Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: April, 2020

A Cloudy and Sunny Walk to Grand Coulee

Thoreau, or so he says, walked 10 or 12 miles every afternoon. Perhaps I could do the same. But where to go? Thoreau walked in the woods, avoiding roads as much as possible, but that’s not possible here, given the province’s trespassing laws and farming practices; few fields have spaces around the edges for passing pedestrians. Besides, there really aren’t any woods nearby. Walking out of the city almost inevitably means walking on grid roads.

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When I left the house this afternoon, I wasn’t completely sure where I was headed. I walked west along the creek for a little while. The red-winged blackbirds and grackles have returned to nest. I was carrying a lightweight, waterproof camera, and its lens is too short to get decent photographs of the birds, although I tried. I do love red-winged blackbirds; those flashes of colour on their wings, their happy trilling call. Across the creek, workers were busy doing something, their day-glo coveralls bright against the dull background. I walked north and then turned west on 13th Avenue and headed towards the edge of the city. Despite the pandemic, there seemed to be a lot of city employees out working; several white pickup trucks with the city’s logo on the doors passed me. I guess they’re essential. I stopped to take a photograph and disturbed a pair of grey partridges, who flew off noisily.

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Across the road, beside the railway tracks, a small area of grass had burned, leaving a smell of ashes in the air. Meadowlarks were singing. When I crossed the border from the city to the Rural Municipality of Sherwood, the road changed: it had been recently graded, but the overnight rain had left it muddy and soft. An odd-looking machine was sweeping debris off the main Canadian Pacific tracks. At the corner of Pinkie Road, I turned south. The grain-drying facility on the corner filled the air with the smell of propane. Frogs sang in a nearby slough.

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I turned again and crossed the new Regina Bypass. It’s a lot of road for not very much traffic, intended to service the nearby Global Transportation Hub. The highway cost a billion dollars, and the warehouse park at the GTH is mostly empty, struggling to find tenants. If the opposition New Democrats had squandered more than a billion dollars that way, we would have never heard the end of it, but for some reason, this government has gotten away with it. They are high in the polls and it’s hard to imagine what might happen to cause them to lose the forthcoming election. I listened to the liquid songs of meadowlarks and the quiet hum of traffic in the background. Perhaps I should follow Iain Sinclair’s example—he walked alongside the M25 motorway around London to write London Orbital—and walk the Bypass. It would be a hard walk, and a dangerous one, in addition to being cheerless, but it might be the basis of something, an investigation of P3s and political manoeuvring and corruption. I don’t know.

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Walking on grid roads is like walking a line on a map. Perhaps that’s true of any road, but there’s something about the grids, laid out almost perfectly straight across the land by bureaucrats in Ottawa in the nineteenth century, that makes it seem that way. To the north, long trains of covered hopper cars trundled past, carrying potash to Vancouver and then overseas.

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I wonder if I’ll ever get used to walking on these roads. There’s little sign of human activity, not even much roadside litter (a pair of rubber gloves and a couple of empty vodka bottles—evidence of some disinfection ceremony?), and yet the space is entirely shaped by human (or Settler, perhaps) activity: the roads and the stubble fields tell a story of a landscape that has been almost completely reshaped for settlement and agriculture. Even the trees have been planted deliberately. It’s a hard landscape to photograph for that reason; it’s all ground, and no figure. Occasional road signs or power poles or grain bins might stand in as figures, might give the vast space some sense of scale, but otherwise it’s just horizon and clouds and sky, an abstract in shades of grey-brown and blue and white.

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The clouds moved east and the sun was bright. The ubiquitous wind was unceasing. I tried to record the frogs and birds singing on my phone, but most of what I ended up with was the rumble of the wind. A car stopped to ask if I needed help. It’s true what my friend Matthew Anderson has written: if you’re walking in rural Saskatchewan, everyone who sees you will assume your vehicle has broken down.

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I turned towards Grand Coulee. It’s a strange place: a suburb with a school and a village hall that seems to double as a church, but no store, nowhere residents could buy cigarettes or milk; just houses with RVs and boats parked out front. I suppose people live there because taxes in the RM are lower than they would be in the city. Or perhaps they like living where they can hear meadowlarks and killdeer from their back decks. I don’t know. I could smell barbecues cooking meat. Someone was playing Journey: “Don’t stop believing / Hold on to that feeling.”

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I’ve always found Grand Coulee rather strange. There’s no coulee there, for one thing. It’s as flat as the rest of the Wascana Plains. The sign at the edge of the village says it was founded in 1903, and there are maybe half a dozen houses that are older than 1970, but there’s no sign of a siding that would’ve served the long-gone grain elevator. I wonder if the town went bankrupt in the 1930s, if almost everyone moved away then. I’m just guessing—the village’s Wikipedia page is not very informative—but perhaps when it became easy to drive into the city from there, the village found a new life as a bedroom community. I will have to carry out more research, if only to find out what is behind that strange name.

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I was tired. My legs were stiff and my back hurt. If I were more fit, and if I’d started earlier in the day, perhaps I could’ve turned around and walked home. But I had walked my 12 miles for the day, and I called home for a ride back. Thoreau wouldn’t have done that. But then again, he didn’t have to spend all afternoon walking to the nearest village, either.

A Walk to the Refinery and Back

_DSC1114My intention this morning was to walk out into the country, but the strong winds, which were gusting up to 80 kilometres per hour, put an end to that idea. At least in the city there are trees and buildings that act as windbreaks; out in the country the wind hits you with all of its force.

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When I left the house, I wasn’t sure where I was headed. I walked through alleys, hoping to see something new. Then I turned and walked up Albert Street, under the main CPR line. A brown cloud of dust dominated the sky north of the city, and the wind was blowing trash everywhere. Not just litter, either: big cardboard boxes, pieces of roofing, doormats. I saw a mailbox that had blown over. A half-dozen police cars were in a parking lot, and the cops, wearing bulletproof vests that said “POLICE” on the back, seemed to be preparing for a raid. I didn’t take their picture—I don’t need any trouble from them—and I carried on walking north.

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At 1st Avenue North I crossed Albert and made my way through a neighbourhood of small houses. The street ended at a shopping mall with a drug store. I bought some almonds and a couple of pocket-sized notebooks and a pen. I thought I might take notes of things I saw, so I could refer to them later; maybe that would be a good idea. I ate the almonds while walking east towards Broad Street. Then I turned north again. I knew where I was, but I’d never been there before: Uplands, a neighbourhood built in the 1960s between the steel mill and the oil refinery. I turned and walked west. The wind was blowing harder and my hands and face stung from the grit it was flinging at me.

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The street I was walking along ended at Winnipeg Street. I was across from the oil refinery, where the workers have been locked out by their employer for nearly six months. What a way for a company that calls itself a cooperative to behave. A robin flew across the road, into the wind, and a police car, lights flashing and siren screaming, sped past and turned down the street I had just been walking on. At the refinery, a plume of black dust was being blown from a pile of something—petroleum coke, maybe. Whatever it was, it didn’t look very healthy. I thought about the scabs living in trailers at the refinery, and how they could possibly be keeping safe from the novel coronavirus. I saw my second giant plastic animal of the day: a bald eagle perched on a stack of plywood in a lumberyard.

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I considered walking east, past the refinery complex, but I was getting tired, so I decided to turn south towards home. I wandered through a neighbourhood towards Broad Street and then continued south. The flying grit was really bothering me, and I pulled my Buff up over my face as protection. The more I walked, the more tired I got, and the more tired I got, the less attention I paid to my surroundings. I was focused on my sore feet and back. My mind drifted. I was just a bundle of sore muscles buffeted by the wind.

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I turned and walked through the Warehouse District—an older industrial area, where substantial warehouses from the time of the First World War are now loft apartments and dance clubs—and crossed under the main CPR line again. A man was walking towards me and for an instant I thought I was about to be mugged for my camera. He said hello and passed by.

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The wind was still howling. I’m not a small man, but the wind was pushing me around. I was thirsty, and I wondered if the local brewpub’s off-sale was open on Sunday afternoons. It isn’t. I turned and walked towards home. Maybe tomorrow, if the wind drops, I’ll try my country walk, or else maybe I’ll return to the refinery. The trick will be to keep paying attention to where I am, even when I’m tired; I’m not sure how to do that, but perhaps I can learn.

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RIIS Burial Ground Walk

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Today’s walk had a purpose and a destination: the burial ground at the former Regina Indian Industrial School. Some 40 children are buried there. Their graves are unmarked—the markers burned during a grass fire back in the 1940s—but the ground is uneven where the graves have sunk. The school operated for 20 years, and from what I’ve read, it was notoriously badly run. Tuberculosis was rampant at the school, and many students—including Thomas More Keesick, the subject of a famous staged photograph—were sent home to die after contracting the disease there. Such schools—if that’s the right word for them—often killed their students. The fact that they existed is shameful.

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I walked north, by the football stadium, and then west, past one of the city’s hospitals and the RCMP training academy to the city’s edge. That edge has moved. There was a time when it ended at Courtney Street, but now a new development, Westerra, has pushed it further west, to Pinkie Road. The signs around the Westerra development promise that there will be more housing built there, and that there will be a retail development, too, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. The economy will have to recover before that kind of development will make any money. The last time I walked this way, Westerra was under construction. Now the houses and apartments are there, with large signs announcing cheap rent for potential tenants. These developments always make me think of Malvina Reynolds’s nasty (some might say satirical) song “Little Boxes,” which is unfair: people have to live someplace. Why not in Westerra? Still, the neighbourhood has its drawbacks, including the concrete bunker (it seems to belong to the city, but there are no signs) that emits a loud and unceasing mechanical howl. Try sleeping with your windows open on a summer night with that racket outside.

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The city was mostly mute today. I noticed that some of the roadside trash spoke to the changes in the city’s cultural makeup, but otherwise the signs I have been trying to look for were mostly absent. When I got to Pinkie Road, I turned north towards the RIIS burial ground. The road has seen some recent work and the gravel is thick and soft and hard to walk on, but I only had to carry on for a couple of kilometres before I arrived at the burial ground. Two years ago, the city announced that it was going to build a monument in honour of the children buried there, but there’s no sign of it. The old rail fence, which was covered in plush toys, is gone; a new fence is being built, but only the posts are evident. I put down some tobacco and told the children how sorry I am for what happened to them. They didn’t deserve to die so young, so far from their families. Nothing that they experienced was right or fair. The colonialism they experienced—that Indigenous people in this country continue to experience—isn’t right or fair. And I am always reminded that, as a Settler, I’ve benefitted from the process that sentenced the children buried there to death.

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While I was standing there, I noticed a meadowlark sitting on a power pole. I tried, without much success, to take its picture. He, or she, would fly away from me and sit on the next pole. I did manage to record its song, though, on my phone. You can hear the crunch of my footsteps on the gravel, and then the bird sings.

 

Then I turned south, towards the gas station owned by the Zagime Anishinabek First Nation, where Christine was going to pick me up. I could’ve walked home, but we had friends coming over, and I would’ve been quite late. They’ve built a new gas station—the old one has become a cannabis dispensary—and the new one boasts a Tim Horton’s. We bought coffee and sat in the car to drink it. Then we headed home.

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A Neighbourhood Stroll

Not every walk has to be epic or dramatic. This afternoon, between Zoom meetings, we went for a short turn around our neighbourhood. Our route took in alleys we had never walked through before. There were strange patterns in the refuse that has collected over the winter, gnomic messages, angry demands (an exclamation mark cancels out the word “please”). It ended with a burro obscured in last year’s creeping bellflower just a few doors down from our house. We saw our friends Bill and Kathleen, too—observing appropriate social distancing protocols, of course. And now I have just enough time to upload photographs before the next Zoom meeting begins.

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Thinking About Walking, Space, and Language

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Last night I was thinking about the next step in my walking research, which I’ve had to put on hold because of the pandemic. Instead of long walks in the country, I’ve been making shorter walks in the city. I found myself wondering about the city as a language, and more generally, about the implications of an analogy between space and language. I haven’t studied linguistics, and I’m not that interested in langue, in the larger structure of a language; I studied literature, and perhaps for that reason I’m more interested in parole, in utterances or speech acts, in how people use langue.  But obviously langue and parole are related, or interrelated, in language but also in this spatial analogy. Neither can exist without the other.

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What would the langue of the city be? Its design? A grid of streets in neighbourhoods developed before the 1960s, and curving streets (bays, crescents, circles, cul de sacs) in neighbourhoods developed after that. I’m tempted to connect that urban grid to the larger grid of rural roads imposed by the Dominion Land Survey, but I’m not sure that connection makes sense, given the fact that every nineteenth-century city in North America is, in large part, designed as a grid for efficiency. It’s rare for a city to be old enough that its layout isn’t a grid—Manhattan south of Houston Street, or Quebec City—or for a city to be designed so that streets meet in a central square (Washington, D.C., or Guelph). Rivers and creeks complicate the grid. So do coastlines or harbours or railway lines. But that grid occurs everywhere. It’s not the langue of a particular city; it’s the langue of all cities that were built before the 1940s. Cities constructed after the 1940s combine a grid of major arteries with curving minor streets—at least in residential areas; industrial districts keep to the grid. I’m not convinced that those curving streets say anything about a specific city, since like the grid, they seem to be characteristic of everywhere.

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So I’m not interested in the langue of the city. I’m not a geographer—I’m not even sure that’s what geographers are interested in. I’m interested in its parole. I’ve been photographing odd signs, strange objects, natural phenomena. Are those examples of this city’s parole? I think so. But I need to be careful. Some of the odd or curious things I’ve been photographing are the result of poverty. They are relics of abandonment, of the city’s class divisions, of its ghettoizing of Indigenous peoples, rather than neutral objects that ought to lend themselves to an ironic critique. That critique is easy. To see those curiosities with empathy or care, to see them within that social and economic context—that would be the more appropriate response. I’m not sure I know how to do that. And I wonder if that documentary impulse works against the playfulness that seems to be inherent in mythogeography. Is documenting the city the same as imaginatively rethinking the city? No. But could that imaginative rethinking end up being callous and exploitative and extractive? I think that is a serious risk. How does the city speak of power and class and at the same time how does it speak of resistance to them? Can I really find that resistance in sidewalk scribbles or odd signs or urban jackrabbits?

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Besides, are those photographs really the heart of a walking practice? Isn’t the walking the actual point? Walking—especially outside the city centre, or the recreational areas around the lake or along the creek where it’s encouraged—ends up being an act of resistance, at least potentially. It is slow, inefficient, laborious, reflective; it requires effort and attention. All of those qualities resist what our society prizes: fast, frictionless activity; inattention; ease; efficiency. And if that’s true of an urban walking practice, it must be even more true of a rural walking practice. Walking in rural areas—especially in this province, with its vast distances and sparse population—makes absolutely no sense. That senselessness is perhaps what constitutes its potential for resistance.

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But that resistance can only be symbolic and individual, unless one orchestrates groups of walkers, which is quite possible in the city, where distances are manageable, but more difficult on a grid road in the middle of nowhere. Convivial walking in rural Saskatchewan is complicated; it requires support vehicles and guides and maybe even first aid, and all of that takes time and money to arrange. It’s not impossible to organize—my friend Hugh Henry does a fantastic job of putting group walking events in rural Saskatchewan together—but it’s not easy. The other challenge with convivial walking in rural Saskatchewan might be distance. It takes time to experience this landscape, and that means walking distances that might be difficult or even impossible for some people. I remember very well how exhausting it was to walk 12 kilometres when I first began walking; how my feet would blister after 15 kilometres; how many weeks it takes me to get comfortable walking 20 kilometres or more after a long cold winter. Is it reasonable to expect people to walk such distances as a way of experiencing the land from the vantage point of a grid road? Is 20 kilometres even enough? Doesn’t this particular landscape require an investment of time and energy and sweat before it begins to pay off in understanding and respect and even love? That’s been one of the lessons of walking in rural Saskatchewan, from my perspective—either alone, or with others. Of course walking with others is safer and more enjoyable, but it takes an incredible amount of work and planning to arrange that kind of walk.

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Unless, that is, one is particular about where those walks happen. Maybe walking in Grasslands National Park would require less time and effort and distance than walking along a grid road. Walking in that park might offer a more immediate experience of the land—or at least a part of it. But here’s the problem: a park is a curated landscape. If the point is to encounter the land as it is, rather than as we might imagine it to be, or like it to be, we need to step outside of the park boundaries; we need to trudge along grid roads or highways instead. After all, less than 14 percent of southern Saskatchewan remains grassland, including Grasslands National Park. Most of this land is very different. If we want to see what is there, we can’t remain inside a curated landscape. And given this province’s trespassing laws, and the difficulty of finding landowners to get permission to be on their land, we will find ourselves limited to roads—particularly if we are walking together in a large group. It’s one thing for a single walker to climb through a fence and walk in a pasture without permission; that might be overlooked or explained away as an error. It’s another thing entirely to take a group of people onto private land without making arrangements with the landowner or pasture manager. So outside of those curated spaces, outside of parks, convivial walking is going to be limited to roads.

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But walking in the country is very different from walking in the city, and those differences will affect the terms this essay began with: langue and parole. What is the parole of a rural space? What is its langue? Are grid roads the langue of the land, for instance? Or are they instances of parole? Is the langue the grassland that’s been almost entirely eradicated? Or is that an idealized space that for the most part no longer exists? Aside from the occasional farm or bin yard or sign, the signs of human occupation—a better term would be “Settler occupation”—are the roads, the fences and power poles, the litter in the ditches, and the miles of barley and wheat and canola. Are those examples of langue, or of parole? What defines the land? Does industrial agriculture define it? Or does it have an essence beyond industrial agriculture? Do such essences exist? Perhaps we need to look up at the sky, to the clouds and the wind and the sun, if we are going to experience the land? Or is that a contradiction? What phenomena are included within the category “land”? Does it include the sky? I don’t have answers to any of these questions, even though I’ve been thinking about them for several years, and walking in rural Saskatchewan for even longer. Maybe, if I keep walking and thinking and reading and writing, I’ll start coming up with answers?

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(All photographs are from August walks in summers past. Perhaps the pandemic will have run its course by this coming August.)

Sidewalk Hieroglyphics

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Today’s walk wasn’t very long. Nor was it purposeless. Its goal was the tailor shop from which I had ordered cloth masks to wear during the pandemic. I don’t enjoy them—they are hot and they make my beard itch and my glasses foggy—but if they help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, those are minor inconveniences.

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Before we turned for home, we found an ice-cream shop that was open. I ended up with a cone of bourbon-and-pecan flavour. It was delicious and the southern theme went along with today’s warm spring weather.

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Today I tried to pay attention to the sidewalk’s signs and wonders: all those scribbles and stampings that mean (or meant) something to someone, even if they suggest little or nothing to me. Perhaps this is one way to approach walking in the city: to focus on one thing at a time. Today, marks on the sidewalk; perhaps tomorrow, house numbers, or messages from one of the utilities, or pieces of wood imitating dead birds, or discarded rubber gloves, or some mixture of all of those.

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To the Edge of the City

It was a sunny spring morning when I left the house. I chatted with a curious rabbit and saw a paddling of ducks—mostly males, for some reason—milling about on the creek. I walked along the creek to a group of willows where once I saw a huge hawk sitting on a horizontal branch. We looked each other in the eye. The bird was only a few feet away, I remember. It glared at me with its cold yellow eye. Then it shat contemptuously and flew away. Its powerful wings made its flight seem lazy and careless. When I walk past those trees, I take out that memory and look at it, and then I put it away again.

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I turned away from the creek and walked north through a series of neighbourhoods I had never seen before. The signs were ironic: one, barely attached to a fence, promised security; another mocked something our prime minister said about spreading the novel coronavirus. I took a selfie, reflected in a Christmas bauble. A stolen licence plate rusted in last fall’s leaves. The wind tugged at my hat and coat. I tasted a winter’s worth of dust.

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Eventually I found myself on a familiar road: a broad thoroughfare that leads to the multiplex in the city’s northwest. I followed it north until it became a gravel grid road. I had reached the edge of the city. The wind blew harder and I chased my hat across a wet ditch into the stubble of last year’s barley.

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Today the city was a tree, and I was counting its rings as I walked. I started in the 1920s, then I walked through the wartime houses of the 1940s and the small frame bungalows of the 1950s. I passed through the 1960s and then the 1970s before finding myself in the 1980s. Then the city skipped ahead to new neighbourhoods before it ended. I thought of something I once read in a book by Will Self:

I’ve taken to long-distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples human from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for leisure—that would be merely frivolous, or for exercise—which would be tedious.

I was “dissolving the mechanized matriculates which compresses the space-time continuum,” too, as I walked today. I was extending space while travelling through time at five kilometres per hour. When I reached the edge of the city, I could see its future: the fields of stubble between the newest development and the highway to Saskatoon were soon to be turned into more tract houses. Maybe that highway will act as a girdle limiting the city’s northward expansion, or maybe the city will leap past it and keep going.

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And then the road curved back towards the city. My feet hurt. I thought about how much farther I wanted to walk—not too much more, I thought. Another two or three hours of walking would have brought me home, but I didn’t think I had that much walking left in me, so I called home for a ride. Christine picked me up in a parking lot lined with stores and restaurants and drove me home. We made tea and shared the last brioche and I wrote these words, wondering again if I’m learning to see the city differently, to read it with fresh eyes. I still can’t tell. I’ll have to keep practicing.

Queen City Sauntering

I went for a longish walk today. I tried, with mixed success, to follow the example set by Phil Smith’s practice of mythogeography, or at least to slow down and look at the city in a new way, with fresh eyes. I did see some odd things: iridescent pigeons and camouflaged mallards, a forester trimming tree branches who reminded me of the man roofing the church steeple in the Al Purdy poem, busy streets and empty sidewalks, closed shops and assertions of business-as-usual, friendly greetings and apocalyptic warnings. I walked until my feet ached and my back hurt. I stopped for a snack and a drink of water, and listened to a large flock of cranes flying north. Then I turned for home.

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Maybe one thing I might be able to take away from the pandemic is a new way of thinking about walking. That might help to make up for having to take a leave of absence from my studies. It’s something worth considering. I’ll think about that idea the next time I go for a walk.

Walking from Pamplona to Logroño

My friends and I are walking virtually through northern Spain. We’re hoping to get to Logroño (I think that’s where we’re headed) by Monday. I think we can do it, but I’m going to have to get walking if I don’t want to get stuck taking a virtual bus to catch up.

Here are some pictures (including my first-ever selfie) from my first walk between Pamplona and Logroño, an 85-kilometre walk through Navarre and Rioja that took several days to complete:

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It was a beautiful walk; the further west we got from the Pyrenees, the hotter and drier the landscape got. We walked through groves of olive trees and vineyards, slept in hostels on bunk beds, ate whatever we were offered and drank cheap and delicious local red wine. There was constantly something new to see, but at the same time, I think we were coming to know the places where we walked with our bodies: the hills, the wind, the hot sun. We made new friendships and chatted with other people we never saw again. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another experience like it.

 

Things I Saw During This Afternoon’s Walk

I went on a shortish walk this afternoon after I submitted my grades. I carried my best camera with me, which usually stays at home because it’s heavy. These are some of the things I saw along the way.

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