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Day 18 – Walk Across Canada
It was cold today. And mostly wet. But all I was thinking about today was Nancy.
Seven years ago, Nancy Ouellet was a senior Canadian military officer, a Lieutenant-Colonel, posted to Colorado Springs in the US. While Nancy was riding her motorcycle down a highway in Nevada during a holiday, an elderly couple pulled out to pass a truck. They didn’t see her motorcycle. There was a head-on crash and an explosion. Nancy died at the scene and the elderly couple was helevaced to a hospital. Both lived.
All of this information is in the public domain.
But there is a back story.
At the time, Nancy and I were in love. Not a lot of people knew about it – our families of course, our children, but not a lot of our military colleagues. Nancy was on the last day of a solo ten-day motorcycle trip through Colorado, California, Nevada, and New Mexico when she died. She was inspired to do the solo trip because of the stories I told her about my six-month sabbatical driving through the western states and living out of my car. She wanted to feel that same freedom of being on the road alone with no set agenda.
But everyone was against the idea. Her ex-husband, a long-time rider, said it was far too dangerous to ride alone. All of her riding friends said the same. Even her work colleagues were against it, saying that a pretty, petite woman with an alluring French accent and joie de vivre, traveling alone, might attract the wrong kind of people. She shared these doubts with me several times, but I pooh-poohed them. “There is danger in everything we do,” I said. “If this is your dream, go for it. It could change your life for the better.” When she had doubts again, I encouraged her more. “You’re a safe rider. Live the life you want, not the life the naysayers want.”
“You are the only one, really the only one, supporting me on this, Cheri,” she said. “Thank you.”
We know now that the naysayers were right.
When I received the news of her death, I couldn’t keep my feet and fell to my knees. It was my fault. All my fault. I had pushed her into this. If I hadn’t pushed her into this, she would still be alive. My Nancy! My poor Nancy!
For years, I suffered from guilt. And then a couple of years ago, I found my peace with it. But here I was now, walking into her home town of Cap-Saint-Ignace, winding my way up a hill to her final resting place at the town cemetery, and having visions of myself falling to my knees at her grave, sobbing, and begging for forgiveness.
But it wasn’t like that at all. It was really quite peaceful.
There were tears, of course. To love one so deeply will always cause emotion to well up. Even after seven years, there is still the pain of loss.
Nancy rests with her mother and sister. Her father suffers horribly from guilt. He has lost his whole family, both daughters to separate vehicle collisions, and his wife to cancer. He believes God is punishing him for his sins.
I made myself comfortable and talked with Nancy about my service to our frail seniors that she so surreptitiously led me into. I talked of my daughter and friends, about this walk I’m doing. I asked her for advice on a couple of things.
Through all the drama of her death, I had forgotten how she loved to laugh, how she loved my dry sense of humour, and how it took her a little longer to process my jokes in her second language, so that after I made a joke and started talking about something else, she would suddenly burst out laughing. It was adorable. I was reminded of this because, when I spoke to Nancy today at her grave, I told some quip about Al and his apparent ability to speak French, and then I started talking about something else when suddenly, I could feel Nancy’s laugh. I’d forgotten about that time delay. I laughed too and then teared up again.
We sat in silence together for a while. I whispered things to her, memories and the sort of things meant only for the ears of a lover.
I began to shiver from the cold. So I bid Nancy farewell, kissed her picture, whispered endearments. Until next time, my love.
The night before Nancy died, we were on a phone date. It was her last night on the road and she was heading back to Colorado Springs in the morning. She said she had had the vacation of a lifetime and that it gave her ideas of what she might want her eventual retirement to look like. During the conversation, she talked about all the leadership training we had received during our careers in the military, expensive training, leadership training we received at public expense. I asked her, “Do you feel then that we have a moral obligation to serve our communities at the highest level of our leadership abilities when we retire, helping those who are not able to fully help themselves?” We debated it a bit. She thought we had a moral obligation, a duty to continued service to the people of our country. I thought it would be a good idea to help out our community after retirement, but that our obligation ended with our contract with the military. It was a fun discussion, and she was pretty adamant about our moral obligation.
A couple of weeks after Nancy’s death, I received a call out of the blue from a company dealing in seniors’ care. They knew I didn’t have experience in seniors’ care, but wanted to try a new model. They wanted someone with start-up experience. Would I be interested in looking at the project?
I thought back to my conversation with Nancy. Frail elderly? At a time when I was angry with seniors in general and the doctors that okayed them to drive? It would be just like her. Moral obligation? Clever girl. Thinking it was an omen, I said ‘yes’ to the project, and that’s how I ended up spending the last six years of my career managing seniors’ care facilities and volunteering with seniors.
I’ve always privately thought of this walk across Canada as having two parts. “The Pilgrimage”, from Halifax to Nancy’s final resting place, and “The Rest of the Walk”.
Today, one journey ended and the other began.
Rest well, Nancy. You are in my heart always. Always, my love.
Day 19 – Walk Across Canada
I have a very dear friend, Kelly Campbell. One of the joys of being around her is that she often says quirky things, phrases and such that she has made up and nobody else uses.
I heard one of my favourite Kelly-isms the first time when, if my memory serves me well, we were driving through a parking lot. There was a car that wasn’t parked properly and its rear end was jutting out past all the other cars.
“Look at that car,” Kelly said, pointing. And then she said (are you ready for this?), “It’s sticking out like a FRONTENAC.”
I looked at her sideways.
Me: I beg your pardon, but did you just say that that car is sticking out like a Frontenac?
Kelly: Yes. I believe I just did.
Me: Frontenac? What’s a Frontenac? Do you mean like the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City?
Kelly: Yes, exactly. Haven’t you ever noticed it sticks out from everything else around it?
Me: Well, I’ve been to Quebec a few times and I haven’t noticed.
Kelly: Well trust me on this. The Frontenac is sticking waayyyy out there. And this car is sticking out like a Frontenac.
So today, I was as giddy as a schoolboy waiting for the recess bell because, although I was walking along the south side of the St. Lawrence, I knew I would be in sight of Old Quebec and see for myself whether or not the Chateau Frontenac is “sticking way out there”.
As fate would have it, I missed it completely. I seemed to remember that Old Quebec was on the other side of the Pont de Quebec. But when I got to the bridge, I realized I had walked a good two hours past it. So I did what any normal person would do (no, I did not walk back the two hours to get a photo), I googled it instead – “Chateau Frontenac images”
And let me tell you, I am excited to report that Kelly is absolutely correct. The Frontenac really does stick way out there, an obvious icon on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Old Quebec. It really is impressive, even if I didn’t get a photo of it myself.
Kelly owns a women’s fashion store, and once when I saw her fitting a woman in a dress, she stood back, looked at her customer, and said, “No honey. This isn’t going to work for you. It’s all puffed out. It’s sticking out like a Frontenac.” Oh lordy, did I laugh.
So I encourage you, my friends, to use this phrase. See a porch jutting way out from a house? “It’s sticking out like a Frontenac!” See your morning hair in the mirror poking out all over the place? “It’s sticking out like a Frontenac!”
And for my friends with male partners, don’t be afraid to use this phrase in the bedroom. You may surprise and please your man. And if he looks confused, show him a picture of the Chateau Frontenac, and then he’ll understand how impressed you truly are. (Wink)
It was an adventure walking through the city of Levis. The city police pulled me off the road and made me use the sidewalk. The sidewalks were generally in such terrible condition that poor Kitty was bouncing around like she just saw a cucumber.
And the sidewalk would suddenly end on one side of the road and start up on the other, so I had to frequently cross the road. It was difficult to get my speed up through the city. Slow going.
The highlight of the day, though, was that my old military buddy, Claude Lavoie, stopped along the highway for a visit. We served together in Germany in the late eighties. Man, was he ever a great hockey player back in the day. He would take a four-minute shift and then I would go on the ice and try not to embarrass him while he had a smoke and a beer on the bench. (Haha. Just kidding. He actual just ate pizza between shifts.) Claude got me all caught up on the whereabouts of all our old team members. It was a great visit. Claude is now retired from the military and is a popular radio personality. Great guy. Thanks for coming out, buddy!
Right now, I’m in a restaurant in a village called Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, and I’m eating my first poutine since I arrived in Quebec. My arteries are in tears, poor fellas.
After I finish eating, I’ll walk until my stealthy camping site calls out my name. Until tomorrow, my friends.
Day 20 – Walk Across Canada
I realize that yesterday is about as good a day for walking as I’m going to get on this trip. Although it rained at night, it didn’t rain all day. It was cool, dry, and the sun poked out a few times. The wind was very light all day. The road was mostly flat. There were no bugs to contend with. It really was a perfect day for walking. I will do well to appreciate it.
It’s 5:30 am and I’m dragging myself out of my sleeping bag after a great 8-hour sleep. It’s 4 degrees and I’ll be putting on my cold pants in a few seconds, always the worst 30 seconds of my day until the weather warms up. It’s pouring rain, although I am encouraged by the forecast that it will end by 8 am and won’t appear again for the rest of the day.
So I just want to remember that yesterday was a perfect day for walking. I’m very grateful. And when I have tougher days, I can always say to Al, “Remember that day we walked past Quebec City? What a perfect day that was.” And Al will nod, because that’s what he does best. He’s a bobblehead, after all.
And Kitty will purr in remembrance. And then we’ll all sigh and carry on.
I was a little confused this morning. Several flocks of geese went by me, all heading southward. I thought maybe I was walking the wrong way, but no, there was the St. Lawrence on my right. Maybe the geese know something I don’t.
But then later in the day, geese were flying north again. It’s almost as if one of them said, “Hey fellas, didn’t we just fly over this stuff yesterday?”
I saw lots of muskrats along the ditch this morning and yesterday, probably more than 50 in all. They always dive in the water or run away when I approach. I imagine they are escaping Kitty, the cheetah. She’s such a predator.
Yesterday, I saw a couple of muskrats, if I dare use the word, ‘frolicking’ in the grass near the ditch. When I approached, they did a little dance, first running away, then running back to each other, away, and then back again. It’s almost as if they were saying, “Should I save myself, or should I save my lover?” Such difficult decisions for muskrats. After I passed them by, they probably laughed together over their silly antics. They’re probably closer now than they’ve ever been.
Lordy, I sure love nature.
One of the things I love about early morning walking through rural Quebec is the aroma of wood burning in the fireplace. Sometimes I’ll hit the sweet spot where the wind gently pushes the aroma my way, and then I stop and enjoy memories of being a boy and sitting by the campfire. There are a lot of homes here that seem to be heated by wood. Brings back memories.
I had a morning coffee meeting with Kitty and Al.
Me: Anything you guys want to experience while we’re in Quebec?
Kitty: I want to kill a muskrat.
Me: I think that’s illegal.
Kitty: Catch and release?
Me: Might still be illegal, but for sure frowned upon. How about you, Al. Anything you want to experience?
Al: Yes. I’d like to feel the moist kiss of a blonde petite French-Canadian mademoiselle bobblehead.
Me: Right. Ok then. Meeting adjourned. Thanks for attending, guys. Let’s get back to work.
A missed mentioning a couple of milestones over the last few days. First, sometime yesterday morning, I passed the 1,000 kilometer point on this journey. I only have to do what I’ve already done five more times to reach Vancouver.
Second, on day 17, I surpassed the longest distance I have ever walked in a single hike. My previous longest was the Bruce Trail, which is a bit less than 900 kms. It took me 25 days to hike that rugged trail. The same distance along the highway took only 17 days.
I had lunch in a cute little cafe in Lotbiniere. I had French carrot soup, a sandwich made with a delicious vegetable pate, and a cappuccino. I didn’t really fit in with the other clientele, what with me not having had a shower for a long time. But, hey, one can’t give up the finer things in life, even when living in a tent.
I’m in a town called Deschaillons-sur-St-Laurent, sitting on a park bench eating ju jubes. In my own defence, I had an apple first.
It’s been a long day already, filled mostly with pain. I have blisters again, but they ease up once I’ve been walking for more than ten minutes. The worse pain has been in my right quad. It started yesterday on a stretch of highway that had a particularly steep shoulder. I leaned heavily on Kitty most of the day to ease the pressure of walking on a slant. It was as if that 50-km stretch of highway had been paved by a different contractor than all the rest of eastern Canada.
The pain wasn’t enough to stop me, but my pace has weakened for sure. I’ll have to walk 10 hours to get the same distance I’ve been doing in nine.
My quad seems to be slightly better late in the day, so we’ll see what it’s like in the morning.
Until then. Sleep well, my pretties.
Day 21 – Walk Across Canada
I woke up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to the sound of the wings of a raven. In the stillness of the night, the ‘whoosh’ as a raven takes flight is quite pronounced.
I started walking at 6 am in a misty rain without seeing more than a handful of vehicles before I came to the village of St-Pierre-les-Becquets. It was a gloomy morning. Even the village church looked like it belonged in a horror movie.
As I walked along, the world slowly came to life. An old woman waved to me from her porch. Children waiting for the school bus waved to me.
When I stopped at a Subway in Gentilly for breakfast, the patrons nodded greetings to me. An elderly gentleman bowed his head in respect and greeting.
Some people have told me that in rural Quebec, I would be given a hard time because I don’t speak French. But that hasn’t been my experience at all. It’s true that most people here don’t speak English, but with my few French words and their few English words, we have fun communicating.
A couple of days ago when I bought poutine, I told the girl at the counter, “Mon francais, c’est ewwwwwww.” And then I waved my hands about my head to emphasize just how poorly I spoke French.
She responded, “My English, also ewwwwwwww.” And she imitated my hand gestures.
We both burst out laughing. It was a great human moment.
Everywhere I’ve been so far in Quebec, I have been shown nothing less than the greatest courtesy and respect. People have been patient with my attempts to speak French and there has always been laughter.
I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Everywhere I have travelled in the world, I have found that regardless of the economic or political climate, people generally are friendly and helpful.
And it’s no different in Quebec. I have found the people to be warm, friendly, and a real joy to be around.
One thing I noticed in rural Quebec that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that the farmers proudly display their names on their properties. “Ferme”, followed by the name of the farmer or the co-op. To see a sign that reads “Ferme Guy Picard” shows me that Guy has a real pride in his farm. I really like this cultural idiosyncrasy.
My right quad is feeling much better. I really put it through the paces this morning, walking quickly for a long period without a break. There was still some pain in the downhills, but otherwise, she’s holding out.
Had a little detour today. Turns out highway 30, a major highway, and highway 132, the secondary highway I’ve been on, share a section of about 6 kms. I can’t walk on it; there are even signs saying so. A highway worker showed me a detour, but it was only a km long before I came back out on the highway. I google mapped and couldn’t find an alternate route, so I put my head down and was going to power through the next 5 kms and hope for the best. A police car passed me, but he didn’t turn around. Suddenly, I noticed a bike path paralleling the highway, so I worked my way across the ditch to it. The bike path ended after a couple of kilometers and detoured into a village. By this time, I thought I better stop, have a navigation meeting with Al, and check my google map.
While I was resting and checking the map, I was popping chocolate-covered almonds into my mouth. One of them fell inside my t-shirt. I tried to get it out, but every time I thought I had it, it rolled somewhere else. Finally, I got my hand on it and popped it into my mouth.
Now, given that I haven’t had a shower in a week, and, frankly, haven’t changed my t-shirt in all that time either, I must admit that that particular chocolate-covered almond tasted a bit off.
I was hoping to take the bridge across to Trois-Rivieres, but there’s no bike or pedestrian lane. Shame. Taking the bridge would have saved me maybe a half day’s walk. Alas, I’ll take the 132 to Sorel-Tracy and hope the ferry will take me across. Otherwise, I may have to swim. And poor Al doesn’t like the water.
I’m in Nicolet at the Timmy’s and I just washed my hair in the bathroom. Sweeeet.
I’ll do a quick sponge bath before I go. I’ll walk until dark because I’m currently 60 kms from the ferry in Sorel-Tracy and I want to cross the St Laurent tomorrow, so I’ll have to get a few more kms behind me tonight.
Gotta go. The bathroom is free and Al hasn’t noticed I have his blanket to wash myself.
Day 22 – Walk Across Canada
Stealth camp sites were at a premium last night, so I put in a long day, 11:15 hrs of walking, until it was dark. It was good walking at night. The shoulders of the highway were mostly flat. And only a handful of cars.
There would have been some good camping sites on the north side of the highway, but the whole area is completely flooded. I finally found a spot in the shadows on the south side of the highway and set my tent up in the dark, so as not to attract attention to myself. There was a bit of ambient light, but truthfully, I think after pitching my tent about 500 times now over the years, I could probably do it blindfolded.
I didn’t linger this morning, though. When the sun rose, I was in sight of the highway and someone’s house, so I packed quickly and was on the road by 5:30. I walked an hour and had my breakfast at a roadside picnic area.
Last night was also the first completely dry night I’ve had. I pitched my tent dripping with water from the night before and it was bone dry in the morning. What a nice feeling.
It was great putting on fresh clothes today. Clean t-shirt, socks, underwear. Same old pants though, since I only brought the one pair.
A couple of hours later, much like the Hobbits, I had second breakfast at a friendly little diner in the village of Pierreville. Veggie omelet. Mmm. And such nice service again.
I caught the ferry at Sorel-Tracy for $3.55. The woman at the ticket counter looked at Kitty. “Bebe?”
“No. No bebe.”
The ferry ride was my last chance to be with the St. Lawrence River. He had been a good friend this last week, always on my right, steady when I was feeling weak. There was comfort in just knowing he was drifting by my side. I will miss him.
I made it to a Timmy’s in Berthierville, about six kms from the ferry landing area. I’ve been walking for more than 9 hours. I’m sore, tired, and would like nothing more than to put up my tent on the patio and crawl into my sleeping bag.
But I’m 168 kms from Montebello, where my dear friends Chantal and Leo Lavallee, two of the finest chefs in Quebec and owners of one of the most popular restaurants in the province, await me. And I’m determined to be there in three days. So if I put a little extra walking in tonight and the next two nights, it will be the difference between eating delicious soup and crepes at 8 pm or eating them mid-afternoon. The extra effort will be worth the longer visit.
There’s still 90 minutes before sunset. Let’s see how many kms I can cover on these sore feet.