Friday, June 12, 2020

Why walk across Canada on The Great Trail? (Sean’s Answer)

Why walk across Canada on The Great Trail?

This is THE question, the one we are most asked and of course the one that presumably answers everything.  When people ask this question, most want the answer to be simple, clear and inspiring.   Sonya’s answer – that she wants to change the world by promoting diversity in the outdoors and  inspire individuals - especially youth - to reconnect with nature through Citizen Science and birding is wonderful.  It is clear and concise, and perfectly reflects her character, giving nature, and desire to make sure everyone is included and welcome in nature.  

While I believe and support these goals, this simple answer doesn't get to why I am involved on this trek.

As we near Peterborough and because recently in an interview I was asked for my personal reasons for joining this #hike4birds I realized that I had never really sat down and thought about them.  Over the past couple of days I have spent some time and tried to distill them down.  However from what I can tell there still isn’t a simple or clear reason for me to have joined this venture.  Part of my interest was in promoting accessibility to nature, but it was also in the challenge of photographing the Canadian experience and capturing the length of the world’s longest recreational pathway – The Great Trail.  But if I'm honest, I’m not sure that there was a single moment or reason that led me out into Canada’s trails and wilderness. 

Perhaps for others they had an 'ah ha moment', perhaps for some people there has always been an internal sense – a spirit of adventure that says – I need to be out in nature.  Wanderers I have met, whether on a local trail, on a thru hike, or on a long ramble have often had this‘aha moment’ when, for them, it is evident that this is something they have to do.  These types of people - like Sonya - I envy.  While I admit to always being a dreamer, I also have to admit that I am not naturally athletic – indeed I was the focus of dismay and derision throughout every elementary and high school gym class I was in.  I also have to admit that I am not an inherently adventurous individual.  By trade and education I am a librarian and scholar at heart, more comfortable with books than people.  So again I am left with the question - how is it that I came to be one of two people involved in ‘Come Walk With Us’ on a 4 year 24, 000 km trek across Canada?

Well let me try to answer.  While I never had a moment of inspiration to venture out, I have had a number of experiences in my life which pushed me in this direction.  The best answer then is that the ‘building blocks’ of my life and experiences have led me here – not because it was ever a goal, but because I found myself at a point in which this hike seemed like the only way forward.    Of course the choice was always mine but I could never have seen it as a choice without having gone through a number of challenges in life – and while one of them – meeting and travelling with Sonya Richmond has been the most important and amazing – many of the others are unfortunately quite painful.  But perhaps that how growth often is. We get hurt, we try to figure it out, and we move on. Ultimately these events have led me here, so the trade-off has been well worth it.  Though my answer may not be inspiring, or a clear line, nor a single simple moment – it reflects the reality of the way life seems to be – at least for me.  

“Always stay curious”

While I have not seen my parents for decades and my final years around them were by no means pleasant, my childhood was a very different matter.  As I grew up, both my mother and father promoted learning and travelling as much as possible.  I spent my dinners at the kitchen table desperately trying to learn math and complete my homework with my mother and my evenings watching PBS and history documentaries with my father.  In our house tourism ads and maps frequently covered the end tables beside the couch.  If ever you were bored it was pictures of beautiful landscapes and promises of far away adventures – often on VIA rail trains - that were at hand.  While, at the time, no one in my family was what you would call educated, the focus of our house was to stay curious.  If you ever had a question you were pointed – in those pre-internet days – the encyclopedia on the shelf or taken to the library.  Questions were encouraged, and answers where to be sought after.   It was in these early years that being inquisitive and challenging myself was also encouraged.  So much of what I have done since then is the result of my family's commandment “no matter what, stay curious and keep moving forward.”


The second of these building blocks came years later, while I was attending Trent University in Peterborough Ontario.  Here, I fell deeply in love with a wonderful and beautiful woman.  She was an avid cyclist, wickedly intelligent, and had lived in France for a year.  She talked constantly about travelling and the need to see more of the world.  Her goal, which she wanted to be our goal, was to travel Europe and explore France together.  Her wonderlust was contagious and I began wondering what it would be like to study around the world, to travel to foreign countries, and to experience other cultures.  Yet after a couple of years dating and living together I asked her to marry me, and was stunned when I was told that we had to wait to be more established.  From then on she became increasingly focused on being ‘grown up’, ‘being serious’, and set our goal of living her hometown, having ‘retirement savings and driving a Mercedes.’  As such, my own budding desire to travel was halted and replaced with the ‘need’ to ‘map out our lives’, finish school, become professionals, and to save money in order to buy a specific house and car.   But life often does not follow the plans we set out for it.  

Through the usual twists and turns of events, our paths began to diverge.  She travelled back to France for a month - leaving notes highlighting that she wanted to ‘go there free and experience life and the culture without attachment to anyone’.  Regardless of the hint – obvious to everyone else at the time – I remained in love with her.  On her return she decided to move back home to work at a local factory and soon after began talking about falling in love with the area again.   The phone calls slowed down, emails stopped, and the distance between us further widened.   Once again, to everyone but me the end was near and obvious.   Eventually it was her father who wanted to ensure that she lived near to home throughout her life that told me that she was desperately in love with someone else, that it was time to make Peterborough her home again and that I had to find a way to tell her that I was moving on.  He asked me to ‘tell her something, tell her anything that would let her live her life without guilt.’  His suggestion led me to do one of the most painful things I have ever done.  I told her that I had been having an affair and had no interest in her anymore.  Soon after I found out – through family and friends, in the casual and cruel way that such people often have – that she had already been dating someone for much of her time back at home.   Pained beyond belief it took me all of two weeks to try to reconcile and tell her the truth – but by then she was already in a very serious relationship and by Christmas two months later her father sent on a holiday card informing me that she was already engaged to someone else.   While the ease with which she moved on hurt a great deal – it was her absolute resignation of any of her dreams or interest in travel anymore that hurt the most. 

How could anyone go from wanting to passionately loving travel to being rigidly responsible and focused on the size of their savings account in so short a time?   Of course the knowledge that she had long since moved on crushed me, but it also re-awoke the interest in travelling that her wanderlust had planted in me.  To get past the pain, I began doing what so many others do – I busied myself and did so by reading everything I could find on trails and trips around the world.  National Geographic and Canadian Geographic magazines as well as the travel section in the Library were my refuge for several years.  I collected stories of trails and accounts of adventures like others might collect stamps or Pokemon.  During this time great hopes for trips in places I had only read about began to take form.  Once again, a sense of wonderlust that could not be set aside had awoken in me.  

Digital Distractions

The third ‘experience’, that defined many of our decisions, took place over the past two decades during which we helped care for a younger relative.  From the day of his birth onward, this growing young man – a  wonderfully inquisitive and kind individual – was pulled between two worlds with almost diametrically opposite views of life, work, and society.   While I and others strove over twenty years to impart the goals of working hard, honesty, and responsibility at school, work and throughout life, others promoted the opposite.  As a result, he soon idealized skipping school, dodging work, loathed responsibility, and became obsessed with watching TV and playing video games at the expense of everything else.  As a result, his life spun into a world in which he was skipping 40 days a semester from school, lying to everyone, and stealing money just to buy video games. As the problems mounted each year, teachers and family sought to intervene and help.  However, in a world of chaos which involved collapsing relationships, constantly moving, and switching of schools, his stability was video games – regardless of the consequences.   

He is of course not the only person suffering from this lifestyle –  many in our society now share similar life experiences and suffer from the health problems which are related to it.  Yet despite any voiced concern for his physical and emotional health or his ability to socialize with others, he only increased his focus on the digital world.   Ultimately this amazing young gentleman completed his schooling however my interest and promotion of outdoors activities and time in nature and his focus in gaming soon put us on different paths.  To this day, I still struggle to understand how so many people can embrace digital rather than natural landscapes and I constantly worry about those youth who embrace digital distractions rather than fostering a connection with nature, an understanding of the world around them and the amazing diversity of their own communities.

Time flies by….and something is missing…

As many know, I spent most of my youth in a hospital being bounced by doctors between hospital clinics dealing with brain tumours and cleft palates, as well as dealing with other reoccurring health issues.   As a child,  I watched as friend after friend passed away in those sterile rooms from one health complication or another, with little or no chance to experience life.  During this period a wonderful nurse used to remind each of us that we had to ‘live a full life because so many don’t get that chance.’  Sadly, despite this life lesson being regularly drilled into me, at one point, the rhythms of life took over and I joined the race that so many of us get caught into.  Get a job, get a degree, stay active, get married, get your career underway, buy a house, pay your mortgage and bills, save for retirement, etc., etc., etc.  Simply put the daily realities and necessities of life distracted me from actually living. 

I of course willingly joined in the pursuit of these goals, made the necessary sacrifices, and ensured that I was “on course”.  Then in 2014 all of it fell apart.   I took a stand against the extreme levels of harassment and inequalities in the institution I studied at.  The result, would lead me to become the focus of - at first several weeks of digital harassment and result in over two years of ongoing and intense online harassment from a professor.  The messages I regularly received included both threatening and suggestive emails.  The situation escalated when, at the instructor's request my thesis was stopped, and my research funding was threatened.  Over the course of 18 months perspective employers and other institutions were contacted, all with the eventual result being the loss of my doctoral position as well as all of my previous accreditation.  It was at this point; with my professional career in ruins I stopped and began to notice the world around me again.

At the same time a stunning series of events began to take place around me.  I watched as family members and neighbours, who were only in their 50s and 60s, unexpectedly began to pass away.  Individuals who were just days into their retirement passed on without warning.  At the same time I was aghast as old co-workers lost their careers to automation or foreclosures and others lost their life savings in the process.  I witnessed the marriages of high school friends fall apart, was stunned when people I had known for years had affairs and lost their families all by of events and decisions that made little sense.  It increasingly seemed to me as though everyone was working to save up for their retirement but that so many never had the chance to enjoy it because of circumstances beyond their control.  In the midst of all of this - at the heavy prompting of someone else - I began hiking and photographing again, eventually finding myself trekking on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

On the Camino  we were constantly reminded that while work can always be found, careers can always be continued, money can always be earned but we only have so much time to live.  Perhaps because of how I was starting to see the world or because of these types of conversations I realized that with time flying by that something was missing and I wanted to live life now. 

Sonya Richmond

Of course all of these challenges, heartbreaks, frustrations, and life lessons would have come to very little if it were not for the deciding dynamic of it all – meeting Sonya Richmond.   

I have known her for almost a quarter of a century now, and I can honestly say, after studying for years, working for decades, and travelling the world that I have never met anyone like Dr. Richmond.  An individual raised with a background in music and art at the Toronto Waldorf School, Sonya instead chose to focus her interest on the sciences and exploration.  In short, even from an early age she was more willing to chart her own course and succeed doing so.  It of course helps, that she has the ability, intelligence, and creativity to often find a way to pursue her own interests and do so with great success.  She is also very fortune in that she has had the never ending support of her Grandmother and Father who have been willing to give her the space and time needed to figure everything out. 

Ultimately it was Sonya, who – time and time again – has picked me up, saved me, and at my lowest point pushed me out the door, put a camera back in my hands and put my feet onto a forested trail.  In a world were I have never felt like I belonged or was wanted, Sonya was and is the one person who has treated me with kindness.  Sonya is an individual who basks in her own curiosity for nature and has a driving desire to inspire a passion for exploration and birding in others – her answer to life’s challenges is often to a long walk or time in a forest.  True to the form of her life, on any trek she sets out on, unfailingly something new will be learned, something cool will be discovered, and the answer to the problems of the moment will emerge.  She has endless patience, a boundless adventurous spirit, and is constantly seeking to go beyond the next hill top - while making sure others can get into nature as well.  Because of this, in rather short order, we hiked the Bruce Trail across Ontario,  the Camino de Santiago across Spain, the GR65 (Via Podiensis) across France, the Camino Portuguese along the length of Portugal, walked to the Atlantic Ocean on the Camino Finisterre, and trekked East Coast Trail in Newfoundland.  

And so in 2018 when she asked, ‘would you follow me to the end?  I think that there is an amazing world to see…’, I could only say yes and my feet were soon on Canada’s Great Trail where I became fortunate enough to photograph her journey across Canada. 

These are the building blocks….

Such as they are, these are the building blocks of my life that lead me to being on The Great Trail – a growing wonderlust inside that was never silenced.   Two decades of experience watching a younger family member get pulled into the digital world with little balance in his life. Witnessing the collapse of friend’s worlds and premature passing of others who were only just getting to the point of ‘living life’ after a lifetime of hard work. And of course, the inspirational support of my best friend, someone who was willing to gamble everything and try something new to inspire others to connect with nature.

Admittedly – many people have frustrations in life, and most people have dramatic moments which transform their paths and goals, or have amazing friends who are willing to take huge risks – and yet these people never chase their dreams or fulfill them.    So once again why us?  Why the Great Trail?  

For me, when all was said and done there just didn’t seem to be any other way forward.  It was either time to resign myself to the everyday momentum of life and society or chart my own path and move forward.   We had both come to a point in life that we wanted to make our own decisions rather than reacting to the events or simply following the dictates and expectations of those around us.   I suppose it is more eloquently put in my favourite novel, David Copperfield by Mr. Charles Dickens.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” 

Perhaps this trek will show me who I am by listening to those we meet, learning about our country along the way, and challenging ourselves to see if together we can all do better.  

Clearly it is a long walk before you find peace with yourself. 

Sorry for the long winded response, but as my favourite radio show used to say “now you know, the rest of the story.”


  1. Tara T. (nee Hook)June 11, 2020 at 7:41 AM

    So you messed up your life and now are walking across Canada? That was the gist of what you had to say? Sean you could have at least learned to write concisely over the past two decades. Life didn't work out for you so you though you would "save the world"? Well I would rather have my Mercedes than your morals and life any day. One thing you never understood is that you aren't the sort of person people date or marry you are the fall back plan. 20 years ago that is what you were, a fall back plan. If people can't get who they want to be with they go out with someone like you. I mean look at you, take a look in the mirror. You are physically ugly, you look like Quasimodo for heaven sakes! But that would be ok if you had plans to be a professional or had money, but instead you are poor and just have your morals. What a waste you became. Missed a bullet with you! Nope no regrets here. Enjoy wandering the fields of Canada.

    Tara T.

  2. Wow Tara. I think he missed a bullet with you.

  3. That was quite a tormented and tortured path you had, so far. What matters is to focus on the trip and the beauty you can add to the world with your pictures, and slowly let the pain of the past recede behind you (the pain is always there, it will just seem... less important).

    I seem to have again accumulated some delays in reading your blog... will I ever catch up? *chuckles*


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