Judgement, Disillusionment : Old Quebec City to Charny

When we first set out a rough itinerary to trek 24,000km across the nation on the Trans Canada Trail we set out larger cities as goals and as places that we could get to, rest in, and enjoy for a day before pushing on.  Beginning on the East Coast Trail it would take us 15 days to complete and get back to St. John’s.  From there it would take 35 days to get to Sydney Cape Breton, then another 20 to Halifax, 10 more to Charlottetown, etc, etc.  While much of our plans looked forward to our time in nature there is no denying that another part was geared toward getting back to the cities to enjoy a few moments off the trail to clean up and catch up.  What we never anticipated was that after so long in nature you often no longer fit into large cities

The rush of traffic has a pace that is too fast, the noise of the cities is too loud and we often feel oilier and somehow grittier leaving these centres than we did entering them.  In addition the hustle and bustle of people on the streets becomes unnerving to those who have spent most of their time alone.   As a result popular spots become a hassle, and tourist stops as well as their shops become claustrophobic.

What we also never expected is that others could tell that we no longer belonged there either….

It isn’t just the large backpacks, or the binoculars, it is something else in how we look or act– something we can’t identify but which others recognize and note as ‘no longer belonging here’.

Three years ago planning this trek we would never have guessed that negotiating cities and neither nature nor wildlife would have become our largest obstacle in hiking across Canada.   

Adding to all the challenges of cities for us is Sean who has the unfortunate luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and whose appearance - for reasons I have never been able to understand - often instantly evokes strong responses from people who see him.   In the past I have watched as people neither of us have ever met flirt shamelessly with him just as others whom we do not know take an immediate and intense dislike to him.  It is something that has very much defined his life.  It is why he wears a black hat, often looks down in crowds, and stays silent when around others. It is also why he prefers the isolation of trails and nature to the hustle of cities.

Chateau Frontenac Quebec City.

Sadly this morning began with a somewhat harsh reminder to always show respect, compassion, and understanding to others, not because at first glance they appear rich, successful, or powerful, but simply because they are individuals, and they too have a story, of which others usually know nothing. Furthermore, it is especially important to remember this lesson when we hold a position of authority or power, or when we are meeting someone who doesn't look like us, whether it is due to race, economic status, orientation, physical appearance, or our own presumptions about them. 

This morning this reminder came as I stepped into a bakery to buy a couple warm, buttery croissants for breakfast, leaving Sean to wait patiently on the sidewalk outside with my backpack.

As often happens when one of us is standing against a wall waiting, passersby notice us, become intrigued and in the process walk at one of us and somehow manage to collide with us (at times even crossing the street to do so).  In this case the man involved left the bakery and while texting proceed to back up into Sean, which led to a spirited altercation in French which was beyond Sean's ability to understand.  Regardless, the well-dressed tourist very dramatically seemed to accuse Sean of stealing and being homeless. Seeing the excitement another individual, a police officer, soon also became involved and started questioning him, repeatedly pushing Sean and yanking on the camera locked to his backpack.  Both kept demanding that he take off the camera and give it to them and the police officer insisted on him showing his ID and Proof of Vaccination.  I walked out of the door of the bakery to watch one of them slap Sean across the face and tell him that he is "le Hobo", among other things.  The end result was that the police officer, insisting that he be given the camera, eventually pulled hard enough to separate the lens from the body of the camera, and to rip the camera body from the clip on his backpack strap.  Once broken off the lens was then dropped to the ground - shattering - as the offending individual questioned and grilled Sean further. 

The damage to the camera and Sean’s backpack are irreparable and replacements are beyond our means at the moment, which has left us feeling pretty devastated. 

It wasn't clear to us what exactly the tourist or the Quebec City police officer were so upset about since the altercation ended as quickly as it had begun and the police quickly gave Sean back his ID, walked away seemingly very happy with himself for his actions and had no further concern about either us or the incident.  The simplest answer seems to be that once again - this is Sean's unfortunate luck - he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither seemed to care that they had attacked a person or broken a very expensive camera.

Making things more challenging was the fact that while many people watched the incident, the moment it was done they quickly looked away and went back to texting on their phones.  No one had sought to intervene or question why another person would be treated so - especially by someone in authority.  The scenario was simply momentary entertainment before breakfast.  The only person to offer any type of help was a homeless gentleman who had been sleeping in a nearby doorway, and who quickly came up to ask if we were ok.   Sean on the edge of tears, shook his hand and hugged his husky dog before walking off quietly.  I handled the man the purchased bag of pastries as thanks and tried to follow.

Lately we've noticed that we often get odd looks and odd reactions in cities, possibly because we don't readily fit into any single box.  When we're on the trail we're easily classified as hikers and accepted as such, whether it is with enthusiasm, disapproval, or indifference.  Near the Saint-Roch Church and people who live on the street we are treated with courtesy and kindness.  Yet in the city or in a tourist district, the combination of expensive camera gear and our dirty, threadbare, sun burned, and worn thin appearance is harder to easily pigeonhole, and seems to make many people curious, others very uneasy and a few very mad.  In particular how we look clearly does not sit well with the heavily armed local police who march around in groups and who have repeatedly questioned us, ID'd us, and told us to move on.  These days, as two thin, tired, and threadbare travellers no one sees Dr. Sonya Richmond, no one sees a Royal Canadian Geographic Society Explorer, no one sees an Canadian Expedition, no one sees an award winning photographer…and few even see a person…what they see is someone near them that they feel should not be and someone in faded clothing carrying an expensive camera – which is something which makes no sense and needs to be dealt with how they see fit.  Today we were reminded of that lesson the hard way.

The events of this morning felt like a powerful reminder to treat those who are different than us with respect, and to try to learn their story instead of passing judgment or simply trying to have them removed. We need to remember to treat all people as we wish to be treated – not because they might be “someone” but because they ARE SOMEONE, because they are part of someone’s family, they are someone’s son or daughter and often someone’s mother or father, they have had experiences, they contribute to our world and they have had their moments.   We need to recognize persons not simply see what we want to see and make presumptions. 

In these instances the lyrics of Emerson Drive’s song “Moments” are stuck in my head… 

“I've had my moments, days in the sun
Moments, I was second to none
Moments, when I knew I did what I thought I couldn't do
Like that plane ride, coming home from the war
That Summer, my son was born
And memories like a coat, so warm
A cold wind can't get through
Lookin' at me now, you might not know it
But I've had my moments…

I've had my moments, days in the sun
Moments, I was second to none
Moments, when I knew I did what I thought I couldn't do
Like the day I walked away from the wine
For a woman who became my wife
And a love that, when it was right
Could always see me through
Lookin' at me now, you might not know it
But I've had my moments…”

I caught up to Sean by Chateau Frontenac and we took a few minutes to try to calm down after the rather devastating incident.  We went to the nearest police station only to again be ID'd.  The officer barely listened and instead laughed at us convinced that because my Ontario age of majority card was pink and Sean's driver's licence was blue that we had fake ID.  Both pieces of ID were kept by the officer who refused to give them back to us.  In the process we were repeatedly reminded that Ontario was not part of Quebec, and given the circumstances as well as our appearance, no help was forthcoming.  The officer even refused to write up a report telling us "to take [our] English problems to [our] English police."  Instead we were warned not to become "trouble to working people in the city" and shown the door while the 'gentleman' in uniform and his colleagues joked and laughed at us sounding like a room of ducks with their "oui, oui, oui...".

Heartbroken and standing on the sidewalk once again I was tempted to simply go and check back into a local hotel and let things cool off, Sean wanted nothing more than to get on a train and return to the open fields, farmlands, and wild spaces of Alberta. He was done with the city and its people.  The only thing we could agree on what that neither of us wanted to stay in this particular city any longer. And so with nothing more to be done here in Old Quebec City we made our way down to the ferry terminal, feeling stunned and disillusioned.  After a very short wait we boarded the little commuter ferry along with a few others, bound for Lévis, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.  

Quebec City from ferry.

As we crossed the choppy blue waters of the Saint Lawrence there was beautiful view of the walled city of Quebec, dominated by the large, red brick structure of Chateau Frontenac. From this perspective one could also see the red and white Coast Guard ships below the walled city, and see the industry taking place along the coast.  From inside its fortifications Quebec City feels to visitors like a piece of living history, and it was interesting to also see it as part of a modern network of shipping, transportation, and defence. 

Sentier Transcanadien sign Levis Quebec.

The ferry dropped us off at a modern wooden and glass ferry terminal with a small grassy parkette outside.  The Trans Canada Trail crossed through the park, taking the form of a paved cycling and hiking path with clearly marked lanes.  The trail was posted with the Route Verte signage, as well as a Trans Canada Trail marker and our route was clear.  

Here I again tried to calm Sean down, but he was having none of it and walked off.  Sometimes there are no words, nothing can be done and silence is the best option. 

As a result this would be the first time in more than 9500 km of trekking in Canada and 2700 km in Europe that we would not walk together for much of the day.  Frustrated he marched on far ahead of me as I - with my much shorter legs - strove unsuccessfully to keep up while photographing as much as I could with my cell phone.  When determined Sean can set a pace that is non-stop, unrelenting and unbelievably fast - even uphill with a full pack on.  Today there would be no stopping, no pictures taken by him (for obvious reasons), and little joy. 

As "we" set out along the trail we were slightly dismayed to discover that the wind seemed to be coming from all directions.  When we were making our way down to the ferry terminal on the other side of the waterway, a stiff breeze was blowing in our faces, so we thought the bluffs on the far side of the waterway might give us some protection. However, we found ourselves still facing a headwind, as well as gusts coming up at us from the water below.  We were extremely grateful not to be attempting this section of the hike during the cold winter months!

For the first 12 km or so the paved cycling path hugged the shores of the St. Lawrence River.  This approximately 1,200 km long waterway connects the Great Lakes basin to the Atlantic Ocean.  Water flows out of Lake Ontario near Kingston, towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is the largest estuary in the world.  This river forms part of the border between Canada and the US, and as part of the St. Lawrence Seaway, it is one of the busiest trading routes in North America, with about 200 million net tonnes of commodities moving along it every year.  

Long before European settlement, this area was already used as an important trading route.  The land and waterways around the present-day Quebec City are the traditional territory of the Abenaki, Haudenosaunee (St. Lawrence Iroquoians), Huron-Wendat, and Wabanaki Confederacy Peoples.  These groups already had a well-established trade network in the area, and when the Europeans arrived, the St. Lawrence became an important part of the fur trade routes as well. 

As we hiked along the shores of the St. Lawrence we passed through many small communities.  In some areas towering rock cliffs rose up beside us, and 2-3 rows of small houses were tucked in along their base.  Many of these communities had small grassy parks with picnic tables, children's climbers, and small stretches of sandy beaches.  On what turned into a warming, sunny, Sunday afternoon many people were out walking their dogs, jogging, and cycling, and it was easy to imagine people enjoying picnics along the beautiful river on warm summer days.  Somehow we had never imagined it would be possible to 'go to the beach' along the St. Lawrence River. 

Along some sections of the waterway there were exposed sandy mud flats, which seemed to expand as the day progressed and the tide went out.  The tides of the St Lawrence River begin around Quebec City and it is at this point that the water begins to switch from fresh water to salt water.  The river becomes fully salinated near Tadoussec, which is around 215 km north east of Quebec City.  We kept a close watch for shorebirds on the exposed tidal flats, but flocks of Canada Geese and Ring-billed Gulls were all we managed to spot on the shoreline.  Overhead a constant stream of Turkey Vultures circled on the wind, and we spotted a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling above the ridge. 

Sean Morton Route Verte Levis.

As we hiked through community after community we were passed by a fair number of people out jogging and cycling.  Several of our fellow trail users stopped to chat, and very kindly wished us well - in English. We were incredibly grateful for their kind words and wishes, which really helped today.  We cannot emphasize enough how important these random acts of kindness are right now, and how much they can change someone's day.  As always, we try to pass forward some of that positive energy whenever we can. 

Sentier Transcanadien Levis Quebec.

As we approached St. Romuald we crossed over a wide, shallow, fast flowing river in a small canyon below us.  The deciduous trees covering the steep sides of the river bank were blanketed in fall colours that seemed to glow in the bright sunshine. 

When we approached Lévis we came to the iconic Pont de Quebec, which is a road, rail, and pedestrian bridge that spans the St. Lawrence River between Lévis and Sainte Foy. This riveted steel structure spans 987 m, is 104 m high, and took more than 30 years to successfully complete.  Opened in 1919, it is still the longest cantilevered bridge in the world.  As we approached it, a huge barge was just passing beneath it, the waves exploding in huge plumes across its front.  It was quite an impressive sight, and the loud, echoing sound of its fog horn added to the excitement. 

At the foot of the bridge we came to a large marina, and this marked the point at which the paved trail joined the road and began climbing the steep banks of the river.  About half way up the incline we received some additional words of encouragement from two ladies that helped spur us on.  

We made our way through an affluent neighbourhood with homes designed to enjoy the view out over the St. Lawrence.  There was even a 4-5 story glass tower looking out over the landscape that was reached by a staircase of 200-300 steps leading up to its front door. 

After continuing our climb through the neighbourhood we picked up the paved cycling and hiking trail again and it took us over a very busy freeway.  There was a lot of traffic, and the wind was very strong at the top of the bridge.  

At the far side we came to the Chutes de la Chaudiere Parc.  This urban park features forested walking trails, picnic tables, a boardwalk, many sets of wood stairs going up and down the banks of the river, and a large and impressive suspension bridge.  

At the heart of the park is the Chaudiere River, with its segmented waterfalls that are approximately 35 m tall.  The enormous amount of water coming over one set of falls was truly impressive, and it hit the bottom with such force that it sent up what looked like a delicate plume of steam.  

The view of the falls was amazing from the 135 m long suspension bridge that swayed and bounced 29 m above the river. It was a beautiful sight, and there were many people out enjoying the fall colours in the park on this sunny Sunday afternoon. 

After leaving the park we made our way through another quiet neighbourhood to the motel where we are staying for tonight.  It has been a tough day on the trail, which has left us asking a lot questions and left Sean angry and frustrated as he has long struggled with how people judge by appearance.  While I strive to help and can sympathize with him I also have to admit that through most of our hike we have received many small kindnesses on the trail and experienced much beauty along the way. It is at moments like this that I try to remember that rough patches are not the norm...but that doesn't make the moment any easier.

Sometimes life and events, just like people, aren't so easy to understand or pigeonhole.
See you on the trail!

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