What if Here is All We Have?

If you can’t travel widely, travel deeply

By Anna Marie Sewell, ’91 BA(Spec)

Photo by John Ulan

If you can’t travel widely, travel deeply

By Anna Marie Sewell, ’91 BA(Spec)

September 02, 2020 •

Day 1 starts near ancient dunes west of Edmonton. The land still speaks in outbursts of sand of ancient glacial waters and profound change. This is a day to walk softly through tall grass and, on reaching the forest, to pluck a spruce tip and taste its lemony piquancy. Farther along, we climb the long stairs named Legs of Fire, cheering (at a distance) for one another, even as young men on mountain bikes surge past us, glorying in fitness and the arrival of summer.

What if this place is all there is? Amiskwaciy-wâskahikan, this place where Edmonton grew, was for some 8,000 years a human gathering place, but its written history dates back less than 200 years. Northern, subject to harsh winters and unpredictable summers — how do we fully inhabit this place?

People aren’t travelling much these days. What if the pandemic leaves in its wake a world of overbearing government surveillance, and the political and economic woes mean travel is out of reach for all but the wealthiest or most powerful few?

How do we fully inhabit a particular place, in my case, this northern city, hunched frozen for half the year, consuming outsize amounts of energy to keep the lines open, the water and power flowing?

If our scope of movement narrows, we could go deeper. For one thing, we can walk the river valley. Thanks to the years-long efforts of the River Valley Alliance, there is a network of trails threading the valley from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan. And for the past three years, a group of friends has walked this path together.

Sheila Thompson, ’74 BEd, and Graham Hicks, both long‑distance walkers, decided in 2018 to walk our river valley. They inaugurated the Camino Edmonton, named for Spain’s famous pilgrim’s trail, Camino de Santiago. Again this year, our goal is to celebrate what civic, corporate and volunteer collaborations have built — trails, paths, stairways and walking bridges — by making a secular 100‑kilometre pilgrimage from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan over five days. Walkers reconvene daily at 8:30 a.m. to walk the day’s segment. No need to camp in rude huts nor rise before dawn to chant the day’s prayers, just a day of walking together.

This year, COVID-19 means physical distancing, and face masks or shields and hand sanitizer are pilgrim gear. And we walk under an invisible pressure, grasping at ways to stay safe. Singing indoors makes the virus too transmissible — can we sing trail songs?

Day 2 begins walking past Fort Edmonton. In the forest, we discuss old names, dark histories, how to teach and learn together. Slippery potholes pockmark the path like wounds that bar our understanding. How are we to live as treaty people, all of us, weighted and unbalanced by the complex and difficult histories we carry? We don’t sing together.

We gather for lunch above kisiskâciwanisîpiy, the North Saskatchewan River. Carefully spaced, we talk about negotiations with settler land owners who were reluctant to allow the River Valley Alliance to build walking trails along the fringes of their farms. We talk about the possibility of one day seeing Cree, English and French signs. Below, swift brown waters roil and tumble, as murky as history, as apt to hide snags and sandbanks, the sturgeon muscling along on its sovereign, inscrutable trajectory.

Day 3 is blessed with misty rain, cooling us as we stroll through the city centre. Some of us are blistered, our age and conditioning telling on us. I push through, even though the extra two kilometres that make it the longest leg of the journey are two too far for my back. Dehydrated and overtaxed, I imagine myself a real pilgrim or refugee, and I labour up the last incline.

I pay in back spasms that lay me out for Day 4. It gives me time to ponder. What does it cost refugees and devotees when one of their number falls? I have a comfortable bed, anti‑inflammatories and a hot water bottle my husband filled before work. If this gets worse, I can call a friend, a cab, even an ambulance, to get medical help. That is where we live, too. I am profoundly thankful.

Day 5 finds me improved and I rejoin the walkers. Our last leg is open country to Fort Saskatchewan. Our morning meeting is brimful of energy. We are like the boys who galloped past us on the first day. We haven’t gone hungry nor forced ourselves through storm or peril, nor huddled in fear of enemies.

We haven’t begun touching the depth of history that lies like sand, and thrusts glacial erratics along our path. Whether we know which trailside plants might sustain or heal us hasn’t mattered. We’re full of confidence, like the sculpture we pass in a Fort Saskatchewan park, a bronze chain rearing straight up into the sky, defying limits.

What if this pandemic is a harbinger of a global contraction that ends the freedom of movement we’ve come to see as normal for the middle class in industrialized nations? What if, like the poor throughout the centuries and the worldwide majority in the jet age, we find ourselves having to reduce our scope, let our sense of place become narrower but grow deeper?

Today, the sun is shining. We form a final circle on a broad swath of civic parkland, and I am invited to sing an Anishinaabe song to honour our river. “If I sing,” I tell them, “you must join. It won’t matter if you get the words wrong.”

And they join me, and, physically distanced but with our hearts in the same flow, we softly sing our thanks for this Earth, this river valley, the possibility to walk it, again and again, deepening the path.

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