcast the auctioneer’s voice throughout the neighbourhood? East of Arcola, Victoria Avenue is a broad avenue with narrow sidewalks and few trees. This is the neighbourhood that the ceramicist Vic Cicansky writes about in his memoir. Now, though, the side streets appear to be mostly industrial; I can’t see any sign of the community where Cicansky grew up. I arrive at Park Street. The building that houses the local newspaper has been leased to other businesses. There are few reporters working there now, and the presses are gone; the paper is now printed in Saskatoon. A billboard announces that it knows our names. I cross onto the service road and walk past a McDonald’s. A man stands outside, waiting for his food. I can smell frying fat. Behind me, a threatening ridge of cloud is moving in from the west. It looks like it might snow. The frying smell is making me hungry, and I eat a granola bar. A gopher whistles. The service road loops underneath the Ring Road. Victoria Avenue is now a busy highway. I wouldn’t care to be walking there; I’m glad for the service road.

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East of the Ring Road, a trailer park stands next to a hotel. Birds sing in the mature trees of the trailer park. There are six lanes of highway here, in addition to the service road, but apparently it’s not enough; one of the rationales the government gave for the Bypass project was traffic congestion. Across the highway stand big box stores and a mall; on the north side, where I’m walking, there are fast food outlets and small plazas. Denny’s is offering a 20 percent discount on takeout and delivery. I’m surprised to meet three other pedestrians. Behind me, I can see the city centre on the horizon.

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There is no crosswalk at Fleet Street, and the sidewalk ends immediately to the east. Pedestrians are not welcome here. I continue my way through parking lots and along the edge of the road. The edge of the city is getting nearer. The temporary bridge over Pilot Butte Creek is closed to vehicles and pedestrians, and I follow the detour beside the highway. Sparrows are sitting on the bridge’s deck, and pigeons are roosting on the supports underneath. A pedestrian heading west ignores the signs and crosses the bridge anyway. I could have done the same. Next time I will, too.

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The service road veers north, and I follow, rather than taking my chances on the side of the highway. On the other side of the path, someone is walking a dog along a bicycle path. Houses stand in the distance. I smell diesel exhaust and wonder why I haven’t seen much litter on this walk. A meadowlark sings on top of a spruce tree across the street. I cross Prince of Wales Drive. I’m at the edge of the city, or at least what used to be the edge of the city; it has sprawled further east in the past few years. The service road turns south. It’s lined with empty-looking hotels. I walk past a mosque and a farm equipment dealer. A cigarette package expresses an unmistakeable sentiment.

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The Bypass, or at least part of it, is now visible on the horizon. I pass an RV dealer and a school for truck drivers. Another sign announces a redevelopment opportunity. Across the highway there is a large retail development and a new multiplex. I hear scraps of a meadowlark’s song through the traffic noise. The wind is picking up. I walk past a television station and the tall antenna mast that gives the road I’ve just crossed its name. I cross the Canadian National siding that leads to the Intermobil terminal. Everything seems abandoned, despite the traffic speeding past on the highway. Maybe that’s because it’s Saturday. The wet ditch is filled with garbage. No frogs are singing. Perhaps it’s too cold. A robin flies across the road, its mouth filled with a bundle of grass for its nest. Across the highway, near Costco, a meadowlark is singing. A cyclist passes me. His clothes and his backpack suggest he’s on his way to work somewhere. A grackle—I think it’s a grackle—makes a sound like a rusty gate opening. I hear a train in the distance, sounding its horn at a level crossing.

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Ahead is the interchange where the Bypass meets Highway #1. A red-winged blackbird stands on the shoulder of the road in front of an equipment dealer. A large muskrat is swimming in the flooded ditch. Two shovel headed ducks—a male and a female—fly up from the slough. I try to take a photograph of the interchange. It’s not easy: it’s too big, for one thing. The light is now behind the overpass. Maybe if I started from Emerald Park or White City early in the morning and walked west I could get a better picture. I call home and ask Christine to come and get me. If it weren’t so cold, and if my feet were tougher, I could turn around and walk back, but I feel I’ve accomplished what I set out to do on this walk.

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A yellow-headed blackbird chases the red-winged blackbirds out of the slough. A cyclist is heading west; we wave at each other. An orange cat is hunting on a farmhouse lawn. The farm’s dog smells me and barks an alarm. The Pilot Butte interchange is in the distance. I can see the new gas station there. A flock of grackles feeds in the ditch. Another meadowlark is singing.

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Walking East to the Bypass

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It was a warm spring day. The sun was bright and the sky was filled with cumulus clouds. I headed east. The city wasn’t revealing itself to me today. It seemed to be hiding. Perhaps some walks are that way. I passed three boarded-up houses, much the same as ours, Craftsman bungalows waiting to be demolished and replaced with something new. Another house was flying a Mexican flag from the pole out front.

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I turned south. An idling Harley-Davidson filled the air with its rumbling. Landscapers were building a front sidewalk. I could smell gasoline. I walked through streets of so-called “wartime” houses, prefabs built for returning veterans in the late 1940s. Dandelions were blooming on the edge of a lawn. New grow boxes, not yet filled with soil, were being installed in a front yard; someone is using the pandemic to take up gardening. A demolished porch was waiting to be hauled away.

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Grackles clacked in a hedge, and a robin sang for a mate in a tall tree. Ducks flew past, low, in formation; I could hear the whistling sound of their wings. I was thinking that it’s easier to find curiosities in alleys than in streets when I came upon a clawfoot tub, painted pink, lying on its side next to someone’s driveway: a pink beached whale, a queer miniature Ahab’s obsession, an odd object.

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I passed a young woman walking a beagle, and it reminded me of my father, who loved his beagle. Every night, after supper, he would walk with her to the corner store, where he would buy a cigar, and some gummy bears for the dog. The treats didn’t do either of them any good; the poor dog got fat and her teeth rotted. Still, I have a soft spot for beagles. Pilot Butte Cree is nearly dry, despite two days of rain. I wonder if it will have any water at all by August. Red-winged blackbirds were calling.

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I crossed Prince of Wales Drive. A crow was resting on a streetlight. The Angel Moroni was still blowing his horn. I could smell paint. A merlin screamed. The sounds of two lawmowers converged, a harmony of lawn care. I carried on into one of the city’s newest neighbourhoods, The Creeks. The houses were earth-toned boxes. Kids were skateboarding in the park. The young trees gave no shade. I saw the intersection of Chuka Drive and Chuka Drive, and the world began folding in on itself.

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I walked out to the highway and carried on southeast past the Bypass. I was just here, not a week ago, and I wouldn’t usually repeat part of a walk so soon, but I had a specific idea in mind: I wanted to sneak up on the point where the Bypass crosses Highway 1, and I wanted to see the intermodal terminal. There was a smell of cedar mulch from bushes planted behind a deer-resistant fence. Despite the rain we’ve had, the slough beside the highway was nearly dry. No frogs were singing and only one red-winged blackbird trilled from one of last summer’s cattails. The streetlights around the Bypass cloverleaf were on. A hawk roosted on a streetlight, and trucks thundered south on the overpass.

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Beyond the Bypass, frogs were singing in a wet ditch. I tried to record them; when I stopped walking, they went silent. After a minute, they started again, and my second attempt was more successful.

I made a wrong turn and retraced my steps. A strange illusion: I saw someone sitting in the passenger seat of a junked car rusting away behind a windbreak, along with farm equipment and a pickup truck. I heard the first meadowlarks of the day singing. A fire was burning in the far distance, sending a column of smoke into the air.

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A duck was swimming in a dugout. I saw a footprint on the gravel shoulder and was no less surprised than Robinson Crusoe: I was following in someone else’s recent footsteps. The traffic noise receded behind me. I walked up to the Intermobil terminal. Only one gantry was working; the other was silent and still. A man’s voice came over the PA system, making chicken sounds. Who was the target of his mockery? A rabbit bounced over the grass. A sign announced the Chuka Creek Business Park. That name is all over The Creeks. Who is, or was, this Chuka? Another sign touted “industrial condominiums.” Across the street were two inland terminals, side by side, separated by a field of rusting containers on which pigeons roosted. In the distance, I could see the complicated interchange of the Bypass and Highway #1. A row of baseball diamonds was on the other side of the Bypass, with houses beyond that. To the west, I could see the city’s downtown. A meadowlark was singing on a rusting earth mover. A goose waddled along the railway track.

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A slough hosted more frogs, ducks, and red-winged blackbirds. It was quiet; the traffic on the Bypass was surprisingly silent. A cyclist was heading north on the Bypass. Rusting equipment filled a junkyard across the road; another—perhaps the same one—sat across from an RV park. What a place to vacation. A sign protested the Bypass and its cost.

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I was tired, and my foot hurt—maybe I’m wearing the wrong footwear—so I did a most unpsychogeographical thing: I opened Google Maps. It was 7.5 kilometres to Emerald Park, where I had planned to call for a ride home: too far for a tired walker with a sore foot. Perhaps I need to be wearing different boots. I couldn’t get close enough to the point where the Bypass meets Highway #1 to get a decent photograph; I’ll have to figure out another way of getting there. Perhaps the service road north of the #1 goes that far. Soon I will find out.

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Looking Back on the Walk From Logroño to Calzadilla de los Hermanillos

My friends and I are still walking virtually through northern Spain. Here are some photos from our walk in 2013.

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Looking back at the photos I took, I wish I had taken more, and more of the people I was walking with. Some days, it seems, the camera didn’t leave its case. And that photo Geoff Travers took of my backpack! What was I thinking, carrying all that extra stuff? Live and learn, I suppose. Walking is like anything else: you learn how to do it by doing it, by making mistakes, and in Spain, I seem to have made a lot of mistakes. I would do things differently now.

One last thing—I was motivated while walking one sunny day after a week of rain to write a poem, and I thought I would share it here:

Picking my muddy way

Along the Rio Ucieza

I pass another field of sunflowers,

Their black and heavy heads

Bowed as if in silent prayer.

 

Why might a sunflower pray?

To give thanks for the season’s rain and sun?

Or to ask for courage against the

Whirling combine, the oil press?

 

George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking”

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(George Macaulay Trevelyan as photographed by George Charles Beresford in 1926)

British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan’s long essay “Walking” was published in the collection Clio, A Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian in 1913. Clio, A Muse must have been a popular book; it was in its third impression within the year. I’ve heard about Trevelyan’s essay before, but it took comments on this blog, and the selections included in Duncan Minshull’s anthology The Vintage Book of Walking, to motivate me to find a copy online and dig into it. 

“Walking” begins with two quotations: one from Rousseau’s Confessions, and the other from—surprise!—Leslie Stephen’s “In Praise of Walking.” They situate Trevelyan’s thinking on this subject within the Romantic tradition, I think, but Trevelyan’s first words are less about the experience of sublime landscapes than the psychological benefits of walking:

I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again. (56)

Walking helps Trevelyan when “[t]hat combination of mind and body which I call my soul is often so choked up with bad thoughts or useless worries,” and it is at those times that he calls on his “two doctors” to carry him “off for the day” (57). Often mental exercises, such as those recommended by Arnold Bennett in his book The Human Machine, are insufficient to shift Trevelyan’s thoughts away from “general misery”:

On these occasions my recipe is to go for a long walk. My thoughts start out with me like bloodstained mutineers debauching themselves on board the ship they have captured, but I bring them home at nightfall, larking and tumbling over each other like happy little boy-scouts at play, yet obedient to every order to “concentrate” for any purpose Mr. Bennett or I may wish. (57-58)

Trevelyan’s repetition in these first pages isn’t simply garrulousness, I think; rather, it’s his way of emphasizing the psychological benefits he finds in walking.

However, those walks, if they are to have any “medicinal use,” need to be rural walks. Trevelyan describes the benefits he has found in walking: 

a Sunday spent with both legs swinging all day over ground where grass or heather grows. I have often known the righteous forsaken and his seed begging their bread, but I never knew a man to go for an honest day’s walk, for whatever distance, great or small, his pair of compasses could measure out in the time, and not have his reward in the repossession of his own soul. (58)

These need not be solo walks—“companionship is good, and the more friends who join us on the tramp the merrier” (58)—and their effect on the self will be limited to resetting the walker’s mood:

For there is not time, as there is on the longer holiday or walking tour, for body and mind to attain that point of training when the higher ecstasies of Walking are felt through the whole being, those joys that crave silence and solitude. And indeed, on these humbler occasions, the first half of the day’s walk, before the Human Machine has recovered its tone, may be dreary enough without the laughter of good company, ringing round the interchange of genial and irresponsible verdicts on the topics of the day. For this reason informal Walking societies should be formed among friends in towns, for week-end or Sabbath walks in the neighbouring country. I never get better talk than in these moving Parliaments, and good talk is itself something. (58-59)

Here is the Romanticism that Trevelyan’s epigraphs led me to expect: “the higher ecstasies of Walking,” “those joys that crave silence and solitude.” He is focused on a different kind of walking: a practice that is essential to mental health.

However, there are criticisms to be made of such a practice, Trevelyan admits, presenting a long quotation from Arthur Sidgwick’s Walking Essays complaining about the insensitivity of such walkers and the starvation of “their immortal being” between “the blind swing of the legs below and the fruitless flickering of the mind above” (qtd. 59). Sidgwick sounds like an impossible snob, but Trevelyan suggests that these remarks demonstrate a thorough understanding of “the high, ultimate end of Walking, which is indeed something other than to promote talk” (60). For Trevelyan, though, a day’s walk every couple of weeks can only refresh the body and exercise the mind. The kind of walking Sidgwick describes, he suggests, “requires longer time, more perfect training, and, for some of us at least, a different kind of scenery. Meanwhile let us have a good talk as we tramp the lanes” (60). Trevelyan is defending a rather unromantic, even prosaic, kind of walking against the nearly impossible demands of Sidgwick’s romanticism. He quotes Thomas Carlyle’s claim that walking and talking is “one of the highest of human functions” (60), but he also sees a connection between convivial and conversational walking and a more solo and Romantic approach in Carlyle’s walking practice:

because he talked well when he walked with others, he felt and thought all the more when he walked alone, “given up to his bits of reflections in the silence of the moors and hills.” He was along when he walked his fifty-four miles in the day, from Muirkirk to Dumfries, “the longest walk I ever made,” he tells us. Carlyle is in every sense a patron saint of Walking, and his vote is emphatically given not for the “gospel of silence”! (60-61)

Because Carlyle was good at conversational walking, he was good at reflective walking, and he might not be the only exemplar of that connection; surely the Wordsworths and Coleridge conversed while they made their walks together, and yet those walks led to a particular form of Romantic poetry.

Nevertheless, Trevelyan continues, his idea of “the perfect walk” involves both silence and solitude:

When you are really walking the presence of a companion, involving such irksome considerations as whether the pace suits him, whether he wishes to go up by the rocks or down by the burn, still more the haunting fear that he may begin to talk, disturbs the harmony of body, mind, and soul when they stride along no longer conscious of their separate, jarring entities, made one together in the mystic union with the earth, with the hills that still beckon, with that sunset that still shows the tufted moor under foot, with old darkness and its stars that take you to their breast with rapture when the hard ringing of heels proclaims that you have struck the final road. (61)

However, even at such times “a companion may be good, if you like him well, if you know that he likes you and the pace, and that he shares your ecstasy of body and mind” (61-62). Proclaiming that solitary walks are “perfect” makes him feel disloyal to such companions. He recalls walks in Italy with an unnamed friend in which they shared “the goodness and harmony of things, our bodies an animated part of the earth we trod” (62). 

“Central Italy is a paradise for the walker,” Trevelyan writes (62). He praises the “hills and mountains, unenclosed, open in all directions to the wanderer at will, unlike some British mountain game preserves” (63). It’s not just the scenery, then, but the way that walkers are not considered to be trespassers that is important: “even in the plains, the peasant, unlike some south-English farmers, never orders you off his ground, not even out of his olive grove or vineyard” (64). He likes the fact that it’s possible to find lodgings in Italian towns even if you arrive at midnight, and the way that the locals will guide strangers “without bargain or demur” (64). From here, he shifts to practical concerns: the need to carry water, the importance of a siesta during the heat of midday. However, he never loses sight of the sensuous pleasures of walking in Italy: walking at night, or the chorus of frogs, which he describes as “one of the grandest tunes to walk by” (65), or the song of nightingales.

However, walking is also a way for a person—especially a young person—to learn “that the world was not created to make him happy”:

In such cases, as in that of Teufelsdröckh, grim Walking’s the rule. Every man must once at least in life have the great vision of Earth as Hell. Then, while his soul within him is molten lava that will take some lifelong shape of good or bad when it cools, let him set out and walk, whatever the weather, wherever he is, be it in the depths of London, and let him walk grimly, well if it is by night, to avoid the vulgar sights and faces of men, appearing to him, in his then daemonic mood, as base beyond all endurance. Let him walk until his flesh curse his spirit for driving it on, and his spirit spend its rage on his flesh in forcing it still pitilessly to sway the legs. Then the fire within him will not turn to soot and choke him, as it chokes those who linger at home with their grief, motionless, between four mean, lifeless walls. (65-66)

At first I thought Trevelyan was writing about those physically arduous walks (because of length or difficulty) that test one’s resolve, but then I realized he’s actually writing about walking as a way of addressing psychological or even existential depression:

The stricken one who has, more wisely, taken to road and field, as he plies his solitary pilgrimage day after day, finds that he has with him a companion with whom he is not ashamed to share his grief, even the Earth he treads, his mother who bore him. At the close of a well-trodden day grief can have strange visions and find mysterious comforts. Hastening at droop of dusk through some remote byway never to be found again, a man has known a row of ancient trees nodding over a high stone wall over a bank of wet earth, bending down their sighing branches to him as he hastened past forever, to whisper that the place knew it all centuries ago and had always been waiting for him to come by, even thus, for one minute in the night. (66)

What is this grief that propels Trevelyan forward? It must be related to that feeling that leads him to call his legs his doctors, but I know little about his life or whether he did suffer from depression or not.

That grief is not Trevelyan’s sole walking companion, however:

Be grief or joy the companion, in youth and in middle age, it is only at the end of a long and solitary day’s walk that I have had strange casual moments of mere sight and feeling more vivid and less forgotten than the human events of life, moments like those that Wordsworth has described as his common companions in boyhood, like that night when he was rowing on Esthwaite, and that day when he was nutting in the woods. (66-67)

Those moments only come to Trevelyan after 25 miles of walking, but he notes that they came more easily to Wordsworth, “together with the power of expressing them in words!” (67). Those moments are the goal of one form of walking—a Romantic form of walking—which is separate from but linked to the more practical form of walking Trevelyan sees as essential to mental health.

But those aren’t the only two ways to walk: “There are many schools of Walking and none of them orthodox” (67). Some walk on roads, “the Puritans of the religion” (67). They have learned that “[t]he road is invaluable for pace and swing, and the ideal walk permits or even requires a smooth surface for some considerable portion of the way” (68-69). However, for Trevelyan, “twenty-five or thirty miles of moor and mountain, of wood and field-path, is better in every way than five-and-thirty or even forty hammered out on the road” (69). “The secret beauties of Nature are unveiled only to the cross-country walker,” he argues (69):

On the road we never meet the “moving accidents by flood and field”: the sudden glory of a woodland glade; the open back-door of the old farmhouse sequestered deep in rural solitude; the cow routed up from meditation behind the stone wall as we scale it suddenly; the deep, slow, south-country stream that we must jump, or wander along to find the bridge; the northern torrent of molten peat-hag that we must ford up to the waist, to scramble, glowing warm-cold, up the farther foxglove bank; the autumnal dew on the bracken and the blue straight smoke of the cottage in the still glen at dawn; the rush down the mountain side, hair flying, stones and grouse rising at our feet; and at the bottom the plunge in the pool below the waterfall, in. place so fair that kings should come from far to bathe therein—yet it is left, year in year out, unvisited save by us and “troops of stars.” These, and a thousand other blessed chances of the day, are the heart of Walking, and these are not of the road. (69-70)

The experience of those “secret beauties of Nature” are, to a great extent, the purpose of walking, according to Trevelyan. He doesn’t deny the role of “the hard road” in getting walkers to and from those “secret” spaces, and he praises what he calls “the ‘soft’ road”:

The broad grass lanes of the low country, relics of mediaeval wayfaring; the green, unfenced moorland road; the derelict road already half gone back to pasture; the common farm track—these and all their kind are a blessing to the walker, to be diligently sought out by help of map and used as long as may be. For they unite the speed and smooth surface of the harder road with much at least of the softness to the foot, the romance and the beauty of cross-country routes. (70-71)

Where I walk, it’s rare to find “the ‘soft’ road,” never mind those “cross-country routes” Trevelyan prefers. Pavement and gravel are the surfaces I walk on. And, in my most recent experience walking in the UK, farm tracks have mostly been paved as well. 

Along with his preferences regarding road surfaces, Trevelyan advises searching for “as much variety as is possible in twelve hours”—the time span of the walking he seems to recommend: “Road and track, field and wood, mountain, hill, and plain should follow each other in shifting vision” (71). He praises George Meredith’s poem “The Orchard and the Heath” for its depiction of “the effect of variation in the day’s walk” (71). Some districts naturally possess such variation, but variety can also “be obtained by losing the way—a half-conscious process, which in a sense can no more be done of deliberate purpose than falling in love. And yet a man can sometimes very wisely let himself drift, either into love, or into the wrong path out walking” (71-72). I am reminded here, strangely, of the psychogeographical trick of walking somewhere with the wrong map as a way of experiencing space differently. For Trevelyan,

there is a joyous mystery in roaming on, reckless where you are, into what valley, road or farm chance and the hour is guiding you. If the place is lonely and beautiful, and if you have lost all count of it upon the map, it may seem a fairy glen, a lost piece of old England that no surveyor would find though he searched for it a year. I scarcely know whether most to value this quality of aloofness, and magic in country I have never seen before and may never see again, or the familiar joys of Walking-grounds where every tree and rock are rooted in the memories that make up my life. (72)

But certain places provide better walking territory than others: the western part of England is better than the eastern; Wales is good; the coasts of Devon and Cornwall meet with his approval. 

Scrambling up hills “is an integral part of Walking, when the high ground is kept all day in a mountain region” (74). Indeed, “[i]t may be argues that scrambling and its elder brother climbing are the essence of Walking made perfect,” although Trevelyan acknowledges that, since he’s not a mountain climber, he cannot judge (74). However, climbers have no reason to envy walkers. “On the other hand,” he continues, “those stalwart Britons who, for their country’s good, shut themselves up in one flat field all day and play there, surrounded by ropes and a crowd, may keep themselves well and happy, but they are divorced from nature” (74-75). Hunting “does well when it draws out into the heart of nature those who could not otherwise be induced to go there,” but hunters should instruct their gamekeepers to allow walkers onto the land “when they themselves are not shooting” (75). “The closing of moors is a bad habit that is spreading in some places, though I hope it is disappearing in others,” he writes, suggesting that closing off land because of the presence of grouse and deer means that it has “ceased to belong to Britain” (75). “One would have thought that mountains as well as seas were a common pleasure ground,” Trevelyan continues. “But let us register our thanks to the many who do not close their moors” (76). In turn, walkers have responsibilities “not to leave gates open, not to break fences, not to walk through hay or crops, and not to be rude to farmers,” as well as to burn or bury their garbage, since “all nature is sacred, and in England there is none too much of it” (76). In addition, when walkers trespass on private property, they should do it “only so as to temper law with equity. Private gardens and the immediate neighbourhood of inhabited houses must be avoided or only crossed when there is no fear of being seen” (76). The guiding principle, he continues, is “‘Give no man, woman, or child just reason to complain of your passage’” (76). 

Tea is an essential addition to walking, and as British, by adoption, as wine is Italian. When he is tired and hungry, he states, he hopes that “a lane-side inn” will be able to provide him with three boiled eggs and a pot of tea (77). “Then, for an hour’s perfect rest and recovery, while I draw from my pocked some small, well-thumbed volume, discoloured by many rains and rivers, so that some familiar, immortal spirit may sit beside me at the board,” he writes. “There is true luxury of mind and body! Then on again into the night if it be winter, or into the dusk falling or still but threatened—joyful, a man remade” (77-78). For Trevelyan, walking at night is the best part of walking: “Indeed the only reason, other than weakness of the flesh, for not always walking until late at night, is the joy of making a leisurely occupation of the hamlet that chance or whim has selected for the night’s rest” (78). He praises the after-dinner walk at sunset—I’m surprised that after walking 12 hours anyone would want to walk some more—and suggests that “[a]fter a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value,” including food, drink, and books (79). He also advises taking a day off during a lengthy walking tour: “All day long, as we lie perdu in wood or field, we have perfect laziness and perfect health. . . . Our modern life requires such days of ‘anti-worry,’ and they are only to be obtained in perfection when the body has been walked to a standstill” (79-80). Even longer walking tours, it seems, are motivated by the need for psychological and physical health, at least as much as for their less prosaic effects.

Variety in weather is as welcome as variety in scenery, according to Trevelyan:

I love the stillness of dawn, and of noon, and of evening, but I love no less the “winds austere and pure.” The fight against fiercer wind and snowstorm is among the higher joys of Walking, and produces in shortest time the state of ecstasy. . . . Still more in mist upon the mountains, to keep the way, or to lose and find it, is one of the great primaeval games, though now we play it with map and compass. (80)

He recalls a week of walking in the Pyrenees, when he saw the sun for only half a day: “Yet I enjoyed that week in the mist, for I was kept hard at work finding the unseen way through pine forest and gurgling Alp, every bit of instinct and hill-knowledge on the stretch. And that one half-day of sunlight, how I treasured it!” (80-81). “So let us ‘love all changes of weather,’” he continues (81).

Trevelyan’s conclusion is perhaps rather abrupt. “I have no set down my own experiences and likings,” he writes. “Let no one be alarmed or angry because his ideas of Walking are different. There is no orthodoxy in Walking. It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where every one goes his own way and is right” (81). That lack of dogmatism—or at least that professed lack of dogmatism—is perhaps the thing I like best about this essay. Despite Trevelyan’s deep Romanticism, he acknowledges that there are other kinds of walking, and other reasons to walk. That openness is welcome. I’m also fascinated by the way that Trevelyan seems to be addressing a fairly large walking public. Was walking that popular in England at the turn of the twentieth century? Were people really going out to walk 25 or 30 miles on a Sunday? Were the concerns about access and exclusion that Trevelyan writes about widely shared? I can’t say. Answering those questions would take more research. 

Works Cited

Minshull, Duncan, ed. The Vintage Book of Walking, Vintage, 2000.

Trevelyan, George Macaulay. “Walking.” Clio, a Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian, third printing, Longman, Greens and Co., 1914, pp. 56-81. http://www.tbm100.org/Lib/Tre14.pdf.

Walking South to the Bypass

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I got off to a late start this morning. I left the house and headed south. The sun was shining brightly. It rained last night. The lawns have turned green and the elm trees are becoming thinly green. I walked past a crew of city workers standing around an open manhole. Crossing the creek, I noticed all of the birds: grackles, red-winged blackbirds, mallards. I saw a pelican yesterday, gliding overhead. Spring is definitely here.

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I took side streets and alleys as long as I could before I had to turn onto Albert Street. Someone had spilled wheat in an alley. Crows were eating soggy bread in a vacant lot. They flew away when I tried to take their picture. Fallen catkins under a poplar tree smelled impossibly sweet.

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It was noon by the time I got to the strip of fast-food restaurants on south Albert. Only the drive-thrus were open and there were long lines of cars. The pandemic has left us all more isolated than ever; a social act as simple as sitting in a restaurant is now forbidden. The sidewalks were empty. South Albert Street is no one’s idea of a pedestrian paradise, but it’s rare not to see others sharing the public space of the sidewalk. I was hungry and ate the apple I had brought to eat when I reached the Bypass.

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Just before the Ring Road, where Albert Street becomes Highway 6, I noticed frogs singing in the ditches at the side of the road, unheard by passing motorists. Their song followed me all day, along with the red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks; whenever there was a pause in the traffic, I heard them. Just past the bridge over the Ring Road, I conducted an informal survey of the roadside litter. In just 100 metres, I saw a 20 or 30 foot long piece of blue twine, pieces of wire, broken sunglasses, tire rubber, steel straps, straws, a shattered tail light, a work glove, a juice bottle and a beer can, a ziplock bag, a piece of a Venetian blind, and a scrap of a plastic bag—and that’s just what I could see from the shoulder. I’m going to have to return with gloves and garbage bags and clean up the mess. A piece of gravel in my boot felt like a boulder, but turned out to be a tiny stone. An evangelical church across the road, housed in a building that resembles an equipment shed, states its mission: Picture / Plan / Pursue / Prosper. “Prosper?” I asked myself. “Is prosperity really a sign of godliness?” The blast of air generated by a passing semi-trailer flung grit in my face and sucked my hat off of my head. I stepped off the paved shoulder to retrieve it, and sank in soft, deep mud. Swallows chattered overhead.

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The further I walked from the city, the less garbage there was beside the road. I could see the Bypass in the distance. I startled a flock of pigeons, which rose up from a freshly plowed field. At first, I couldn’t see any signs of the old drive-in theatre, but then, further south than I remembered, I saw its sign board standing blankly in a field. I wondered what had happened to the llama farm that used to be nearby. You see, I used to be familiar with this route. There was a time that I would walk south from the university on a grid road, and then a dirt road, until I hit the road that would take me west to the former village of Rowatt. Then I would walk back north, on Highway 6. The whole loop was maybe 34 or 35 kilometres. Back then, I walked here as preparation for walking elsewhere, as a way of getting my feet and legs in shape. Now I’m trying to pay attention to this space, to find what there is to find here. It means I walk more slowly. I take more photographs. I stop to take notes. It’s a different experience. I wonder what the Rowatt loop might be like now, with this new approach to walking here. There’s only one way to find out.

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I walked under silent high-tension lines. A large fabric quonset stood on the east side of the road. What’s that for? I wondered. A garden centre seems to have replaced the llama farm. A goose and a killdeer were wading in a flooded ditch. A duck warned its spouse of my presence. On the horizon, I could see a line of traffic on the Bypass; mostly trucks, it seemed. Perhaps the truckers were trying to avoid stopping in Regina. The trucks looked like they were floating over the fields of stubble.

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Finally, I arrived at the overpass carrying Highway 6 over the Bypass. Last fall’s sunflowers—colonizers of disturbed spaces—stood beside the road at the top of the embankment. On the other side of the overpass, I could see Rowatt. The grain terminal is still there, but the siding has been torn up. I could see piles of old railway ties beside the gravel rail bed. What use is a grain terminal without a siding? This is a mystery I will have to unravel. A sign beside the ties gave no clues. A smell of creosote hung in the air. I ate a stale energy bar and wondered what Cargill was up to.

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There’s not much left of Rowatt; maybe one inhabited house and an abandoned-looking church. I crossed the highway and turned north, back towards the city, gathering string as I retraced my way through the world’s simplest labyrinth. A flock of red-winged blackbirds flew up from the grass beside the highway. I walked back across the overpass. In the distance, I could see the city, with traffic crawling along the Ring Road in front. The old radio station building—there are no signs to indicate which station it belongs to—now stands in the shadow of the overpass. The transmitter towers are next to the Bypass. To the north, I could see the dome of the Legislative Building and City Hall; to the east, Saskatchewan Polytechnic, and to the west, apartment buildings at Harbour Landing. A meadowlark on a nearby power pole sang the same phrase, over and over. A cyclist on the other side of the highway, heading north, leaned into the wind.

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An RCMP vehicle turned west down a township road. A sign warned against littering. A killdeer complained. I was getting closer to the city, and I could recognize more buildings: the Saskatchewan Government Insurance head office, the three Hill Towers, Roberts Plaza, the university. A southbound cyclist passed me; he nodded curtly. My feet were getting sore. I was tired. How did I walk those long distances before? I wondered. There was a time, and not that long ago, when I would walk this far before lunch, and walk this far again before dinner. To the west, a field was filled with bales of hay. Two startled ducks scrambled into the air beside the highway. Frogs sang in a slough.

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I reached the Ring Road overpass and walked into the city. I was dead tired and there was at least an hour of walking left. When I started walking around Regina, almost 10 years ago, I didn’t carry a phone; I would wander off into the country and leave myself no choice but to hobble back into town. The sky was beginning to cloud over. Tonight it’s supposed to rain.

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Leslie Stephen, “In Praise of Walking”

NPG L238; Sir Leslie Stephen by George Frederic Watts

Portrait of Sir Leslie Stephen by George Frederic Watts, 1878

Sir Leslie Stephen’s essay “In Praise of Walking” was published in his four-volume collection of essays, Studies of a Biographer, which first appeared between 1898 and 1902. I found it on the Internet; I would rather have read a print edition, but the university library is closed because of the ongoing pandemic. This essay is the work of an elderly man looking back on his life and, more specifically, his pedestrian adventures; it begins with the idea that, as we grow older, we “may find consolation for increasing infirmities in looking back upon a well-spent life.” For Stephens, walking is one of the innocent pleasures he can look back on:

Walking is among recreations what ploughing and fishing are among industrial labours: it is primitive and simple; it brings us into contact with mother earth and unsophisticated nature; it requires no elaborate apparatus and no extraneous excitement. It is fit even for poets and philosophers, and he who can thoroughly enjoy it must have at least some capacity for worshipping the “cherub Contemplation.”

Walking isn’t about athletic excellence, although Stephens notes that he retains his youthful admiration for rowers and cricketers, and he acknowledges the abilities of cyclists and golfers. Even though there are professional pedestrians “making records and seeking the applause of the mob,” he writes, 

The true walker is one to whom the pursuit is in itself delightful; who is not indeed priggish enough to be above a certain complacency in the physical prowess required for his pursuit, but to whom the muscular effort of the legs is subsidiary to the “celebration” stimulated by the effort; to the quiet musings and imaginings which arise most spontaneously as he walks, and generate the intellectual harmony which is the natural accompaniment to the monotonous tramp of his feet.

The “celebration” generated by walking consists of “the quiet musings and imaginings” which “arise most spontaneously” as we walk, and for Stephen, there is an ironic harmony between the monotony of walking and the variety of those musings and imaginings.

Those “quiet musings and imaginings” produced by walking are perhaps the reason Stephen is so drawn to it. “[T]he true pedestrian loves walking because, so far from distracting his mind, it is favourable to the equable and abundant flow of tranquil and half-conscious meditation,” he writes. He compares memories of walking to other memories of “‘well-spent’ moments”: most memories “coalesce into wholes,” and become general impressions (of friends or experiences); however, he continues,

The memories of walks . . . are all localised and dated; they are hitched on to particular times and places; they spontaneously form a kind of calendar or connecting thread upon which other memories may be strung. As I look back, a long series of little vignettes presents itself, each representing a definite stage of my earthly pilgrimage summed up and embodied in a walk.

Writing books is one form of memory which tends to “coalesce into wholes”: “The labour of scribbling books happily leaves no distinct impression, and I would forget that it had ever been undergone; but the picture of some delightful ramble includes incidentally a reference to the nightmare of literary toil from which it relieved me.” For Stephen, walking is a relief from writing, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) being a source of inspiration.

Indeed, Stephen suggests that his “pedestrian enthusiasm” ties his days together. “The day on which I was fully initiated into the mysteries is marked by a white stone,” he writes, describing a hike Heidelberg through the Odenwald:

Then I first knew the delightful sensation of independence and detachment enjoyed during a walking tour. Free from all bothers of railway time-tables and extraneous machinery, you trust to your own legs, stop when you please, diverge into any track that takes your fancy, and drop in upon some quaint variety of human life at every inn where you put up for the night. . . . You have no dignity to support, and the dress-coat of conventional life has dropped into oblivion.

He recalls George Borrows’s walks with Roma people in England as a model of the kind of social freedom he found in his walks, and that social freedom must have been revolutionary for a Victorian English gentleman. Stephen remembers all of the details of such journeys: “I kept no journal, but I could still give the narrative day by day—the sights which I dutifully admired and the very stage of my bootlaces. Walking tours thus rescue a bit of one’s life from oblivion.” “The walks are the unobtrusive connecting thread of other memories,” he continues, “and yet each walk is a little drama in itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes, according to the requirements of Aristotle; and it is naturally interwoven with all the thoughts, the friendships, and the interests that form the staple of ordinary life.”

“Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season,” Stephen contends. He claims that “[a]ll great men of letters” have “been enthusiastic walkers,” including Shakespeare, Jonson, Coryate, Bishop Hooker, Swift, John Wesley, Fielding, Samuel Johnson, De Quincey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Scott, Byron, Hobbes, Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, Carlyle, Ruskin. “The great men, it is true, have not always acknowledged their debt to the genius, whoever he may be, who presides over pedestrian exercise,” he continues. “Indeed, they have inclined to ignore the true source of their impulse. Even when they speak of the beauties of nature, they would give us to understand that they might have been disembodied spirits, taking aerial flights among mountain solitudes, and independent of the physical machinery of legs and stomachs.” Walking, not nature, is the true source of writerly inspiration, Stephen suggests, and I like his emphasis on the grounded nature of walking. For example, he fell in love with the Alps because of Ruskin’s Modern Painters. “I hoped to share Ruskin’s ecstasies in a reverent worship of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn,” he writes, but instead “[i]t stimulated a passion for climbing which absorbed my energies and distracted me from the prophet’s loftier teaching.” Stephen’s “passion for the mountains had something earthly in its composition”:

It is associated with memories of eating and drinking. It meant delightful comradeship with some of the best of friends; but our end, I admit, was not always of the most exalted or aesthetic strain. A certain difficulty results. I feel an uncomfortable diffidence. I hold that Alpine walks are the poetry of the pursuit; I could try to justify the opinion by relating some of the emotions suggested by the great scenic effects: the sunrise on the snow fields; the storm-clouds gathering under the great peaks; the high pasturages knee-deep in flowers; the torrents plunging through the “cloven ravines,” and so forth. But the thing has been done before, better than I could hope to do it; and when I look back at those old passages in Modern Painters, and think of the enthusiasm which prompted to exuberant sentences of three or four hundred words, I am not only abashed by the thought of their unapproachable eloquence, but feel as though they conveyed a tacit reproach. You, they seem to say, are, after all, a poor prosaic creature, affecting a love of sublime scenery as a cloak for more grovelling motives. I could protest against this judgment, but it is better at present to omit the topic, even though it would give the strongest groundwork for my argument.

The conflict between sublime spaces and grounded walking leads Stephen to suggest that it may be better “to trust the case for walking to where the external stimulus of splendours and sublimities is not so overpowering.” He refers to the division in aesthetics between the sublime and the beautiful—“A philosophic historian divides the world into the regions where man is stronger than nature and the regions where nature is stronger than man”—and suggests that “[t]he true charm of walking is most unequivocally shown when it is obviously dependent upon the walker himself.”

For that reason, he turns away from his memories of hiking in the Alps to walks in England:

Walking gives a charm to the most commonplace British scenery. A love of walking not only makes any English country tolerable but seems to make the charm inexhaustible. I know only two or three districts minutely, but the more familiar I have become with any one of them the more I have wished to return, to invent some new combination of old strolls or to inspect some hitherto unexplored nook.

He tells us that likes walking in the Fens as much as he likes walking in the Lake District: “In a steady march along one of the great dykes by the monotonous canal with the exuberant vegetation dozing in its stagnant waters, we were imbibing the spirit of the scenery.” He also enjoys walking by the sea, but not because the sea suggests, to him, sublimity:

Another set of walks may, perhaps, appeal to more general sympathy. The voice of the sea, we know, is as powerful as the voice of the mountains; and, to my taste, it is difficult to say whether the Land’s End is not in itself a more impressive station than the top of Mont Blanc. The solitude of the frozen peaks suggests tombstones and death. The sea is always alive and at work. The hovering gulls and plunging gannets and the rollicking porpoises are animating symbols of a gallant struggle with wind and wave.

The scenery of various places on the English coast is always delightful, but walking makes it moreso: 

When you have made an early start, followed the coast-guard track on the slopes above the cliffs, struggled through the gold and purple carpeting of gorse and heather on the moors, dipped down into quaint little coves with a primitive fishing village, followed the blinding whiteness of the sands round a lonely bay, and at last emerged upon a headland where you can settle into a nook of the rocks, look down upon the glorious blue of the Atlantic waves breaking into foam on the granite, and see the distant sea-levels glimmering away till they blend imperceptibly into cloudland; then you can consume your modest sandwiches, light you pipe, and feel more virtuous and thoroughly at peace with the universe than it is easy even to conceive yourself elsewhere. I have fancied myself on such occasions to be a felicitous blend of poet and saint—which is an agreeable sensation. 

Note that Stephen isn’t suggesting that he became either a poet or a saint by walking; rather, he imagined himself to be a blend of both. That “agreeable sensation,” however imaginary, is one of the benefits of walking for Stephen.

That “agreeable sensation” is produced by walking on paths or through fields, rather than by walking on roads, and it is “confined to the walker”:

I respect the cyclist, as I have said; but he is enslaved by his machine: he has to follow the highroad, and can only come upon  what points of view open to the commonplace tourist. He can see nothing of the retired scenery which may be close to him, and cannot have his mind brought into due harmony by the solitude and by the long succession of lovely bits of scenery which stand so coyly aside from public notice.

In sentences that echo my friend Matthew Anderson’s work on walking trespassing laws, Stephen boasts that he pays no attention to laws against trespassing: 

To me it was a reminder of the many delicious bits of walking which, even in the neighbourhood of London, await the man who has no superstitious reverence for legal rights. It is indeed surprising how many charming walks can be contrived by a judicious combination of a little trespassing with the rights of way happily preserved over so many commons and footpaths.

Of course, without a tradition of commons or footpaths, and with punitive trespassing legislation, walkers in this province are unfortunately confined to roads.

Stephen provides an account of a recent walk with a companion near London. He is surprised to find rural spaces so close to the metropolis, but he also finds that walking with others stimulates conversation: “Nowhere, at least, have I found talk flow so freely and pleasantly as in a march through pleasant country. And yet there is also a peculiar charm in the solitary expedition when your interlocutor must be yourself.” From here, he shifts to thinking about walking in the city itself, and the effect of the noise and activity of the city on a walker’s thinking. For Stephen, the city’s distractions “become so multitudinous that they neutralise each other. The whirl of conflicting impulses becomes a continuous current because it is so chaotic and determines a mood of sentiment if not a particular vein of reflection.” “[W]hat I please to call my ‘mind’ seems to work more continuously and coherently in a street walk than elsewhere,” he writes. “I do not defend my insensibility nor argue that London walks are the best. I only maintain that even in London, walking has a peculiar fascination.” Perhaps because he is so influenced by Victorian Romanticism, Stephen feels it necessary to apologize for his interest in urban walking:

I can often find occasions in the heart of London for recalling old memories, without any definable pretext; little pictures of scenery, sometimes assignable to no definable place, start up invested with a faint aroma of old friendly walks and solitary meditations and strenuous exercise, and I feel convinced that, if I am not a thorough scoundrel, I owe that relative excellence to the harmless monomania which so often took me, to appropriate Bunyan’s phrase, from the amusements of Vanity Fair to the Delectable Mountains of pedestrianism.

That is where Stephen’s essay ends, with the apparent moral improvement that walking, including urban walking, has had on his character. The word “monomania” suggests an unhealthy obsession with walking, even though he suggests that obsession is “harmless.” I think we would have to know something about Victorian cities—the dirt and smoke and noise of them—and the degree to which Stephen’s intellectual world was suffused by Romanticism (represented, perhaps, by Ruskin’s Modern Painters) in order to understand how odd Stephen’s defence of urban walking actually was. I find myself wondering what Stephen would make of walking along grid roads in Saskatchewan. Would he see parallels between rural Saskatchewan and Victorian London? Rural Saskatchewan is quiet and anything but chaotic, but it is thoroughly shaped by industrial activity in a way that would have been hidden by the beauty of the rural English spaces in which he walked. And yet, the scale of the open landscape, the size of the fields of wheat and canola, the immense sky overhead—all these suggest a form of the sublime. These comparisons point towards the disconnection between English writing on walking, and attempting to walk in this space: the experiences are very different, because of the scale, the colours, the flatness, the lack of footpaths. And yet, I find Stephen’s defence of walking in ordinary places reassuring. He’s a Romantic, but he’s in the process of becoming something else. That something else might be connected to the spaces in which I walk. That’s not to claim Stephen as a precursor to contemporary practices of psychogeography or mythogeography—that would be silly—but at the same time, I don’t think we can simply reject Stephen’s walking as mere Romanticism.

Works Cited

Stephen, Sir Leslie. “In Praise of Walking. Studies of a Biographer, vol. 3, Duckworth, 1902. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Studies_of_a_Biographer/In_Praise_of_Walking.

 

Walking Past the Bypass

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It was a beautiful morning—perfect weather for walking—but it took me a while to get out of the house. I had some work to do, and then I spent some time trying to figure out what’s wrong with my camera: every third or fourth time I turn it on (I don’t keep it on all the time when I’m walking, because I don’t want to drain the battery—perhaps that’s an unnecessary fear) it chatters to itself quietly for a minute or two instead of booting up right away. I’m wondering if the memory card has been damaged; I know I have some spares someplace.

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Anyway, it was afternoon when I finally set out. I headed east. At the corner of Broad Street and 15th Avenue, a young woman was standing, looking bored, in the parking lot of a failed coffee shop. I remember the coffee wasn’t very good there, but even worse, the place was filled with signs hectoring customers, telling them what to do and what not to do. It was too authoritarian for my taste. Down the street, just south of the General Hospital, a northern flicker was searching for insects in the street elms. I saw a nurse walking away from the hospital, looking mysteriously pleased with herself. Perhaps she’d had a good shift.

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I was walking through the city’s hipster neighbourhood, a two or three block stretch with a craft brewery, a coffee shop (closed because of the pandemic), a vegetarian restaurant and a store that sells clothes made out of hemp. At Winnipeg Street, I turned south, through a neighbourhood of wide streets lined with small bungalows in need of paint. The city’s economic boom, which ended five years ago when global commodity prices crashed, never reached those streets.

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I meant to avoid the park—there are too many people walking there these days, and too many of them don’t seem to understand social distancing—but I wondered if the pelicans had returned, so I walked along the lake. They haven’t; I only saw mallards, gulls, and geese. Young people had knocked over the sign warning that the skateboard park was closed, and they were hanging out there as if there were no pandemic. I suppose they think they’re indestructible. It’s a fallacy, but an understandable one. Besides, since our premier announced that some businesses would be allowed to open next week, people seem to have become less cautious about the novel coronavirus. The first wave of Covid-19 hasn’t made many people ill here; we’ve been lucky. But I’m afraid a second wave is likely inevitable.

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I crossed the highway—the old Ring Road, the precursor to the Regina Bypass. I walked along the gravel path that graces Assiniboine Avenue. That’s one of my favourite places to walk. There was smoke in the air; perhaps someone was burning leaves left over from last fall. Kids were everywhere, cycling on the sidewalks, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. I walked into a neighbourhood where every street is named after the creek: Wascana Gate, Wascana Circle, Wascana Meadows, Wascana Mews, Wascana Estates. All of the houses are two-storey pink or buff stucco boxes, crowded together on small lots. I remember when this neighbourhood was built 20 years ago. The city’s Mormon Temple is there; its tall, golden statue of the Angel Moroni and his trumpet is a landmark.

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Then I arrived at McKell Wascana Conservation Park. The park used to be a farm owned by the McKell family, who homesteaded this land in the 1880s. Wascana Creek meanders in curves and oxbows there, and the land is marshy—perfect habitat for ducks. Rather than see the land become yet another subdivision, the McKells signed a conservation easement with Ducks Unlimited Canada, preserving it for waterfowl. All of the walking paths are named after corporate sponsors; that’s how the fundraising that sustains organizations like Ducks Unlimited works. I wondered if this land is the pony farm Trevor Herriot writes about in the introduction to his book on grassland songbirds—one of the places close to the city where he used to go birdwatching. I’ll have to ask him.

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I crossed the creek and followed a footpath into what I took at first to be a tame pasture, although when I saw the remains of little bluestem from last August I wondered if I was wrong. I could see the Bypass—my actual quarry—in the distance. It was surprisingly busy, but the traffic was too far away to be heard. Instead, I listened to the wind, and to the red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks singing. What happens where the Bypass crosses the creek? Is it channelled into a culvert, or does it get the dignity of a bridge? Does that question even matter? I crossed a line of fence posts without wire. A blank sign said nothing. The footpath petered out. I could see farm buildings in the distance, probably on Old Highway 16, a road I’ve walked on before. I decided not to walk that far over the pasture. I didn’t want to encounter a farmer angry about my trespassing, or more accurately, I didn’t want to encounter a farmer’s angry dog. I turned back. Twittering swallows flew overhead. I’m not sure what kind of swallows they were; I wasn’t carrying a field guide and don’t know enough about birds to hazard a guess. There were bluebird nesting boxes on the fence posts. I crossed back over the creek again and followed its winding course. A row of mansions was on my left: huge houses backing onto the park and the creek. The view has become an amenity. A terrified jackrabbit ran out of the tall grass. I wondered if its young were hidden there, and turned to walk closer to the houses, where the grass was mown short.

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I saw an open gate in the steel fence separating the houses from the park and walked through into a vacant lot: one more mansion is required to complete the set. The streets away from the park were strangely silent. No one was outside. Sparrows and my own footsteps were the only sounds. Then I heard two women chatting behind me as they walked a dog. Their voices seemed to bring the sounds of the city—traffic, power washers, lawn mowers—back to my ears.

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I walked out to the highway. I could hear frogs and meadowlarks and blackbirds singing during lulls in the traffic. The overpass where the Bypass crosses the highway was ahead of me; new neighbourhoods of houses and apartments were to my left. In the distance, I could see an intermodal terminal surrounded by stacks of containers. Is that a competitor of the Global Transportation Hub? I will have to do more research. Jackrabbits ran along the fence separating the houses from the highway.

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I passed beneath the Bypass and then a crackling, humming high-tension line. The highway narrowed to two lanes. There is more traffic here than on the grid road I walked along on the way to Grand Coulee, and more traffic always means more trash: beer cans, empty Tim Horton’s cups, cigarette packages, and shards of metal and plastic debris shed by passing vehicles. I could see my destination in the distance: the Cowessess gas station. The Cowessess First Nation bought the land and started the business with Treaty Land Entitlement money quite a while ago. I’ve walked there several times. This time, though, I wasn’t planning to turn around and walk back into the city. I called for a ride. I bought a cold iced tea and a package of peanuts and sat outside, waiting for Christine to get me. There were few clouds in the sky. It had been a nice walk, although I was sore, as usual. Maybe, after a few more weeks of walking, I’ll be in better shape. There’s only one way to train oneself to walk for hours on end; that’s by walking for hours on end. The only way out, as they say, is through.

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