Most of us spend explore The Great Trail in bite-size sections, enjoying a few hours of outdoor adventures at a time. But Mel Vogel has taken on a much longer Trail journey – a 15,000-kilometre hike across Canada, from St. John’s in Newfoundland to Victoria, British Columbia. This epic and challenging adventure will take at least two years – or eight seasons – to complete.

As Mel continues her demanding but fulfilling trip, she’ll be updating us with her stories and explaining how she is getting to know Canada by walking across it.

November 12, 2018 Toggle Arrow

November 12, 2018

It was November 12 and I was 19 kilometres into my hike. The pack sat heavy and my left foot was in agony in my new boots, leaving me almost limping. The wind blew cold and I was tired. I was tired of walking with this pain and tired of the weather – and it wasn’t even officially winter yet. I wanted to call it a day already, to hunker down, to call my hosts Penny and Ron in Terrace Bay and ask them to pick me up so I could rest. But, I walked on. I wanted to make at least 30 kilometres that day.

As I hiked in my misery along Highway 17, I thought about the conversation I had with Ken at the Pic River First Nation a couple days back. Ken and I sat at the kitchen table, where he invited me to smudge. Then he sung the Bear Song. Ken told me about First Nation beliefs and teachings, and during this conversation he offered me a spiritual name. His face lit up when he said: ‘Giizis Kwe’, which means ‘sun woman’. He repeated it a few times and told me why he thought this name would be a perfect fit for me.

The next day, Sharon and Ken dropped me off at the intersection to the Highway, where I started my next day of hiking. As I walked along the road and thought of my new spiritual name, I started doubting myself. Insecurity creeped in. I thought the name was too big for me, and that I couldn’t live up to it.

I shared my thoughts with Sharon and Ken in the car when they picked me up from Coldwell Road so I could stay with them one more night. Over the course of the conversation, Ken stated: “Melanie, you are denying the name.” I argued: “No, I’m not. I just want to share how I feel about it, to share my doubt because I don’t feel confident enough to carry this name.” He continued to tell me: “Melanie, you have been denying this name for the last 10 minutes.” His voice sounded firm and impatient with my lack of understanding of the beauty of this given name. He added: “Melanie, this name has so much energy. I can’t walk anymore. You are walking for me now.” I continued to think about that later.

While doubt can be a strength, it can also be a weakness. In this case, it was both. It was a weakness by tapping into my feeling of still not being enough – let alone not being good enough – which made me feel I couldn’t live up to this name. This newfound doubt reflected an old fear that I am still trying to shake off.

How was this doubt a strength? It inflamed a curiosity in me, making me read up on the spiritual symbol that my name enshrined. I didn’t take the name for granted. I didn’t accept it as a certainty, as something that simply is. I had to study it. I had questions. I had to give myself the time to feel it. I was in a process of exploration for a new spiritual path.

In the morning, Ken invited me to smudge again and to say a prayer. I am not a religious person, so prayer is not usually something I do regularly in my life. Ken went first. His words rolled over his lips, displaying a long time of practice. Then it was my turn. I was nervous. I found it overwhelming to come up with something to pray for. I sat with Ken around the kitchen table, burning sacred herbs in a shell to cleanse my body and soul of negative energy. Then I started my prayer and I was surprised how easily the words would flow.

Once I was packed and ready to go, Sharon and her son dropped me off at Coldwell again. I was walking on the left side of the Highway when I saw a white rabbit for the first time in this journey. It jumped out of the ditch and metres in front of me onto the shoulder. I stopped and watched it as a truck passed. The white rabbit jumped anxiously over the fog line in the car lane towards the truck. I was holding my breath, thinking: “Don’t let it happen. Just don’t let it happen.” I really expected the worst, until the white rabbit turned around suddenly. It then raced, with the longest jump ever, into the ditch and the safety of the woods.

The next breath I took was deep, and it came with a sigh of relief. As I hiked on, my thoughts went back to my spiritual name. Listening to my feelings deep down, I had to admit that I did like it. What if, I thought, I accept that this name is OK for me? My thoughts were interrupted when I realized I had forgotten the sweet grass Ken had given me. I had wanted to put it at the top of my pack so I wouldn’t squeeze or break it, but then probably got distracted and forgot to pack it in. It made me sad, but I told myself that it would come to me when it is meant to. Sharon had already given me a little bag of tobacco that I would be able to carry from here on to show my gratitude to Mother Earth.

When the time is right, I will carry all four sacred herbs – cedar, sage, sweet grass and tobacco –in my backpack. The spiritual guidance of Indigenous people of Canada has only just begun.

Now let’s go back to the point when, exhausted and miserable, I hit 19 kilometres.

“I am sun woman”, I suddenly thought with steadfast determination.

The thought came with such confidence that I immediately got goosebumps and said it once more: I am sun woman. Giizis Kwe.

Then I started crying. My tears fell and mixed with the salty dust of the road. It was the moment when I understood what a precious gift I had received. I understood that I do not need to ‘live up’ to my spiritual name, but that it would sustain me, just as the sun sustains me by giving energy, light, warmth and life. Each day, sun woman is on my side. She is my companion, my teacher and my guide.

I do not need to live up to anything other than my true self. The old question of ‘Who am I?’, which I already asked myself during my time in India, has found a spiritual answer. I am sun woman. Sharon told me that one can have many different spiritual names. This one will serve me for now, and it will help me to grow in this journey and on my spiritual path.

During my realization, the sun broke through the clouds. Coincidence or validation? I believe it was the latter, and my tears continued to flow.

Things are happening for a reason and they fall into place at the right time.

Although I have been living in Canada for a long time, I had never visited a Indigenous community before. It was unknown territory for me. The interest and curiosity was alway there, but I was hesitant and I didn’t have the courage to go out of my way to connect with Indigenous culture. I worried I would not be welcome. However, after meeting Indigenous people on my journey, my curiosity for their culture grew. Then I met Nicole from the Ojibwe First Nation at the grocery store in White River, who told me about the Pic Mobert First Nation, which was ahead on my hike. That conversation inspired my “boldness” to stop a woman called Tracey at the intersection from the Highway entrance to the First Nation, and ask if I could stay there overnight. After giving her time to get over her suspicion at being stopped by a random hiker at sunset, she let me climb into her car and drove me down the road, asking around until someone pointed us to Rosi and Fred. That’s where I stayed. It was also Nicole who had posted about my journey on Facebook, which led to Sharon inviting me to stay at the Pic River First Nation. Great things happen when you keep an open mind.

Staying with two Indigenous communities gave me the opportunity to learn, to ask questions and to participate in a women’s drumming circle and rituals. It allowed me to grow my curiosity and to be hungry for the next encounter and spiritual events on this journey. It was a lot to digest in a short amount of time, but that’s what the road is there for. It gives me time to reflect.

I am so glad that I have broken down my barrier of visiting Indigenous communities. Lots of new things are possible from now on.

For me, Canada was always the epitomy of wilderness and wideness. That’s why I thought I’d find my freedom here. But there is more to it. Finding freedom means breaking free from those things that tie me down and keep me from moving forward. They can be beliefs, material objects, people – anything. Whatever it is, it’s personal. As I am connecting to the land and the people, as I am walking my way, as I am inevitably starting to connect to the spirituality and teachings of the Indigenous peoples of Canada, my freedom expands. The sun shines into all directions. I am sun woman. Anything is possible.
September 20, 2018 Toggle Arrow

September 20, 2018

I left the campground in West Montrose after two days. I started my hike in the middle of the day with an unpleasant sunburn on my back from reading for hours in the morning sun without any sun protection.

I followed the Kissing Bridge Trailway for five more kilometres. The Great Trail led me from there on to the 16-kilometre Cottontail Road Trail which eventually would lead me into Elora, a small town of about 8000 citizens in the heart of Wellington County. It was the early afternoon and I was already getting eaten by mosquitoes as I walked from the gravel road into shadowy wooded area into fields and onto an asphalt road. From Side Road 12 to 6 Line E to Side Road 10 to 2 Line E - I moved like a knight on a chess board through the endless heat of my peaceful realm. The sun simmered heavy over fields and over the Trail. There were no trees, no breeze, and no shade and I felt the burning heat of the sun on my skin and my skin draining my body of water to cool me down.

My mind wandered off. It took me to the prairies of Saskatchewan, to a past journey through the Gobi desert and all the way to Africa, my bucket list destination, as I was roasting in the heat. I breathed in the dusty air of a passing pickup truck and four by fours. I walked slowly as my mind took me towards another plane, to faraway worlds. I was dreaming of travelling while travelling. The sound of tractors and the noise of a lawnmower brought me back to the present. A line of trees with well-groomed grass, running alongside a cornfield, offered cover for a break. I squeezed some Kool-Aid in my cup and filled it with fresh, cool water from my thermos. I dreamt of ice cream, LOTS of ice cream while biting into the last of my dry, half-melted cheese sandwiches and a granola bar. It gave me enough energy for the last kilometres to town. Before reaching town I stopped at the Elora Gorge Conservation Area. I went out of my way to check the pricing for camping and found myself quite disappointed and back on the road after hearing the price of a ‘no service campsite’ is $39 per night, which is sadly not in my budget. However, the staff had been friendly and kind enough to fill both of my bottles with cold water. After half an hour, I arrived in Elora where I watched the sun set over the Grand River. I checked my options for possible camping spots on my Great Trail app and decided to opt for a quiet spot in Bissell Park, which was far enough away from the small town’s core. I walked on the small right shoulder of E Mill St when Charlotte and Trish crossed my path on the other side of the road. It was Charlotte's curiosity that started the conversation and Trish's hospitality that brought me to Trish’s home.It all happened very quickly, but these two ladies trusted me, so I trusted them. A previous event made me ask Trish to check if her husband would be OK with me staying the night. Jim came out of the living room and met me with a friendly handshake at the front door. I was very welcome.

Trish is a foster mom. I have forgotten how many dogs she has given a home over the years before finding them a family, but I remember there were many. She introduced me to Jack - a 160-pound Great Dane, but socially a super gentle giant. Amazed by his personality and his hugeness, I instantly fell in love with him. For the rest of the evening, I found myself socializing with Trish and Jim in their living room while petting Jack's belly as his head rested on my lap, four paws up leaving me laughing. I felt as if I was cuddling a pony, even though he was exactly doing what dogs do.

I spent the next morning with Trish, as Jim had already left the house for work. Our conversation circled around trust and kindness, and Trish told me about an event in her life where her generosity had been taken advantage of by strangers. These people had benefited from her kindness, but acted inconsiderately and untruthfully. They had seen weakness in Trish's unselfish action, rather than goodness. She had to fight to earn the respect she deserved by getting those people to make amends. She, too, realized that she had to set herself boundaries to her generosity. Despite her negative experience, she still stands strong in her willingness to continue to support others, strangers like me, who are ever so grateful that compassionate people like Trish exist. Stories shape our culture and history. As we cross paths with one another, we have a responsibility to ensure stories we create forge a positive trail into the future – that they keep us connected, and don’t drive us apart.

Once more I stood in Trish's front door – this time on my way out. Trish handed me a necklace with an owl. It was a token for protection, a personal gift to wish me well.

Trish took off that day to her cabin close to North Bay. It will be a day ride for her in the car, but many weeks for me to reach that same town by foot.

Back on the Trail, I continued on the Elora Cataract Trailway towards Fergus and the Belwood Lake Conservation Area. Cows, fields, single trees, knee-high bush and grass lined the well-maintained gravel trail. It was a nice change of scenery as I arrived at the dam at Belwood Lake. The Grand River leading into wilderness on the right and the wide openness of the lake to the left. The sky was covered by clouds, and the raindrops softly drizzling out of them had me moving a bit faster to find a camp spot. As I was not allowed to pitch my tent in the conservation area, I stayed on the other side of the dam and followed a path down to the water. The reeds only left a small opening, which was still big enough for me and my tent. A shingle beach, the ground was armoured with small and medium-sized grey pebbles and a line of dried algae and sticks. It made this potential tent spot look rough. I went to check the surrounding area and a small stand of trees but the ground was covered with glass of broken beer bottles. It made the tiny tent spot on the beach the best option. After setting up, I watched boats passing by on the water and spent the twilight hours reading. As I turned the light off, it had become quiet outside. The only noise and ripple in the water was the splash of jumping fish.

I passed the dam the next day and met Noah and Sedat, who took a day off work to go fishing. As we were talking about my journey, I mentioned proudly that I was trying to learn to catch, and eventually eat, my own fish. So, the two young men invited me to fish with them. It took me a minute to make my mind up, but I decided experiences like this are also part of my journey, so I happily joined them. Starting at the riverside of the dam, then changing over to the lakeside, our hooks consistently stayed empty, except for the worm that wiggled on it. Despite our unsuccessful plan to catch a fish, we agreed that we had spent a great day together. Later in the afternoon, we said goodbye and the guys packed up and left. I went over to the river once more to cook and eat. I was starving. While eating noodles, I had to decide if I was going to go back to last night's spot, or if I was going to use the last daylight hours to move on. I decided for the latter.

It had gotten really late by the time I had cleaned up my dishes, packed and finally walked on. Still, I covered 12 kilometres, ending the day at the Orangeville-Fergus Road. I did hope to find a nice spot on the Trail, but I had to wander off the Trail to find a safe place for the night. This time I chose the back of a flower bed in front of a small forest with some spruce trees on either side. I made sure I was not seen from the road before I truly settled in and turned the light off for the night. I woke to hear a woman’s voice. I stuck my sleepy head out of my tent door as she told me that I was on her private property. I had taken a risk last night, and had thought that this might happen. I apologized, told her about this journey and assured her that I was just passing through. The woman was understanding and drove away. Since I was awake, I started to pack. Within the next two hours, I was on my way to the Esso station in Hillsburg. The last three nights in my tent didn't bring much sleep, so I found myself moving slowly. I was craving two things: coffee and an air-conditioned room. In this regard, the Esso station seemed to be the promised land. "We were waiting for you", said the young man behind the counter as I entered the store. I looked at him with big eyes and started laughing. I thought it was the cutest joke I had ever heard.

The coffee was thin, as is typical for fast food coffee shops, but it was still nice to get a cup full of caffeine. I took the largest. While sitting down munching on a muffin and enjoying my hot beverage, Michael took a seat at the same and only table and we chatted. Like so many other people, he admired my courage to go on such a long trek. Eager to help he offered to drive me to the next supermarket and invited me to a shower in his home. Dirty, hungry and mostly tired, I was happy to accept his invitation. Our initial chat was followed by a much longer conversation at his house over a good, strong coffee, and later on, over a beer. I was so thankful when he extended his hospitality by letting me stay in his guest room. While he went out to meet friends for dinner, I stretched my tired bones on a soft mattress.

After another strong coffee and a good morning breakfast, I went back to the Trail the next day. A full belly, fresh clothes, a shower and a good sleep make such a difference walking into and through my days. This specific one led me into the Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. The section of The Great Trail in the park is only a three-kilometre walk, but I enjoyed every inch of it. I stopped at the Credit River, put my bikini on and went for a swim. Well, it wasn't quite a swim, The water was just deep enough to let me sit and play in its current.

The rest of the day was a road walk to Inglewood, after which I opted to go to a general store. The heat and humidity had long dried off the cooling effect of my dip in the river, but ice cream, I thought, can be equally as good. I opened the door to the store and into another story, one that I will share in my next blog post.

Find me walking
August 3, 2018 Toggle Arrow

August 3, 2018

Sue dropped me back off where I had stopped my walk - on Erb Street in Waterloo - from where I started the nine-kilometre Laurel Trail that led me through the university and along the Laurel Creek Conservation Area out of Waterloo and into Mennonite country. The Laurel Trail led to the Township of Woolwich section of the Trail that led along Highway 85 and the Conestogo River towards St. Jacobs. The summer heat and rising humidity after the thunderstorms of recent days added another challenge to my walk.

I saw the river flow longing for a swim to cool my body down. Just outside of St. Jacobs, I found the perfect spot to drop my backpack and play in the water. The water level was so low that I had no trouble walking far into the water. As I watched ducklings, the idea settled in to call it a day and enjoy this spot for the night. I had planned to use my time to read, but ended up chatting with people that stopped by. One of them was Tara. Our curiosity for each other’s life story made long hours short. Indeed, we enjoyed our conversation so much that Tara went home to get a picnic together, which we enjoyed after sunset. The moon shone bright and its light was reflected in the water that was surrounded by the darkness of bush and trees. A sudden splash made our heads turn to the right where we witnessed an osprey rising with a fish in his claws. The osprey flew by twice, maybe to show off. I was enthralled. What a gift from Mother Nature. As if that wasn’t not enough, then two blue herons flew by sending their calls into the night. It leaves me thinking that there is so much beauty that one can witness, sitting in one spot in nature for a prolonged time.

Tara left and I crawled into my tent. My night was mostly sleepless. The noise of the nearby highway kept me awake. I got up before the sun warmed my tent. I stepped to the river and washed the night off my face. After breakfast and packing, I made my way into the village and there into the local museum that was connected to a coffee shop. A thunderstorm kept me in the coffee shop longer than I had intended. I used the extra time to write my story.

I left the coffee shop in the early evening and continued the Township of Woolwich section of the Trail, in the direction of Hawkesville. Leaving the woods, I crossed the Conestogo River and continued my way on a gravel road where I met Will. He was leaving a nearby farm and stopped his car next to me. In the conversation of where I was going and what I was doing, I told him about my desire to learn more about the way of life of the Mennonite community. He offered to introduce me to his friends, Mennonites, whose farm he had just left.

I had a ton of questions for Rob and his wife. Both answered all of them patiently as they showed me their home. I learned that there are a lot of different groups of Mennonites – Old Order, Old Colony, Conservative Mennonites and Markham Mennonites, to just name a few. Some speak Pennsylvania Dutch; others speak Low German. Most wear modest traditional clothing, while a few live a very modern life. Horse-drawn buggies or cars, cell phone or landline, having internet connection or not having it, it all depends which group one belongs to.

I learned how little I knew. How much I had only assumed because I never asked questions or was never engaged with the topic enough to read into it.

I asked Rob why he preferred to use a horse-drawn buggy over a car, to which he answered: “To have a more relaxed lifestyle.” However, he will organize a driver when he plans to visit his mom living over 40 miles away. It would take too much time and would be too hard on the horses, he said.

While there are big differences between Mennonite groups, it seems none of them have TV or radio as means of entertainment.

Before I left the farm, I got a tour through the house and its cellar full of canned food from the farm. Yummy!

After a warm goodbye, I returned to the gravel road, but not before stopping at the little veggie booth in front of the house to buy a cucumber for 25 cents, which I ate on my way.

The sun was setting and its light shone warmly over the corn and potato fields. I heard the clip-clop of the hooves of horses pulling a lady in a black wagon.

The gravel road changed to an asphalt road. I stopped at a cemetery with rows of white gravestones. I read the names: Kramer, Brubacher, Weber – all names of German origin and all facing the setting sun. There wasn’t a parking lot next to the cemetery, but short poles with connecting chains for securing the horses. A few meters further away, I met John at a Mennonite school. It was getting dark now and he had just finished cutting the grass. He belongs to the Old Colony and speaks Low German, of which he gives me a little sample. John is originally from Mexico and moved to the area eight years ago. He drives a van and has a cellphone but no internet, he says.

It got darker as I walked along the Grand River to Hawkesville. I aimed for the community centre, where I hoped to find a spot for the night. There was a full moon and I didn’t bother to put on my headlamp. Barely any cars drove by. The road lay still in front of me, with fields on either side. The last horse-drawn buggy of the night pulled three young men with straw hats sitting in the front of the cart. I couldn’t help but turn my head around as they passed by. The full moon shone large and bright onto the river. It’s the magic hour. Fog hung over the grass by the river. Tara’s favourite word comes to mind: ethereal.

It was 10 p.m. as I arrived in Hawkesville. I saw two young men walking onto the lawn of the community centre. I had preferred not to be seen by passers-by, especially not by men, so I approach them to check what they were doing there at this late hour. The men – Keith and Wes –  were having a conversation over a bottle of water. Both were super nice and ensured me there was no problem with pitching my tent for the night. “People are very friendly in this town,” they added. We sat down and chatted some more while I had dinner. Before they left, they asked me if I would mind if they prayed for me. I was surprised by this offer, probably because I wouldn't have expected it from two young men. I agreed and, one after another, they said their prayer wishing me a safe journey and a restful night. I was touched. The night was quiet and safe, but I still didn’t find much sleep.

The next morning, I made my way to a Mennonite bakery, getting a coffee and indulging in some delicious baked goods for breakfast. Before leaving the village for Elmira, I stopped at another veggie booth offering baskets of peaches, onions, garlic, beets and potatoes. An old lady steps out of the house. We chatted for a while and she sold me a dozen peaches for $1. I also bought two garlic bulbs, fresh and unsprayed from her garden. Back on the gravel road, I took out the garlic, peeled a clove and ate it with bread. It was crisp and crunchy like an apple. Its spiciness brings tears to my eyes. I don’t remember the last time I ate such fresh garlic. Gravel road again changed to asphalt. I stopped for a huge ice cream cone at the Wallenstein General Store, which is run by Mennonite ladies. Another round of conversation started, where I was the one who asked more questions. I left the store with a note in their guest book.

Before hitting the Kissing Bridge Trailway I saw a little wagon on the roadside. The words “Fresh Buttertarts” are written on the cooler. I decided to forgo them, as I still had the baked goods from Hawkesville, but it left me smiling. Mennonite goodness. I love it.

I passed Elmira and pitched my tent at the family campground in West Montrose with views to the kissing bridge, the last existing covered bridge in Ontario. There I sat by the river having tea, reading and telling my story.

Find me walking
July 25, 2018 Toggle Arrow

July 25, 2018

It starts to rain more and more heavily as I walk towards Glen Morris. It’s time to look for a good opportunity to pitch my tent, as it doesn’t seem like the rain will stop in the next few hours. A cyclist tells me about the Glen Morris Boat Access Ramp, and I walk down to the river to check it out. I’m happy to see a flat area with trees and a campfire pit, a perfect location to call it a day.

I crawl in my tent to read and chill, and then I hear voices. A group of people paddling down the river land at this access point. ‘Who is in this tent?’, I hear a voice shouting. I feel uneasy, so I come out of my tent to see who is there. For peace of mind, I approach the group and tell them what I am doing. I happily answer questions and say that I am alone and that I felt nervous about the group. The young peeps were harmless, enjoying the day on the river, getting ready for birthday BBQ at a nearby property. My worries vanish and I’m glad I introduced myself.

The birthday girl invites me to come and celebrate with the group but I don’t want to leave my tent alone. Everyone leaves. A few moments later, the rain stops and allows me to prepare a warm meal for dinner. I choose a tomato soup with added noodles and dehydrated veggies. About an hour later, three of the party peeps come back, each carrying food or pop in their hand. Their contributions make for a second round of dinner with a burger, potatoes, salad and muffins for dessert. They may not know, but their kind actions have made them what hikers call ‘trail angels’.

It is still raining in the morning, and my idea of going in the water is flushed away with the deluge. It is humid and my skin feels sticky. I take a sip from my thermos that still holds cold water. I eat muffins for breakfast and wait for the rain to pass, which doesn’t take long. I pack while water from the leaves of the trees drops onto me. I give my tent a good shake before rolling and packing it up.

I walk and think. This morning, my thoughts become a mental drama. My mind takes me in all kinds of directions, but always returning to thoughts of the destruction of this planet. Conversations with people and observations along The Great Trail, which passes through nature, communities and cities, jump to my mind. I let my mind travel to a point where I become overwhelmed by the complexity of the many subjects I touch in this thought process. My sadness turns into anger. ‘How can we? How could we?’ These questions leave me wanting to scream my anger (or more accurately, my helplessness) out of my system. Instead, I cry quietly.

I see a woman walking my way. I quickly compose myself and wipe away my tears. As our path crosses I say a friendly “Hello” as she passes. I stop at a bench close to the Grand River. The rain starts again. Steam rises from the river and a canoeist paddles along in the distance. The woman comes back and we start chatting. This interaction allows my previous thoughts pass. I am in a whole new situation now.

The woman and I continue the Trail together. She tells me her story of how she started hiking and why she walks the Trail every day now. She says frankly, boldly and directly: “I was fat. I couldn’t even bend over to tie my shoes. I said to myself, ‘I am not even 40 yet.’ And so I decided to walk and now I walk every day. I’ve lost 80 pounds.” We walk through the rain. I look at her and her energy strikes me. It heals the sensitive soul that I carried that morning. We depart. I walk across the street into a Tim Horton’s, craving a coffee that I didn’t have in the morning.

Back on the Trail, I make my way into Cambridge. I leave the Trail to walk into the city centre and towards a supermarket. It is afternoon and a band plays in a bar that has its door open. The guy standing closer to the door is playing a guitar and invites me to come inside and sing along. I give him a shy smile and decline. But I listen for a few minutes as they play Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.

I think of my harmonica in my pocket. If only I could play it. I walk on with the song in my head before stopping at a Food Basics to buy two bananas, tortellini, bread, cheese, two apples, a pepper, Snickers, oatmeal and an organic juice that I am planning to drink right away.

I walk over the bridge out of town. The view from the bridge is stunning. The clouds are still dark and it makes for a dramatic picture. I communicate with two canoeists on the river. “You’ve got a big backpack” they call over the water. We exchange a few more sentences, laugh and move on. I then meet an older couple on the Grand Trunk Trail who are telling me about two osprey towers along the Trail.

I walk into bush and wild grass to see the first tower but miss the osprey. A trail sign marks the second tower. It is located at the RARE Charitable Research Reserve and the 750m Osprey Tower Trail makes it possible to access to tower.

I put my backpack down and little red ants start climbing it instantly. I watch the osprey. Its screech is remarkable. It suddenly takes off, flies in a circle before returning to its nest. I turn my head to follow its flight and realize that it’s carrying something in its claws.

A lady stops by on her bike. We start chatting. She loves to come to this area to watch the birds as there are many more to see than just the osprey.

The colours of the sky are spectacular that evening. The lady and I are in no hurry. Suddenly three more ospreys fly over our heads on their way to their nests. I am over the moon. Witnessing such moments in nature always excite me. They never get boring.

As I make my way to Kitchener the next day I am thinking back to the osprey, its screech, the width of its wings. How lucky I am. I take out my harmonica and play. Nobody around to criticize me as I try to find the right tunes.

I planned to stop in Kitchener, formerly known as Berlin, for schnitzel and a cold beer in a German club or pub. But I am not lucky. It’s Monday and the restaurants are closed. So I walk on to Waterloo, where I arrive at night to meet Sue and John, who take me to their cottage at Sunfish Lake. I let this story end with me crawling into a comfy bed.

Find me walking
July 16, 2018 Toggle Arrow

July 16, 2018

It was Monday as I followed the Durham Region section of The Great Trail to the Rotary Park in Ajax. I started into a wet morning, and my only way to escape was by going into a McDonald’s at Taunton Road, right next to the Trail. It took about three hours until the heavy rain passed, and I used this time to dry my belongings and write my story while sipping hot coffee. As soon as the sky cleared, I went back to the Trail. Only 5 minutes later, I felt an awful pain in my right side. Maybe it was my hip abductors, a surrounding muscle that I pulled or a nerve I pinched. Whatever it was, it made walking to Toronto a painful challenge and became – figuratively and literally – a pain in the butt.

After leaving the Greenwood Conservation Area, I had walked 16 kilometres to reach the sandy beach on Lake Ontario, which laid still in front of me. I took off my backpack and stood at the water’s edge. I couldn’t see it yet, but sensed the presence of the mega city of Toronto to my right. To the left, I watched two swans gracing the lake with their elegance and beauty. From the Rotary Park, I followed the Waterfront Trail to Pickering. I passed the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, one of the world's oldest and largest nuclear power stations.

Having nearly walked 26 kilometres, it was time to look for a spot to pitch my tent. Safety-wise, I am not fond of camping within community boundaries and will always try to find a place tugged away enough to be out of the public eye. Contemplating what to do and where to go, I suddenly received a text from my friend Amanda. She and her mom had just seen my photo and post about my arrival in Ajax. “Do you have a place to stay for the night?” her message read. She continued: “We could come and get you if not. My mom had been following your trip and wants to meet you! We are getting ready to leave.” I was relieved that I didn’t need to pitch my tent in a community park and smiled about the fact that those two ladies didn’t take no for an answer. As I walked into nightfall, I met Charles, who guided me around the construction site at the Frenchman's Bay West Park to the agreed pick up spot. From the back of the car, I waved goodbye to Charles and drove off with Amanda and her mom, Shirley, to their home in Oshawa. We chose the fastest route, the highway. Not being used to such speed anymore, I felt tense and nervous watching trucks and cars passing us. I was glad when Shirley used the local road the next morning to drop me off in Pickering again.

My night in Oshawa was restless. I woke to incredible pain at 3 am and couldn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the night. I got up to shake my leg. I was neither able to lift nor move it in any direction. I stretched and did all kinds of exercises in my desperation to get rid of the pain with no success. I walked, limping and with much effort, into the kitchen the next morning and looked into two sorry faces. I know Amanda and her mom wanted me to have a pleasant night. Although I barely slept, we all agreed the comfort of a bed and all amenities in a home had eased my suffering.

I continued the next day with a good dose of ibuprofen. As soon as the medication kicked in, I was able to walk slowly. Despite the pain and the lack of sleep, I had quite a cheerful day, meeting people and making good mileage while enjoying the scenery along the waterfront. Among the too-frequently asked questions I received from passers-by, I also got the occasional question what adventure I am training for. My amused response was: I am already in the adventure, followed by a smile and a short rundown of what my journey is about, which was often followed by amazed facial expressions and praising words.

The Waterfront Trail leads into the Pan Am Path and into the Lower Highland Creek Park where I walked along the river to the Old Kingston Road. At some point, I missed a turn and ended up at a construction site under the bridge, sneaking to the nearest stairs and up to the road. On the southeast side the Pan Am Path is a paved path used mainly by cyclists, and runs through neighbourhood parks, sports fields and along local roads through the Scarborough corridor.

With the day coming to an end, the strengths of my painkillers vanished. I reached Ashtonbee Reservoir Park from where I dragged my backpack and my body to Victoria Park Ave and the closest bench at a bus shelter. Both body and mind told me: no more. My plan to reach downtown Toronto was postponed to the next day. I called my friend David on Facebook Messenger, hoping dearly that he would pick up the phone and would let me stay with him and his family. I soon heard his cheerful voice on the other end, happily inviting me to his place. “Do you want a lift?”, he asked. I responded, “Yes, I can’t walk anymore.” Just minutes later, his car pulled up and he found me sitting between apartment blocks like a picture of misery. His humour and good energy lifted me up instantly. Arriving at his place, his wife Trinity stepped into the house and welcomed me warmly. We all know each other from volunteering together at the Friends for Life Bike Rally. After dinner, I went for a late-night swim in the swimming pool and after breakfast, Trinity gave me a massage to soothe my pain. David brought me back to Victoria Park Ave from where I started into my now final stretch to Toronto on another round of painkillers.

That day, the Pan Am Path led me through the Lower Don Valley, alongside the heavily-trafficked Don Valley Parkway and back to the Waterfront Trail at Toronto’s Harbourfront. I passed the Distillery District, the Harbourfront Centre, Fort York and the Exhibition Place. While enjoying the views over the water to my left, the needle of the CN Tower was always visible to my right. Twice that day it happened that familiar faces would call my name and would stop with their bikes to welcome me to the city. Close to Etobicoke, I met my friend Dirk and his dog Deckard, who joined me for the last stretch over the Humber Bay Arch Bridge to Humber Bay Park where I jumped into their car and took my feet off the Trail for the next two weeks.

One of the reasons I continued walking in spite of my pain was an invitation by the Niagara Public School, I met a gymnasium full of kids who were eager and curious as I talked about my journey. Leaving the school, I hoped that I had lit a little spark and had given these kids a thirst for adventure as they began their summer break.

Two weeks later, after celebrating friendship and giving my body time to heal, I went back to the Trail. It was a Monday again. It was sunny. It was a good day. It really is always a good day going back to the Trail. To make it easy, I walked to Port Credit and then Oakville returning each time by GO train back to my friend to have a place for the night. Leaving Oakville, I was on my own again. I walked along the Lakeshore Road to Burlington for most of the day. Big properties lined the road and only a few dead-end roads allowed a glimpse of the lake. It was late when I reached Burlington, and I went to the stairs at the lake at Spencer Smith Park. People around me were hanging out and enjoying the cooler evening hours after a hot day. I put my backpack down to eat dinner. Sandwiches and veggies were on the menu. I was just about to take the first bite when Lukas and Julia, a couple sitting close by, approached me. Our conversation ended with an invitation to their home for the night.

This story ends where the Waterfront Trail ends - in Hamilton. Well, not quite. Not before telling you about the lesson on hiking etiquette and who has the right of way which I received by a family of Canada geese. In order to not to provoke a fight, I backed away slowly to allow the family to pass before me. These geese can be somewhat demanding. I ended my day in the community of Westdale North in Hamilton trying to find a camp spot at Churchill Park. On my way to the park, I crossed paths with Jennifer and Edward. They started the conversation with the words: "You must be on a long journey", and ended it with: "You can pitch your tent in our backyard if you like". Moments later, we all stood in their backyard – a cute, quiet haven. I didn't end up pitching my tent on the lawn, but fell asleep on the pullout couch in Jen's and Ed's home after an interesting evening of learning about Canada's history around Lake Ontario. It was a nice end to my walk on the Waterfront Trail.

From Hamilton, The Great Trail offers a choice three different directions. I will skip the two that lead to Niagara Falls and Windsor. Instead, I will continue my way westwards to Lake Superior.

Find me walking
July 6, 2018 Toggle Arrow

Heimat – The journey home

Heimat is a German word. The closest equivalent in English is "home". However, Heimat describes a much deeper understanding of belonging. For some, it may be nostalgia. For others, it’s family, or a place, or a language. Maybe it’s a promise, perhaps it’s a lifestyle, or a deeply-rooted feeling that one can carry to different places.

Paradoxically, my homesickness for the road is my wanderlust, since I don’t have such a deep feeling of sentimental longing for any other place. This love of the road provokes travel fever in me, which leaves me in distress every time I attempt to settle.

I tried to settle in 2013 in Vancouver, then in Toronto after returning back from my journey through Asia, Australia and New Zealand. I got a job. I got an apartment. I made friends. What I didn't get was satisfaction. I spent countless hours in the library. I read fiction, adventure stories, self-help and travel books. I thought it would help me figure out what I really wanted and where I truly belonged. The library was my haven as its books allowed me to roam and travel through the words of the many authors I discovered. To ease my suffering, I made many half-hearted attempts to adapt back to a world I felt I did not fit in (anymore). I tried, but really I rebelled. I was a bird flying against its cage.

The day I announced I would return to the road, my family and I let out a huge sigh of relief. As the plane took off, I was full of optimism and trust that, from now on, everything would be fine.

I was finally going "home".

There I was, on The Great Trail, walking on gravel, on asphalt and on soft, earthy ground. Despite the heaviness of my backpack, I felt light.

As I stripped myself of a lifestyle our society expects us to conform to, I found my way back to the freedom I only found on the road. I am not told what to think, or to wear or how to behave. It's absolutely OK to walk into my day with uncombed hair, to wear the same clothes for a few days in a row, to live slow, to sing, to sit in the dirt, to not wash my hands or to let a scream echo into the distance. All this becomes acceptable, without judgment. Nobody there to hurry or stop me except for the weather, my mood or my physical condition.

To make the Trail my home, I had to adapt to and master a whole new life alone. Here is a glimpse of it: I pour a bit of water on my facecloth so it is just wet enough to wipe down the sticky layer of sweat mixed with mosquito spray and sun lotion. Sometimes I don’t have enough water to clean my body or even brush my teeth. In those moments, the priority of hydration is higher than hygiene. I crawl into my tent after being bitten all over while I was setting up camp. I am too tired to eat, but remind myself that I have to replenish my energy stores. I stretch out my legs on my sleeping pad, and the pain of a 30-kilometre walk pounds in my feet until I doze off. I can barely remember when I had a restful eight-hour sleep.

The next day, I walk on. At the next water source (that could be a house) I refill my canteen. I later pause to cook and eat couscous and drinnk instant Nescafe. Just something fast. Often, there is no bench so I sit on a small piece of tarp that I carry for this purpose. When it rains, I carry the dampness into my tent. Later at night, coyotes howl or a bear huffs. We can all agree, there is not much of what one would call material or physical comforts on this journey.

Still, I feel comfort in all this discomfort, as I am at peace with who I am. This experience is gold for me.

Don't get me wrong, I still value a nice bed with a soft pillow, a hot shower and other treats but they are exactly that - nice treats. A vacation. Part of a greater collection of pleasant moments. But with every vacation, I am glad to go back my home, the Trail.

The Trail is everything for me. It’s a healing place. A happy place. It’s my place of confidence, exploration and rawness. It’s a place to think and feel deeply. To experience the new inner power of contentment. It’s a meeting place. It’s a place to communicate with nature, with other people and with my unfiltered self. It’s a place that never becomes too comfortable. It teaches me the benefits of detachment and moving on. It challenges me with its ever-changing environment and, by doing so, allows me to grow and learn. The Trail’s storyline with its characters and events have become my new narrative.

All of this came to mind, as I stood on the shore of Lake Ontario, after over one year and 5,000 kilometres on the Trail. A light breeze flew over the expanse of the water, which merged into the blue of the cloudless sky above.

I received a text from my friend Tim: "Welcome home. How did it feel walking into Toronto?"

"I feel like a tourist.", I texted back as I walked the Waterfront trail into Downtown Toronto and finished with "It doesn't feel like home".

Construction sites and condominium presentation centres promising "Luxury by the lake" or "Playground" cheerfulness seemed empty, almost ironic with the backdrop of high-rise glass, steel and signs warning of polluted water.

Meanwhile, banners with prints of Banksy’s little girl letting go of a heart-shaped balloon carried away by the wind, to spread (perhaps) a message of love flap on poles along the waterfront. Brave, Brave, Brave declares a series of posters announcing the ‘Festival of Risk and Failure’.

The day is hot. Sunbeams reflecting on asphalt, glass and concrete raise the temperature, causing a city fever that brings headaches, dizziness and fatigue. I am sitting down under trees at the Little Norway Park drinking my last water before making my way to Etobicoke, to meet my friend Dirk and his dog Deckard, who will give me a home during my stay.

I remember seeing ‘Tout est possible’ sprayed on a pillar along the Pan Am Path before reaching Toronto. “Anything is possible”, I whisper as I walk the paved Waterfront Trail. It’s my call to surrender, a way to cope with the anxiety of being in this mega-city that is too much, too fast, too busy, too noisy. I need to surrender to be able to be at peace.

Soon, I will journey on. Return to the Trail. Meine Heimat, my home.

Find me walking
June 29, 2018 Toggle Arrow

Just not lonely

Just because you see me walking alone doesn’t imply that I am lonely.
What you don’t see is a home I just left.
You don’t see laughter and long conversations in good company of the last evening.
You don’t see the arms wrapped around me to wish me farewell.
You don’t see the smiles when a new door opens.
You don’t see the music in my head inspired by the difference of each day.
And you may not see that tiny little dance move in my step.
Seeing me standing silently for a moment or more, you may not know how mesmerized I just am by the beauty of Mother Nature.
And you may not hear me whisper: “This is the life”.
Maybe you can see the sun’s light shimmer in my teary eyes.
You may see me singled out, exposed with less protection like a lone tree.
But don’t be fooled as this tree is silently growing a strong core, adapting continuously to the forces of the elements and the needs of the ever-changing self.
Like this tree, I am stretching my branches in all directions, reaching to be reached.
And while I walk, all energy within and around me is flowing and buzzing and touching me in one way or another.
I am building connection.
Subtle but strong.
All is present.
My mind. My body. The spirits of the outer world.
The elements.
And I take it all in. And I breathe it all out.
And in this, I am everything, just not lonely.

Find me walking
One year on The Great Trail Toggle Arrow

One Year on The Great Trail

Canada just celebrated International Trails Day on June 2. That day I stepped on the Cataraqui Trail in Smith Falls, a trail which is part of The Great Trail system of over 400 trails connecting Canada from the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. On that day my memories went back one year remembering me standing on the lighthouse in Cape Spear, Newfoundland on a foggy morning with a 60-pound backpack. Optimistic, I made my first steps of millions I would take over the course of the next two-and-a-half years as I started into my so far greatest adventure: hiking 15,000 km westwards to Victoria, BC following the world’s longest recreational trail.

I have stopped counting how many times I've been offered a ride. Even though my feet were hurting, or the driver would jokingly promise “I won’t tell anyone”, I always refused with a smile and answered proudly and firmly: I walk.

For the first two months, my hike would lead me about 900 km on the T’Railway from St. John’s to Port aux Basques across Newfoundland.

My 60-pound backpack sat quite heavy and uncomfortable on my back. I suffered. My collarbones, my spine and hip bones were bruised and chaffed, and my feet were burning. Stumbling over stones, I slowly but steadily carried my pain for miles and it felt like it would never end. Surrounded by marshland, I sat exhausted on the dusty trail or cooled my sore body in the many cold rivers and lakes. I stretched these resting periods so as not to walk, so as not to have to put on the backpack that I could barely lift. In addition to the pain, I fought swarms of aggressive mosquitoes and nasty little black flies throughout hot summer months. As the sun sank and I lay in my tent rather uncomfortably, I was holding my breath when the sound of cracking branches echoed into the night. Whatever it is, I thought, I hope it does not find its way to my tent.

Pain, discomfort and fear became constant companions.

Giving up? No! This thought never crossed my mind. With this hike, I took my love for the road to a new level and this old friend gave me something very precious in return: freedom and contentment. This and the beauty of my surroundings offset my suffering. I sang, I laughed, I screamed, and sometimes I cried my feelings of bliss and anguish into Newfoundland’s wetland and marshes.

Setting over with the ferry to North Sydney I spent the rest of my summer in Cape Breton and the mainland of Nova Scotia. After months of hiking, I realized with fascination, that my body was slowly adjusting. I began to walk a bit easier and boldly tested my new strength by hiking faster and further into some of my days.

By the end of my time in Nova Scotia, I had no problem with walking alone through dark woods or into the night. When I heard the coyotes howling in the distance at night I still found sleep. I loved to walk beside the tracks of wild animals. Moose, hare, deer, fox, bears and coyotes - they are all there surrounding me invisibly. And like a wild animal, I left my own tracks on dusty or muddy trails.

Along the Trail through summer and fall, I harvested wild berries, apples and yes, even mushrooms. After taking the ferry to Prince Edward Island, I enjoyed the colours of autumn leaves on this little island and occasionally picked a few potatoes and onions from the fields for supper.

It was a long, quite warm fall reaching far into December. A short shuttle drive across the Confederation bridge took me to the fourth province, New Brunswick. The temperatures became increasingly colder and I switched from summer to winter gear.

With the arrival of snow, temperatures sank below -25oC. Winter became my new challenge that I mastered well during the day. However, I struggled to winter camp out of fear of hypothermia or even frostbite with the unbearable cold moving in after sunset. As in the months before, Canadians, with their warmth and hospitality, made it possible for me to continue on my journey and to gain more practical experience for winter camping.

After visiting Quebec City, the days finally became warmer. Outside the city, the calls of the returning Canada geese announced spring. It smelled like earth and the first buds started to sprout. I had almost finished my walk through Quebec as finally, Mother Nature gave birth to new life. With trees finally blossoming, flowers blooming and surrounded by green so fresh and bright, my spirit became elated and light.

I am going to spend this summer in Ontario where I have more than 4000 km to cover. With a swimsuit and my first fishing permit in my pack, I am ready for a splash of new adventure while drowning some worms.

With a new year started on The Great Trail, I will face new challenges with a different strength, self-confidence and a new understanding of life and its values. For another year, I will be able to enjoy the simplicity and lightness of being and will continue to consciously take time for it as 'being in the moment' is all I have.

Living slow by walking slowly has brought everything a little closer to me and lasts a little longer as well. I am more deeply connected to the smell, sounds and beauty of the different seasons, people or wildlife that cross my path, and while I become more in tune with nature I become more in tune with myself.

I can't get enough of my thoughts while moving along the Trail. It's a dialogue that goes to the core of my innermost self. In those long lone hours with Mother Nature, I learned to love myself in a very humble, quiet way and learned (sometimes painfully) to listen to my needs more carefully.

Slow travel also allows me a different understanding of time and distance. Time to feel, observe and study. Time to come together and share our stories.

Hiking through five provinces in the past year and meeting people from all walks of life has reinstated my belief that most people are good. Their kindness and support have empowered me and given me the strength to grow as a human since the beginning of my journey.

Find me walking