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.

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.
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