My Quest to Walk Across Canada: Answering the Question ‘Why?’

The question ‘Why?’ is the most difficult question of all to answer for the quest seeker, and yet it is the most common question asked. The who, what, where, when, and how questions are easier. But, “Why?” That’s a toughie.

When George Mallory sought to be the first to climb Mount Everest, a reporter from the New York Times asked him why. Likely, most people thought he was doing it for the fame and fortune. But Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.” His answer was short, clever, a perfect sound bite, and at the same time meaningless. It was also an answer that did not allow for disagreement. I mean, after all, Mount Everest really was there. The motivation couldn’t be denied. What’s unclear is whether Mallory had prepared his answer beforehand. I suspect he hadn’t and that his famous answer was the first thing that came to his mind. It’s possible that he really didn’t know why he was pursuing that particular quest. He simply just wanted to do it.

Since the most common question asked of a quest seeker is, “Why are you doing this?”, adventure writers are expected to explain their motivations in their memoirs. Levison Wood had no clue where the idea to hike the full length of the Nile River came from. He was asked over a hundred times why he wanted to do it. In his book, Walking the Nile, he admits that the hike was selfish – he simply wanted to go on the greatest adventure of his life. He said, “I wanted to follow in a great tradition, to achieve something unusual and inspire in others the thirst to do the same.”

I, too, would like to inspire. But it’s not the original reason for my wanting to do a cross-Canada walk. It was an afterthought.

Hiking in western Alberta.

The urge to explore rises in many of us, and recently scientists have suggested that the foundation of this urge lies within our genome. About 20 percent of the population has a variant of DRD4, the gene that controls dopamine, called DRD4-7R, which causes some people to embrace adventure and change. I don’t know if every nomadic type who takes on a quest has this gene variant, but it’s possible. I sometimes wonder if I have it myself. I am, after all, nomadic by nature. And it would make it much easier to explain my behaviour. I could just say, “I’m genetically predisposed to attempting laughable adventures. Honestly, it’s not my fault. I’ve been programmed.”

I think for the most part, when people are asked why they want to take on a quest, they don’t really know why. After the idea takes seed, only afterward do they come up with all kinds of reasons why, not before. Think, for example, about people who start a quest in order to raise money for charity. I bet the idea rarely starts with the question “How can we best raise money for this charity?” Because if that’s the initial question, the answer would never be, “Let’s have someone do a quest!” There are, after all, better, more effective ways to raise money.

No, the idea always starts with, “I want to do this crazy, outlandish quest, and I may as well explain away what seems to be a mental illness as a noble pursuit to support a worthy cause.” We find an altruistic way to answer the question “Why?” Because it’s better than saying, “I haven’t a clue why I’m doing this.” It helps us avoid the ridicule of the 80 percent of the population that doesn’t have the DRD4-7R gene variant. Instead of contorting their faces into masks of confusion, they simply say, “A charity? Ah, I see. Let me get my wallet.”

In Chris Guillebeau’s book, The Happiness of Pursuit, Chris seeks to understand why people take on unusual quests. He, himself, travelled to every country in the world, but had a hard time explaining why he wanted to do it. For the most part, quest seekers don’t know themselves why they’ve taken on the challenges that they’ve committed to. “This is just something I need to do”, said Nate Damm, who walked across the United States.

Other people went on quests simply for the challenge, or because if they didn’t try it, they would always wonder what might have happened if they had, or because it was a crazy idea that just wouldn’t let go. Some wanted to create a more interesting life story. Probably the best answer was, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Indeed.

For myself, I only know that I’ve wanted to walk across Canada since I was a boy. I was inspired to adventure after reading the book, The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, about a cat and two dogs, who, after being dropped off at a family friend’s house 250 miles away, decide to leave on a quest to find their owner.

The defining moment was when my father laid a map of Canada before me. He was a dedicated follower of the National Geographic Society, so it might have been a map insert from the magazine. Or perhaps it was just a road map. My memory fails me on the exact details, but I think I was about eight years old.

My father pointed at Kitchener, Ontario, where we lived. But I was awed by the sheer size of Canada. He said that we lived in the second largest country in the world. I stared at the map, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wild to walk across the whole country?”

My idea to walk across Canada, for better or for worse, was born.

I didn’t know it as a boy, but walking across Canada was not a new idea. The first person we know of who completed a coast to coast walk was John Hugh Gillis, a Cape Bretoner known as the “Western Giant”, who walked from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Vancouver in 1906. He was a humble maritimer, and we wouldn’t even have known much about his accomplishment if not for the journal kept by Charles Jackman, a stranger who caught up to Gillis on the railroad west of Ottawa and walked the remainder of the route with him to Vancouver. Gillis’s story is chronicled in the book, Transcontinental Pedestrians. It’s a fascinating read.

Later, in 1921, four men and a woman raced on foot from Halifax to Vancouver. In the event, Jennie Dill became the first woman to walk across Canada. She averaged 43 kilometres per day walking on railroad ties, an unbelievable feat really. She had to kill a wolf with a pistol in self-defence while crossing the Prairies. There’s a book out about this race, but I prefer Pierre Berton’s shorter version in his classic, My Country: The Remarkable Past.

We don’t know exactly how many people have crossed Canada by foot over the years. Most recently, it seems that two or three people try it annually. Kyle Pickering hiked from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, a distance of 7,953 kilometres, between January 4, 2005 and June 7, 2006. Dave Chamberlain, in 2013, ran from Cape Spear in Newfoundland to Tofino on Vancouver Island in five months, pushing a stroller the whole way. In 2014, the Walking Monk, Bhaktimarga Swami of the Hare Krishna order, finished his fourth walk across Canada, which might be a record.  As I write this, Sarah Jackson is somewhere on The Great Trail (also known as the Trans Canada Trail), attempting to become the first woman to hike the trail from coast to coast.

Over time, the idea to walk across Canada has stuck with me. I’ve even had opportunities to do it; twice I had the time and resources. But I inevitably talked myself out of it. To do it in the time I am willing to allot to the project means I have to walk along the highway instead of through the woods. A couple of times when the urge to attempt the walk overwhelmed me, I hiked for a day or two along the highway near my home. The sound and danger of the traffic calmed the urge.

Keith Foskett is just an average Brit, who smokes, tries to avoid work, and enjoys whiskey and the occasional pint of Guinness. But he has also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and 1,600 kilometres of the El Camino, which is why I am a big fan. He is asked many times why he does his hiking adventures. People expect that he’s reached some sort of enlightenment. “Of course I haven’t; if only it were that simple,” he explains in his book, The Last Englishman. It doesn’t matter what the challenge is; “adventuring for an extended period of time opens one’s eyes. When we look back as an outsider to the lives we’ve left, we can act as an impartial observer and see what we are doing wrong, what we can improve on and what we are doing right. Call it a reality check, if you like.”

I like Foskett’s answer to the question ‘why’. Yet it is in hindsight. Looking back, it’s an easier question to answer than looking forward. Foskett shows the wisdom of having travelled widely and knowing what he can expect from his adventures, at least from a bird’s eye view. The details of each of them will be different, but the lessons will be common.

I have a little bit of that wisdom myself now. I’ve been on many adventures as well, so there is much that I can expect on my walk across Canada. I can expect that I will have to overcome adversity – pain, loneliness, cold, heat, poor weather, and difficult logistical problems – to reach my goal, which will make me a tougher, more resilient man. I can expect that I will meet many fabulous, helpful people along the way, who will initially be strangers, but who will become lifelong friends. I expect that I will experience long bouts of boredom and that I will frequently have to calm my mind from its incessant internal chatter. I expect that I will be reminded that there is much to be grateful for in life. I expect that I will be surprised by both my weaknesses and my grit, and although weakness may sometimes win the battle, I hope that grit will win the war. I may not have an epiphany on this quest, but I expect to be slightly wiser by the end of it. The lessons I expect to learn are good reasons to do the walk. “For the educational experience” would always be a fair answer to the question, “Why?”

I expect to see lots of wildlife on my walk.

But I wouldn’t have known this as a boy. I would have had no idea what a walk across Canada, or any other big quest, could have done for me as a person. Boys don’t think about doing things for personal growth. They just want to do them for fun.

As an adult, I understand that there are many things I could do to gain the lessons of life through hardships and adventures of my own making. But walking across Canada probably would not have been on my list of things to do for personal growth. Treks in foreign lands or long hikes in nature, such as when I hiked the Bruce Trail, would be more interesting adventures. For me, it’s nature that always seems to provide the best classroom experience. Even just spending four months in Central America, climbing volcanoes and struggling to communicate in the local language, provided me with these lessons. And with nary a blister to ruin my day.

But walking across Canada is what I’m going to do next, not because I’m particularly jazzed about the idea, but because I must. To say ‘no’ would mean a lifetime of regret, which is even a more powerful motivator than desire. It’s an itch that needs to be scratched. It’s a way of providing meaning in my life. Action will always answer the question of, “What is my purpose right now?”

It’s as if there are two people making this journey. The man and the boy. If I am asked, as an adult, I will probably say that I’m walking these 6,100 kilometres to honour the eight-year-old child within. Maybe I’ll say I’m doing it to give myself meaning for the moment. Maybe I’ll say that I’m doing the walk for the sheer poetry of it.

But the boy will answer, “Because it will be fun!”

It’s the boy’s adventure, really. And as an adult, I’m just a willing partner, along for the ride.

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2 comments… add one
  • Larissa Apr 17, 2017

    It’s been over a year and when people ask me why I moved to Copenhagen, I still shrug and say, “I just felt like it.” Maybe when I’ve moved on to my next adventure, I’ll look back and be able to find a reason.

    Looking forward to following your big adventure. 🙂

    • Dave Apr 17, 2017

      Thanks Larissa. I’m excited to see where your next adventure takes you, too.

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