Sir Wilfred Thesiger commented that his living with the Bedu during the crossing of Arabia’s Empty Quarter changed him: “no man can live this life and remain unchanged.” His crossing of the Arabian peninsula was the first by a Westerner, but this was also a life changing exploration across, undoubtedly, the most unforgiving of regions on earth.
Although I am not treking across the desert sands of Arabia by camel caravan with the Bedu, there is, however, many similarities while covering large distances across a land surface by such primal means: foot, horse, or camel. And as I progress, one of Sir Thesiger’s conversations and thoughts has resonated with me recently. In short, Thesiger was asked by someone what his most memorable location, among his length list of places he has been to, was his favorite. The answer he gave was telling of the essence of a journey and adventure: it is not the places but the companions during and people encountered along the way. Similarly, my experience has been just this.
Out of all the natural wonders, expansive and intractable landscapes, lush forests, weather phenomena, and the random setbacks of the last two seasons of walking, it has been the people who have helped me color this adventure of mine. The vast number of real people I meet within and outside those smaller black dots across the map have opened my eyes a little wider: that indelible mark Thesiger mentions in his book Arabian Sands. Those marks are what a journey like this makes on ones life.
It’s funny, I used to believe the statement that no matter where you go there you are. It makes sense in most cases; however, I am begining to feel that this statement is intended not for a journey, but the weekend getaway, the month long ‘backpacking europe’ vacation (sans any real backpacking), or even that lengthy and exotic vacation set among palm trees, pools, and that luxurious hotel, Air B&B, or ‘wilderness’ eco hut you found online. Afterwards, though, one goes back to the same city, same job, same house, same friends, and same life and realities; however, nothing has really changed and those old, muddy ruts in the road of life remain. Try to steer away these, I challenge you.
I believe these vacations and getaways all lack the power to change perspective or challenge the mind, body, and spirit. In all honesty, vacations will always fail to provide lasting relief from what ails you! I know this is a bold and biased statement, but please hear me out. My argument is this: vacations, getaways, or saunterings abroad represent only a change in the colour of a painting atop the same canvas of life. Soon afterwards that painting reverts back to those tones of grey and black.
So, can one really change the fabric of life without sacrifice? You know, the type of sacrifice that forces one to develop new thought patterns or a new way of living and daily regimes. Well, I don’t know. I am begining to feel that real change appears only after sacrifice and after those compensatory techniques are employed to make this new daily life liveable, especially within a new, sometimes uncomfortable and vulnerable state.
For example, I am an introvert and used to be scared to make connections with people, or lacked the comprehension of how valuable the simplest of human connections can be. Initially, I thought My Walk was going to be me alone with my cart and towards Anchorage, AK I go; a solo and unsupported adventure in all respect of the words, solo and unsupported. However, My Walk has been anything but a solo or unsupported walk. At times it feels like a string of people — my parents and complete strangers — across Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and now Alberta help guide me along the way: directing me to a path of least resistance and most enjoyment.
As I engage with people — some who I now call friends — along the way, much of the good fortune and worthy experiences were unexpected and occured quite organically; I just spoke up and was just in the right place at the right time among the right people.
I don’t really set a hard quota on the kilometers I cover for the day, just a range or what needs to be walked for the week until I run out of food or have to catch a plane; however, I have yet to starve when I am hold up in a town waiting for an infection to clear on my foot, a tardy food drop to be delivered. As of yet, I have not missed a flight home. It just seems to all work out, somehow.
For example, I began writing this while I sat at a picnic table outside a small villages municipal camp ground, Quill Lake, SK, which I never really planned on stopping at until that day. I arrived in Quill Lake, SK to escape the mid-afternoon heat of highway walking within another heat wave moving across Saskatchewan. When I walked into town that day, I sat on a bench in the middle of the village and was looking for a place to espace the sun and heat for a couple of hours. I looked across the street and saw a diner, so I got up, pulled my cart up the stairs and opened the doot to a diner filled with customers. After setting my cart aside, I took a seat and the waitress started talking to me and was amazed by my walking from Barrie, ON, so she told her boss in the back and before I knew it I was being photographed (for Facebook), treated to coffee, poutine, toast, and a rib dinner. I never planned this stop, never asked for any food — I actually pulled out my wallet but was told it was on the house — it just happened.
Another example was the day I arrived in San Clara, MB for a much needed food drop. I was very low on food (scraps of this and that left over), arrived late into the small hamlet after a late start and marathon worth of distance to cover, but it worked out in my favor. After walking into town after 5 pm, I didn’t know where I was going to setup my tent, however, as soon as I arrived a little spot revealed itself and I asked a couple out in a trailer beside their house if they thought it would be ok if I pitched my tent at this location across the street from their house. They didn’t know, since it wasn’t there property, but they could phone the owner to see if it was ok (there was only a closed lodge on the property). Even though the owner wasn’t able to reached by phone, the couple said they wouldn’t expect it to be a problem. After that was all sorted, the lady asked if I had food, which I really didn’t, and that if I wanted to join them for dinner I could after I get my tent setup. What luck and kindness.
Since my package was waiting at the post office, I found out that locals are able to pickup mail from the village post office, the post masters house, and pickup mail after official opening hours. So I was able to pickup my food that night after dinner, desert, and a few cups of tea. Later, this family invited me for breakfast the next morning before they all made their mad dash to work: mother drives to Roblin, MB, father drives son to pickup location, then drives to a farm where he works.
These are only a couple stories as I walked across much of Ontario and Western Canada, however, there are countless run-ins with people along the side of the road, in towns, or other places resulting in memorable and hilarious moments. There was a time I helped someone canoe a beautiful marsh to unclog a foot valve, heard a story of attempted murder mentally ill family member, helped fix a toilet in a general store then told a story about them being accused of stealing money out of the mail and being caught (the story still leaves me scratching my head and still being prosecuted), or someones dire struggle with terminal illness, or the many individuals I meet struggling with finding purpose, faith, and belonging. These stories have changed how I view my own life; sometimes these stories are a murky reflection of my own life’s stories.
It wouldn’t be fair for me to characterize all my interactions with grounded and well rounded people as I crossed much of Ontario and Western Canada, but the majority have been. I will quickly delve into the peculiar conversations I have had, but these can be tiresome and sometimes sad, so I will quickly list the few that are at the top of my head. I have had conversations with those that tell me about how inanimate objects are alive; the belonging to a historically powerful roman empire family; how the illuminati and powers that be govern us; ceremonial sacrifices by government officials (that is how you become powerful); or a young man that couldn’t be more than 13 years old tell me that government wildlife officials phone him to capture wildlife: goose eggs and more.
I realize everyone has a story to tell, however, many times someone just needs an audience, even if it is just an audience of 1 for 15 minutes. Most stories are not about extreme adventure, glory, or material riches, but they are real stories stories that you can laugh at, question, identify with, and learn from.