My friends Geoff and Annemarie are walking in France right now, raising awareness of Alzheimer’s and money for research into this insidious disease. Check out their blog here. It’s worth a visit!
Ronald Turnbull’s The Book of the Bivvy is an odd book. In part, it’s a collection of comic anecdotes about walking and climbing trips Turnbull has made in Northern Ireland, Wales, the Scottish Highlands, and the Lake District. But it’s also a guide that explains how to go about making such journeys, with detailed information about hikes to Skiddaw, Bruce’s Crown, and Pumlumon Fawr, as well as advice about re-enacting Alfred Wainwright’s walk to Hadrian’s Wall and back (see my post on Wainwright’s book about that journey here). What ties these disparate elements together is Turnbull’s belief that the bivouac sack–the bivvy bag–is the best form of shelter for hikers, walkers, and climbers, one he relies on for all of his adventures.
I can hear you wondering: what on earth is a bivvy bag? It’s basically a waterproof sack in which the walker (or hiker or climber) sleeps. It might be a basic plastic survival bag which costs £5 or less. It might be a more expensive bag made out of a fabric that’s both waterproof and breathable, like Gore-Tex. It might even have a small pole to keep the bag away from your face while you’re sleeping, although Turnbull argues that such a bag isn’t a bivvy bag at all, but merely “an extremely cramped and uncomfortable tent.” It’s cheaper than a tent–or at least for Turnbull, it ought to be–and it allows for an entirely different experience of the outdoors than a tent does. “Can you really experience nature’s rawness from inside a zipped-up storm flap?” Turnbull asks. “For those who want to bring a bit of old-fashioned pain and suffering into the outdoor experience, the bivvybag is the place to be.”
Old-fashioned pain and suffering? Who wants that? Anyone, Turnbull suggests, who wants no “oppressive luxuries” to stand in the way between themselves and the experience of the natural world. That means being able to see the stars and the moonlight without having to put on your boots and climb out of the tent. It also means experiencing the “full misery” of the wind and the rain if that’s what the weather brings. “A bivvybag,” Turnbull writes,
may not be all that expensive, but it’s not a way of saving money. It is, rather, a new way of having fun. A bivvybag isn’t simply an extra bit of kit that has the backwards effect of making the rucksack lighter. It’s a new attitude, a new way of being in the hills. It rearranges the co-ordinates of space and time and allows us to wriggle through the wormholes into a different universe.
If leaving luxuries at home and experiencing the world in a new way sounds like your cup of tea, then a bivvy bag might be for you, and Turnbull’s book will tell you everything you need to know about them.
I myself am the proud owner of a bivvy bag: a heavy, green British army surplus sack, allegedly made of Gore-Tex, in which I slept on my most recent walks. If you pull on the drawstring, the opening gets smaller, which is helpful on a cold night, although if the opening gets too small, breathing fresh air becomes difficult. (Hence my search for the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation while walking to Gravelbourg.) The bag also lacks any protection against mosquitoes, which is a definite disadvantage in this part of the world, although I wore a cheap head net to bed in an attempt to keep from being bitten. (It worked, but the cold temperatures were probably the real reason.) The dark colour allows me to camp where I’m not supposed to without drawing the attention of the RCMP or other passersby. I’ve never used it in the rain, though, and I’m happy about that. When you’re sleeping in a bivvy bag and it rains, Turnbull writes, you get wet. Condensation is the problem: a sleeping human produces about a pint of water vapour overnight, and on warm, damp nights that vapour will condense inside your shelter and soak your sleeping bag. And rainy nights tend to be warm and damp. I’ve been thinking of investing in a lighter bivvy bag–maybe even one of the luxury versions Turnbull scoffs at–and many people who post online reviews of the models I’ve been considering complain about dampness, but according to Turnbull, their bags aren’t leaking: even breathable fabrics, like Gore-Tex, are prone to condensation problems. His solution? Move higher up the mountain, where it’s colder, because a difference in temperature between the outside of the bag and its inside will help to limit condensation problems. Of course, moving higher up the mountain isn’t possible in Saskatchewan, so I’m not sure what my options might be. A synthetic sleeping bag instead of the down one I’ve been using, I suppose, since down is useless if it gets wet, and takes forever to dry.
I like The Book of the Bivvy. I like its oddities, which I assume reflect its author’s own eccentricities. I like the stories about sleeping in puddles and caves and on the tops of mountains. I even like the idea of opening oneself up to the natural world even if that means a degree of discomfort (or, in Turnbull’s words, “full misery”). And I find The Book of the Bivvy reassuring; I’m not the only crazy person willing to spend the night in a waterproof (I hope) sack.
I was humbled by my blisters twice yesterday. First, I couldn’t walk more than a couple of miles. And then, when we arrived at our destination, Judy, who trained as a nurse, taped the blisters for me. That was especially humbling, because after four days on the road, my feet–to be blunt–stink. I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to hobble into Gravelbourg. We’ll see.
We had a communal supper last night, our first: pilgrims’ chicken, cooked by Dave, Madonna’s curried lentils, chili I threw together from dehydrated beans and fresh tomatoes. My favourite meals on the Camino were the ones we cooked together, and the same was true last night. We’d put together the gazebo that was in the back of Hugh’s truck, and we huddled together against the cold night. The full moon was red from the smoke in the air.
It was cold last night, colder than it was in Mortlach, but I was prepared: I wore all the clothes I have to bed. I cinched the bivvy sack tight and tried to find the sweet spot between hypothermia and asphyxiation. By morning, after vivid dreams that were more like hallucinations, I was erring on the side of hypothermia, sticking my face out of the bivvy to breathe the sweet, cold, damp air.
We’re eating breakfast together and I’m drinking perked coffee for the first time in decades. It’s not bad.
The plan–I hope it stays the plan–is to walk to the cathedral in Gravelbourg. That would make this a real pilgrimage: a destination pilgrimage, as Matthew would say, rather than a journey pilgrimage. That’s an important distinction.
Louise has been leading us in a smudge and prayers every morning before we set out. It helps to frame the journey as something sacred, an exercise of gratitude. For everything except blisters, I think.
Later: We arrived in Gravelbourg a little after one o’clock. We trudged down Main Street, past a group of motorcyclists who seemed to have come to town for the burger special at the bar, to the cathedral. There’s a quiet place around back, beneath some poplars, and Louise led us through a sharing circle there. Sharing circles always make me anxious; everyone else’s insights always seem so much more profound than mine. I said I’d been thinking about my blisters–they’re bleeding now–and whether I can be grateful for them. I said I think I can, because they teach me humility; they draw my attention to my human frailty. I thought this walk would be easy, having completed that arduous journey to Wood Mountain two weeks ago. That was overconfidence, pride. My blisters made me ask for help on this walk. That’s something I have trouble doing. So they humbled me; they didn’t humiliate me. There’s a difference.
The cathedral bells are ringing in our honour. In a few minutes, we’ll have a tour of the cathedral, and then a barbecue at the home of Don’s sister and brother-in-law. And then we’ll go our separate ways. Our community is temporary, but that doesn’t make it any less profound.
A good night’s sleep can do marvellous things. Last night, I was sure I’d be riding in the truck today. I could hardly put any weight on my blistered foot. This morning, the blisters are still there, but after I put on my shoes and socks, I found I was walking almost normally. So I’m going to start walking today. The first hour or so we’ll be walking beside the Wood River, through a rare grove of trees. I wouldn’t want to miss that.
Later: We were short a driver for one of the support vehicles, so Hugh, our leader, decided to drive this morning. That was fine when we were on a road, but where we had to turn to follow the river, it became a problem, because only Hugh knows the way, so I volunteered to take the wheel. I think it’s my turn to be part of what makes this walk possible, instead of relying on others to carry the burden. Plus, my blister is quite sore. Altruism meets self-interest, I suppose.
Later: Driving the support vehicle is dull work. The books I brought are back at my car. I feel separated from the group, who area half mile or so behind me. They’re chatting and walking and I’m not. I’m sitting in the truck, listening to the wind and the cows and the crickets and smelling the smoke from the wildfires further west. There are advantages, though. I can charge my phone, and write this blog post. And, I should add, rest my blistered feet.
I look as if I’ve been walking: my clothes and shoes are dusty. I’m saving my clean socks for our supper in Gravelbourg, so I smell like I’ve been walking, too. I hope I’m the only one who’s noticed.
Later: We ate lunch at a farmyard that was one of the original stops on the Frenchmen’s Trail. I’d been feeling separated from the group, but the lunch was communal, with everyone sharing what they had. A community develops quickly on these walks. That was my experience last year, and it’s the same this year.
In a couple of miles we’ll be on Highway 58, heading south into Gravelbourg. I worry about so many people walking on the shoulder of the highway, but the support vehicles will help to warn drivers to slow down.
Later: Connie rode with me this afternoon, so I had company. That was good. It’s very smoky and windy. At lunch I thought I could smell roasting coffee; it was the smoke, blown east on the wind. So many fires burning in B.C.; it breaks my heart thinking about them, and the reason the forests are burning.
Later: We’ve turned a farmer’s yard into a shantytown for the night. Soon we’ll start cooking supper. The walkers are hungry. And thirsty.
I’ve never been sidelined by blisters before, and it’s been a humbling experience. At least I was able to do something productive. That helps take away some of the sting. Connie gave me some Compeed for my blisters, and I’m hoping that, reinforced with tape, they’ll stay on until the end of tomorrow’s six-mile plod into Gravelbourg. That’s my goal: to finish this pilgrimage on foot.
I slept on a high-jump mat in a former grade seven classroom last night, and surprisingly I didn’t dream about being 12 years old. We’re living in luxury here: there’s a kitchen and tables and chairs, and running cold water, although you can’t drink it. Most of us had showers, but I couldn’t face a cold shower, so I’m still grimy with dust and sweat and sunscreen. Not enough sunscreen: I’m turning brown and my dermatologist would be unhappy with me.
It doesn’t take long to start missing ordinary things: running water, chairs, a flush toilet instead of a hastily dug hole behind one bushes (if you’re lucky enough to find some bushes). I’m sure people get used to sleeping rough, but it’s a hard adjustment. I was grateful to sleep inside last night, partly because I’d made friends with a big dog and I’m sure he would’ve come to visit me in the bivvy sack in the night.
Today our destination is Shamrock Regional Park, on the Wood River. It’s our longest walk, and it’s going to be hot: up to 35 degrees. Wish us luck.
Later: It’s noon and we’re stopping for a snack and some water. The water I’m carrying is already hot. The road we’re walking on is soft dirt and my blisters appreciate the fact that I’m not walking over stones. Here are wisps of cirrus clouds in the sky, but they have no effect on the pitiless sun. We’ve walked eight or nine kilometres, and we’re not yet at the halfway point.
Later: It is hot, and my blistered feet hurt. I’m starting to hobble, like the day I walked to Limerick. We’re having another break, sitting beside a gravelled road and a field of barley. I’m worried about heat exhaustion, not just for myself, but for all of us.
Later: Because of the heat, we cut our walk short today–only 20 kilometres, according to my Fitbit. That’s okay: we’re at the park where we’re staying tonight, and everybody is fine, more or less. There’s even a canteen here, so my cheeseburger tour of southwestern Saskatchewan may continue tonight. Tomorrow is supposed to be hot again, but the plan is for a shorter walk, so we’ll be fine. I hope.
Last night, we did all the things solo walkers can’t (or don’t usually). There was cold beer. Dave brought his guitar, and we sang old folk songs. I didn’t know that Matthew could play, but when Dave went to cook his supper, Matthew took over as choir leader. I went to bed when it got dark, and as I unrolled my bivvy sack, I found myself singing Merle Haggard songs to myself.
It was much warmer last night, and I slept well, maybe because I was so tired. This morning, my feet feel much better. I ate porridge and drank coffee, and Matthew shared his fried eggs with me. We’ll be on the road soon. Today, two women are driving out from Regina to join us, so we’ll be quite a large group.
Later: We walked on grid roads this morning, but for the past three hours we’ve been walking over pasture. Most of the time, we’ve been walking on native grassland, which is lovely, but also dangerous: one of our party, Karen, stepped in a badger hole. No harm was done, but that’s how ankles get broken, and it would be a long way to carry someone to safety. Karen is light enough that we could easily get her to safety, but I’m afraid that if I got hurt I’d have to wait for the rancher and a bone-crunching ride on a quad out to the road.
I grew a blister on the sole of my right foot today, and it broke a couple of miles back. Ow. I’m on the downward side of the pain curve now, though, and I’m confident it’ll be fine to walk on tomorrow.
Right now we’re resting under shady trees at Marlatt Springs, one of the stops on the original Frenchmen’s Trail. There’s a cool breeze even though it’s a warm day. We’re eating snacks and drinking water, getting ready for the last two hours of walking. A Swainson’s hawk is screaming overhead. It’s a lovely place to stop.
When we get to Courval, we’re going to stop at the cathedral, then get the vehicles and drive into Coderre, where we’ll have supper and spend the night in the community centre. I’m looking forward to a cold beer. Tomorrow we’ll return to Courval and start walking again.
Later: We’re in Coderre. Some of us are having a shower. Some are cooking dinner. Some of us are in the hotel, enjoying a well-earned beverage. Today was a long walk; tomorrow will be longer, and there’ll be no cold beer at the end of it. Unless we’re very lucky.
We camped at the golf course in Mortlach last night. It was cold. I broke the half-zipper on my ultra-light, high-tech sleeping bag, which didn’t help. I’m not sure if the manufacturer traded robustness for weight, or if the bag was designed for a slim-hipped youth rather than a man of my carriage. And I could’ve used a winter hat–against the draft through the opening of my bivouac sack–never forget a warm hat for cold nights. I slept poorly, and the half dozen freight trains that passed on the main CP line 100 metres away didn’t help. I’ll be tired today, but that means I’ll sleep better tonight.
A group of us are walking the Frenchmen’s Trail. It’s the route settlers from Quebec took, from he railway station in Mortlach to heir homesteads near Gravelbourg. The walk is organized by Hugh Henry, who put together last year’s walk on the Battleford Trail. These walks are a way to experience the history of this place in a visceral way, with our bodies. And it’s fun to walk with other people. The walk to Wood Mountain was isolated in comparison. Solo walks are that way.
Yesterday we toured the museum in Mortlach, and then we drove out to look at a couple of archaeological sites. We at dinner together in town. The restaurant, Franklyn’s, apparently makes real English fish and chips with mushy peas, and I’d like to return to give that a try.
We’re still getting ready for the day. There’s breakfast in town, but Matthew brought bagels from Montreal, and that’s a rare treat. Today’s walk is 25 kilometres, and I’m looking forward to it.
Later: It’s lunch time. We’re 10 kilometres in, and so far all is well, although the shoes I’m trying out instead of my heavy and hot (and therefore sweaty) boots could be more supportive. There’s been a lot of harvest-related traffic on the road, although of course I didn’t think to take a picture of one of the combines.
Later: After walking some 25 kilometres, we arrived at our campsite: an abandoned farmyard. Everyone is tired. I’ve been wearing different shoes and insoles, and my feet are exhausted. But it was quite a day of walking: through Nature Conservancy pastures and along the original path of the Frenchmen’s Trail. Usually we walk on grid roads that roughly parallel the route of the trail, because much of its path has been cultivated and is on private land, so to walk in the ruts of the trail itself is unusual and special.
Now it’s time to cook some supper and rest my feet.
P.S. There was no cell service last night, so I’m posting this blog this morning.
I’m exhausted today, of course, and my legs don’t feel like cooperating when I ask them to climb stairs or walk across the room. That’s to be expected. I should’ve taken two days to finish the last 40 kilometres of my walk. But I didn’t. I decided to leave everything on the road and push on for my destination, and it worked out. On the upside, I got to sleep in my own bed last night.
I just spent half an hour going over the last week’s blog posts, fixing typos and adding tags and categories. So I just relived the walk from the comfort of our kitchen table.
I thought about the connection, or lack of connection, between walking and community yesterday. Yes, people were stopping to offer rides or encouragement, and that did create a kind of community. But the relationship between walking and community is not unlike the relationship between walking and the land. To get to know people, you have to stop walking. You have to talk to them, get to know them. And that’s hard to do when you’re focused on moving forward, on getting to the day’s destination.
There’s only one way to connect walking and community: to walk with people. I’ll be setting out on that kind of walk in two weeks: a group of us will be walking from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. That walk is organized by Hugh Henry and the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society, who spent six months putting together last summer’s walk on the Battleford Trail, planning the route and getting permission for the group to camp from landowners. These trail walks are important as a way of attending to the history of how people used to travel in this place. They’re a kind of living history. And, since those trails typically run across private land, it would be nice if pedestrians had the right to walk on them, instead of approximating their paths on grid roads. My friend Matthew Anderson, who will be part of the group walking to Gravelbourg, just published a much-reprinted essay about what the right of responsible access might mean in this part of the country. (He was also interviewed on the subject on CBC Saskatchewan’s The Afternoon Edition.) Without it, walkers are confined to grid roads, or highways, which makes the experience of walking very different.
Different, but not entirely without value, I think, although during the last week I would much rather have been walking on a footpath than on the shoulder of a highway. Still, a right of responsible access would’ve made the past week a lot easier.
But walking here is never going to be easy. Water is a constant problem. I drank water lavishly yesterday, prodigally, because I knew it was my last day on the road. On an ordinary day, though, I would’ve been calculating every sip, because I’ve learned how easy it is to run short, and how running short makes walking so much more difficult. Water is so much more important than food in a dry country. I ate little on the road; food just didn’t seem that important. Water was the priority.
There’s another kind of community generated by this kind of walk, too, and that’s the community created by people who read or comment or like these blog posts. You would be surprised how much that encouragement means, especially when the author of those posts is engaged in such an isolating and sometimes lonely endeavour. So thank you to everyone who made a gesture in that way. It mattered more than you think it did.
Last night, my hosts warned me that there’s very little between Limerick and Wood Mountain, so I’m carrying extra water, which means my pack is heavier than ever. But my feet don’t hurt and I seem to have recovered my stride. After three hours of walking–for once, I didn’t sleep late, and I was on the road by six–I’m more than a third of the way to Wood Mountain. At this rate, I’ll finish my walk today.
It’s a nice day for walking, overcast and cool. I’m happy to be walking naturally today, after limping through yesterday.
Later: I’m sitting on the steps of the abandoned schoolhouse in Flintoft, about two-thirds of the way to Wood Mountain. It’s noon. I figure I’ll be at the end of my pilgrimage by supper time.
I was thinking about walking and the land this morning, about whether walking down a highway can be a way to develop some sort of intimacy with the land. It’s better than driving through, I suppose, but still, so much of a walker’s preoccupation is just putting one foot in front of the other, not in experiencing the sights and smells and sounds through which the walk takes place. It’s still mobile, like driving, even if the land is more directly present to the walker. You feel the hills, the wind, the shifts in temperature. A truism: the more slowly you go, the more you experience. But still, by that logic the best thing to do would be to stop.
While I was pondering this, a large black shape waddled out onto the road and, seeing me, scuttled back into the ditch. A big porcupine. I told him not to be afraid, that I wouldn’t hurt him, but he was terrified. With good reason, no doubt. At least I was walking–if I’d been in a car, he might’ve gotten run over.
Later: The thunderstorm that was following me went off in a southeastern direction, but enough rain fell that I put my jacket on. That’s okay: I’ve carried it this far, so why not use it? Another storm is rumbling to the west, but it doesn’t seem to be headed this way.
People have been stopping to offer lifts and encouragement all day. One fellow, who heard my friend Matthew interviewed on Radio One, is taken by the notion of pilgrimage. “I really admire what you’re doing,” he said. Me, with just eight kilometres left, I just want it to be over. How Sancho of me.
My feet seem to be holding up. There must be some remarkable curative in Limerick water–or in Pilsner.
Later: I walked the last seven kilometres without stopping, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to start again. But I made it, stiff and weary. Christine met me in Wood Mountain just a few minutes after I arrived. Now we’re back in Regina. How strange to see a week’s hard walking unspool over the course of a few hours inside a car.
More on the walk tomorrow.
I woke up late this morning, feeling drained of energy despite my day off. I’ve been walking with leaden legs for two hours and I’m about halfway to Limerick. Highway 13 has a wide, flat paved shoulder with a gravel verge running alongside it that looks as if it’d be good for walking, but because it slopes into the ditch, it hurts my feet. That means I’m mostly up on the shoulder.
It’s been drizzling on and off, but not enough to make me decide to get out my raincoat. That’s always a big decision: am I likely to get wetter in the rain, or in my sweaty rain gear? (All rain gear ends up being sweaty.) I’m going to lean against this bale of roadside hay for a while and rest.
Later: it’s noon. I’ve stopped again to eat and rest my feet. There must be a classic car show in Assiniboia today, because fancy old (and new) cars have been passing me all morning. I have an hour or two left until Limerick. I can see the elevator in the hazy distance.
My gait is dwindling into a bent-kneed, shuffling hobble. The blisters, mostly, I think. Once in a while I try to walk properly, but the blisters under the toes of my left foot protest. So tomorrow will have to be a shorter day, and I’ll get to Wood Mountain on Monday. My feet just won’t do another long day.
Later: I’m in the Limerick hotel, listening to old honky-tonk country music and nursing a beer. Lunch is coming. All is well.
I found my stride after taking a long break at lunch, although I’m still tired and footsore. And the storm that was threatening didn’t break, so I’m dry. Two storms, actually. The water in Assiniboia doesn’t agree with me–I think I contains Epsom salts–and I wasn’t sure I’d make the hotel in time. But I did.
I felt compelled to walk through Limerick, even though it’s not the most direct route (not that I know what the most direct route might be) after prematurely announcing its demise a few posts back. As my friend Connie pointed it, it’s still going. There’s a grocery store, a Co-op gas station and agro-centre, a community hall and a post office. Many rural communities can’t boast that many services. So, Limerick, please accept my apologies.
I’ll be happy to leave Highway 13 behind tomorrow–some drivers crowded me today and I didn’t like it–although who knows what the road south will be like. That’s tomorrow’s worry.