Big Walks

I’ve written about Little Walks, and of course about walks in general. Now I think I’m ready to talk about Big Walks.

Big Walks, to me, are the ones that take days and cover dozens or even hundreds of kilometres. I’ve been thinking about this often for a couple of years. I’ve always had a travel bug and that’s usually been satisfied in holiday and business travel by car or plane or train. I’ve been lucky enough to visit and immerse myself in some wonderful places, many of which have also featured as locations for memorable walks – London, Paris, New York, Sydney, and more.

That’s all well and good, but I’ve decided that I also want to combine the intimacy and pace of walking with the delights of visiting places and exploring new things. Big Walks are a way to do that.

My bucket list has several of these, some decidedly Bigger Walks than others. My ultimate Big Walk is to journey from John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland to Lands End at the south-west tip of Cornwall. It’s about 1450 km by the shortest route and I reckon it will take me several months. I have a thought that it would be cool to do it the year I turn 60 and that’s coming up in a few years, and that thought has spurred me to start planning some shorter but still Big Walks to build up to this Biggest Walk.

I’m going to start with a walk that combines some town and some country, and takes in a part of the Bruce Trail, the whole of which is on my Bucket List. This first Big Walk will be from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, by way of the Waterfront Trail and the Niagara portion of the Bruce. It’s going to be around 160km depending on stops, and I’m giving myself 6 days to do it. Since it’s in the Golden Horseshoe near Toronto, it’s close which makes the logistics simpler – in fact I think the first night I can actually sleep at home because I can walk to Port Credit, GO Train home, and then GO Train back to Port Credit to pick up the next day. Still, it is going to be my first Big Walk, and that’s going to be a test of whether or not I can really do this.

That’s why I’m now in training mode. Working up to a Big Walk will take a lot of preparation to minimize the risk of overdoing it and injuring myself. I’m going to take progressively longer walks carrying some weight – 10k, 15k, 20k, and on up to 35k. Then 20-30k on back to back days over a weekend, and then back to back to back including a Friday too. Start with a load of around 4-5kg, and then up it gradually to get to around 10kg. My goal is to be able to carry 10kg over about 30k-35k in about 6-8 hours of walking day after day, and do it comfortably without wrecking my body.

Preparation also means planning the Big Walk. I’ve been looking through guide books and pouring over Google Maps to figure out distances so that I can look for accommodation. That part is important because I don’t want to carry camping or sleeping gear, so I’ll need a bed at the end of each day. Some Big Walks will make that easier than others – there’s an inn or a pub every mile or less in Ireland – but others will take some ingenuity, like the northern end of the Bruce Trail. If you’re going to walk from bed to bed while covering a decent distance per day, then you need to figure out where those beds will be and whether you’ll need to book ahead. There’s also the weather, so you need to look at seasonal average temperatures and rainfall to pick a suitable time of year, and then look at the medium and short term forecasts to pick a good set of dates. And of course there’s the walking conditions and terrain to plan for, and food, and getting to and from the start/end points. It’s all going to add up to some serious planning time.

These walks won’t be easy, especially since I’m already over 55 years old as I start trying them – a senior citizen by some definitions. I reckon I’m in decent shape for my age, but still, my knees and hips and back are often pretty creaky. My feet hurt most days, and I’ve got a wonky shoulder I separated years ago, and scar tissue from a torn calf muscle that still bothers me. And let’s not forget the heart scare I had a few years ago ….. At any rate, you get the picture. I’m not getting any younger or healthier.

But those things are the challenge of a Big Walk. It’s not just doing it, it’s preparing and planning and pushing yourself to do it. If it was easy, a proverbial walk in the park, then I wouldn’t be interested. Now that I’m semi-retired I have some time, and our son is soon heading off to university. My wife is semi-retired too, and we’re in a comfortable place financially. And deep down, I’m also thinking about my friend Paul who passed away far too young, and about the cancer scare my wife went through a few years ago, and just it boils down to carpe diem – seize the day. They call it a bucket list for a reason. Time to start crossing some things off that list.

Walks Past – New York, February 2006

In February 2006, I had some business to attend in New York. Since my wife’s birthday is that month, the timing worked perfectly for her to fly in on a Friday just as my meetings ended, so that we could spend the weekend in the city and celebrate in style.

I had been working in mid town so we were staying in a hotel just east of Grand Central Station, I think around 43rd & 2nd Avenue. That central location meant we could explore the whole of Manhattan on foot – downtown, midtown, and uptown were all reachable and all tempting destinations. This was my first visit to NYC and I was looking forward to exploring.

That first day, the Friday, was a lovely winter’s day, positively warm at maybe 5-10 C, and since my wife arrived around noon just as my meetings finished, we listened to our hunger pangs and headed straight off downtown.

First stop was a little Japanese restaurant for sushi to keep us going. While every city these days seems to have sushi restaurants, in NY it was different. The bustle and hustle of the city meant that everything was fresh, delicious, and quick. It was a great way to enjoy a meal while leaving plenty of time for sightseeing.

We set off south on Park Avenue and just wandered, holding hands in the sun and window shopping as we went. Every block seemed to offer a view of an iconic building or landmark – the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Flatiron Building.

Soon we came to Gramercy Park and I thought of the jazz artists I’ve loved who recorded for the Gramercy record label. Continuing on to Union Square, it struck us that we were getting close to Greenwich Village. We had fun pointing out places that had appeared in movies or TV shows we’d seen over the years – oh look the Friends building! – and of course by 2006, the Village was well gentrified compared to the 60’s when Dylan hung out, but just like visiting St. Germain in Paris and thinking of Sartre, wandering the streets was an immersion into cultural history.

After a stop for coffee and more exploring, we stumbled upon a quaint French restaurant that looked perfect for dinner, authentic without being pretentious. I don’t think the restaurant is there any more but I do recall the meal being wonderful, and the wine even better, fuelling us for another day of exploring on Saturday.

That day was my wife’s birthday, and it was an even more glorious New York warm winter’s day – sunny blue skies and about a springlike feel at 10-12C. The sunshine and warmth pointed our feet north towards Central Park. Walking up 5th Avenue, we passed more landmarks and icons – the FAO Schwarz toy store, Rockefeller Center, the Park Plaza hotel, and the Sherman Monument at the entrance to Central Park.

Entering the park was to enter another world. I’d always heard about the magic of the park in the way it formed a green oasis within the city, and wandering the paths I could finally understand it. Outside, cars honked and buses roared. Inside birds whistled and children shouted. Strolling the paths we turned and twisted and followed our noses to find ourselves at the Boathouse just in time for a late lunch. It was such gorgeous weather we had to sit outside, and drinking a glass of wine we thought we were in mid-spring.

After that relaxing stop, it was a lazy stroll back to midtown amongst the brownstones of the Upper East Side and down along Madison Avenue. The shopping was oh so tempting, and it was Ann’s birthday after all, so by the time we reached the hotel we were shopped out and knackered enough for a nap. We woke up famished and were very ready for dinner that night at a hopping Italian place in the Upper West Side near Columbia University. We celebrated and thought we’d ended our weekend in NY on a perfect note.

And then, surprise! Winter returned overnight with a howl and blast and 50+ cm of snow. By the time we awoke that Sunday morning and looked out, it was obvious that we weren’t flying anywhere that day. We checked with the airline to see about flights on the Monday, and then asked ourselves what we could with a grown-up city snow-day.

While we did have winter coats, hats, and gloves, we didn’t have boots and the snow was knee-deep at least. Still, if we wanted to embrace NY then we had to act like New Yorkers and just get on with it. We braved the blizzard and headed for Grand Central Station, thinking we could at least take a train somewhere. To our surprise, we walked in to find a lovely little market tucked into the back of the building that was open despite the storm, and sniffing about we soon found the makings of a picnic lunch along with a bottle of wine to keep out the chill. We slogged through the snow back to the hotel and settled down to watch a bit of the Winter Olympics while enjoying our feast – an unexpected treat.

By Mockba1_1999, CC BY 2.5, Link

By early evening, the snow finally slowed and the sidewalks were more or less cleared so taking one last NYC walk, we slushed up 2nd Avenue and soon found a cosy little Italian restaurant straight out of the 70’s, complete with red velvet wallpaper and candles in wine bottles. There were only a handful of customers on what would normally have been a busy Sunday night, so the staff showered us with attention and free tiramisu. It was one of the best and most memorable meals we’ve ever had – a bonus night out to complete an extended weekend that had offered sunshine and snow, parks and Park Avenue, icons and ice cream, and walks to remember.

Walk Journal – May 19, 2019

Where: Chaplin Estates, Belt Line, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Moore Ravine, the Brickworks, Pottery Road and Pape Village to the Danforth, then back along the Danforth over the Bloor Street Viaduct and then through Castlefrank and Rosedale to Summerhill & Yonge and up Yonge to Deer Park and back through Chaplin Estates to home.

Duration: about 3.5 hours walking, and around 17 km

Weather: Spring! 18 C and sunny enough for a sunburn

My walking regime this year so far has been patchy at best. I’ve put back on some weight that I’d lost, and I’ve been feeling flabby and out of shape. My weekly target of 60 minutes of walking 5 days out of 7 has mostly gone by the wayside, and the weather has been chilly and teasing – the calendar might say spring but the temperatures don’t.

On a holiday weekend, you never know what you’re going to get. Last year on Victoria Day we had a great walk through High Park and then up the Humber River. This year we decided to walk east, and visit the Danforth and Toronto’s Greektown neighbourhood, and the weather forecast was promising.

The most direct yet still interesting route took us through familiar streets to the Beltline Trail and then east along that into Mount Pleasant Cemetery. From there we followed the Trail into Moore Ravine and down into the Don Valley into the trails of the Brickworks. On a nice holiday weekend day, there were hordes of walkers, families, dogs, bikes, runners, and self-snapping young couples. We took our time going through the Brickworks trails, and then crossed Bayview to the Lower Don Trail to head back north up to Pottery Road. Walking along that brought back memories as we passed Fantasy Farm – back in the 1980’s when I was at Glendon College we’d had several formal banquets there at which I had let down my student hair in epic fashion – and then it was the grinding climb up the hill to Broadview.

From there we meandered through back streets to arrive at the Danforth at Carlaw. The sun was out and the outdoor tables were packed. We found a spot at the Alexander the Great Parkette and grabbed takeout gyros from Alexandros to eat in the sun.

After that tasty pitstop, it was a stroll along the Danforth to Broadview, where my wife decided to hop on the subway home, while I kept walking. My route took me south on Broadview to Riverdale Park and down to one of the trails. I was trying to connect to the Lower Don Trail, but I guessed wrong and didn’t find the connector trail over the Don Valley Parkway – instead I ended up heading north and back up to Danforth at the Bloor Street Viaduct, so I decided to cross the bridge (since I’d come to it!) and cut through Rosedale to head home.

Walking through the neighbourhood, I thought about the essay my son is currently working on, on the subject of sustainability and how that is manifested in Toronto. One of his study areas is Rosedale. On paper this neighbourhood doesn’t have a large amount of green space, at least when defined in terms of public parks. And yet, the trees coming leaf and the ample yards and gardens of the large houses certainly gave a strong impression of verdancy, and the wealth displayed by the luxury cars parked in front of every house contrasted with the TTC bus stops scattered along the side streets. Does it count as sustainable if that neighbourhood has a higher percentage of Tesla’s than other areas of the city?

At the same time, there’s no question that it’s a lovely place to live. It’s always quiet and charming walking through Rosedale and it was no different on this walk. I know my way through there by now, having walked it many times, and I meandered along back streets between Castle Frank and Summerhill where I connected with Yonge Street.

Interesting fact – on Castle Frank Road, the Netherlands consulate owns a house, marked by the large Dutch flag out front. There is also a commemorative plaque beside a tree, planted in honour of the many thousands of Canadian troops who helped to liberate the Netherlands during the Second World War.

At Summerhill, Yonge Street led me up the hill to St. Clair and into the Deer Park neighbourhood, and onwards to Oriole Park. I passed a baseball game in progress that brought back memories of my son at 7 playing there. I kept going through the Chaplin Estates back to Eglinton and up Oriole Parkway to reach home footsore and sunburned.

In the end I’d done more walking in one day than I’d done in several weeks over the past few months. It felt good to be tired, like I’d worked out and deserved to sit for awhile and watch a baseball game.

It was a great spring walk, on our first really proper sunny spring day of the year, and now I need to build on that and get back into my routines. Stretching out your strides with the rhythm of walking feels good at anytime, but it’s especially sweet when it’s the first time all year you can finally go out in shorts and a T shirt.

Little Walks – The Abbey, Donegal

My wife’s family are from the town of Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. Back in 1991 we took our first trip together to visit family there, and I was introduced to the town and what has become one of my favourite little walks – the Abbey.

Her aunt and uncle lived then, and still do, on Castle Street. It’s a lovely little street, with the River Eske running in front of the house with a low wall to sit on and watch the trout play in the current. On that first visit, the waft of peat smoke and coal fires on a misty evening formed a permanent memory that’s recalled each time I’m there.

The centre of the town is just behind Castle Street, and the heart of the town is The Diamond, a market space surrounded by shops.

It’s a bustling little town on a summer Saturday, with tour buses, farmers on tractors, and families out shopping. Leading out of The Diamond, there is a street running down towards the harbour, and past that on a little tip of land is the Abbey.

Today it’s a ruin, with tumbled stones and partial walls from the medieval Franciscan priory and church to explore, and mixed through the old church grounds are more recent graves because today it’s a cemetery that’s still in use. Many of the town’s old family names can be found here, with the history of lives long-lived along with the little tragedies of young lives lost. Even though it’s close to town, it’s usually quiet and if there’s a bit of sun or a bit of misty rain, it’s quite charming and deeply moving.

On our first visit, I was indulging an enthusiastic photography bug – I would leap from the car at every thatched cottage or picturesque sheep peering through a hedge. When we got to Donegal town and we’d wandered around a bit, I heard the stories about the Abbey and I knew that I had to visit to explore and photograph the ruins and headstones. I must have spent a couple of hours there on that first trip, self-absorbed and utterly content, shooting rolls and rolls of film.

Since that first visit, we’ve returned to Ireland many times and each time we go I try to carve out an hour or so for my favourite little walk – up Castle Street, past the restored Castle and through The Diamond to the harbour and on to the Abbey for a wander through the headstones to see who’s passed on since my last visit. It’s become a ritual for me, recalling the memories of that first trip when I fell in love with the country and the town.

Each time I take that that walk I end by returning to Castle Street and a cup of tea in the kitchen. The warmth of Aunt Nora and Uncle Liam, their charm and sly humour, the chat round the kitchen table with the cousins and neighbours, and the gossip and questions about what I’d seen this time – it’s a gentle domesticity and a throwback to quieter times that we don’t get here in the Big Smoke of Hogtown.

That little walk takes me back in time, and then returns me gently to the present. I can’t imagine visiting Donegal without repeating my stroll, and wouldn’t want to try. Familiar places renew memories and reward the soul, like well-loved friends. Each visit plants new memories, and recalls past charms too. Little walks do that – they reward the comfortable and the familiar, like holding hands with your partner when the fit of each finger is as practiced as breathing, and just like holding hands they bring a warm rush of blood when those fingers squeeze even after decades together.

Little Walks – Glendon Forest

In the early 1980’s, I attended York University’s Glendon College. It was then, and still is, a small arts college attached to the larger university, maintaining a physically separate and culturally distinct campus. It is set in the former grounds of the Wood estate on the edge of the West Don River valley at Bayview and Lawrence.

I took an Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature with a minor in Canadian History, so my courses brought a heavy load of essays to write. I’ve always been a night owl, and as I moved through my degree I gradually organized my course schedule to take mostly afternoon classes. That let me work on papers late into the night, in fact often through the night – I would often go to bed at 6 or 7 a.m.

Come April, I’d be working on papers till the wee hours and the sun would be up by the time I pushed away the typewriter (pre-PC days!). I would be keyed up and jumpy from drinking coffee all night, so I developed the habit of taking a walk to unwind and relax before grabbing some sleep. I’d step out into a quiet, peaceful campus as the sun was coming up. Because I didn’t want to run into anyone, I would walk down into the valley and along the Don.

There was a path behind my residence that led the way down and I’d follow it, taking care to make as little noise as possible so that I could hear the birds. At that time of the morning, traffic noises were a faint distraction and it was often still, so you could hear the chirps and calls as birds awoke, and when you got closer to the river you could hear the lap and splash of the water.

In the valley, the Proctor Field House and athletic fields are bounded on the north side by the river. At that time there were walking paths on both banks, and I’d pick one or the other and follow the river downstream. Often there would be ducks or geese, and once I saw a muskrat. Squirrels skittered and racoons made their way to their nests after a night of garbage gathering. There were a couple of bridges that crossed the river, one at the west end of the campus and one at the east, so I could wander along one bank and cross to come back along the other.

It wasn’t a long walk, perhaps a km or 2, and I could be back to my room in about a half hour, relaxed and able to sleep. I rarely met another soul. Today there is just one path along the south side of the river, and the area is known as Glendon Forest. The path links to Sunnybrook Park, so there are more walkers and joggers about, and everyone seems to be walking their dog these days. But back then it felt like my own private wood, a place to think and to unwind, to escape the city and mentally return to the woods and fields that had surrounded my home outside Leamington, in South-West Ontario.

After I graduated, I rarely went back to the College and even when I did it was just for a social event in the pub. And then in 2016, 30 years after leaving, I developed some health issues that forced me to deal with the fact that I was out of shape and in dire need of exercise. I resolved to start walking, and my first destination was the Glendon Forest to walk that path along the river.

On an autumn day, the river level was low but the sun was bright in a crisp early November way. There were golden leaves falling and spiralling into the water to surf and ride the waves, and again not a soul about. As I walked, I remembered those dawn rambles and wondered why I had ever stopped walking.

It was the boost I needed – I’ve been walking ever since. I get back to the Glendon Forest at least once a season, each with its own character to savour. The walk always refreshes, and always reminds me that little walks lead to life’s long journeys.

Walking in the Burbs

Steeles West looking back east towards Weston Road

I’ve been working recently in the north of the city, in fact strictly speaking just north out of the city – Steeles Avenue is the city limit so where I work on the the north side of the street, I’m technically outside of Toronto in the City of Vaughan (the City on Top of Toronto, as a cheeky radio advert had it).

It’s not what I would consider to be a great walking neighbourhood such as you’d find in the inner parts of the city – there are no tree-lined streets, parks, light traffic, houses, schools, or gardens. It’s just multilane wide streets full of heavy trucks and buses and cars, laid out in a grid of light industry, office parks, strip malls, gas stations, fast food, and a strangely dense selection of Italian restaurants.

Nevertheless, it’s also quietly interesting in its own way. There’s lots of little things you notice as you walk around. One is the enticing aroma of fresh baked bread, cinnamon, apples, and spices coming from the Ozery Bakery across from the office. They are often baking in the afternoons as I’m leaving and the scent is maddening when you’re hungry.

Another is the odd numbering on the buildings. On the north (Vaughan) side of Steeles, the office address is 3700 Steeles West. On the south (Toronto) side just opposite, the address is something like 4955 Steeles West. Apparently the City of Toronto starts numbering Steeles from Yonge Street, whereas the City of Vaughan starts further west, probably around Keele, so even though you’ve travelled the same distance from Yonge the building numbers are more than a 1000 apart. Who knew.

Who also knew that the City of Vaughan is twinned with the city of Lanciano Italy? I’d often heard that Vaughan and the community of Woodbridge specifically had one of the largest Italian-born populations in Canada, so I guess that explains it.

And that probably also explains the many little Italian restaurants scattered around the neighbourhood, tucked into office towers and strip malls, and down side streets beside auto repair shops. One of them, the Volce Lounge, features homemade pizza and dancing Wed-Sun evenings – again, who knew?

Another feature of the neighbourhood are the geese. The local population of Canada Geese are numerous, voracious in their appetite for grass, and voluminous in their production of goose poo. It’s everywhere, covering the sidewalks in mini green landmines. Geese are pretty territorial, and there’s one pair that nest near the parking lot of my building – several times one or the other has been sat square in the middle of the carpark entrance, refusing to move and hissing at cars that try to squeeze by. I also saw one perched triumphantly on the roof of a car, which positively glared at the owner when he came out to shoo the goose away.

Because it’s so open and treeless, and because Steeles runs broad and open east-west with the prevailing wind from the west, it’s always breezy and it can be chilly going for a walk. When the wind swings to the north in winter, it slices icily through your warmest coat. In summer the sun blazes on all that concrete and asphalt which soak up the heat and radiate it back at you. Parking lots and road surfaces get treated with salt by the ton in winter, and rain sheets everywhere. There’s a constant roar of traffic, planes overhead, and trains in the distance, and often the bakery smells are drowned by diesel fumes and dust. It’s no one’s definition of a cozy neighbourhood.

And yet, out for a walk this week, with a little sun trying to poke through and the smell of fresh bread in the air, it was pleasantly surprising. You could hear the birds in the bushes, at least on the side streets away from the traffic on Steeles. There were a few people out walking and more sitting at picnic tables outside office buildings gathering in the sun.

Life is interesting, anywhere, and walking around I kept reminding myself that the chief joy of walking is in the pace. That provides the opportunity to notice the little things if you just let your senses (and nose) guide you.

Walk Journal – April 28, 2019

Where: Cedervale Ravine, Forest Hill

Duration: about 1:30 hours, 8 km

Weather: sunny, about 10C with a bit of a chilly breeze

With the sun out on a spring day, a walk was definitely in the cards. I hadn’t walked through Cedervale since mid-winter so I thought I’d see what spring looks like so far.

The grass has started to green up with all the rain we’ve had, and over the past few days I’ve also noticed more and more buds on trees – one good warm stretch and things will pop. There are crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and bluebells out in bloom, and deep in the ravine where the trees capture the mid-day sun, the willows have started to come out in leaf.

starting to get green

It won’t be more than a few weeks and Cedervale will look like this:

It was great to see so many families out – kids playing football and baseball, cyclists, runners, dog walkers, grandparents with grandkids. You could tell everyone was itching for more warmth – there were some hardy types out in shorts along with winter coats and gloves – and the sun pouring down in the ravine was glorious. There are park benches scattered along the trail, and I passed a woman who was sitting with her face turned up the sun, her eyes closed, and a blissful expression as she soaked up rays and listened to the red-winged blackbirds.

Coming out of the ravine at Heath Street, I decided to walk up Spadina through Forest Hill village on my way home. The streets were full of energy – shoppers, strollers, seniors. There were flowers out for sale, and many houses had flower-filled planters on doorsteps. The flower theme continued as I walked along Old Forest Hill Road and then up Russell Hill Road. Gardners were out digging and raking, and many of the planting beds had been turned over and mulched in preparation for more flowers. We aren’t past the threat of frost yet – it was actually down to about 2 C overnight – so it’s early yet for bedding plants.

But it’s close, and that’s what you could feel in the air, anticipation and an antsy for spring type of feeling.

Can’t wait.

Little Walks

Mozart wrote many pieces of music, including symphonies and concertos – what I like to think of as the musical equivalent of marathons and long walks. He also wrote Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, known in English as A Little Night Music, and it’s one of his better known and much loved compositions.

Then there are short stories, and poems like limericks or haiku, writing characterized by its relative brevity. Painters sometimes produce minutures, and chefs produce starters, appetizers, hors d’ourvres, and amuse bouche. Many artists like to produce work that is compact and brief, and yet offer intensity of experience. Small doesn’t have to mean boring.

Little walks are like little pieces of music, little poems, or little plates – walku if you pardon the terrible pun. We recognize the word “little” sometimes to mean “concentrated” – the phrase “a little goes a long way” comes to mind. A little hot sauce to spike your chili, a little anchovy paste to give richness to your caesar salad. That’s what I have in mind – a concentrated walk. Little doesn’t have to mean easy or light, it just means short or brief or small. Big things can come in small packages.

The point is that sometimes you just don’t have the time or the inclination for a big walk. Little walks are sometimes all you can squeeze in during a busy day – that 15 minute stroll around the block at mid-day to get some air and clear your head. Little walks can be like having a catnap, to rejuvenate and recharge.

Perhaps more importantly, sometimes you want a little walk simply because it’s little. Little walks through new surroundings are my favourite way to explore and introduce myself to a place. Just because it’s a little walk doesn’t mean you won’t learn or experience something interesting, even profound. Precisely because they are little, over a short period of time you can focus more, concentrate, really notice what’s around you.

Recently in Bermuda, we took a little walk through Hamilton, perhaps only 20-30 minutes, and yet we stumbled onto some interesting shops, public art, people watching, and a great little restaurant. That kind of little walk is like the appetizer before the main course, a way of tasting what the place has to offer and then diving in, and that’s what we did – the next day we indulged in a much longer walk covering many parts of the island.

Little walks in the evening, the stroll home from a favourite neighbourhood restaurant or the beachside amble on a hot day, can be magical. That feeling of carefree wandering, of relaxation, of openness to sensations like the breeze on your skin, the scent of newly watered grass, or the sights in a shop window – it’s lightness and calm.

Little walks add up too. 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there and soon you’ve gotten an hour in without consciously setting out to “go for a walk”. In fact I think of very short walks as micro walks. I set my exercise tracker to buzz every hour to force myself to get up and get in at least 250 steps, just to make sure I don’t settle into a chair and remain budgeless for hours. A micro walk around the office is a chance to say hello, stop at a desk for a quick check-in chat, and refill the water glass, all in just a few minutes, and yet it’s enough to ensure I’m connected and active.

Walking is an innately human activity. We’re the only species that routinely walks on two legs. We’re biologically optimized for it. That middle-aged tummy is there because in biomechanical terms it’s the optimal place to for a two-legged creature to carry an emergency calorie supply. Little walks are part of my strategy for keeping that tummy from become too tremendous, stringing brief bouts of exercise together for times when I can’t get in a big walk.

Culturally we often prefer bigness – go big or go home, bigger is better, what’s the big idea?. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger meals, bigger anything. Why bigger, though? Or at least, why always bigger? Why not little, sometimes. A little lunch, a little music, a little walk.

Here are some of my favourite little walks, in Toronto and elsewhere:

  • From our home to Eglinton subway in the cool, fresh, sunshine of an early summer morning, across the fresh-cut grass of Eglinton Park
  • From my wife’s aunt ‘s home on Castle Street in Donegal town, Ireland, up around the corner towards the Castle and then into town across the Diamond and down along the quay to the Abbey
  • from the Interpretive Centre in Point Pelee National Park to the tip along the nature trails
  • Along the Mall from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace and continuing on through Green Park to Hyde Park Corner
  • Along the water’s edge the length of Hirtles Beach, outside Lunenburg Nova Scotia

I’m sure I can think of more and one of these days I’ll write up a few of these. Till then, go on, you know you want one – just a have little walk.

Walks Past – October 2014, Kuwait City

Sunday this past weekend was a brutal early spring day – only 2C, gusty winds, steady rain with bits of snow, and steel-grey skies. It was a day for spring cleaning, and digging through a drawer of “stuff” led me to a stash of Kuwaiti Dinars, the leftovers from several trips to Kuwait in 2014-2015.

Looking at that currency made me think of a warmer weather walk in the autumn of 2014, when I was working for a banking technology firm based in Germany. We had signed a contract to install our software for a client in Kuwait and in October I headed there for a requirements workshop, and arranged to arrive a couple of days ahead of the meetings to get over the jet lag. That gave me a free day on the weekend to explore.

I had been in Kuwait for a few days earlier in 2014 but hadn’t had a chance to explore. I had an introduction to the Middle East back in 1993, when I had spent a couple of months working in Dammam Saudi Arabia, and I was itching to explore Kuwait City to compare it to my earlier experiences.

Since our client was downtown, I was booked into centrally located hotel, perfect to explore the city. It was October, which meant I was escaping cooler temps back in Canada for upper 20’s in Kuwait City. I wanted to get out early in the day before it got too hot, so I had an early breakie and started off.

My hotel was near the Jahra Roundabout, in the southern part of the downtown area so I decided to walk north towards the Souk al-Kuwait, along Fahad Al-Salam Street. I had read about traditional Arab souks, or markets, and in Dammam I hadn’t been able to experience them, so this was a chance to explore.

There were several things that struck me as I walked. One was the huge disparities of income evidenced by the shops and the way people got around. At one end of the income scale there were the fried chicken restaurants around the bus depot where the expat Philippino workers gathered to crowd onto buses. At the other end were high-end retailers selling perfumes and patronized by sunglass-wearing young adults with gold watches and sports cars.

As well, there were building works, road works, telecom works, and works of every imaginable kind under way, everywhere. The city is new and is constantly building and renewing itself. There are shiny glass office towers with provocative architectures attention-stealing lights, alongside crumbling 30-year old wrecks from the Iraqi invasion in 1990. The streets alternated between newly paved and bumpy potholes, and the sidewalks were sometimes granite and marble, sometimes bumpy concrete and sometimes non-existent. It was hot and barren with little plant life, yet with little cool shaded alleys with inviting shops.

As I walked north I kept coming across shops that alluded to the trading past of Kuwait City, along side modern mosques, offices, restaurants, and museums. The city really only dates from the 1970s and much of it was damaged during the Iraqi invasion in 1990, so given the rebuild since then it’s really only about 20 years old.

When I came to the Souk Al-Kuwait itself, I was led into a shaded maze of stalls, food stands, coffee and tea stands, and shops selling a wide variety of clothing, kitchenware, jewelry, silks, perfumes, fruits and vegetables, fish, spices, and more. As you walked the scents surrounded you – powerful colognes or musky spices or fishy aromas, masked by coffee and tea, and overlaid by dust and wafts of diesel exhaust and fried foods. I wandered and window-shopped for more than an hour, and picked up some silk scarves for gifts. I had a fresh fruit juice, and explored until the onset of mid-day prayers shut up the shops.

Leaving the Souk and walking north I eventually came to Jaber Al-Mubarek Street and there turned towards the water of Kuwait Bay. Following that street led me to the Sharq Mall, and some blessed air conditioning. I went in looking for a break and found it at a Starbucks. That was the thing that kept striking me about Kuwait – you are surrounded by Arabic buildings, calls for prayers, men wearing head scarves and women in habbayahs, and yet there are Starbucks, and Cadillacs, and Kentucky Fried Chickens everywhere. You’re away and at home at the same time – it’s disorienting.

From the Sharq Mall I kept going along the water to the Fish Market – I love food markets and wanted to explore this one. It was disappointing on one level, because all that fresh fish made me wish I had a way to buy some and cook it myself. On another level, it was a reminder of the traditions of a small trading port that through geological coincidence had become ridiculously rich, and yet strived to remain rooted in those simple occupations, like fishing. This was a vast remove from the fishing villages I’d seen Ireland or eastern Canada, and yet here they wanted to remember and honour that life.

After that I kept walking along the seafront back in the direction of my hotel. There is a promenade that stretches for many km along the shore, with regular parks laid out and planted with palms and cacti. Families strolled along and old men fished. It was a weekend so it was pretty quiet relaxing.

After wandering another few km, I eventually ended up back at my hotel, where I could reflect on my tour. Kuwait City has an energy and vitality that comes with youth – the average person on the street, the buildings, the entire city are younger than I am. Any yet there is also a conservatism that comes with deep history, both religious and cultural. It is a kingdom after all, with all the tradition that suggests. That mixture was the interesting part for me. I can’t say that Kuwait City was one of my favourite places to visit, and yet it was interesting in an educational way.

Walks in Spring

This past weekend offered two great days for walks in the early spring, and they put in mind a few random thoughts.

  • I was suffering from a spring cold and walking when you can’t breath is like eating when you can’t taste – you lose a vital sensory part of the experience
  • These were great walks to hear the sounds of early spring – the snarling farts of downshifting sports cars out for an early Look At Me (LAM) cruise, the tap-tap-tap of roofers’ shingling hammers, the gentle jazz strum of a busker sitting in the sun, and clink of a baseball on a metal bat
  • I was also serenaded by the Toronto Gardener’s Choir – leaf blowers took the lead accompanied by weed whackers, lawnmowers, and hedge trimmers.
  • Speaking of roofers, I counted 4 houses under renovation along one block in our neighbourhood, a sure sign of spring house fever
  • Despite my cold, I could still detect some of the signature smells of spring – wet wood from the construction sites, dust from unwashed streets, damp earth.
  • It was refreshing to feel the sun on my arms and face, finally warming and not just bright, and bringing out a proper sweat as you walk
  • The colours are faded and tired – poking through the tans, washed-out oranges, drab greens, and dull greys were little wispy promises of warmer weather to come – the whites and yellows and pinks of early flowers climbing up through old leaves
  • People watching reveals those still feeling the cold wearing gloves, hats, and winter coats alongside the its-time-to-get-springy types wearing T-shirts, shorts, and running shoes, not to mention a little boy who popped out of his house in pyjamas and bare feet to run down the drive and then dive in the front door
  • The neighbourhood wildlife scene is dominated by birds – robins and cardinals and little sparrows are impatient and competitive as they hunt for nest material and the early worms of spring

It’s still early April and we’re probably another few weeks yet from steady warm temps, green grass with leaves on trees, and the waft of barbecues in the evening. It was a foretaste and more importantly a spur to get going after a winter when I spent far too many days indoors. Can’t wait to get walking wearing shorts.