Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Walking

Camino for Alzheimer’s

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!

Wood Mountain Walk, Afterthoughts

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wood Mountain Walk, Day Nine

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.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Eight

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.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Seven

All I’ve done in Assiniboia today is eat and sleep. And laundry. That’s what rest days are for.

It’s hot again today and I’m glad I’m not out on the highway. Tomorrow will be a shorter day, just 20 kilometres to Limerick. Sunday is supposed to be cooler, so I might try to finish the last 40 kilometres in one go. I haven’t decided. Maybe that’s a bad idea.

Watching cars and trucks speed past me the past few days has left me thinking about the freedom–or the illusion of freedom–petroleum has given us. Our planet–the only home we have–is on fire, but we can get to Moose Jaw in an hour. What a trade-off. Of course, I’ve been busy proving just how hard it is to travel without burning petroleum. We’ve created quite a dilemma for ourselves, and we’re mostly ignoring the consequences. I need to read Rebecca Solnit’s new book on hope in dark times, because I feel terribly overwhelmed.

It’s been years since I read Don Quixote, but I’ve been thinking about the distinction between the man of ideals and the man of appetites, between the Don and Sancho Panza. Sleeping in a ditch during a bizarre quest like this one doesn’t make you an ascetic or an idealist. When I get to town, I think only of my belly, like Sancho. And I haven’t even seen a wind farm.

I’ll go to the Co-op to pick up a couple of things, then back to the hotel to rest. Then I’ll walk back downtown for supper. Such a lazy day.

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Six

I didn’t end up at the campground last night after all: I found a room for rent behind a shop and leapt at it. This morning I slept late and got up stiff and sore and tired. There was coffee in the cupboard so I made a pot. That helped. And for once I enjoyed Ryvita and peanut butter, so I had a decent breakfast.

On my way out of town, an old fellow I’d met at lunch yesterday invited me into the Seniors’ Centre for a coffee. “No thanks, I’m already coffeed up,” I said. “Okay, then, have a good walk,” he said. I realize my refusal was ungracious and that I missed an opportunity to connect with people, but I also know that I couldn’t afford to pass up an hour of relatively cool temperatures. I like to get at least halfway to where I’m going before it gets too hot. But I regret my answer anyway.

Today’s walking is as hard as yesterday’s: the same crumbling, narrow shoulder, the same fist-sized chunks of broken asphalt to pick my way through when oncoming traffic forces me to the edge of the highway. The going is slow. I tried walking in the ditch for a while, like my friend Hugh, but it was too hard. I don’t know how Hugh does it. So I’m taking a rest in the shade of a hay bale, where about a million flies are inspecting me.

I’ve been waving at passing vehicles, the way you do in rural Saskatchewan, but I only get a return wave half the time. I was wondering why that might be when a fellow stopped to offer me a lift. He was deeply tanned, driving an old grey GMC pickup–a farmer, I suppose. Of course I thanked him and said no–I’m not hitchhiking, right? But it was another lost opportunity for connection. The ritual of waving is otherwise the only sign of common humanity on the highway.

My goal today is Assiniboia, where I hope to take a day off tomorrow. I’m just too exhausted to keep walking tomorrow. I have more than 20 kilometres of walking before I get there, and while I know that by five o’clock I’ll be eating an early supper at the hotel, it’s going to be a long day.

Later: What a difference between lunch yesterday and lunch today. Yesterday, food and drink in an air conditioned room. Today, trying to find respite from the sun behind a hay bale and wondering if I can keep going in this heat. A couple more people offered me rides this morning. Maybe I should’ve accepted.

Still later: A kind woman named Linda stopped and gave me a litre of water. She knew about Suknaski’s work, but was curious about why I am walking. “It’s a pilgrimage,” I answered. “The pilgrim must suffer.” Of course it’s not all suffering, but today’s been quite difficult, and it’s nowhere near being over.

Odd that I started out thinking about connection today and have received so many kind gestures.

I’m hiding from the sun in a row of poplars in the middle of a field of chick peas. It’s still hot and I’m running out of water. I won’t be in Assiniboia by supper, but I will get there eventually.

Still later: I’m in Assiniboia with food and drink and a bed. But not entirely under my own steam. For the last three or four kilometres, I caught a lift from two fellows, Maurice and Leo. Maurice works on offshore rigs in Texas; Leo, his father, is a farmer. They’d passed me earlier today and noticed how my pace had slowed. Yes, I was beat: 35 kilometres in this heat. I would rather have been able to walk in, but I just couldn’t say no to the ride. Thanks to Maurice and Leo for helping me!

Wood Mountain Walk, Day Five

Since I came back from walking in Spain five years ago, I’ve played a little game with myself when driving down highways. It’s called, “Where Would You Camp?” I look for likely spots where one could sleep rough in comfort. Behind those bushes? On top of that rock cutting? Last night, I played the game for real: I slept in a ditch.

There was nowhere else, and it was comfortable enough, and after walking 38 kilometres I didn’t have the energy to search for a better spot. And from what I’ve seen this morning, there probably wasn’t one. After a while the traffic stopped and I lay there listening to the coyotes singing. Eventually I fell asleep.

This morning the walking is hard, despite the cool breeze. Since the turn off to Willow Bunch, the shoulder of the highway is narrower and often broken, leaving ragged chunks of asphalt on the gravel verge where I walk. It’s hard to build up a rhythm when you’re stumbling over them. And the verge is choked with weeds sometimes. It’s a slog.

My feet are sore, too, after yesterday, with bleeding blisters on my left sole. Nothing I can do about that.

My goal today is Mossbank, where there is a hotel and a bar and a restaurant, apparently. I have 21 kilometres to go. Wish me luck.

Later: I’ve made it to Ardill, where the hotel is open and serves lunch–and beer! I may never leave, even though I still have nine kilometres to go.

Still later: Here’s the happy ending. I’m in Mossbank. A 40 kilometre walk today, the farthest I’ve ever walked, and I’m done. The hotel and B&B here are out of business, unfortunately, so I’m off to the campground. Tomorrow will be another long day, but there is definitely a place to stay in Assiniboia and I’ll be there. Too bad the highway has turned out to be such a miserable walk.

Oh, the town boys are calling me “hitchhiker.” “Walker ” isn’t part of the vocabulary here. Good to know.

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’s 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.