And maybe I should also call it a hangover from walking TO Streets over the past few weeks. My sinuses have been clogged and I’ve had a mild headache for days, since I finished walking Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue. I don’t know if it’s the weather or just the pollution and gunge in the air. It does seem worse in winter, when damp heavy air seems to hold the dust and traffic exhaust and create a grimy blanket that you have to breath as you walk along these streets.
Anyway, whatever the reason, I’ve just needed a break from walking. I know I should be out and getting exercise, but it’s been hard to get motivated. It’s been a long time since I went a full week without at least one proper 90+ minute walk. Resting my knees, feet, and ankles, which all hurt more this time of year, is probably a good thing once in a while. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself.
I comfort myself with the thought that baseball spring training starts soon, followed by my fantasy baseball league’s annual draft, followed by Easter, followed by, I hope, some warmer, drier weather. To be able to walk without having to pull on 4 layers of clothing, trudge through slush, and dodge sprays of melt; to feel a warm breeze and hear a robin – in February these seem a million days a way. In reality it’s just 6 or 7 weeks, so I just need to be patient and get out anyway.
Roughly 40 years ago, I thought I knew where I was going in life. I had my path figured out. I was in high school, and I was going to be an aeronautical engineer, so I was taking math, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects I’d need to get into an engineering program.
And then during my final year, my path came to an unexpected fork – I failed a key math course (advanced geometry if you must know). Despite having done well in math all the way to this point, I had hit a level of math that I just could not figure out. Without high marks in all of the math disciplines, I had no hope of getting into an engineering program, so I had to take a decision about where to go. I chose a sharp turn and switched my goal to a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature.
As I progressed through university, I didn’t know where that BA would take me. What do you do with an English Lit degree? Teach? While I didn’t really want to do that, I also didn’t know what else I could do when I graduated. Then out of the blue, a friend at school told me about a great part time job, answering customer calls in a help centre for a bank. I didn’t realize it but applying for that job turned into a major fork-in-the-road life choice, partly because that part-time help desk job eventually led me into a career in software development, and more importantly because the person who hired me eventually became my friend and then my wife.
Looking back now, as I watch my son finish high school and prepare for university, I can see that I eventually did end up more or less in an engineering role, it was just in software rather than aerospace. A call centre help desk led to managing an ATM network, which led to managing problems and changes in a large data centre, which led to developing software and process solutions to handle problems and changes, which led to requirements gathering and project management, which led into general software development, and eventually to consulting in the field of program and problem management.
That’s the thing about choices and life paths. You make plans and choose paths, and sometimes those paths go where you want them to go, but other times they take you in unexpected directions.
When I walk, I will often set off along a particular route or to a specific destination – Sunnybrook Park, or the Lower Don Trail, or whatever. And while most of the time I’ll follow the path I had intended, there will be those odd occasions when life will put a fork in the road. The City is reconstructing a trail, so there’s a detour. I’m getting a blister. A thunderstorm is brewing. What do I do? Going off the trail has taken me into some interesting neighbourhoods I otherwise might have missed.
If every walk was predictable, every path foreseen, would it be fun? Probably not. Deep down, we want our paths to fork unexpectedly every once in a while, as long as it’s not too drastic a fork. Who hasn’t accidentally missed a turn and stumbled across a great little coffee shop, a beautiful garden, or a cool shady park? Those serendipitous finds are part of the charm of a good walk.
And once in a while, as well, the fork will be a big one. A career-changing opportunity to move to a new city? That chance meeting that leads to a new friendship (or marriage)? And then there are the sudden reversals – sometimes the opportunities we lose are the ones that change us the most, rather than the ones we get. And sometimes the paths we don’t chose affect us more than the ones we do. I can never know where we’d be if my wife and I had not chosen to move back to Toronto from London?
What I do know is that when a fork arrives, you have to choose and keep going, wherever that takes you. Pausing and thinking and analyzing and deciding is all well and good, but life doesn’t wait – so pick your path, and go for it. If I’m turned about (never lost, of course!) on a walk and unsure where to go, I’ll pick a direction and just start walking – eventually I’ll come to something and figure it out from there, and like as not, I’ll eventually end up where I wanted to be, at the cost perhaps of a bit of time but with the benefit of learning something new and seeing something interesting along the way. Just as my English Lit degree led to software development, often forks are simply unexpected turns in the path that get you were you want to go by more interesting routes.
So for me, 40 years gone from failing a math course, I could never have foreseen that the fork I chose then would take me to Toronto, point me at software development, lead me to work in London, San Francisco, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Montreal, introduce me to my wife, and wind and meander to the place where I am today. It seemed like a road block then. Looking back, it was more of a lesson – if you come to a fork in the road, take it.
I was walking along a small street near our home the other day, and I noticed that the sidewalks on one side of the street had more ice and snow than on the other. My brain slowly noodled on that and it dawned on me that it was because the south side of an east-west street often gets more shade than the north side. Turning a corner, I realized the same is generally true of the west side of north-south streets.
So putting that together with the knowledge that Toronto generally follows a grid-based street pattern, it occurred to me that little clues like this help me navigate even in unfamiliar places. If I plunk myself down in a random Toronto neighbourhood in January, I can figure out which way is roughly north/south or east/west just by looking at the patterns of snow and ice.
That got me thinking about other clues that help me navigate. For example, in Toronto the general practice is that addresses on the north side of east/west streets and on the west side of north/south streets will be evenly numbered, and the other side oddly numbered. Just walking down a street and looking at the house numbers tells me that if the odd numbers are on my right, I must be going either east or south.
As well, Toronto uses Yonge Street as the major east/west dividing line for many streets, so for example you have Eglinton Avenue West and Eglinton Avenue East. The street numbers reset at Yonge as well, so you can have 100 Eglinton East and 100 Eglinton West. That means that the bigger the number, the farther east or west of Yonge I must be. Similarly, Toronto street numbers often start at the south end of a north/south street, so if they are getting bigger I must be walking north.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there are many other navigational clues I use in wandering around Toronto. For example, Lake Ontario forms the southern boundary of the city and is the lowest point in the city relative to mean sea level. So, if I am climbing as I go along a street, I am probably going roughly north. This also means that the many creeks and streams in the city, and their ravines, generally run mostly north/south, so if I just follow the water downstream, I am likely to be partially or mostly going south, and eventually I will come to the lake.
Of course, knowing which way is north or south or east or west means having an internal compass in my head, and not everyone does. So what other clues are there? There are landmarks, of course – in Toronto, the most obvious one is the CN Tower. If I can see it, I know that the downtown core is in that direction. The same is true of the headquarters of the major banks – these skyscrapers are all clustered in the downtown core and I can often make out the skyline from many streets.
Then there are landmarks like the subway and the street car lines – these often indicate which street I’m on. And there are other transit clues, like the buses which display route names that often contain the street they follow (like the good old #6 Bay or the #7 Bathurst buses). The city has also spent the past couple of decades putting up neighbourhood street signs, so just looking at those often tells me roughly where I am.
Beyond landmarks, there are other physical clues. For instance, since I know that the prevailing wind direction in Toronto is from the west, the direction of smoke and steam from chimneys can help me figure out east and west. On sunny days, of course, I can also check the direction of my shadow based on the time of day – if it’s more or less in front of me and it’s early morning, then I must be going west. And if I don’t know the time of day, the length of my shadow is a clue too – the shorter the shadow, the closer to noon it must be since that’s when the sun is closest to directly over head.
The more I thought about it as I walked, the more I realized that living here and walking around, I’ve built up a complex navigational rule book in my head. I don’t need a compass, or a map, or a GPS phone app. I’m comfortable wandering and using that mental rulebook to figure out where I am.
All of that also explains why, in wandering around a new city, I’m usually at least a bit disoriented at first. Because I don’t yet have that mental rule book, I have to fumble and feel my way around. I think it’s that sense of not knowing where you are that at partially explains why you are nervous when you visit a new place.
I’ve found that trying to apply my internal Toronto rule book to a new place can also lead to mistakes. For example, early on after we moved to London I would often get lost, in part because the street pattern doesn’t follow a nice neat cardinal grid like most North American cities, so I’d get myself oriented, for example heading east, only to realize that the street curved and before I knew it I’d be heading north or south, and along the way the street name would change.
On the other hand, getting myself lost is part of the fun of exploring a new city, along with slowly building that mental navigational map as I figure out the clues. It’s like solving a puzzle, and that brings a sense of accomplishment.
All of this realization came, as I say, from noticing that there was less snow and ice on one side of a street than the other. I like that, about life in general. By paying attention to the little details, you can both learn new things and you can come to appreciate that you actually know a lot about something that perhaps you had realized. It’s why I like to go for walks.
What else have I been missing by ignoring the details? I think I need a walk to think about it.
It’s hard to believe that a year has gone by and I’m at my first anniversary of blogging. Looking back, I’m proud of myself for accomplishing some bucket list goals, like the TONotL walk and the Crossing Toronto walk. I’ve also been able to complete some great walks around Toronto that I’d been wanting to do for quite awhile, like the Humber River walk, and that’s been fun too. And then there have been some especially memorable walks, for different reasons – my change of plans or our wandering around in Bermuda.
It’s also been a period of transition. I’ve been slowing down at work over the past couple of years, gradually reducing my consulting work, and now with the turn of the decade I’m going to take a long pause, possibly a permanent working pause, and try turning my semi-retirement into something closer to full retirement. I’m ready for long walks, multi-day or multi-week, or even multi-month, travels and treks. My bucket list isn’t getting shorter, because I keep reading about this or that trail that I’d like to try, so I want to hit the road and see what I can do.
So the plan for the coming year is more of the same, and then some. Walks around Toronto for sure, and hopefully chunks of the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, the Bruce Trail, and maybe others. Long walks, short walks, journeys, treks, and trails. New boots and new gear, and proper hikes with tents and sleeping bags. New posts with new stories. New memories, for sure.
Happy holidays, and may the road rise to meet you.
The other day, as I was walking, my mind was noodling along by itself, mulling over expressions that we use in everyday conversation. I’ve been re-reading (for the 5th time I think) Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. They’re set in the Royal Navy of the early 19th C, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.
One of thing many things that sets them apart is O’Brian’s command of the vernacular of the time. While written more than 150 years after their settings, he’s able to immerse himself in the language of the time and put words into the mouths of his characters that their actual contemporaries would have used, especially the many seafaring terms used at the time on a sailing vessel. Phrases likes “batten down the hatches“, “by and large“, or “to the bitter end” all have a naval origin but as they’ve been absorbed into everyday speech their original meaning has been lost to the casual user.
And that made me wonder, what phrases do we use in every day speech that arise from walking and travelling? How about “follow your nose”? When we use this, do we mean it literally?
I know there have been times when I have, literally, followed my nose. I remember wandering and exploring in downtown Kuwait City, and catching the scent of grilled lamb, which lead me through some backstreets to the old souk and its maze of little restaurants where I snacked on shwarma as I continued to wander.
There have also been times when I’ve more or less done the opposite, and followed my nose away from something, like when I’ve been walking near the Beaches Boardwalk in Toronto and caught a whiff of the Ashbridge’s Bay Sewage Treatment facility – it definitely puts some extra humpety into your steps to get downwind in a hurry.
But when we use that phrase, do we mean it literally like that? It’s true that you do actually have to follow your nose since it sticks out on the front of your head, so anytime you walk you’re doing just that. Still, I think we often mean it figuratively more than literally, as something like “it’s right there in front of you so just keep going”.
And then again, I think we use that phrase, to follow your nose, more along the lines of going after something that you know instinctively you really want. Deep down, I have this itch to go on long walks, to see new places and explore, to trek the Bruce Trail or the Waterfront Trail and see how far I can go and what I’ll find along the way. I want to follow my nose and see where it goes.
So follow your nose. It always knows where to point your toes.
On a cold, blustery, snowy, sleety, grey, and miserably wintery day, the thought of getting out for a walk is less than appealing. I know I should go out, but it looks nasty and it’s hard to muster the energy to put on the layers and winter gear.
So instead, I’m lingering inside over coffee and thinking about walks – armchair trekking if you will.
There’s the local walks around the city I could do over the winter – perhaps the Rouge River trails, or the upper Humber. And there are neighbourhood walks that are fun, like Bloor West and around High Park. Then again, I can revisit old favs, like the Don Valley, the Brickworks, and Wilket Creek/Sunnybrook Park. All that can keep me busy, but it doesn’t really need a lot of armchair planning.
So what about the long walks I want to do in the summer – perhaps another section or 2 of the Bruce Trail, or some parts of the Great Trail or the Waterfront Trail? There are lots of trails on my bucket list that I’d like to get to. I’m poring over maps looking at the trail and figuring out distances between accommodation. That will keep me occupied for a bit.
I like doing that, what might be termed map planning or “maplanning” – opening up All Trails or Google Maps and exploring different places where I’d like to take a long walk, like the Chemins de Grandes Randonnées in France, or the National Trails of England, or the Te Aroroa Trail in New Zealand.
Of course, you aren’t armchair walking if you’re not gear-dreaming too – what will I need if I take a particular trail? Is there enough accommodation available that I can skip a tent? How rugged is the trail so what foot gear is best? What about clothes – is it wet or dry, cool or hot? What percentage of time will I need to be in a tent versus a warm, dry bed? How big of a pack will I need? What’s the mean length of time between hot showers likely to be?
And logistics – how long will it take? How many days do I plan for? How do I get to and from the start and end points? How much does it cost to fly to that country in the first place? What sort of budget will I need? What time of year is best for that trail, in terms of weather, accommodation, and avoiding the tourist hordes?
Of course I’d like to actually be out on the trails actually walking carrying actual gear. Armchair walking is fun for an afternoon, but sooner or later you need to get to it. Soon … when the snow stops.
Recently, my wife and I had dinner at the home of a work colleague, where we met his wife as well. I’ve worked with him for a number of years but hour respective spouses had not met us or each other. You go into these social situations with a bit of nerves because you want to hit it off but you’re never quite sure. In this case, it was great – a simple, tasty yet slow meal, enjoyed while sitting for hours at the table chatting till midnight.
I thought of that as I was out for a walk the next day. The pleasure of a simple meal, good chat, laughter and smiles. I like simple things, and I like enjoying them at leisure, like reading a good book for hours of an evening while sipping on a whiskey in front of the fire. And I like long walks, for similar reasons – they’re simple, and yet they are savoured slowly, providing ample time for uncluttered thought. Over the space of several recent walks, on grey and glooming November days, I mulled over some recent news items I’ve seen recently.
The first one was about an announcement by the Ontario government, for a plan to build another major highway and then later for a different proposal to widen one of the major highways in the west end of the Greater Toronto Area. These projects have been mooted for years, and there’s a debate about whether to go ahead with their construction. The argument for is that traffic loads have increased so that more roads are needed to reduce congestion and delays. The argument against is the opposite – that building more roads just increases their supply which effectively lowers the price of driving (i.e. congestion delays) thus creating new demand that soon results in new congestion and delay. In other words, increasing the supply induces demand by reducing price – a basic piece of economics. This might also be phrased as “if you build it, they will come”.
Another recent thought-provoking news item was about Artificial Intelligence (AI). We’re heading quite quickly into a world where AI can power transport. Likely within the next 10-20 years, as cars become more autonomous, AI systems will improve traffic efficiency – in other words more cars can use existing roads. Taking humans out of the equation will also help us reduce and then eliminate the impatience and selfishness that leads to shake-your-head silliness like driving on sidewalks (which really happened recently just a few blocks from where I live).
At the same time, young people do not seem to be driving as much as their parents did nor seem as interested in owning a vehicle (based on a sample size of 1, our son, in mid-town Toronto). Plus, jobs are changing, so that we’re much more able to telecommute rather than physically commute. And then there’s the retirement of the boomer generation (which grew up with cars), and their workplace replacements see less need to drive, especially as public transit improves. All these trends argue that at the very least, traffic patterns are likely to change, if not reduce in volume.
On top of all of this there’s climate change, the cause for which the overwhelming weight of evidence points to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Cars, and other forms of transport (trucks especially), are one of Canada’s largest sources of carbon dioxide, especially when you take into account the extraction of oil, its transportation, and its refinement into fuel. Adding to that, remember that building roads by itself generates a lot of CO2 emissions – making cement for concrete is an energy-intensive process largely fuelled by natural gas, and asphalt is held together by bitumen tar which comes from petroleum.
So the notion of building more highways, now, at this point of the 21st century, seems like a reactive response to a “today” problem based on the practice from 20 years ago, rather than a proactive response to head off anticipated problems 20 years from now. In other words, it’s backwards-looking decision making. Between advances in AI, changes in demographics, and the need to respond to climate change, it would seem to make more sense to invest the billions of dollars a new highway will cost into better public transit and urban planning.
All that seemed clear to me as I turned over these thoughts on my walks. And then, shortly after the announcements about these highway projects, I saw a much less publicized article about a plan to improve and expand the Waterfront Trail sections near the Scarborough Bluffs, an area through which I had walked this past summer and about which had thought at the time that it was both spectacular and under-utilized. Hallelujah I thought – induced demand strikes again. If you build trails and parks, then walkers will appear.
And that led me back to why I walk. Walking is a simple and self-contained activity – it needs no real equipment or practice, it accomplishes a goal, it requires minimal infrastructure, and it benefits both the practitioner and their fellow citizens. Long term thinking about walking abounds – there is an abundance of urban planning studies, social studies, and practical evidence that making neighbourhoods and cities walkable increases the well-being of the residents.
What gives me hope is that over the past 10-20 years, we’ve seen an increase in walking and cycling infrastructure. Volunteer-led organizations have mapped out, built, and maintained the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, and the Bruce Trail, and thousands of other local organizations have created recreational trails throughout Canada. There is a groundswell of interest in and demand for walking infrastructure.
It’s true that there are fewer opportunities for political grandstanding and ribbon-cutting when a new trail opens. The local city councillor and maybe a provincial MPP will show up for a quick photo and that’s about it, compared to premiers and prime ministers who host press conferences and photo ops in hard hats while holding silver shovels, whenever a new highway is announced. Hundreds of walkers will use the former, but hundreds of thousands of voters will use the latter, so where’s the sexy in opening a $2 million trail when you can cut the ribbon on a $2 billion highway?
Still, I see that as blockbuster thinking rather than incremental thinking, big splashy announcements instead of quiet openings. We know from studies in geology and from biology, that evolutionary forces are powerful yet slow-moving. There are few occasions (dinosaur-killing asteroid strikes aside) when evolution must pick up its pace. Long-term, slow changes are the norm. So in why does our decision making insist on quick wins, big announcements, and the timescales of one election to the next? In human terms, long-term ought to mean generational thinking – 20, 50, or 100+-year timespans. Does it help you now, or does it help your great-grandchildren?
We focus on the now, it seems to me, because that our time horizons have shrunk. We want to shop on-demand, eat on-demand, and entertain ourselves on-demand. Why defer gratification? Why can’t we have it now?
What does a walk have to do with this? Part of the answer is that a walk takes time. As a form of exercise, walking is a slow burn activity – you need a 2 hour walk to burn off similar amounts of calories from a 30 minute high intensity work-out. That’s why walking encourages long-term thinking, because it just takes a while to do it. If I want to walk to Montreal (and that’s on my bucket list), it’s going to take 3-4 weeks instead of 3-4 hours.
Plus walking is green. It’s human-powered and needs minimal infrastructure and equipment. Our ancestors walked barefoot over grasslands, and we can walk with just a pair of shoes over gravelled paths. Building a few km of simple trail, even if you include some park benches, waste bins, toilets, and water fountains, doesn’t cost much because it doesn’t take much effort or equipment. And that also means it’s quick, a concession to our instant gratification culture.
All of this means that walking for the long term has multiple levels. On timescales of hours, walking for the long term is about contemplation, finding space to think and consider and survey multiple points of view before coming to conclusions. On timescales of months and years, walking for the long term is about exercise and health and retaining the ability to contemplate. And on timescales of decades and generations, walking for the long term is about the conservation of resources, creating a legacy for future generations, and attempting to avoid the worst consequences of the now-inevitable changes in climate that we’ve sparked.
Deep thoughts from a few walks on grey days. Maybe I need another stroll to mull it over.
Autumn has always been my favourite season. In Toronto, there are phases to it. Coming out of September and through early October, we usually keep our late summer warmth with the bonus of dryer, clearer weather with lots of bright blue skies. Then as you drift through the rest of October and into early November, the nights get cooler and the autumn colours take over the parks and neighbourhoods. Around then, usually by early or mid- November, we’ll get our first frost overnight and our first snowflakes. Our autumn usually turns into winter temps and weather well before the winter solstice and turn of the season on Dec 21, so when you think about it, between the late summer bit and the early winter bit, a Toronto autumn is really the 4 weeks or so between about early October and early November.
And while it’s a short stretch of the calendar, it’s made for walking. We’ll get lots of dry days, not too cold, and with scenery that never gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen autumn colours transform a park. When we lived in England back in the 1990’s, I missed that turn of the season more than anything else.
This year, autumn arrived right on cue. Late September and early October were glorious – blue-sky autumn days that demanded to be used because you knew that in just a few weeks, those gentle blues would turn to steely greys and the autumn rains would turn to frosts and snow.
So I did – I headed out for several longish walks through favourite parks and soaked up the sun for as long as I could. One favourite hike in early October was through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and down the Moore Park Ravine to the Brickworks. The autumn colours were starting to develop and on a mid-week afternoon, there were only a few people about so I could savour the quiet. I love this place.
Wandering the paths through the park, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the city. The park is only about 15 years old, and is the result of natural regeneration nudged by careful planning, turning the clay quarry that provided many of the bricks that built Toronto landmarks like Old City Hall and Massey Hall into an urban oasis. It’s wonderful any time of the year, and at its best in the autumn.
As the month of October wore on, we started to get some grey skies and gusty rains, stripping those gorgeous colours off the trees and turning the trails to pointillist visions.
Every year, around mid October, there will be newspaper articles and social media posts about where to go to see the perfect fall colours. I ignore these. The perfect fall colours are right outside, in my favourite parks along my favourite trails. Toronto is awesome pretty much all of the time, and autumn is when it’s awesomeness on display, the more so because it’s natural and unforced. We take it for granted at lot of the time, so it’s worth reminding ourselves that we live, as the Parks Department motto says, in a city within a park.
And then in early November, other walks became reminders that winter is around the corner. I went up the East Don Trail on a blustery chilly day, maybe 4-5 C at best with an actual wind-chill under a grey forbidding sky, and was teased by a few snow flakes.
Then a few days later, we had actual snow, only a cm or 2 but enough to leave a trace on the ground. It feels like our 4 weeks of autumn have come and gone for this year. The forecast going forward is early winter – snow showers and low single digits as day time highs, with negative temps overnight.
That’s ok. The cycle of seasons means change, which means variety. Were the weather constant year-round, it would get tedious I think. So walking in wet leaves under blustery skies, now, is the path that leads to walking under soft spring breezes amongst new growth, in a few months. There’s greenery coming – you just have to be patient.
I’ve written previously about why I walk – for exercise, for exploration, for contemplation, for escape. One of my favourite walks in Toronto is through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where all of those reasons find a place.
I wandered through recently with a more specific purpose in mind. My friend Paul passed away 6 years ago on Thanksgiving Day, and so in mid-October I wanted to pay a visit and lift a toast to his spirit.
It’s beautiful there any time of the year, but I have to admit that autumn is my favourite time. The trees were just starting to turn, and there was enough of a chill in the air, despite the sunshine, that you could feel the change in seasons.
It felt like the autumn scene would soon resemble winter.
But as I walked I thought about the history of Toronto as it’s reflected in the graves and monuments around me. The older parts of the cemetery date to the 1870’s and 1880’s, and the great and good of Toronto at that time have Anglo-Scottish names that testify to the dominant waves of immigration that arrived then – names like Gage, Eaton, Massey, and Strachan are prominent as are the mausoleums they built for themselves.
The waves of immigrants from the British Isles are also reflected in monuments like the one erected by the St. Andrew Society to commemorate the many Scottish families that came to Canada.
Mount Pleasant Cemetery is also a place of history, holding the graves and monuments to many of the men who fought for Canada during World Wars 1 and 2. Some of these monuments are grand, like that for George Barker.
Others are quieter and in some ways more powerful. There is a section of the cemetery dedicated to veterans who passed away at the nearby Sunnybrook Hospital, which was built during World War 2 to help heal the many casualties of that war. Each grave is marked by a simple headstone that lists a name and branch of the service. It’s in a quiet wooded section of the cemetery, and the peacefulness is welcome when you think of what those men must have experienced.
In other sections of the cemetery, new waves of immigration are reflected in their names – the Anglo-Scottish are joined by the Italian, the Greek, the German, the Ukrainian, the Chinese, the Japanese, and many others. It’s the melting pot of Toronto illustrated in stone.
And then there is the personal history, the history of friends and family we knew. The history of a city and of grand families may be familiar to us in a general sense, but the history of a person we knew is much deeper and closer. Touching that history to recall laughter and rich conversation – that’s the essence of a cemetery.
Mount Pleasant has the Forest of Remembrance where ashes can be scattered in a wooded grove. When I’m walking through the Cemetery I usually pass through and pause at the stone that bears a plaque with Paul’s name. I say hello, and let him know how Fiona and the kids are doing. This visit I also raised a flask of Irish whisky and drank a toast. Sláinte.
The other functions of a cemetery – as history, as places of exercise, as places of beauty – all reinforce that main purpose, of remembrance. I walk in graveyards because I need the walk as exercise, because I’m interested in the history they relate, because I crave the quiet atmosphere and the beauty of the setting, and most of all because they connect me to the past as well as to the future we all come to.
As I was leaving the cemetery and walking up the busy Mount Pleasant Road, the image of the fence around the cemetery stuck in my mind. Is the fence to keep people out, or is it to keep the memories in? I think it’s a boundary, separating the memories we want to hold close from the outside world that rushes by because there are things to do and living to get on with. We know that, we know the world has to carry on, but we want to remember. That’s what cemeteries are for.
After my long trek to the Rouge the day before, I was pleasantly surprised to wake up feeling pretty good for Stage 3 of my journey. My feet had been tired at the end of the day, but apart from stiffness in my knees, a good night’s sleep had set me up for the final leg of Crossing Toronto. I would hike from the southern boundary of the City at the lake northwards following the Don River as much as I could all the way the northern boundary at Steeles Avenue.
Since the Don forks in mid-Toronto, I had to choose which branch to follow and I’d decided on both – the way the river flows meant that I could climb the West Don for part of the way (since I could go through several parks that way) and then cut across city suburbs to pick up the East Don and follow that up to Steeles.
After the climbs and challenges of stage 2 between the Don and the Rouge, I reckoned that this final stage would be both easier and harder. Easier because it was a bit shorter than the 2nd stage and because much of it I’d walked before, and harder because after 2 long days of walking I was beginning to feel some of the stresses in my feet and knees.
The good thing about my route was that, like Stage 2, I could take the subway to King and walk past St. Lawrence Market, stopping to have breakfast at Paddington’s Pump once again. I had the same eggs, the same server, and the same warm happy glow of a full tummy when I set off at 8:30.
Since I was doing this final stage on a Saturday, there were many more people about at the Market. That’s their busiest day of the week, and I was tempted to hang about to sample the food, but of course I knew I had to get going. Just like the day before, I followed the Esplanade east through the Distillery District and crossed through Corktown Commons to pick up the Lower Don Trail.
Turning north, I was on a familiar path. I’ve walked this in both directions a number of times in various seasons, but on this day it had been several months since I’d followed the river north. The first thing I noticed was how much the shrubs, bushes, and trees along the trail had filled in and now sheltered the trail. It made for a welcome green tunnel of shade on a sunny summer morning.
Early on a Saturday morning, the trail is used more by cyclists than walkers or runners. You have to be on your toes, listening for bikes coming up behind you while watching for bikes coming towards you, since the trail is only about 2 meters wide. The bikes presume they have right of way since they’re faster, even though the trail etiquette is supposed to be that the pedestrians have priority. Why do cyclists think that if they ring their bell, you’ll just jump out of the way?
As I walked, my curiosity was piqued in noticing the difference between walkers and cyclists when travelling in pairs. A pair of walkers, especially couples, will often walk side by side even on a busy trail. A pair of cyclists, even if a couple, will usually ride in tandem. Why is that? The trail rang with bike bells as the cyclists wove amongst the walkers.
Continuing north, I found myself walking in “the zone”, spaced out and unaware of time passing. I knew the trail well so I didn’t pay much attention to the landmarks. Still, I was pleased to pop out of my walker’s trance when I came to the Prince Edward Viaduct, carrying the Bloor Street roadway as well as Line 2 of the subway over the Don Valley, in less than an hour after leaving St. Lawrence Market.
Past this, as you head north towards Pottery Road, there’s a little sculpture installation by artist Duane Linklater featuring some pieces meant to evoke old castles and crumbled monuments. I always tell myself I should stop and explore, and yet again this day my focus on walking meant that I paused just long enough to snap a picture, and then kept on walking.
Continuing past the sculptures, you soon come to Pottery Road. There’s a crossing island here and there was a queue of bikes in both directions waiting to cross. I had to fight to protect my pedestrian rights amongst them, as they surged forward in a break in the traffic.
From this point, about 5 km from Corktown, there’s a stretch of several km along the river that takes you to the forks of the Don near the Taylor Creek confluence. It’s a bipolar bit of trail – on the one hand the shimmering rapids, green shuffles of leaves, and meadows of nodding flowers, and on the other hand the steady intrusive hum and mumble of traffic on the Don Valley Expressway just to the east of the trail. It looks rustic but it sounds urban. The constant stream of cyclists didn’t help.
Another thing that I kept noticing was that stinging nettles were overgrowing onto the edge of the trail, so that you wanted to walk in the centre, but the bikes kept pushing you back to the edge where you risked brushing up against the nettles. Having grown up in the country and been stung by nettles in the past, I was in no mood for that, so I had to listen for approaching bikes whenever I skirted the nettles, making for an uncomfortable walk.
Eventually, however, I came to the forks of the Don. This is where the Lower Don Trail connects with both the Taylor Creek Trail (which initially follows the East Don River) and the West Don Trail. You hard to see the actual confluence of the two branches of the river, at least in summer with full greenery about, but again I was kind of head-down and focused and not paying too much attention. I just followed familiar trails and started heading west, crossing under Don Mills Road to enter E.T. Seton Park.
I took a break here, refilling my water bottles – I had 2 because I knew there were no water refills on the trail north of Lawrence – and sitting for a bit in some shade. There were still lots of cyclists and they often roved in packs of 3-5 riders. I made the assumption that they were all weekend warriors, and smugly sniggered at their Tour de Something wannabe jerseys and fancy kit.
As you continue north through E.T. Seaton Park you pass through one of Toronto’s only disk golf courses. The “holes” are on both sides of the trail and there were a few disk golfers out enjoying the sun.
On weekends in good weather, E.T. Seaton Park fills up with families enjoying communal picnics and cookouts. The air is scented with tantalizing aromas, and the many cultures living in nearby Thorncliffe Park (one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the country) gather to take advantage of the green space. I was a bit early for that, plowing through there well before noon, so I missed having my appetite stirred early. I resolved to keep walking in order to try to get north of Sheppard before stopping for lunch.
The Trail keeps going through E.T. Seton, and eventually you pass under Eglinton Avenue and into Serena Gundy Park. There is a lot of construction going on in this section, part of the Eglinton Crosstown rail project, and it’s muddy and busy with trucks. There are also lots of cars on a weekend, because the car parks are the base for the cyclists. It made me want to walk through as fast as I could so I continued through the east end of Serena Gundy Park to arrive at Wilket Creek and the entrance to the trail along that watercourse that would take me through Wilket Creek Park and on to Edwards Gardens.
I kept chugging, with a clock in my head that wanted to get to Edwards Gardens well before noon. The trail through Wilket Creek is quite lovely, and having been through here previously in late September, I know it’s even prettier in autumn. I wasn’t thinking about that, however, I just wanted to get to Edwards Gardens for a rest break and a water refill.
I made it there before 11:30, 3 hours and around 13km out from St. Lawrence Market, and was a bit surprised to see that there was a sculpture market in full swing, with pieces set throughout the gardens. It was tempting, but how would I carry a $5000 piece of marble out on my back?
After a short break, I crossed out of the Gardens to the east side of Leslie Street, where there is the entrance to the Don Mills Trail. This follows a rail line north between Lawrence and York Mills. I set off up the trail with my inner clock still ticking, aiming to get to the East Don Trail at Sheppard by 12:30 so that I could find a quiet spot to rest.
The Don Mills Trail is fairly new, yet it’s matured quickly. There were lots of trees shading the trail, and there weren’t too many fellow walkers or bikers this day, so it was relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, it was also relatively boring – there’s no river, just the trail plowing strait and narrow through suburban backyards. I walked at a steady pace and chewed up the kms, to find myself at the north end. Unfortunately, the peacefulness of the Trail is undone by its finish under a road overpass. You have to climb up onto York Mills Road, and follow it east for a few hundred meters. At Lesmill Drive, you turn north again and follow the streets along the Valleybrook and Lesmill Bike Path.
Eventually, you come to Duncan Mills Road, where you can then connect with the Betty Sutherland Trail and rejoin the East Don River as you head north. This trail continues for about 3 km, and while it’s a lovely bit of woods, it’s hard to love the trail itself. I could hear the roar of traffic along the 12 lanes of the 401 expressway when I joined the trail and it just kept getting louder and louder as I approached. The trail actually goes under the 401, and it’s an unsettling experience to pass through a space where the slanted light reminded me of the columns of a cathedral and yet the traffic noise blocked any thoughts of tranquility.
When you come out the other side of the roadway, you find the trail continuing north for another half a km or so, soon depositing you at the exit of the trail upon Sheppard Avenue. There you have to cross from the south-east corner of Leslie & Sheppard to the north-west corner where you can drop down onto the East Don Trail.
By the time I reached this, just after 12:30, I was feeling quite hungry and ready for a rest, so I quickly rambled off looking for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. Unfortunately, while the trail is in the ravine of the river, it’s still just meters from Leslie Street and there seemed to be a stream of fire trucks and ambulances shrieking past. I had to walk for 5 minutes to get far enough along the trail to find a little clearing with a bench in the sun that was the perfect spot for lunch.
I had been prudent enough to use my breakfast stop at St. Lawrence Market to also visit Churrasco St. Lawrence and pick up one of their classic chicken sandwiches. It’s made with Portuguese-style rotisserie chicken on a soft bun, with piri piri sauce, mayo, lettuce, and tomato, and it’s been a favourite of mine since Churrasco St. Lawrence opened in the late 1980’s. Sitting in the sun, resting tired feet, savouring a sandwich, and listening to the birds was a perfect way to relax.
By this point, I’d covered about 18 km, and looking at the map I realized that I probably only needed about another hour to finish my journey. I had been so focused on my inner clock, passing through familiar trails, that I had lost track of time and distance. I was a bit disappointed, coming to that realization.
The point of my Crossing Toronto journey was to discover more about the city, and yet I’d managed to climb most of the way through the city and hadn’t really noticed anything. Upon reflection, it occurred to me that my Big Walks were going to be quite different in character from my regular walks, because the rhythm of steady day-in, day-out walking imposes a different kind of observation. On a more conventional 1 or 2 hour walk, I might zone out a for a bit, but for the most part I would notice my surroundings. On a Big Walk after a couple of days already spent “observing”, I was starting to feel both jaded in my attention-span and locked into the routine of walking. Big Walks take on a life of their own, and are about the quest, it seems, as much as they are about the journey.
On that somewhat depressing note, I resigned myself to “notice” something, and yet while the scenery on this part of the trail is perfectly fine, I had a hard time loving it. There’s only so much green-lined trail next to a burbling river that you can walk along.
The only observation of note that I could come up with was the predictable fact that as I had climbed north from the lake, the river had narrowed and diminished. It was interesting, however, to see that as the river’s flow grew smaller, the landscape dried out so that the upper reaches of the river now featured more meadow areas, and dryer ground trees like cedars and ash. The birds shifted from marsh species to meadow species, including a chorus of kill-deers that squawked noisily as I passed.
Those kill-deers did make me realize that the traffic noise had finally faded a bit, though even here traffic sounds were still noticeable. The soundscape of the Don Valley, unfortunately, is dominated by cars, trucks, motorcycles, and noise. You can mostly tune it out as you walk but it’s only when it diminishes to a background hum that you realize how loud it has been.
Soon I came to the Finch Hydro Corridor, a public space that traces the path of the high voltage electricity transmission lines across the top of the city. In the past, I’ve done part of this and it’s actually a great walk in its own right – one of these days I’ll see how far I can go across the top of the city following this path.
North of the Finch Hydro Corridor, the river forks again, somewhat confusingly, into a western arm and an eastern arm. The western arm is actually the East Don River and the eastern arm is German Mills Creek, but the western arm flows through private property so that you can’t actually follow it to Steeles. Instead I was forced to follow the eastern arm where a trail brings you to the south side of Steeles and the northern boundary of the City of Toronto.
By now, I wasn’t that interested in the niceties of hydrology and names, I just wanted to finish my journey. The river/creek was narrowing, and there weren’t many people about. I kept climbing, following the trail north-east towards Leslie. It continued to be green and lovely and boring, so it was anticlimactic to cross Leslie just south of Steeles and reach my finishing point, a pedestrian bridge crossing the creek adjacent to Steeles. I had climbed the Don (more or less) from the lake to leave the city, and yet it didn’t feel particularly memorable.
Toronto is a huge city in terms of land area. It stretches roughly 50 km east to west, and 20 km north to south – more than 1000 square km. It contains dozens of fascinating neighbourhoods, 100’s of parks, and many kilometres worth of trails. I had hoped that Crossing Toronto would teach me something the city, and it did in many ways.
Yet, more importantly, it taught me something about myself and the nature of a Big Walk. Big Walks are their own reward, they are the meal, and the observations along the way are the spices that make it interesting.