Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Running on Empty....

For some time while wandering the dusty concessions of the prairies I have been hearing the lyrics of Jackson Browne’s iconic song ‘Running on Empty’ in my head….

“Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields….

I don’t know where I am running now, I’m just running on.

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running on, running into the sun
But I’m running behind….

….You know I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find”

The trail can be both challenging and empowering, but it can also be very isolating. After 3 seasons of trekking we are now closer to the Pacific coast than the Atlantic coast.  Simply put - the end is now closer than the beginning which is both an exciting reality and a startling prospect.

In the past 3 years we have been curious, honest and blunt.  We don’t pass over the beauty of a region just as we don’t gloss over the challenges we face along the route.  The fact is that the Trans Canada Trail is not a regular trail – it is longer, harder, and more challenging because of its regional diversity, variations in maintenance, the shifting acceptance of it across the nation, and differing weather conditions day to day – from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic.  Similarly the struggles of undertaking this unique and huge pathway are truly known by only a handful of people – Dana Meise, Sarah Jackson, Dianne Whelan, Mel Vogel…..to name just a few.

In truth what most people think of as a path or trail in no way reflects what the Trans Canada Trail actually is – it is both so much less and so much more than what many assume.   For these reasons it is both an amazing privilege to be able to trek it and an overwhelmingly daunting task to venture along it in its entirety.  


Self Doubt

As anyone can understand, since July 1st, 2019, a series of questions has always been at the back of our minds.  We dare not ask them out load in order to prevent giving them life.  One tries to not even think of them in order to avoid making any of them a possibility.  Those questions include – what if we can’t do this?  What if we have gambled everything and we fail?  What if we can’t show the Canadian Experience from the trail? What if, what if, what if…… Indeed once you let the questions begin they can continue on almost endlessly.

Questions give way to doubts, and when doubts continue on they erode self confidence. 

When the challenges come they are hardest felt in the mind – and while the body can withstand not having electricity, showers, and comfort – just as it can almost endlessly ignore the stresses and troubles encountered along the way – it is the mind that knows of these things that begins to silently ask the troubling  questions.   A week ago when we again navigated our way around another water route, then found ourselves in a series of simple exasperating moments and mishaps the frustrations of months on the trail overwhelmed us.  It wasn’t a single person’s critique, or a particular moment that brought it on – it was merely the weight of everything that we have carried inside for years hitting us at once.   At that moment we knew that we couldn’t keep walking forward as things were.

The simple fact is that when you are hungry, tired, have a leaky tent, miss your resupply package, loose your winter gear, and are low in energy it does not take long for your ‘excuses’ for quitting to quickly become ‘reasons’ and ‘rationality’.  You stop seeing the big picture and simply want the world you once had back.  On the trail simple comforts are succubus that whisper and call endlessly.  At times that voice is louder and much more attractive.   Standing inside, dry, cozy, and in warm shower in a motel room in Saskatoon instead of our minds asking questions like ‘What’s Next? What comes tomorrow?’, all of a sudden the only desire was to go to sleep and to stop moving.  

Like Odysseus we found ourselves listening to the Sirens.  Unlike that ancient hero we were not tied to a mast to prevent ourselves from following their call.  Like all who set out to do something beyond their comfort zone, we had to make the decision.  Do we stay or do we go?  

And so, with our energy and morale at a low point we knew it was time to take some time off the path, reenergize and confront those tough questions which we had spent so long keeping in the back of our minds.

To announce our intent to take a break was a terrifying thing to do.  How would people react?  Our critics would undoubtedly write in and crow, others would take delight in our failures, and people might give up on this endeavor as a fool’s errand that was collapsing. And perhaps they would all be right - at the time even we did not know.

And while we did receive a number of critical emails, instead–thankfully - it was the vast majority of you whose voice rang through clearer and said it was ok to take some time off and to take care of ourselves.  It was you who allowed us time to vent and gave us the space to reflect.  For all of this we thank you.    

In this Together

When we set out a lifetime ago and took our first steps along the Trans Canada Trail in 2019 we thought that it would be nature, the physical excursion, wild animals or the unknown that would be among our toughest obstacles.  We never expected that it would be our own self doubts – often brought on by sheer exhaustion and anonymous online vitriol – that would regularly haunt us.  Yet even they would not be our largest challenge.

At times it is incredibly easy to feel alone on a long trail or pilgrimage, to become exhausted. to feel that you have lost your purpose, and to question why you are putting yourself through it all. One begins to feel that it is us alone on the trail who have become rudderless and lost.  You sense that those negative voices are right and you question everything about your trek and yourself.  And you don’t know what to do next. 

A week ago the two of us felt entirely spent and alone.  We knew that people had been encouraging us since the beginning in Cape Spear Newfoundland and across the 8 provinces which have followed but it was not until we stepped off the Trans Canada Trail this year to take a 7 day break that we fully realized that no matter how isolated we feel the fact is we have actually never been alone in this adventure.

Despite the challenges, time and time again it is those of you who have read the blog, liked our pictures, written encouraging words, sent texts and messages of support that have brought us back to the essential and prompted us to continue on. It is you who have encouraged us, motivated us, and cared for us - and it is because of you that we are able to take each step even when things seem exhausting.  It is through your kind words and strong support that you have lent us your strength – which at times we have desperately needed to keep going on.  Indeed when things have seemed the bleakest and the critiques get more personal it has been your gestures that, again and again, that have remind us – two tired, muddy, smelly individuals – of what the nation really is - a diverse but unified collective of amazing people pulling for everyone to succeed!  

In the past week we have received messages, emails, letters, and notes of kindness from coast to coast to coast from people we have never met who have encouraged us, shared many kind words, and who have told us that they are pulling for us – because we are all in this together.  Each encouraging and positive message that we received have been exactly what we needed, when we needed it.   After months of endless concessions, droughts, sore feet, troubles, and doubts this year – once again it was your support that reminded me that this is not simply my hike but that we are all in this together.   Over the past week that realization has made all the difference to us.

Simply put, no matter what what comments, the news or reality TV seems to suggest – Canadians are amazing and Canada is a wonderful nation! 


I admit that we may not always have great days, we may not always sound absolutely positive, we undoubtedly miss cool facts about each unique community we pass through, and our pictures might not be as professional as everyone demands – but they are real, unvarnished and the experience that we are having.  We can only hope that they reflect a part of the vast and wonderful Canadian Experience in this moment.  We appreciate your patience while we struggle, just as we love you for your support!  We thank you for understanding our choices and greatly appreciate you kindness when we make mistakes (which is pretty often). We are grateful for your kindness as we share our doubts, disappointments, frustrations, and observations.  We thank you for your tolerance as we note the challenges in our shared national histories, cultures, and societies – which we present as best as we can as we see them in the moment. 


The Toughest Challenge

People always want to know what the biggest struggle has been for us on this trek, and of course it changes in our minds from day to day, year to year and from region to region.  Sometimes it is the weather, or the strain of trekking or the sheer number of kilometers we still have to go.  Sometimes it is keeping up with the blog, editing pictures, ensuring that we have time to get to know each area, and often it is trying to describe what we are seeing as it is. While at other times, it has been the online commentary and negative emails.  

Yet, despite these hurdles we have been suprised to find that for us the most challenging part has been the wonderful kindness that we have received throughout our hike.   So many people across Canada, and across the world of such diverse backgrounds have been so generous, so supportive and so kind to us that we often feel that we have no way to thank them for what they give us.  Amid it all we have been grateful and stunned….but we have also, admittedly, been somewhat unnerved. 

 

To realize that the reality of our world is that so many people do so much for strangers, for others, and in their communities without any expectation that they are acknowledged or thanked seems almost counter intuitive to what we see on the news and online.  Yet these every day heroes are much more common than most of us have come to expect and acknowledge.  Regularly emails full of advice or support come from those we have never met and likely will never see in person.  Donations or meals paid forward in towns from St. John’s Newfoundland to Riviere Du Loup Quebec, to Sudbury Ontario, to Emerson Manitoba to Moose Jaw Saskatchewan are given by those who are trail angels, community guardians, fellow hikers, armchair explorers and kind souls.  In each of these instances we try to thank people for their kindness but also feel that we should do more to express our gratitude – yet these people never ask or expect to be thanked.  The support, hospitality and friendship from the many wondrous persons who have reached out over the past three seasons has for us been among the most challenging of barriers to get used to. Coming to terms with that sort of unexpected, unquestioning, undemanding selflessness and kindness has been very hard for us to receive. 

It is only this week, with time off that I think I have come to see why the kindness of others has been such a challenge to accept.

I suspect that it comes from that fact that in our world we try to ensure that we have control of our lives.   We want to be, and are expected to be, self sufficient.  If we come to rely on others or need help from those in our communities there is an ingrained and social sense that we as individuals have failed.   As such, in the modern world, receiving from one another has become a transaction or seen as a judgment rather than as the gifts they are meant to be.  Often we presume that if someone does something for us “there are strings attached” or there is an “expectation of repayment”.  Because of these perspectives it has become harder and harder to receive kindness when it is most needed.  Sadly, in this way kindness, and help – the type we all need from time to time - have become obstacles that many of us are nervous of receiving. 


Yet, out on the 27,000km long Trans Canada Trail, the simple fact is you can’t do it alone.  As such, the trail – like so much in life - requires us to make the choice between struggling on our own or learning to accept kindness of others.  It means being open, handing over control, and being vulnerable – all things which our society seems to reiterate are weaknesses.  For so long now, neither of us could see that for the many people helping us out, encouraging us, and providing kindnesses along the route has been how they are involved and the means through which they have wanted to become an essential part of this expedition.  The fact is that owing to their support we have never truly been alone out here because we have only gotten so far because so many of you have helped us and are therefore with us.   

For everything we thank you.

As one wise gentleman in Saskatoon recently commented to us ‘I think this world started to go off track when people stopped lending each other a bowl of sugar.  Because when they stopped doing that they also stopped talking to their neighbors, and then they stopped helping one another.  Now everyone feels like they are alone and struggling in this world by themselves, but don’t see that none of us are alone and that things don’t have to be so tough.   We only feel that way because we have all stopped talking to one another and because of this we don’t know one another anymore.  The world would be better if we all started talking face to face with our neighbors, no matter who they are, again.”  

And with this insightful observation he is absolutely right – each of us must find a way to be able to both give and receive from one another again, we must find a way to listen to each other again, and we must find the common ground to be able to talk with one another again.  While this all might sound like a huge challenge the fact is that all of it is certainly possible to do - because despite our apparent differences, varied backgrounds, orientations, and interests - we are all in this together.

Thank you to everyone who throughout the past three years of reminding us of this wonderful fact.

 
What’s Next?

When we set out in 2019, and in 2020 and again in 2021 we didn’t know we could finish – we only hoped we could move forward each day – yet having now overcome a moment of deep doubt, I know we can finish this because the gentle but constant support that so many regular people shared with us has reminded us and helped us take each step forward. Thank you for everything!

Westward we continue….what comes next only time will tell.
 


 

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