Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: July, 2018

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Four

It’s 2:30 in the afternoon. I’m leaning against a fragrant hay bale in a ditch beside Highway 2. I’ve walked 24 kilometres so far and hope to get to 35 before I stop for the day.

It’s been a good day for walking, cooler than yesterday and cloudy, although now the sun is shining. I mostly walk on a weedy gravel verge beside the paved shoulder. There’s a lime-green plant that grows only there, it seems, and when I step on it, it releases a sour stink. That smell has accompanied me most of the day. The passing vehicles create a kind of imaginary community: we’re just people trying to get somewhere. It’s just that my mode of transportation is completely impractical by 2018 standards.

I stopped at the Sukanen Ship Museum this morning. I’ve driven past many times, but I’ve never pulled off the highway to take a look. The collection includes the ship Tom Sukanen, a Finnish homesteader, built in the 1930s to sail home to Finland on the Saskatchewan River. He was heartbroken by the loss of his wife and children and in those dustbowl years he must’ve thought he’d made a terrible mistake leaving home. But there’s also a kind of pioneer village stocked with buildings salvaged from nearby towns: a garage, a blacksmith’s ship, a train station, a combination library and municipal office, a school, a church, a telephone exchange. Everything seems so small, especially the homesteaders’ shacks, which include the house where Diefenbaker grew up. It’s also very sad. Those people sacrificed and suffered to build new communities and lives, and now they’re gone and the communities they created are mostly gone as well.

There’s no denying what those homesteaders accomplished, but at the same time they were only able to make this province because the First Peoples of this place had been removed from the land, incarcerated on reserves. We tend to forget that part of the story. Forgetting makes the homesteaders’ struggles both innocent and heroic, and not part of a colonial enterprise which depended on the displacement of other people. From what I’ve been reading about the treaties, where we are today is not what the Indigenous negotiators had in mind.

I had a Coke and an energy bar and petted the resident cat, and then I started down the road. That was ten kilometres ago. What will the next 10 kilometres bring? I’m craving a BLT, but I doubt they’ll bring me one of those.

I wanted to say something about Andrew Suknaski and Wood Mountain Poems. Suknaski was born in Wood Mountain in 1942. His father was a homesteader who walked from Wood Mountain to Moose Jaw and back several times, so I’m not the first person to make this journey on foot, although Suknaski Sr. seems to have taken the road through Limerick, a town that no longer exists*. In Wood Mountain Poems, Suknaski writes about the community where he grew up, his family, his connection to that particular place. He also writes about the wider history of Wood Mountain, the place where Sitting Bull and 5,000 Lakota people sought refuge after the Battle of Little Bighorn. Suknaski overtly claims all the history of the area as his to write about, including the First Nations presence (there is a Lakota reserve at Wood Mountain), something one wouldn’t do today, because of concerns about cultural appropriation. But 40 years ago, when Wood Mountain Poems was published, it was a typical move. Suknaski took the trouble to learn some Dakota, and includes the language in some of his poems (why Dakota and not Lakota? I don’t know), but the poems about his family and the settler experience are by far the strongest in the book. He was closer to those experiences. By contrast, the poems about the Lakota are often forced and therefore much less successful.

Wood Mountain Poems was Suknaski’s first book, and I love its evocation of a part of the world that deserves to have more poems written about it. I wonder if I’ll find a plaque in his honour when I get to the village. Probably not. So I’m making this walk instead.

*Since I hit “publish,” my friend Connie has informed me that Limerick does exist. I’ll be going over to make a visit–but likely not on foot.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Three

Don’t believe Google when it tells you it’s only 70 kilometres to Moose Jaw. Maybe if you’re driving. If you’re walking on backroads, it’s more like 90. At least, that’s what it feels like. I’m as wiped as someone who’s walked 90 kilometres in three days can be. I have 160 kilometres left to go.

I’ve been in the hotel–the fancy one–for an hour, and I’ve already showered and shaved, done my laundry in the sink, put ointment on my chafed areas, and gone through my pack to separate out stuff I have no intention of carrying one more step. Not bad. I might even get in a nap before supper.

What a contrast to sleeping beside the river last night, without even the illusion of safety a tent provides. Just me, in my bivvy sack, under the full moon, listening to coyotes sing and dogs bark (at me, probably) and nameless rustlings in the bushes. It was cold, too, and sometimes I was shivering too hard for sleep, despite wearing all my clothes. But it was also exhilarating, being there with the other creatures under the night sky. Yes, they don’t use Gore-Tex or fuss about water, but perhaps we were in the same space in a similar way. Or at least I’m pretending we were.

I ran out of water quickly–I’d never been so thirsty–so at the first gas station I saw, just on the outskirts of Moose Jaw, I bought a litre of Gatorade and some water. That took care of that. It might be my imagination, or my thirst, but Gatorade isn’t as terrible as it used to be. Then breakfast at a Smitty’s, with coffee and more water. I sloshed down Main Street in the heat. Sloshed, or hobbled, given my blisters and chafing. Ouch.

A woman on the sidewalk asked me where I’d come from and was surprised at the answer. “Stay hydrated!” she said. Wise words. I’d called ahead about a room, because I thought a large smelly dirty man might get turned away by the desk clerk. When said desk clerk asked if I needed a parking pass, he could barely believe the answer.

Christine is coming to meet me for supper. It’ll take her just 45 minutes to drive here. That’s the freedom petroleum has given us. On the other hand, of course, using it has set the world on fire and choked the oceans with plastic. And we’re all hooked on the stuff. I mean, nobody wants to walk three days just to take the waters at the Moose Jaw Spa.

After supper, I’ll use the in-room Jacuzzi on my sore muscles. Then, first thing tomorrow, I’ll be headed south. On the shoulder of a highway this time. There are upsides and downsides to that, but at least I won’t get lost. If it gets too busy, I might detour onto grids, but I might not have the stamina for detours. We’ll see.

Maybe tomorrow, if I have the energy, I’ll explain why I’m making this walk. Now I think it’s nap time.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Two

Today was hard. It was hot and I was so thirsty. I may have underestimated how much water this walking requires. I can’t eat much without feeling bilious, and the iron rations in my pack have turned out to be unappealing. After 29 kilometres, I’ve stopped beside the Moose Jaw River to rest. It’s a good spot to camp and a lovely valley, but the sun is hammering down and this chokecherry bush, right on the cutbank, is giving little shade. I might move on; I haven’t decided.

There’s no cell service here, either, which is another reason to keep going. But my fatigue is keeping me here for now.

I thought about the sounds I’ve been listening to for the past two days: the howl of trucks in the distance on the Number One highway, train horns, the rumble and squeak of machinery digging another pipeline, but also innumerable crickets in all the fields, and birds (like the bank swallows I hear now), and of course the crunch of my feet on the gravel.

Time shifts when you’re walking. It slows. An hour passes and you look at my watch to learn it’s only even 10 minutes. Something on the horizon–today, a potash mine–seems to stand still for hours as you walk towards it. But eventually you pass it and trudge towards the next landmark.

It is lovely here, and I’m so beat, but that sun won’t quit. Maybe I’ll stay a little longer. I don’t know.

Later: I decided to walk a little farther. Good thing, because all the roads in the valley dead ended at gravel pits. I was thoroughly lost. I flagged down a passing SUV. The driver pointed out an abandoned road that led across a condemned bridge. That, he said, would take me into Moose Jaw. Had I started walking early tomorrow morning, I doubt anyone would’ve been around to give directions.

He was the second person to stop and chat. The first was a cyclist heading to Pense from Moose Jaw. I thought I was the only crazy person out here, he said. And a family stopped to ask where I was going. All these interactions are meaningful when you are engaged in such a solitary activity.

The road wasn’t marked on my map, or was it? The details are sparse. I crossed the bridge and set up camp in the shade of a scrubby ash tree.

I’m drinking tomorrow’s water–this is a problem.

Now to force myself to eat something and then try to sleep.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day One

I’m not prepared for this walk. Maybe that’s okay. I’ve always thought that the best way to get ready to do something was to do it. I did try a similar walk a few years ago, and it didn’t work out. But I learned from that experience. My pack is lighter, and my route is easier. So I’m hoping this time it’s different.

A cold breeze was coming through the window this morning, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I won’t be sleeping in my own bed for almost two weeks. But it turned out to be a warm day–almost hot–with few clouds: perfect weather for walking. I’ve walked this way before, but nothing is ever the same twice, is it? There’s a new bridge over the Bypass, and although it isn’t finished, I ignored the “road closed” signs and walked across. Nobody tried to stop me. And just a few kilometres from Pense, a farmer stopped his pickup truck and gave me a cold bottle of iced tea. “This is what you need,” he said. He was right.

And the pub/hotel is open, with Rebellion on draft and a room for the night. What else can you ask for?

Of course, the road was the same arrow-straight gravel trudge between fields of barley and lentils and flax and canola, but that’s normal here, where the land was divided according to a plan invented in Ottawa. It’s an industrial landscape, completely remade in the past 140 years. I can’t complain about that, because it’s what defines our economy, and is the reason settlers are here. But still, ghosts of what was are there if you look: asters and wild rose beside the road, ducks in the sloughs, gopher holes. It feels impoverished, but who am I to say so?

You can see the Pense grain elevator 15 kilometres before you finally reach it. The land is so flat, and the sky so large, I swear I could see the earth’s curvature.

Oh, yes. I’m walking to Wood Mountain as a sort of pilgrimage in honour of Andrew Suknaski’s book Wood Mountain Poems. It’s the only book I’ve brought with me and I’ll be reading it along the way–particularly on those days when I find myself wild camping behind some caragana someplace. There will be many hours to fill before it’s dark enough to lay out my bivvy sack and try to sleep.

But not tonight. I’m tired, the CFL game is on, and the beer is cold. Soon I’ll repair to my room for a nap, and then I’ll have the privilege of eating someone else’s cooking. That won’t happen tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Trespassing Across America and This Land Is Our Land


Ken Ilgunas was a cook in an Alaskan oil-field work camp when he had an idea. At least, his friend and fellow cook Liam had an idea. They were concerned about global warming and the part they were playing in what he calls “our country’s wrongheaded conception of ‘progress,'” and they were tossing around ideas about what their duty was as citizens of the earth. “What if we hike the Keystone XL?” Liam asked. “Some deep, inner part of me recognized the brilliance of Liam’s idea with a startling immediacy,” Ilgunas recalls. “I hadn’t begun to consciously rationalize why, but some farseeing part of me knew then and there that I was going to–no, had to–hike the Keystone XL.”

And that’s what he did. Liam dropped out of the project, but Ilgunas carried on alone, planning a route and buying gear and mailing boxes of food to post offices along his route, the way through-hikers do. His idea was to walk the exact route of the pipeline, and not just wander along nearby roads, so he was going to have to cross private land the whole way. “You’ll get thrown in jail,” he was told. “You’ll probably get shot.” But he was committed to the project, despite those warnings, and in late September 2012, he set off from Hardisty, Alberta, a town of 639 people that is the northern terminus of the pipeline, for Houston.

Nobody shot at Ilgunas, although he did have a couple of run-ins with rural police, and when he was caught trespassing on the pipeline in Texas, he was asked to leave. In fact, everyone he met was generous and kind, even though he was trespassing on their land. Only in Oklahoma was he forced to take to the roads, mainly because of vicious dogs. Finally, after five months of walking, he reached Houston in February, 2013, and dipped his toes into the Gulf of Mexico.

Trespassing Across America: One Man’s Epic Never-Done-Before (And Sort Of Illegal) Hike Across the Heartland is the story of that journey. It’s filled with suggestions for people who might be thinking about walking in western North America. For example, Ilgunas only carried three litres of water, which he would drink over the course of a day, so he often had to stop at farms to ask for refills–and nobody ever said no. Ilgunas didn’t have money for motels, so he would knock on church doors and ask if he could camp on the lawn. Often, he was invited to bunk down inside, on the floor. I’d never thought of relying on Christian charity while walking. Trespassing Across America is an entertaining read, and it shows that you don’t have to rely on established trails (like the Camino de Santiago in Europe, or the Appalachian Trail in the U.S.) if you want to go for a walk. But despite reading about Ilgunas’s experience, I’m leary of trespassing; I keep thinking that the landowners I’d run into might not always be as accommodating as the ones Ilgunas met. Maybe I’ll just stick to grid roads.


Ilgunas’s journey led to his latest book, This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back. It’s both a history of the right to roam in North America and elsewhere, and a call for the United States to adopt the kind of legislation that exists in Scotland and Sweden, which allows pedestrians to walk on private land (within limits). Americans (and Canadians) used to have that right, but over the course of the twentieth century it was eroded–mostly through court decisions that established the rights of landowners to exclude anyone and everyone from their property–to the point that right-to-roam laws now sound crazy to most people.

I wish the kinds of changes Ilgunas is calling for were on the legislative agenda anywhere, but in an era of increasing selfishness, it isn’t likely to happen in North America any time soon. So, if you want to be able to trespass, legally, you have to go to Europe. How unfortunate. I’m about to set off on a walk in Saskatchewan, and it’d be a completely different kind of walk if I could set foot in pastures and on native prairie, instead of being confined to roads. Maybe someday we’ll see that change. I hope we do.