By Mel Vogel
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 instant Nescafe and couscous. 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. 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