I love to walk. There’s almost no day that goes by that I don’t walk, almost no weather I won’t walk in, almost no condition that keeps me from going out. When there’s a blizzard, I bundle up and put on my big snow boots. When it’s hot and humid, I slow my pace and go late at night. When I’m not feeling well, I still go out for shorter, slower walks. When I had three kids under the age of five, I piled them all into the stroller and took them out everyday.
So when I saw that Emily Taylor Smith was walking the perimeter of my beautiful province, I burned with envy. This was in 2010 when my kids were still too young to consider doing such a thing. Then, last year, I saw her book was coming out and I had to have it. To inspire me, to transform that fire of envy into something that might prod me to do it myself someday.
In the the summer of 2010, Emily Taylor Smith headed out to walk the 3000 km perimeter of Nova Scotia. From May to August, she walked everyday (with three days off), raising money for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Brigadoon Children’s Camp Society. Her trip gave her the chance to see the province “more intimately than ever before”–the small towns, the rocky shores–but what made the trip special were the people she encountered along the way.
It seems to me these Nova Scotians stay, or return, or set up here because they feel tied to this land that has become a part of who they are, land that offers them a way of life for their families which they value. There is a richness in their day-to-day experience that those who are only passing through cannot fully appreciate. And this land–wild, beautiful Nova Scotia–shapes them into strong and caring men and women, with deep ties to their community and its well-being.
Before getting into the trip itself, Emily shares her thoughts and experiences on why she walks, where she got the idea to walk the province, and what she did to train and get ready for her trip. Then there is a short chapter briefly covering each day of her journey. She talks about the places she goes, the weather, how she’s feeling that day, and most importantly the people she runs into.
Being familiar with many of the places she walked through – and interested in hearing about the places I’m not familiar with – and even knowing of a few of the people she met, I was held hostage to the page the whole way through. How non-locals feel about it, I don’t know. But I am already planning my own trip.
I think spending quiet time with the trees and the ocean and the air does things to us which can’t be entirely explained. I think meeting the many people who shared their lives, their homes, and their hearts with me was healing.
After reading Around the Province in 88 Days, I wanted more walking. Coincidentally, Breakwater Books had just sent me a copy of Almost Feral by Gemma Hickey – about her 2015 938 km walk across the province of Newfoundland to raise awareness and funds for survivors of institutional abuse.
Islanders celebrate and identify strongly with our physical landscape and our history, but in doing so we risk becoming oblivious to our past mistakes and resistance to change.
Who is Gemma Hickey, I wondered. Before I even picked up the book, I did a google search to discover that they are an amazing person. In addition to spending years advocating for LGBTQ2+ rights, Gemma Hickey is also the founder of The Pathways Foundation, an organization for victims of clergy abuse. Their bravery and determination over the years to make positive change is an inspiration to so many.
The secrecy in my life was crippling. My father was hiding his alcohol addiction. I was hiding my sexuality. And now I was hiding the fact that I was abused. And all of this concealment and deception could be traced back to the Catholic Church and the culture of secrecy, which created at atmosphere of dependency and shame.
Almost Feral consists of personal essays that entwine Hickey’s daily walks with memories and experiences they’ve had over the years with bullying, depression, faith, family, and identity. I was especially interested in their struggle with reconciling their faith in the church with their experience with clergy abuse as well as the church’s stance on the LGBTQ2+ community. Walking their beloved province and ruminating on their life led to an important personal discovery.
… the emotions I experienced and the memories that surfaced as I walked felt more like Newfoundland weather–impulsive, erratic, and sometimes volatile.
The topics of depression and abuse make this book sound heavier than it is. Many of Gemma’s stories are told with humour and all of them with heart. I couldn’t help but smile when I read about the time Gemma stole money from the collection plate at church because they wanted to buy a doll for a friend who couldn’t afford it. And the story of their grandmother who put Joey Smallwood’s portrait right up there with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It felt like getting to know a new friend.
Sometimes two roads diverge, and you choose neither, because you have to make your own honest path.
Almost Feral was the winner of two Atlantic Book Awards this year:
Royalties from Almost Feral will be donated to the Pathways Foundation.
And because I still hadn’t had enough about walking, I finally picked up Born to Walk, a book I’ve had on my shelf since it came out five years ago.
I’m a little over half way through. I was into it during the lockdown when I was trying to read some of my own books, but when the library opened I got completely distracted and haven’t gotten back to it yet.
“This book is about the transformative properties of walking. About fissures that anyone can explore. It is the outcome of an experiment both personal and journalistic, an attempt to understand my addiction, to see how much repair might be within range.” Rubinstein’s book is broken up into subjects as they relate to walking; body, mind, society, economy, politics, creativity, spirit, family.
In Body, Rubinstein writes about his experience walking with Dr. Stanley Vollant during one of Vollant’s 6000 km treks across the North, begun in 2010 to “to promote the teachings of First Nations and to encourage Indigenous young people to pursue their dreams.”
It’s more than exercise. It is life. –Margaret MacNeill
In Mind, Rubinstein travels to Glasgow, Scotland to explore how walking can have a positive effect on your mental health.
Preventing depression increasingly appears to be a question of movement… the kind of movement that humans evolved to perform and that is eliminated from everyday life by machines, hired labour, and automobiles. –Sarah Goodyear
In Society, we find Rubinstein in Philadelphia spending his time walking through the city with police officers. How does more walking improve our society?
A flow of pedestrians… can help unify a city or town. When you are in a car, or online, the anonymity can breed anti-social or amoral behaviour… On foot, you are immersed in a multi-sensory, interactive environment, not sequestered behind one-way glass. You see and are seen, hear and are heard… pedestrians have more opportunity to engage and empathize with the people they pass by and live among.
What can walking do for our economy? Or politics? I look forward to finding out!
Whether for transportation or recreation, walking bestows the gift of time. Done by choice, untethered from the market and wireless contraptions, it can be an act of defiance. At its most pure, walking connects us to the people and places where we are right now. Also, to ourselves.
I wonder if my kids would walk more if they read this book…
Do you like to walk? Would you like to share any impressive walking stories, or books you’ve read?
A nod to RC Shaw’s Louisbourg or Bust, which, if I hadn’t already read and reviewed would fit nicely into this post. Even though it involves a bike. I like those, too.
And Waking Up in My Own Backyard by Sandra Phinney is especially relevant right now… when many of us are staying close to home.
Re-discover this Sesame Street classic!